Thirteen days before his inauguration as Maine’s 29th governor, Israel Washburn Jr. got an inkling of what might happen after he took office: South Carolina bolted the Union, and a low-level national buzz about war suddenly turned serious.
And exactly 100 days after Washburn was sworn in at the State House in Augusta, war talk turned into reality when the first Confederate shell exploded over Fort Sumter.
For the next two years, Washburn served as Maine’s first wartime governor. The work, the stress, the noise, and the politicking proved almost overwhelming, but assisted by reliable Cabinet-level administrators appointed by Maine’s Republican-controlled legislature, he capably performed his duties.
Washburn did not seek re-election in autumn 1862. Maine voters elected Republican Abner Coburn as governor; he took office on January 7, 1863.
Two nights earlier, the friends, relatives, and supporters of the 49½-year-old Washburn gathered in the Executive Council Chamber at the State House to honor him. Walking through the State House, the bespectacled and diminutive Washburn approached the chamber’s rosewood doors.
He came to make “the farewell of the Chief Magistrate to his associates in office, and the several assistants which, during his official term, he has called around him,” a newspaperman pseudonymed “Crayon” observed. At this particular time, Crayon covered the State House for the Bangor-based Daily Whig & Courier and perhaps other newspapers.
“The Council Chamber we approach with awe—and well we may—it is the brain of the State,” the attentive Crayon commented. “Its legitimate occupants are men of parts, they are selected for their wondrous wisdom.”
Because of his relationship with the Washburn-supportive Daily Whig & Courier, Crayon passed through the opened rosewood doors unchallenged; his face was familiar to the governor, the adjutant general, and other State House occupants.
Entering the Executive Council Chamber, Crayon noticed how the “hats [came off] and [people took] steps slowly and softly when you intrude your unworthy presence within its consecrated area.
“This chamber is a marvel” that “we cannot comprehend … all at once,” he said.
The people awaiting Washburn had dressed to the nines in the nattiest fashions acceptable in mid-19th century Maine. Crayon noticed “the costumes and refreshments of the occasion.” Fires glowed in the fireplaces, and the overall mood proved subdued as Washburn circulated in the crowd, shook hands, and spoke quietly.
Flamboyance was never his strong suit.
“Washburn bade an affectionate farewell to the gentlemen of the [Executive] Council, of the several executive departments, and to those who had been associated with him in the discharge of civil and military duties during the past year,” Crayon noted.
“He paid a glowing tribute to the efficiency and arduous services of these gentlemen … and remarked that whatever of success had attended his administration, was due to his able and devoted associates, especially … the Adjutant General, the Acting Quartermaster General … and others,” Crayon summarized Washburn’s speech.
John L. Hodsdon, the talented adjutant general, responded that “the great injustice which His Excellency had done himself in his tribute to others, whose labors, however earnest or devoted, had not equaled those of … Washburn.”
Other men spoke. An awkward silence settled over the room, and people soon drifted to “an adjoining room” to enjoy “a choice selection of refreshments,” wrote Crayon, not hesitant to sample the free fare.
Israel Washburn Jr. passed into Maine history on January 7, 1863. Like most other 19th-century governors, he remains almost unknown in his home state.
For 24 tumultuous months in the early 1860s, everybody in Maine knew who Washburn was and what his job entailed: guiding Maine through a vicious war.
Source: Daily Whig & Courier, Wednesday, January 7, 1863. The year was cited as “1862” on page 2, but this was a printer’s error.
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.