Food: Maine soldiers accustomed to the bountiful harvests and diverse crops of the Pine Tree State dreamed about food, salivated about food, and stole it when- and wherever they could while escaping the Peninsula of Virginia.
When all the army could serve up was rancid pork and weevil-ridden hard tack, even a green ear of corn looked good, as the 11th Maine lads of Col. Harris Plaisted would soon discover.
When Abraham Lincoln and Henry Halleck pulled the plug on George McClellan’s latest scheme on Monday, Aug. 4, 1862, the already suffering Army of the Potomac soldiers paid the price for official incompetence … just as happens in every American war.
After withdrawing his army to Harrison’s Landing on the James River during the Seven Days Battles, McClellan ultimately seized some acreage on the right bank of the river. With “a debouch on both banks … we are free to act in any direction” against Richmond and the army of Robert E. Lee, McClellan told Halleck that Monday.*
Halleck was the grand poobah overseeing all Union armies. A competent administrator at his desk, but an inept field general who could not defeat a tantrum-tossing child in battle, Halleck did not like Little Mac (and vice versa).
Now McClellan wanted to cross the James River and capture the railroads between Petersburg and Richmond. He even initiated a Joe Hooker-led effort to recapture Malvern Hill, with the idea of marching again on the Confederate capital. Having fortified pestilential terrain along the James River, McClellan believed that “here is the true defense of Washington.”
Lincoln and Halleck disagreed. Responding to Little Mac on Monday, Halleck told him “to remove the force on the Peninsula to some point by water.”
Cancelling Hooker’s Malvern Hill attack, McClellan ordered his troops to pack up and march south and east toward Yorktown and Fort Monroe. Belonging to the 1st Brigade of Brig. Gen. Henry Naglee, the 11th Maine boys received orders on Monday, Aug. 10 to pack their knapsacks for shipment via steamship to a destination unknown.
Taken sick at Harrison’s Landing, Naglee had temporarily turned over the brigade’s command to Brig. Gen. William H. Emory. At least tolerated by his men, Naglee would rejoin them in late September.
The 11th Maine’s commander, Col. Harris Plaisted, evidently left the regiment and returned to Maine for a while. Cherryfield native Maj. Robert Campbell commanded the 11th Maine for at least a while at Harrison’s Landing; he may have taken the regiment on its hot march from the landing to Yorktown in August.
The weather was “very hot” and “hot,” wrote 11th Maine and Co. D chronicler Albert Maxfield. Men died from sunstroke and disease, and “the flies are so thick that the boys shoot them with cartridges” commented Elias P. Morton.
The 11th Maine lads marched out of Harrison’s Landing at 3 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 16. Ordered “not to leave the ranks for water even,” the Maine boys “took the liberty to forage, and are feasting on green corn and apples,” Maxfield told his diary that night.
“I was so lucky as to get my haversack half full of tomatoes,” he grinned on paper.
The 11th Maine boys marched some 35 miles on Monday, Aug. 17 on a road that “was good, but exceedingly dusty,” Maxfield commented. “For much of the way we could not see over two rods (35 feet) in front of us,” the dust kicked up by tramping feet was so thick.
Onward marched the 11th Maine, passing through Williamsburg between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 18. The men had been told “not to fall out until dead,” grunted Morton.
After the regiment bivouacked, soldiers slipped away to steal “green corn, apples, etc.,” he said, not bothering to identify “etcetera.” Some Maine soldiers struck porcine gold when they cornered a pig in a farmer’s pigpen. The vandals in Union blue “took his corned beef and chickens, and set his cider mill to making cider of his apples,” Morton observed.
On Thursday, Aug. 20, the 11th Maine paused briefly near Surrender Field outside Yorktown, “the spot where [British general] Cornwallis gave up his sword” after surrendering on Oct. 19, 1781, Maxfield noted. The regiment pushed on to bivouac near Shipping Point.
The 11th Maine boys ate breakfast around dawn on Friday, Aug. 21. One soldier said that “mine consisted of strong coffee made in a tin cup, a slice of bacon frizzled on a sharp stick, two apples, an ear of roasted corn, and two cakes of hard bread.”
Naglee’s brigade settled into long-term duty near Yorktown. Issued shovels and other tools, the 11th Maine lads worked seven days a week leveling fortifications left over from the battles fought around Williamsburg in May 1862 and building additional fortifications at Yorktown and across the York River at Gloucester Point.
Reinforcements arrived for the 11th Maine, and the newcomers and veterans alike discovered treats not found in Maine: oysters and blue crabs. Men scoured the York River shore for oysters, remembered by Robert Brady Jr. as “large, fat, quivering … luscious bivalves.”
Wading knee-deep into the York River, Maine men thrust long sticks into the sea bottom. When “a captious crustacean took a rarely yielded grip … the lucky fisherman would scamper for the shore with his prize,” Brady said, probably from personal experience.
Occasionally a Maine soldier stepped onto a crab while wading along the shore. “Then the scampering to shore was a noisy one,” with the crab’s captor hollering in pain — yet pleased he had caught dinner, according to Brady.
Now freed from slavery by the presence of so many Union troops, blacks often brought to the Union camps fresh produce for sale: “green corn, apples, melons, and other fruit and vegetables,” Brady noted.
By late August, Elias Morton was “living on the fat of the land — peaches, melons, crabs, and oysters.” On Sunday, Aug. 30, his comrades paid Confederate currency to a black farmer for “a lot of melons.”
So the 11th Maine lads enjoyed a better diet for a while. But they would be going to Beaufort, N.C. in late December on a sea voyage that would bring more adventure than the land-lubbing Mainers could imagine.
* The terms “right bank” and “left bank” were often used during the Civil War to describe the appropriate shore of a river when a soldier looked downstream. The James River meandered south and east while flowing from Richmond to Hampton Roads; “right bank” referred to that shore of the river when looking downriver from Richmond. Hence Harrison’s Landing was on the “left bank.”
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.