Among the relatively minor and the lesser-known heroes of the Civil War was a group of men from Wilmington, North Reading, Reading and Andover. They were members of Company D, 50th Infantry Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. The word volunteers was important to them; it showed that Father Abraham had not had to draft them into the Army. Every one of them, to the day of his death, remembered that he was a volunteer.
They were nine-month men who served mostly in Louisiana. Theirs was not the ardor of battle against the hordes of Robert E. Lee. Their combat was against buzzing mosquitoes and a few alligators between stints of action against the rebels, and all in unfriendly habitat. They were the men of the Banks Expedition.
General Nathaniel Banks was a former governor of Massachusetts and one of the “political generals” of the Civil War. He was of such political importance that Lincoln thought it wise to give him a military commission. He was honest, diligent and hard-working. He took care of his troops and he studied the text books.
Unfortunately, studying texts of military history was not enough. That was no guarantee of not having to match wits with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Jackson so soundly whipped Banks in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862 that the rebels joked that Banks was the best commissary general in the Confederate Army. Banks was not only whipped — he lost all the materials that his army had, enough for about 60,000 men.
But Lincoln, anxious for political reasons, kept Banks on the active role and sent him to Louisiana. The 50th Massachusetts Volunteers was one of the regiments that went with Gen. Banks.
Banks didn’t do too well in the South, either. Eventually he got wound up up in the Red River Expedition, and lost nearly everything. Before that, however, while he was along the Mississippi, he had some competent men and did fairly well.
But this story is not about Gen. Banks. This story is about Company D and of Levi Swain, Jr. of North Wilmington, who was the Fourth Sergeant of Company D.
Swain was a farmer. He was also a butcher, for that went with farming. He was also a shoemaker, for the farmers of Wilmington made shoes, in their own little cobbler shops in the winter time. Levi Swain, Jr. was also the constable of Wilmington.
That was a job where the money could be seen coming in. It paid $15 a year, and lest the reader think that $15 was nothing, let him realize that by the town vote, the laborers on the town highways were paid 15 cents an hour.
$15 a year was as much as a laborer earned with 100 hours of work. The constable’s job was not as hard, nor were the hours so long. Swain was well-satisfied to be the constable.
Relatively speaking, Wilmington was sort of a depressed area. The great days of hop farming were over. Farmers in other parts of the country found that their soil, too, could grow hops.
Gone were the Wilmington cranberry bogs, killed by the cranberry blight. The Wilmington farmers had nothing more than a subsistence level to expect.
Many joined the Union Army when the war started. Some, of course, had a keen interest in the slavery question. Dr. Silas Brown put up runaway slaves in the Harnden Tavern, a quarter-mile from Swain’s home.
But Wilmington, like most of the cities and towns of Massachusetts, never quite fulfilled its quota. It was all very fine to march away to war, the young men reasoned, but General Lee is down there wait for us.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was offering a bonus for enlistment. Massachusetts had to get more men. Something had to be done to encourage men to enlist in the Army.
In Wilmington, as in other towns, there were special town meetings, to consider means of encouraging enlistment. Levi Swain, Jr. as constable had the duty of notifying inhabitants of a coming town meeting.
Levi had not enlisted. He was 39 years old with a wife and three children. They lived in the Pearson tavern on Salem Street, between Ballardvale and Andover streets.
By the summer of 1862, Wilmington was 13 men short of its quota. The governor was about to issue another call. New regiments were to be formed.
Things began to happen.
There was a special town meeting on July 21. Swain had issued the call at the behest of the selectmen, one of whom was George Gowing.
The subject of bonuses had been discussed before, and would be discussed again, but things were getting out of hand.
Gowing said that the town should pay $110 to every Wilmington man who enlisted, up to 13 men. That would fulfill Wilmington’s quota.
The town could borrow the money from Benjamin Buck, who still had money put away during the hop days.
Squire Walter Blanchard wanted to make the bonus $125. Others said that was too much. They voted instead for the $110 proposed by Gowing.
Moderator Asa G. Sheldon declared the $110 bonus a vote.
That seemed to settle the matter, but it didn’t. Before it was all settled, there would be more town meetings. In fact, the war would be fought and won.
A couple of town meetings later, on Aug. 18, the matter was discussed again. The moderator this time was the minister, the Rev. Samuel H. Tolman of the Congregational Church.
Asa Sheldon offered a motion to pay $150 to all volunteers. This was to include those who had volunteered in the past and who were with the Army, and new volunteers.
That wasn’t enough. Gowing offered an amendment, to pay an additional $40 to any man who volunteered for three years. This time, it was voted.
And the town voted, too, to have a committee to encourage the young men to volunteer. The Rev. Mr. Tolman was the first to be named to this committee. Squire Blanchard was on it, as were Abiel Pearson, William Gowing and William H. Carter.
Levi Swain began to think things over. The town was providing for the families of men who had volunteered. The town would give him $150 to volunteer. That was the same as 10 years pay as constable. It was better than working in the fields during the hot days of summer, and in the cobbler shop all winter.
If he were to enlist for three years, there would be the special bonus of $40. But was three years worth $40?
He wasn’t alone in his thinking. A total of 18 men decided to enlist during that week. They all joined Company D of the 50th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers.
Of course they might get killed, but nine months wasn’t three years!
The regiment was the old 7th Regiment of Massachusetts with a new number. It had a few officers and fewer non-commissioned men. A few weeks earlier, the colonel and other officers had met in South Reading, now Wakefield, and offered the services of the regiment to Governor Andrew. Of course, the governor eagerly accepted.
There was George Milligan, who lived in the old Thompson house on Main Street near the Tewksbury line. Brothers Ambrose and Russell Upton were in the company, along with Otis Harnden, James Morton and George Pearson, all Wilmington men.
In September, the company assembled in Boxford, and a couple of months later, they left for Camp Banks, on Long Island, N.Y. From there, the various companies were sent by steamer to New Orleans. Company D was sent on the steamer Montebello. On the way, smallpox broke out and the entire company had to be quarantined for months. It wasn’t until April 2 that they rejoined their regiment, near Port Hudson, Louisiana.
While Company D was in quarantine, the regiment was at Baton Rouge, and then took part in a demonstration on March 2 against Port Hudson, a Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. It was part of a plan to get Admiral Farragut up the river, above Port Hudson. It was there that Company D rejoined the regiment.
On May 27, the 50th Massachusetts took part in the assault against Port Hudson. It then served time in the trenches and as artillery support, until the surrender of Port Hudson on July 9.
That completed the war duty of the 50th Massachusetts. The regiment went upstream to Cairo, Illinois, and then cross-country by train. It arrived in Boston on Aug. 11, 1863 and was mustered out of the service at Wenham on Aug. 24.
There is no record of its arrival home. Not much was made of it. The country was still absorbing the lessons of Gettysburg, in which three Wilmington men were among the thousands killed.
Time passed on. The Congregational Church burned in February 1864, and a new one was built. The town meeting met in the Adams House, so called, later the American Legion Hall, and voted to buy the old Baptist Church for $1,000, and use it as a town hall. It was there that the 1865 annual town meeting was held.
The constable was Abiel Porter Pearson, a one-eyed man who lived on Andover Street. He had taken the position when Levi Swain enlisted.
Pearson was receiving $20 a year, and offered to continue at that rate of pay.
Swain also offered to serve at $20 a year. He went a step further, guaranteeing that there would be no further expense than the $20. What Pearson had to say to this offer is not known.
Levi Swain, with the help of some friends, was again elected constable. His pay was 33 percent higher than when he had enlisted.