Commanding The Regiment: Colonel William S. Lincoln, 34th Massachusetts – Part 2

This blog post traces the life and command experiences Lieutenant Colonel Williams S. Lincoln of the 34th Massachusetts Infantry. For a biography of Colonel George D. Wells with the 34th Massachusetts, please refer to Part 1.

While George D. Wells held the place of beloved colonel of the 34th Massachusetts, William S. Lincoln operated in his shadow, often commanding the regiment when Wells performed court martial duties or held brigade command. Lincoln’s story with the regiment gives opportunity to examine several points: the key role of the lieutenant colonel and holding command in the shadow of the regimental favorite. Interestingly, Lincoln seems to have been well-liked by many of the veterans, but there were certainly a few in the ranks during the war who did not like his leadership and wanted to see him gone. Whether this dislike stemmed from personality, leadership style, perceived incompetence, comparison to Wells, or pre-war politics is difficult to identify, but from the sources consulted thus far, it does not seem to have been wide spread, especially considering Lincoln’s warm reception at veteran reunions and the apparent general acceptance of his regimental history.[i]

Lt. Col. William S. Lincoln (Find a Grave)

Born on November 21, 1811, William Sever Lincoln was the son of Levi and Penelope Lincoln. His father was one of the prominent governors of Massachusetts, and William grew up in Worchester. At age 14, he arrived at Bowdoin College and graduated in 1828, then practiced law. Lincoln married Elizabeth Trumball, the daughter of Worchester business man and real estate owner, and they had four sons.[ii] In 1837, Lincoln moved his family to Alton, Illinois, where he worked as the town’s attorney and became involved in the trials following the death of abolitionist printer, Elijah Lovejoy. About ten years later, he returned to Worchester, Massachusetts, continuing his law practice and admitted to practicing in U.S. District Courts.[iii] Lincoln actively participated in militia organization and drilling and also led agricultural development in his home county, enjoying his own farming pursuits.

When the Civil War began, Lincoln watched his son, William, enlist in the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the early units and the regiment attacked in the Baltimore Riot in April 1861.[iv] By 1862, Lincoln sought to serve actively, too. On June 3, special orders arrived: “William S. Lincoln, of the City of Worcester, was designated and appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 34th Regiment; and directed to assume command of said Camp John E. Wool ; to use his utmost exertions for the speedy organization of said regiment; and for that purpose, he was authorized to make requisitions upon the Adjutant General for such camp equipage, clothing, subsistence, and transportation, as he might require…”[v] Recruiting requirements for the 34th Massachusetts were strict in an effort to only enlist soldiers who could endure military service. Lincoln may have been behind this, prompting one soldier to complain, “Lieut. Col. Lincoln has his own ideas, of course, as to which is ‘necessary strictness.’”[vi]

Once the regiment mustered in August 1862 under command of Colonel George D. Wells, they journeyed to their first post of duty: the Defenses of Washington. Here, Lincoln took on his duties of second in command, helping to instill and enforce discipline, and also making efforts to improve the lives of his soldiers. At Fort Lyon, he created and enforced regulations on the regimental sutlers (civilian sellers) to avoid gouging prices or sale of prohibited items, mainly alcohol.[vii] He oversaw the regiment guards and their duties in the fort and later proudly recalled the first time he performed a review, inspection, and pay muster when Colonel Wells was ill.[viii]

In the spring of 1863 when Wells took command of multiple forts and large section of the Defenses of Washington, Lincoln was recognized as “commanding the 34th Massachusetts” and directly oversaw the creation of new earthworks according to the orders.[ix]

Part of the 34th Massachusetts photographed during skirmish drill

Lincoln seems to have put effort into little projects or activities to show his care for his troops. According to one report, he created a flower garden in boxes which he install in the regimental hospital barracks.[x] He also bent the rules of military regulations on occasion for a little fun. In May 1863, Lincoln suspended drill at his soldiers’ request and agreed to umpire a game of football. “The weather was intensely hot; the game sharply contested; and, in their desire to win, many of the boys reduced their clothing to shirts, drawers, and stockings. The Colonel [Wells], who has been absent in Washington a day or two, drove into camp with a party of lady friends, but turned away at seeing the condition of the men, and subsequently administered a sharp reprimand for what he was pleased to call the “indecent exhibition.”[xi]

In June 1863, Lincoln served as president of the board examining application for officers’ commissions to command regiments of Black troops.[xii] That same month Lincoln had a visit from Dr. Mary Walker who came to appeal about medical care of a soldier in 34th.[xiii]

