Emancipation: An opportunity for promotion

Led by the sergeant holding a sword (left), soldiers of Co. E, 4th United States Colored Troops stand in formation outside a wood-framed building. Accelerated by the Emancipation Proclamation, the creation of black regiments saw many white soldiers seek commissions in those regiments, which had no black officers. (Library of Congress)

The Emancipation Proclamation turned on the manpower spigot for the new black regiments forming at various locations in the United States. Since only whites could serve as officers in those regiments, many white soldiers sought higher status and pay by lobbying for commissions in the new units.

Even discharged soldiers got in on the act.

The original first sergeant of Co. E.,11th Maine Infantry Regiment, Lawson G. Ireland of Newport had displayed sufficient talent to earn a March 24, 1862 promotion to second lieutenant in the same company.

Ambushed by a disease-carrying bug on the Peninsula, Ireland fell ill, missed the 11th Maine’s epic tripartite fight at Seven Pines on May 31, survived the retreat to Harrison’s Landing, and resigned his commission on July 22.

Six months later, he sought reinstatement, but not with the 11th Maine or any other white regiment. Ireland was a Co. E second lieutenant “when I was in command of said Regt.,” wrote Brig. Gen. John Curtis Caldwell from his 1st Brigade headquarters at Falmouth, Virginia on February 23, 1863.

An East Machias resident before assuming command of the original 11th Maine in November 1861, Caldwell told Maine Governor Abner Coburn that Ireland “was always prompt & faithful in the performance of his duties.

John C. Caldwell of East Machias was the first colonel of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment. During winter 1863 he wrote at least several letters to Gov. Abner Coburn recommending specific 11th Maine soldiers for commissions in the new black regiments. (Library of Congress)

“I take great pleasure in recommending him for the position of captain” in a black regiment “to be raised by the Government,” Caldwell said.

He evidently steered his letter to Bangor, where F.M. Sabine added a curious postscript on March 12. Stating that he had known Ireland for 10-12 years, Sabine described the former lieutenant as “a capable and patriotic man.

“I would earnestly recommend him for the position he desires,” Sabine concluded.

That same day, Caldwell wrote Coburn to recommend Alphonso Patten, a company first sergeant in the 11th Maine, as “abundantly qualified for” a captaincy in a black regiment.

The letter went to a Bangor address. Taking his cue and writing in a flowing cursive on March 3, Patten asked Coburn for “a commission either” as captain or lieutenant “in some one of the colored Regts.”

Discharged for “disability” on the Peninsula in May 1862, Patten explained to Coburn that “I was very sick but have recovered so as to be perfectly able to take the field.

Willis P. Spofford of Dedham and the 11th Maine Infantry lobbied for command of a new black regiment in 1863. Denied that promotion, Spofford was mortally wounded in 1864. (Courtesy of Betsy Coe)

“Being well acquainted with the Infantry drill, as well as the Bayonet exercise” and experienced as an orderly sergeant, “I should like to have you consider me in some of the future appointments,” he wrote.

“Enclosed you find a letter from Gen’l Caldwell, formaly (sic) Col’ of the 11th,” Patten played his ace card for the governor.

Maj. William P. Spofford of the 11th Maine Infantry and Dedham aimed higher than Ireland and Patten. A Seven Pines survivor and a capable officer, Spofford shared his dream with his friend, Dr. Nathan Blunt, while both were stationed with the 11th Maine Infantry on St. Helena Island, a South Carolina sea island.

“I learned that … Spofford is desirous of getting the command of a Regt. Of ‘blacks,’” Blunt told Coburn on February 24. In Blunt’s opinion, “after an acquaintance in camp and field, of several months, he is well qualified for the position which he seeks, both as a man and as an officer. I am sure he will be found honest, efficient, and faithful in any capacity connected with a Regiment, new or old.”

Denied a colonel’s commission in a black regiment, Spofford became lieutenant colonel of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment in November 1863. His dream of a colonelcy never materialized; Spofford was mortally wounded at Bermuda Hundred in Virginia on June 2, 1864.

Sources: John C. Caldwell to Abner Coburn, February 23, 1863, Maine State Archives; Caldwell to Coburn (separate letter), February 23, 1863, MSA; Alphonso Patten to Abner Coburn, March 3, 1863, MSA; N.F. Blunt to Abner Coburn, February 24, 1863, MSA

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.