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Chapter 8: Colonel of the Third Maine regiment; departure for the front

The cottage at West Point where with my family I resided May 28, 1861, was a square two-story building, a little back from the street. This street, going south, passed the academy building and old Cadets' Hospital, and ran along the brow of a steep slope, parallel with the Hudson River. My cottage, just below the hospital, had an eastern face toward the river from which there was a pleasant outlook. The luxurious foliage of the highlands was then at its best. The cliffs, hills, and mountains on both banks of the Hudson had already put on nature's prettiest summer dress. If one entered our front hallway and glanced into the parlor and up the stairway, he would say: “It is a pleasant and comfortable home.”

I came home that day after my morning lessons a little later than usual. Before entering my front gate, I raised my eyes and saw the picture of my little family framed in by the window. Home, family, comfort, beauty, joy, love were crowded into an instant of thought and feeling, as I sprang through the door and quickly ascended the stairway.

I handed my wife the superintendent's paper granting me a short leave. “Nothing startling,” I said, as I noticed her surprise; “if I am chosen colonel of the Kennebec Regiment, I wish to be on the ground to organize [112] it.” It was short notice, less than an hour for preparation, as the down train passed Garrison's, east of the Hudson, at 1.30 P. M.

My valise was soon packed, luncheon finished, and then came the moment of leave-taking, made a little harder by my wife's instinctive apprehension that I would not return to West Point. Her instinct, womanlike, was superior to my reasoning. In truth, I was not to come back I For an instant there was a momentary irresolution and a choking sensation filled my throat, but the farewell was cheerfully spoken and I was off.

My wife was patriotic, strong for the integrity of the Union, full of the heroic spirit, so when the crisis came, though so sudden and hard to bear, she said not one adverse word. I saw her watch me as I descended the slope toward the ferry landing, looked back, and waved my hat as I disappeared behind the ledge and trees. The swift train beyond the Hudson, emerging from the tunnel, caught me up, stopped three minutes, and then rushed on with increasing speed and noise.

Thus our young men left happy homes at their country's call; but the patient, heroic wives who stayed behind and waited, merit the fuller sympathy.

An army officer in New York City told me of my election to the colonelcy as an accomplished fact; so that I telegraphed to Blaine that I was en route, wrote a brief note to my home, and went on to Boston by the evening train. In the early morning I walked through the crooked streets of Boston from the Worcester Station to the Revere House, breakfasted there, caught the 7.30 train on the Boston & Maine, and sped off to arrive at Augusta before five the same afternoon. Here I received Mr. Blaine's reply as follows: [113]

Augusta, 29th of May, 1861.
My Dear Howard:
You were chosen to the command of the Third Regiment yesterday and public opinion is entirely unanimous in favor of having you accept the position. You will be at once notified of your election officially. The regiment is enlisted for three years, and will be called into service at once. You must hold yourself ready to come at a moment's notice. I understand the Lieutenant Colonel is an admirable military man, one that will be both efficient and agreeable.

Truly yours, in great haste, [Signed] Blaine.

This letter did not reach me at West Point. As soon as I found that I was chosen to the colonelcy, instead of asking for an enabling lengthy leave of absence, I tendered a resignation of my army commision. Washington officials of the War Department were still obstructing such leaves, and ordnance officers were particularly wanted at arsenals. But the resignations of Southern seceding officers were promptly accepted.

When my resignation was also accepted with a batch of others and published in the newspapers, many old acquaintances, curiously enough, thought I had joined the rebellion. I was not out of service at all, for it was five days after I received my commission and took the new regiment that I ceased to be an officer of the Ordnance Department.

I made the Augusta House my temporary headquarters. It was on the north side of State Street and had a long porch in front, with a balcony above it. I found the porch and balcony very convenient for meeting the officers and friends of the regiment. At this hotel my brother, Charles Henry Howard, a Bangor theological student, met me, shortly after my arrival, to offer himself for enlistment. [114]

Israel Washburn was Governor of Maine. He had a large, strong face, full of resolute purpose, and habitually covered his eyes with glasses for nearsightedness, so that he did not prepossess a stranger on first approach; but the instant the introduction had passed a wonderful animation seized him and changed the whole man. He was at that time replete with patriotic enthusiasm and energy, and soon held a foremost place among the war governors of his time.

The next morning after my arrival in Augusta, the governor was early in his office at the State House. He had hardly thrown aside his light overcoat and taken his chair when a young man with a brisk, businesslike air opened the door and entered without ceremony. He paid no attention to the governor's jocose welcome; but, opening his large eyes to their full, kept his mind steadily upon the matter in hand. He said:

You know, governor, I recommended to you and to the Third Regiment a young man from the regular army, Oliver O. Howard, a lieutenant, teaching at West Point.

“Oh, yes. He belongs to Maine--to Leeds; was born there. He was elected. Will he accept?”

Howard is already on hand,” answered the governor's visitor, “and I will bring him up and introduce him, if you are at leisure.”

“ Certainly I Glad he has come so soon,” answered Washburn. “Have him come up.”

