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Ike Whitten

by Bruce R. Tucker of the Alfred Historical Committee

Isaiah Whitten leaned heavily on his hoe and gazed across the fields, sweat running into his eyes in the blazing July sun. He appeared to be alone but was surrounded by his nemesis- the 10,000 cornhills belonging to the Came family. The 10,000 hills he faced now with hoe in hand. The corn he had planted when the days were cool, the corn he would pick when the days were frosty and husk when the days were frigid. Regardless of the season, all these corn tasks shared a trait, they were endless and thankless. The resulting crop would be fed to ungrateful beasts that winter or sold to other men for cash with no acknowledgment of Ike’s “sweat equity”. It just didn’t seem right. Even haying was infinitely preferable to hoeing. Haying seemed more like man’s work, requiring some judgment. Hoeing was just pushing dirt around- it was tedious, slow, lonely and endless. When the corn was done he could look forward to starting on the 1000 hills of potatoes in the next field. If Ike knew the legend of Hercules and the Aegean stables, he might have considered it an apt description of his plight.

Isaiah was the hired man of the Came family who lived on the Back Road in the house now occupied by Larry Greer. Ike- as he was known- worked for board and wage and the tasks that fell to him were the tedious, everyday jobs that occurred on a small farm. Came boys Sam and George often helped Ike in the fields but they had some freedom to pick their jobs and managed to break up their day with errands to town or trips to the mill. Isaiah had no such luxury, as hired man he took orders and worked at them until he was finished. Most disheartening was , Ike- son of a poor laborer- could see himself slipping into the daily grind of hoeing another mans corn with little prospect of escape or relief for the rest of his life.

Although Isiah Whitten and George Came were fairly close in age and worked side by side in the fields, their world view was significantly different. George was the bosses son, from a family made prosperous by Kennebunk vessels in the West Indies trade. After becoming quite prosperous, the senior Came moved to Alfred to become a gentleman farmer, often loaning money to his neighbors and even the town itself. Came saw that his children were educated, Sam to Bowdoin and George and other siblings to Berwick or Gorham Academy. They became lawyers, teachers, and clerks in the courthouse. George Came could take the long view of work around the farm. The shade from the elms he planted, stoning the well, grafting fruit trees or building stonewalls were all improvements for the future. Since George stood to inherit the farm, his daily accomplished tasks were benefits to be reaped later. Ike viewed these tasks not as long term improvements but as jobs he was assigned to earn his daily bread. He did not have the solace of anticipating future returns on his labors, his was a daily grind of hard endless work. Isaiah was one of Henry Whitten’s nine children. Henry’s father Benjamin had died insolvent when Henry was a minor and the youngster was made the ward of William Parsons. Apparently, Henry did not own any property in town, in fact he occasionally worked on the Came farm alongside his son Isaiah, butchering stock or haying.(Came 68,84,92) No silver spoon blessed the Whitten family of Alfred.

Isaiah and George knew the same people in Alfred but seldom traveled in the same social circles. Occasionally they accompanied one another to a magicians show at the town hall or a revival meeting in Kennebunk but Ike is seldom listed as attending dances or skating parties. While George spent time socializing or playing checkers at the Tripps or Shaws, Ike was more likely fishing at Bunganut or hanging out at the blacksmith shop. They did apparently attend church together.

