War Reminiscences of the Bethel Company, Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment [Number 3]


War Reminiscences of the Bethel Company, Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment [Number 3]


Bethel News, Vol. 2, No. 34


January 20, 1897



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Full Text


Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment.

By Col. Clark S. Edwards

number iii

At two o'clock in the morning of May 3 the regiment was in line of battle, the left wing across the Bowling Green turnpike leading into Fredericksburg a mile or two below the city. Our first duty was in driving in the rebel picket; then in supporting the First Massachusetts Battery commanded by Capt. McCartney of Boston. After the batter had shelled the woods in our front, orders were given for the regiment to charge through the woods and drive the enemy's line back over the railroad, if possible. The terrible charge was made, though the enemy, strongly entrenched, was not driven from its position. Just beyond the woods, greatly to the surprise of our men, rebel earthworks with rifle pits running parallel with the railroad were found, filled with men welcoming us into the trap that had been set. Seeing that our position was one of extreme peril, and that sure death awaited all should further attempt to advance be made, the order to fall back a few rods was given, and lines were reformed.

We were only a short distance from the enemy who were pouring shot and shell into our ranks with the most awful results, our forces being out-numbered five to one. Being fully exposed to the fire of the enemy for some time and unable to inflict much loss upon the opposing forces, on account of their strongly entrenched position behind earthworks, I gave the order for the men to lie down, and thus allow the bullets to pass over us rather than into us.

It was here at this time that Adjutant Geo. W. Bicknell was severely wounded in the head. I caught him as he was falling and gave him water. He rallied and the boys took him back to the rear, and from there to the hospital in Fredericksburg, and the next day, May 4, he was sent to Washington with the many wounded of the sixth corps. He was away from the regiment until the last of October or first days of November.

He found us lying in the outskirts of the little aristocratic city of Warrenton. A day or two later he took part in the charge at Rappahannock Station, and soon after in the Mine Run campaign, but the wound in the head was still troubling him. Pride and patriotism kept him in the field almost too long, but on the last of February or March 1st he received an honorable discharge, and he came back to his home at Morrill's Corner (Steven's Plain), in Westbrook, and soon after to Tufts College. He has occupied for many years some of the first churches in the land, and is now at Cambridge, Mass. Dr. Bicknell is one of our most gifted orators. There was one little incident at the time he was wounded, I did not understand. As that shell exploded an army blanket from a knapsack on one of the boys' shoulders, was torn out and spread on top of a tree, some forty feet from the ground. The work was done as neatly as a house-wife hangs her clothing on the line. We have stepped a little outside the Bethel Company in taking up the Adjutant, but then he was not a member of any company at the time, and at least we own one tenth of his glory gained in battle. He was in nearly all the engagements up to Salem's Church, that fatal third of May, the day he received that awful wound which still troubles him, and will until he is mustered into the heavenly ranks on the other shore.

An Orderly was sent back to General Bartlett[1] to inform him of the critical situation in which we were placed. General Bartlett, realizing that further sacrifice of life was unnecessary, gave orders for us to move back to the position we held before making the charge.

It was during this time that Daniel M. Stearns of this village was shot through the hand, the same bullet going into his side, though he did not know that his body was loaded till several years later, when one day while working in a cotton mill at Lewiston, he felt a prickling sensation in his side. On rubbing, he found a hard bunch, which he thought was a tumor of some cancerous growth. He at once went to Dr. Small, who advised him to have the hard substance cut out. Submitting to the operation imagine his surprise when he saw a minie ball on the surgeon's table as a result of the operation. Stearns had carried this bullet in his body for years, though its presence was not known. The bullet is now among my war relics. This bullet did some damage before wounding Stearns.

Sergeant Evans[2] of the Bethel Company, standing near Stearns and in range with the rebel sharpshooter, had in his knapsack a rubber blanket, neatly rolled and folded. The bullet passed through the knapsack, making forty-two holes in the blanket. I remember making the remark that it was no longer water tight, and that Evans was entitled to another. Evans, I think, got even with the enemy before the day closed.