This energetic visitor was James G. Blaine. One could hardly find a more striking character. His figure was good — nearly six feet and well proportioned; his hair, what you could see of it under his soft hat pushed far back, was a darkish brown. It showed the disorder due to sundry thrusts of the fingers.. His [115] coat, a little long, was partially buttoned. This, with the collar, shirt front, and necktie, had the negligee air of a dress never thought of after the first adjustment. His head was a model in size and shape, with a forehead high and broad, and he had, as you would anticipate in a strong face, a large nose. But the distinguishing feature of his face was that pair of dark-gray eyes, very full and bright. He wore no beard, had a slight lisp in speech with a clear, penetrating nasal tone. He excelled even the nervous Washburn in rapid utterance. Nobody in the Maine House of Representatives, where he had been for two years and of which he was now the Speaker, could match him in debate. He was, as an opponent, sharp, fearless, aggressive, and uncompromising; he always had given in wordy conflicts, as village editor and as debater in public assemblies, blow for blow with ever-increasing momentum. Yet from his consummate management he had already become popular. Such was Blaine at thirty years of age.

When I was presented the governor arose quickly, took my right hand in both of his and shook it warmly. “Many congratulations, my young friend. Your regiment is already here-across the way. You must hasten and help us to get it into shape. At first you will find ‘ the boys ’ a little rough, but we've got you a firstrate adjutant, haven't we, Blainet”

“I think, governor, you will have to let the colonel choose his adjutant and organize his staff himself,” answered Blaine, smiling. That reply was heplful to me, and Washburn rejoined:

Well, well; all right,

adding pleasantly: “Introduce Burt to the colonel. I guess they'll agree. Don't forget.” [116]

“Be sure, Governor Washburn,” I said, “I shall always respect your wishes and we will soon be ready for the front.”

“ Just so, just so. How I like the true ring. We will put down this rebellion in short order with this sort of spirit; eh, Blaine?” Thus Washburn ran on. Blaine laughed as he quietly assured the governor that he was too sanguine. “If you had come from a place as near the border as I did, you would not emphasize short order; not much I My mind is fully prepared for a long siege.”

“As God wills,” said the governor, rising. “Now let us go down and introduce Colonel Howard to ‘the boys.’ ”

I was sure that Mr. Washburn felt satisfied with my election. His first three years regiment — a thousand strong-made up of his friends and neighbors, was to be commanded by one who had received a military education, and who had at least some army experience.

Slender of build, and at the time pale and thin, I did not seem to those who casually met me to have the necessary toughness, but for reasons of his own, perhaps owing to his nearsightedness, Washburn gave me immediate confidence.

We three then left the governor's room, descended the broad steps to the east, crossed State Street, and proceeded along a gravel path to about the center of a grovelike park. This was a public lot which extended along the street for some distance and then east toward the Kennebec an eighth of a mile. A portion of that beautiful inclosure was alloted to my regiment. In fact, it already had possession. The choicest of everything belonged to the men at that time. They [117] had new clothes (a gray uniform), new guns, new tents, new equipments, and new flags, and were, as I saw, encamped amid beautiful shrubbery, sweet-scented flowers, and blossoming trees. But one glance showed me that the camp itself was in disorder. A thousand recruits were there under captains and lieutenants who themselves were new to the business; here and there older men, women and children were mingled in groups with the soldiers. Parents had come to see their sons before they set out for the war. Young wives and sweethearts were there; but notwithstanding the seriousness of the occasion, there was more gala excitement than solemnity. Many soldiers were even jubilant; some had been drinking and some were swearing.

“ Oh, pshaw, father! Don't be gloomy; I shan't be gone more'n two months.”

“ Come, mother, don't be alarmed; this will be a short trip.”

“Hurrah, hurrah Down with the saucy curs! We'll make short work of this business; only let's be off!”

Such scraps of conversation caught our ears as we passed near the groups. At one place a scene more pathetic reminded me of home. A wife with a child in her arms stood by a man in new uniform and was shedding tears while trying to hear her husband's kindly directions and hopeful predictions.

Quickly the people gathered near the stout governor; but he was too short of stature to see more than those near at hand, so noticing something elevated (an overturned half-hogshead) upon which he could stand, Washburn stepped on it and began speaking in his cheery way. [118]

Some soldiers in a loud voice called: “Cheers for our governor” A large number responded in strong, manly tones.

“Thank you, thank you, boys; I have brought you somebody you will like to see. Come up here, Colonel Howard. This is your new colonel.”

All eyes turned steadily toward me as soon as I had mounted the rostrum and was standing beside the governor; but the cheers called for were noticeably faint. Iow young, how slender the new colonel appeared; hardly the man to be placed over strong, hardy fellows whose frames were already well knit and toughened by work. In spite of their vote two days before, a reaction had set in — it was evidently not quite the welcome thing for these free spirits to be put under anticipated West Point discipline. Some of the captains who had been to see me at the Augusta House the night before were already somewhat disaffected. They said: “Under Tucker, the other candidate for colonel, we could have had a good time, but this solemn Howard will keep us at arm's length.” Blaine continued to befriend me. He told them that they would need men like me if ever called to fight. “In time, I assure you, you'll not be sorry that you chose him.”

