A Christmas gift from God and Abner Coburn

 

On Christmas Day at a Union camp, soldiers rummage through a wooden crate addressed to a comrade named "Adams." The crate contains many presents, including food (note the officer eating bread on the left) and socks in abundance. Several soldiers are trying on the new socks, a welcome change to the worn-out socks the men usually wore. Winslow Homer sketched this scene for Harper's Weekly.

On Christmas Day at a Union camp, soldiers rummage through a wooden crate addressed to a comrade named “Adams.” The crate contains many presents, including food (note the officer eating bread on the left) and socks in abundance. Several soldiers are trying on the new socks, a welcome change to the worn-out socks the men usually wore. Winslow Homer sketched this scene for Harper’s Weekly.

At Camp Russell south of Winchester, Virginia, Capt. John Mead Gould of Portland and two other 29th Maine Infantry Regiment officers — George H. Nye of Lewiston and Alpheus L. Greene of Portland — received a particularly wonderful Christmas present on Friday, Dec. 23, 1864.

The recent promotion of Col. George L. Beal of Norway had created upward mobility for a few lucky 29th Maine officers. Beal now wore a brigadier general’s stars; his elevation to brigade command opened a colonel’s vacancy in the regiment, which had recently fought with Phil Sheridan at Third Winchester and Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley.

About a week earlier, while Gould was away at City Point near Petersburg, “the [29th Maine] officers had a meeting and expressed their choice for Colonel,” he recalled. “Major Nye received the vote[,] which was made unanimous.”

In December 1864. officers of the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment elected George Nye of Lewiston as regimental colonel. Nye still had to be confirmed by Maine Gov. Abner Coburn.

In December 1864. officers of the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment elected George Nye of Lewiston as regimental colonel. Nye still had to be confirmed by Maine Gov. Abner Coburn. (Courtesy of Nicholas Picerno)

Secure in his support from the regiment’s officers (sans Gould), Nye nominated Capt. Alfred Turner of Co. F and Portland as the new major.

“I did not know this last fact,” said Gould, who also desired the majority. He was possibly unaware that his name had already been presented to Maine Gov. Abner Coburn at the State House in Augusta.

There erupted inside the 29th Maine a popularity contest between Gould and Turner. The two officers discussed their competition in the evening on Sunday, Dec. 18. “After much thinking and praying,” Gould had already decided “that a vote of the officers was the proper test of my right for the position.”

That night Turner “argued his rights and prospects and offered compromise,” then went out and went to electioneering, claiming the right of rank,” Gould said.

Nye’s recommendation would carry weight with the 29th Maine’s captains and lieutenants, who would soon vote on their choice for major. Turner actively lobbied his contemporaries; a devout Christian, the nervous Gould decided that “fully believing that God would really decide the matter to his glory if I did my part honorably, I determined to be careful in every act and word, and I believe I did nothing, said nothing, wished nothing wrong or selfish.”

Capt. John Mead Gould of Portland was one of two top contenders for the 29th Maine Infantry majority being vacated by George Nye in mid-December 1984. Gould won the rank of major in an election held by the regiment's officers on Monday, Dec. 19.

Capt. John Mead Gould of Portland was one of two top contenders for the 29th Maine Infantry majority being vacated by George Nye in mid-December 1984. Gould won the rank of major in an election held by the regiment’s officers on Monday, Dec. 19. (Courtesy of Nicholas Picerno)

The regiment’s officers gathered to vote at 2 p.m., Monday, Dec. 19. Gould counted noses: “one Surgeon, one Assis’t. Surgeon, one Adjutant, seven Captains, nine 1st Lieu’ts., eight 2nd Lieu’ts.”

Gould and Turner abstained from voting. The 25 other officers cast their ballots for Gould (14 votes), Turner (eight votes), and one vote apiece for captains Granville Blake of Auburn, Almon Pray of Auburn, and William Whitmarsh of Norway.

Pray asked the officers to make the vote for Gould unanimous, and they did so “by acclamation,” said Gould.

