About 1½ months after Confederate infantrymen almost did him in at Middleton in the Shenandoah Valley, Capt. Black Hawk Putnam found out what his friends and neighbors in Houlton thought about him.
Turned out to be quite a bit, about a hundred dollars’ worth.
Named after an American Indian chief, Black Hawk Putnam had raised a company of cavalrymen in late autumn 1861 by parking himself and his recruiting papers one day in the family’s store in Houlton. Word spread around the Shiretown; men flocked to the store, where Putnam thrust a recruiting form and a quill pen or a graphite pencil beneath each recruit’s face and told him to sign on the dotted line.
“Before nine o’clock [p.m.] he had his names of 50 picked young men, the flower of our place,” John Putnam wrote about his son’s recruiting efforts.
Soon named captain of Co. E, 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment, Black Hawk Putnam took his recruits off to war, albeit not arriving in Virginia until after surviving the frigid winter of 1861-62 at an Augusta camp.
On Saturday, May 24, Confederate infantry and artillery ambushed Union troops retreating down the Shenandoah Valley at Middleton, Va. Trapped between the stone walls bordering the Valley Pike (now Route 11), Maine and Vermont cavalrymen were sliced, diced, and composted by Confederates shooting from 20-30 feet away in places.
A bullet dropped the horse ridden by Black Hawk Putnam. Another bullet blew a hole in the toe of his left boot and wounded him. Down into the dust Putnam flew, but amidst the churning dust and whizzing lead and iron, he scrambled over the stone wall bordering the west side of the Valley Pike and limped off toward the nearby hills.
Falling in with other fleeing Union cavalrymen, Putnam traveled north by night and hid from prying Confederate eyes by day. Nine days later the refugees reached Union lines. Putnam briefly rejoined Co. E, then traveled home to recruit new cavalrymen that summer.
Originally hearing that Putnam was missing after Middleton, his friends and neighbors breathed easier knowing the young captain was safe. “Appreciating his bravery and good conduct on the field of battle,” they wanted to honor him.
Well, Black Hawk did lose his sword, a Houlton resident had learned.
“Let’s get him a new one!” was the general consensus.
So as Putnam prepared to return to Maine, the hats passed in Houlton soon contained “nearly one hundred dollars.” Probably wired to a sword smith located in central or southern Maine, the money purchased a “sword of the regular U.S. Cavalry service pattern, elegantly ornamented.”
The evidence that the sword was acquired elsewhere than Aroostook County or New Brunswick lies in what happened next. Because they sought to present the sword to Putnam “as an evidence of their high regard for him as a man and a soldier” as soon as possible, Houlton residents asked Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. to present the blade to Putnam when he traveled through Augusta.
The good captain evidently did not hear about the honor awaiting him.
On Friday, July 4, 1862, he received orders to report to the Governor’s Office in the State House, a smaller building then than now. Putnam had likely arrived in Augusta aboard a northbound train from Portland; he had traveled in the opposite direction upon leaving the capital for Virginia that spring.
Putnam rapped his knuckles on the door to the Governor’s Office and stepped inside. The physically small, bespectacled Washburn, whose bookish appearance concealed a patriot’s heart, explained why he had summoned Putnam.
“In behalf of the citizens of Houlton, with a few patriotic and stirring words,” Washburn “delivered the sword” to the stunned cavalryman.
Putnam turned over the gleaning scabbard, to which a gold plate was fastened. Inscribed on the plate were the words:
Capt. Black Hawk Putnam,
1st Maine Cavalry,
Citizens of Houlton,
In token of their respect for his gallantry and
good conduct in the war for the Union.
July 4, 1862.”
The impression remains that tears welled in the eyes of Putnam, “who received” the sword and scabbard “with deep emotion.”
Putnam was quoted as telling Washburn that he was “determined to do his whole body in the service of his country, and thus merit a continuance of the favor and friendly regard of his fellow citizens.”
Source: Daily Whig & Courier of Bangor, Tuesday, July 8, 1862.
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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.