Frank B. Haines collection  1916-1917
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Biography

Webb, Nathan B., 1842-1891

Rank : Private, Sergeant (1864 March 11)

Regiment : 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment. Co. D (1861-1865)

Service : 1861 September 20-1864 November 25

  • b. 25 April 1842
  • Enlisted Co. D, 20 September 1861 (mustered 19 October as Private)
  • Captured at Aldie, Va., 17 June 1863, imprisoned at Belle Isle
  • Exchanged 12 September 1863, rejoined Regiment 18 October 1863
  • Promoted to Sergeant, 11 March 1864
  • Wounded at Deep Bottom Run, 16 August 1864
  • Mustered out, 25 November 1864

The diaries of Nathan Webb are the record of an unusual man under extraordinary circumstances. They include vivid descriptions of life in one of the most active Union cavalry regiments, the 1st Maine. Webb's thoughtfulness, candor, and his insight into the minds of soldiers and civilians make his diary a remarkably rich resource for the study of the social and military history of the Civil War.

In September, 1861, Webb was a 19 year-old student at the East Main Conference Seminary in Bucksport, Me. The Seminary, affiliated with the Methodist Church, saw all but five of its eligible students enlist during that fall, with 14 of them, Webb included, joining the 1st Maine Cavalry. Upon being sent to Virginia, in March, 1862, Webb was quickly disabused of any romantic notions of warfare he entertained as his regiment found itself in enemy territory under the harshest of conditions. "When I was a civilian, and at home by the fireside," he wrote, "[and] read of the 'great conflict' in Virginia, and of the places there, how they loomed up before me; Munson's Hill, Manassas, Catlett's Station, and the Rappahannock, [they] seemed to my distorted imagination, places of renown and greatness; while in Reality they are but a sheep pasture knoll, a railroad switch, a grog shop, and a muddy brook" (p. 231). Most of his first few months in the service were occupied in learning the art of warfare, on hard rides and in minor skirmishes. The 1st Maine took part in the battles of Port Republic, Cedar Mountain, 2nd Bull Run, and Antietam. These bitter experiences left Webb grasping for a solution to the faults that plagued the Army of the Potomac--faults that resulted in defeat and high casualties--and with a high disdain for the media and people in Maine who criticized the Army from their safe haven in the north. His disaffection peaked following the disaster at 2nd Bull Run, when he wrote "There is a screw loose somewhere. Can it be? but no, I'l [sic] not think it" (146-147), and again following McClellan's dismissal in November.

Brightening the picture, at least temporarily, was the occupation of Frederick, Md. There, with plenty of good food, Webb struck up close friendships with several local families and attended church services for a variety of denominations. After advancing to Fredericksburg, where the 1st Maine played a comparatively minor role, the Regiment, like the remainder of the Army of the Potomac, settled down to a bitter, long, stagnant winter, steeped in the frustration of their ineffectiveness.

While occasionally prone to moralizing, particularly early in the war, Webb's beliefs are anything but simplistic. While he claims to abhor slavery and to regard African-Americans as equals, he also writes "I am not overstocked with that false sense of honor and right, which can't look at things as they are, and in some measure accommodate itself [sic] to existing conditions...if war should cease and I should live in this country I should be an advocate of the mild form of slavery and hate an abolitionist" (p. 224). He is appalled by the death and destruction caused by the war, but his descriptions of killings and woundings are clear, almost clinical, and he finds no difficulty in excusing the pillaging of food, wood, horses, and other property from southern citizens. Even looking back on his experiences, Webb could write: "Probably to some of the readers of this, these things look like robbery and vandalism, but I assure them that no outrages were ever committed upon helpless people by the 1st Maine Cavalry" (p. 699). Most interesting are his depictions of civilians, particularly women. He regards most of the women he encounters as fallen beings, and is able to laugh at their predicament because of the haughty, aristocratic airs they still maintain even in their dissolution. "About the worst feelings I have towards them is the satisfaction that ere long they will be begging at our feet" (p. 101). Still, he can display compassion. In an incident, late in the war, in which he was asked to remove a guard from the property of a Virginia woman who had lost both sons and a husband in the war, he wrote, "When I followed on behind her leading my horse was the first time I ever felt humbled in the presence of a Southerner. I felt heartily sorry for her and I hope she will never again be anoyed" (p. 1137). In every situation, Webb thinks, analyses, and attempts to understand not only what is happening around him, but why. His occasionally inconsistent answers reflect the complexity of civil warfare.

