Sherman’s “March to the Sea” epitomizes the concept of “living off the land” in hostile territory, but soldiers like Calif Newton Drew of Machias were cleaning out Confederate larders long before Sherman’s bummers swaggered out of Atlanta.
Hailing from Machias and Whitneyville, Drew was 15 when he joined Co. K, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment in 1862, according to great-grandson Howard Steinbach of Oregon. A youthful private, “he was often assigned to scouting duty,” Steinbach reports.
Writing after the war in his informative and well-detailed and -illustrated “Hardtack and Coffee,” John D. Billings of the 10th Massachusetts Battery defined the term “foraging” on page 231.
“Foraging … is understood to mean a seeking after food, whether for man or beast (horse or mule), and appropriating to one’s own use whatsoever is found in the line, wheresoever it is found in an enemy’s country,” Billings explained. Legally considered “grand theft pig, cow, hay, corn, fence rail, etc.” in peacetime, foraging was the legalized wartime theft of whatever goods a Confederate civilian possessed that Union soldiers needed or wanted.
Calif Newton Drew, who kept a diary, learned about “foraging” early in his military career. Headed out of Washington, D.C. with the 6th Maine in early September 1862, he noted that “we came near Tenallytown (Tenleytown) and got full rations and other supplys.
“Even the Paymaster came and paid us three months wages, $39 — new paper money, but we could not get into Washington to spend any of it,” Drew wrote. “We got new cloathing & shoes etc.”
Howard Steinbach looked into the typical Army rations, which he describes as “the crispy, crumbly hardtack and savory sowbelly.
“It is the consarned, mule-headed stubbornness of some of the new troops of the 6th Maine Rgt., to make the necessary adjustment” to hardtack and sowbelly “that motivates Pvt. Calif Newton Drew’s story of” the “confiscated goose,” Steinbach states.
Apparently no wartime photo of Drew exists, but “he describes himself [in his diary] … as having black hair, black eyes, and an aptitude for faking a Virginia accent with an Irish brogue,” Steinbach says. Photos taken later in life reveal that Drew was “small and wiry — and very strong, handy with an ax and club.
“Add [a] rakish moustache and chin-whiskers,” Steinbach notes.
On Sept. 7, 1862, the 6th Maine boys “marched to Rockville up the Potomac a peace,” Drew wrote. Noticing the “beautiful farming country with good water everywhere,” 6th Maine lads “was getting considerable extry rations as we moved very slow,” he said.
Drew referred to the additional chow that soldiers pilfered from local farmers. “We had plenty of time to forage and we improved this opportunity so well that a Provost Guard marched beside us,” he wrote. “This guard was maintained along all lines of marching men — strict orders was given against forageing or leaving the ranks without a pass” from Capt. Thomas Roach of Co. K.
“The only exception (to lacking a pass was) being when a private had a dozen of a canteens and was going for water on the march,” Drew pointed out.
Union troops were chasing Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, which was invading Maryland. Their route took Drew and his comrades through rich farming country. One particular day, as the 6th Maine marched along, “in a field some distance from the road was a fine large farmhouse with a well at one side with the old fashion sweep and pole, to draw water,” Drew noticed.
“About halfway between the road and house was a band of geese,” the young, hungry soldier saw the potential target.
But “the Provose Guard sat [on] his horse between the geese and house,” Drew realized.
“Our company Drummer [a young Passamaquoddy] came along to talk with the boys. He remarked how good a piece of roast goose would be for supper,” Drew listened to the conversation. “After a little talk[,] a plan was laid (It had been said those guards was mighty hard men to beat).
“I started to execute it,” Drew admitted.
He went to Captain Roach “and a got a pass to get water.” Three more Co. K lads (identified by Drew as “Dan,” “Bill, and one more, I think it was Frank”) got similar passes. Each man shouldered about a dozen canteens.
Joining the water-gathering expedition, the Passamaquoddy drummer “had the head of his drum in proper shape,” Drew noticed. The drummer actually loosened the drum head in anticipation of what happened next.
With Drew leading and the others spaced “25 or 30” paces apart, the four canteen-toters likely climbed over or through the rail fence separating the goose-occupied field from the road. Because he did not have a pass, the drummer carried no empty canteens; he evidently stayed in the road.
The provost guard likely sat higher in the saddle as he spied the four approaching soldiers. He could not prevent men from filling canteens at a well, and if empty metal canteens had not been banging and clanging on the hips and backsides of Calif Newton Drew et al, the provost guard would have certainly ridden to the men and summarily sent them packing.
Canteens clattering, the soldiers crossed the goose poop-sprinkled field. Amidst the geese, “a large gander attacked me as ganders they always do[,] with his neck extended [and] emitting a hissing that would scared almost anything but a bunch of soldiers on a lark,” Drew said.
The gander grabbed his pant leg. Drew, who “did not like being bit by a goose,” seized the goose “by the neck and swinging it around my head[,] let it drive for Dan’s head.”
Dan caught the gander “most beautifully,” and after “twisting its neck; he sent it to Bill,” who twisted the goose’s neck, too, before tossing the fowl to Frank. He threw the dead goose over the fence “to the drummer — and he had it in the drum and the [drum] head on and strained in quicktime,” Drew said.
Empty canteens whirling wildly, the four soldiers bolted for the road as the geese honked wildly and the provost guard started in pursuit. The goose thieves got through the fence; the Co. K men plunged into the ranks, and the drummer “went to the rear of the line where the drum corps was,” Drew said.
“Such a time that poor guard had trying to locate that goose, he did not try to arrest any of the actors. All he wanted was the goose, and being mounted he had to go to a gate some distance from where the goose went over the fence,” according to Drew, his choice of words suggesting that the goose did “fly” over the rail fence to the drummer.
As the provost guard searched “for the goose among the men of the 6th Maine, they made it lively for him,” Drew noticed.
The provost guard finally reported the theft to a passing provost lieutenant, who confronted Col. Hiram Burnham (the 6th Maine’s commander) with the accusation.
“My men stole a goose right from under your nose in broad daylight?” Burnham responded. “I don’t believe it. My men don’t steal.”
Along came Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the brigade to which the 6th Maine was attached. He granted the provost guard permission to search the members of Co. K, but the hapless provost “could not identify the men or locate the Company,” according to Drew. “He wanted to search the whole Reg’t.!”
“And if you failed to find it in the 6th Maine you would [want] to search the whole Brigade?” Hancock asked. “I think you will have to call around when the boys are cooking supper — but I think you must be mistaken bout the men of the 6th stealing — they’s Christians.”
The provost guard accompanied the 6th Maine boys until they camped at 10 p.m. The foragers moved fast; “sometime before daylight the goose was cooked,” Drew later admitted. “Gen’l Hancock and Cn’l Burnham each got a generous peace.”
Calif Newton Drew moved to Mendocino, Calif. after the war “and then settled near Tillamook, Oregon, where many of our family still lives,” Howard Steinbach says.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble.
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.