Private Stearns, son of the late Phineas Stearns, born in Bethel 1839, enlisted Dec. 31, 1861, mustered into the United States service Jan. 4, 1862, was wounded through hand and in side May 3rd, 1863, on the plains below Fredericksburg, and was severely wounded through arm and shoulder at the Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania. May 12, '64, he joined the Bethel Company at camp Franklin. He was discharged from the service Jan. 4, 1865, and came back to his old home and worked for the Butterfields in the sash, blind and door factor at the foot of High St.

He remained here some two or three years and then went to work in the Androscoggin Mill at Lewiston, where he was employed twenty years or more. It was here that his health failed, and he was obliged to leave the mill for out of door exercise.

He married Miss Nellie Sylvester some seventeen years ago, and is now living at Etna in this state. We see him quite often on our streets, as that good heart of his leads him this way to look after that good and aged mother, who now lives in the cottage on the corner next to the Universalist church with the two daughters.

I will here say to his old tent mates, that he is receiving $17 per month from the Government, also has a job carrying the U. S. mail. He would be happy to receive a visit from any of his old comrades, they will find his table free and loaded with the best, but I am sorry to say that they will not find any young Stearnses to bless and make that good home perfect.

On the morning of the fatal May 3rd the Bethel Company lost two men, who were killed, Corporal Joseph C. Sawyer and Samuel G. Shaw[3], both of Raymond, Me. Sawyer joined the company in Portland. He was a brother of B. S. Sawyer who was one of the first men to enroll his name as a member of the Company in Bethel in April 1861. Raymond may well feel proud of the heroic services performed by her patriotic son, J. C. Sawyer. Shaw died at his post, facing the enemy. I did not know him well, yet all records indicate that he was a good soldier. He joined the company Aug. 22, 1862.

After moving back to the position we left in the early morning, where we remained till 11 A.M., the ever-remembered charge upon St. Mary's Heights was made. Never was a charge more gallantly made, not excepting the world famous Picket's Charge at Gettysburg. As a witness of both charges, in my opinion, the one at St. Mary's Heights deserves a place in history with that at Gettysburg. Picket charged across an open field for nearly a mile in the face of hundreds of cannon and thousands of muskets, though for the greater part of the distance, only the artillery poured forth shot and shell; the muskets were not used with much effect till the rebels were comparatively near our lines.

At St. Mary's Heights, Gen. Newton, with a few regiments, charged over sunken roads, stone walls, washouts, rifle pits and uneven ground, up the heights in full view of the enemy, who commanded an almost impregnable position. The volleys of musketry were deafening, while the artillery filled the air with grape and canister. Up the Heights the boys pushed nobly on. Only men of mighty courage could have faced that terrible storm. The rebels were driven from position to position till at last the Heights were captured, though at a greater loss of life in proportion to numbers engaged, than was sustained in Picket's charge.

The 5th Maine Regiment was not as actively engaged in this terrible charge at Fredericksburg, as the noble 6th Maine, who planted its flag on the Heights in advance of all other regiments. What a cheer went up from the boys of the 5th Maine, as they saw the light brigade break through the rebel lines winning the day! A glorious victory, most nobly won!

The 5th Maine held the same ground that we occupied on the 3th of December 1862, under Burnside, when we saw General Sumner and his troops make five or six charges, the last being in the early evening. From the position we held, it seemed as if Sumner's men and the enemy crossed bayonets; so near were they to each other, that the forked fires flashed like lightning. The air was full of exploding shells, these with the fire from the muzzles of the guns and cannon's mouth, produced fire-works on a grander scale than is often seen, though accompanied with sadness almost indescribable, for the Union loss was more than six thousand killed and wounded in Sumner's grand division.

Gen. Lee at this time Dec. 14, 1862, sent word to Burnside that he would give him twenty-four hours in which to move the wounded from Fredericksburg, the city being in exact range of the enemy's artillery. This battle was one of the most desperate battles of the war. Had the Union forces longer remained in Fredericksburg, almost total annihilation must have been the result, for nearly the whole of Lee's army was in our front, a large force on the left and in the rear and on the Rappahannock River on the right.

[to be continued.]

[1] Brigadier General Joseph Jackson Bartlett.

[2] Probably James M. Evans of Gorham, N.H.

[3] Probably Samuel Y. Shaw of Raymond.