Maine in the Civil War


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Posted By: Wayne Reuel Bean on: 12/22/2001 16:37:43 CST
Subject: Christmas Birthday Boy - a picture story

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To the Forum Faithful:

First off - this is a tribute to Captain Charles Alonzo Rolfe, Company A, 11th Maine whose 159th birthday will be Christmas Day. Of greater importance, this is my Christmas gift to you who frequent the forum and are on the frustrating quest to learn about the PEOPLE in this conflict we are so fixated with. This will be quite lengthy but I want to share my struggle with interpreting a carte de visite. Some pictures tell a bizarre story - here is my stab at this one. I will posit the problem succinctly - "Lon" Rolfe enlisted at East Machias, Maine on the 9th of August, 1862 as a private for three years. On the 19th of August, at Augusta, he finalized his enlistment and mustered into Company B of the 11th Maine - again, as a private. Sometime, between those two dates, he was at Camp John Pope in Bangor and was photographed by the firm of J.P. and F.W. Hardy wearing a frock coat that looks almost "made to fit" with CORPORAL'S chevrons on it. Moreover, near his right hand is a forage cap brassed for Company K of the 28th Regiment - a nine month outfit! Wrong photo? No! This was an unintentional puzzle created by a 19 year old BOY who had astutely paved his own way into a lifetime's adventure on advantageous terms and was as hypnotized by cap brass as any current Marine is when he finishes the "Crucible" at Paris Island and gets handed his first set of the "eagle, globe and anchor!" The puzzle was created for me - and here is the explanation to the best of my interpolation and documentation. I acquired several photographs of Lon, taken over a period of years. This is he - except that he eventually lost hair on his head and managed to grow some whiskers which he sported as "mustaches royale."

OK, Lon went to East Machias and enlisted. His daddy, Putnam Rolfe was with him. So was a "J.Pike" (document witness) who was probably the teamster hired by the town to transport prospective recruits. Putnam had to sign the parental consent form as Lon wasn't old enough to enlist on his own but "Put," and Mr. Pike each had a vested interest in the transaction. "Put" had "invented" Princeton, Maine, hand in hand, with a magnificent Native American known to history as Captain Lewy. Put had built the first mill, constructed the first dam, had helped get a railroad connection to Calais, was town boss, one-man welfare agency, station agent, town clerk - you name it. And Put had decided that nobody from Princeton was going to be drafted if they couldn't afford to serve (a realistic thought by 1862). BUT - if they enlisted, Princeton was going to get the quota credit (he'd had bad luck with that in 1861). Besides, he'd been lucky in middle age and had a new son, Fred, two years old, and it was only right that his elder son set the example. It may be that Lon deceived his Dad into thinking he was enlisting in a nine month regiment - his Dad had gotten used to Lon working in his multifarious business concerns - but I think not. Put was too sharp and, by this point, highly sensitive to red tape and fine print. Mr. Pike was happy because the teamsters only got paid if the recruits they transported actually mustered. Everybody concerned signed documents for a three year enlistment in front of the "recruiting officer", Steve Talbot, a civilian, who would, scant days later, be an officer in the 18th Maine (1st Maine Heavy Artillery).

So, 19 year old Lon went from East Machias to Camp John Pope in Bangor. The place was bedlam! The 18th Maine was forming there as well as nine month regiments - the 26th and 28th. The main emphasis in that period, in late August was, supposedly, the formation of the nine month regiments. However, this is exactly at the point when the '61 regiments were reeling from losses - as much from disease as from the Penninsula campaign - and the Governor of Maine made a decision that, while counter-productive for the organizational efforts of the nine month regiments, was the saving grace of the veteran regiments. The Governor allowed recruiting teams from the three-year, veteran regiments to actively recruit from the pool of nine-month men. Bounties had jacked up at that point and everything was ripe to create chaos in the organizational plans of the 26th and 28th Maine. Into this fray stepped an organizational genius.

Harris Merrill Plaisted, Commanding Officer of the 11th Maine had hatched a plot that, on the surface, looked stupid. His regiment had been riddled by disease and his idea was to dissolve his Company B, consolidating what was left of it into Company G and recruiting a whole "new," green, Company B. In hindsight, we may attribute genius to this idea. We could infer that Colonel Plaisted envisioned a long war and wanted a "veteran company" in place in 1864 (when the '61 men would muster out), to "seed" non-coms and junior officers into other companies comprised of "fresh fish" (which is what, eventually, happened). I don't think so.

Plaisted was a lawyer; he was very intelligent. He had devised a prototype "ASVAB" screening to identify aptitudes in potential enlistees. Potential valor wasn't the priority. He was looking for intelligence, learning ability and the related aptitudes required to make teachers, people who could figure out how to drill, set up camp, do paperwork and the rest of the 99% of the job that was the day-to-day reality of the soldier. "New" Company B turned out to be an almost 100% success story - the Captain rising to Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment. Plaisted knew what he was doing!

Lon Rolfe was a graduate of Calais Academy, had business acumen, had learned leadership from his dad - Lon Rolfe was what Plaisted and his recruiting team wanted and they got him - probably at Bangor. He was evidently promised that he would be a Corporal. Of course, Lon was proud of himself and ran off to have his photo taken. He had the means to purchase a tailor-made uniform. If he didn't do so, he quickly borrowed one that fit him to a "T" and used a "stage prop" - a forage cap brassed for the 28th regiment. It may have been a photographer's prop or, perhaps, not. The 28th were supposed to be recruited from Eastern Maine but it did not work out. Due to the aggressive recruiting of the three-year regiments, they had to move to Augusta for further consolidation - right at the time Lon moved to Augusta and sealed his fate with the 11th Maine on the 19th of August in 1862. He had lots of chances to try to fool me with his 28th Maine impression (or, maybe his dad?)
Lon wound up in Yorktown, Virginia on September 26th and was an immediate "push-button" Corporal (the photo was either based on fore-knowledge or prophetic). He was promoted to Sergeant a week later; to 2nd Lieutenant the following July and to Captain of Company A - over all eligible 1st Lieutenants on December 17th, 1864. In the middle of all this, oddly, he placed a request, routed through the 11th Maine's Adjutant, Henry Fox, on October 24th, 1864, to be mustered out with the 1861 men, stating that this had been one of the terms of his enlistment (echoes of 2nd Maine). This may have been true but the documents wouldn't verify the fact. One exacerbating circumstance loomed large, right then. All of his father's mills had just burned down and he may have been taking a long-shot to see if he could return home under honorable conditions. He was badly needed at home. The request was routed through the 1st Divion, 10th Corps AAIG, Charles Sellmer (the Swamp Angel Commander), to Generals Ames and Terry. The request was shot down. Lon Rolfe was going to stay in the Army, become Captain of Company A and be the senior officer in the skirmish lines that took Fort Whitworth and stood across the Lynchburg Road on the 9th of April, 1865. You are looking at the boyish face - of a BOY, full of teenage "stuff" who happened to wind up being General Lee's most forward-deployed "checkmate" at the end.

Lon returned, quietly, to Princeton. He became a Justice of the Peace, Indian Agent, Legislator and devoted a good deal of his life to drafting "free-or-reduced-rate" applications for veteran's benefits so badly needed by his comrades (and community). He died on March 7th, 1925.

Wayne Reuel Bean

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