CASTINE — The storyline sounds familiar to any student of Maine history or the Civil War: a man born and raised on the shores of the Penobscot River goes on to attend Bowdoin College, then joins the Army after war breaks out. At Gettysburg, in July of 1863, he leads his command of Maine men in fierce fighting against Confederate troops and is credited with saving other Union forces from being overrun.
That’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, it’s true, who charged down Little Round Top with the 20th Maine regiment and kept the Union Army from being outflanked on the second day of the battle. But it also applies to Charles Tilden, a Castine native who led the 16th Maine regiment at the start of the famous three-day battle in Pennsylvania 155 years ago this week.
While it found itself in a situation similar to that of the 20th Maine in some respects, the 16th and its commanding officer would face a much different outcome than Chamberlain and his men did.
Tilden was born in Castine in 1832, son of a well-off merchant. The younger Tilden attended Bowdoin College and joined a militia unit known as the Castine Light Infantry in 1858, three years before the Civil War began. When the conflict started, he became an officer in the 2nd Maine regiment and served with it for a year. In the summer of 1862, at the age of 30, he was named second in command of the newly formed 16th Maine and would go on to become its leader.
The 16th Maine fought in some of the most famous battles in the eastern theater of the Civil War: Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But it is perhaps the stand it took at Gettysburg that proved to be the regiment’s defining moment.
Reduced to 275 men by July of 1863 (from an original fighting force of approximately 1,000 the summer before — death from battle and disease had taken its toll), the 16th Maine was part of the Union Army’s First Corps. That corps was one of the first to arrive in Gettysburg on July 1, when the armies of the North and the South slammed into one another outside of the sleepy Pennsylvania town.
Having marched about 12 miles that morning from Emmitsburg, Md., after several daily marches of 20-plus miles in the weeks leading up to the battle, the men of the 16th Maine took up position northwest of town and traded rifle fire with advancing Confederates. As fighting progressed, the Southern soldiers pushed the Union forces back toward town.
The day was going poorly for the boys in blue so far, and was likely to get worse unless someone could buy them some time and allow them to retreat across town to better, higher ground.
Charles Tilden and his soldiers in the 16th Maine became that someone.
On a ridge just outside of town, around 4 p.m., Tilden’s commanding officer rode up and issued a stark order: he was to take a nearby position and “hold it as long as there is a single man left,” a witness recalled.
“You know what that means,” Tilden said as he issued the order to his men.
“Somehow, fewer than 275 men had to hold back several thousand of the enemy so the rest of their division could escape to fight another day,” historian Tom Huntington noted in his book “Maine Roads to Gettysburg.”
Abner Small, an officer in the 16th Maine, recalled years later that his regiment was “sacrificed to steady the retreat.”
The action took all of about 20 minutes, but the toll it exacted was much larger: 10 soldiers killed, 36 wounded and 159 missing. Many if not most of the missing, including Tilden, were captured by Confederates after being overrun.
The men from Maine did not go easily, though. It is said a Rebel soldier pointed his gun at Tilden and ordered him to “throw down” his sword. “Or I will blow your brains out,” the Southerner added.
Tilden instead drove his sword into the ground, snapping the blade off at the hilt. He was taken to the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, and managed to escape in 1864 via a tunnel dug by other Union prisoners.
The Sixteeners, as they were called, also did not let their regimental flags fall into enemy hands that day on the field at Gettysburg. When they saw their position was no longer defensible, they made sure their flags would remain with them. Small recalled the actions of the soldiers carrying the banners that day:
“They gallantly held aloft the loved emblems until capture was inevitable, and then by advice and consent of the colonel and other officers, broke the staff and tore in shreds the silk banners, the pride of the regiment, and divided the pieces.”
Decades later, Small said, pieces of the flag could still be found in Maine “in albums and frames … cherished mementoes of the critical period.”
After escaping from Richmond and returning to duty in 1864, Tilden was captured (and escaped) once more before the war’s end. He lived and worked in Hallowell in the granite-cutting industry after the war. Upon his death in 1914 — only a couple of weeks after Chamberlain — he was buried in his native Castine.