Unpublished letters written by a 5-4½ musician first class offer historically rich insight into minor and major events involving the Army of the Potomac.
Born in Saco, Maine circa 1834, Samuel Franklyn Parcher lived in Portland prior to enlisting in the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment on June 24, 1861. Mustered the same day, he promptly shipped for Washington, D.C. As his prolific letters reveal, his hazel eyes missed little detail during his army service.
His neat cursive penmanship indicates a good education; known as “Frank” or “Franklyn” (but never “Sam” or “Samuel”), Parcher spelled almost every word correctly and wrote coherently. Using ink when available and a pencil otherwise, he corresponded with his mother, a brother, a sister, his friend James O. Parsons (also “Jim”), and others during the war.
Now owned by Parcher descendant Eric Hill (who granted his permission to quote them), the multi-page letters cover far more topics than a typical Maine enlisted soldier’s observations about the weather and army chow.
On Friday, December 13, 1861 “we had something new … what the ‘boys’ call a ‘shooting match.’ A public execution of a traitor!” Parcher informed Parsons from Camp Franklin in Virginia. A “Lincoln Cavalry [1st New York Cavalry]” private, William H. Johnson, had deserted with his horse and weapons after dark on December 4 and ridden toward Confederate lines.
Caught and courtmartialed, the 23-year-old Johnson went forth to his death about 3 p.m. on December 13. Forming a three-sided hollow square, “the whole division was present. Including 12 Regts. and several squadrons of cavalry and a battery of artillery,” Parcher wrote.
Two Catholic priests escorted Johnson amidst regimental bands playing dirges and civilians from Alexandria and Washington, D.C. (“ladies as well as gents”) watching the grim proceedings. “It will probably be enough to satisfy the curiosity to see one such butchery,” Parcher believed.
Twelve 1st New York Cavalry troopers formed the firing squad. “Dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves,” the blindfolded Johnson “sat upon his coffin … and when the soldiers fired, he struggled but very little and expired,” according to Parcher.
“The soldiers were so arranged that every one could see him when he fell. Then the whole [division] were marched close by the body, which was shockingly mangled being pierced by 12 bullets,” Parcher wrote.
His letters delved into news from home. Parcher had performed with the Portland-based Chandler’s Band before enlisting. The band subsequently joined the 10th Maine Infantry en masse. “Can you give me any particulars as regard to the 10th Me band?” Parcher asked his mother on May 28, 1862. “Do you know who lost instruments?”
His inquiry refers to an unknown incident. Along with all other Union troops who could get out, the 10th Maine had withdrawn from Winchester, Virginia on May 25. Although regimental histories do not mention the bandsmen losing their brass instruments and drum or two during the retreat.
His letters occasionally expressed irritation. “Why don’t you write a fellow occasionally?” Parcher asked his brother on July 14, 1862. “Something must be going wrong or you have just got tired. I haven’t heard a word from you for several weeks, at least it seems as long.” Realizing he might have been out of line, Parcher then noted that soldiers’ mail could be held up at Fort Monroe or elsewhere, so perhaps his letters had not reached his brother.
One event Parcher apparently considered mundane would visually hurl Union army corps (especially the Army of the Potomac’s) into history. Writing his mother on April 19, 1863, he devoted one paragraph to a morale-altering ordered issued by Joseph Hooker.
“The system of wearing badges recently prescribed has been adopted, and now every soldier wears one — for this Division it is a ‘red cross’ to be worn upon the cap or hat,” Parcher indicated before sketching a red Greek cross at the paragraph’s end and describing the badge as measuring “two and a quarter inches across.”
Parcher soon described to his mother the 5th Maine Infantry’s initial movement in the Chancellorsville campaign. Part of the 1st Division (Brig. Gen. William T.H. Brooks) of VI Corps, the regiment camped behind Stafford Heights, out of Confederate sight, on Tuesday, April 28. The men lit no fires.
Hooker had ordered pontoon bridges constructed across the Rappahannock River so three army corps could reach the plain south of Fredericksburg. The act of crossing … was done in a workmanlike manner,” Parcher commented. That rainy “and consequently very dark” night, the Mainers and soldiers from other regiments reported to where the United States Engineers Battalion (Capt. Chauncey B. Reese) and 15th New York Engineers (Col. Clinton G. Colgate) had parked the pontoon trains well away from the river “so that the noise of the teams … might not surprise the rebels” across the river.
The 5th Maine lads “took the pontoons upon their shoulders a mile from the river” and carried the boats to the shore, he wrote. Infantrymen filled each boat launched quietly into the fog-shrouded Rappahannock at Franklin’s Crossing. “These pontons [sic] were pushed off.”
The engineers rowed, and infantrymen scrambled up the enemy-held bank as the bulky pontoon boats touched the far shore. “The rebel pickets … fired the charge which was already in their muskets and then ran away to the main picket line,” Parcher told his mother without clarifying exactly when Confederates fired at him.
Parcher continued writing frequently until mustering out of the army.He later married and became a Saco mayor.
Sources: Samuel F. Parcher Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives; Harper’s Weekly, “The Execution of Johnson,” Dec. 28, 1861; Samuel Franklyn Parcher letter to James O. Parsons, Dec. 14, 1861; Samuel F. Parcher letter to his mother, May 28, 1862; Samuel F. Parcher letter to his brother, July 14, 1862; Samuel F. Parcher letter to his mother, April 19, 1863; Samuel F. Parcher letter to his mother, May 1, 1863