Home Maine Seeing the Elephant: Lewis and George Bisbee

Seeing the Elephant: Lewis and George Bisbee

Maine Cousins Fight the American Civil War

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It is often said we stand on the shoulders of giants. In the American Civil War we name those giants Lincoln, Grant and Sherman. But that is only partially true. The Lincolns, Grants, and Shermans may have planned and directed the fight, but the common soldier did the actual combat. Without soldiers like Lewis and George Bisbee, all would have been for naught.

Seeing the Elephant

Many families like the Bisbees saw their sons go to war during the Civil War.  At least 15 of the Bisbee families of New England enlisted.

War in 1861 was an adventure. For the young men of both sides, the lure of war promised adventure in a righteous cause. Most Civil War soldiers had never ventured more than a few miles from their homes. Marching off to war was an exotic venture – “seeing the elephant” in the slang of the 1860s.  The elephant was a unique creature from a world beyond their imagination.

But America, unlike Europe, had never experienced war on a grand and terrible scale.  The newly enlisted marched off in blissful ignorance of what was to come.

Lewis Child Bisbee and George Dana Bisbee saw the elephant. They also saw more than their share of horror and misery.

Lewis Child Bisbee

The Bisbee Cousins Enlist

Lewis Child Bisbee enlisted as a private in Company I, 16th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, in Augusta on Aug. 20, 1862.  Lewis’s cousin George Dana Bisbee enlisted at the same time in Company C in the same regiment. Both men came from Hartford, Maine.

George Dana Bisbee

The war had gone on for a year by then, but the real bloodletting hadn’t happened yet.

On Aug, 27, 1862, Lewis won promotion to lieutenant, George to first sergeant. The regiment immediately marched off to Washington, D.C., without any time for formal training.

Though part of the Antietam campaign, the 16th Maine spent the time guarding rail lines and saw no action. It then continued with the Union Army in the pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee into Virginia.

Blanket Brigade

They had a problem, though. In September, when they left their camp at Washington, they had to leave everything behind. Their belongings would catch up with them later, they were told. So, they marched off with just the clothes on their backs and no tents. They remained thus for the next two-and-a-half months without any kind of shelter and with no change of clothes, underwear or shoes. They looked more like hobos than soldiers. Soldiers made them the butt of jokes, derisively calling them “The Blanket Brigade.”

Fall in Virginia in 1862 was particularly cold and rainy, and the lack of shelter or adequate clothing took a deadly toll. Of the more than 1,000 men of the regiment who left Maine, over 300 died or fell sick with debilitating pneumonia or flu.

On Dec. 1, 1862, Lewis Bisbee won promotion to captain, commanding Company I. He still led a virtually untrained unit that spent all day, every day, marching into Virginia with no time for training. Their supplies finally caught up with them at Thanksgiving. They then had their first real shelter and change of underwear since the beginning of September.

Baptism by Fire

In  December 1862, the Regiment and the Bisbee cousins received their baptism by fire at Fredericksburg, Va. The 16th Maine, positioned on the left flank of the Union Army received orders to assault the entrenched Confederate right — uphill.  When the veteran regiments on either side of them fell back, they persisted. After taking the Confederate position, they had no support.  They were ordered to fall back. Having suffered heavily in the assault, they found themselves in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. They could stay unsupported to await the inevitable counterattack or fall back as the only viable targets on the battlefield for the Confederates.

The Battle of Fredericksburg: The Army of the Potomac crosses the Rappahanock

Obeying orders, they retreated. One can only imagine the cursing and frustration of a unit that won its battle but had to give up what it had heavily sacrificed to gain.

Somewhere here George Bisbee received a wound in his left arm. Being shot in the arm by a large soft-lead bullet often led to amputation, but he was lucky. The wound must not have been serious since he remained with the unit.

Fredericksburg marked their introduction to the true horror of battle. The battle was a Union loss due not to the lack of valor of the soldiers but to poor leadership at the top. General Burnside noted after the battle: “If there is any glory in the battle, it belongs to the men from Maine.”

The Mud March

The year 1863 saw the regiment still in Virginia and participating in the infamous Mud March. During the fruitless four-day affair, the Army of the Potomac marched back and forth in miserable rain-soaked conditions along mud-clogged dirt roads, for no appreciable purpose.


The Regiment’s next serious action took place at Chancellorsville, Va., from May 1-5, 1863. While the battle resulted in a serious loss for the Union, the 16th Maine had some luck. It did not get involved with the part of the army that the Confederates routed.

The Battle of Chancellorsville

According to its unit history,

The right of our lines was in extreme peril, for Howard’s corps had stampeded…On the double-quick, though burning woods, over dead and dying, amid a terrific cannonading and an incessant rattle of musketry, we pushed. Exhausted and panting, the Sixteenth took the extreme right and front of the Army of the Potomac at half-past ten P.M, and remained in the line of battle until 3 A.M. when we threw up breastworks…”

While fighting raged elsewhere, the 16th Maine held the right and eventually fell back with the rest of the army.

After Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac set off in pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it moved to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. The men of the Army of the Potomac marched an estimated 20 miles a day into Maryland and Pennsylvania. It took a tremendous effort in the heat and humidity of a very hot summer, in wool uniforms, carrying heavy equipment. The boys from Maine had no experience of those conditions. By June 30, the 16th Maine found itself bivouacked along Marsh Creek, about six miles from Gettysburg.

Action at Gettysburg

July 1, 1863 saw the 16th Maine Infantry and Lewis and George Bisbee leave their bivouac at 9 a.m. They force marched to Gettysburg, moving into position along Seminary Ridge. The Regiment belonged to the 2nd Division of the Union 1st Corps, arguably the best unit in the Army.

The area to their front had been the scene of bitter fighting by other units of the 1st Corps earlier in the day. Their corps commander, John F. Reynolds, died there. Moving to their right at about 1 p.m., they took up position behind a fence line near the Chambersburg Pike. They quickly engaged the enemy about 200 yards away behind another fence.

“Now came the order to charge bayonets. Color Sergeant Mower was the first to jump the fences, and the regiment followed with a ringing cheer, and in the face of a galling fire, went double-quick, scattering the rebel line, they going pell-mell to the rear. Our boys would have followed them, but were recalled and moved with the division still farther to the right.”

View to Oak Ridge (left) and Oak Hill and Peace Memorial (right. Photo by the author.

This move took them to Oak Ridge, a key to the Union position overwatched by the higher Oak Hill held by Confederate forces. (The modern Peace Light Monument now stands there.) With other 2nd Division regiments, the 16th Maine repulsed several Confederate attacks on the position. While the fighting raged there, the Union 11th Corps moved into position on the plain to their right. But after brief fighting, the 11th Corps was outflanked and fled the field in disorder. That left the Union force on Oak Ridge unsupported and fully exposed.

View from Confederate position on Oak Hill. Photo by the author.

Forlorn Hope

With no hope of relief, division commander Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson ordered the men to fall back to Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. By now far superior Confederate forces pressed in on two sides, threatening to surround them and cut them off.  Robinson ordered the 16th Maine to “take that position and hold it at all costs.” The position, about 75 yards north of their current position, was literally the tip of the ridge then vacated by the other Union regiments. At the time, the 16th had only 275 officers and men left, including Lewis and George Bisbee. They faced four oncoming Confederate divisions that had yet done any significant fighting at Gettysburg. The divisions outnumbered the 16th Maine 20-to-1.

The 16th Maine Monument at Gettysburg. Photo by the author.

The regimental commander, Col. Charles W. Tilden, protested that it was suicide. But they obeyed the order and the regiment clung to the position.  Many of those men must have felt they would never leave this ridge alive as they looked out on the smoke that concealed the vast numbers of the oncoming foe. They held out long enough for the rest of the Union 1st Corps to retreat to Cemetery Hill, before a shortage of ammunition and the overwhelming numbers made it impossible to hold any longer. Being hard pressed now from three directions, the 16th Maine fell back, conducting a fighting and relatively orderly withdrawal, all the while pursued by vastly superior forces.

Saving the Colors

After going several hundred yards, the regiment found itself at the Railroad Cut, and by this time it was virtually surrounded with no hope for escape. If they had the time to look around them, they would have seen the fields covered with the dead and wounded of both armies. They’d been left behind from the hard fighting earlier in the day, when the Union 1st Corps soundly defeated Confederate forces, but at a high cost.

View from the 16th Maine marker of Oak Ridge. Photo by the author.

Such impressions would have been fleeting as their own reality came into sharp focus. Appealing to Colonel Tilden, the color bearers asked permission to tear their colors apart. They did not want them captured as war trophies, a major disgrace for the unit that lost them. With his permission, the men tore them to small pieces and each man in the regiment secreted a piece on his person. The Confederates never discovered them. Colonel Tilden snapped his own sword in half to keep it from being a trophy. Then he gave the order: Every man for himself and to make their way to the Union lines as best they could.

Lewis and George Bisbee, POWs

The majority of the Regiment, including Lewis Bisbee who was wounded in the fight, and George Bisbee, were captured, along with Colonel Tilden. Lewis and George probably saw little of each other during the actual fighting, but likely came together for mutual support in a shared fate as the men surrendered. Of the 275 men in the 16th Maine at the start of the battle, 11 were killed, 62 were wounded, 159 were captured. Only 43 escaped to the Union lines.

