The Empty Sleeve

Ira Gardner was born in Patten, Maine. The record states the event occurred “about 1843.” The Patten into which he was born was very much a frontier town, located as it was on the northern fringes of Penobscot County. The town itself was incorporated in 1841. Its first church opened its doors that same year, and in 1848 Patten Academy was established to educate its children. Ira would have been one of its first students.

At the time of the Civil War the majority of Patten’s men were employed as farmers or lumbermen. The farmers cultivated potatoes commercially and drove them long distances to market. The lumbermen devoted themselves to harvesting the mature growths of timber that dominated the region. As the majority of Maine’s sawmills were located significantly downstream on the Penobscot River, the town’s convenient access to the East Branch of that same waterway, made Patten a major center for originating log drives.

When the village of Patten decided to organize an Independent Rifle Company in 1858, Ira, who was only fifteen years old at the time, joined the unit. The tiny militia group drilled every week, especially when the weather was favorable and the “blackflies were scarce.” Gardner quickly discovered that he fancied the “soldier’s life” and his enthusiasm soon occasioned a promotion to orderly sergeant. Ira “studied Infantry Tactics” and would later find the “experience and knowledge to be of great value” in his military career.

When Civil War came to the country in April of 1861, Abraham Lincoln made his first call for seventy-five thousand volunteers. Maine’s Governor, Israel Washburn, immediately sent out a plea for volunteers. Due to Patten’s geographic isolation, located more than one hundred miles north of Bangor, the notification took two days to reach the town. By the time the men of the settlement responded, the rolls had been filled, long before the men could reach the rendezvous point at Bangor.

When the second call was made in July, the town’s militia company quickly departed for the front. These volunteers would become Company B of the 8th Maine Infantry. As Ira was an only son, he was “not allowed to go with them.” His parents said he was needed around the home to help with planting, harvests, and daily chores.

Ira persisted though, and continued to nag his parents. “As a boy eighteen years of age with a large share of my comrades at the front, my presence at home became to my parents so uncomfortable that by the month of December they consented for me to enlist and I did so.” Ira’s life would be forever changed.

gardner ira

Captain Ira Gardner

In company with forty other men from his area, Ira left home on December 4th, 1861, making the long journey to the State Capitol in Augusta. Here Gardner was assigned to Company F of the 14th Maine Volunteer Infantry. James Hill was elected Captain of the Company and Ira was appointed, once again, Orderly Sergeant. The regiment’s colonel was Franklin Nickerson of Swanville, Maine. Franklin had been appointed to the position after distinguishing himself at the 1st Battle of Bull Run as an officer in the 4th Maine Infantry.

The 14th Maine was assigned to the XIX Corps of General Ben Butler’s New Orleans Expeditionary Corps. Following an arduous voyage on “the old sailing vessel North America,” the regiment arrived at Ship Island on the Mississippi River on March 8, 1862. When New Orleans fell to Union troops the regiment was ordered to the city and instructed to make camp at Lafayette Park. They would remain encamped there for the next two months. Due to the favoritism shown the unit by the commanding general, however, the regiment would become known as “Butler’s Pets.”

Coinciding with the extreme change in climate, the regiment was quickly devastated by disease. Some three hundred of the Mainers were sent north suffering from a variety of ailments. The places of these men “were filled with paroled rebel soldiers, many of whom has served in the U. S. regular army and some in the English army. They were acclimated and as a rule good soldiers, but some of them were bad characters.” None of them were from Maine.

These Maine infantrymen would spend the next two years “fighting in the bayous.” The unit took part in several expeditions including the ones to Ponchatoula, Sabine Pass, Amite River, and Bonnet Carre. The regiment would also fight at the Battle of Baton Rouge on August 5, 1862. Here the 14th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment would be memorialized as the focal point of the poem, “On the Men of Maine Killed in the Victory of Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” written by Herman Melville. They would also participate in several deadly assaults during the Siege of Port Hudson between May 24, and July 8, 1863.


