Note: This is the conclusion of the three-part series about the “Blanket Brigade.”
Rising from their rude shelters in Ridgeville, Md. on Sunday, Sept. 14, the 16th Maine Infantry boys listened to “the terrific cannonading” erupting from the Battle of South Mountain, fought miles to the west, Adjutant Abner Small recalled the distant thunder.
South Mountain preluded Antietam, which would be fought on Sept. 17. Afraid that his ill-trained men of the 16th Maine might be sent into action soon and “bring disaster … and disgrace to the regiment,” Col. Asa Wildes had protested the possibility vigorously — and to no avail — as far as the corps commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
When no senior officer responded to his liking, Wildes resigned, leaving the combat-experienced Lt. Col. Charles Tilden in temporary command of the 16th Maine.
On Sept. 17, Hooker summoned the regiment to Sharpsburg; marching 18 miles on Sept. 18 and 10 miles on Sept. 19, the 16th Maine’s weary soldiers camped near Antietam battlefield that Friday.
Wildes (who had not wandered far) reported that evening to Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, temporary commander of the battle-damaged XII Corps. Astounded at the sudden appearance of the 16th Maine, Williams informed Wildes that the regiment should not have left the Washington forts.
A “mistake or ill judgment” had sent the regiment marching into the late Maryland summer without their knapsacks and tents.
Many Maine boys would pay for that erroneous order.
Likely relieved that his former command had missed the Antietam slaughter — a putrid pall clung to the battlefield for days afterwards — Wildes sought reinstatement as colonel. George McClellan granted his wish in Special Order No. 262, issued on Sept. 25.
By then the 16th Maine had “camped near the Potomac River, three miles west of Sharpsburgh,” Small said. Worn out by their relentless marching on bad roads, men sought shelter wherever they could; with their baggage and tents still ensconced in a D.C. warehouse (Small figured the location was somewhere in Arlington, based on the assigned duty station for Quartermaster Isaac Tucker of Gardiner), the 16th Maine boys suffered.
Sharpsburg lies in Washington County, the fertile 467-square-mile agricultural and wooded region bordered by South Mountain to the east, Pennsylvania to the north, and the Potomac River and West Virginia to the south and west. The town stands 420 feet above sea level, actually 30 feet higher than Houlton on the southern Aroostook plateau in Maine.
Late summer and early autumn 1862 brought daytime sunshine, cool nighttime temperatures, heavy dews, morning fogs, and rain to Washington County. Sept. 24 brought some rain, Sept. 25 a pleasant day and a cold evening. The weather remained relatively dry; some soldiers observed how low the Potomac River flowed by late September.
The weather turned decidedly colder, especially after a cold front passed through western Maryland on Oct. 11-12. “The exposure to cold night, after being heated by long and rapid marching, frequently through drenching rains, sowed seeds of disease in the system of many noble fellows, and sent to the hospital, and to death, scores of our best men,” Small recalled.
Men in the other 3rd Brigade regiments were “well clothed in flannel and overcoats, and supplied with rubber blankets” and shelter tents, which shed precipitation on “dark and stormy nights,” Small said.
The 16th Maine boys constructed shelters from cornstalks and tree boughs; huddling inside such inadequate cover, men shivered, coughed, and wheezed as rain dripped on them “long after the storm was over,” he remembered.
Wind blowing through the shelters chilled the soldiers clad in wet shirts, often the only outerwear the men possessed. Dampness seeped into joints and lungs; while rheumatism often afflicted soldiers later in life, respiratory diseases killed other men sooner.
Each morning, allegedly sick men reported to the 16th Maine’s surgeon — Dr. Charles Alexander of Farmington — and assistant surgeons — doctors Joseph Baxter of Gorham and William Eaton of Brunswick — for examination. Since the Revolutionary War, American soldiers have matched wits with medical personnel while attempting to gain medical release from duty, if for even a day; in the 16th Maine camp, the doctors soon learned to identify habitual malingerers and send them packing.
But by early October the slackers numbered only a few, the sick too many. The horrific casualties of Antietam — 22,720 men in all, including 9,550 wounded Union soldiers — overwhelmed the War Department’s ability to care for the combat-injured; the men felled by disease or exposure could only find space among the wounded and await treatment.
“Alexander and his assistants were untiring in their attempts to succor the [regiment’s] sick,” Small said. Finding dry shelter for the ill required innovation because the regiment’s baggage and tents had not yet arrived at Sharpsburg; trying to help, Wildes, Tilden, and other officers distributed their tent flies as shelter for the sick men.
Sickness finally overwhelmed Alexander’s limited resources. On Wednesday, Oct. 15, the official morning report listed 698 men as “present” in the 16th Maine camp. The medical staff identified 256 men as sick; of that number, 68 men were confined to the regiment’s hospital.
During those weeks when Maine boys and their clothing literally dissolved before his eyes, Small watched as “the worst cases were sent” to “a division hospital” set up in Smoketown, a village north of Sharpsburg. That hospital’s medical staff struggled to shelter and treat their patients; the Army of the Potomac had pursued the retreating Confederates into Virginia, and by mid-October the patients left at Smoketown and elsewhere seemed to be forgotten.
Small saw the result; “in a little field beside the [Smoketown] road rests a majority” of the sick 16th Maine lads sent to the division hospital, he noted. These men were “victims to inefficiency, neglect, and red tape.”