Col. Charles Tilden

The defeated Confederate forces quit the battlefield on July 4, 1863, and moved south into Virginia, taking the captured 16th Maine men with them. Lewis and George initially were sent to Libby Prison in Richmond. The only advantage to Libby Prison over the rest of the prison camps was that it was in a three-story warehouse, so at least there was overhead shelter. The windows had bars but no glass. Conditions there were beyond miserable, and Libby Prison was described as second only to conditions to Andersonville. The death toll from disease, lack of food and essentials, lack of hygiene and medical care, and outright neglect led to a high mortality rate. By the time the Bisbees and the other 16th Maine men reached Libby Prison, it housed more than 1,000. It was designed for 300. Things only got worse.

Libby Prison in 1865

Lewis spent 10 months in Libby Prison before being sent further south to prison camps in Macon, Ga. (Camp Oglethorpe), Savannah, Ga. (Camp Lawton), Charleston, S.C., and eventually Columbia, S.C> (Camp Sorghum). All Civil War prison camps were miserable, dehumanizing places, but Camp Sorghum was one of the worst. It was an open field, without shelter and fully exposed to the elements, no sanitation, no real food and no medical care. The prisoners had only the rotting clothes on their backs. The prisoners were already walking skeletons by the time they got there, transferred from other prison camps to alleviate overcrowding. Life went from bad to worse. Death was an everyday occurrence, and only the strongest survived.

Finally, Released

Somehow Lewis Bisbee managed to survive, and on March 15, 1865 he was released. He rejoined the 16th Infantry, his enlistment not officially ended. It is unclear if he rejoined it in time to be present with the regiment at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. He mustered out with the regiment at Arlington Heights, Va., on June 5, 1865, and returned briefly to Maine.

Lewis had a brother, Sgt. Elisha Sylvester Bisbee, who fought in the Civil War with the 1st Maine Volunteer Cavalry. He was killed in action at the Battle of North Anna Bridge, Va., on May 22, 1864. Lewis most probably didn’t find out about his brother’s death until after his release from captivity.

Depiction of Libby Prison by David Gilmour Blythe

George Bisbee was sent to the same Confederate prisons as his cousin Lewis. He endured the same hardships in camps that fostered disease, starvation, neglect and brutality. It seems likely the two cousins provided emotional support for each other during their captivity. George was marginally luckier than Lewis in that he was paroled after 18 months, on Dec. 9, 1864. At that time the Bisbee family probably got its first real news about Lewis Bisbee’s status.

George Bisbee was later formally exchanged, meaning that he could return to active service. He rejoined the 16th Maine in time to fight in the Appomattox Campaign. His unit fought at White Oak, Gravelly Run, Five Forks and Sailor’s Creek. He was present at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Now reunited with his cousin Lewis, he would have participated in the 16th Maine’s march at the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. He mustered out with the regiment on June 5, 1865 at Arlington Heights, Va.

George Bisbee had won promotion to 1st lieutenant while a prisoner. But in one of those then-peculiarities of the military, the Army later revoked his commission. He lost it because he couldn’t muster for it, as the Confederates had him in custody at the time!

Lewis Bisbee

Lewis Child Bisbee was born on June 7, 1834 at Hartford, Maine. He married Martha Brett Staples in 1856. The 1860 Census, before the war, listed his occupation as “carpenter.” Because of his capture and imprisonment only a year after he enlisted, he probably never made it home on furlough. His wife and children would have spent four long years not knowing his exact fate.

After the war, in 1865 he moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota Territory, with his family. They had one son, James, and a daughter Luella, both born before the Civil War. After moving to Minneapolis, Lewis and Martha had two more sons, Ansel and Llewellyn. James died in 1871.

While his formal education is unclear, Lewis must have had some significant schooling. He worked as an architect and builder in Minneapolis. He won renown for designing and building many of Minneapolis’ prominent structures, including its first city hall, churches, schools and homes of the city’s influential residents. As with most Union Civil War veterans, he took an active role in the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic). He died on July 15, 1921 at Minneapolis, Minn.

George Bisbee

George Dana Bisbee was born on July 9, 1841 in Hartford, Maine. The 1860 Census lists him as a pupil at Teacher’s Normal, West Peru, Maine. A Normal School trained teachers at the college level. It is unclear what he did just prior to enlisting.

In 1865 he returned to Maine to live. In December 1865 he was admitted to the bar in Oxford County and began a lifelong practice as an attorney. On July 18, 1866 he married Anna Louise Stanley. Together they had three sons, Stanley, Seth and Wirt, and a daughter, Mary.

The Bisbee Family history notes that in 1872 and 1880 he served as a state senator. He held several other prestigious positions, including president of the Rumford Falls Trust Company, trustee and later president of Hebron Academy, Hebron, Maine (which still exists). He served four years as the U.S. marshal for the District of Maine, director and attorney for the Rumford Falls Railroad and president of the Rumford Falls Trust Company. George also belonged to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court. He died on May 26, 1918, at Rumford, Maine.

Lewis and George Bisbee are the author’s 5th cousins, 3 times removed.

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