The Maine soldier responsible for the construction of the nation’s first privately funded Civil War monument trekked from battlefield to battlefield across the Upper South before returning to the Pine Tree State.
Amidst the miserable weather engulfing the Shiloh battlefield after sunset on April 6, 1862, the 19th U.S. Infantry regulars commanded by Stephen Decatur Carpenter “had been huddled, during the night, on board a steamboat, without room to lie down, exposed to a drenching rain,” wrote Bangor historian Charles P. Roberts.
“Without breakfast or even a mug of coffee,” Carpenter and his men “went into the work of retrieving the waning fortunes of the preceding day,” Roberts said. On the morning of April 7, “Major Carpenter’s battalion (actually four companies) occupied” the center of the Union line, “which was hardest pushed by the enemy.”
Confederate troops launched an assault, evidently their last. “Seeing the imminent danger which menaced his position,” Carpenter asked Gen. Lovell Rousseau, “his particular friend, for an Indiana regiment which he had drilled, and had confidence in,” Roberts reported.
The Indiana boys marched immediately, and Carpenter formed their regiment “in front of his nearly exhausted battalion.” Together the Indiana volunteers and the Army regulars repelled the Confederate attack.
Carpenters lost 37 regulars on Monday, April 7. He later participated in the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi and probably fought at Perryville, Kentucky in October.
After that bare-knuckle, knockdown brawl that strewed the rolling central Kentucky hills with bodies and parts thereof, Confederate troops abandoned the Bluegrass State. Union forces pursued them into central Tennessee.
On December 26, 1862. Federal divisions left Nashville to advance toward Murfreesboro, where Gen. Braxton Bragg had consolidated a substantial Confederate army. Carpenter led about 150 men of the 19th Infantry Regiment; war, sickness, and deployments elsewhere had thinned its ranks.
On Tuesday, December 31, each army commander envisioned delivering a thundering left hook against his unsuspecting opponent. Confederate divisions quietly filed through the pre-dawn darkness; Union troops awoke and leisurely prepared breakfast before launching their so-called “surprise” attack.
Screaming the Rebel yell, Confederate infantrymen struck first and struck hard. The Federal right wing all but collapsed, but scattered companies and regiments formed temporary bulwarks that bought precious time.
Maj. Stephen Decatur Carpenter maneuvered his 19th Infantry to protect Batteries H and M, 4th U.S. Artillery as enemy infantrymen came through the cedar thickets near the Cowan House ruins. He faced a full brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson, a nephew of the late President Andrew Jackson.
The Cowan House ruins split apart the attacking troops; the 8th Tennessee Infantry Regiment shifted to the west and ran squarely into the 19th Infantry.
The regiments shot each other apart on terrain later called “Hell’s Half Acre.” The 8th Tennessee’s commander, Col. W.L. Moore, died when shot in the heart, but his troops pressed Carpenter’s men backwards.
Seeing enemy soldiers overlapping his command’s flank, Carpenter told his men to fall back. Confederate officers sensed their advantage; “no sooner did the enemy see us retreating, than they opened fire on us again,” remembered Pvt. Joseph R. Prentice, assigned to Co. E.
“Scatter and run, boys!” he heard Carpenter shout. Confederates fired another volley, and six bullets simultaneously struck Carpenter — two in the head and four in the body; he pitched dead from his wounded horse.
The frightened animal bolted. “I was about to join the rest in the rush to a place of safety when I heard a horse bearing down on me like mad,” Prentice recalled..
The surviving 19th Infantry soldiers retained some cohesion as they retreated. Prentice joined them, related what had happened to their brave major, and volunteered to recover Carpenter’s body.
“Back I went at the top of my speed, and as soon as I entered the clearing the enemy’s sharpshooters opened a brisk fire on me,” Prentice said. “Still I was bound to find the major if possible, and knowing about where he fell, rushed to that spot.
“Bullets ploughed up little puffs of dust at my feet and whistled around my head,” he said. “A short spurt more and I was at the place.
“But, poor fellow, he was past need of human assistance,” Prentice recalled.
“Nevertheless I picked him up and carried him to my rear, my ears filled with the mournful dirge of the bullets that threatened me at every step.”
Carpenter “was buried on the field, whence his remains were taken by his brother officers and sent to this city,” Roberts later wrote in Bangor.
Ironically, an Army order promoting Carpenter to lieutenant colonel arrived in Murfreesboro not long after his death. His embalmed body was shipped home to Bangor, arriving on a Maine Central Railroad on the evening on Monday, February 2, 1863.
The death of Stephen Decatur Carpenter touched a nerve in Bangor.
March 28: Bangor decides to honor the slain Stephen Decatur Carpenter with a monument.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.