Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part Two)

This is the second of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death of  Captain Charles W. Billings, Co C, 20th Maine Volunteers, at Gettysburg, PA in July 1863. Part One, on the Battle for Vincent's Spur on Little Round Top, may be found here.

Charles W. Billings was thirty-seven years old when he was promoted to Captain of Co. C, 20th Regiment Maine Volunteers. Prior to his official mustering in on September 1, 1862, Billings resided in the agricultural and manufacturing community of Clinton, Kennebec County, Maine, some thirty-two miles northeast of the state capital at Augusta. 

By the standards of the day, Billings was reasonably well educated, having attended a private academy in the neighboring community of Benton. Listed on the Descriptive Rolls of the regiment as a "lumberman," he also owned a half-share in a carding and fulling mill. He was active in his community, having once served as town clerk, as well as on the school committee. At the time of Lincoln's call for 300,000 more troops in July, 1862, he was a town selectman.

Billings and Ellen Hunter were married by a justice of the peace on August 18, 1849, just after her sixteenth birthday. He was twenty-four. Their first daughter, Isadore, was born six months later, in February, 1850. A second daughter, Alice, was born in September, 1856 and died four years later, in November, 1860. Their last child, Lizzie, was born in April, 1860.

In May, 1863, the 20th Maine sat out the battle of Chancellorsville, having received a vaccine for smallpox that caused an outbreak of the disease among the rank and file. Those healthy enough to report for duty were called upon to guard the telegraph line that ran from headquarters at Falmouth, VA to the United States Ford on the Rappahannock River.

On May 19th, from his regiment's camp near Falmouth, Billings sat down to "write a few lines" to his father back home in Maine. Referring coolly to the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, he wrote: "Our last engagement was not so fortunate for our arms as we would have wished or as we expected."He was concerned about the diminishment of the army, especially through the expiration of two-year enlistments. Remarking that "the rebels have every available man in their ranks," he launched into an earnest patriotic call to arms:

Now let the north send out his reserves, there are enough to spare, let them come. Who would not jump to serve his country now that everything is promising. It must and will be done. The cause of God & humanity demand it. We must either conquer or be conquered, no other alternative is presented. Shall we subdue the Rebels and secure liberty to our country? Or shall we give up this contest, and let the sword of despotism & ignorance sweep over our fair country? Obliterating at once our national existence, and all our fond and long cherished hopes of seeing our beloved country continue to advance in all that is good and great? What but an emphatic & determined "no never" should be our every answer? Would to God all our people could see it in its true light. Would that those politicians who for their own selfish advance in power are ready to sacrifice our country, might be brought to shame & the punishment they so richly deserve.

Later in May, the regiment moved camp from Falmouth to guard the United States Ford some fifteen miles upriver.  On Sunday, My 31st, Billings again wrote his father, encouraging him to write "once a week" as "Ellen is not much of a hand to write news outside the family."Across the Rappahannock, the enemy could be seen "marching and countermarching," perhaps meant as a ruse to shield Lee's preparations for his army's imminent move north. Billings wrote disapprovingly of "our boys" wading out and meeting Confederate pickets mid-stream, even swimming across the ford to talk with the enemy. In a milder tone, he concluded the letter: "Well Father it is almost time to close the mail so I must draw this to a close so that you will get it one day earlier, we have had preaching today, a good sermon. I have a prayer meeting to night. Share love with the family. Your affectionate son, Charles W. Billings."

Fourteen days later, the 20th Maine Regiment, with the 3rd Brigade, departed from the fords. Joining the rest of the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, they commenced two weeks hard marching northward, under a burning hot June sun. Lee's army was on a roughly parallel course, just on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They would meet at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, a day's march over the Maryland border into Pennsylvania. Billings, and the other men of his regiment, would be tested in battle on a hill known as Little Round Top.

to be continued...

(20th Maine Regimental Flag)

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