Rick Mercier, a Vietnam-era veteran from the Air Force, places a fresh flag Saturday on the Riverside Cemetery gravesite of Stephen L. T. Mariner, a Lewiston Civil War soldier who died in Salisbury Prison in 1864. Mercier is a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, who take responsibility for putting fresh flags at the graves of every veteran in Riverside Cemetery each year before Memorial Day. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Before any of us, there was Stephen L.T. Mariner.

His gravestone sits in an overgrown corner of Lewiston’s Riverside Cemetery. On its left, his parents’ gravestones lie askew or fallen; on its right, his sister’s marker has collapsed backward, facing the sky.

On its face, it reads: “In memory of Stephen L. T. Mariner, died in Salisbury Prison, Dec. 1, 1864, aged 20 years, 2 mos & 7 ds.”

And beneath it? There may be no body at all.

The Lewiston Civil War soldier’s story has yet to be told in completion. For Memorial Day, the Sun Journal sifted through hundreds of pages of personal narratives, pension records, census data, enlistment papers, photographs, rolls of honor and more to bring to life the story of a Union soldier who, in all likelihood, lies to this day in a North Carolinian mass grave.

This is the story of Pvt. Stephen L.T. Mariner, a soldier of Maine’s 32nd Regiment, Company G; a soldier who survived the hand-to-hand combat of some of the war’s worst fights, charged side-by-side with Black Union soldiers, and watched as his brothers in arms were, as one soldier put it in an 1864 letter, “cut to pieces.”

This is the story of a fallen son of Lewiston.

BEFORE THE WAR: WHO WAS STEPHEN L.T. MARINER?

Lisbon Street circa 1885, 20 years after the Civil War was declared over. Storefronts in this image include, from left, G.W. Garcelon, an insurance agency, Job Printing Office and Book Bindery and a YMCA Free Reading Room. Gridley Barrows Slide Collection/Lewiston Public Library

Enlistment papers, burial records and census data confirm that Stephen L.T. Mariner was born Sept. 24, 1844, in the farming town of Oxford.

The first son of Lemuel and Permelia Mariner, the light-haired, blue-eyed Stephen was a younger brother to his sister Louisa, and an older brother to Sybil, Lorenzo and George. His family lived modestly when he was young — the 1850 census lists Lemuel’s Oxford property value at $400, or about $13,000 in today’s money — but sent each child, the girls included, to school.

Stephen was growing up at a pivotal time in Maine: throughout the 1850s, Lewiston was experiencing explosive growth. By the time census takers came back to Oxford in 1860, the Mariners had moved south to Lewiston, where the construction of Bates Mill No. 1 had been completed and industry was revving up. The city was likely the perfect place for Lemuel, a machinist, to find more work.

But the real story begins in April 1861, the month the Civil War was officially declared. Mariner was 17.

According to reports from the Lewiston Daily Evening Journal, which fired up its printing presses for the first time that same month, the city was buzzing as news from the war rolled in. Local businesses flew Union flags from their windows; crowds gathered and cheered for speakers calling men to fight.

“The whispering pines,” writes the first edition of the Daily Evening Journal on April 20, 1861, referencing an antiquated phrase for Maine, “are roaring for war like a thunderbolt.”

Exactly three years to the day after those words were published, Mariner’s regiment would be sent to the front lines.

A SOLDIER HEEDS THE CALL: TALES FROM THE 32ND MAINE

Mariner was 19 when he arrived in Augusta for training.

Maine had just put out the call to fill the ranks of two more regiments: the 31st and the 32nd. Mariner, according to military records and enlistment papers, heeded that call on March 29, 1864, placing him in Maine’s 32nd Regiment, in Company G.

According to accounts from 32nd Maine soldier Henry C. Houston in his book ‘The Thirty-Second Maine Regiment of Infantry Volunteers: An Historical Sketch’, the Augusta barracks overlooked the city from the west side of the Kennebec River. Soldiers could see the hulking shape of the State House dome from there; inside, triple-tier bunks lined the unadorned walls, and broken and smoking stoves struggled to heat the space. It was there that the soldiers of Maine’s 32nd Regiment, the last the state would send to the war effort, began to bond.

