Half-starved and ill-clad Union prisoners celebrate as a large American flag unfurls above them aboard a prisoner-exchange ship, likely a vessel that plied the James River in Virginia. Soldiers went “missing” in the tens of thousands during the Civil War; weeks or months might pass before comrades or relatives learned that specific soldiers had been captured — and even then confinement to a prison camp did not guarantee that soldiers would survive. The fortunate Union soldiers were “exchanged” for an equivalent number of Confederate prisoners. (Harper’s Weekly)

When disease, a wound, or death felled a Maine soldier, his relatives understood the risks inherent with wartime service. They knew his immediate fate.

But when a Maine boy went missing, the folks at home could only imagine the worst — and so they did in countless letters addressed to Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon.

Writing from Boston on Sunday, Aug. 2, 1863, Mrs. H.E. Dexter informed Hodsdon that “I have not heard from my dear husband for a long time and write to you to know whether he was killed or wounded in the battle of Gettysburg[.] he was in the 16th Maine Regt Company A[.] his name was Henry E. Dexter[.] if you would let me know you will greatly oblige.”

For more than two months she had wondered if her sweetheart — “my dear husband” eloquently revealed her feelings for 29-year-old Henry — still breathed. He apparently wrote her often; the abrupt cessation of correspondence, plus the news that the 16th Maine had been wiped out on July 1, convinced this lonely wife that a terrible fate had befallen her husband.

Joyous news soon reached her: Henry was alive! Confederate troops had caught him at Gettysburg and then marched him to captivity. He would soon be paroled and return to duty.

As she wrote penned a letter to Hodsdon from her Portsmouth, N.H. home on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 1862, a frightened Eveline Walden hoped “the Adjutant General of Augusta” could help her.

“It will be 2 months the 25 of this month since i have heard” from “my son James Walden, who is a member of the 6th Maine Battery,” the frantic Eveline wrote in neat cursive. She explained that “i am fearful that he is sick or wounded.”

Eveline asked Hodsdon that “if you have received any news from the battery and will be so kind as to let me know as soon as possible[,] you will confer a great kindness to an afflicted Mother.”

Eveline received happy news; James Walden, whose enlistment had been credited to Camden, was safe. A founding member of the 6th Maine Battery, he fought at Gettysburg 10 months later when that outfit pounded Confederate troops participating in Pickett’s Charge.

A macabre scene photographed in the Wilderness in late 1864 captures the fate of many Union soldiers — from Maine and other states — listed as “missing” after that bloody battle. The bleached skulls of slain soldiers (probably Union boys) lie on the forest floor; a ghoul even placed one skull on a broken tree trunk. These men were probably never identified, and many soldiers vanished altogether in the myriad battles and skirmishes fought during the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

Writing from Bangor on Friday, Nov. 13, 1863, John Batchelder informed Hodsdon that a son, Alonzo, served with Co. H, 6th Maine Infantry. Hailing from Garland, he had mustered into the ranks in mid-September 1862.

All apparently seemed to be going well with Alonzo, until “I see [in] the papers that A. Batchelder is reported as wounded and afterwards as having died,” the worried father wrote.

“I have no means of ascertaining speedily whether this is my son,” wrote Batchelder, who asked Hodsdon to “telegraph to Washington for me.” The worried father acknowledged to Hodsdon “that your facilities for getting the information are better than any other person can have.”

Batchelder evidently received good news via Hodsdon; Alonzo still lived and served with the army. Wounded the next May, he supposedly took a medical discharge in mid-June 1864. Yet Batchelder transferred to the 6th Maine Battery in mid-July and to the 1st Maine Veteran Volunteers in mid-September 1864.

But the auburn-haired Alonzo was alive, and that’s all that mattered to his happy father.
For some families, the news only went from bad to worse.

From 41 Coast St., Boston, Lucy E. Chisholm filed a detailed letter to Hodsdon on Thursday, Nov. 27, 1862.

