Preserving Falmouth's Heritage The Falmouth Historical Society 

About Falmouth - Retrospective—May 2023

Remembering One Who “Gave the Last Full Measure of Devotion” on Memorial Day


Red Diamonds in the Wheatfield

The 17th Maine at Gettsyburg

Dennis Morris (used with permission)

Memorial Day is when our nation honors and mourns those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  One out of nine Mainers served in the Army or Navy during the Civil War.  Of approximately 70,000 who served, more than 3,000 are reported to have been killed in action or died from wounds received in battle.  Twice that number died from disease or other causes.  We honor those who died with a parade, ceremony, and flags by their gravestones.  It is also fitting that we recall their stories.  This year, we remember the story of Sergeant Joseph Augustus Hodsdon who was killed in action 160 years ago.

Joseph was born in December 1841 at Falmouth and spent his youth at his family’s homestead on the Foreside near Waites Landing.  His parents were Ezekiel Hinkley and Elizabeth Esther (Prince) Hodsdon.  Ezekiel was a housepainter.  Like most tradesmen of Falmouth in the 19th century, he had a subsistence farm that provided food for the table and extra income.



Click on the thumbnails to open a full-sized image.

After the first year of the Civil War during which the Union saw limited success on the battlefield, President Lincoln issued a call in July 1862 for 300,000 volunteers to serve for three years.  On July 21st, Joseph Hodsdon answered the call and enlisted in the 17th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Camp King near Long Creek in South Portland.  He was 20 years old and had been working as a farmer for his father.  

One of a thousand soldiers to enlist in the regiment, Joseph was assigned to Company A while Aaron Hodsdon, his younger cousin of Scarborough, was assigned to Company E.   The 17th Maine was one of four infantry regiments formed to satisfy Maine’s quota of 9,609 volunteers.  The regiment was commanded by Colonel Thomas Roberts, and Company A was commanded by Captain William Savage, both of Portland.

Joseph Hodsdon’s Enlistment

On August 21st, the regiment boarded a train at Portland and began their journey to war.  Two days later they arrived in Washington, D.C., and relieved a Rhode Island regiment defending the capital.  The 17th Maine took over positions on the Maryland side of the Potomac River facing Alexandria, Virginia.  Company A was assigned to Fort Greble.  The next two months were spent in garrison while the new soldiers were drilled.

The 17th Maine marched across the Potomac River into Virginia and joined the Army of the Potomac on October 9th.  After days of marching about the Virginia countryside, the regiment—whose strength had declined to 628—saw combat on December 13th during the Battle of Fredericksburg.  The regiment was assigned to protect Union artillery and repelled Confederate attempts to attack the Union guns.  Losses among the 17th Maine soldiers were three dead and 17 wounded. 

The soldiers—having proved themselves under fire—were now allowed to wear the red diamond patch of the First Division.


Letter from Joseph Hodsdon to
his father on April 16, 1863

The 27th Maine went into winter quarters near Falmouth, Virginia.  On January 20th, 1863, the Army of the Potomac embarked on a hasty march to the west where they planned to cross the Rappahannock River.  Heavy rain began on the second day and the army became bogged down in the infamous “Mud March.”  It wasn’t until the 26th that an army exhausted by slogging through mud returned to its winter quarters.

On May 1st, the 17th Maine again crossed the Rappahannock River.  The regiment was now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Merrill of Portland, and its strength had dipped below 500.  It was assigned to the 3rd Brigade in Major General’s Birney's First Division of Major General Sickles’ Third Corps.  The 3rd and 4th Maine regiments were in the 2nd Brigade. 


Guidon Flag Used by
1st Division, III Corps
Smithsonian National  Museum of American History

The 17th Maine found itself in the thick of the fighting during the Battle of Chancellorsville.  By May 6th they recrossed the Rappahannock—their division being among the last withdrawn from the front lines—the regiment’s losses were 11 dead, 59 wounded, and 41 taken prisoner.

On June 11th, having received word that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was moving north through the Shenandoah Valley, the Army of the Potomac began marching north.  The 17th Maine crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at Edward’s Ferry on June 25th. 

The 3rd Brigade (including the 17th Maine) stopped at Emmitsburg, Maryland, on July 1st to guard a pass through the mountains.  The following day, they moved quickly to join the battle already underway at Gettysburg.

The 17th Maine took position on the Union line northwest of Little Round Top around 3:00 p.m.  Birney’s First Division covered the Union left flank with the 3rd Brigade in the center and the 2nd Brigade to its left.



