Civil-War era letters discovered at Bates College

During the recent renovation of a Bates College-owned house on 32 Frye St. in Lewiston, Maine, construction workers discovered six Civil-War era letters exchanged between former Lewiston resident Uriah Balkam and his wife, Annie. Balkam was the chaplain for the 16th Maine Regiment during the Civil War. He suffered from nephritis, and the letters detail his unsuccessful efforts to petition his commanding officers for a 20-day disability leave. He also wrote about the good fortune of finding a $125 “dapple-grey” horse to see him through the war, the sound of “brisk musketry fire” and Union troop movements. The heartbreak of a wife left behind is evident in one of Annie’s letters to Balkam, in which she wrote, “I never wanted to see you in my life more than I do at this moment.”

One of Balkam’s letters was written from the battlefield near Petersburg, Va., site of the highest number of casualties in a single Civil- War engagement when 602 soldiers of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery were killed, wounded or captured in 10 minutes of fighting. Three weeks after General Lee and his confederate troops fled the 40-day siege of Petersburg, he surrendered at Appomatox, Va., thus ending the war.

Balkam survived the war and returned to Lewiston, where he was a pastor at the Congregational Church on Pine Street from 1855 to 1870. Balkam later received an honorary doctoral degree from Bates in 1867 and became the Cobb Professor of Logic and Christian Evidences at Bates from 1873-1874. Balkam, father of two sons and two daughters, died instantly on March 4, 1874, when he was thrown from his horse on his way to teach a class at Bates. The March 4, 1874 Lewiston Evening Journal obituary notes the horse that threw Balkam was purchased one year earlier, ruling out current speculation that this was the same horse that he rode for more than a year and a half during the war. After Balkam’s death, the editor of The Bates Student newspaper wrote: “His liberality of spirit and freedom from all forms of bigotry, combined with great earnestness of purpose, made him a very effective preacher.” Balkam was a graduate of Amherst College and the Bangor Theological Seminary.

Civil-War historian and Lewiston native Thomas A. Desjardin, author of Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign, perused transcriptions of the letters from his office in Gettysburg, Pa., and said the rare find at Bates College gives a glimpse into life from the battlefield. “What is so unusual is that they tell us Balkam obviously suffered from a serious kidney ailment, yet he was denied a disability leave,” he said. “Chaplains were non-combatant elements of Civil-War regiments and while they were spiritually essential during this highly religious period of history, they were not a physically important part of any regiment.”

Upon discovering the letters in mid June, construction workers hand delivered them to Kurt Kuss, special collections librarian at Bates, where the letters are now stored. Kuss had Bates work-study student Sean M. Monahan, a senior English major from North Brookfield, Mass., transcribe the letters. Monahan consulted with James Leamon, professor of history at Bates, for assistance in discerning the faded handwriting and frequent abbreviations in the letters. “I liked reading these details that are only available from primary-source research. It was a unique experience because of the context in which the letters were written,” said Monahan, who has been transcribing other archival documents and designing the Special Collections page for the Bates College Web site this summer. Monahan, who graduated from North Brookfield High School, is the son of Michael and Joyce Monahan of North Brookfield, Mass.

Civil-War historian Thomas A. Desjardin, 717-337-3211

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