Maine heroes believed that “merit was worth more than fame”

A veteran of the 1st Maine Infantry Regiment, George Lafayette Beal was named colonel of the 10th Maine Infantry in 1861. About half of that regiment's 1,000 members had belonged to the 1st Maine.

A veteran of the 1st Maine Infantry Regiment, George Lafayette Beal was named colonel of the 10th Maine Infantry in 1861. About half of that regiment’s 1,000 members had belonged to the 1st Maine.

Promoted to brevet brigadier general by the end of the Civil War, George Lafayette Beal was among the Maine heroes who kept enlisting to fight the Confederacy. (Courtesy of Nicholas Picerno)

Promoted to brevet brigadier general by the end of the Civil War, George Lafayette Beal was among the Maine heroes who kept enlisting to fight the Confederacy. (Courtesy of Nicholas Picerno)

Some Maine soldiers did not know when to quit, and that attitude led them to spend some five years in a Union uniform during — and after — the Civil War.

Of the 32 infantry regiments (not counting the 1st Veteran Volunteers formed in Virginia) that Maine sent to war, three were directly related in a way not replicated by other regiments, according to Nicholas Picerno of Bridgewater, Va. He is the nation’s leading expert on the 1st, 10th, and 29th Maine infantry regiments.

As its designation indicates, the 1st Maine was literally the first regiment raised in Maine. Comprising militia companies from Portland and the Androscoggin River Valley and commanded by Col. Nathaniel Jackson, the 1st mustered into federal service on May 3, 1861.

The regiment should have left immediately for Washington, D.C., but a measles outbreak quarantined Jackson and his regiment in Maine. The next four Maine infantry regiments got to the capital in time to be shot up during the July 21 Battle of Manassas; the 1st Maine boys, who were guarding W, D.C. by then, missed all the action and mustered out at the end of their 90 days of service.

But many 1st Maine lads decided that “we really need to see this thing out,” said Picerno, police chief at Bridgewater College. He first became interested in the three regiments in the late 1970s.

So several hundred 1st Maine members joined the 10th Maine Infantry in late 1861. Promoted to a colonelcy, George Lafayette Beal (formerly a captain in the 1st Maine) commanded the new regiment, a two-year unit that was first assigned to guard the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad between two Maryland junctions: Relay House northwest of Washington, D.C. and Annapolis Junction east of the capital.

According to Beal, “men [were] posted every one-quarter of a mile night and day” between the two junctions.

The 10th Maine Infantry fought in the Shenandoah Valley in May 1862 and literally guarded the rear of the Union army driven from Winchester, Va. by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The regiment was badly bloodied during the late August battle at Cedar Mountain in Virginia and fought heroically in the East Woods at Antietam on September 17.

George Nye spent five years in a Union uniform as a member of the 1st, 10th, and 29th Maine infantry regiments. Madly in love with his wife, Charlotte, Nye wrote at least 1,800 letters to "Charlie" during the Civil War.

George Nye spent five years in a Union uniform as a member of the 1st, 10th, and 29th Maine infantry regiments. Madly in love with his wife, Charlotte, Nye wrote at least 1,800 letters to “Charlie” during the Civil War.

Among the 1st Maine members serving with the 10th Maine was George Nye, “a very prolific writer,” said Picerno. “He loves his wife, Charlotte, whom he called ‘Charlie.’” During the war, Nye wrote more than 1,800 letters to Charlotte; at least 760 letters that she wrote him still exist.

In one letter, Nye described for Charlotte what he saw while strolling through Washington, D.C. His wandering feet ultimately led him to the White House, where he saw President Abraham Lincoln for the first time.

“He looked as tough as a pitch knot,” Nye told Charlotte.

The 10th Maine lads wore state-issued brass belt buckles stamped “VMM,” which officially meant “Volunteer Maine Militia,” according to Picerno. Regimental historian John Mead Gould wrote that “VMM” actually stood for “Very Mean Men,” a term that aptly applied to the Maine boys during their epic fight at Antietam.

A patriotic youngster who joined a Portland militia company that was merged into the 1st Maine Infantry Regiment, John Mead Gould also served with the 10th Maine and 29th Maine infantries. Except for brief stints back home in Portland, he was on active duty for five years.

A patriotic youngster who joined a Portland militia company that was merged into the 1st Maine Infantry Regiment, John Mead Gould also served with the 10th Maine and 29th Maine infantries. Except for brief stints back home in Portland, he was on active duty for five years.

Another member of the 1st and 10th (and ultimately the 29th Maine) was John Mead Gould, a young Portland resident. An inveterate diarist, he wrote the combined histories of the three regiments in 1871. Promoted to adjutant during the war, Gould was the last officer involved with all three regiments to die, ironically on New Year’s Day in 1930.

Another 1st Maine member who joined the 10th Maine was Nehemiah Furbish, a captain shot and killed in the East Woods at Antietam. Edward Brackett, actually a sergeant and another veteran of the 1st and 10th, was acting as his company’s lieutenant during the East Woods fight; shot in his guts, he died of his wounds.

The most unusual recruit to serve with the regiments was “Major,” a Newfoundland dog that leaped on the train carrying the 10th Maine off to war. Major plunged into combat with his human comrades; at Cedar Mountain and Antietam, he constantly barked at the dust clouds kicked up by Confederate bullets striking the ground around the 10th Maine boys.

Major stayed with the colors when many 10th Maine survivors joined the 29th Maine Infantry later in the war. He was shot and killed during a battle at Mansfield, La. on April 8, 1864 and was buried by his comrades on the battlefield.

The night before the September 1864 Battle of Third Winchester, Maj. William Knowlton of Lewiston told two comrades in the 29th Maine Infantry that he would die in the next day's fight. He was correct. Knowlton had also served with the 1st Maine and 10th Maine infantries.

The night before the September 1864 Battle of Third Winchester, Maj. William Knowlton of Lewiston told two comrades in the 29th Maine Infantry that he would die in the next day’s fight. He was correct. Knowlton had also served with the 1st Maine and 10th Maine infantries.

After serving in the Deep South, the 29th Maine Infantry (a three-year regiment) shipped to Virginia and fought in Phil Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign. With combat inevitable the next day, Maj. William Knowlton of Lewiston told two friends on the night of Sept. 18, 1864 that he would die in the upcoming battle.

Known as Third Winchester or Opequon Creek, the Sept. 19 battle saw Sheridan’s troops trounce their Confederate opponents. The 29th Maine Infantry had reached a fence line when Knowlton dismounted to talk with some soldiers; he was shot and killed at that spot.

Exactly a month later during the Battle of Cedar Creek, Lt. Lorenzo Dow Stacy of the 29th Maine captured the flag of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. Up rode Col. George Love of the 116th New York Infantry; he ordered that Stacy give him the flag, then rode away to claim the trophy for himself and present it to Sheridan.

Love received the Medal of Honor for stealing Stacy’s battle trophy.

After the war ended, the 29th Maine Infantry did occupation duty in Darlington and Florence, South Carolina. Such duty was not welcome; the men wanted to go home, but not until June 21, 1866 did the regiment muster out. George Nye and John Mead Gould were among the survivors of the 1st and 10th who left service with the 29th.

According to Picerno, the heroes serving with the three regiments sought no glory for themselves. His men donated money to purchase an exquisite sword for Col. George Lafayette Beal; on its blade was inscribed, “Merit is better than fame.”

“That really defines these regiments,” Picerno said.

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.