On the Men of Maine Killed in the Victory of Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Afar they fell. It was the zone
Of fig and orange, cane and lime
(A land how all unlike their own,
With the cold pine-grove overgrown),
But still their Country’s clime.
And there in youth they died for her–
The Volunteers,
For her went up their dying prayers:
So vast the Nation, yet so strong the tie.
What doubt shall come, then, to deter
The Republic’s earnest faith and courage high

Poem by Herman Melville


The regiment would remain in the deep South until July of 1864. During that month two divisions of the XIX Corps, one of which included the 14th Maine, were ordered to the Bermuda Hundred region on Virginia’s Peninsula. They remained there in the trenches until July 28, when the regiment was sent north in reaction to General Jubal Early’s attack on Washington. Following the Union loss at Second Kernstown, and the burning of Chambersburg, the Maine men were dispatched to support General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah.

There was much skirmishing in the months that followed. On the afternoon of September 18, 1864, while at their camp near Berryville, Virginia, Ira busied himself packing all of his personal baggage onto his “old horse” for safe keeping. He placed responsibility for these possessions in the hands of his trusted body servant, Nathan. Nathan was an ex-slave whom he had brought with him from Mississippi. Ira instructed Nathan to be sure to remain with the regiment’s chaplain as he believed when they bumped into General Early there was going to be a fight. The contest would turn out to be the largest battle ever fought in the Shenandoah Valley.

General Philip Sheridan’s Army began their march on Winchester early on the morning of September 19th. Their advance along the Berryville Road was slowed by the Sixth Corp, who preceded them, and by a natural constriction along their path known as the Berryville Canyon. Sounds of fighting could be heard in the distance and as they reached Opequon Creek the army’s wounded began to pass through their ranks. Everyone knew what was about to transpire.

When the Nineteenth Corps commander, Major General William Emory, reached the battlefield he began funneling his men off to the right of the Sixth Corps. He placed General Cuvier Grover’s Division on the front line. Grover, who was also a native of the State of Maine, positioned Colonel Jacob Sharpe’s Brigade on the left, and Henry Birge’s on the right. The 14th Maine, which was part of Birge’s Brigade, found themselves in the center of the line. As soon as his troops were in place, Birge ordered them to advance.

3rd winchester map gardner

Map showing Area Ira Gardner’s Brigade Deployed and Where He was Shot.

General John Gordon’s Confederate division of some twenty-six hundred combatants arrived at the Third Battle of Winchester just in the nick of time. Gordon’s men appeared in the Second Woods just as the 19th Corps finished their deployment and began their advance out of the First Woods. Gordon had three brigades in his division. He deployed General Edmond Atkinson’s Brigade on the left of the line, General William Terry’s in the center, and General Zebulon York’s Louisiana Brigade on the right.

3rd winchester birges brigade

Placement of Birge’s Regiments at First Woods.

Gardner wrote: “In Charging across the field we were exposed to heavy fire from the rebel line in the edge of the woods. I had felt all morning that I should be hit, perhaps killed; I had crossed the field, the rebel line had retreated and had gone perhaps fifty feet into the woods, when I was hit.” Ira was leading his company and “was about twenty feet in advance of the line and, expecting some of the men to halt and load their muskets, I turned around and called on them to come on; I was back to the enemy when the bullet struck me.”

