The Medal of Honor awarded to Captain Jeremiah Plumber of Company F, 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Library of Congress
A total of 2,445 Medals of Honor were originally presented to individuals who served during the American Civil War. The key word here is originally. Following the 2010 awarding of a posthumous Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, the official number is 1,528. A number went to individuals who performed actions that now would scarcely receive mention, let alone a recommendation for a Medal of Honor. For instance, a common reason was the capture of the colors (flag) of a Confederate unit, a highly esteemed action of the period. But many were awarded for truly valorous acts on the battlefield at great risk of life.
Of that original total, 864 went to the men of the Twenty-seventh Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment—which was the entire unit. By way of comparison, only sixty-four total Medals of Honor were awarded to Union soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. The soldiers of the Twenty-seventh Maine, meanwhile, received their medals as a result of their defense of Washington, D.C., in late June to early July 1863, when General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. During that period, the nation’s capital was never directly threatened, and no shots were ever fired.
So . . . what did the men of the Twenty-seventh Maine do that outshone the heroic efforts of the 88,000 soldiers of the Army of the Potomac at that road junction town in south-central Pennsylvania? Quite simply, they reenlisted.
For four days. Actually, only about a third reenlisted—but they all were awarded the Medal of Honor.
During the Civil War, the armies on both sides were composed of two types of units: regular and volunteer—volunteer units being comparable to today’s National Guard. The Twenty-seventh Maine was a volunteer unit composed of men primarily from York County in the southwest corner of the state, whose members agreed to an enlistment of nine months, beginning on September 30, 1862, and ending on June 30, 1863. At that point the men would be free to return home.
On June 21, 1863, General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and commenced their second invasion of the North. This created a panic in Washington, D.C., because almost all the troops that had previously guarded the capital had been transferred to the Army of the Potomac, which was out searching for Lee’s army. Two units that had not been reassigned, because their enlistments were imminently due to expire, were the Twenty-seventh Maine and another volunteer regiment from the state, the Twenty-fifth Maine.
On June 26, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made a desperate appeal to the commanders of both regiments, asking them to convince their troops to agree to a short-term extension of their enlistments, one that would expire when the present crisis had passed. The men of the Twenty-fifth Maine refused, and on July 1 returned to their home state. Colonel Mark Wentworth, commander of the Twenty-seventh Maine, was able to convince about a third of his troops to reenlist and he and 3112 men remained at their post, guarding the capital, while about sixty miles to the north, two mighty armies slugged it out for three days at Gettysburg. On July 5, with the crisis over and without ever having fired a shot in anger during that period, this rump group of the Twenty-seventh Maine returned to York County.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Library of Congress
Secretary of War Stanton, who had a powerful temper and a reputation for carrying grudges, was furious over the Twenty-fifth Maine’s refusal to stay. Wanting to extend a gesture of gratitude, and possibly to exact some revenge against the Twenty-fifth Maine, on June 29 he ordered that the 311 men of the Twenty-seventh Maine who had stayed to defend the capital would receive the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, Stanton’s order was worded in such a way that the entire unit—all 864 members—was awarded the medals. These Medals of Honor were ready in January 1865 and sent to Governor Samuel Cony of Maine for distribution. Cony forwarded the medals to Mark Wentworth for final presentation.
Upon the expiration of his term as commander of the Twenty-seventh Maine, Wentworth had chosen to remain in service and commanded another volunteer unit, the Thirty-second Maine, before being mustered out in October 1864 with the brevet rank of Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers. This time around, Wentworth saw a lot of action, participating in engagements that included the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and the Battle of the Crater.
Captain Jeremiah Plumber of Company F, 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Library of Congress
To Wentworth’s credit, even though he was one of the beneficiaries who received the Medal of Honor for “volunteering to remain at Arlington heights, Va., until the result of the battle of Gettysburg, Pa., was known, the term of the regiment having expired before that time,” he felt uncomfortable about passing them out to troops who had simply performed garrison duty. In an effort to follow the spirit and not the letter of his orders, he did all he could to at least make sure that only those who had actually reenlisted received their medals. That task was made difficult by the fact that no reliable roster had been made of the Twenty-seventh Maine volunteers who stayed behind to guard Washington. But eventually he managed to deliver the Medals of Honor to the 311 who had fulfilled their obligation. The rest he stored in his barn. At one point, thieves broke into the barn and stole a number of them. The rest disappeared shortly after his death in 1897.
Though it was the largest, the Twenty-seventh Maine was not the only unit to receive Medals of Honor for reasons other than exemplary valor in combat. Another group was the four officers and twenty-five senior noncommissioned officers who served as President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral honor guard.
The reunion, circa 1905, of the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Note that all the men are wearing their Medals of Honor. Wikipedia
Then there was the handful of downright frivolous awardings. Unlike some individuals who inflated their claims, Lieutenant Colonel Asa Gardiner was forthright. At that time, an individual could personally file for a medal. Gardiner, in his application submitted in 1872 and referring to his service in the Civil War, wrote, “I request I be allowed one as a souvenir of memorable times past.” His candor must have been disarming. He got it.
Individuals who received their Medals of Honor as a result of gallant and life-risking actions on the battlefield didn’t like this situation. But for fifty-four years, so long as the criteria was worded the way it was and given that it was the nation’s only military decoration, the only thing these veterans could do was ignore those whom they believed had inappropriately received their medals.
All that would change in 1917.