Healthy soldiers wore weather-rotted clothing. Hats and shoes fell apart, men lacked warm flannel blouses, and although they built roaring fires at night, soldiers accustomed to frosty Maine autumns could not get warm in lower-latitude Maryland.
Lacking extra clothing, the 16th Maine boys seldom washed their clothing and themselves. Sweat-encrusted grime clung to men and, especially in conjunction with the filthy underwear that could not be changed, left a stench wafting through the camp.
Mental disorders afflicted many men. Eaton noticed that “uncleanliness, despondency, and gloom prevailed” among his patients. Becoming “so fearful in its severer types,“ homesickness struck hard, he said. Men so afflicted sank into “unbearable” despair, and while “weaker constitutions succumbed at once, the stronger bore up for a while,” only to bear “the full fruits of those days” later in life.
Small remembered “a college graduate, a royal good fellow” who gradually exhibited a personality change (“lost his self-respect”). The soldier “was only brought to himself and obedience by the free use of a corn broom and brook water.”
To his credit, Wildes doggedly sought permission to retrieve the regiment’s missing baggage and tents. On Oct. 2 he ordered Capt. Stephen Whitehouse of Co. K and Newcastle to “proceed at once” to Washington, get the regiment’s “company books and papers,” and identify the sick 16th Maine lads scattered “in various hospitals” between Sharpsburg and the capital.
Wildes sent his order up the chain of command; division commander Brig. Gen. James Ricketts denied the request.
Falling sick, Wildes soon stepped aside as the regiment’s commander. Tilden replaced him and, on Oct. 13, ordered Whitehouse to travel to Washington, D.C. to get the regiment’s books, papers, and “knapsacks packed with clothing.”
Forwarding that order to Brig. Gen. Nelson Taylor (the current 3rd Brigade commander), Tilden indicated that the “men in my command are suffering for a want of a change of clothing.” By Oct. 13, in fact, many 16th Maine boys no longer had “underclothes.”
Taylor promptly approved the request. Claiming “these articles can be telegraphed for from Sharpsburg,” Ricketts denied it.
Tilden tried again on Oct. 18 by ordering Capt. John Ayer of Co. H and Bangor to fulfill the same mission as Whitehouse’s; Taylor, Ricketts, 1st Corps commander Brig. Gen. John Reynolds, and, at last, McClellan, approved the request.
Ayer immediately decamped for Washington, D.C., and the 16th Maine soon began its “long march, in November, to the Rappahannock” River in central Virginia as the Army of the Potomac converged on Fredericksburg. By now the 16th Maine boys had collectively donned their blankets in lieu of the missing overcoats, Small recalled.
Marching “through storms of sleet and snow; without shelter, without overcoats, shoeless, hatless, and hundreds with not so much as a flannel blouse” or a blanket, the 16th Maine’s survivors headed south on “that long, sad, and weary tramp,” he said.
As they passed well-equipped, -fed, and -sheltered Union soldiers, the gaunt Maine boys endured “insolent contempt,” Small said. “We were jeered at, insulted, and called the ‘Blanket Brigade!’”
The appellation stuck. Tugging their tattered blankets around their sometimes bare shoulders, the men of the “Blanket Brigade” plodded through the glutinous Virginia mud, stinging sleet, sleet, and rain to reach the Rappahannock River.
Before reaching Virginia, the 16th Maine boys camped at Berlin, Md. on Oct. 28. That night many soldiers wandered into the nearby camp of the 10th Maine Infantry Regiment. Observing the ill-clad 16th Maine lads, John Mead Gould of the 10th Maine commented, “They have neither tent, blanket or over coat with them and are fast making themselves sick and thinning out their ranks.”
The 16th Maine crossed the Potomac River at Berlin on pontoon bridges at 4 p.m., Oct. 30. Before leaving Berlin, the Maine boys were issued “shoes and shelter-tents,” Small recalled.
Meanwhile Ayer successfully completed his mission in Washington; the Army forwarded the 16th Maine’s baggage and tents to Hagerstown, the largest town nearest Sharpsburg. Unfortunately, the shipment arrived a day after the 16th Maine departed its Sharpsburg camp.
And when Quartermaster Tucker hustled to Hagerstown to have the gear forwarded to the regiment, the post quartermaster refused do so. Meanwhile, the 16th Maine went into camp near Falmouth, Va.
So on Tuesday, Nov. 11, Charles Tilden again asked Taylor to resolve the supply problem. Letters flurried across the desks of John Reynolds and other generals; Tilden received approval to send 1st Lt. Oliver Lowell of Co. F and Gorham to Hagerstown, Washington, or wherever to find the missing baggage and tents.
On Thursday, Nov. 27, remembered by Small as “both the national and State ‘Thanksgiving Day,’” Lowell “arrived from Washington with knapsacks and overcoats.
“Seldom have men greater cause for gladness,” he joyfully reported. “The overcoats gave warmth and respectability, while the knapsacks supplied underclothing in place of that worn [for] eleven long weeks.”
The Maine lads had received the perfect gift for Thanksgiving: a change of underclothes.
The men’s moods changed. “Despondency gives place to a buoyancy hitherto unknown,” according to Small. “Shelter, food, and clothing have done their perfect work, and a feeling of satisfaction and contentment envelops the command.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.