Gettysburg – July 2, 1863
West Point Military Atlas

As Confederate forces advanced to move around the Union flank, 17th Maine was sent (“at the double-quick”) to fill a gap between the two brigades.  The men took positions behind a stone wall running along the southern side of a wheatfield.

The reaction was swift.  The 3rd Arkansas charged the 17th Maine’s lines joined by the 1st Texas.  The rebels were unable to break through the 17th.  They fell back to regroup and, reinforced by the four Georgia regiments of Anderson’s Brigade, attacked again. 



Gettysburg Peach Orchard – July 2, 1863
by Edwin Forbes via Wikimedia Commons

A Georgia regiment attempted to pass around the right side of the 17th.  One-third of the Maine regiment hastily pulled back to form a right angle.  When the Georgians advanced, they were brought under fire from two directions—the 17th Maine on their right, and the 5th Michigan and 110th Pennsylvania on their left.

Meanwhile, the reinforced rebel regiments again charged the left side of the 17th pressing up to the stone wall where a desperate struggle at close quarters ensued.  Company A was at the center.  The rebels were routed.  Some were taken prison and rebel regimental colors barely escaped capture.  The 17th had been fighting for more than an hour.

Anderson’s Georgia Brigade regrouped, attacked again, and were repulsed by the 17th soldiers behind the stone wall.  South Carolina regiments from Kershaw’s Brigade attacked the 5th Michigan and 110th Pennsylvania on the 17th Maine’s right.  Again, the rebels were brought under devastating fire from their flank.  The 17th Maine had stood their ground, but the Union regiments to their sides had been pushed back.


Gettysburg – Hood’s Assaults – July 2, 1863
Hal Jespersen via Wikimedia Commons

The 17th Maine was ordered to fall back.  When they reached the road on the far side of the wheatfield, General Birney saw the rebels continuing to advance and led the 17th Maine in a counterattack which drove the rebels back across the stone wall.  He left the 17th in the middle of the wheatfield with orders to keep the enemy at bay.  He sent reinforcements including what was left of the 5th Michigan.   These soldiers had been fighting continuously for over two hours, were running out of ammunition, and were being raked by musket fire from the stone wall and nearby woods.  Finally, at 6:40 p.m., 17th Maine and 5th Michigan were relieved by a brigade from Second Corps.  The 17th Maine, taking its wounded, retired from the field.


Fallen Skirmishers from Birney's
First Division at Gettysburg
Timothy O'Sullivan & Alexander Gardner
via Wikimedia Commons

The 17th Maine had 350 men when they went onto the Gettysburg battlefield.  The regiment suffered 130 casualties: 18 killed in action, 22 more who subsequently died of wounds, and 90 wounded who survived.  The 17th Maine sustained the heaviest battle losses of any Maine regiment.

Of the 43 men assigned to Company A, only Joseph Hodsdon and Jacob Brown (of Portland) were killed-in-action that day.  Alvin Blake, the acting first sergeant, later died of wounds.  Six others were wounded but lived.

We know that Joseph Hodsdon died on the wheatfield between 3:10 and 6:40 p.m.  Whether he was struck down during the three frontal attacks at the stone wall, the counterattack on the wheatfield, or the holding action on the wheatfield was not recorded.



Joseph Hodsdon’s Civil War Record
Maine State Archives

Bodies of the fallen were collected and buried at Gettysburg after the battle.  They were later reburied in what is now known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery. 

Four months after Joseph Hodsdon was killed at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln gave his now famous address at the battlefield.

Joseph Hodsdon’s cousin Aaron was mustered out and honorably discharged in June 1865.  Aaron’s youngest son, Philip Garfield Hodsdon, was a proprietor of Dow and Hodsdon’s general store on the Foreside for many years.

For more information:

  1. C. Hamlin, G. Stevens, G. Verrill, Maine at Gettysburg-Report of Maine Commissioners, 1898.
  2. E. Houghton, The Campaigns of the Seventeenth Maine, 1866.
  3.  W. Whitman, C. True, Maine in the War for the Union - A History of the Part Borne by Maine Troops in the Suppression of the American Rebellion, 1865.
  4. J. West, R. Silliker, The Rebel Yell & the Yankee Hurrah - the Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer, 1985.

We cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A. Lincoln

Retrospective:  Remembering the Greatest Generation on Memorial Day

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