May 18, 1863
I received your letter from Bangor last night. I am sorry that you have been worrying about my going into battle, for I did not go as near as I wanted to, but I was where I could see some of it. We came in from picket yesterday. One of the Regts of our Brigade – the 17th N.Y. – went home this morning. We marched to the depot to see them off.
Wednesday [May 20]. I was interrupted when I got to where I left off by John Lyford’s calling out, “Fall in for your taters.” As soon as dinner was over I had to go off after brush to build a fence around General somebody’s headquarters. We had a review yesterday and the 2nd Maine started for home this morning. It’s almost time for the mail to go and, as I don’t feel very well this morning, I will close. Wain Cushing was wounded through the leg above the knee at Fredericksburg. I don’t see much prospect of another battle very soon.
From your aff [affectionate] brother,
William P. Lamson to his sister Jennie, May 18 and 20, 1863.
Sometimes we have the impression that soldiers and units stayed with the large Union armies for the duration of the war, unless illness or wounds forced them from the ranks. Not exactly true. Rarely is history simple! Throughout the Civil War, enlistment terms came to an end, unless a soldier had enlisted for the duration of the conflict (more typical in the South, from my reading).
In his letter, William Lamson mentions two regiments who are going home – their enlistments ended. Lamson hadn’t seen enough battle to wish himself home yet, but other veterans had and sometimes the ending enlistments caused bitterness, sadness, frustration, or – in extreme cases – mutiny.
Did you notice Lamson’s mention of the 2nd Maine Regiment? Some of the 2nd Maine soldiers had a problem, and it went like this. Most had enlisted for just two years (1861-1863) and headed home, as Lamson recorded. However, some 2nd Maine men had inadvertently signed three year enlistment papers, meaning they had to stay with the army until 1864. The trouble began when their buddies went home and they didn’t. Many of the three-year enlistment men had thought they’d only signed up to fight with the 2nd Maine and didn’t want to assimilate into another unit. The trouble continued with belligerence and irritated superior officers, until – during the Gettysburg Campaign – these 2nd Maine “mutineers” who refused to fight or do anything got dumped at the 20th Maine’s camp. Yep, William Lamson’s unit. Eventually, most of the 2nd Maine men decided to join the 20th Maine, adding to that units ranks prior to the fight on Little Round Top at Gettysburg.
Enlisting those armies and keeping men in the field wasn’t quite as simple as we all thought, watching those colored representative blocks maneuver on an animated map. (I do like animated maps, so that’s not a criticism, just a fact to keep in mind.)
The 20th Maine
Mustered into service in August 1862, the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment was destined for eventual history book fame, thanks to its commander Joshua L. Chamberlain‘s prolific writing, a novel, and a Hollywood movie. Try to forget Gettysburg for just a minute…because in May 1863 the 20th Maine wasn’t even close to Gettysburg.
They had been present at Antietam‘s battlefield in September 1862 but didn’t see battle line action. Guard duty and marching consumed the autumn months, prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg which was the unit’s first large fight. Men of the 20th had hoped to enter combat at the Battle of Chancellorsville – but alas (or good fortune!) – they had got faulty smallpox vaccines, were declared possibly contagious, and sent out of guard duty, leaving Lamson just in sight of the fighting but really no were near it.
William Lamson had missed the Battle of Fredericksburg, laid up at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. From his letters, he seemed anxious to really get into a battle. Perhaps some of his comrades joshed him about his lack of experience in a fight. His turn would come – after a long march to Gettysburg in 1863 and in the dense forests called the Wilderness in 1864.
Lamson mentions an acquaintance who got wounded at Fredericksburg. While it’s possible he could be referring the the First Battle of Fredericksburg, fought in December 1862, it’s more likely he’s referring the the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, fought on May 3, 1863. Yes, while the Battle of Chancellorsville raged to the west, Union troops made another assault at Maryes Heights; this time it was successful.
This often overlooked battle played an important role in the Battle of Chancellorsville, forcing the Confederates to guard their rear and try to finish the western battle quickly to maneuver to meet the new threat.
Amazing little details and historical reminders tucked into “common soldier” letters!