Note: This is the second part of a three-part series about the “Blanket Brigade.”
A hard-luck infantry regiment that Maine fielded in midsummer 1862 later drew scathing ridicule as the autumn rains and cold literally dissolved clothing, men, and equipment in those wretched weeks after Antietam.
Commanded by Col. Asa W. Wildes of Skowhegan, the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment mustered into federal service at Augusta on Thursday, Aug. 14. The regiment’s 10 companies contained men from many counties; although individual companies had recruited regionally (for example, men from Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot counties predominated in Co. E, commanded by Capt. Arch Leavitt of Turner), the 16th Maine never called a specific municipality “home.”
Not even Augusta sufficed; for local residents who had watched many regiments occupy their city during the last 15 months, the 16th Maine was just one more polyglot collection of amateur soldiers headed out to play at war.
Neither the capital city nor the new regiment shared a special bond.
So when the 16th Maine “left Augusta quietly, without ostentation or parade” on Monday, Aug. 18, “we neither expected or received any marked expressions of profound gratitude or boundless enthusiasm to cheer us on our way to the seat of war,” said Adjutant Abner R. Small of Waterville. He had seen combat with the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment.
About 72 hours later, the regiment detrained at Washington, D.C. and soon joined the 1st Brigade, Military District of Washington. Col. William B. Greene commanded the brigade, Brig. Gen. Amiel Whipple the district.
Assigned to Camp Whipple near Fort Tillinghast in Arlington, the 16th Maine boys received a rude introduction to war on Sunday, Aug. 31. In savage fighting that had raged across the familiar fields of Manassas during the past three days, Confederate troops had trounced the Union’s Army of Virginia, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope.
Except for its 10,000 casualties, the Federal army withdrew relatively intact into the Washington defenses. The “green” 16th Maine boys watched the “defeated, humiliated, and discouraged” troops march past, Small remembered.
“Raw and inexperienced as we were,” the Maine soldiers understood what they saw in “the column passing with its ragged banners; the long ambulance train, with its terrible freight of torn and crushed humanity; [and] the wounded limping painfully in the rear,” he said.
“All the evidences of war carried home to our hearts a crushing sense of the business we were engaged in,” Small stated.
Buoyed by back-to-back Confederate victories at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas, Robert E. Lee launched his Army of Northern Virginia toward Maryland and (possibly) Pennsylvania. Taking charge of all Union forces in Maryland and Virginia, George B. McClellan pursued Lee’s army into western Maryland.
The 16th Maine was not invited to participate in the expected battle. Instead, on Tuesday, Sept. 2, Greene dispersed nine 16th Maine companies to seven forts located within the Military District of Washington. Companies D and F and Lt. Col. Charles Tilden of Castine garrisoned Fort Corcoran; only Co. C, the regiment’s “color company,” was retained to guard Whipple’s headquarters.
Four days later, the War Department suddenly reformed the regiment at Fort Tillinghast. At 4 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 7, the 16th Maine boys formed in line inside the fort; laden “with two days’ rations and forty rounds of ammunition,” they headed west and “with the swinging gait peculiar to Maine” soldiers,” crossed the Aqueduct Bridge “at sunrise” and marched on through Georgetown, according to Small.
“Great dissatisfaction was felt at leaving our tents, knapsacks, and overcoats behind,” he recalled. The men marched with essentially the clothes on their backs, enough ammunition to shoot off in a noisy skirmish, and food that probably disappeared by the regiment’s first evening meal.
On Sept. 9 the War Department found a home for the 16th Maine’s gypsies, already at Leesboro in Maryland; the regiment now belonged to the 3rd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. George Lucas Hartsuff, a professional soldier whose first combat involved a fight with Seminoles in Florida in late December 1855.
The brigade included four other infantry regiments: the 12th and 13th Massachusetts, the 9th New Hampshire, and the 11th Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, Sept. 11, the 16th Maine camped at Ridgeville, located in Carroll County, Maryland. Small remembered Ridgeville as “a sleepy looking town of one hundred inhabitants of a rebellious tendency.”
He particularly noticed the “lack of refinement and womanly delicacy in the feminine chivalry of Maryland,” at least as far as the Ridgeville women went. And “the young men looked … like the greenest rustics of New England” and dressed slovenly.
That night the 16th Maine’s officers sheltered in their tents, which had “followed the regiment,” Small said.
Their tents, knapsacks, and overcoats now stored in some District of Columbia warehouse, the regiment’s enlisted men constructed shelters from “fence rails and cornstalks,” he noticed.
Hard luck had just found the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment.
Next week: Blanket Brigade: the perfect gift for Thanksgiving
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.