"A Brave, Quiet, and Gentlemanly Fellow" Regimental colors of the 20th Maine. Wikimedia Commons.
When the Civil War began in 1861, George Washington Buck was living and working on his family farm in Linnaeus, Maine. At nineteen years old, Buck was the oldest of seven children born to Africa and Jane Buck. He enlisted in the 20th Maine voluntarily in July, 1862, in Portland. Like Buck, most of the other soldiers who enlisted during the first and second year of the war did so voluntarily. While many soldiers enlisted to escape bleak prospects on the home front, this appears not to have been the case for Buck. One of his comrades wrote that Buck “had left a good situation,” and census records indicate that George’s father owned a modest farm. Perhaps, then, he craved adventure or a break from everyday life in rural Maine. While a number of factors may have prompted Buck to enlist, most of the early volunteers “professed patriotic motives for enlisting,” and it is more than likely that Buck shared their sentiment. One of his comrades, Theodore Gerrish, wrote that Buck had left home to “[fight] for the old flag.” Buck was one of many “citizen soldiers” whose dedication to the Union and to the future of democracy brought them to the front lines, and ultimately to their deaths.
On September 2nd, 1862, Buck’s regiment left Portland on a train for Boston. Gerrish’s account provides a glimpse into some of the mixed emotions that Buck probably felt. Like Gerrish, he would have felt a “sickly sensation” in his heart and a lump in his throat as he prepared to leave his home state of Maine for what was likely the first time. At the same time, however, he was probably eager to see combat, like many of the other recruits. While departing by sea from Boston to Alexandria, Virginia, the regiment received the bad news of the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Chantilly. Despite the news, “not a cheek grew pale at the thought of coming danger.” Many of the men most certainly felt fear, but Gerrish’s romanticism highlights the truth that men like Buck wanted to engage in battle. Ideas about duty and honor, along with sheer boredom, compelled them to test their mettle. Perhaps most importantly, they saw combat as an opportunity to demonstrate courage, which was closely linked with both manliness and piety. At the Battle of Antietam, however, Buck and his regiment did not get the chance to demonstrate these virtues. Instead, the regiment was held in reserve. With the rest of his regiment, George would have “watched with suspended breath…[as] whole lines melted away.” Perhaps the eagerness to engage in battle he had likely felt upon his departure from Maine would have slightly faded.
When Buck and the 20th Maine came under fire for the first time at Shepherdstown, the regiment avoided heavy losses by crossing the Potomac and taking cover in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which the Confederates had drained. Between Shepherdstown and the regiment’s advanced to Falmouth, Virginia, a period of inactivity contributed to low morale among Buck and his comrades. The men slept on the cold ground without protection from the elements, they ate little, and they lived in unsanitary conditions that facilitated the spread of diseases like the measles. Buck would have seen his friends, once strong and healthy, deteriorate before his eyes, and he likely even buried some of his comrades in “brutally brief” ceremonies that denied the comfort that traditional burial customs offered to those who mourned. As he watched his comrades wither away and die from disease rather than as a result of courageous and heroic action on the battlefield, Buck would have had a hard time reconciling his “romanticized expectations of war” with the reality. When the regiment marched on to Virginia, hundreds of men were sent to hospitals, “many of whom never saw the regiment again.” Following the Battle of Fredericksburg in which four men of the 20th Maine were killed and 32 wounded, Buck became ill himself for a few days and was excused from duty by the surgeon.
Though Buck had been excused from duty, a widely hated quartermaster ordered Buck to cut him some wood. Buck told the quartermaster that he was sick and unable to walk that far, that he had been excused from duty, and that, as a non-commissioned officer, it was not his job to cut wood. The quartermaster knocked him down and kicked him, and reported that Buck had refused to obey his orders. He was reduced in the ranks without a hearing. This was an injustice that Buck “felt most keenly.” For he was, according to his comrade, not only “a brave, quiet, and gentlemanly fellow,” but also “one of the best soldiers in the regiment.” He performed his soldierly duties to the best of his ability, and he also did so without complaining. George’s response to this incident would eventually play a role in the way he would be remembered by his comrades.
