Maine Roads to Gettysburg
In 1889 Seldon Connor, the 35th governor of Maine, pointed out, “In proportion to the number of her troops in the action, no one of the 18 states whose regiments flew the stars and stripes on this hard-fought field contributed more than Maine to the victory.”
Connor was talking about the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place over three days in July 1883 and is considered to be the bloodiest battle of the U.S. Civil War.
“At whatever point the battle raged, the sons of the Pine Tree State were in the melee,” Gov. Connor, himself a Civil War veteran from the 7th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, said.
Connor was not at Gettysburg, but more than 4,000 other Maine soldiers were.
Writer Tom Huntington has documented their contributions to the battle in his book “Maine Roads to Gettysburg.”
“If you connect the dots of all the Maine regiments and [Maine] individuals at Gettysburg, you get an outline of the whole battle,” Huntington said. “They were there at all the pivotal spots over the three days it lasted.”
Huntington, who was born in Augusta and attended Bowdoin College, said his interest in the Civil War began when he moved to Washington D.C. in 1985 and drove past the site of the Manassas Civil War battle, fought in July 1861 and considered to be the first major battle of the war.
“I was reading all the signs about the battle and realized it was like reading a novel starting at the halfway point,” Huntington said. “I was trying to figure out all the characters and locations.”
By the time he moved to Pennsylvania a few years later, Huntington said he was hooked on Civil War history and becoming more interested in the Maine connection.
“I was very lucky living in Pennsylvania because I was 40 minutes away from Gettysburg,” he said. “That’s a good place to be if you are interested in the battle.”
For many Civil War history buffs, the Maine star of Gettysburg is Joshua Chamberlain, fellow Bowdoin alumni.
“When I went to Bowdoin, I joined the same fraternity that Joshua Chamberlain belonged to,” Huntington said. “I lived in the frat house that was built across from Chamberlain’s own house.”
Chamberlain, who went on to become governor of Maine and later president of Bowdoin College, is among the more famous Gettysburg battle commanders, due in no small part to the book “Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara, and the movie “Gettysburg” that it inspired.
The movie, in particular, focused on Chamberlain and his 20th Maine regiment’s stand at Little Round Top, where they reportedly pushed back multiple Confederate charges, protecting the Union Army’s flank.
The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment was formed in 1862 with more than 1,600 volunteers mostly from central and southern Maine.
“That stand is legendary,” Huntington said. “People love Joshua Chamberlain, but there is so much more to the story than Chamberlain and the 20th Maine.”
Through extensive archival research, Huntington tells the story of lesser-known Maine soldiers at Gettysburg and their important contributions to the Union’s victory there.
Much of Huntington’s research came from letters written home by the Maine soldiers.
“I got such a great sense of these men’s personalities coming through their letters,” he said. “That really surprised me.”
Often, in reading one written account of Gettysburg or a letter from a soldier, Huntington would see references to men or places he’d read in other accounts, which he said gave real life to the people and experiences.
“I felt like I really knew these people,” he said. “There was a letter from a young kid from Vassalboro who wrote to his sister about joining the army and how it would be a grand adventure and he’d see the world.”
Subsequent letters from the same young man to his sister described seeing Washington, D.C., being at the Battle of Fredericksburg and more mundane information about waiting to get his pay.
“Next thing I read, is the account of how he was hit in his elbow by a Confederate bullet and that injury is what killed him,” Huntington said. “I did not see that coming. It was like a gut punch.”
Huntington also read letters from Hiram Berry who served as mayor of Rockland in the mid-1800s before he signed up to fight for the Union in 1861, despite having no previous military experience.
Turns out, according to Huntington, Berry showed, showed a keen sense for battlefield command and was promoted to brigadier general for what was described as gallant service in the Battle of Manassas.
“While serving, he got malaria and was sent home with his hair falling out and in very poor health,” Huntington
said. “But he rallied, went back to his troops and ended up at the Battle of Chancellorsville, where he was killed by a sharpshooter.”
Those are the kinds of stories Huntington loves to find.
“I love telling them,” he said. “I also want people reading my book to get an appreciation of the suffering of these soldiers and the sacrifices they made.”
Following the final battle at Gettysburg, Huntington said the Union troops were in such a rush to chase down the retreating Confederate Army that they left behind crucial gear and equipment including warm clothing and food.
Military bureaucracy further delayed the men getting their crucial gear, Huntington said.
“They suffered a great deal and were in severe discomfort,” he said. “Many did not have coats, and it was so cold their water froze in canteens. It was just brutal with many men dying just because of the red tape that kept them from being reunited with their equipment.”
More than 150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, Huntington said it — and the entire Civil War — still fascinates people deeply.
“There are all kinds of factors at play that could explain that,” he said. “It was one of the first wars that was photographed and it was fought here, not in some far away exotic land.”
Time, he said, has not tempered the passions that ignited the war.
“People are still ‘fighting’ the Civil War,” Huntington said. “It’s part of our history but close enough that you can recognize yourself and your feelings when you look at the faces in those photos. It’s a cliche, but I want people reading this book to understand war is hell.”