Victorious Union troops saw elation shift to melancholy on the Ides of April 1865.
The mood shift began with growling stomachs. After stacking their arms and receiving their paroles on Wednesday, April 12, Confederate troops had “rapidly departed to their homes,” commented Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine Infantry. By Thursday “there was scarcely a rebel soldier to be found” near Appomattox Court House.
Officers marched the 20th Maine and other Union regiments across the nearby Appomattox River — only the width of a decent Maine brook — to remove equipment from the abandoned Confederate camps stretching along the hill rising beyond the river’s east bank. Gerrish saw that “whole battalions had stacked their arms and scattered for their homes” without surrendering or accepting paroles.
Union troops spent Thursday and much of Friday gathering and carrying the abandoned weapons to a central collection point. Stuck on soupy Southside Virginia roads, supply trains did not arrive; “we were almost famishing with hunger,” Gerrish admitted, and foraging expeditions procured only “poor and tough” beef “so tainted with garlic that it was almost impossible to eat it.”
Just as a thunderstorm-laden cold front sweeping east from the Blue Ridge darkens the Appomattox sky in spring and summer, hunger and weather blackened the collective mood of Union soldiers on Friday, April 14. “Rain poured down in torrents,” many soldiers lacked tents (packed away in the missing supply wagons), “we had no rations,” and “it was cold, wet and muddy,” Gerrish groused.
That night he “was detailed for picket” duty for the last time.
About 200 miles away, President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln attended the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater on 10th Street in Washington, D.C.
On that possibly darkest night in American history, John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded Lincoln. Far to the southwest, a soaked-to-the-skin Theodore Gerrish stood watch on that “cheerless night,” remembered by him as “dark and drear” with “the rain falling in blinding sheets.”
At 7:22 a.m., Saturday, April 15, Abraham Lincoln died in the Petersen House bed into which his rescuers had tucked him hours earlier. A slow-moving cold-front swept rain across the capital and southern Virginia alike; at 10 a.m., an officer relieved Co. H, and the miserable 20th Maine boys returned to their camp.
Across the loyal states, the national collective mood was turning black as the shock of Lincoln’s murder spread by telegraph wire. Distance initially spared many Maine boys stationed far afield, but they learned soon enough.
Word reached the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment in the lower Shenandoah Valley on Saturday. At a Harper’s Ferry hospital ward, the ill Maj. John Mead Gould heard “the rumor that President Lincoln and Secretary [of State William] Seward had been assassinated.”
Pertaining to Lincoln, the rumor proved fact within hours. A devout Christian, Gould asked, “What is God’s purpose in this matter?”
The 29th Maine was camped at nearby Summits Point, West Virginia. “We received the sad news of Presidents (sic) Lincolns (sic) Assassination[,] causing intense excitement and such gloom as I have rarely seen in the Army,” Corp. Abial Hall Edwards of Co. K wrote his long-suffering he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not romantic interest, Anna Conant, the next day.
“How hard when he had just began to see the fruits of his labor to be taken away,” Edwards mused. “I cant (sic) realize that we have lost our noble President. It has returned our rejoicing into mourning.”
Late Saturday morning, the 20th Maine boys folded “our wet blankets” and formed in line. At 1 p.m., “we turned our backs toward Appomattox … bade farewell to our last battlefield” and marched east in a pouring rain, Gerrish said.
Wearing their “ragged,” mud-covered, and soaked uniforms as they marched in ankle-deep mud, the just-shy-of-mutinous 20th Maine lads “straggled along” the glutinous Lynchburg Stage Road, took a wrong turn after the cloud-caused early sunset, and “with many expressions of anger” completed a 4-mile round trip to find the correct road, Gerrish said.
Enduring the night’s steady rain, the 20th Maine lads awakened on a Sunday, April 16 described by Gerrish “as cold and raw as a November day … the plunging rain was so cold that it seemed to have glanced from an iceberg, on its way to the earth.”
Tears poured from Heaven as if God Himself mourned Lincoln’s passing.
Splashing across the Appomattox River on “a temporary bridge,” Gerrish and his comrades sloshed into Farmville as the sun finally emerged on Monday, April 16. The 1st Division found its supply train waiting at this Southside Railroad whistle stop.
Issued rations, the starving Maine soldiers “lay upon the green grass and for the first time seemed to comprehend the fact that the war was over,” Gerrish said.