While Buck dealt with the sting of his demotion, the 20th Maine was again kept out of the action at Chancellorsville. Due to a smallpox outbreak, the regiment was sent to Quarantine Hill and forbidden from advancing with the rest of the army. That night, George Buck and the 20th Maine waited impatiently, thinking of their “comrades and of the terrible battle they were fighting.” At the next major battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, George Buck and the 20th Maine would not be forced to sit it out. Instead, they would be in the thick of the action.
"You Die a Sergeant" Fallen soldiers in the woods of Little Round Top. Wikimedia Commons.
Remembrance and Reunion Photo of 1889 reunion of the 20th Maine at the Gettysburg Battlefield. Wikimedia Commons.
George Buck was one of about fifty thousand men who died amidst incredible carnage and bloodshed. Shortly after his death, his body may have been almost unrecognizable and his name just another added to a list of casualties. Yet, the accounts of Theodore Gerrish, a soldier in the 20th Maine, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain reveal how his comrades were able to attach significance to his death. They did so through the framework of heroic masculinity, specifically within the context of his demotion from sergeant prior to his death at the Battle of Gettysburg.
During the mid-nineteenth century, ideas about manliness, duty, and honor were “perhaps the most persuasive factor[s] that influenced soldiers’ fighting mentality and behavior.” The measure of these attributes was closely tied to stoicism. In an attempt to honor Buck’s death, Gerrish and Chamberlain both portray him as a prime example of heroic masculinity by highlighting his stoicism on and off the battlefield. In a society in which a sense honor and duty were prized, Buck’s unjust demotion was an insult to his character. Yet, he maintained his composure and, according to Gerrish, never even complained about the incident to his fellow soldiers. Instead, he “manfully performed the duties of a private soldier,” refusing even to “ask for justice as a favor.” Despite the injustice he had experienced, he continued to do his duty as a true, honorable man would.
According to his comrades, Buck also demonstrated stoicism in battle. While many men shirked and cowered, Gerrish wrote that Buck, “ever at the front…was among the first to fall.” Even at his death, Buck’s comrades highlighted his courage and, therefore, his manliness and honor. According to Gerrish, as Buck lay dying on the field of combat during a lull in the fighting, he said, “They reduced me in the ranks, but I will show them I am not afraid to die.” According to Chamberlain, “the prayer of home-bred manhood poured out with his life-blood” when he said, “Tell my mother I did not die a coward!” With a bullet in his chest and blood pouring from his body, Buck exhibited the courage and strength that allowed his comrades to give his death a heroic interpretation.
In their accounts, Chamberlain and Gerrish both seek to give Buck’s death as many elements of the “conventional Good Death” as possible. Though he could not die at home surrounded by family, he died “surrounded by his comrades” on the battlefield. By recording Buck’s last words to his mother, Chamberlain and Gerrish preserved the connection between the living and the dead that a man’s dying words could provide to his family. Chamberlain’s talk of Buck’s “high-born spirit” and “well-bred pride,” along with his courage in the face of unimaginable circumstances and his acceptance of death, would have assured Buck’s loved ones that his soul would be saved and that they would one day be reunited in heaven. Chamberlain was also able to honor Buck’s “faithful service and noble courage on the field of Gettysburg” by promoting him to the position of sergeant from which he had been unfairly demoted.
By emphasizing Buck’s heroism and masculinity and by showing he “died well,” Gerrish and Chamberlain show how men sought to make sense of their comrades’ deaths and provide solace to their families. They reveal that prevailing ideas about white masculinity were a powerful “source of collective identification and shared meaning” for soldiers of all ranks and backgrounds, and they reveal how men tried to create the “conventional Good Death” under circumstances that were anything but conventional.
McPherson, James, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 414, Kindle.
“The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, June 26, 1862,” National Park Service. Accessed March 8, 2017.
“The Battle of Malvern Hill,” National Park Service. Accessed March 8, 2017.
Dyer, Frederick. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, Des Moines: The Dyer Publishing Company, 1908.
“IMPORTANT TO DESERTERS; A PROCLAMATION BY THE PRESIDENT. An Amnesty to Deserters who will Return Before the 1st of April. A Warning to Those who Promote Desertions,” The New York Times, March 11, 1863, accessed March 9, 2017.
Pension Records of Mark Beatty Who Served in the 1st Regiment PA Reserves Infantry (30th Volunteers). National Archives, Washington D. C.
Narrative and map by Abigail Cocco, Gettysburg College.