For the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment, which reported three men killed and 17 men wounded at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862, the real dying started after the battle. Because Confederate troops weren’t doing the killing, Pvt. Orsamus Symonds of Co. C decided he had enough.
A Casco farmer and mail carrier by trade, Symonds mustered with the regiment the prior August. A capable soldier, he fought at Fredericksburg, after which the 17th Maine went into winter camp near Bell-Air, a large plantation near Falmouth, Va.
Early descriptions of camp life were provided by Co. C’s John Haley of Saco.
“We went into camp and commenced putting up shanties by driving down some stakes and then weaving brush between them,” he wrote.
Union officers named the camp for Maj. William Pitcher of Bangor, a 4th Maine officer killed at Fredericksburg, Va. For the rank and file, however, “no campground could possibly be found that is more conducive to death and destruction,” Haley recalled.
Senior officers ordered the 17th Maine to camp on poorly drained terrain devoid of clean water and adequate firewood. Runoff from the mule stables on surrounding hills drained through the 17th Maine’s camp, according to Haley, and the fumes from dead mules adversely affected soldiers’ health.
And the effluvia from those dead mules mingled with the water flowing into nearby Union camps. For the 17th Maine, water was “hardly in sufficient quantity even for drinking purposes,” Haley wrote.
“A rich vein of typhoid was soon struck and in a few days it was in full blast,” he quipped.
Christmas Eve brought the first death in Company I from sickness as “Dan Hill of Biddeford concluded he had seen enough and ‘handed in his resignation,’” Haley wrote.
“We have lost 24 [men] in 17 days and they [die] every day,” Symonds wrote Gov. Abner Coburn on Jan. 15, 1863. Symonds viewed living conditions as appalling, with soldiers issued only “the poor 7 cent [tent] cloth to cover us with what banking we put around them.
“I have been on the field in battle in the hottest of the fight [and] the horrors of that was awful but it was not half the misery of this war,” Symonds told Coburn.
“The deaths in camp and hospital is enormous,” Symonds wrote. “Within one mile of me there is over 50 grave lots with from 5 to 50 graves in each and this is a mere speck compared to around the battlefield.
“Short rations, bog water to drink, malaria inhaled with every breath, homesickness, and, added to all this, an incompetent surgeon,” Haley growled to his diary. “It is any wonder we are being swept off at the rate of one or two per day?
“The muffled drum and death march are more regular than our rations,” he remembered. “Most of us have lost our courage and expectation of reaching home, or even dying on the battlefield — a fate less cruel than dying here by inches.”
Symonds criticized those officers who ignored their men’s plight.
“The officers seem to have no care for the men,” he growled. Many officers only sought “to get what whiskey they want and make a show” of being in charge as “the men carry the loads as much as a mule would carry and [then have to] lie down on the ground in the wet of the night.”
The Maine boys — indeed, almost all the Union boys — suffered from poor nutrition caused by senior officers’ refusal to watch over their men.
“We are on the shortest rations,” often hardtack and salt pork, “the roads being in horrible condition (due to the winter rains) and the Aquia Creek Railroad not in running order yet,” Haley said.
Symonds watched his comrades disappear.
“It is a sad thing to have so many of our best men die here,” he told Coburn. “It is sickening. We shall all die soon here … verginia’s (sic) soil will cover the men from the North at an astonishing rate.
“The men are getting discouraged … the [Maine] papers say the men are in good health and ready for the fight again,” but this claim was “a mistake. There is not one in each 100 000 (sic) that would ever lift the gun again if they could get rid of it in any way,” Symonds predicted.
“A state ought not to stand still and see the destruction of her best sons without making one grand effort to check the progress of this awful slaughter of human beings,” he wrote.
The dying continued into mid-January.
“Two more of our men decided to go into ‘eternal bivouac’ under the big tree on the hill,” Haley told his diary, listing the dead as William Powers (Jan. 11) and Jerry Smith (Jan. 17).
Orsamus Symonds decided not to join them. On Wednesday, Jan. 21, as the 17th Maine participated in the weather-mired maneuver later dubbed the “Mud March,” Symonds and three other 17th Maine soldiers slipped through Union picket lines and fled north.
Symonds skipped home to Casco — and his desertion followed him there. In mid-September 1868, Symonds stood trial in Cumberland County Superior Court for illegally voting in Casco. Under Maine law no deserter from the Army of the United States could vote in a state election, according to state statutes.
Two witnesses — one a former Co. C officer, the other a Co. C roster — convinced a jury to convict Symonds.
Despite the conviction, he was alive — but not so the many 17th Maine comrades killed by disease and cold weather that deadly January at Camp Pitcher.