During the spring of 1863, Webb felt that his Regiment was finally beginning to reap the benefits of its education in the art of the cavalry. On Stoneman's raid during the Chancellorsville campaign, in several fierce skirmishes, and particularly at the Battle of Brandy Station, Webb sensed that the 1st Maine had come into its own. While still scornful of the leadership of the army, he became increasingly confident in the military capabilities of his regiment and in General Gregg.

On the 12th of June, 1863, riding a wave of confidence following Brandy Station, the 1st Maine was engaged at Aldie, Va. Having charged far into the Confederate lines, Webb and several of his comrades were cut off from the main body of their force and captured by Confederate cavalry. After a long, forced march, Webb was processed as a prisoner of war at Libby, and assigned to Belle Isle. Imprisoned from 27 June through 23 July, 1863, Webb managed to keep a careful account (augmented after the fact) of every incident of abuse he witnessed, from the death of prisoners by starvation, to harangues from citizens of Richmond, to murder at the hands of guards. He draws a stark picture of the corruption of the prison system, of escapes, the quality and quantity of food, recreation, and the small acts of vengeance planned, and occasionally carried out, by prisoners. One of the most poignant scenes he describes involved John Henry Winder urging his young daughter to strike and verbally abuse the skeletal Union prisoners on Belle Isle and their passive forbearance in response.

Webb was paroled on September 12th, and spent one month convalescing in Maine, before returning "home," as he emphasized, to his Regiment. The Mine Run Campaign capped brought the year to a fittingly bitter end. In December, despite his affinity for his regiment and apparent taste for the soldier's life, Webb opted not to reenlist. The decision was not an easy one, and was made even more difficult when most of his regiment reenlisted. Webb's explanation was that the prospect of remaining in the army after the war kept him from reenlisting, but he noted that his decision was the one thing in his military life that he regretted, "during the last victorious days I felt as if I did wrong in leaving" (p. 715). He was promoted to Sergeant in March, 1864, and unsuccessfully applied for a commission in a Colored Regiment, garnering the favor of the examiners by stating that he would shoot any soldier who broke ranks during battle.

The tone of the diary changes dramatically in the early months of 1864, primarily, in Webb's mind, due to the arrival of Generals Grant and Sheridan in the Army of the Potomac. Riding a wave of high morale, one company of the 1st Maine (not including Webb) took part in the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, and the whole unit was involved in the Wilderness campaign and in engagements during Sheridan's Raid on Richmond. Far outnumbered at Ground Squirrel Church, the 1st Maine became embroiled in a hand-to-hand combat for 40 minutes, sustaining heavy casualties. Webb was slightly wounded with the blow of a sabre. However the worst engagement of the war by far was the rout at St. Mary's Station, during which the regiment was forced from the field for the first time, according to Webb, in confusion and disarray. The regiment was decimated, losing 12 out of 22 officers, and Webb's description makes the terror of the conflict tangible. Nevertheless, Webb never lost confidence in Grant's ability to lead. Even following the disastrous Petersburg Crater attack, he remained confident in Grant, and willing to ride seemingly aimlessly through hog paths and thickets to carry out Grant's master plan.

Webb was shot in the hip at Deep Bottom Run on August 12th, 1864, and, though his wound was neither life-threatening nor seriously debilitating, he never returned to his regiment, and was mustered out on November 25th, 1864. After mustering out, he apparently returned to Bucksport, where he made this copy of his diary. His later life is more obscure, but in 1873 he is listed in the Boston city directory as a clerk, and between 1883 and 1887 as a grocer. In 1891, the 1st Maine Bugle, a magazine for veterans of the regiment, listed Webb as a resident of Boulder, Colo.