Lewiston native George Henry Nye is pictured when he was a member of the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Collection of Nicholas Picerno

LEWISTON — A free-ranging talk about Mainers in the Civil War at the Androscoggin Historical Society on Thursday touched on everything from a Confederate soldier’s grave in Gray to the oddity of the tiny town of Greene producing generals who fought on each side of the bloody conflict.

In the discussion led by Nicholas Picerno, chairman emeritus of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in New Market, Virginia, and an expert on the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment, one man stood out: George Henry Nye.

When the war broke out in 1861, the 32-year-old Nye worked at Bates Mill in Lewiston. Nye wasted little time in volunteering, along with a hundred co-workers, to serve in the 1st Maine Infantry Regiment to fight for preservation of the Union.

Nye signed on as a private.

Picerno, who knows as much about Nye as anyone ever has, said the man’s experiences in the war are detailed in 1,800 letters he wrote to his wife Charlotte back in Lewiston. He wrote as many as three a day. She wrote 700 to him.

For years, Picerno possessed a trunk that contained the letters, Nye’s diary and more — material he clearly pored over since he can recite long passages from memory.


He told a dozen history buffs who gathered Thursday evening at the Lisbon Street quarters of the historical society about the clashes that shaped the nation and the details of battlefields he’s helped preserve in the crucial but sometimes overlooked Shenandoah Valley campaigns that consumed the lives of many Mainers during the war that ended in 1865.

“The Civil War still speaks to us today,” Picerno said, as new stories emerge from attics and archives that help provide an ever-fuller picture of the struggle that led to the abolition of slavery and unleashed the power of a the still-new nation.

Nick Picerno is chairman emeritus of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in New Market, Virginia. Submitted photo

He said the battlefields he’s done much to preserve, which are shrinking under development pressures by an average of 30 acres daily, are a place to see with our own eyes the places where men fought and died.

“It’s relevant” still, Picerno said, “and it happened here.”

At first, the soldiers signing on for the war had no idea of the struggle ahead.

Picerno said the men from the 1st Maine who arrived in the nation’s capital early on had little more to do than peel wallpaper off historic buildings and rip pages out of hymnals at historic churches.


“These men were great souvenir takers,” he said.

When Nye arrived in Washington a little later, he found himself in proximity to President Abraham Lincoln.

Nye wrote to his wife that “the nearer I approached, the plainer he looked.”

“Old Abe will certainly never be hung for his beauty, no more than myself,” Nye wrote. “He had a good look however about him.”

A Currier & Ives print from about 1863 depicting the fighting at the 1862 Battle of Antietam in Maryland. Library of Congress

When his regiment completed its three months of service, Nye opted to reenlist with many comrades to help form the 10th Maine Infantry Regiment and wound up as a captain. He fought in legendary battles such as Cedar Mountain and Antietam, where a creek in Maryland turned red from all the blood pouring into its channel.

Nye wrote in the aftermath that “when I went into the fight at Antietam, I never expected to leave the field alive.”


He said one officer was “killed close to me. Some of his blood flew in my face. I wiped my face and merely looked to see” who had died. Within seconds, a nearby lieutenant also fell.

“He was sitting on the fence close to my side,” Nye said, and “almost at the same instant one of my men was killed close behind me. The ball could not have passed more than inch (from) me. The splinters were flying from the fence and trees.”

Picerno said Nye’s sword is going on display next month at the Antietam National Battlefield.

During the Civil War, Lewiston’s George Henry Nye enlisted three separate times in the Union Army, rising from a private to become a general by the time he left military service five years later.

After the two-year commitment of the 10th Maine ended, Nye signed up once again with the new 29th Maine, which fought repeatedly.

Nye barely survived one battle in the Shenandoah Valley, at Cedar Creek, when a ball from a Confederate rifle struck him just below the nose, tearing through his upper lip, knocking out two of his front teeth and winding up in his mouth.

Nye popped the ball into his vest pocket as he bled freely.


“I received a rather severe wound,” Nye wrote to his wife.

It cost him his flowing moustache as well.

In the last days of the war, Nye was among the troops guarding the arsenal where the conspirators who assassinated Lincoln were held, chained and hooded as they awaited trial.

“They will probably never see daylight again,” Nye wrote to his wife.

Hoods were kept over the heads of the men and women held as suspects in the killing of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Nye left the military in 1866 as a brevet major general, meaning as a commissioned officer he was given a higher rank as a reward but may not have had the authority and privileges of real rank.

Nye may be the only Civil War general to have begun his service in the war as a private.


He died in 1908 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

For Picerno, who can detail the movements of men across dozens of battlefields, said it’s the personal stories that resonate.

Penny Jessop, vice president of the historical society, said letters like the ones Nye wrote “are key to reflecting what was going on in the person’s mind” while participating in events of the past.

A man such as Nye, Picerno said, served as a witness “to some of our nation’s most important moments of history” and his readiness to leave a record of what he saw is a contribution to our understanding of a past that grows ever more distant but never loses its resonance with the events of today.

Picerno said he’s concerned that young people don’t have enough interest in the war because despite the 160 years that have passed, it remains fundamental to American history.

“The Civil War defined our nation,” Picerno said.

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