New Year’s Day 1863 gets some attention in American history books because the Emancipation Proclamation took affect that Thursday.
But what happened six days later, on Wednesday, January 7? Not much on the national level, Civil War-wise, but a momentous event took place at the State House in Augusta.
Maine’s first wartime governor, the incredibly talented Israel Washburn Jr., left office, and Abner Coburn of Skowhegan replaced him. The requisite ceremonies inside the State House transferred the responsibilities of chief executive to Coburn, a wealthy land-and-lumber baron.
And looking back 154 years later, Mainers can be proud that the adult male Mainers participating in the 1860 election chose the right man at the right time for governor.
Just who was Israel Washburn Jr., the unsung hero who ran a tight ship of state in Maine during the first two years of a tumultuous war?
The oldest of the 10 children born to Israel and Martha Washburn, Israel Jr. was born in Livermore in June 1813. His parents raised seven sons and three daughters — all experienced decent longevity in an era where diseases swept away many youngsters — in a hardscrabble environment that led at least some sons to develop an astonishing work ethic.
Well educated, aspiring attorney Israel Washburn Jr. gained admission to the Maine Bar at age 21 in 1834. Opening a legal practice in Orono that December, he soon became well known in Penobscot County, then experiencing serious economic and population growth.
Washburn got a taste of state-level politics while representing Orono in the Maine House of Representatives for one term in the early 1840s. He ran for Congress in the 1850 election and won, taking his seat as the representative from Maine’s 6th Congressional District in March 1851.
Two years later, a committee shuffled Maine’s congressional districts; without moving from Orono, Washburn was re-elected, this time from Maine’s 5th Congressional District. He won three more times and served 10 years all told in Washington, D.C.
A founding member of the Republican Party at the national level, Washburn watched with interest as sibling and brother No. 3, Elihu Benjamin Washburne, traipsed west to pursue politics in Illinois. Elihu’s surname differed from his siblings’ because, at age 14, he had legally added an “e” in honor of paternal grandfather Captain Israel Washburne, a Continental Army veteran.
Out in Illinois, Elihu befriended an up and coming lawyer and politician named Abraham Lincoln. The rest is history, on the national level.
Back home in Maine, Israel Washburn Jr. decided to run for governor to replace the outgoing Lot M. Morrill, a former Democrat whose antislavery views had led him to join the Republican Party. In a game of Maine musical chairs, U.S. Senator Hannibal Hamlin (R-Maine) resigned from the Senate after his election to the vice presidency.
Washburn won the election to replace Morrill, who won the election to replace Hamlin as senator.
By the time the music stopped, Washburn sat in the governor’s chair. Inaugurated on January 2, 1861, he was just as stunned as every other Mainer when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter 100 days later.
In the space of a few days, Washburn vaulted from a peacetime to a wartime governor. Officially Maine’s commander in chief (and acknowledged as such by some astute officers in Maine units), he oversaw the greatest transition ever made by Maine: Less than 100 days after that first shell exploded at Sumter, Maine-raised regiments fought at Manassas in Virginia.
The regular Army was quite small when Sumter fell, and about half of the regular Army officers had literally gone South. Abraham Lincoln got a decent-sized army sent to Washington, D.C. only because the loyal governors like Washburn — aided by talented staffers — cobbled together sufficient regiments from militia companies and volunteers, clothed and equipped the soldiers (often at state expense), and hurried them off to the nation’s capital.
Israel Washburn Jr. worked almost around the clock to make Maine “work” during the next two years. One day he realized his endless duties had exacted a dreadful physical and emotional toll.
After serving two one-year terms, Washburn decided to step down.
His supporters did not let him leave the State House unheralded.
Next week: The right man at the right time for governor — Part II
The Crazy Politics of Firing a Maine Cannon
Join other Civil War buffs at the Isaac Farrar Mansion, 166 Union Street, Bangor at 6 p.m. Thursday, January 19 as I present the illustrated program The Crazy Politics of Firing a Maine Cannon. Part of the Bangor Historical Society’s Maine in the Civil War Lecture Series, this program will follow the adventures of Bethel attorney O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. (a Democrat) as he convinces Maine Governor Israel Washburn Jr. (a Republican) that he, Robinson, could be a darn good soldier.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.