I attempted an address, but had spoken only a few words when a remarkable silence hushed the entire assemblage; a new idea appeared to have entered their minds and become prominent: I pleaded for work in preparation for war, and not a few months of holiday entertainment, and hurrah boys to frighten and disperse a Southern rabble by bluster; after which to enjoy a quick return to our homes.

Good men and women were glad for this evident change of front, and murmured around me: “God [119] bless the young man and give him health and strength.”

I had hoped that the officers of the regiment would elect my brother Rowland, a Congregational minister, chaplain. It would have been a great comfort to have had his companionship and counsel, but the Rev. Andrew J. Church, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was preferred. Later Rowland went to the front as an agent of the Christian Commission. My disappointment was lessened by my younger brother's enlistment and detail as regimental clerk. This brother, Charles H. Howard, obtained his first commission as second lieutenant in the Sixty-first New York, was with me on staff duty till 1865, and received deserved promotion from grade to grade till he became a lieutenant colonel and inspector general. He was later made colonel of the One Hundred and Twenty-eighth colored regiment and was finally brevetted brigadier general for gallant and meritorious conduct during the war.

The proper form and order of an encampment were soon instituted and all the staff officers, commissioned and noncommissioned, appointed. Sergeant Edwin Burt, suggested by the governor, was made adjutant. Military knowledge and experience were then of great service. Burt, in time, by worthy promotion, became a lieutenant colonel and lost his life, May 6, 1864, in the battle of the Wilderness.

William D. Haley, of Bath, filled two offices, regimental quartermaster and commissary, and Dr. G. S. Palmer, of Gardiner, that of surgeon. One of the noncommissioned staff, the commissary sergeant, Joseph S. Smith, of Bath, became, in time, General Sedgwick's brigade division and corps commissary with the rank [120] of colonel. The field officers were Lieutenant Colonel Isaac N. Tucker and Major Henry G. Staples. The former, who turned out to have no aptitude for military command, resigned during the first year and Staples took his place. Captain Charles A. L. Sampson succeeded Tucker as major. A very worthy lieutenant, James H. Tallman, followed Haley on his leaving the service the first year as regimental quartermaster. His efficiency gained him afterwards promotion in the regular army. The administrative functions of my regiment were thus fully provided for, even though the officers designated had had no experience. Some essential drilling was all I attempted at Augusta, just enough to enable me to move the regiment in a body and to load and fire with some degree of precision.

The call from Washington soon reached our governor; my regiment must be ready to go forward by June 5th. The time was too short and my duties too engrossing even to warrant visiting my parents at Leeds, though but twenty miles distant. I, therefore, sent my brother to bring my stepfather and my mother to the city. But they had anticipated me. Fearing from a rumor the sudden departure of the regiment, they had under the unusual circumstances traveled on Sunday and come all the way that day to relatives in Hallowell, three miles distant from our camp. Here we had a family meeting.

The morning of June 5th was beautiful. The sun shone from a cloudless sky; the fruit trees and the luxurious lilacs were in full bloom; the maples in every part of Augusta were thick with leaves as rich and charming as fresh green could make them. Very early the city was astir; soon it was out of doors. The dresses of women and children furnished every variety [121] of coloring, and little by little the people grouped themselves along the slope to the Kennebec River. Brightbuttoned uniforms were noticeable among them. The groups, varying in size, were in gardens, on hillsides, and upon porches, front steps, balconies, and all convenient housetops. All eyes were turned toward the railway, which ran southward not far from the river bank. The cars could easily be seen by the people. They were loaded inside and out, and always surrounded by a dense crowd of lookers-on.

Opposite the State House, at the outer edge of the multitude, I noticed a single group. The father, past middle life, stood watching as the men were placing tents and other baggage upon freight cars. Near him was a son talking hopefully to his mother: “Keep up heart, mother, and look as much as you can on the bright side.”

“Oh, yes, my son, it is easy to talk, but it is hard--”

She did not finish the sentence, but after a few moments and tears, commended him to the keeping of the Heavenly Father and urged him not to forget Him or home.

Finally, the whistles blew significantly and the engine bells began to ring. There were many last embraces, many sobbing mothers, wives, and dear ones; then streams of bright uniforms rushed down the slopes to the trains.

Slowly these trains moved out of Augusta. Heads were thrust out of car windows; and the tops of railcoaches were covered with men, sitting and standing. Before the trains had disappeared, the regimental band struck up a national air. But there was no responsive cheering from the cars. Hats and handkerchiefs [122] were waved, and here and there a small national flag shaken out, as if to suggest to the waiting people the object of our departure.

Who can forget his last look at that multitude on the hillside — the swift motion of waving handkerchiefs, flags, and outstretched hands A curve in the track shut off the view; and thus departed this precious, typical freight of war.

At Hallowell, where we tarried a few minutes, my brother Charles and I parted with our mother. Then and ever after I sympathized with soldiers who left true, loving, watching hearts at home. But the relief from oppressive sentiment was found in absorbing duties and active work.

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