They wouldn’t know each other long. Over the course of the following months, the 32nd Maine would lose so many soldiers to the war that it would later need to be consolidated with the 31st.

“In some respects,” writes Houston, “(the 32nd Regiment) may be said to have been especially fated to misfortune from the beginning of its organization.”

That misfortune started in Augusta with something Mainers know well: an April snowstorm. It rendered outdoor drilling impossible. The bad luck would extend into the field, with nonstop battle for the undertrained crew, staggering numbers of soldiers killed in action, successful campaigns that resulted in outsized loss, and, in Mariner’s case, capture by the enemy.

BATTLE, BLOODSHED AND BROTHERHOOD

Maine Civil War soldiers at encampment. Date unknown. Maine State Archives

Mariner’s company, along with Companies H, I and K, shipped out May 11, reaching the South by May 18. The southern sun beat down on their blue wool uniforms and dust caked in their throats as they marched alongside a Union train full of supplies, covering 60 miles in three days.

They reached the North Anna River in Virginia by late May, where companies A-F were hunkered in the trenches.

Having shipped out ahead of time, A-F had already lost men to the Wilderness Campaign and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. One account compiled by Houston of the latter battle reads: “The dead and the wounded of both armies covered the ground for miles.” It was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war.

“Almost before they were fairly among us,” writes Houston of Mariner’s group, “on the very day following their arrival in the trenches, they began to realize what active service meant under such a leader as (Ulysses) Grant.”

There is not enough room in any one newspaper to describe the horrors that Mariner and his fellow soldiers witnessed in Virginia. For the purposes of telling Mariner’s story, we’ll focus on two battles: the Mine Explosion disaster on July 30, and the battle at Poplar Springs Church on Sept. 30. It should be noted, however, that his regiment participated in almost incessant fighting, including the monthslong siege of Petersburg that would help end the war.

THE MINE EXPLOSION

Black soldiers make coffee on the line in Petersburg before battles begin, 1864. Library of Congress

July 30, 1864. The Union Army had been preparing for weeks to launch an attack in Petersburg, Virginia, a supply hot spot for the Confederacy and a tactical goldmine.

Soldiers dug “mines” beneath Confederate lines outside Petersburg and laced them with explosives. A division of the United States Colored Troops, made up entirely of black soldiers, was training intensively to charge in first.

But numerous changes in plans, lack of support from top officials and bad supplies led to disaster. A day before the attack, an unlucky division of white troops commanded by Gen. James H. Ledlie was chosen instead to charge first, completely untrained. When the mine was exploded, the Union lost crucial time to confusion, struggling over its own trenches, through no-man’s land and into the smoking crater in the early morning darkness.

While the Black soldiers had been trained to move up and around the crater, Ledlie’s troops, confused, used it to take cover. When the smoke cleared, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Black troops, streaming in as reinforcements, were special targets for the Confederacy, according to various historical accounts from Houston, the American Battlefield Trust, and more.

Meanwhile, Mariner’s brigade rushed the crater from the right, and the men were able to advance the furthest of any group that day. But they became mixed with Ledlie’s troops and, scattered in the melee of hand-to-hand combat, few made it to safety. Varying accounts compiled by Houston state that the 32nd Maine, which went into battle with about 150 men, lost somewhere around 120.

It is in the chaos of this battle, a huge and embarrassing loss for the Union, that we would be forgiven for thinking we lost Stephen L.T. Mariner to what Houston called “the slaughter pit.”

But a letter sent to Bath from Sgt. John Hilling of Company G confirms that just 14 soldiers of his company came back alive from the fight. One S.L.T. Mariner was the last on his list.

Union embankments in Petersburg, Virginia, 1864. Library of Congress

POPLAR SPRINGS CHURCH

By the time Mariner and the remaining boys of the 32nd Maine were engaged in battle on Sept. 30, it had begun to rain.

