Note: We thank attorney Joseph G. Donahue, a re-enactor with Co. A, 3rd Maine Infantry, for providing the Maine Supreme Judicial Court opinion that sparked this three-part post.
Appearing “in person” at the June 26, 1865 Corinna selectmen’s meeting, Pvt. John Winchester of the 4th Maine Battery “demanded” the $300 bounty and $144 for his nine months in uniform, at $16 per month. You owe me $444, so pay up, he insisted.
Knowing that Winchester had received a $100 state bounty, the selectmen counter-offered with a $200 town bounty and $144 for the nine months, for a $344 total. Winchester rejected the offer and left the meeting.
Corinna voters gathered for the annual town meeting in March 1866. Selectmen detailed the town’s “outstanding debts, including … $344” due Winchester. Wanting his $444, he soon hired attorney D.D. Stewart of neighboring St. Albans and sued the “Inhabitants of Corinna.”
Selectmen hired lawyer J.A. Peters as their defense attorney. The case reached the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
During the civil trial, Peters argued there was “no legal consideration for such a contract” as signed between Corinna and Winchester and that “it was an illegal contract” prohibited by state law. Quoting specific Maine statutes and a court case or two, he even claimed that Winchester was “not entitled to the monthly pay, nor the $300, because [he was] not in the service one year.”
Besides, Winchester had collected the $100 state bounty, too. How much more money did he want? Peters implied.
Stewart presented written testimony as to the August 1864 town votes on bounties and monthly pay and also presented written proof that Winchester had served his claimed nine months. Justice Edward Kent, the 1838 Maine governor, ruled on the case after sifting the evidence.
Acting on two articles in the legal town warrant, Corinna voters had made “an offer and a promise to pay to each such volunteer in the town’s service” the bounty and monthly pay, Kent wrote. The reason for paying recruits so much money was to meet the federally mandated head count “and relieve the town or its inhabitants from liability to draft.”
He acknowledged that Corinna had “no legal power” to create a municipal bounty in 1864. In fact, a Maine town could raise only a maximum $25 “for each man enlisted, to pay recruiting expenses,” so the August vote was “illegal and could not be held as binding.”
Apparently other towns had reneged on paying soldiers their promised bounties. The state legislature solved this problem “by the Act of 1865,” by which “these [past] proceedings were made valid,” wrote Kent, citing the specific language that declared similar votes by Corinna and other towns retroactively legal.
He detailed two Peters-made objections and presented highly detailed reasons as to why the Maine Legislature could declare past illegal town votes valid. Kent cited applicable decisions in Maine and Massachusetts courts and explained the constitutional authority by which the federal government could acquire men to fight “a common foe.”
Examining the law, Kent wrote, “It was not merely a patriotic duty, but a certain and fixed liability to furnish the quota of men required by the United States. There was no escape from this” for Corinna or any other municipality.
“It was but just and equitable” for men exempted from military service “and those who remained at home” to “contribute to the compensation of those who periled their lives in the field, something more than mete monthly pay,” he noted.
“The votes passed by Corinna were within the power given or ratified” by the legislature, Kent wrote. The votes “violated no law, after ratification, and no provision of the [state] constitution.
“The evidence offered by” the Corinna selectmen “to qualify or affect the record is inadmissible,” he declared. Kent ordered Corinna to pay Winchester $444, and interest from June 26, 1865” (original italics).
Chief Justice John Appleton and justices Jonas Cutting, Jonathan D. Dickerson, Rufus P. Tapley, and Charles W. Walton all “concurred” with the decision.
Waging a valiant court fight, John Winchester had set a legal precedent for other soldiers finding their towns backpedaling on promised pay.
Sources: George Thomas Little, editor, Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine, Vol. 1, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1909; John Winchester versus Inhabitants of Corinna, Cases In The Supreme Judicial Court of the State of Maine, Eastern District, Penobscot County,1867; Lilla E. Wood, A Brief History of Corinna, Maine: 1814-1916, J.P. Bass Publishing Company, Bangor, ME, 1946; Judson Ames, History of the Fourth Maine Battery Light Artillery in the Civil War: 1861-1865, Burleigh & Flynt, Augusta, ME, 1905
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Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.