The 17th Maine backstabbers, part 2

Spring blossoms adorn the Chancellorsville battlefield near where the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment escaped Confederate encirclement during a frightening nighttime withdrawal on May 2-3, 1863. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

With his resignation from command of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment already submitted, Col. Thomas Roberts had one last chore to perform: recommend his successor.

Since the regiment’s muster in Portland in August 1862, Roberts’ second-in-command had been Lt. Col. Charles B. Merrill, also from Portland. Roberts was away sick when Merrill led the 17th Maine into the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863. The regiment fought and survived a wild night action between Catharine Furnace and Hazel Grove on Saturday, May 2.

During the lead-hurling cacophonous din surrounding the Chancellor House on Sunday, May 3, Merrill marched three 17th Maine companies about 3 miles to U.S. Ford on the Rappahannock River. His bridge commander, Col. Samuel Hayman, angrily sent an aide to recall Merrill and his men.

Lt. Col. Gilbert Riordan had also inexplicably vanished as far as U.S. Ford with his 37th New York Infantry about the same time, and Hayman rebuked both officers in his after-action report.

From the high ground at Hazel Grove on the Chancellorsville battlefield, a 12-pounder bronze Napoleon points toward distant Fairview. A tactically bad decision by Joseph Hooker led to Union troops abandoning Hazel Grove on May 3, 1863. Confederate artillery swiftly deployed to the site and promptly targeted Union artillery and troops. The decision was one of several made by Hooker that led to the Union defeat at Chancellorsville. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Roberts rejoined the 17th Maine on May 5 and, still not feeling well, submitted his resignation. As next in line, Merrill assumed that Maine Governor Abner Coburn would observe the protocol established by his predecessor, Israel Washburn Jr., and name Merrill as Roberts’ replacement.

Deciding he wanted the job, Maj. George Warren West (the regiment’s third field officer) kicked off a big-time lobbying campaign — and Roberts turned out to be no true friend of Charles Merrill. For whatever the reason, Roberts nailed his subordinate with a figurative one-two punch on May 23.

That Saturday, 21 “undersigned line officers of the 17th Maine Regiment” submitted to Coburn a petition listing several reasons why “we respectfully ask to appoint as his (Roberts’) successor, Maj. George W. West.” After praising West’s sterling qualities as an officer and a gentleman, the officers stated that no way “can we ask for the promotion of Lieut. Col. Charles B. Merrill.

“We have to say that his conduct at the battle of Chancellorsville on Sunday, May 3 was such as to destroy all our confidence in his bravery,” the petitioners told Coburn. Merrill’s withdrawal that day “was done without orders, and no satisfactory reason has yet been given for the movement.”

Among the 17th Maine soldiers taken away from the battlefield by Merrill on May 3, Capt. Charles Mattocks of Portland did not sign the petition, which Tom Roberts endorsed in a May 23 letter stuffed with the petition into the same outgoing envelope. “I consider Major West preeminently qualified for a commander,” West told Coburn. “His appointment would give general satisfaction throughout the Regt.”

In a June 2 letter to Coburn, Roberts repeated his request that the governor promote West to colonel. As for the 17th Maine, its “officers & men have entire confidence in him, both as to discipline & bravery, & would go into Battle under him with the most perfect assurance that they were under command of an officer who understood how to handle them & would not desert them in trying times.”

In a May 27 letter dictated to a clerk, Sam Hayman (he had wretched handwriting) indicated, “It affords me great pleasure to recommend for promotion Major George W. West … an excellent disciplinarian, a good tactician, possesses coolness and judgment in action and commands in a high degree the respect and confidence of his men.”

Merrill had his supporters. Confirming in a July 15, 1863 letter that he had fought with Merrill at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, First Lieutenant Newton Whitten of Company D and Portland told Coburn, “Col. Merrill is cool, brave, and of sufficient ability to take permanent command of the regiment.”

Merrill was “not only entitled to the [colonel’s] position by seniority of rank, but by superior ability an[d] efficiency as a soldier[,] evinced on many occasions but more particularly at Chancellorsville,” Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward wrote Coburn on June 23.

The 17th Maine was temporarily attached to Ward’s 1st Division brigade on May 2, and “under my own eye” Merrill and his “Regt behaved so gallantly,” Ward wrote.

Sitting at a desk in his South Windham home on July 26, John F. Anderson wrote Coburn about Merrill “at the suggestion of his sister[,] who is my wife.” Learning “that Col. M. had not” shown “more interest with you for his promotion” to colonel, Anderson explained that Merrill “felt assured that the Executive of his state conferred promotions for merit without respect for importunate self seeking.”

Merrill “is a man whose whole conduct has been and would ever be from a sense of duty,” wrote Anderson.

As far as Private George F. Moulton of Company B was concerned, Merrill was a true warrior. He “led us in to battle & stuck by us all the time” at Chancellorsville, Moulton wrote his mother on May 20.

During the May 2 night action at Chancellorsville, “two bullets came rather near” Merrill, Moulton indicated. “One went through the top of his hat & made some ugly holes in it & another went between the side of his head and the top of his right ear & made it bleed.”

As Confederate troops tore into the Union army the next day, “a bullet or piece of shell struck him (Merrill) in the muscle of his right arm & made it very sore,” Moulton recalled.

But a private’s admiration and a brother-in-law’s support carried little weight with Coburn, who promoted West to colonel in October 1863 and gave him the 17th Maine.

“Merrill is now superseded,” noted Charles Mattocks. “He must feel like death. His friends are mad enough, and, of course the Major’s friends are exultant over this victory.

“It is upon the whole a rich quarrel, and tends to sharpen the wits of each of the combatants,” he commented.

West caught a Confederate bullet in his right thigh at The Wilderness on May 6, 1864. The wound failed to heal properly, and the War Department discharged him for a medical disability that October.

Brevetted a brigadier general of volunteers on December 2, 1864, West returned to active duty until the post-war draw down led him to resign in mid-April 1865.
He died in Massachusetts in mid-May 1899.

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.