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Sixteenth Maine at Gettysburg

Stripes in My Pocket

Stars by My Heart

 

A Biography of

Colonel Charles W. Tilden of Castine,

2nd Maine Regiment, Company B, and the 16th Maine Regiment

 

By Mark E. Honey

 

On July 1, 1863, on a hot afternoon at Gettysburg, Colonel Charles W. Tilden, in command of the 16th Maine Regiment, was given the one order that no commander wishes to hear, let alone execute.  The fate of the Army of the Potomac, and of a Nation, hung in the balance, and the execution of that order would decide the course of future events.

 

Charles W. Tilden was born on May 7, 1832 in the Parker House, Main Street, Castine, the youngest of four children born to Captain Charles K.& Mary Reed Tilden. Apprenticed to trade at 9, Captain Tilden learned the arts of trade and seamanship, achieving the status of master mariner at 21. He entered into a partnership which would form the foundation of an enterprise which included maritime & commercial trade, sawmills, and the supply of timber to the local shipyards. He then entered into the cod fisheries, owning & outfitting fishing schooners for the Grand Banks, and by 1850 was one of the wealthiest men in Castine.

 

Captain Tilden would groom both of his sons, George F. and Charles W., to follow in the family trade.  Charles W. was sent to North Yarmouth Academy in 1849, where he would study mathematics, geography, composition, and government.  He returned to Castine in 1850 and entered into in the family partnership as a clerk.  He married Juliette Osborn of Belfast, in 1854, and became a member of the Castine Light Infantry. Tilden would, throughout his life, be a diligent student of military history. His skills as a leader, and his professional demeanor led to his promotion in rank to First Lt. on October 20, 1858.

 

The affable young man was well-liked and respected in his community. He possessed both the aggressive traits of leadership and a quiet discipline of the mind, a combination of skills well-suited to the competitive world of commerce and maritime trade, or the chaos and confusion of the battlefield. His father was ruined in the Panic of 1857, and would die a broken man in 1860. It was left to his sons to carry on and rebuild the family business.  Lincoln called out the militia to put down the rebellion in April 1861, and Tilden traveled with the CastinLight  Infantry to Bangor to join the 2nd Maine.

 

The Castine Light Infantry became Company B, 2nd Maine, with Captain Tilden in command. He would lead the Company into battle at Bull Run, July 1861, and Hanover Courthouse in May 1862. The 2nd Maine would, for a short, critical span of time, hold off a Confederate brigade at Hanover Courthouse.  Tilden, only slightly wounded, was given a battlefield promotion for gallantry and courage displayed at both Bull Run and Hanover Courthouse.  He was sent back to Maine, as Lt. Col. Charles W. Tilden, to assist in the formation of a new regiment, the 16th Maine.

 

The 16th Maine, with Colonel Asa Wildes in command, returned to Washington in August. The regiment was sent with the Army on the march in pursuit of Lee, in the aftermath of Second Bull Run, and was present, but did not take part, in the Battle of Antietam.  The 16th Maine marched with the Army throughout the fall all 1862.  They had left Washington without adequate clothing, food, shelter, and supply.  They were given the name ofthe "Blanket Brigade" at Antietam, for their shabby looks, and would bear this term of derision and scorn throughout  the fall campaign.  Starving and half naked, the men would march with a fierce pride, and with the leadership of Lt. Col. Tilden, now in command, they would survive their fiery trial and develop an esprit de corps which would never break.

 

The ultimate test of leadership  for Lt. Col. Tilden, and the worth of his men, came at Fredericksburg on December  13, 1862.  The 16th Maine led Root's Brigade in an assault on Jackson's Corps and broke through, but a lack of coordination and support would ultimately lead to an order for the brigade to fall back. It would be the only breakthrough  in the course of the battle.  The men knew an opportunity when they saw it, and they responded with anger and surprise when called back.  Lt. Col. Tilden and the 16th Maine received high praise for their actions from both Col. Root and General Meade.

