He had survived the slaughter at Fredericksburg, the “Mud March,” and a winter so cold and deadly that at least one historian would describe it as the equivalent of Valley Forge for the miserably sullen Army of the Potomac.
So why did he stay with the standards?
Other Union soldiers had deserted during winter 1862-1863, but Henry C. Thomas of the 3rd Maine Infantry had not, despite the hell of poorly sited camps and the diseases sweeping men away left and right. Thomas could have run —
— and he explained why he chose not to while writing his “dear sister” from the 3rd Maine’s camp at Belle Plain in Virginia on Tuesday, March 10, 1863.
“I wish I could step in[to the house] this morning and take a look at you, but I cannot, and it is no use to wish,” Thomas shared his deep desire with his sister, with whom he was obviously close.
“I have a duty here to perform, and one that I am willing to perform, and sacrifice my life, if need be,” he wrote.
“I love the many friends I have left at home, and the pleasant scenes I have witnessed there, are dear to me,” Thomas admitted.
“But my country calls upon my affections more strongly still,” he explained.
The Union veterans in the regimental camps near Fredericksburg on March 10, 1863 represented an intangibility not readily evident in the Army of the Potomac three months earlier. Ambrose Burnside had hurled his divisions at dug-in Confederates on December 13; the incompetent Burnside, perhaps an amiable individual but a butcher of men nonetheless, had lost 12,500 men at Fredericksburg.
Afterwards his men suffered from scurvy, borderline starvation, and diseases galore while huddling in wretched camps across the Rappahannock River in Stafford County. Wounded men died, sick men died, and Burnside maneuvered his damaged army westward in the weather-caused epic known as the “Mud March” in January.
By the time Thomas and tens of thousands of other veterans slogged back to their camps through the late January 1863 rains and mud, the Army of the Potomac almost fell apart. Soldiers deserted in hordes; not even the tightest picket lines could catch every fed-up Union boy determined to go home for good.
But other men like Henry C. Thomas stayed. No matter the misery inflicted on them by the weather and their generals, men stayed with the standards.
These precious veterans had decided to stay the course. They endured, they survived winter 1862-1863 because, as Thomas explained, “I think that one should love his country the best of all.”
These men represented a hardening determination across the Army of the Potomac to see the war through to its conclusion, whatever that might be.
These men would stay the course.
“I do feel that I owe my whole service to my country’s cause; and I would not, to-day, take my discharge upon any consideration,” Thomas explained his reason for not voting with his feet and fleeing to Maine.
“On the contrary, if, after serving my three years, my services are still needed, I shall lend them willingly, if permitted,” he wrote, “and I do not ask any higher position than an honorable private.”
For Thomas, honor played a critical role in his decision to remain in uniform. “I think … the person that will not come forward and help sustain his government and vindicate its honor at this time, is not worthy to be called an American.”
Having “never made mention of my feelings in full, as relate to my present situation,” Thomas thought “I have always shown, I think, in my communications, that I was a true patriot.”
And there were other blue-clad patriots — tens of thousands of them — in the Virginia camps that March 10, 1863. Their gutsy determination to see the war to its conclusion would lead to the Army of the Potomac rounding up Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia 25 months later.
Other factors would affect that outcome, too, but the veterans like Henry C. Thomas set the Army of the Potomac on the road to Appomattox Courthouse in winter 1862-1863.
Source: “A Patriotic Soldier’s Letter,” Maine Farmer, Thursday, March 26, 1863
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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.