When the 24th Maine Infantry Regiment officially completed its nine months of military service in July 1863, Col. George Marston Atwood expected to take his weary men home from Port Hudson.
Nathaniel Banks apparently squelched the idea, though, and the angry Atwood wrote a blistering letter to his perceived “actual” commander: Maine Governor Abner Coburn.
One among eight similar regiments recruited in late summer/early autumn 1862, the 24th Maine had mustered at Augusta (the state capital) on October 16. Standing 5-7½, the 45-year-old Atwood was a book seller living in Gardiner when Coburn’s predecessor, Israel Washburn Jr., gave him command of the regiment.
The 24th Maine served in East New York (now part of Brooklyn) until shipping to Louisiana in early 1863. After chasing Confederates across the Pelican State’s bayous and waterways, the Mainers reached Port Hudson in May.
According to Atwood, the 24th Maine “was often under a severe fire” while at Port Hudson, and the Mainers frequently were “called upon to build roads and bridges. Nearly every night the men were ordered to work on earthworks and rifle pits.”
Atwood and the 24th Maine participated in the May 27 assault ordered by Banks, who was not keen on the nine-month regiments assigned to him. That attack cost him 1,995 casualties.
The Vicksburg garrison surrendered on July 4, the Port Hudson garrison on July 9. Adding nine months to October 16, 1862, Atwood wrote Coburn on July 16 that “I have the honor to inform you that the term of service for the 24th Regiment expires today, and yet to all appearances Gen. Banks does not intend to send us home at present, not withstanding this place fell eight days ago.
“Today we were placed in a new position to guard the outer works of this fort,” Atwood growled. “We are all exposed to the rays of a hot sun, and I fear it will not be long before a large number of the men will sicken & die. Nearly one half of the regt. are now on the sick list.”
“It is a great outrage to keep the men here beyond their time,” he hissed.
Three other nine-month regiments from Maine still lingered at Port Hudson, as did “the 28 [Maine Infantry] “down river at some point,” Atwood informed Coburn. Banks claimed “he has had no notice from any source” as to when the nine-month regiments (and not just Maine’s) should be discharged, “and [the] government has made no provision to transport them.”
The 24th Maine lads angrily discussed the problem among themselves, but word reached their colonel. “I can assure you one thing[,] the men will have their revenge at the ballot box,” Atwood wrote without explaining how the Mainers could vote Banks out of office.
“I never saw so much dissatisfaction among a body of men as there is among about ten or fifteen regiments” slated to be discharged, yet held at Port Hudson, Atwood wrote. “This is a very wrong way to treat our soldiers. It is abusing confidence. There is now no necessity for keeping us here.
“We have already lost a large number of men to disease, and I fear the disappointment of not going home will have a tendency to depress their spirits so that we shall loose (sic] a still greater number,” Atwood told Coburn.
He asked the governor to “take immediate measures” to convince the War Department to send Maine’s nine-month regiments home “with the least possible delay.”1
Atwood proved prescient in predicting additional fatalities. Starting for home on July 20 aboard a steamboat churning upriver to Cairo, Illinois, the 24th Maine left sick men there and in Chicago and Buffalo.
Soldiers continued dying en route and after they arrived home. Commanded by Arthur Deering (a Richmond clergyman), Co. A (for example) would lose 21 men to disease, plus Pvt. Dennis Williams, “killed by accident” in “East New York” in early December 1862. Of those 22 fatalities, disease killed six Co. A men after Atwood wrote his July 16 letter. The last to die (on August 19) was Pvt. Benjamin Ridley of Richmond.
In his final report issued to Maine Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon, Atwood stated, “The regiment lost heavily from disease, not less than 184 having died. About 100 were discharged for disability.”
At least eight men were wounded at Port Hudson, but the 24th Maine at least suffered no KIAs.2
1 Col. George M. Atwood to Maine Governor Abner Coburn, July 16, 1863, Maine State Archives; George M. Marston Soldier’s File, MSA
2 Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, 1863; (Augusta, ME, 1863), 100, 675-676;