Black or white or both, he made a good Maine soldier, Part I

Franklin S. Nickerson knew a darn good soldier when he saw one, whether he was black or white or both.

Four Maine infantry regiments — the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th — and the 1st Maine Battery went to New Orleans, Louisiana with Ben Butler in spring 1862. The Maine boys loved the fresh fruit and exotic sights (and activities) available in the Big Easy …

While commanding the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment in New Orleans in 1862, Col. Frank S. Nickerson of Searsport was handed a very delicate problem: According to a slave owner’s paperwork, a white Louisiana recruit was actually a black slave! (Maine State Archives)

… and Louisiana mosquitoes loved sucking on Maine blood. Bug- and water-borne diseases felled many Maine lads in Louisiana through 1862. With recruiting efforts at home focused on raising more infantry regiments rather than replenishing those already afield, few native Mainers reinforced those regiments in Louisiana.

So where could Colonel Frank Nickerson find replacements to replenish his 14th Maine Infantry? By recruiting white men in Union-held sections of the Pelican State.

So the 14th Maine hung out a shingle in New Orleans and accepted self-proclaimed white Unionists who could pass a physical.

Nickerson epitomizes the talented Mainer “amateurs” who made good officers during the war. Born circa 1828 in Swanville to Seth and Polly (Haynes) Nickerson, he studied law and passed the Maine bar. He married Augusta Ann Pitcher on December 30, 1849.

The Searsport census as recorded by Assistant Marshall Henry D. Smith on August 9, 1850 found Nickerson and his bride living in the house owned by butcher Joshua Black and his wife, Eleanor. Officially a “lawyer,” Nickerson was 22. Augusta was 16.

Ten years later, “Attorney at Law” Frank Nickerson had accumulated real estate worth $3,500 and personal property worth $5,000, according to the Searsport census enumerated by an unidentified assistant marshal on July 2, 1860. Nickerson, 32, and Augusta, 26, lived in their own home with 19-year-old Rachael Patterson, most likely a domestic servant.

Commissioned a 4th Maine Infantry officer in spring 1861, Nickerson was named the colonel of the 14th Maine Infantry that fall by Governor Israel Washburn Jr. The regiment moved into New Orleans after its capture by the Navy in spring 1862.

The capture of New Orleans in spring 1862 brought countless white Union soldiers into contact with the vagaries of Southern slavery. (Harper’s Weekly)

Within weeks, up went the recruiting shingle, and in walked the potential recruits. Sometime in mid-June, “Calvin McRae was enlisted in Co. C, in the usual manner, by the recruiting officer of that Company,” Nickerson informed Maine State Senator B.M. Roberts on February 21, 1863.

By then Nickerson was a brigadier general commanding the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, XIX Corps.

The 14th Maine recruited many white men in New Orleans. Capt. George Scott of Co. C picked up at least 44 southern Unionists, including the 24-year-old Calvin “McRea,” who mustered on June 12 with a few other recruits. The fact that some Big Easy boys soon deserted does not reflect on McRae (Nickerson’s spelling), who stayed with the colors.

Then New Orleans businessman B. Bronson discovered that “my slave, Calvin, a light mulatto” had “absconded” on June 16. Bronson was angry, to say the least.

Frank Nickerson would soon meet Calvin.

Next week: An escaped slave proves his worth as a soldier

Sources:
1850 U.S. Census; 1860 U.S. Census; Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1863; Employment of Colored Men, Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, December 15, 1862; and Kennebec Journal, Friday, May 29, 1863

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.