Not until after the Battle of Williamsburg, Va. in early May 1862 did Col. Hiram Burnham learn what Col. Edwin Mason instinctively knew: the value of a good press agent.
A Cherryfield native, Burnham commanded the 6th Maine Infantry, Mason the 7th Maine. Months before that regiment fought at Williamsburg, readers of the Maine Farmer were routinely learning what the 7th Maine was doing and where and when. Mason had a reliable, albeit unofficial PR staff in the two inveterate letter writers disguised as soldiers who accompanied the 7th Maine to war.
Identified only by the initials “C” and “G,” the two soldiers wrote frequently to the Maine Farmer, published weekly in Augusta by editor Ezekiel Holmes. Reflecting its title, the Farmer devoted page 1 to diverse agriculture-based articles intended to help farmers increase animal and crop yields.
Copious war news appeared on the inside pages, with Holmes publishing letters from Maine soldiers and printing the obligatory reports from Washington.
The Farmer’s Thursday, April 24 issue featured a typical 7th Maine update, written by “C” from “Camp No. 9, Near Lee’s Mills, Va.” on Monday, April 14. Opening with “Dear Farmer,” C apologized for not writing more often. “It was not because I had forgotten my obligation to old friends and The Farmer; but the harassing duties of active service has left me little time or inclination to write.”
He detailed the 7th Maine’s initial advance up Virginia’s Peninsula, selected by Union Gen. George McClellan as the shortest route to Richmond. The regiment got into a dust-up with Confederate cavalry on April 5, moved “to the edge of a ravine” some 900 yards from Confederate earthworks later that day, and came under intensive enemy artillery fire.
An exploding shell killed Pvt. Joseph Pepper of Co. B, “the first martyr that fell on the battlefield from the Seventh Maine,” C wrote. “He was a quiet, honest, good-hearted fellow” who left a widow and three children in Bath.
This letter was C’s 12th to the Maine Farmer; G did not number his letters. The 7th Maine fielded 10 companies raised as far afield as Aroostook and York counties; because it circulated widely in Maine, the Farmer was an excellent outlet for “connecting” with 7th Maine fans.
Mustered into federal service in July 1861, the 6th Maine split its 10 companies evenly between Down East Maine (four companies hailed from Washington County, plus a fifth company from Ellsworth) and the Penobscot-Piscataquis watersheds. Burnham commanded burly men skilled with farm implements and logging tools; PR skills were not a 6th Maine specialty, although some men did write their local papers.
On Sunday, May 4, 1862, Union troops discovered that Confederate troops had withdrawn from their defenses at Yorktown. In a steady rain, Union boys pursued their retreating enemies northwest to Williamsburg, where the Confederates turned and fought.
The 6th Maine Infantry served in the 1st Brigade (Brig, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock) of the 2nd Division (Brig. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith). Hancock’s brigade included the 43rd New York Infantry, the 49th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 5th Wisconsin Infantry.
Mason and his 7th Maine belonged to the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Division. The 33rd New York was assigned to the same brigade.
Fighting broke out “on our left and centre” at 8 a.m., Monday, May 5, Burnham later wrote Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. Hancock and his 1st Brigade remained “in reserve perhaps half a mile from where our forces were engaged with the enemy,” and the restless Mainers and New Yorkers listened all morning “to the wild uproar of battle,” grumbled Burnham. Then Hancock received orders about 11 a.m. “to take the extreme right” on the Union line “and endeavor to turn the enemy’s left flank.”
Borrowing the 7th Maine and 33rd New York from the 3rd Brigade, Hancock marched about 1½ miles to the northeast with his own 6th Maine, 49th Pennsylvania, and 5th Wisconsin. Coming along to provide artillery support were 1st Lt. Andrew Cowan and the gunners and six 3-inch ordnance rifles of the 1st New York Battery.
A staff aide, Lt. George Armstrong Custer of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, accompanied the expedition to show Hancock where his men could cross Cub Creek east of Williamsburg. The expedition reached the creek at a mill dam, beyond which rose formidable Confederate earthworks. Hancock pushed the 5th Wisconsin across the 75-yard dam.
The 6th Maine followed. Union troops raised the national flag over the unoccupied earthworks. Then, “passing through a narrow skirt of woods, we came into an open field and discovered a short distance ahead, another [abandoned] rebel earthwork of a formidable nature,” Burnham said.
