Finally convinced that his vengeance-seeking soldiers would not pillage and rape their way through the hapless post-Confederacy residents of Farmville, Va., Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain joined his men in doing what they really wanted to do: mourning the murdered President Abraham Lincoln.
Expressions of mourning were handled differently in 1865 than 2015, especially when few families could afford to embalm and display a corpse for a few days. People “lived” with death in those days, acknowledged death as a fact, and did not ignore its eventuality as youth-crazy 21st-century Americans do.
And men who had survived four years of carnage on blood- and body-splattered battlefields would mourn their beloved chief executive in their own fashion.
By morning on Monday, April 17, Chamberlain’s staff members draped the “headquarters tents with mourning (black) rosettes of crape,” he noted with approval. His officers draped the divisional flags “and our sword-hilts” with “a wreath of [black] crepe.”
Soldiers affixed black arm bands to their left arms. At 12 noon, “the solemn boom of the minute-guns (artillery), speaking power and sorrow, hushed all the camp,” Chamberlain said.
In early afternoon the 1st Division formed a hollow square, with the brigades and regiments “facing inward,” he described the scene. “The old flags were brought to the front of their regiments, battle-torn and smoke-dimmed, draped in sorrow (black crepe),” with some flags splattered by blood.
His men had spent almost 24 hours talking about Lincoln’s assassination and precious little else. Stacking their arms, the soldiers formed in their regiments “and stood, tense and motionless, as a hushed sea,” Chamberlain realized after gazing around the hollow square.
“Those faces spoke depths of manliness, and reaches of deeds [that] words do not record,” said Chamberlain, who just five days earlier had watched these same veterans greet the surrendering Confederate infantry at Appomattox Court House.
Now these men wanted to go home, but could they? How extensive was the conspiracy against the Federal government? John Wilkes Booth had murdered Lincoln; Lewis Powell had almost stabbed Secretary of State William Seward to death. George Atzerodt, the conspirator assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, lost heart and never tried.
Were senior Confederate officials involved in this conspiracy? Were regular Confederate troops — whose and from where, frantic Federal authorities could not determine — even now marching on Washington? Must the 1st Division troops stay in uniform longer than necessary to quell the last gasp of the Confederacy?
On the open side of the hollow square, a soldier thrust a flagstaff bearing “the red Maltese cross of the division” into mounded dirt. Joined by 5th Corps commander Charles Griffin, Chamberlain and his staff gathered around the standard, as did other generals. Cannons boomed in salute, the German band from the 1st Brigade played the “Russian Hymn,” and Chamberlain had Father Constantine L. Egan, “the senior chaplain of the division,” step onto a stage formed from ammunition boxes.
Egan presented a problem. “I knew his Irish warmth and power of speech,” admitted Chamberlain, who cautioned Egan “what not to say.
“He might, if not restrained, stir the hearts of the men too much for our control,” Chamberlain said.
And stir the listening soldiers Egan certainly did. Bashing the Confederacy’s “spirit of rebellion,” he “portrayed the character of Lincoln” as that of a saint and “reminded the soldiers of Lincoln’s love for them, and theirs for him.”
“And will you endure this sacrilege?” Egan shouted. “Can heavenly charity tolerate such crime under the flag of this delivered country?
“Will you nor rather sweep such a spirit out of the land forever, and cast it, root and branch, into ever-lasting burning?” he challenged his listeners.
Chamberlain watched as “men’s faces flushed and paled,” as “their muscles trembled.” Furious soldiers instinctively reached for weapons stacked nearby, slightly out of reach.
Looking across the hollow square, Egan suddenly stopped speaking. Admitting that “I myself was under the spell,” Chamberlain sensed how close his men stood to committing violence, so great was their anger.
Grabbing Egan’s arm, Chamberlain begged, “Father Egan, you must not stop. Turn this excitement to some good.”
“I will,” whispered Egan, who transitioned to a more upbeat oration.
“Better to die glorious, than to live infamous!” Egan admonished his uniformed audience. “Better to be buried beneath a nation’s tears, than to walk the earth guilty of a nation’s blood!
“Better, thousandfold, forever better, Lincoln dead, than [Jefferson] Davis living!” Egan cried.
Chamberlain remembered that Egan “passed to an exhortation that rose into a prayer, then to a paean of victory.”
Then “with an oath of new consecration to the undying cause of freedom and right, he gave us back to ourselves, better soldiers, and better men,” Chamberlain realized.
The threat had passed; the 1st Division boys — including those from the 20th Maine Infantry — stayed their hands from seeking revenge. “Steadfast and noble in every test, unto the end,” said Chamberlain. “God bless them beyond, likewise!”
Next week: The men who fell before reaching the end of Appomattox Road
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.