Up and down the Kennebec Valley: GAR and Togus

by Mary Grow

The Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR, was responsible for more than organizing the local Posts and Memorial Day observances described in previous articles in this series.

Additional information on this Civil War veterans’ organization, from various sources, says it assisted veterans in many ways, including advocating for legislation and policies, providing financial support to needy members and helping them stay in touch with each other.

The organization also “supported charitable causes such as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Eastern Branch, and the Maine Military and Naval Children’s Home in Bath,” an on-line source says.

In the spring 2004 issue of Prologue magazine, Trevor K. Plante, then an archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration, wrote an article entitled The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

The National Home was actually more than a dozen homes, established by federal legislation in March 1865. The board appointed to carry out the legislation (originally 100 members, reduced to 12 in March 1866) began looking for sites. The first one they approved was an abandoned resort called Togus Springs, in Chelsea, Maine, about four miles southeast of Augusta on the east bank of the Kennebec River.

According to on-line sources (including the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA), “Togus” is a shortened version of an Indian name, Worromontogus, or “mineral water.” The mineral spring, Henry Kingsbury wrote in his Kennebec County history, had been known to white settlers since 1810; it was called the Gunpowder Spring because it reeked of sulfur, and it was supposed to heal “malignant humors.”

In 1859, Horace Beals, described as “a wealthy granite merchant from Rockland, Maine,” bought 1,900 acres in Chelsea, including the spring. He planned to develop a health resort for the rich, a Maine institution that would rival Saratoga Springs, in New York.

In pursuit of his dream, Beals spent more than $250,00 to build “a 134-room hotel, a race course, bowling alleys, bath house, and other recreational facilities,” with a farmhouse and stables.

Kingsbury wrote that the resort opened in June 1859. The Civil War left it struggling; it closed in 1863. Beals went bankrupt and died soon afterwards, and his spa was locally called “Beals’ Folly.”

Beals’ widow sold the property to the Board of Managers for the planned veterans’ homes for $50,000. The managers liked the site for numerous reasons: because of the mineral spring, presumed to be a health benefit; because of the rural setting and isolation from cities, qualities that were supposed to be soothing and to keep veterans away from urban temptations; because the buildings were almost ready for immediate use; and, the VA website says bluntly, “because it was a bargain.”

An on-line source describes Togus and its fellows as “a place for disabled veterans to live if they could not care for themselves or their pensions did not provide enough financial support.”

James North, in his Augusta history, wrote that at Togus, honorably discharged veterans with war-caused disabilities “were fed and clothed, and given religious and secular instruction to fit them for the callings in life to which they may be adapted.”

After some remodeling, the first veteran moved into Togus on Nov. 10, 1866. Wikipedia identifies him as James P. Nickerson, no rank given, of Company A, 19th Massachusetts Volunteers.

There were about 200 ex-soldiers at the facility by the next summer. Another site says most of the men came from three states, Maine, Massachusetts and New York; over half were “foreign born, including a large Irish community.”

To accommodate increasing need, Kingsbury wrote that in 1867 officials added a brick hospital – probably the 50-by-100-foot brick building that North described – and had plans for a chapel and other additions.

The VA site does not mention the January 1868 fire that North described, which destroyed most of the main buildings. (Your writer cited North’s description in the Nov. 10, 2022, issue of The Town Line.) The extensive new construction in the next few years featured buildings specifically adapted to a veterans’ home, and made of bricks (manufactured on the grounds), so they would be more fire-resistant.

North described in detail the four brick buildings that were started in the spring of 1886. They were each 50-by-150-foot, with a basement, two main floors and a mansard roof that provided space for a third floor; they were arranged in a square around a central courtyard.

The first building faced eastward. It had storage space in the basement; a large schoolroom that could double as a chapel, plus a smaller schoolroom and teachers’ accommodations, on the ground floor; and an open second story “to be devoted to such purposes as may be required.”

Two more buildings extended westward from each end of the first building. North wrote that they housed “accommodations for the officers and dormitories for the soldiers, the dining-room, kitchen, post office, telegraph office and reading-room.”

The building that closed the west side of the quadrangle had an ell extending west. Its basement housed “a bath room, laundry, store rooms, bakery, boiler room and wash rooms.”

The first floor was another dining room, with the kitchen in the ell. The hospital occupied the main part of the second floor, with a dispensary and nurses’ quarters.

Other new late-1860s buildings listed on line include “an amusement hall, barn, workshop, and the Governor’s House.”

The Governor’s House was built in 1869. The two-story-and-a-half story, 22-room brick house is still standing; it has been on the National Register of Historic Places since May 30, 1974. It is described as historically significant as “the sole remaining building of the country’s first Veteran’s [sic] Home.”

North wrote that as he completed his history in 1870, a two-story brick amusement hall and another building that would house a 10-horsepower engine and the machine shop, shoe shop and tailor’s shop that it would serve were under construction.

Another major, and very expensive, project, he wrote, was building a reservoir that would cover an acre and would “furnish an unfailing supply of pure water, which is to be taken from Greely pond.”

By 1870, too, the campus was steam-powered throughout, North wrote: “Steam for warming and raising hot and cold water to every part of the buildings, and for cooking and laundry purposes, is generated by two boilers capable of driving a sixty horse-power steam engine.”

