As did so many other Maine soldiers, a 19-year-old cavalryman from Levant who helped shove Confederate troops from their Petersburg defenses discovered that greater economic opportunity lay elsewhere than Maine after the Civil War.
Born in Levant on December 6, 1845, Perley Lowe grew up in a decidedly rural Maine. Most men found employment in natural resource-based economic activity, particularly agriculture, fishing, and logging and its attendant activities, such as operating sawmills. Other jobs existed in manufacturing (especially the burgeoning textile industry, which also provided outside-the-home employment for women), transportation (Maine home-ported hundreds of cargo ships), construction, education, and in the legal and medical fields.
As expected in a predominantly rural state, many Maine men worked with the seasons. In Levant, a young man like Lowe would work on the family farm in spring, summer, and fall and cut trees in the winter for the next year’s firewood. Life was physically tough, the pay dismal.
Perhaps lured by a substantial bounty, the 18-year-old Lowe joined the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry Regiment in Bangor on Jan. 12, 1864; his occupation was listed as “farmer.”
War Department subterfuge caused him and about 799 other Maine boys to join an out-of-state unit when even the local draft boards had a hard time finding enough warm bodies to flesh the state-raised regiments.
The 1st DC Cavalry initially comprised four companies recruited in the District in summer and fall 1863. Commanded by Col. Lafayette Baker, the regiment was assigned to the 22nd Army Corps, then charged with defending Washington and its environs (sometimes defined as Maryland and northern Virginia) against Confederate attacks.
But artillery- and infantry-held forts better protected the capital, and the War Department needed cavalry elsewhere. Baker and his men shipped to Tidewater Virginia in November 1863 for duty at Yorktown and elsewhere.
A cavalry regiment usually fielded 12 companies, so the 1st DC needed another eight companies (800 men) to reach full strength. Whether or not the War Department viewed Maine men as rubes remains conjectural; Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon received instructions to recruit 800 horse soldiers.
“They enlisted under the distinct assurance that they would never be required to serve outside the District of Columbia,” recalled Rev. Samuel H. Merrill, chaplain of the 1st DC Cavalry.
No one knew (or admitted) “who was responsible for the change of the original destination of the regiment,” he said. “If the command was in no degree demoralized by the subsequent disappointment of the men, in being sent to the front and being placed in the most perilous positions there, it is all the more to their credit.”
The first Maine-raised company, D, shipped for Washington on Oct. 22, 1863. Letters sent home revealed that while Baker and his four companies (A, B, C, and E) were active on the Peninsula, the Co. D boys enjoyed camp life at Annandale, Va.
Did the War Department “hold” Co. D at Annandale to avoid hindering recruiting efforts in Maine? Merrill cited “the historic truth” that Maine boys flocked to the 1st DC Cavalry because they would not fight beyond the District’s political limits; if the War Department had promptly forwarded Co. D to the Peninsula in late 1863, some 700 smart civilians back home in Maine would have seen through the scam and avoided enlisting.
So Perley Lowe joined Co. H, commanded by Capt. Andrew Benson of Old Town. The regiment’s seven remaining companies — F, G, H, I, K, L, and M — mustered into the army on Feb. 8, 1864. Two days later, Co. F and Capt. Edward Sanford of Warren headed for Washington; the remaining six companies departed Augusta on Feb. 29.
The Maine boys should have quickly figured out that the War Department needed them elsewhere than Washington. The entire 1st DC Cavalry was issued Henry repeating rifles; “the peculiarity of this gun, is that it will fire sixteen shots without reloading,” chaplain Merrill recalled.
“Fifteen shots can be given with it in ten seconds,” he said. “Thus, a regiment of one thousand men, would fire fifteen thousand shots in ten seconds.” Cavalry troopers did not need such a weapon, for sure.
To Confederate cavalry leader John Mosby did Merrill attribute the quote, “…as for these [Henry] guns that they could wind up on Sunday and shoot all the week, it was useless to fight against them.”
Lowe and his comrades learned the horse soldier’s trade until April 7, when (to the surprise of no one except 700 disgruntled Maine boys) the seven companies shipped to Norfolk, Va. A day later, the men promised duty in Washington, D.C. arrived on a Virginia picket line.
So the full-strength 1st DC Cavalry went to war and fought here, there, and seemingly everywhere as Ulysses S. Grant launched his Overland Campaign that spring. Perley Lowe rode and fought with his comrades. He was wounded at Reams Station on Aug. 21, 1864.
Six days later, the War Department all but gutted the 1st DC Cavalry by merging companies D, F, G, H, I, K, and L with the fought-out and under-strength 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment. With a quill-pen scratch on an official order, Lowe transferred from an obscure regiment to a hard-fighting outfit that one Union general had claimed would charge the gates of hell if ordered to do so.
Lowe finished the war with the 1st Maine Cavalry. He fought at Dinwiddie Court House on March 31, 1865. Family tradition suggests he might have suffered another wound in this battle that initiated three days of fighting that ultimately broke Confederates lines at Petersburg.
Mustering out later that year with the 1st Maine Cav, Lowe returned to Maine. He taught school for a while, but the pay was poor.
During the war, Maine boys had discovered warmer climates and better crop-growing conditions elsewhere. Years earlier, Horace Greeley had popularized the phrase, “Go West, young man”; Perley Lowe apparently met men from the Midwest during his 18 months in uniform, and they told him about the economic opportunities abounding beyond the Ohio River.
Lowe moved to Chicago in 1867 and later partnered with William Templeton in the lumber trade. Opening an office in the Railway Exchange Building (today’s Santa Fe Building) on South Michigan Avenue, the partners prospered.
How life might have turned out for Perley Lowe had he remained in Maine remains conjectural. Thousands of Maine men decamped for points west and southwest of the Pine Tree State after the war.
These men often took their families with them. That post-war exodus, plus wartime casualties (more than 9,300 Maine men died in military service), led to stagnant population growth; Maine’s population barely budged in numbers between the censuses of 1860 and 1870.
Lowe married Elizabeth Templeton (William’s sister) and became a civic and educational booster in the Windy City. The Lowes had four daughters; as they grew up, their father served as president of the Lumberman’s Exchange, helped established Wesley Memorial Hospital and the Halstead Avenue Mission, and served as a Northwestern University trustee.
Lowe was a dedicated husband and father; he and his family often spent the holidays with William Templeton and his family, and both families summered in South Haven, Mich. The summer home remains in the family to this day.
Lowe was struck by an automobile while crossing a Chicago street in late November 1919; he died on July 29, 1924.
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.