Battle of the Bards — Part 2: Regiments trade volley fire in a Maine newspaper

 

A fife-and-drum band matches through Colonial Williamsburg in May 2007. Exactly 145 years earlier, retreating Confederate troops turned at bay outside Virginia's second capital city and fought a day-long battle with Union troops. The 6th Maine Infantry participated in the same part of the battle with the 7th Maine Infantry. (Brian Swartz Photo)

A fife-and-drum band marches through Colonial Williamsburg in May 2007. Exactly 145 years earlier, retreating Confederate troops turned at bay outside Virginia’s former capital city and fought a day-long battle with Union troops. The 6th Maine Infantry participated in the same part of the battle with the 7th Maine Infantry. (Brian Swartz Photo)

If Col. Hiram Burnham was pleased that his 6th Maine Infantry received a brief mention in the May 15, 1862 issue of the Maine Farmer, he certainly did not care when he blew his Down East gasket nine days later.

Several Maine infantry regiments had battled at Williamsburg, Va. on May 5. The 6th Maine had fought almost alongside the 7th Maine, commanded by Col. Edwin Mason. That regiment had two soldiers — identified only by their initials, “C” and “G” — who relentlessly wrote the Farmer, an Augusta-based weekly that focused in Maine agriculture.

Burnham and his boys lacked the PR efforts sustained by Mason’s bards, yet on May 15, editor Ezekiel Holmes reported in the Farmer that “we have no reports yet of the loss in the 6th Maine in Monday’s (May 5) battle at Williamsburg.”

That issue featured no 7th Maine letter, but the newspaper’s May 22 edition published a bombshell (written by the 7th Maine correspondent known as G ) that exploded inside Burnham’s headquarters.

A native of Narraguagus (later Cherryfield), Hiram Burnham was 50 when he went to war in summer 1862 as lieutenant colonel of the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment. He later took command and, as a colonel, led the regiment during the May 5, 1862 Battle of Williamsburg, Va.  Later learning that the 7th Maine was taking all the credit for a victorious fight, Burnham blew a gasket. His men then waged a public-relations war in the Maine press to set the record straight. (Maine State Archives)

A native of Narraguagus (later Cherryfield), Hiram Burnham was 50 when he went to war in summer 1861 as lieutenant colonel of the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment. He later took command and, as a colonel, led the regiment during the May 5, 1862 Battle of Williamsburg, Va. Later learning that the 7th Maine was taking all the credit for a victorious fight, Burnham blew a gasket. His men then waged a public-relations war in the Maine press to set the record straight. (Maine State Archives)

Adopting a rah-rah-sis-boom-bah approach to reporting the news, G regaled Maine Farmer readers with his version of the Williamsburg battle. Skipping the long, muddy march that troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock made to reach the large field where their late afternoon fight occurred, G reported that “Ayers’ battery was placed one-third of a mile in front of the 7th Maine, with a regiment from some other brigade to support it.”

When some “six regiments of rebels came up through the woods … and charged upon the battery,” the “regiment that was supporting it fled with all possible speed, leaving the battery to take care of itself,” G indicated. The gunners hitched up their “guns and caissons and they were luckily saved.”

With Confederates “in full pursuit and evidently … confident of success,” the gunners raced for safety. The Confederates “would have played the very deuce had not the 7th Maine stood firm,” G left Maine Farmer readers believing that only his regiment stood between the fleeing artillery and disaster.

“While all around was flight and confusion, we stood perfectly quiet until the battery and the fugitives from the other regiments had passed to our rear,” G bragged. Hiding his men behind “a hill to our rear,” Edwin Mason waited until the right moment, then ordered his men to fix bayonets.

“Forward, double quick!” Mason shouted. “Give ’em —!”

“We dashed upon them with such a shout as I never heard before. It was terrible, and no pen can describe it,” wrote G, not hesitating to describe the noise.

As the 7th Maine boys crested the hill, “the rebels were snug upon us,” he realized. “Within pistol shot of them we poured so murderous a fire into their ranks that it fairly mowed them down.”

Surviving Confederates fled the bayonet-toting Yankees helter-skelter, and “we fired two or three more well aimed volleys into them before they reached the shelter of their guns (artillery) again,” G wrote. Then the 7th Maine lads rounded up prisoners (175 in all), including a 20th Georgia Infantry soldier who “was certainly the dirtiest specimen of humanity I ever saw.

“Lay him down, and he would be buried without the trouble of throwing earth over him, as no offensive smell could ever penetrate the deep coating of dirt on his hide,” G commented.

He boasted that, aided by the 33rd New York Infantry and “the fire of a few skirmishers,” the 7th Maine all but single-handedly “repelled a charge made by six rebel regiments, [and] charged upon them in turn, driving them back a terror-stricken mob.”

The 7th Maine won the fight “without losing a man,” G wrote, and on May 7 Union Gen. George McClellan rode into the open square formed by the regiment and told Mason’s boys, “You saved the day and won the battle.”

Only in his closing paragraph did G mention “all the regiments engaged in the action,” but he did not identify the 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin. Those well-handled regiments might as well not have swapped lead with a few thousand Confederates at Williamsburg, for all that Maine Farmer readers knew on May 22.

In early May 1862, a Union soldier guards a captured Confederate fort near Yorktown, Va. Althogh the appearance of the wrecked 32-pounder cannon suggests that Union artillery had wreaked havoc on this particlar fort, the cannon's shattered barrel could indicate that the gun blew apart while being fired by its Confederate crew. Under intense pressure from Union forces, Confederates abandoned their Peninsula defense line (anchored in the east on Yorktown) the night of May 3, 1862 and withdrew toward Williamsburg. (Library of Congress)

In early May 1862, a Union soldier guards a captured Confederate fort near Yorktown, Va. Althogh the appearance of the wrecked 32-pounder cannon suggests that Union artillery had wreaked havoc on this particular fort, the cannon’s shattered barrel could indicate that the gun blew apart while being fired by its Confederate crew. Under intense pressure from Union forces, Confederates abandoned their Peninsula defense line (anchored in the east on Yorktown) the night of May 3, 1862 and withdrew toward Williamsburg. (Library of Congress)

But somewhere in Maine, a Farmer reader knew better. Apparently dashing off a telegram to Hiram Burnham — no other form of communications could account for so fast a news transmission — a 6th Maine fan informed the Cherryfield native about G’s claims.

Before day’s end on May 24, Burnham blew a gasket. Then, definitely calmed down as his neat penmanship reveals, he wrote a detailed report to Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. After explaining what the overlooked 6th Maine did during Hancock’s fight, Burnham growled in ink that “letters … which have appeared in the Boston Journal, Portland Transcript, Maine Farmer, and perhaps in other papers” contained “many inaccuracies”. These letters were supposedly written by “members of the seventh Maine Reg.t.”

Only one 7th Maine letter pertaining to Williamsburg appeared in the Maine Farmer prior to May 24, and that was G’s letter, published on May 22.

Burnham’s reference could only be to that letter.

So he wrote Washburn; livid 6th Maine officers wrote Ezekiel Holmes, but before he could publish their letter, yet another 7th Maine battle report ran in the Farmer on Thursday, June 5.

After its capture by Union troops in early May 1862, Yorktown became a major port supporting Federal operations on the Peninsula. Artillery, mortars, and ammunition are visible on shore; the masts of ships rise from the York River. (Library of Congress)

After its capture by Union troops in early May 1862, Yorktown became a major port supporting Federal operations on the Peninsula. Artillery, mortars, and ammunition are visible on shore; the masts of ships rise from the York River. (Library of Congress)

Composed by C — a writer of a better feather than G —this letter provided an accurate description of Hancock’s fight, unlike the partial blarney spun by G. Written at “Camp on Lee’s Farm” on May 14, the letter dovetailed closely with official reports written by Hancock, Burnham, and others.

This time when the Union artillery deployed far out in that muddy field, “the 5th Wisconsin, and 6th Maine were drawn up to the right (north) and left (south) as support,” C wrote, and “the 7th was drawn up in line of battle against the woods on the extreme right.”

The Confederates charged, and the Union artillery limbered up and withdrew. “For a moment the lines of the regiments in front wavered, but then boldly faced the advancing foe and poured upon them a deadly volley,” wrote C.

Pulling back to earthworks overlooking Cub Run, those regiments (including the 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin) turned and fired again. Then the 7th Maine fired accurately at the Confederates; the field “was a swath of death,” C recalled, also quoting McClellan differently than did G.

So C credited the 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin boys, did not impugn their bravery (or ignore their presence on the battlefield), and witnessed the same fight that everyone else but G did. His letter set the stage for the 6th Maine’s first stab at public relations.

“Letter from the 6th Maine Regiment” proclaimed a page 2 headline in the Thursday, June 12 issue of the Maine Farmer. Written by Pvt. Frederick A. Blanchard (a young farmer from Charlotte) “with the approval of the officers of the regiment” (according to Ezekiel Holmes), the letter was dated May 28.

Referring directly to G’s letter, Blanchard corrected some of its inaccuracies. “Capt. Ayre’s battery … was not in the fight at this point [during the Confederate charge],” and the 6th Maine and the 5th Wisconsin (not a single regiment, as G claimed) supported the artillery, he wrote.

Burnham’s boys “did retire, at the order of Gen. Hancock” and reformed by the earthworks, wrote Blanchard, dispelling G’s claim that a Union regiment had fled in terror. By the way, “the 7th Maine” was “drawn up directly in rear of the 5th Wisconsin”; how did G not note that fact?

“I shall not deprive the 7th Maine of their laurels,” and while Mason’s boys fought well, “yet their position was neither dangerous or responsible,” Blanchard swiped at the competition.

“Had they been called upon to do hard fighting, they might have done as good service as the Sixth or any other regiment engaged,” he volley-fired in print.

“But they were not called upon,” Blanchard inexcusably fudged the truth himself.

As for Burnham’s boys, “we have no fears but the Sixth will get her proportional part of the honors of the occasion,” Blanchard concluded.

He signed his letter “F.A.B.,” leaving no doubt as to his identity, unlike the 7th Maine’s G.

The 6th Maine lads had finally learned to wage war in print as well as on the battlefield.

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.