Facing the Army of the Potomac’s inevitable shrinkage, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker issued General Order No. 50 on May 12, 1863 expressing “his appreciation of their efforts and devotion” to the soldiers “leaving this army by reason of the expiration of their term of service.” Stating that “the records of their deeds … will live in history,” Hooker offered the veterans “his best wishes for their welfare.”
Over in the 2nd Maine Infantry’s camp amidst the battle-thinned V Corps, few men paid attention to Hooker’s obligatory tribute. “Mr. F.J. Hooker,” as Robert E. Lee so disdainfully called him, had bragged about thumping the Army of Northern Virginia, then lost his nerve, a victory, and too many Yankee lives at Chancellorsville.
His men did not hate Hooker for their defeat. Accustomed to losing given the inept commanding generals foisted upon them by the Lincoln Administration, the Union boys figured they would fight another day, maybe under another general.
Abe Lincoln certainly found enough of them.
But two-thirds of the 2nd Maine lads, including Col. George Varney, could care less what Hooker wrote. Those soldiers talked instead about May 20 and afterwards, for they were going home on that particular Wednesday.
The first Maine regiment to reach Washington, D.C. in spring 1861, the 2nd Maine Infantry had coalesced around recruits and militia companies drawn primarily from the Penobscot Valley. Since First Manassas, “the battles in which it has been engaged are thirteen in number,” well indicated by the regiment’s “torn and tattered banners,” a Boston Journal correspondent noted.
Controversy had dogged the 2nd Maine almost since its inception. Many enthusiastic recruits had enlisted for two years’ service. Believing they had done so, too, many other recruits had discovered to their shock that the War Department considered them three-year men.
Officially 1,076 men had served with the 2nd Maine these past two years. Now months dead from typhoid, the regiment’s first colonel, Charles Jameson of Stillwater, and 771 men had mustered into federal service. Recruiting efforts had added another 187 soldiers in 1861 and 117 men through May 1863.
The two-year men now approached their collective enlistment expiration, and no one — not Joe Hooker, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, or old Abe himself — could not have convinced them to stay. Of the some 750 men (his count) who had departed Bangor in ’61, “only 275, including officers and men” headed home, the Boston reporter commented.
He watched as Varney assembled the 2nd Maine for a “last dress parade … on Virginia soil” on the evening on Tuesday, May 19. No matter their enlistment status, the 2nd Maine lads listened attentively as Varney read a note from Col. Joseph Hayes of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry.
“Dear Colonel—I am informed that your regiment is to leave for home” on May 20, Hayes wrote. “Will you accept the 18th as your escort on that occasion?
“My officers and men, with myself, shall esteem it both a privilege and honor to pay this respect to the 2d Maine, with whom we have been so long and agreeably associated,” Hayes concluded.
Recognizing the “very handsome compliment” extended them — “an appreciation of their gallantry that had been unexpected,” the reporter said — Varney’s men responded with “three hearty cheers.”
Originally from Berwick in York County, Hayes had moved to Massachusetts prior to the war and joined the 18th as its original major. Assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of V Corps, the 2nd Maine and 18th Massachusetts had fought and bled together at Second Manassas in late August 1862 and at Fredericksburg in mid-December.
Hayes “is a brave and gallant officer” leading “one of the finest regiments in the volunteer service,” the Boston reporter journalistically beamed with Bay State pride.
Early on Wednesday, May 20, the departing 2nd Maine boys and their 18th Massachusetts escort marched “to the depot at Stoneman’s switch” on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. “The occasion was altogether one of much pleasure and regret upon the part of those departing and remaining,” the Bean Town reporter commented.
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Sources: Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, May 18, 1863; Departure of the Second Maine, Daily Whig & Courier, Tuesday, May 26, 1863; Official Records, Vol. 3, Series 3, p. 803
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.