The 34th Massachusetts left the Defenses of Washington in July 1863 and arrived at Harpers Ferry. As Colonel Wells moved to brigade command, Lieutenant Colonel Lincoln took command of the regiment. On August 18, 1863, the regiment had their first experience under fire and performed well. Lincoln was mounted for at least part of the fight and narrowly escaped a serious wound when a rifle ball cut through his pants, grazed his thigh, and stuck in his saddle blanket.[xiv]

By early autumn 1863, the regiment settled into a camp routine, but Lincoln had the “joys” of dealing with cantankerous civilians who blamed the Massachusetts boys without considering other units in the brigade. “Every old woman who loses a cabbage, and every man who misses a brick, or piece of board, goes straightway to Brigade, or Division Headquarters, and forthwith comes an Orderly, bearing a dispatch, calling the attention of Lieut. Col. Lincoln, commanding the 34th Massachusetts Infantry to the alleged ill doings of the men of his command. Pretty hard, this! at least on the part of the Acting Brigadier [Wells], who knows, as we all do, that the men of Miner’s Battery are pardoned penitentiary convicts; and that straggling Cavalry men, without discipline, or control of any kind, are continually ravaging the country!”[xv]

Lincoln spent most of the winter of 1863-1864 with the regiment, and he boarded at a house in nearby Harpers Ferry.[xvi] He did take a furlough at some point during the winter to visit his family in Massachusetts.[xvii]

By spring 1864, the 34th made several marches and stayed in Martinsburg, West Virginia, for a period of time. On April 17, according to one soldier who did not have a fondness for Lincoln, he had been ordered to march the regiment to Harpers Ferry and had some trouble:

“Col. Lincoln alias “Old Toddy Blossom,” got them 6 miles of the road on the pike leading to Winchester. Col. Wells, hearing that his inferior commander was leading the Regt. right into Dixie, dispatched one of his mounted orderlies and ordered the Regt. back to Martinsburg. On arriving he addressed Col. Lincoln in the following emphasized tone, “You d—-d old fool, don’t you know the road to Harpers Ferry? Orderly, show this man the way out of town!”[xviii]

Despite the directionally challenged incident, Wells and Lincoln continued to work together, and both had a strong dislike for the new general — Franz Sigel — and his obsessive drilling. At one point during the spring campaign, Wells got so disgusted with Sigel that he claimed illness and turned over the regiment to Lincoln for a couple of days. Both colonel and lieutenant colonel were on the field and in their proper places during the battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. Lincoln was wounded three times, probably in the body and arm, and was left on the battlefield when the regiment retreated.[xix]

After lying on the field for a night in the rain, Lincoln and the other Union wounded in his vicinity were captured and not given prompt or adequate medical treatment. Eventually transported to Harrisonburg, Lincoln lay on the upper-story floor of a building across from the courthouse; blankets, cups, and canteens had been stolen, and the wounded were often left on their own for self-care for about ten days. The lieutenant colonel advocated for his badly wounded men whenever he saw a Confederate doctor but had little success in bettering any of the care. Finally, on May 25, a Union doctor arrived after passing through the lines and was able to provide consistent care. Around early July, Lincoln determined he did not want to be sent further south to military prison, and he and another wounded officer decided to escape. They made it out of the hospital and spent the next weeks roaming the Shenandoah Valley by night—lost most of the time, hungry, thirsty, in pain and sometimes barely able to move, yet trying to make their way north to Union lines. After several narrow escapes, Lincoln staggered into Union headquarters in Cumberland, arriving in mid-August. “He is looking rather thin and had a tough tramp and many narrow escapes from being recaptured while on his journey to our lines.”[xx]

Lincoln went home on sick leave, missing all of the 1864 Autumn Shenandoah Valley Campaign. In his absence, Colonel Wells was killed on October 13, 1864, leaving the command of the regiment to captains.[xxi]

Charles Moulton, who harbored a dislike for Lincoln, wrote in a letter on October 20, 1864: “When Lt. Col. Lincoln went home wounded, the boys were in hopes that he would never return again and it was reported once that he had resigned, but a letter rec’d by Capt. Pratt today shows that he is to come back soon. He will not let such a chance slip by. When he takes command as Col., I pity the men under him. God deliver me from ever rejoining that Regt.”[xxii] What Lincoln had done to earn this type of ire from some of the men is not clear. Perhaps he was a good commander in camp, but they did not trust him on marches or campaign?

