Our heroes cry out, “Do you know who I am?” — and but for a bit of bronze or lead or a pencil-scrawled name on a slip of paper, we might.
Twice during the Civil War did Union infantrymen charged Marye’s Heights on the western edge of Fredericksburg. Only once did the Yankees (including the 6th Maine Infantry) successfully carry the heights.
Union troops suffered horrific casualties in the Dec. 13, 1862 assault, fewer losses in the wild melee that took the 6th Maine boys and their friends from the 5th Wisconsin over the Stone Wall and up the heights on May 3, 1863.
The war ended two years later, and civilian life returned to Fredericksburg. But 15,243 Union lads never left; slain by battle, disease, or accident from 1862 to at least mid-1864, they lie forever atop Marye’s Heights in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
The grave diggers hired to re-inter Union soldiers at the cemetery after the war could only identify 2,473 men. The other 12,770 headstones are inscribed “UNKNOWN.”
Here and at other national cemeteries adjacent to Civil War battlefields, tens upon thousands more unidentified heroes lie in similarly marked graves. The bodies bore no identifying marks or material when transferred from battlefield graves to the new national cemeteries after the war.
But for a bit of bronze or lead or a pencil-scrawled name on a slip of paper, we might know them.
The War Department issued no “dog tags” back then, so a soldier wanting to ensure his pre-burial identify before a battle relied on his own devices.
Perhaps, as survivors noticed before the suicidal Union charges at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, men wrote their names on paper slips then pinned to the soldiers’ uniforms or thrust into buttoned pockets. Perhaps a soldier etched his name with a bayonet or a pen knife on the inside of his belt buckle.
Some soldiers acquired their own dog tags at their own expense (the term “dog tags” was not known then). Over the years, Paul Zebiak, the owner of Maritime International at 93 Central Street in Bangor (http://www.mainecollectibles.com/) has acquired different metallic ID discs of Civil War soldiers.
While Paul has some belonging to Maine soldiers, soldiers from New Hampshire proportionally bought a lot more similar dog tags. “The sutlers cornered the market” with Granite State boys, Paul says.
Let’s look at a few examples of Maine-based dog tags in Paul’s possession.
Folsom Dutton, a black-eyed and dark-complexioned 19-year-old from Stillwater, enlisted in Co. H of the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment on August 21, 1861. A 5-11 farmer with dark hair, he may have had black Irish ancestry — or perhaps even American Indian.
Dutton served with the 7th Maine ’61 and ’62, with the latter year seeing the regiment fighting on the Peninsula and taking an absolute drubbing at Antietam. According to his microfilm Soldier’s File at the Maine State Archives in Augusta, Folsom transferred to Co. C somewhere along the way.
Before doing so, however, he visited a sutler and purchased an identity disc, similar in function to 20th-century soldiers’ dog tags. The sutler used a special machine to stamp Folsom’s first initial and last name on a bronze disc about the size of a modern quarter. Beneath the name the sutler added “CO. H[,] 7th REG.[,] ME. VOL.[,] STILLWATER.”
“The reverse of Dutton’s dog tag features an eagle in the center, with the inscription ‘War of 1861’ above the eagle and ‘United States’ appearing below,” Paul says.
J. (John) Parmeter of Albion purchased a similar identity disc stamped with his first initial and surname and “CO. F[,] 7th REG.[,] ME. VOL.[,] ALBION.” The back of this disc bore an American eagle and the phrases “WAR OF 1812” AND “UNITED STATES.”
Punched in each disc was a hole through which Folsom or Parmeter could thread a string so the soldier could wear the disc around his neck.
According to Zebiak, these types of discs were “basically made of brass or tombac,” a brass alloy “that was a durable metal that didn’t corrode in the field.”
Eli Bickmore of Co. I, 20th Maine Infantry, wore a metal pin shaped like the Maltese-cross badge of V Corps, to which the regiment was attached. After closely examining the small ID pin, Paul says that it was likely cut from an 1831 American half dollar.
On the back side, Bickmore attached a pin common to wartime usage, Paul notes. Inscribed on the pin’s front are Bickmore’s initials, state, regiment, and company.
Paul does not know how the ID discs of Bickmore, Dutton, and Parmeter survived the war. Dutton went missing from the 7th Maine at Gettysburg on July 7, 1863. His designation was later changed to “deserted,” and Paul wonders if Folsom lies among the Maine “unknowns” buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Perhaps one of these three ID discs was a duplicate. “The guys would make one and send it home to the folks as a souvenir,” then make similar discs for themselves, Paul says.
Ironically for one Maine soldier, “a message in a bottle” sufficed to ID him.
Writing at his excellent Civil War website (https://john-banks.blogspot.com), historian John Banks tells the story of William C. Stickney of Springfield and Co. C, 7th Maine. Shot in his left shoulder during the Battle of Antietam, Stickney died of his wound in an Army hospital on September 26, 1862 and went into a Maryland grave.
Exhumed after the war, Stickney was identified because “a bottle was found (buried with him) containing a small piece of paper” that bore Stickney’s name, regiment, hometown, and time and date of death, Banks writes.
“Whoever performed the noble act of identifying his body with the message in a bottle is lost to history,” he notes.
Relocated to the Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Md., Stickney received an official headstone bearing his name and unit.
Except for that message in the bottle, Stickney would lie among the “Unknowns.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.