Monday, July 15, 2013

A Different Kind of Civil War Post

I have been writing mostly about battles, but I have been reading a wider variety of things. I recently finished reading Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering, about the process of coping with death in the Civil War. There was lots of death to cope with.

I was thinking about that last week. THe weekend of the 4th, my brothers and I went up to Bucksport and Ellsworth on a day trip; wandered around Fort Knox for a while, then went to Ellsworth, looking for our great-grandfather's grave. Our grandmother came from Ellsworth, though she moved away, and we hadn't been back all that often - but we knew some of her people were buried up there, so took a look.

We found it, the old man's grave; we then looked around for more ancestors, further back. This was more a shot in the dark - though the family hailed from that part of Maine, we did not know if they were from Ellsworth proper or somewhere else. In the end, we did find more: our great-great-grandparents' gravestone, to be precise:

Old Henry had an American flag next to him, and is listed as a veteran of the Civil War. He was not alone. There were quite a few graves of soldiers in the Civil War up there, most of them serving, like Henry, in the 1st Volunteers - a unit that, in fact, only served for 3 months. But Henry, and probably quite a few others, reenlisted in other units - quite a few of them (up in that part of the state, near Bangor, along the Penobscot) in what would become known as the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment. There's definitely a story there - the Heavy Artillery regiments had a strange history. They were posted in the Washington defenses for most of the war; they were very large, and they had a very comfortable duty, in the capitol, where they undoubtedly felt they were quite safe. But then Ulysses S Grant came east, and he saw thousands of men, trained and equipped and ready to be used, and he set about to use them. He came east with the power to take what he wanted, even if it made politicians nervous (and they were very jittery about the capitol), so he stripped the capitol's defenses, and assigned these units to regular infantry brigades and divisions and corps (and some of them were quite as big as a veteran infantry brigade all my themselves) and marched them off to Virginia with the rest of the army.

Walking around in the cemetery, not far from the Lunt family plot, I saw another one, the Higgins family plot. They too had a son in the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. He was not so lucky (my great great grandfather survived, else I would have a different great great grandfather.) John P. died May 19, 1864, aged 17 years, 2 months, killed at Spotsylvania (probably Harris' Farm, right at the end of the battle.)

But what was really striking was on the other side of the stele:

That's lists three Higgins children, dying within a week of one another in March 1864, ae. 12, 10 and 2 - 2 months before John P. would die at Spotsylvania.

I know that sort of thing was more common in the 19th century - diseases could be deadly, whole families could die in a week like that - but it was worse during the Civil War. Especially in the south, where there was often serious shortages of food, medicine and so on - but in the north too. But here, too - one is struck by the weight of these deaths, by the weight of death itself in the war. That's the subject of Faust's book - the ways the country dealt with the shocking death totals. And it is hard to imagine how a family could deal with this - to lose three children within a week; then lose an older son 2 months later to battle. And imagining the mother's position - because John P. wasn't alone in the 1st Me. Heavy Artillery - his father was a captain. There may have been other brothers as well (I think a couple older sons did survive the war) - any of them could die at any time. What it must have been like...

All right. The regiment itself, I should say, left its mark on the war. They lost heavily at Spotsylvania, but even after that battle, they were still very large by Civil War standards - at Petersburg, in mid-June, they still had around 900 men. (400 or so would have been more typical...) And on June 18th, they were ordered to attack - next year, when it is time for the anniversary of these battles, I might go into detail... The Petersburg campaign was a blend of one of Grant's greatest moments, and the latest in a line of disastrous performances by the command structure of the Army of the Potomac. For now, leave it this way - by the time the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was sent in to charge that June afternoon, it was too late - Lee's men were waiting, dug in to their eyeballs. THe rest of their brigade knew it - Bruce Catton reports one of them shouting "Lie down, you damned fools, you can't take them forts!" But the 1st Maine didn;t listen. They went in - they lost 632 men out of 900 or so.

One of them my great great grandfather, wounded. But he lived, served out the war, was mustered out, and went home, and had a family, and 10 years later my great grandmother was born...


Sam Juliano said...

What a fabulous trip! And finding the grave had to be moving. That quite a heritage, and a story to pas son to new generations. And I applaud you on this especially meaningful Civil War post!

weepingsam said...

It was fun. We were looking for the other side of the family, but rather surprised and very happy to find the Lunt plot. I suppose most old cemeteries will yield a number of veterans of various wars - though finding a cemetery with a relatively famous regiment (without looking for it) was a nice surprise. That June 18th attack at Petersburg resulted in the heaviest losses by a regiment in the war. I also think the 1st Me. Heavy Artillery lost the most officers of any regiment in the war... it's quite a story.