Lincoln did return to the regiment in late November 1864 with still unhealed wounds and was ordered to detached service in Cumberland. He stopped by his regiment first, and “brought with him, and presented to the regiment in few but touching words, a beautiful new national flag of silk, which the ladies of the City of Worcester desired to exchange for that one, of their earlier gift, which had been proudly carried in so many fields of battle, and whose tattered folds, stained by the blood of its brave defenders, was so dear to us. The exchange was made amid the hearty cheers of the men, whose cheeks were wet by tears which could not be suppressed.”[xxiii]

Part of Lincoln’s troubles seemed to be around his parole which had given when captured. He had spent several weeks at a parole camp in Annapolis, Maryland, trying to figure out whether his parole was recognized or not. “As the Gov’t will do nothing about it, he hesitates about going back, for if he should be captured, he would surely be hung. When he was captured the Rebs threatened to string him up as they seemed to be of the opinion that every person by that name was some relative to Old Abe sure.”[xxiv]

Despite a disgruntled soldier’s snide hopes that “Now that he has secured his Colonel’s commission, he doesn’t care and is ready to get out of the service,” Lincoln stayed.[xxv] However detached duty kept him absent from the regiment as they transferred to the XXIV Corps and the Army of the James in December 1864. During the final weeks of the war in Virginia, the 34th Massachusetts fought in the capture of Fort Gregg and in the Appomattox Campaign. After the surrender, Lincoln finally rejoined the regiment and was appointed to brigade command.[xxvi]

The period between the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender and returning home frustrated many soldiers. The 34th participated in many military reviews, marched through Richmond, and counted the days until they could muster out and get home. Colonel Lincoln seems to have annoyed some of his soldiers by the way he was perceived to handle their final pay and mustering out. How much of the circumstances was actual incompetence or merely having to deal with unknown protocols and red tape is not clear from the accounts thus far consulted.

He ended his military service with the rank of Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers, and was often referred to in the post-war era as “General Lincoln.” Returning home, Lincoln settled into his pursuits of farming and served civically when asked or voted. He had an enduring love for the memory of the 34th Massachusetts and wrote an impressive regimental history. Part of the dedication of the volume reveals his continued care and his perceived relationship to the unit and its veterans:

“I have endeavored to weave together extracts from familiar letters and diaries in such manner as to review, more fully than could otherwise be done, the fast-fading recollections of our soldier life…. The work has been done at your request, and for your gratification….in the hope that you will pardon its faults – overlook its defects – and accept whatever of there may be in it as a light, but heartfelt tribute to your worth as soldiers by one who is proud to have been your Commander in the past, and to subscribe himself, now, your warm and grateful friend.”

In his later years, Lincoln enjoyed attending veteran reunions and spending time with his grandchildren. His sense of humor was well-remembered and it even comes through in some the stories he included in the regimental history, making it one of the more delightful volumes of that type.

He died on October 27, 1889, and was buried with military honors and a veteran procession. One of his obituaries summarized his life and character as a regimental commander:

“General Lincoln made some enemies. His sturdy, honest independence would never allow him to conceal his opinion or talk diplomatic non-committals. He had very warm friends who appreciated his character, and none were more steadfast and since that the old veterans, “his men,” who knew him so well and believed in him.”[xxvii]


For this post, I used the regimental history, some soldier primary source letters, and the factual parts of his memorial book. There is certainly more research to be done about Lincoln and his relationship to the regiment through other sources!

[i] Levi Lincoln, A Memorial of William Sever Lincoln, (Publisher unknown, 1889), page 11.

[ii] Ibid., page 6-7.

[iii] Ibid., page 7-8.

[iv] Ibid., page 11.

[v] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page12.

[vi] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 36.

[vii] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 39-40.

[viii] Ibid., page 42, 51.

[ix] Ibid., page 89.

[x] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 125.

[xi] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 95.

[xii] Ibid., page 100.

[xiii] Ibid., page 107.

[xiv] Ibid., page 144.

[xv] Ibid., page 152.

[xvi] Ibid., page 166, 187.

[xvii] Ibid., page 191.

[xviii] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 178.

[xix] Ibid., page 184.

[xx] Ibid., page 205.

[xxi] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 382.

[xxii] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 214.

[xxiii] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 383.

[xxiv] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 219.

[xxv] Ibid., page 219.

[xxvi] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 397.

[xxvii] Levi Lincoln, A Memorial of William Sever Lincoln, (Publisher unknown, 1889), page 5.

2 Responses to Commanding The Regiment: Colonel William S. Lincoln, 34th Massachusetts – Part 2

  1. Excellent as usual, Sarah. Sad that so many of the most eloquent letter writers seem to be the most eloquent malcontents, since Lincoln was incredibly devoted to his duty and his men.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: