Honoring Civil War Vets in CooperBy Karen E. Holmes
I believe there is nothing morbid about visiting the old cemetery, and I always do so when I walk up East Ridge Road in Cooper, Maine. On this particular winter day there is no snow on top of the frozen ground, and I crunch my way easily to two graves in the back row. They are always easy to find because of the two small American flags set in front of them. Today is so still, and no cold wind moves the tree branches or waves the little flags. The smaller gravestone has a very brief epitaph of “J.R. Higgins, CO. F 6th ME INF.” The tall gravestone has much more information and reads: “John H. Smith, Died July 10, 1866, AE 21 years. 1 ms, member of the Co. 1, 12th ME Reg.” Here are the graves of two men from Maine who were involved in the Civil War, a terrible time of crisis for our country long ago. The United States was almost torn in two by a conflagration ignited by Americans fighting Americans.
Who were J.R. Higgins and John H. Smith? Did they volunteer or were they drafted to fight to save the Union their grandfathers had founded? Did they light for honor and duty? Or might they have wanted adventure and a chance to leave the everyday life of Downeast Maine? Did they hope to gain glory or to find monetary opportunity? Did they have families? Were they fishermen or farmers or storekeepers or teachers or lumberjacks? Perhaps both men were among those incredible people who called forth inner courage to go to war because it seemed the right thing to do. They would leave their Maine friends and families to fight for the Union and to abolish slavery in the name of humanity.
It may seem strange that I always feel sadness for these two men who died so long ago. John H. Smith died soon after he returned home to Cooper. And he was not quite 22 years old. I did some research about the lives of Higgins and Smith and learned that their deaths and others left a profound legacy in Maine. Maine had one of the highest percentages of men who served in the Union Army of any state in the nation. It is documented that Maine lost one of every five men. However, they did not all die in combat. J .R. Higgins was in Company F of the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment. John Smith served in Company I of the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment. The actual statistics of the 6th and 12th Regiments state that 3 officers and 49 men were killed and/or mortally wounded and 2 officers and 237 men died of disease in the 12th. Twelve officers and 141 men were killed/mortally wounded and 2 officers and 100 men died of disease in the 6th. The living conditions of the camps were terrible, and all sorts of diseases were common. Also soldiers were more afraid of dying from infections they got in the poorly equipped hospitals than from combat wounds. Men such as John H. Smith of Cooper sometimes tragically died from wounds, or illnesses, after the war was over and they returned home.
Men and women as well must have experienced days of boredom and anxiety waiting to go into battle. The excitement, enthusiasm and passion for the cause could have waned while they waited in drafty tents and cold and muddy trenches. Higgins and Smith and many others were Mainers and probably proud of it. But like all of their fellow soldiers, they had to put that loyalty aside in order to become part of a much larger army that had to follow orders, function and be united in the chaos of the battle. Most soldiers were in the infantry and had to walk and march long distances. Their boots and shoes would wear out and they became footsore and weary. But soldiers endured because it was their duty.
A soldier also had to endure the madness of war itself. The screams of cannonballs dying over them and the descending whine when they came down and thundered into the ground was never taken for granted. There was often no place to seek shelter and they could be horribly blown to bits. They would hear the loud whiz of bullets and musket balls and the whoosh of deadly shrapnel. They would smell smoke, gunpowder, blood, sweat and even fear. Soldiers sometimes had to walk or run right over the bodies of wounded and dead soldiers and ignore their pain and suffering in order to save their own lives. You would probably never forget such experiences. If you saw blasted battlefields that were once crop fields and shattered buildings that were once homes and towns, you would have had to know that human lives were ruined as well. I wonder if men like Smith and Higgins has such experiences and memories.
In April 2011 the United States began sesquicentennial recognition of The War Between the States/The American Civil War. All over America people can honor and remember the men and women who served in the War from both North and South. They can visit graves and battlefields and monuments. In a park in Calais there is a bronze soldier standing atop a red granite monument. He confidently holds a rifle across his chest and wears the uniform and cap of a Union soldier. The plaque below him states this was erected in 1893: “In Grateful Remembrance Of/The Men of Calais/Who Upon Land and Sea Sacrificed Their/Lives That The Nation Might Be Preserved/And That Government Of The People/By The People And For The People Should/Not Perish From The Earth/ 1861-1865.” Calais citizens remembered and desired to have future generations do the same thing. There are many such moments in Maine and other places in our nation that honor people.
As Mainers we all should remember and be proud that it was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, who was Chosen from many other valiant Union Army leaders to accept the formal surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on April 12, 1865. Ulysses S. Grant chose him, not because of his leadership in battle, but because he knew Chamberlain was a humble man with a sense of honor and compassion. He understood how important it was to begin a healing process for a torn nation. He respected people, He ordered his men to perform the formal salute of arms which recognizes the common soldier with dignity and respect as he surrenders. He wrote in his book Passing of The Armies: “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood; men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin and worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured.”
I, too, understand how important it is to celebrate the contributions of people, and not war itself. So I will continue to visit the graves of Higgins and Smith. Charles Kuralt once said: “The reality of any place is what its people remember of it.” I will always admire and respect the caretakers of the East Ridge Cemetery in Cooper who still place all those small American flags near their graves. Let all of us remember.
J.R. Higgins [no dates], Find a Grave #104466994
John H. Smith [1845-1866], Find A Grave #104497457
Published 2013 Discover Maine. Reprinted with permission of the author.