 

Col. Tilden led the 16th Maine at Chancellorsville in April 1863 and played a minor part in the engagement. Tilden contracted  dysentery  and malaria, and was forced to leave the regiment to recover his health.  He returned to the regiment a few d!!ys prior to Gettysburg.  He would march for the remainder of the war, plagued with illness, and at times, attacks so severe that his man wondered how he continued  to function.

 

The 16th Maine marched into the Gettysburg  with 275-298 men, and as a unit in Paul's Brigade, was sent into the fray at 1 p.m..  Tilden's horse was hit and killed in the attack of Iverson's Brigade. Tilden rallied his men, and with fixed bayonet, they pitched into the remnants of lverson's Brigade, and despite the galling fire, broke the attack and scattered Iverson's men.  By 3 p.m., Baxter's Brigade had run out of ammunition  and began to retire. A co-ordinated attack by Gen. Rodes sent Ramseur's, O'Neal's, and the remnants of Iverson's  brigades to engage Paul's Brigade from the west and north.

 

The Union right flank, held by XI Corps, was crumbling  by 3:30, and I Corps was forced to pull back.  Gen. Robinson, the division commander, realized that Paul's Brigade was about to be cut off. Word was received that Paul's Brigade needed to be saved, and that a regiment was required to delay Rodes Division  in order that this might be achieved.  Time was also needed to establish a new line on Cemetery Ridge and organize the retreating  army.  The 16th Maine was chosen for the assignment.

 

Gen. Robinson, in remarks which would be similar to those given to Chamberlain  on Little Round Top the next day, ordered Tilden to "take that position and hold it at any cost."  It was a suicide mission, pure and simple.  There would be no artillery, and no brigades in support.  Col. Tilden protested the order, and when the urgency of the matter was made clear to him, he realized that the destiny of the battle might well hinge on his actions.  He would explain the orders to his officers and men, he would not spare the harsh truth, and all willingly volunteered to follow him.  The 16th would fight a delaying action over a 1/2 mile, purchasing  20 precious  minutes.  Finally, surrounded and overwhelmed, a small patch of blue in a sea of gray, they surrendered  to the enemy.  The action that day led to a casualty rate of 81.2%.

 

The last act of communion, the final breaking of the bread, was the destruction of their flags, tearing them into strips, and concealing them upon their persons.  Tilden would not surrender his sword, but angrily thrust it into the ground and broke it in two.  There was no shame, no sense of

defeat, but a spirit of defiance which would carry them into captivity. Tilden was taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, and would escape through the Rose tunnel in December.  He returned to his regiment in January 1864, and after a leave of absence,  he would return in time for the spring campaign.  He would march with the 16th Maine to Appomattox Courthouse,  being promoted in rank to Brevet Brigadier General.

 

The qualities of the man came shining through after his capture on the Weldon Railroad in August 1864.  He was marched through the streets of Petersburg, and in a moment of confusion, made good his escape.  He would walk confidently through the streets of Petersburg, gathering intelligence and calmly noting anything which might hold importance. He made his way through enemy lines, reported for duty with a report of the intelligence gathered, and returned to the Regiment. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would write, in a tribute in 1898, noting the conduct ofthe  16th Maine: "It is remembered to the lasting glory of the officers and enlisted men...... that in this bitter moment not one of them wavered."  Chamberlain would go on to write that the successful execution of the orders given to the 16th Maine afforded him the opportunity to display his leadership on Little Round Top.

 

There can be no other higher homage than this, that Chamberlain recognized and honored the skills of leadership, and the sacrifice made by the 16th Maine on the first day of battle. In quiet grace and dignity, Chamberlain paid homage to the quiet, unassuming codfish merchant from Castine.

 

Biographical Note:

 

This biography of Colonel Charles W. Tilden is extrapolated from a more thorough work written by the author.  The author cannot be reached by e-mail, but only by phone or post. His address is: Mark E. Honey, Apt. 21, 22  Meadowview Lane, Ellsworth, Maine, 04605; and his phone number is 667-5602.

 

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