When Ira regained consciousness he found “Sergt. Dick Ashton tying a handkerchief around my arm trying to stop the blood. I started to the rear supporting my injured arm by the wrist and had to recross the field over which we had charged, but being in so much agony I almost wished that some of the shells would make an end of me.” “The assistant Surgeon of our regiment about this time met me and taking my left arm, started to assist me to the rear, but after going a short distance the position was so dangerous that he left me and ran.”

bradbury picture

Captain Albert Bradbury of the 1st Maine Battery (Photo: Nicholas Picerno)

Moving on alone Captain Gardner came across the 1st Maine Battery who were currently shooting over the heads of their own troops. “Captain Bradbury came to me as I passed around the battery, gave me a swallow of whiskey and I went on alone.” Soon Ira came to a field hospital which was located near a mill on the banks of Opequon Creek. It was the home of Charles L. Wood.

charles wood house ira gardner

Current Day Photo of the Charles L. Wood Home. (Photo Terry Heder)

The doctor examined Ira and quickly determined that his right arm needed to be amputated. Ira pleaded with the doctor not remove his limb. The doctor responded: “I think I shall have to in order to save your life.” With help of a few drops of chloroform, Ira was out. When he awoke, he impulsively yelled: “Doctor, don’t you take that arm off.” The doctor replied simply: “It’s off.”

Ira spent the night suffering “intensely.” He vomited all night. “The lady of the house came quite often and watched my pulse.” The Captain remembered that that he “bled so much that the bedding under me and my clothing about my right shoulder were wet with blood.” Due in great part to the care Mrs. Wood had given Ira, when the ambulance came for him the next day Ira was able to “walk out through the yard, get into an ambulance and after riding three miles to Winchester, walked up two flights of stairs in an old warehouse” and lay down on an old straw tick on the floor. Before he left the house, though, Ira gave Mrs. Wood a five-dollar gold piece for her kindness.

Ira Gardner’s suffering was not over. It would continue for several months. Ira would eventually be transferred to the Camden Street Hospital in Baltimore to continue his recovery. Here Ira’s mother and father, both of whom had been searching for him for weeks, finally caught up with him. “My mother did not think of her own safety or comfort in a strange city, traveling night and day to reach me and when she did find me, did everything possible for me.”

Ira’s black servant, who had “always been faithful and willing,” came to his bedside while he was recovering in Baltimore. “Massa Cap’n, I don’t tink I wil go Norf any more. I find a culle’d girl who will hab me and I tink I will stay wid her.” Ira knew the time had come to let Nathan go. Ira “bade him good luck and never saw him again.” Nathan, once a slave, then a servant, was free at last.

Following his return home, Ira received a letter, endorsed by Benjamin Butler, notifying him that he had been breveted to Major for his distinguished gallantry at Baton Rouge. In addition, he had been also been breveted to Lieutenant-Colonel for meritorious service at Winchester. A double brevet was an honor and a rarity for a Union soldier.

Life was good to Ira and he profited from his works at home. Like most of his fellow veterans, Ira joined the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR. The GAR was a fraternal organization composed of Union Army veterans. The organization linked men through their experiences in the Civil War. It was one of the first advocacy groups in American politics, “supporting voting rights for black veterans, promoting patriotic education, helping to make Memorial Day a national holiday,” In Captain Gardner’s case he was a member of Patton Maine’s E. S. Rogers Post Number 114.

patten gar

1908 Photo of the Members of the E. S. Rogers GAR Post N0. 114 in Patten Maine. Ira Gardner is the Man with the Empty Sleeve, Second from the Left.

For a member of the GAR one of the greatest honors was to become a delegate to one of the organization’s national conventions. For Ira the distinction was offered to him near the thirty-seventh anniversary of his wounding at Third Winchester. More than 30,000 Civil War Veterans would attend the 35th Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic in Cleveland, Ohio between September 12 and 13, 1901. The attendees would witness one of the “greatest Military Parades in the history of the city.” Among the many attendees were seventy Civil War veterans from Maine, and amongst those was a fifty-eight-year-old veteran named Ira Gardner.

clevelan gar

1901 Grand Army of the Republic Convention in Cleveland, Ohio

Ira spent a couple of extra days in Cleveland and then, in company with his fellow Mainers, took the train for Washington D.C., arriving there on September 16. Early on the morning of the 18th Ira and his wife Helen boarded a train at Union Station bound along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for Harper’s Ferry. A quick transfer and they were on their way to Winchester, Virginia. The two of them, in company with Captain John Saylor, who had been a member of the 5th U. S. Cavalry, all secured rooms at the Taylor House Hotel for the night.

