“Boom!” goes the colonel’s career

 

In spring 1861, the 42-year-old Elijah Walker was a Rockland merchant. He joined the 4th Maine Infantry and within 10 months became its commander. Walker had a habit of criticizing superior officers. (Maine State Archives)

In spring 1861, the 42-year-old Elijah Walker was a Rockland merchant. He joined the 4th Maine Infantry and within 10 months became its commander. Walker had a habit of criticizing superior officers. (Maine State Archives)

Did Elijah Walker blow a future promotion on a quiet night outside Yorktown, Va. in April 1862?

Only if he shot off his mouth after a Confederate shot off a cannon that night.

A 42-year-old Rockland coal-and-lumber merchant in spring 1861, Walker decided the join the 4th Infantry Regiment being raised by his business partner, Hiram Berry. Walker and his wife, 36-year-old Susan, had seven children, and dad volunteered his time as foreman of the Rockland-based Dirigo Engine Company, which fought local fires.

Most of the volunteer firefighters, including Walker, evidently belonged to a local militia company called the Rockland City Guards.

Despite the responsibilities to his large family and his business, the reluctant Walker needed only a little push to enlist. Dirigo Engine’s 25 members “urged me, in case troops were called for, to lead them as their captain,” he said.

He did so, joining the 4th Maine and experiencing combat at First Manassas.

Standing 5-foot-6½ inches tall, Walker sported brown hair, blue eyes, and an iron constitution. His dark complexion concealed an opinionated mind not hesitant to convey judgmental thoughts in ink or pencil — and Walker may have shared those printed comments verbally, too.

And he could certainly criticize his superiors.

The 4th Maine marched to battle at Manassas in a brigade commanded by Col. Oliver Otis Howard. Men were dropping in the July 21, 1861 heat and humidity when Howard rode up on his horse to find Walker, who commanded the regiment’s (and brigade’s) lead company.

“Double-quick!” Howard shouted.Walker protested with “qualifying words that could be find in the Bible.” Then he opted to advance “as fast as was possible and at the same time save the lives of myself and men,” a smart decision at the time.

The 4th Maine arrived on the Virginia Peninsula in March 1862. Promoted to brigadier general, Berry departed the regiment on March 25; the newly promoted Col. Walker took over that same day.

In mid-to late April 1862, Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon arrived on the Virginia Peninsula to meet with Maine soldiers. He was an extremely capable administrator who managed Maine's war effort from 1861 to 1866. (Maine State Archives)

In mid-to late April 1862, Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon arrived on the Virginia Peninsula to meet with Maine soldiers. He was an extremely capable administrator who managed Maine’s war effort from 1861 to 1866. (Maine State Archives)

The 4th Maine belonged to a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. David Birney. One day an alarum and excursion led to Walker warning Birney that the brigade’s picket line had been possibly attacked.

“The general was lying on his couch and, without rising, accused me of being frightened by some cowardly soldiers,” Walker said. “I replied to his sarcasm, that when I became frightened he would not be there to see me.”

The division commander suddenly sent orders to Birney to turn out his brigade. “That brought the general to his feet,” Walker muttered.

Afterwards he noted, “Gen. Birney was brave as a lion, when in a safe place, but in danger he wilted.”

Sometime in late April, Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon arrived on the Peninsula. He was a highly capable administrator — and a militia veteran of the 1839 “Bloodless” Aroostook War.

Informed that John Hodsdon was in Virginia, Brig. Gen. Hiram Berry of Rockland invited Hodsdon and Col. Elijah Walker to join him for dinner late one afternoon. (Maine State Archives)

Informed that John Hodsdon was in Virginia, Brig. Gen. Hiram Berry of Rockland invited Hodsdon and Col. Elijah Walker to join him for dinner late one afternoon. (Maine State Archives)

Berry invited Hodsdon and Walker to dinner late one afternoon; Hodgdon “assented, with many thanks for the courtesy he was to receive,” Walker said. “Berry had planned to escort his visitor from the Pine-tree state to the camps of the several Maine regiments …”

Enjoying a decent meal (no one complained about it in writing), the three men let their congenial conversation turn to “the sights that were to be seen and the Maine soldiers they were to meet,” said Walker.

Suddenly a distant (and terribly big) Confederate cannon fired.His ears attuned to the particular racket made by the incoming “one-hundred pound shell,” Walker did not flinch when it “came crashing through the branches of the trees and exploded within seventy-five feet of where we were sitting.”

Berry and Walker shrugged off the thunderclap. John Hodsdon “turned pale, became nervous and looking at the general and myself inquired what it meant,” Walker said afterwards with perhaps a dash of Schadenfreude.

“Oh, that is but a common occurrence,” Berry replied.

As Berry, Hodsdon, and Walker ate and talked, a large enemy cannon fired a 100-pound shell that exploded about 75 feet away. His reaction to what happened next might have cost Walker any chance for promotion to brigadier general. (Brian Swartz Photo)

As Berry, Hodsdon, and Walker ate and talked, a large enemy cannon fired a 100-pound shell that exploded about 75 feet away. His reaction to what happened next might have cost Walker any chance for promotion to brigadier general. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Perhaps such shelling was “common” to the frontline troops, but a civilian like Hodsdon was not a combat soldier. A shell exploding 75 feet away could spew metal shards quite a distance; Hodsdon’s concern was understandable.

And Walker failed to mention the early April death of Thomas Snowdeal, a soldier from Co. B of the 4th Maine killed when another 100-pound shell shattered a nearby fence rail and a piece struck him in the back.

Recovering his senses, Hodsdon decided that “his business at home was of so much importance that he must leave for Fortress Monroe, in order to take the boat for Washington that evening,” Walker said. The embarrassed Berry could not convince his alarmed guest to complete his tour of the Maine regiments.

“I never heard that he (Hodsdon) made the army a visit again,” Walker acerbically commented on paper some years after the war.

Did Walker speak his mind after Hodsdon’s departure? Did the caustic colonel injudiciously share his thoughts in a letter to a friend or relative?

Did such criticism reach Hodsdon’s ears?

We do not know. Given his inclination to criticize some superior officers (which Hodsdon was), we should not be surprised if Walker poked fun at the cannon-spooked Hodsdon on paper.

Many months later, Walker wondered why he was passed over for promotion to brigadier general.

The hard-fighting colonel possibly had nothing else to blame except for his propensity to caustically critique certain superiors.

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.