The 17th Maine backstabbers, part 1

Bronze 12-pounder cannons mark where Union artillery batteries deployed as the Battle of Chancellorsville shifted against Joseph Hooker and his Army of the Potomac on May 3, 1863. A day earlier, the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment pursued “retreating” Confederate troops to the south of Fairview (photo right) and almost blundered into a trap. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

The departure of Col. Thomas Roberts from the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment in late spring 1863 sparked a lobbying campaign that elevated his major to regimental command.

The trouble was, his lieutenant colonel should have received the promotion.

Thomas Roberts was a house painter living with his family in Portland when the Civil War began. He officially commanded the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment, but was away on sick leave during the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Maine State Archives)

The 1860 census found Roberts living in Portland with his wife, Mary, and their three sons: Charles W., 17; Thomas F., 16; and George H, 15. As so many volunteers soldiers proved to the professional warriors’ chagrin, military prowess was not limited to West Point graduates.

Who would’ve thunk that a house painter like Tom Roberts could capably command an infantry regiment at Fredericksburg and elsewhere?

The 17th Maine belonged to the 3rd Brigade of Col. Samuel B. Hayman, who reported to the 1st Division’s commander, Brig. Gen. David B. Birney, who reported to III Corps’ commander, Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. The 17th Maine’s lieutenant colonel was Charles B. Merrill, a Portland attorney; hel had developed sour relationships with Roberts and the regiment’s third field officer, Maj. George Warren West, a Bay State merchant and 10th Maine Infantry veteran.

The sour grapes did not carry over onto the battlefield, fortunately.

In his mid-40s, Roberts was away on 30 days’ sick leave when the Army of the Potomac collided with Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia at Chancellorsville May 1-5, 1863. Led by Merrill, the 17th Maine boys fought and survived a wild night action on Saturday, May 2 and came under heavy enemy fire on May 3.

That Sunday, “we were ordered to the support of the [Union artillery] batteries in the field, and remained at that duty until they were withdrawn, exposed to a heavy cross-fire of artillery and musketry, from which we suffered severely,” Merrill wrote in a May 7 report endorsed by Roberts after he rejoined the regiment on May 5.

A Portland attorney, Charles Merrill was the lieutenant colonel of the 17th Maine Infantry and actually commanded the regiment during the Battle of Chancellorsville. He had a sour relationship with Col. Thomas Roberts. (Maine State Archives)

According to Merrill, Birney ordered the Maine boys to change their position “to repel an advance of the enemy, occupying the hill in the middle of the field, and gaining time for the removal of the artillery.”

Later the awful day, Merrill marched three companies (some 113 men, according to eyewitnesses) some three miles to U.S. Ford, the army’s main crossing point of the Rappahannock River. With Merrill went Capt. Charles Mattocks (another Portlander) and his Company A.

Merrill explained in his report that the 2nd Brigade “was ordered from the field to the [U.S. Ford] road in the rear of the large brick [Chancellor] house.” With changing its location, “the [17th Maine] regiment was divided and separated by other troops, and one portion, under Major West,” supported an artillery battery, and “the other portion, with myself, passed to the rear, and, reforming, supported the batteries on our front.”

What Merrill did not mention in his after-action report was how far he marched from the battlefield and why he had done so.

Nor did he mention that Sam Hayman, shocked to find the 17th Maine soldiers gone from his firing line, sent an aide racing to find and recall Merrill and his men.

Merrill later claimed he was ordered to march to the rear, but by whom was not cited in his May 7 report. In his absence, command devolved to West.

Hayman and other senior officers later castigated Merrill in their post-battle reports, published in Volume 25 of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. According to Hayman, the 37th New York Infantry (shot up while fighting a rear-guard action on May 3) disappeared “about 3 miles to the rear,” and as for Merrill taking “a portion of his regiment to the river … in my opinion, there can be no satisfactory excuse.”

“The conduct of Lieutenant-Colonels Riordan, Thirty-seventh New York, and Merrill, Seventeenth Maine, in taking parts of their command to the rear, is as yet unexplained, and is certainly unsatisfactory,” David Birney noted.

On May 2, 1863, the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment advanced with other Union units to cut off Confederate troops perceived to be retreating at Chancellorsville. The Maine boys reached Catharine Furnace, once used to smelt iron ore. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

After the battle, almost two dozen surviving 17th Maine line officers described West as “one of the bravest of the brave,” not only at Chancellorsville, but “in all the engagements in which we have taken part.”

The greatest crime that Merrill had committed in their eyes was marching away from the regimental colors, left with the seven 17th Maine companies pounded by Confederate artillery.

There is the sense, too, that these officers considered him a coward.

Merrill was obviously not popular with many line officers. They stuck it to him when given an opportunity — and Roberts provided it.

“Some half dozen Surgeons assured me it would be very imprudent for me” and even “prove fatal to me” to stay in uniform “through the hot weather” of a Virginia summer, Roberts wrote Maine Gov. Abner Coburn on June 2. “I am perfectly willing to run the risk of battle,” but death by sickness I am not quite prepared for,” he admitted.

“I received my discharge papers last night & am therefore no longer in the service of the United States,” he informed Coburn in that same letter.

Roberts could not just go away, however. He had one last chore to perform.

Next week: The outgoing colonel sticks it to his lieutenant colonel

Sources: Lt. Col. Charles B. Merrill, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part I, Chapter XXXVII, No. 124, pp. 435-436; Col. Samuel B. Hayman, OR, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part I, Chapter XXXVII, No. 123, p. 433; Brig. Gen. David B. Birney, OR, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part I, Chapter XXXVII, No. 112, p. 410; Col. Thomas Roberts to Gov. Abner Coburn, June 2, 1863, Maine State Archives; Roberts to Coburn, May 23, 1863, MSA; 17th Maine officers’ petition to Coburn, May 23, 1863, MSA; Col. Samuel Hayman to Gov. Abner Coburn, May 27, 1863, MSA; Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward to Coburn, June 23, 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.