There would be very little rest for Ira, though, as he lay in restless anticipation of the coming day’s adventure. It was said of Ira that he was “spurred by that peculiar desire that comes upon all who have similarly suffered, to again see the spot where death was narrowly missed, Captain Gardner took the first opportunity that came to again visit Winchester.” Accompanied by Captain Saylor, the party awoke early and headed off to examine the battlefield.

taylor house

Taylor House Hotel in Winchester

The three adventurers mounted a buggy and proceeded to the hallowed ground where so many of Ira’s friends had fought. Seven members of the 14th Maine had been killed there, fifty-two had been wounded, and three were never seen again. “An unerring instinct guided Captain Gardner to the house in which he lay that memorable night and he met the same lady who was so kind to him. It Was Mrs. Charles L Wood, and not knowing who her visitors were and being asked to talk of the fight Mrs. Wood related among others the very incident in which the Captain figured and spoke of him as the only one who ever gave her anything.”

Mrs. Wood stated “during the war over three hundred wounded soldiers were put into the house and during their occupancy everything in the house was used or destroyed.” Imagine her surprise when Captain Gardner identified himself to her. Once recovered from the shock, she invited them into the front hall where Ira had lain for the night after his arm was amputated. Ira remembered his “arm had bled very much” and in the morning when he awoke, he found the comforter on which he had lain was “saturated with blood. “There upon the floor, thirty-seven years afterward, the blood stains still shown plainly, having changed the color of the wood so much that the lady said although she had made many attempts to do so, she had been unable to erase them.”

Ira remembered that his arm had been amputated in the yard somewhere near the front door. Mrs. Wood admitted she had watched the procedure from her window. “After the operation she took the arm, wrapped it in cloth and her husband made a box for it and buried it in the yard.” Following the dedication of the National Cemetery in Winchester on April 8, 1866, Charles Wood had dug up the arm and “properly buried it in the cemetery.” There it may still lie.

winchester national cemetery

Maine Section of the National Cemetery in Winchester.

As Mrs. Wood was now sixty-seven. and a widower, Ira Gardner decided to make sure she was “made comfortable and to amply reward her for her tender care of me while in her house which may have saved my life.” Ira “gave her his address and a sum of money with the request that she inform me if she should ever need further assistance.”

“Mrs. Gardner and myself were very much affected by the sights of my blood stains on the floor, as it recalled a night when my life hung in the balance with only a Confederate lady to nurse and care for me. May God bless the good lady.”

I am told that though the house is no longer occupied, Captain Ira Gardner’s bloodstains still reside in that house. As far as the disposition of Ira’s right arm, nobody knows if his bones still occupy a place at the National Cemetery in Winchester. One thing that is sure, the story of that boy soldier from Patten, Maine, and his narrative of courage and sacrifice, is precious and was in need of recounting. Ira Gardner died May 12, 1917. The remaining elements of his body are buried in Patten, Maine.

ira grave

Ira Gardner’s Final Resting Spot in Patten, Maine. (Photo: Cynthia Dalton)


The Evening Star, September 19, 1901. Pg. 1. Thanks to Terry Heder of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation for providing a copy of this news story.

Gardner, Ira. Recollections of A Boy Member of Co. I, Fourteenth Maine Vols. From 1861 to 1865. Privately Printed. 1901. Much appreciation to Nicholas Picerno for making a copy of this book available for my research.

Patchan, Scott. The Last Battle of Winchester. Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. El Dorado Hills, Ca. Savas Beatie. 2013.

One thought on “The Empty Sleeve

  1. I love this story of a Maine Soldier who sacrificed so much, and the help he received from kind strangers, when he needed it most! Bravo!


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