The “Coward of the County” redeems his honor

Perhaps his shame led William R. Bubar of Eaton Grant (merged with an adjacent township to form Lyndon in 1859) to assume a nom de guerre when he finally joined the war effort.

At the request of my sweet wife, we attended the Kenny Rogers concert last December in Bangor.

Rogers sang many of his hits, including “Coward of the County,” released on his “I Want To Make You Smile” album in November 1979. I have always enjoyed this song for the payback that Tommy delivered to the three Gatlin-brother thugs who assaulted his wife, Becky.

Tommy was considered the “Coward of the County” because he did not fight back for 20 years. William R. Bubar was considered the “Coward of the County” because he ran away when his country needed him.

But like the fictional Tommy of Rogers’ hit, Maine’s “Coward of the County” redeemed his honor — but on the battlefield, not in a barroom brawl.

By early summer 1863, heavy Union casualties were thinning the Federal armies, and the Lincoln Administration imposed a highly unpopular draft to replenish the ranks. When tapped for the draft, William R. Bubar of Eaton Grant in Aroostook County fled to Canada. But this "Coward of the County" came back to fight for his country. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

By early summer 1863, heavy Union casualties were thinning the Federal armies, and the Lincoln Administration imposed a highly unpopular draft to replenish the ranks. When tapped for the draft, William R. Bubar of Eaton Grant in Aroostook County fled to Canada. But this “Coward of the County” came back to fight for his country. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Held in July 1863, the first Maine draft tapped Bubar to be a soldier. That same draft also caught up a lot of other men; individually their reactions ranged from accepting fate to mouthing the Civil War equivalent of the Vietnam draft dodger’s “hell, no, I won’t go.”

William Bubar did not appreciate being drafted. He called in “sick” on the day he was scheduled to appear for induction. An unidentified friend sent warning that state authorities wanted him for draft evasion; Bubar simply traveled east a few miles, stepped across the international border separating Maine and New Hampshire, and passed beyond the legal reach of Augusta.

He had “skedaddled,” a period term describing what happened when men and women ran away from tough situations. When ordered to abandon her wounded patients at Savage Station in Virginia in late June 1862, Maine nurse Sarah Sampson participated in the “Great Skedaddle,” but under protest. That term was applied to the decision by George McClellan to run away from a much larger Confederate army led by Robert E. Lee.

The perception of overwhelming Confederate numbers existed only in the mind of McClellan. He ordered the “Great Skedaddle” that saw 2,500 wounded Union soldiers left behind at the large field hospital at Savage Station. Then, as his army withdrew to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, McClellan rode ahead to seek safety under the large cannons of Navy gunboats.

He effectively “skedaddled.”

So did William Bubar, albeit 13 months later, but McClellan was a national hero; Bubar was not.

Many drafted men skedaddled to New Brunswick; the numbers likely exceeded the traffic going the other way as Canadians and Royal Army deserters traveled to Maine to enlist in the Union army.

Like other married draft evaders, Bubar left his wife, Hannah Hunter Bubar, to fend for herself on the family farm. If he had gone into the Army, the federal government would pay him $13 a month as a buck private.

Bubar could then have sent a sum of money home to Hannah each time he was paid (pay days could fall months apart, unfortunately). At least she would have received something.

Not so if he stayed “skedaddled.”

For whatever reason, Bubar returned home, worked the farm over winter 1864, then traveled south in that summer to enlist in the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment at Belfast on Aug. 30.

Likely fearing arrest as a draft dodger, Bubar signed up as “John Riley.” He joined Co. B of the 20th Maine at Camp Berry in Portland. The camp was named for Maj. Gen. Hiram G. Berry, the Rockland merchant-warrior killed at Chancellorsville in early May 1863.

Capt. Walter G. Morrill of Little Round Top fame commanded Co. B. During the nighttime battle at Rappahannock Station, Va. in early November 1863, the 20th Maine advanced on the left flank of the 6th Maine, one of the regiments assigned to attack Confederates entrenched on the north bank of the Rappahannock River.

When the 6th Maine boys “went in,” Morrill opted to go with him. So did about 50 men from Co. B, possibly including “John Riley.”

The 20th Maine fought on other Virginia battlefields before helping stop Confederate infantry at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Wherever Co. B went, so did Riley/Bubar.

When the War Department dissolved the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment on July 16, 1865, “John Riley” received an honorable discharge. He returned home to Lyndon (later Caribou) as William Bubar —

— or as some local wags dubbed him, “Riley Bill” Bubar.

The skedaddler had redeemed himself with his blood, sweat, and life.

Source: “They Went From Caribou: From the Civil War Papers of George Whitneck,” Caribou Historical Society

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing 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.