Then Turner proposed that the officers vote for “a good adjutant,” a slap at Greene, first lieutenant of Co. K. Nye had wanted to elevate Greene to the adjutant’s vacancy; instead, on their third vote, the 29th Maine officers picked 2nd Lt. Hartwell French of Co. H and Turner.

George Nye “decided to disapprove this part of the meeting,” Gould noticed.

Signing “Greene’s name,” he telegraphed the voting results to Maine Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon later that day. Then Gould returned to “my big house” (an extra large cabin roofed by a tent) and “laid awake a long time thinking what I’d do if I should get the (major’s) position.”

Brig. Gen. George Beal of Norway had long served with George Nye and John Mead Gould of the 29th Maine Infantry. When he heard that fellow officers had elected them colonel and major, respectively, he viewed his former comrades as unsuitable for their new positions. (Courtesy of Nicholas Picerno)

Brig. Gen. George Beal of Norway had long served with George Nye and John Mead Gould of the 29th Maine Infantry. When he heard that fellow officers had elected them colonel and major, respectively, he viewed his former comrades as unsuitable for their new positions. (Courtesy of Nicholas Picerno)

Hodsdon promptly telegraphed the 29th Maine on Tuesday that the promotions of Nye and Gould had been approved. That evening, a displeased Brig. Gen. George Beal strode into Gould’s tent and said, “Your commissions here will all be knocked in the head. The 15th [Maine Infantry] will be consolidated with you[,] and the [staff] vacancies will be filled by their officers.”

Gould seemed not that surprised about Beal’s unexpected disapproval of men with whom he had served since spring 1861.

Wednesday, Dec. 21 brought “snow and sleet during the night,” and Thursday, Dec. 22 turned out “pleasant,” but “very cold and windy,” Gould noted in his diary.

On Friday evening, he “called on” on Beal. The two men spent “two hours or more talking about the recent change of affairs,” Gould said.

He already knew from “some time ago” that Beal disapproved of Gould (the regiment’s adjutant) for “not dressing up to the staff standard of dandyism.” Upon learning about this shallow assessment of an otherwise talented adjutant, Gould had “resolved never to buy a new suit till I got a promotion for merit (not clothes).”

His long talk with Beal went well, although the general essentially described Gould as a glorified clerk (an adjutant handled a regiment’s extensive paperwork and reports). Gould went home, where he now slept in his “parlor” after closing up one section of his “big house” for the winter.

A combat artist sketched the rough quarters that Union soldiers built to survive a cold winter during the Civil War. The 29th Maine Infantry likely lived in slightly "upscale" log cabins at Camp Russell, Va. at Christmastime 1864. (Library of Congress)

A combat artist sketched the rough quarters that Union soldiers built to survive a cold winter during the Civil War. The 29th Maine Infantry likely lived in slightly “upscale” log cabins at Camp Russell, Va. at Christmastime 1864. (Library of Congress)

Not long after Gould went to sleep, Corp. Abial Edwards of Co. K and Portland rapped his knuckles on the log wall of the tent. Edwards handed Gould “two letters for Major John M. Gould and a huge official envelope” from Hodsdon’s office in Augusta.

The overstuffed envelope contained the commissions for Col. Nye, Maj. Gould, and Adjutant Greene. Coburn had approved and signed each commission.

For the next few hours, Gould and Greene (who shared the same “big house”) discussed their feelings and thoughts about the Christmas present they had just received. “As I thought over all these things[,] I could not see how I could disbelieve that a loving and all powerful God had over-ruled all things for my great good,” Gould said.

So on “piping cold” Christmas Eve (Saturday) 1864, George Nye, Alpheus Williams, and John Mead Gould “went down to the mustering officer this morning and were mustered into the service as Colonel, Adj’t, and Major respectively,” Gould joyfully told his diary.

And he discovered that Coburn had affixed his signatures to the commissions before the Dec. 19 vote by the regiment’s officers; Gould would have become major no matter which way the vote had gone.

“God had shown that he was better than my best wishes,” realized Gould.

On a “pleasant, not very cold” Christmas Day (Sunday, Dec. 25), he attended a religious service conducted by Chaplain Charles Webster of Lewiston.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.