Charles Preble spent three years fighting for the Union, and all he got for his efforts was a lousy wound and a fancy testimonial from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
The enigmatic Charles Melvin Preble was 21 when he lifted his right hand to “solemnly swear, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America,” on Aug. 26, 1862. While filling out his “Volunteer Enlistment” form that warm Tuesday, Preble created a mystery that still confounds his descendants.
Writing his surname as “Pribble” with a distinctively dotted “i,” Preble indicated that he was “a resident of Bangor, born in Gardner (sic) … and by occupation a Farmer.” By decade’s end he would be “Preble,” the surname passed to his children and their children and ad infinitum.
On the enlistment form, 11th Maine recruiting officer John Pomroy attested that he had “minutely inspected the Volunteer” and that “Pribble … was entirely sober when enlisted.” Preble stood 6 feet tall and had “Gray Eyes, Light Hair, [and a] Light Complexion.”
Bidding his wife, Sarah, a fond farewell, Preble headed to Augusta with other recruits.
There, on Tuesday, Sept. 2. a surgeon examined Preble and reported “that in my opinion he is free from all bodily defects and mental infirmity, which would … disqualify him from performing the duties of a soldier.”
At Augusta, Preble’s enlistment underwent a puzzling change. Someone — perhaps Preble or 1st Lt. Thomas Bailey, the officer formally accept the recruits on behalf of the 11th Maine — scratched out the dual references to Bangor on the enlistment form and wrote “Wells.”
Suddenly that York County town could claim Preble against its enlistment quota. No explanation exists as to Preble’s change of domicile, unless Wells paid a higher bounty than did Bangor — and the hand that wrote “Wells” matches no other penmanship on the enlistment form.
So the recruits formally mustered into the U.S. Army on Friday, Sept. 5 and headed off to war.
They likely caught up with the 11th Maine Infantry near Yorktown, Va., where the regiment had been stationed since mid-August. In late December the 11th Maine relocated to Morehead City, N.C. The regiment later saw duty on the South Carolina islands and in northern Florida before moving to Virginia in spring 1864.
Preble evidently arrived months earlier. He had married Sarah Mitchell of Bangor before joining the Army; from somewhere “in the field before Richmond” he penned a letter to his “Dear Wife” on Saturday, Feb. 6, 1864.
Preble had just received “your kind and more than welcome letter” from Sarah. In another letter received two days earlier, he discovered that Sarah had mailed him “your dear miniature,” a small photograph that she had taken, probably in early January.
The photograph stunned the lonely Preble; “if you could see me sometimes[,]” he told Sarah, “you would think I was foolish for most every morning I go into the woods and take it out of my pocket and kiss it as though it was real.”
Sarah had moved to Carmel, possibly to live near her parents, and she was not happy living so far from Bangor. “Well, My Dear, according to the description of Carmel[,] it is not a very comfortable place…”
He urged her to buy some land; “I should think 25 [acres] would be enough,” Preble guessed.
He reported “my health” as “terrible good at present, and I hope yours is the same.”
And “all the boys in the company is (sic) well and lively now and talk a great deal of peace for the Rebs has sent peace commissioners to Washington,” Preble wrote.
He closed, “from your true and loving husband now and forever.”
Assigned as a private to Co. B, Preble routinely appeared as “present” on the company’s muster rolls through June 1864. Only one notation marred his otherwise stellar dedication to duty; in either November or December 1863, Preble saw his pay docked “for one cap letter.”
Then on the Co. B muster roll for July and August 1864, Preble (still identified as “Pribble) was listed as “Absent in Hospital on account of wounds received in Action Aug., 14, 1864.”
The 11th Maine faced Confederate entrenchments at Deep Bottom, Va. on that warm and humid Sunday. “Just as the rays of the rising sun were flooding wood and field and meadow with golden light … there came a sudden riding of mounted officers, sharp, quick commands, a rapid falling into line of the reserves to deploy instantly as skirmishers,” an 11th Maine soldier remembered after the war.
“Then came the command, ‘Forward,’ and the line rushed forward, swallowing pickets and vedettes in its course, and within the time of telling it, was met full in the face by the deadly fire of a strong and watchful enemy,” the soldier recalled.
That fateful Sunday the 11th Maine participated in a surprise attack intended to crack open enemy lines and open a road to Richmond. The assault bogged down, and “for an hour a deadly duel raged between the two lines,” the Maine soldier remembered. Later the 10th Connecticut Infantry and 11th Maine and 24th Massachusetts Infantry launched a screaming charge “on the enemy’s [outer] line with such vigor as to break it instantly.”
There the troops “found stacked guns and the remains of a half-eaten breakfast” left by fleeing Confederates. The hungry Maine boys “snatched at the rebel rations of freshly cooked bread … and at the strips of fat bacon … and satisfied the sharp monitions of their healthy Yankee appetites with the captured food.”
The 11th Maine suffered casualties that day. Among the identified Co. B wounded were “Privates Charles M. Prebble, [and] Ezekiel Scott.”
Thus did the Co. B muster rolls list Preble as wounded and absent through the rest of 1864 and spring 1865. A curious repetitive note scribbled under “Remarks: on the March-to-June 1865 rolls indicated that the Army had docked his pay $25.81 “for transportation.”
Charles Preble mustered out of the Army on Friday, July 14, 1865; he later received $75 in back pay. He settled in Carmel with Sarah, and they had seven children before Preble died unexpected at age 40 on Nov. 7, 1882.
By then Preble had received a final honor for serving his country. On July 4, 1868, Gov. Joshua L. Chamberlain and Adjutant Gen. John C. Caldwell signed an official “State of Maine” document for Preble.
“You having borne an honorable part as a Volunteer from the State of Maine in the service of the United States in suppressing the Rebellion and thereby maintaining the integrity of the Union, the perpetuity of Republican Institutions and the liberties and peace of the people,” Chamberlain and Caldwell “present you this Testimonial to your patriotism, fidelity, courage, and suffering in the Common Cause,” the document recognized Preble for his loyalty to Maine and the United States.
Recently matted and framed, the testimonial now belongs to Preble’s great-grandson, Ken Preble of Hampden. He has no idea exactly when “Pribble” became “Preble” or why “Pribble” decided he belonged to Wells and not Bangor in September 1862.
But Ken, himself a veteran, is sure proud of his great-grandfather.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.