With a nod to Merriam-Webster:
1. A person who steals something.
2. Hungry Maine soldiers willing to steal food from anybody at any time.
Just as empty-bellied as his 2nd Division soldiers trudging south toward Malvern Hill in the wee hours of Tuesday, July 1, 1862, Brig. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith spread his three brigades into line around sunrise to await an anticipated Confederate attack. A native Vermonter and the No. 4 top graduate of the West Point class of ’45, Smith had led the division during the disastrous Peninsula Campaign.
Last Friday, the 2nd Division had held positions along the south bank of the Chickahominy River; men climbing into the taller trees could see the Richmond church spires. Now, thanks to the feckless George Brinton McClellan, the Army of the Potomac was retreating ignominiously toward Harrison’s Landing on the James River.
Smith and his men had guarded the Federal rear on Monday, June 30. Taking advantage of the quiet morning — survivors remembered the beautifully blue, cloudless sky — Smith commandeered a nearby farm house as his division headquarters.
Then Smith took a bath inside his temporary HQ. Did he wash his hair? We don‘t know. Smith had gone to war beneath a full head of combed-over hair; army buddies had nicknamed him “Baldy” years earlier.
While Smith soaked his dusty body in the bath, an artilleryman reporting to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson sighted his cannon and fired a shell through the farm house.
The shell killed the farmer, “and away went division headquarters,” noticed Maj. Thomas W. Hyde of the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 3rd Brigade of Smith’s division.
On Tuesday morning, Smith set up his division headquarters in a farm house near Malvern Hill, which rose abruptly from the River Road along the James and then flattened into a northward-rolling plateau. Finding “an ancient colored woman” who could cook, Smith supplied her with provisions to prepare a delicious stew for him and his staff.
Stoking a fire in the kitchen — a separate building in typical Southern fashion — the former slave cooked the stew in “a huge pot,” noticed Hyde. Delicious aromas lured a 7th Maine officer identified by Hyde as “Captain C.” to the kitchen.
The extremely hungry Smith and his staff “were impatiently stalking up and down” inside the farm house while “eagerly waiting for their dinner,” said Hyde, who had recently served on the general’s staff.
“Is it most ready, Auntie?” Captain C. asked the cook.
“It’s a mos’ ready, honey,” she replied.
Grasping “a long iron spoon,” Captain C. dipped it into the pot and sampled the stew, which was just right, just like Goldilocks had figured out on her third porridge taste test.
Captain C. asked the cook how her family was doing. Perhaps flattered by the Mainer’s inquiry and perhaps confused by all the blue uniforms and blue rank insignias, the cook asked, “Be you the general?”
“Why, don’t you know me, Auntie?” replied Captain C., a man figuratively and literally quick on his feet. Apparently pronouncing the stew ready to eat; C. grabbed “the big kettle” by its handles and bolted out the kitchen door.
Moments later Hyde and his companion 7th Maine officers “saw him coming over the hill to us” as savory liquid slopped from the kettle’s brim and splattered C.’s pant legs.
“The soldier’s instinct told us it was refreshment for the inner man,” Hyde figured.
The hungry Pine Tree State thieves — Hyde called them “the officers of the 7th” — “bent the knee around the savory mess as if it had been an altar.
“Each putting his hand in the dish soon got his share of the bacon and the cabbage and the delicious Virginia beans,” Hyde described the thieves eating their purloined meal. The 7th Maine officers ate “till the ‘platter’ was as clean as that of Jack Sprat and his lamented spouse.”
After cleaning out the kettle, the thieves hid it in a nearby tree grove — and not a moment too soon.
Smith swiftly discovered that his dinner had taken flight. “Staff officer after staff officer dashed up with sharp inquiry,” Hyde said.
Suspicious officers studied the guiltless-eyed 7th Maine officers, who claimed to a full tummy that they did not know what Smith’s aides were talking about.
“They could not have found a more innocent looking or ignorant lot of people,” Hyde said.
The Grand Theft Stew had not gone unnoticed by the enlisted men of the 7th Maine. “Our brave men on the line of battle … were very considerate to us,” not even cracking a “smile till the staff were searching some other brigade and the danger was over,” Hyde acknowledged.
The blame was ultimately placed on “the Germans” of the 20th New York Infantry, he said. “I am sorry to admit we laid it upon the Germans, and their fondness for loot made it a credible tale.”
Not until “two years after” did Hyde have “the pleasure … of telling General Smith” the truth. The general “was able to laugh at it then, for it was an after-dinner story.”
About a year later, while serving as an aide during the Gettysburg campaign, the exhausted Hyde pulled his horse over to the roadside after a long ride that extended well into the night. Hyde curled up beside his horse and fell asleep.
He awoke to find that a thief in a passing infantry column had stolen his hat. Hyde was hopping mad.
Was the haberdashery thief a Maine boy? We don’t know, but Hyde never saw his hat again.
Source: Following the Greek Cross or Memories of the Sixth Army Corps, by Thomas W. Hyde.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.