In their last moments of ignorance-induced innocence, some Co. H boys explored Farmville, a “pretty village, which, for neatness and enterprise, resembled a New England town,” Gerrish said.
Returning to the 20th Maine camp, “we found that a great cloud of sorrow had settled” upon it “in our absence,” he said. “A dispatch had been received by our officers, bringing the intelligence of the assassination of President Lincoln.”
The stunned soldiers “at first … did not believe the report, but … we were compelled to do so,” Gerrish said. “We had all loved Abraham Lincoln so much.
“Nowhere in the Union was there more genuine sorrow for the martyred President than in the army. It was a sad Sabbath evening for us all,” he said.
Daniel Withum Sawtelle and the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment had lingered at Appomattox, where “we got the news (likely on April 16)” of Lincoln’s death, “which cast a gloom over everything,” the Sherman soldier noticed.
Because “the hot-heads of the South had threatened to carry on a guerrilla warfare,” many Union soldiers thought that Lincoln’s murder “meant another outbreak and a more terrible war than the one we had just passed through,” Sawtelle said. Days later, after his vengeful pursuers ran Booth to earth and his death and Federal authorities rounded up other assassination conspirators, Union troops saw no evidence of a Southern uprising.
Turning out for a dress parade at Burkesville, Va. on Sunday, April 16, the surviving 1st Maine Cavalry troopers “received officially” the news of Lincoln’s murder, said Sgt. Major Edward Tobie. “It is impossible to describe the feelings of the men at this news.
“It seemed for a time as if all for which they had fought and suffered was gone — as if the glories of the surrender of Gen. Lee were of no avail,” he recalled.
Some soldiers articulated a vengeful spirit. Referring to Booth, “God grant that the Demon may be caught & killed by slow torture,” Abial Edwards expressed his hatred for the murderer.
As for the “kindness” Lincoln “has shown the Rebels[,] I hope will never be shown them again,” Edwards snarled on paper to Anna Conant. “Let them suffer for their feindish (sic) deeds … revenge is the cry in the army & by all.”
One murder almost occurred after Pvt. John Haley and the 17th Maine Infantry camped “in a nice grove on the road to Burkesville” on Sunday. Rumors suddenly circulated that assassins had killed Lincoln, Seward, Ulysses S. Grant*, “and others,” Haley said.
Fact soon confirmed only Lincoln’s death. “Most of our men are loud in their denunciation of the fiend who did this deed,” Haley noted. “Billy Patterson desires to ‘fry his (Booth’s) liver before his very eyes.’”
Amidst such vocalized murderous intent, an imprudent 17th Maine soldier “expressed satisfaction at the [Lincoln] murder,” a stunned Halley wrote. Grabbing the fool, Maine lads hustled him “to a nearby frog pond and treated [him] to a little hydropathic practice — to so much of it … that he was taken from the water more dead than alive, coated with green slime and frog spawn,” said eyewitness Haley.
Too stupid to realize his good fortune, the Copperhead promptly found Col. Charles Mattocks “to complain about the assault” on his person, Gerrish deliciously described the outcome.
“They served you right, only it is a damned shame they didn’t drown you!” exploded Mattocks, not long since released from Southern captivity himself.
Initially the 20th Maine lads figured that disaffected Confederate soldiers had murdered Lincoln. “I never saw men so deeply moved as were those soldiers” in their camp at Farmville, Gerrish observed.
“It was a fortunate affair for both sides that the rebel army had been paroled” before April 14, “for with the intense feeling that existed when that intelligence [of Lincoln’s death] reached us, there would have been a conflict of the most deadly character,” he alluded to the murderous thoughts his comrades spoke aloud.
Then the 20th Maine lads learned about Booth, a skirt-chasing actor who exited the world stage left after being dragged mortally wounded from a burning Tidewater Virginia barn. He was dead, and his co-conspirators soon would be.
Pertaining to the assassins, Gerrish and the other 20th Maine boys “were grateful to know that it was none of those who had received such generous treatment from our hands at the surrender of Lee.”
The war was over.
Like their former enemies, the Maine boys were heading home.
*Ulysses S.Grant was among was the assassins’ targets. His wife, Julia, urged him to decline the invitation from the Lincolns to join them at Ford’s Theater on April 14. The Grants left Washington that day, an act that likely saved Grant’s life.
Next week: Appomattox Road: Chamberlain fears “a frenzy of blind revenge”
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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.