For Duty, Honor, and Family: Color Bearers in the Civil War

By Savannah Labbe ’19

In doing research for a previous post, I learned about the stand of the Sixteenth Maine at the Battle of Gettysburg. What struck me most about their sacrifice was the fact that before they were captured they made sure to tear up their colors and distribute the pieces among the men. They did this in order to ensure that the Confederates wouldn’t be able to capture their colors, an act that would have disgraced the Sixteenth Maine and detracted from their valiant sacrifice. In addition, this allowed the men to keep a piece of their flag, to be reminded of their sacrifice and courage while they sat in a Confederate prison. Stories about regimental flags such as this one abound, which begs the question of why colors and color bearers were so important that men put themselves in immense danger to protect them.

A Union color bearer with his flag. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
A Union color bearer with his flag. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Civil War color bearers played a practical role as well as a highly symbolic one. The colors helped soldiers see where their units were located in the confusing, smoke-filled battlefield. Color bearers also set the pace for the march, making sure it was the proper length and cadence. Flags were the centerpieces of the battle, often resulting in high casualty rates of color bearers and their guards. In addition, color bearers didn’t carry weapons, increasing their likeliness of being killed or wounded. If a color bearer happened to be shot down, a member of his guard would immediately pick up the colors in order to avoid the disgrace of losing one. Continue reading “For Duty, Honor, and Family: Color Bearers in the Civil War”

From Farmers to Soldiers: Raising a Civil War Volunteer Regiment

By Savannah Labbe ’19

How did one transform a group of raw recruits, of men who had no military knowledge, into soldiers? It was not an easy task, especially since many of the men had never even touched a weapon, let alone knew how to use one. This task often fell to private citizens, who, out of patriotic sentiment or the prospect of becoming commissioned, persuaded their neighbors to join their regiment. While this method was convenient and inexpensive for the government it often meant that the commissioned officers were inexperienced and underqualified, chosen only for their skills of persuasion. Because of this, transforming a group of men who were more skilled as farmers or lawyers into soldiers prepared for battle could prove to be a daunting task. It is also a subject that is paid little attention, outshone by the great battles and leaders of the Civil War. However, these regiments and the efforts of the men that raised them allowed for the possibility of those battles to occur and those leaders to emerge.

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Major General Adelbert Ames, who earlier in the war had served as the first colonel of the Twentieth Maine. Photo from the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

In an effort to recognize the importance of the act of raising a regiment, Ellis Spear of the Twentieth Maine wrote the story of the establishment of his regiment, entitled The Story of the Raising and Organization of a Regiment of Volunteers in 1862. While it is the story of the Twentieth Maine, it is one that is reflective of the process of raising most Civil War volunteer regiments. For the Twentieth Maine, their story began in the summer of 1862 when Lincoln called for 30,000 more troops. Maine needed to provide four regiments, resulting in the raising of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Maine regiments. The response of Maine men to this call was so overwhelming that they had enough men for a fifth regiment, the Twentieth Maine. Because of this, the Twentieth Maine was a kind of surplus regiment, made up of men from all over the state as opposed to just one region. Continue reading “From Farmers to Soldiers: Raising a Civil War Volunteer Regiment”

In the Shadow of the Twentieth: Maine Regiments at Gettysburg

By Savannah Labbe ’19

On my first of many tours of the Gettysburg Battlefield,my tour guide was thrilled to learn that my family is from Maine. He made sure to show us the monument to the Twentieth Maine and talk about their valiant stand at Little Round Top. Joshua Chamberlain and his Twentieth Maine regiment have become known as the heroes of Little Round Top and are what most would readily identify when asked about Maine’s role in the Battle of Gettysburg. One might think that Maine’s only contribution to the battle was Chamberlain’s charge. However, Maine units played a larger role in the battleand were present from the very beginning of the battle until the very end. They were not only present, however; they were engaged at key points of the battle such as Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, the Copse of Trees, Cemetery Hill, and, of course, Little Round Top. There were 4,000 Maine soldiers at the battle, one in four of whom was killed.