The battle, which took place at the junction of Poplar Springs Church, happened over an expanse of farmland, thickets of pine and bush, and more open fields.

War in 1864 was a game of solid lines across and inches forward. When the Fifth Corps and the Ninth Corps, the latter of which Mariner’s regiment was a part, advanced across the fields and forest that day, the two made a crucial mistake: they left a gap in their line.

Into the gap flowed Confederate soldiers.

It was at this moment, around 4:30 or 5 p.m. in the heavy gray of a southern fall rainstorm, his blue wool Union uniform soaked with rain and caked with mud, that Mariner was forced to surrender.

It was exactly one week since his 20th birthday.

DEATH FINDS MARINER AT SALISBURY PRISON

From here, it is impossible to trace Mariner’s exact footsteps. But he and several other men in both his company and his regiment were taken captive that day, a fate which Houston wrote was worse, he considered, than death.

Mariner arrived at the peak of Salisbury Prison’s capacity crisis: the North Carolina camp, which had been built to withstand a population of 2,500, was by October of that year swelling with over 5,000 captives. By December, the month Mariner died, that number had swelled to 10,000.

If the men held there weren’t dying of starvation or frostbite, they were succumbing to disease. By early 1865, the death rate in the prison skyrocketed to 28%, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

Yet, even in these conditions — where prisoners huddled in tattered tents or foxholes they’d dug to keep warm — Mariner survived for two months.

It is not clear what he died of. His name is one of the thousands missing from the Salisbury Prison’s incomplete Roll of Honor. It might have been the cold, like Jeremiah Banks of the 16th Maine. Maybe he had been wounded, like J.W. Bates of the 31st Maine. Or maybe, like thousands of other prisoners, including Pvt. James Herrick, a soldier of the 32nd Maine, Company G, who had been captured alongside Mariner, he died of disease: diarrhea and dysentery.

We might never know. After soldiers died at Salisbury prison, their bodies were rounded up and dumped in mass graves in what is now the Salisbury National Cemetery. It is not clear if Mariner was one of them.

What we do know is this: on Dec. 1, 1864, two months after he turned 20 years old and four months before the Civil War would be declared over, Stephen L.T. Mariner finally found rest.

REMEMBERING THE FALLEN

The Mariner family plot in Riverside Cemetery lies at the very back, facing the Androscoggin River. Often, a small American flag flutters near his grave.

That nagging question remains: did Stephen’s body make it back to that family plot, or is he one of thousands laid to rest at Salisbury National Cemetery?

The Riverside Cemetery gravesite of Stephen L. T. Mariner, a Lewiston Civil War soldier who died in Salisbury Prison in 1864. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In response to that inquiry, Mike Lawrence, sexton of the Riverside Cemetery, confirmed by probing the lot that there is, in fact, a casket beneath Mariner’s grave.

But does that mean his body is there?

Families in the 1860s did sometimes transfer the bodies of their loved ones back home. It would have required embalming the body or putting it on ice and transporting it by train, said Joan Macri, a board member of the Riverside Cemetery Association Board of Directors.

“It could have been done, but it would cost a small fortune,” Macri said. She theorized that the family could have also buried Mariner’s belongings in the casket instead.

“We may never have a definitive answer,” she said.

The Civil War monument in Lewiston’s Kennedy Park, in 2021. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Mariner’s sacrifice echoes more loudly in 2021. It’s a year that America has been forced to examine divisions that even a Civil War could not completely remedy. Reminders of his service are everywhere, including in Kennedy Park, where Lewiston’s Civil War monument stands as it has since it was erected in 1868, quietly overlooking the city.

On one of the monument’s faces, Mariner’s name sits as one of many in a list of Lewiston’s Civil War casualties. Above the list, an inscription reads: “We lie here in obedience to the spirit of liberty.”

And further south, in Salisbury National Cemetery, where Stephen L.T. Mariner may lay to this day, there is the Maine Memorial, erected in the early 20th century to honor the unknown Maine boys buried there.

On its back, an inscription reads, simply: “To live in hearts, we leave behind, is not to die.”


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