Dead man walking gets promoted

In a colorful post-war Kurz & Allison lithograph, casualties are strewn across the ground as Confederate troops advance against retreating Union soldiers at Chancellorsville in early May 1863. The wounded Confederate officer on horseback could be Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. (Library of Congress)

With all the lead flying, a savage battle like Chancellorsville brought promotion for an aspiring young officer or NCO, especially if a bullet struck the right place … on someone else.

Absent when his 17th Maine Infantry Regiment fought with III Corps and Daniel Sickles in the fields and woods comprising the Chancellorsville battlefield, Col. Thomas Roberts sat down on Tuesday, May 12, 1863 and wrote Maine Gov. Abner Coburn about the “number of vacancies in the 17th which had ought to be filled.”

A capable colonel like Roberts could not summarily promote men, especially in a state-raised regiment like the 17th. Since Coburn was Maine’s military commander in chief, Roberts could only recommend specific soldiers — and after Chancellorsville “the men who I wish to propose to fill these places have been tried & have proved themselves worthy.”

Col. Thomas Roberts of the 17th Maine Infantry sent Maine Gov. Abner Coburn a long list of recommended promotions after the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Maine State Archives)

Roberts wasted no time or ink in recommending the men “ to your favorable consideration.” The fact that almost all of the ducks in Roberts’ row hailed from one particular place in Maine was probably not lost on the wily Abner Coburn.

First, there was the first lieutenant’s vacancy in Co. H, caused “by the death of Lieut. [Dudley H.] Johnson who was killed at Chancellorsville on Sunday (May 3) while doing his duty like a brave soldier as he was.”

From Presque Isle, Johnson was 32 and married when he had mustered with the 17th Maine on August 16, 1862. Perhaps Coburn would understand that an even greater vacancy now existed at the Johnson home in Presque Isle.

Roberts recommended that 2nd Lt. Edwin B. Houghton of Co. A and Portland replace Johnson. And “in case your Excellency promotes Lieut. Houghton … I would recommend Orderly Sergeant Granville F. Sparrow (of Portland) for 2nd Lieut. Co. A.”

The captaincy of Co. F was vacant, so Roberts recommended that 1st Lt. Joseph A. Perry (“now in command of the Co.”) fill the slot. A Portland resident, he had initially served as second lieutenant of Co. C.

The only Co. F officer actually on duty was 2nd Lt. Danville B. Stevens, a 22-year-old from Paris in Oxford County when he had enlisted as a sergeant in the company the previous August. Roberts asked Coburn to make Stevens the company’s first lieutenant and to promote Sgt. Maj. Henry L. Bartells to second lieutenant.

Like Roberts and Houghton and Perry, Bartells came from Portland. Did Coburn sense a trend?

Next on the list was 1st Lt. Benjamin C. Pennell of (where else?) Portland for promotion to captain of Co. B, in which he had served since August 1862. To fill Pennell’s slot, would the governor kindly promote 2nd Lt. William H. Green of Co. B and Portland?

And while at it, could the good guv promote 1st Sgt. Horace A. Smith of Co. B and, of course, Portland to replace Green?

Coburn could see where this list of recommendations was going.

Hopping over to Co. D, 1st Lt. John C. Perry of Portland “has been command” for several months, so Roberts recommended him for promotion to captain. To replace Perry, Roberts offered 2nd Lt. Newton Whitten; to replace him, Roberts asked Coburn to promote Orderly Sgt. Stephen Graffam of Co. D and Portland.

Well, that was that, Roberts concluded. The recommended soldiers would “fill their places like worthy sons of Maine, & I believe in the late Battles the 17th has done its duty & have endeavored to uphold the honor of the Old Pine Tree State,” he informed Coburn.

“I have the honor to be your Obedient Servant,” he assured the guv.

But a serious oversight existed in the letter; Thomas Roberts had overlooked the dead man walking — and talking.

On May 14, Roberts informed Coburn that in reference to the letter of “the 12th, recommending certain officers [and NCOs] for promotion[,] I would like to make a change.”

Rather than promote 1st Sgt. Horace A. Smith of Co. B to second lieutenant in that company, “I would like to substitute the name of Orderly Sergeant James S. Roberts of Co. B (and Portland),” Roberts wrote Coburn.

Jim Roberts “was reported killed in the battle of Chancellorsville,” Thomas Roberts explained. “We all supposed he was until this morning when he was brought in among the wounded & is doing well.

“He was wounded in the side & arm & fainted & when last seen by our men was in that condition & was supposed to be dead,” the good colonel wrote, probably a bit sheepishly.

“He has done his duty like a man & I consider him worthy [of] promotion & would there fore strongly recommend [him] to your favorable consideration,” Thomas Roberts concluded.

Abner Coburn commissioned dead man James S. Roberts as a second lieutenant. Almost all the other recommended soldiers received their promotions, too.

Sources: Col. Thomas A. Roberts, letters to Gov. Abner Coburn, May 12 and May 14, 1863, Maine State Archives

Brian Swartz can be reached at 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