Her nephew from Maine had vanished in the Deep South. She requested “information concerning Nathaniel Gould of Lyman[.] he enlisted in the 14th Maine Regiment[,] was in the Battle of Baton Rouge[,] and lost his leg.” A “Sergeant Color Bearer,” Gould was confined to a “Hospital in N[.] Orleans” when “last I heard from him.

“His friends want to hear and are very anxious about him,” Chisholm wrote.

Gould hailed from Goodwins Mills in Lyman, where his widowed mother, Sarah Hill, had outlived two husbands, Chisholm again wrote Hodsdon from Boston on Sunday, Dec. 7. Hill had a daughter; Gould “was the only one (son) she had to help her,” Chisholm informed Hodsdon.

Meanwhile, during the 10 days between her letters, he had tracked down Nathaniel Gould and had informed Chisholm about his fate. “I feel myself very much obligated to you for the sad news of the death of my nephew,” Chisholm expressed her gratitude.

The persistent Chisholm — Sarah Hill may have been her sister — then asked Hodsdon to “give her (Hill) any information whether she can receive anything due him or not … she has received money from him since he has been gone[,] but I could not say how much.”

Chisholm also asked Hodsdon to “please write a few lines to her” and provided Hill’s rudimentary address in Lyman. Now, possibly pausing over her letter; she definitely thought fondly of Nathaniel, “a smart likely young man and a great loss to” his mother, she commented in her neat penmanship.

During those 10 days between her first and second letters, Chisholm had received Hodsdon’s letter, which she had forwarded to Hill. “If you don’t wish to write her won’t you please drop a line to me and it will do as well,” Chisholm wrote on Dec. 7

“Many thanks to you for your kindness,” she concluded.

John Fenlason, a 29-year-old lumberjack from Alexander in Washington County, joined Co. C, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment on Thursday, June 13, 1861. Patriotic fervor possibly caused him to enlist; perhaps a private’s $13-per-month pay attracted him.

Standing 5-8½ and sporting gray eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion, Fenlason mustered with the 6th Maine on July 15 and traveled to Virginia, so far from his hometown deep in the Down East forests.

Also mustering with the 6th Maine Infantry was 25-year-old Stillman Fenlason, born in Alexander and living in Machias when he signed his enlistment papers on Monday, April 29. Possibly a brother or cousin to John Fenlason, Stillman listed his occupation as “lumberman,” stood precisely 5-9¾, and had light brown eyes, brown hair, and a dark complexion.

Both Fenlasons accompanied the 6th Maine on its Virginian outings, including participation in the spring 1862 Peninsula Campaign. There John and Stillman fell ill and reported to Army hospitals in the Tidewater. Disease did a number on Stillman; the Army discharged him “for disease” on Aug. 10 and sent him home.

John went missing.

Writing Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon from Calais on Monday, Aug. 24, 1863, George B. Burns expressed his “wish to know if John Fenlason of Co. C, 6th Regt. has been returned to your office [on the regimental rolls] as dead. If so, when and where did he die?

“His mother has heard nothing of him since one year ago last April, when he was sick in hospital,” Burns wrote.

Writing “per order” of the “Selectmen of Alexander” on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1863, B.W. Tyler asked Hodsdon if “you can give us any information of John Fenlason[,] late of Co. C, 6th Me. Vols. who belonged to this town.”

Heartache radiates from Tyler’s letter 150 years later. Fenlason “has a widowed mother who is blind and in destitute circumstances who is entitled state aid if he is alive — we are in doubt in relation to [what had happened to] him,” Tyler wrote.

John Fenlason utterly vanished. His soldier’s record in the Maine State Archives indicates that he was “left sick at West Point, Va.” on May 11, 1862. He had reached an Army hospital, from which he disappeared.

Fenlason was “supposed to be dead,” the soldier’s record surmised.

Dead, missing, vanished: For a blind Washington County widow living in abject poverty, these words were interchangeable.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear 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.