What happens when warriors fresh off the battlefield spend two weeks traveling home?
Hopefully they don’t stink, at least.
Bloodied at Irish Bend in April 1863 and at Port Hudson that May and June, the 26th Maine Infantry boys probably lined the rails and cheered jubilantly as their steamboat chugged upriver, away from Port Hudson on Sunday, July 26. The Confederate-held post, the last beside Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, had fallen on July 9 after a lengthy siege.
The 26th Maine was a nine-month regiment, raised primarily in Waldo and Knox counties and shipped south from Bangor in mid-October 1862 to slosh and tramp through the Louisiana bayous. Multiple nine-month Union regiments participated in the Port Hudson siege, atrociously bungled by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks.
He slaughtered many good Union boys in direct assaults against well-designed and -defended Confederate earthworks. The 26th lost a bunch of men thanks to Banks.
But now the battle- and disease-riddled 26th Maine lads were headed home. Their ship reached Cairo, Ill. on Monday, Aug. 3, and the boys caught an Illinois Central Railroad train into Chicago. There they boarded an east-bound Michigan Southern train.
Unfortunately, five Maine lads succumbed to “sickness while coming up the river,” the press noted. Jonathan K. Allen, Samuel Annis, Moses Eaton, Hosea B. Thomas, and Alonzo Woodbury died en route and went into riverside graves.
A Chicago reporter noted the 26th had left Maine “a full regiment, 900 strong,” but returned “with 600 men.” The missing 300 occupied graves and hospitals, mostly in Louisiana.
The 26th Maine lads rumbled through Erie, Penn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; New York City; Boston; and Portland before changing to a Maine Central Railroad train downstate. They rattled into Bangor between 6 and 7 a.m., Aug. 9. A crowd welcomed them at the Front Street train station.
A watching reporter described the returning heroes as “in excellent condition, notwithstanding their exposure to the scorching southern sun, the fatigues of a two weeks’ journey, and the accumulation of cinders and dust, the inevitable attendants of railroad travelling [sic].”
Surely the 26th Maine lads had cleaned their clothing and themselves somewhere before reaching Bangor! In that era of Saturday night baths (if then) and infrequent laundering, maybe the civilians packing Front Street did not notice any peculiar aroma among the veterans disembarking in Bangor.
The Queen City threw an elaborate welcome, replete with a parade down Main Street and up Central Street. The Bangor Cornet Band, two State Guard companies, and a cavalry company escorted the weary 26th Maine boys to Norumbega Hall to enjoy “a generous collation … provided by the City Government.”
The veterans endured the typical speeches, including a personalized presentation by Bangor Alderman Silas C. Hatch, representing the city. “Your diminished ranks and imbrowned faces but too plainly tell of the ravages of disease and battle, and of hardship and exposure under a southern sun,” he perfectly described the listening warriors.
These Maine boys had suffered through the hell of Port Hudson. They’d seen the elephant, they’d marched straight into death and dismemberment, but now they were home.
“Welcome, then, brave soldiers!” Hatch exclaimed.
Among the civilians joining the festivities that morning was Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, a Bangor resident. He also belonged to Co. A, Maine State Guards, so he probably marched with the escort taking the 26th Maine lads to their collation.
“Hamlin was called upon and made a very patriotic and pleasant speech,” hopefully short, “after which loud cheers were given for the City Government,” the reporter noted.
Their tummies full, the 26th Maine boys formed up and marched to the barracks designated for their use. The regiment mustered out on Aug. 17, and the veterans headed home.
Sources: Reception of the Twenty-Sixth, Daily Whig & Courier, August 10, 1863
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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.