Augusta's Jewish Civil War Hero

BY ANTHONY DOUIN


Thirty years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox Court House veterans of both the North and the South were still engaged in combat of a sort. That was to establish them­selves in what they considered their rightful place in the history of the war. for the Union.


Some cynic has defined his­tory as a story that everyone had agreed upon, but in the post Civil War many veterans dif­fered over what happened in this or that battle and who did what during it. It is not surpris­ing that many veterans were quick to defend not only their personal role in the war, but also that of their regiment.

Lewis Selbing in his GAR uniform,
photo courtesy of Tom McDonald.

One such person was Lewis Selbing of Augusta. He was a wounded veteran who had enlisted in Company B, one of the Augusta companies of the Third Maine Infantry in June of 1861. Selbing was a native of Barvia in Germany and was of Jewish heritage. He had had come to the United States in the 1850s and had lived for a time in upstate New York when he moved to Maine and settled in Augusta, where he became a cit­izen in 1858.


In 1860,he married Esther Bonne. When war broke out, Selbing was a mill hand at the cotton mill and this new citizen and newly married man enlisted in the Third Maine to fight for his adopted country. He. rose to the rank of corporal and faithful­ly served in many battles. He was wounded and captured at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. He was exchanged in time to be with the Third in the Battle of Chanchellorsville where he received a wound that could have ended his military service. How­ever, it never ended his devotion to his regiment. After the war, Selbing was active in both the Union veteran organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, as well as the Third Maine Regiment Association.


In December of 1895, a letter in the Kennebec Journal from the Maine Adjutant General caught his attention. Gen. Selden Connor, himself a Civil War veteran and brevetted gen­eral, wrote the KJ seeking infor­mation on a very sensitive' sub­ject. That was the loss of the colors on flags of the Third Maine in 1863. To understand just how controversial bringing this up was, one must first understand the role the colors played in a regiment. First of all, a Civil War regiment usually carried two flags — the national colors and state colors. They were very large flags, which were big enough so the soldiers in the regiment could easily follow them in the smoke and con­fusion of battle and the officers in the army could easily spot them on the battlefield so they would know where a regiment was located.


But the flags of a Civil War regiment meant much, much more than the functional use. For the regiment's identity and soul were embodied in the col­ors. Many times these flags were presented in grand cere­monies in the towns where the regiment was raised and sent off to the front. Thus, to lose a color to the enemy was a great calamity; and to protect it, the colors had its own guard. The color guard consisted of a sergeant who was selected for his gallantry and military bear­ing to carry the regiment's col­ors. He was accompanied by five corporals, also noted for their military conduct and brav­ery. The color guard was posted on the left of the right center company. Being part of the color guard called for great bravery as it would be the focus of the concentrated fire of the enemy and the color guard must also protect the colors with their lives. It was a matter of fact that in the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, both the Third,' s national and state colors were captured by the Confederates.

Selbing wrote to the Maine Adjutant General to explain how the Third Maine lost its flag at Chancellorsville. The battle was fought on the first three days of May of 1862 in a particularly nasty piece of the Virginian landscape, called the Wilderness. It was a massive area of second-growth trees and vegetation, making it thickly wooded and dense and not suit­ed at all for the linear tactics of the era when regiments fought in long lines. Why the two opposing armies faced each other there is explained by the fact that Wildeness lies upriver on the Rappahancock River from a city called Fredricks-burg. Earlier in December, the armies of Robert E. Lee and Ambrose Burnside clashed there with Burnside's Army of the Potomac dashing itself against the shoals of entrenchment filled with Confederate soldiers backed by artillery.


Wave after wave bravely charged against these works, sustaining terrific casualties but not budging Lee's army a bit. This failure caused Burnside to be replaced by Gen. Joseph Hooker, who was known in the army as "Fighting Joe." He planned to defeat Lee and to destroy his army by moving the Army of the Potomac upriver and then crossing swiftly and moving through the Wilderness. Once they were in the open and having now flanked Lee's entrenchments, Lee would be forced to leave them and face Hooker and his army in the open where Hooker reasoned Lee's army would then be destroyed.


Leaving a portion of his army to face Lee, Hooker was able to steal a march on Lee and got his army up and across the Rappahancock before Lee knew what he was up to. Once alerted, Lee moved decisively. He left just a brigade to man the Fredrickburg's entrench­ments and moved the rest of the 'army to confront the Army of the Potomac. Lead elements of both armies clashed just inside the Wilderness. This action caused Hooker to make a fateful decision. He halted the army in the Wilderness in expectation that he would fin­ish off Lee the next day. In the meantime, Lee had learned that Hooker's right flank was alone and unsupported by the rest of the Union Army. He ordered his famous Lt. Stonewall Jack­son to attack and destroy Hooker's army. And he nearly did. The right flack was held by the Eleventh Corps led by Third Maine's former Col. Oliver O. Howard. Near dusk, Jackson's men slammed into the llth Corps routing it completely. Now Hooker was com­pelled to save his army by launching a series of counter attacks. One of these ordered at midnight involved Lewis Sel­bing and the Third Maine. Thus it was that the Third charged in the dense woods of the Wilderness and with the rest of the brigade carried the rebel position. In the darkness and the confusion of combat, however, the color bearer with the state flag got separated and wandered into the Confeder­ate's lines and both he and the flag were captured. Selbing didn't personally witness this as he was with the rest of the regiment; he was later told this by the color bearer.


Early the next morning as the Third Maine was ordered to return to the Union lines, it came under artillery fire. A shell shredded Selbing's left arm and killed his company commander, Warren Cox of Augusta. Sel­bing was evacuated to a field hospital where his arm was amputated above the elbow. He was discharged for disability in November 1863 and returned to Augusta. He worked at the Ken-nebec Arsenal for a time. He then went into the fruit and con­fectionary business on Water Street and later operated a stand at the Statehouse. He finally became a pension agent helping other Civil War veterans obtain their pensions. He was active in the Seth Williams Grand Army Post becoming commander in 1889 and was quartermaster for the post for many years. He died in 1910, His widow, Esther, in applying for a widow's pension furnished several testimonials proving her marriage to him. One stated that they had lived happily together as man and wife and raised up a family.

  

Their marriage resulted in the birth of six children, five of whom were living at the time of their father’s death. This writer's grandmother grew on Capitol Street around the corner from the Selbing home at 109 Sewall St. She often saw the old veteran with the emp? sleeve in the street and he would in variably greet her with the words, "So vat do you tink the Thurd Maine?"



Antiquarian Notebook



page A10 Capital Weekly –  www.MaineCoastNOW.com


 

last updated : Dec 9, 2008

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