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Pickett’s charge on the center of the Union line near the Copse of Trees where the Nineteenth Maine was positioned. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the fact that Maine contributed a larger number of soldiers in proportion to its population than any other state in the Union, the efforts of Maine men in the war are not widely remembered or acknowledged. Perhaps to remedy this, a committee was formed to investigate and prepare a report on Maine’s contributions to the Battle of Gettysburg. This large work is entitled Maine at Gettysburg. It was prepared in 1898 by a committee made up of Maine officers that participated in the war as well as some Maine politicians. They did this to “[set] forth the facts more fully, accurately and reliably, and in a manner justly due to the memory of those who so freely gave their lives to their country on this eventful field.” The report begins with an overview of the battle, making sure to highlight each Maine regiment and its role. After this, each unit is given a chapter to discuss its monument on the battlefield and to describe in detail the role that regiment played in the battle. These chapters were usually written by an officer of each regiment. The Twentieth Maine’s, for example, was written in part by Joshua Chamberlain. Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Twentieth: Maine Regiments at Gettysburg”

The Evolution of the Military Dog Tag: From the Civil War to Present Day

By Savannah Labbe ’19

In doing research for my previous post on the U.S. Christian Commission, I came across an intriguing artifact: a Civil War era identification tag, or dog tag. When I picture a military dog tag I see a metal rectangle suspended from a necklace, like those worn by today’s soldiers. One doesn’t usually associate dog tags with the Civil War, which is why I was interested to find one. However, it is not surprising that the basic human fear of dying unknown, of robbing one’s family of closure and certainty, was present during the Civil War just as it is today. This is why there are accounts of Civil War soldiers crudely fashioning their own dog tags before going into battle. At Cold Harbor, soldiers wrote their names and addresses on a piece of paper and pinned them to their uniforms before charging to their deaths during the suicidal attack that occurred at that battle. There are also accounts of soldiers making dog tags out of old coins and pieces of metal and wood. In addition, they would carve their initials into items of clothing or carry around photographs of family members to help ensure their identification.

During the Civil War the government did not have the capacity or the willingness to issue dog tags to every soldier. A request was made to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to issue a dog tag to every Union Soldier, but it was denied. Thus, soldiers had to look elsewhere for their dog tags, prompting some of them to make or purchase their own. They could buy silver or gold disks with their names stamped on them from the sutlers that followed the army. The U.S. Christian Commission also issued identification tags and distributed approximately 40,000 personal identifiers to Union soldiers.

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A Civil War dog tag that would have been issued by the U.S. Christian Commission. Photo credit: Special Collections, Musselman Library.

Continue reading “The Evolution of the Military Dog Tag: From the Civil War to Present Day”

Intersections of Religion and War: Examining a USCC Diary

By Savannah Labbe ’19

While most don’t immediately associate religion with war, there is no doubt that it plays a role in most, the Civil War included. The Civil War brought with it new levels of death and destruction that the government was unprepared to deal with; it didn’t have the resources to adequately care for the influx of wounded soldiers, which was painfully evident after Bull Run when the number of soldiers needing medical care was more than the hospitals could handle. In the wake of the Battle of First Bull Run, the general public as well as the government saw the need for a civilian organization to help care for and comfort wounded soldiers. On November 14, 1861, a few months after the battle, the United States Christian Commission (USCC) was created by representatives of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to fill this void. Its headquarters were set up in Philadelphia, and a layman named George Hay Stuart was appointed to head the Commission. The Commission was made up of volunteer delegates who were unpaid, though they were reimbursed for travel costs and other expenses they acquired while in the field. These delegates would go to the field for usually only a few months, during which time they were encouraged to keep a diary; many did just that.

USCC headquarters in Germantown, VA. Photo via Library of Congress.
USCC headquarters in Germantown, VA. Photo via Library of Congress.

A diary from a delegate that spent a few months in Louisville gives us a glimpse into his everyday life. The diary was issued by the USCC and bears their stamp on the front; the first few pages detail the duties of a delegate and provide other useful information and instructions. A delegate was expected to visit hospitals, camps, and battlefields to distribute supplies and religious materials. He was also supposed to speak to the men individually as well as collectively and hold meetings of prayer. In addition, the Commission provided the delegates with supplies such as stamps, envelopes, paper, clothing, food, and coffee for distribution to the soldiers. Continue reading “Intersections of Religion and War: Examining a USCC Diary”