Hancock estimated that the field extended some 1,200 yards west. Thick woods bordered the field on the north and south; requesting reinforcements to help screen the woods for hidden Confederates, Hancock pushed Cowan’s artillery battery “about one hundred rods (1,600 feet)” to the west “and nearly within rifle shot of [two occupied redoubts on] the enemy’s left flank,” said Burnham.
An abandoned farm stood far out in the field. Cowan spread his guns among the farm buildings, and Capt. Charles C. Wheeler brought up the four ordnance rifles of Battery E, 1st New York Light Artillery. He deployed his guns to the north of the farm, and Hancock stationed the 5th Wisconsin on Wheeler’s right (northern) flank and the 6th Maine on Cowan’s left (southern) flank to protect the cannoneers against enemy infantry. The 49th Pennsylvania deployed on the 6th Maine’s left flank.
Confederate artillery inside the two redoubts “opened a heavy fire upon us, and our artillery replied with excellent effect,” Burnham wrote Washburn.
Meanwhile, Hancock protected his flanks by deploying the 7th Maine north and to the rear of the 5th Wisconsin and the 33rd New York to the south of the 6th Maine. “The 7th was drawn up in line of battle against the woods on the extreme right to guard against an attack by cavalry[,] which was expected from that quarter,” wrote C in a letter published by the Maine Farmer on June 5, 1862.
“Companies G and E, were sent to the fartherest front and right through the woods to watch the enemy in that direction,” he recalled. With those companies went Maj. Thomas Hyde of Bath; he nervously eyed the surrounding terrain all afternoon.
As the brigade had advanced west with the artillery across the field, “the ground became more open,” he said after glancing south along the line of battle. “We could see how few we were,” and the men realized that “the danger of being cut off appeared imminent, as the woods on our right were very dense.”
Told to scout the woods “with some skirmishers,” Hyde looked “from tree to tree to see if a foe lurked behind.” Finding the woods devoid of Confederates, he rejoined the 7th Maine soldiers, then “lying down in line in open field” and cussing the muck, the war, the unseen enemy, and everything else that separated the Maine men from their far-away homes.
About 5 p.m., a few thousand Confederates emerged from the woods near the redoubts, formed into line, and charged. Hancock ordered his artillery withdrawn to the Cub Creek earthworks. Hampered by the mud (the battle took place in relentless rain), the gunners pulled back as the 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin accompanied them.
The 7th Maine boys watched the withdrawal.
The 6th Maine, the 5th Wisconsin, and the artillery (its progress slowed by muddy soil) “retired [some 500 yards] to the fort in good order,” then turned 180 degrees to find the nearest Confederate troops “a few hundred yards” away, Burnham told Washburn.
Hyde watched the Confederates charge; “a fine picture … they made,” running “at the double-quick” diagonally across the plowed field toward Hancock’s retreating regiments, he remembered.
Enemy troops could not see the 7th Maine boys lying “flat on the ground,” said Hyde. Suddenly “I saw General Hancock galloping toward us, bare-headed, alone, a magnificent figure.”
“Forward! Charge!” shouted Hancock. The 7th Maine lads stood, lowered their bayonets, “and with a roar of cheers” charged over the slight crest between them and the nearby Confederates. Hyde said.
Apparently winded by charging across the muddy field, enemy troops “seemed to dissolve all at once into a quivering and disintegrating mass and to scatter in all directions,” Hyde realized. “We halted and opened fire.”
Through the swirling gun smoke the 7th Maine boys watched enemy soldiers “falling everywhere” or waving “white handkerchiefs … in token of surrender,” Hyde said.
The 6th Maine boys fired “upon the enemy with such awful execution that it seemed as if every bullet picked its man,” Burnham told Washburn. The 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin charged, too, and the Union boys won a lop-sided fight as the rain pelted down.
Hancock reported enemy losses at 120 men killed, 250 men wounded, and 160 men captured. His ad hoc brigade lost 10 men killed, 88 men wounded, and 31 men missing.
As Mason’s two-man PR machine went to work during the next few weeks, Maine Farmer readers would only hear about the 7th Maine’s role in the battle.
Burnham would blow a gasket when he found out.
Next week: Battle of the Bards — Part 2: trading volley fire in a Maine newspaper
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.