Emancipation: Criticize Abe Lincoln at your own peril

A Phippsburg officer learned the hard way that shooting his mouth off about presidential policy (i.e., the Emancipation Proclamation) was a real bad idea.

William H. Wheeler, publisher of the Bangor-based Daily Whig & Courier, reported on January 2, 1863 that “there are now three regiments of colored troops and 150 [men in a] heavy artillery [battery] in the Department of Louisiana.”

How were the new black recruits doing?

Representing the United States, Columbia reads the Emancipation Proclamation held in her left hand to two former slaves kneeling beside her. A cannon partially visible behind him, the black man holds the staff mounting the American flag enveloping the black woman. (Library of Congress)

Quite well, according to a letter sent home by “one of their [white] officers” and published in the Albany Journal. Black soldiers showed amazing “progress … in drill and in all the duties of soldier.

“I find them better disposed to learn, and more orderly, both in their persons and quarters, than the whites,” the unidentified officer commented. “Their fighting qualities have not yet been tested on a large scale, but I am satisfied that, knowing as they do that they will receive no quarter at the hands of the rebels, they will fight to the death.”

The officer must be a Republican, Republican Journal publisher and anti-Lincolnite William Simpson would huff. However, the soldier admitted in his letter that “as an old democrat, I felt a little repugnance of having anything to do with negroes, but having got fairly over that, am in the work.

“They are just as good tools to crush rebellion with as any that can be got,” the New York officer stated.

He was at least willing to give black soldiers an opportunity to prove their mettle.

When news about the Emancipation Proclamation reached the 19th Maine Infantry’s camp amidst the 2nd Division of Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard in Virginia, 1st Lt. Joseph Nichols of Co. C and Phippsburg gave his resignation to Lt. Col. Francis E. Heath.

Nichols viewed Lincoln’s proclamation as “inexpedient and unconstitutional.”

As a serving officer, he was prohibited by Army regulations from criticizing government policy. Perhaps Nichols had blown off steam in front of his men about Lincoln and the proclamation or had criticized his superior officers.

Perhaps he was simply naïve. Joe Nichols “was a pleasant and lovable man and the officers and a great many of the men were fond of him,” noted 19th Maine Infantry biographer John Day Smith.

A Democrat, Nichols had left Phippsburg with his ears burning as “Democratic friends laughed at him for going into the army to ‘fight for'” blacks, Day noted. For some reason, Nichols wanted to make “himself right with his democratic associates at home,” after which he “would gladly and loyally serve his country in the field.”

Heath, whose brother William S. Heath had gone into an unmarked Virginia in late June, arrested Nichols for insubordination, scribbled “disapproved” on the resignation letter, and forwarded it to Col. Turner G. Morehead, temporarily commanding the 1st Brigade to which the 19th Maine was attached.

Agreeing with Heath, Morehead passed Nichols’ letter to Howard, not in a charitable mood after the losses his division had taken at Fredericksburg. Thinking for only a moment, Howard wrote for II Corps’ commander Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch a recommendation that Nichols, “for condemning the policy of the government, for which he had nothing to do, should have his uniform stripped off” and should “be placed outside the lines with a certificate of his dishonorable discharge in his pocket.”

Such an angry reaction was remarkable for Howard, a Leeds native who had quietly reasoned with 4th Maine Infantry mutineers in 1861. Wondering “whether Nichols could be tried on any charge except resigning in the face of the enemy,” Couch read all the paperwork before kicking the issue upstairs.

Combat artist Alfred Waud sketched the court martial of Union Gen. Fitz John Porter after the disaster at Second Bull Run. When 1st Lt. Joseph Nichols of the 19th Maine Infantry criticized Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863, senior Union officers swiftly charged him and hustled him before a court martial that as quickly found him guilty. The Army cashiered Nichols the day of his trial. (Library of Congress)

The buck stopped with the elderly Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, commander of the Right Grand Division. He ordered Nichols to stand trial before a court martial on charges of “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline” and “disloyalty to the government.”

The disastrous reaction to his proffered resignation stunned Nichols, immediately confined “in the guard house.” Sumner may have wished to set an example; Nichols attended his court martial on Monday, February 16, and the judges heard and considered the charges and found him guilty the same day.

Defended by Capt. William H. Fogler of Belfast, Joe Nichols never had a chance; the Army cashiered him before suppertime. Not believing his resignation would “be accepted, he expected a reprimand,” according to Day.

“He left the Regiment regretted by all who knew him,” Day stressed.#

As for the black soldiers joining the Army in Louisiana, “these black regiments are composed of smart men, and I believe just as good men to fight as we have,” John Dicker of Orono and the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment commented. “They learn quick, and take pride in doing their duty well.

“They are as brave as any white men,” he believed.

The particular “trouble” involving black soldiers was that “they will show the rebels no quarter if they get into their hands,” he observed. “They understand their position well, and know that, if they be taken, instant death will be their fate.”

The black soldiers had “taken up arms to free themselves, and it is freedom or death with them now,” Dicker noted. “Will not such men fight? We shall see.”

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Sources: A Maine Officer Disgracing Himself, Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, January 24, 1863; John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry 1862-1865

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.