Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part three)

Whenever he visits Fredericksburg, Maine at War blogger Brian Swartz stops by the Slaughter Pen Farm to walk the route taken by the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment on December 13, 1862. (Photo courtesy of Susan Swartz)

part three in a four-part series

I’m talking this week with writer Brian Swartz about his excellent blog Maine at War. In yesterday’s segment, we talked about the connection people in Maine felt—or didn’t feel—to the war taking place so far from home, and how Brian’s blog really gets at those connections on a very human level.

He’s also good at capturing big events from a soldier’s-eye view, like, “Joe Hooker takes command, and here’s what the soldiers think,” “emancipation happens, and here’s what the soldiers think.”

Chris Mackowski: Tying that back to what you just said [in the last segment], I think you do a good job of making the war very personal through the stories of these individuals. 

Brian Swartz: Well thank you. That’s been the goal from the beginning. I’ve learned the hard way not to trust the validity of what the generals publish in the original records. I’m sure you’re aware that there were some Union generals that would ignore what they had done wrong or take credit for something that somebody else did right. I’m thinking about Oliver Otis Howard at Chancellorsville, who spent very little time talking about his failure to secure his flank in his official records report. But the soldiers, the ones on the front lines, identify what’s happening.

Both sides of my family have had strong military traditions. My father was a United States Marine aviator in World War II, and then he was an Air Force combat pilot for two tours in Korea. My mother was a Coast Guard veteran, a Coast Guard SPAR in World War II. Her brother served a year in Vietnam in a non-combat role. My brother just retired from the Maine National Guard as a colonel after 30 years in service in both the Guard and the Army, and that included a year’s tour as the coalition brigade commander in Afghanistan. Particularly from my father, some of his tales were probably where I learned to focus more on the people on the lower-echelon levels. He retired as a major, so he never became a general, but sometimes I think wearing your first star can change a man’s attitude about himself, whereas down among the grunts, I really appreciate what the man at the regimental level did, from the lowest private even up to colonel. Ordinary Mainers got the job done and came home. It was just incredible.

Chris: The way you articulate that makes it sound like no-nonsense Yankee sensibility.

Brian: It is. There’s the attitude up here that, at least when you get away from the halls of government and anything above Augusta, that “We’ll take care of this and get it done.” You see it often at the local level. The town needs something done and volunteers will get together—say, it’s something like a construction project—they make the plans and they build it. The Mainers that were here were very independent and self-sufficient, particularly the farmers, sailors, loggers, and fishermen, and they would not let anything stand in the way of getting the job done.

I am surprised at how many and why so many rallied around the flag of our state. Fifteen percent of the state’s population went off to war, and even considering the draft, I still cannot determine why these volunteers all did it. But they took with them their ideals of “We want to get the job done, and we want to go home.”

I particularly see that in some of the writings from John Haley in the 17th Maine. [Haley’s book, The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer (Downeast, 1985) is one of the best-written primary accounts of the war available.] Some of the other material I’ve come across from that Army of the Potomac regiment in the battle of Fredericksburg and that disastrous fall and winter, thanks to Burnside and his incompetence—that’s my own opinion—were men who just stayed with it.

A year or two ago I wrote a blog post about a letter that was written by a local soldier who explained why he and his comrades were staying with the flag. It was very poignant and moving. I am proud to be able to write about these people.

Unfortunately, I do not have any blood ancestors who served in a Federal unit, at least from Maine. Even though I had family here in the Penobscot Valley by the 1850s, none of them served in the military. Fortunately, my maternal grandfather’s mother was a widow. She married someone who was a veteran of the 22nd Maine as her second husband, so I view him as a Union soldier who was adopted into the family. I’m proud to claim him as my one Maine connection.

Chris: I still have family in Maine, but I don’t have any ancestors from the state who fought. But it’s been really neat to find guys who are from the same places I lived and worked up there. You have these connections and, like you said, you sort of adopt these guys and become very partial toward them. Do you have a particular regiment that you’re partial to?

Brian: Yes, the 11th Maine Infantry.

Chris: What do you love about them?

Brian: Specifically, Company D with Sergeant Robert Brady and his son, who was 16 when he joined, Robert Brady Jr., who actually went on to write the regimental history. I just had the impression that this particular regiment epitomized the ordinary men of Maine that got together, served together, went and fought some confusing battles for this particular outfit. They were tough, they had that ability, as Mainers do, to look up the chain of command and see which of the officers were phonies and which officers really cared for their men. Other than that, I can’t really tell you why, other than that they seemed to be a real cast of characters, many of them being from the Penobscot Valley—and because I’ve lived here most of my life, there’s a connection there. I’m familiar with the area.

Chris: If you were to point someone in the direction of trying to learn more about Maine’s story during the war, obviously your blog is the place to go, but if people want to know more, what would you tell them?

Brian: There are some books out there but not many. I would recommend that if someone was looking for the history of a particular Maine regiment to read Edward Tobie’s History of the 1st Maine Cavalry. It’s well written, and the action often flows very well—granted that it’s in 19th Century grammar and writing style. The book Maine Roads to Gettysburg by Tom Huntington is a very good introduction to some of the Maine regiments and units at Gettysburg. I like the way he takes these units from their muster or formation to when they arrive at Gettysburg and what they do there. He has done Maine history quite a service in articulating the stories of those particular units.

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Of course, if you’re going to mention “Maine” and “Gettysburg,” there’s one personality who towers over the rest. When we wrap up our conversation tomorrow, I’ll ask Brian about JLC.