Wikipedia’s list of new buildings in or about 1872 reads: “a bakery, a butcher shop, a blacksmith shop, a brickyard, a boot and shoe factory, a carpentry shop, a fire station, a harness shop, a library, a sawmill, a soap works, a store, and an opera house theatre.”

The store, North said, sold desirable items to the residents, with proceeds going into their amusement fund.

In 1872, Wikipedia says, the name was changed: the institution became the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. On Aug. 13, 1873, according to the same source, President Ulysses Grant came to Togus “to review the men who had served with him during the Civil War.”

Wikipedia says in 1878, 933 men lived at Togus, mostly Civil War veterans and a few from the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Kingsbury added there were 1,400 residents in the spring of 1883 and 2,000 by 1892; by the 1880s, there were 20 additional buildings. The peak population was almost 2,800 in 1904.

The former soldiers lived under military discipline, North wrote. The VA site adds that some of the housing was like barracks, and the men wore “modified army uniforms” (or surplus uniforms, according to Wikipedia).

The men paid for their room and board with their federal pensions, Wikipedia says. Those who were able worked in the shops or the farm. Another source says they were paid “at a rate fixed by the managers,” getting half their pay at intervals and the other half when they left (if they left).

The farm provided much of the residents’ and staff’s food. Writing in 1870, North said “farming operations…are already quite extensive.” There had been 85 head of cattle over the previous winter, he said, “some of which are choice Devon stock.”

Wikipedia says the three dairy Holsteins brought from the Netherlands in 1871 started “the first registered herd of the breed in Maine.”

Togus was connected to the surrounding towns on July 23, 1890, by the narrow-gauge Kennebec Central Railroad that ran to the Kennebec at either Randolph or Gardiner (sources differ). On June 15, 1901, the Augusta and Togus Electric Railway began service.

After that, the VA site says, the veterans’ home “became a popular excursion spot for Sunday picnics. There were band concerts, a zoo, a hotel, and a theater which brought shows directly from Broadway.”

Wikipedia and other sources add baseball games. Wikipedia said the zoo let area residents see “antelope, bear, buffalo, deer, elk, chimpanzees, and pheasants.”

* * * * * *

The Togus grounds include the Togus National Cemetery, which covers 31.2 acres. According to the VA and other sources, this cemetery has two sections, called the West Cemetery and the East Cemetery. The latter opened in 1936 and closed in 1961.

The beginning of the West Cemetery was laid out in 1867, on a hilltop on the west side of the grounds. A VA website says Major Nathan Cutler, of Augusta (see box), was running the institution then and chose the site “because he preferred that attractive hilltop.”

Beginning on April 20, 1867, Cutler oversaw the reburial in the new cemetery of six veterans who had died in the first few months. The website says: “Major Cutler felt the factors of color, rank and religion were of no importance. They were buried side by side since they had been soldiers together.”

In 1889, the then head of the Eastern Branch, General Luther Stephenson, had the cemetery’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument built. It is a stone obelisk, 26 feet high, on a stepped foundation with four dedicatory plaques; the granite was quarried on the Togus grounds.

Residents did the work. One website names two specific contributors: a Pennsylvania marble worker named William Spaulding, who did the design, and a Massachusetts stone-cutter named Jeremiah O’Brien.

By the summer of 2010, the obelisk had so deteriorated that the VA’s National Cemetery Association had to rebuild it. In the process, workers found an 1889 time capsule. An on-line photo of the contents shows a slender bottle; two newspapers, from Augusta and Boston; and a small pipe.

When the restored obelisk was rededicated in September 2010, a new time capsule was added.

Togus had its own GAR post

Togus had its own GAR Post, Cutler No. 48, honoring Major Nathan Cutler, known on the web as “the man who saved the ‘Cutler Bible.'” Here is the story, as told in a 2007 blog by a historian and author named Dale Cox.

In the Civil War battle of Marianna, Florida (Sept. 27, 1864), Cutler was 20 years old; he had abandoned his classes at Harvard and joined the 2nd Maine Cavalry, led at Marianna by Brigadier General Alexander Asboth and after he was wounded by Colonel L. L. Zulavsky.

Cutler led the first Union charge; his troops were driven back by stubborn Confederate soldiers, including some holed up in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and nearby houses. Zulavsky ordered the buildings burned to dislodge the enemy.

Cutler – or someone else; Cox found the record unclear – refused to burn a church. When the order was repeated, Cutler supposedly “dashed into the burning church and saved the Bible, bringing it through the flames to safety.”

Soon afterwards, “two young members of the Marianna home guard” wounded Cutler badly enough so he was left behind and taken prisoner when the Union forces pulled out the next day.

He survived, however, because Cox recounted later interviews in which Cutler agreed someone, not necessarily himself, had argued for saving the church, and did not claim to have rescued its Bible, perhaps through modesty.

However, in a Sept. 19, 2014, article in the Tallahassee Democrat, in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Union raid into Marianna, senior writer Mark Hinson repeated the tale and said:

“It’s a romantic story but it never happened. Cutler was badly wounded before the kerosene torches ever touched St. Luke’s. The Bible was saved by someone else because it was returned to the sanctuary of the new St. Luke’s, where it remains on display to this day.”

Main sources:

Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870).

Websites, miscellaneous.


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