Isaiah’s relationship with the Cames began when he was about 13 years old and they paid him 12 cents for an afternoon of help haying. (Came, Aug. 10, 1855) Ike also helped mow the big meadow that year, using the cider trough as a boat to cross the river. The next Sept. Ike was helping get in the big meadow hay in again, the season was late due to high water. (Came 37) He worked into Dec. plowing fields until he and George broke the beam on the plow. Ike was back at it in June 1857, hoeing corn and haying right through the spring, summer, and fall. (Came 51) He apparently did take vacations as George reported on Feb.11, 1858, “The boy who lives here this winter (Isaiah Whitten) has gone off this afternoon. he takes himself off about once in every four weeks quite suddenly. Goes up to the Gore to Mr. Stevens, stops 3 or 4 days then returns.” Ike returned the next day. The spring of 1858 was a rough one for Ike’s work resume, he frequently was on hiatus and George’s comments grew more caustic with each absence, “Ike our boy went off last Friday, has not got back yet.” (May 13); “Our strange and fickle minded Ike Whitten went off a week ago Tuesday and has not returned.” (June 5) . Finally the ax fell, “Ike Whitten came back and father told him he did not want him any longer so we have no help now.” (June 13). This left George with all the chores to do, much to his chagrin, but their estrangement was apparently a short one. On Aug. 5 George wrote, “Ike Whitten came back when we commenced haying, staid about weeks and run off, came back today having been gone about 2 weeks or more.” The Cames began to hay the big meadow with the assistance of Ike’s father Henry. Ike stayed the winter with the Cames. March 14, 1859, “Ike Whitten who has lived off and on for the last two years went off about a month ago and has not yet returned. I understood that he was up to Mr. Abbots in Shapleigh. Father has hired a fellow by the name of Young from the Gore.” Mr. Young lasted a planting season with the Cames for on July 6, George recorded, “Our man, Charles, left last Monday said he was homesick, having lived to a Mr. Bennetts 8 years. So we have got Ike Whitten back again. We hoed yesterday and finished today. Ike commenced to work yesterday.” George proudly mentioned the 10,000 hills of corn planted that year, one can imagine Ike rolling his eyes. That Sunday Ike went up to Shapleigh to get his clothes at Abbotts. That summer, Cames dipped strongly into the Whitten labor pool, hiring Henry (Ike’s father) and Charles, younger brother of Ike. Charles received 25 cents a day. (Came 69) Ike stayed into Nov. this time, mowing oats, plowing with oxen , husking corn and shingling the Cames rental property. On Nov. 29, 1859, “Ike went off Saturday for the first time since he came back the 5th of July, he started for meeting, waited until they were all in then started for the Gore.” In December “ Charles Whitten, Ike's brother came down here from Mr. Abbott's and wishes to stay here, says Ike is not coming back.” Later, Ike came and got his clothes, “gone for good” said George but Ike was back by mid January, apparently staying with the Abbots was no paradise either. When George returned from an errand to the station on Feb. 4, both Charles and Ike were gone “bag and baggage”. The spring of 1860, Charles worked sporadically and the Cames planted 1500 hills of corn and 6000 hills of potatoes. Ike went to work for Charles Roberts, who ran the stage line. Ike returned to help with the haying, promised to stay the season for $7/mo. wages. (Came 89,90) Charles Whitten returned the next spring but another workman appeared on the scene, Ben Allen who rented the Cames small house next door. Allen moved his young family into the house and promptly supplanted the Whittens as Cames work force. He appeared to be everything the Whitten boys were not- stable, reliable, hungry and always available. He worked hard and George loved it, paid him $1/day. George noted with much glee, that he even got Allen to vote Democrat. (Came 104,7)

Far to the south, events were unfolding that would forever change our town and the nation. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry gets a short notice in Cames diary, as does firing on Fort Sumpter. Men from Alfred began to enlist and by Oct. 1861, Charles D. Whitten- Ike’s brother- was among them. (Came 108)Though he gave his age as 18, he was closer to 16 years. He was mustered into the 8th Me. Vol., Co. F on Sept. 7, 1861. He served with other Alfred men: Lyman C.Downs, William Rowe and Charles C. Rowe. Their Captain was John H. Roberts of Alfred Gore who raised the company and encouraged them to join.

The summer of 1862 was a lousy hay season , “too wet” said George, and it got worse when hired man Ben Allen enlisted in August. The next day Came lamented, “Isaiah Whitten has enlisted and gone, so I have lost both of my men.” (Came 136) And so it was done. Ike, his brother and Ben Allen had left town and Cames 10,000 corn hills. George was left alone to get in the rest of his hay and they were off to see the world, engaging in the adventure of their day. Like all young men, the Whitten's likely considered themselves immortal and discounted any prospect of anything bad happening. It was also a chance to earn the $100 in bounty money which Alfred was then paying recruits. (Came 134) For Ike, that was over a years worth of work in Came’s sweaty fields.

Ike and Benjamin R. Allen mustered into service at Portland Aug. 29, 1862. Ike gave his age as 20, he was 5 foot 7 inches, light complexion, light hair and blue eyes. He gave his occupation as farmer, although George Came might dispute that point. Allen was 26 years old. Both were thrown into a pool of volunteers that were originally assigned to other regiments that were found to be full. Thus they were joined to form a new regiment- the 20th Maine. They were assigned to Company A, along with another Alfred man, William P. Reed, age 30, a wagoner.

If Ike’s intention was to join and see the world, he started off with a bang. By Sept. 9 he was in Washington D.C. and was immediately marched off to Antietam, without benefit of even the most rudimentary training. Luckily, they remained in reserve during that battle and managed to squeeze in some basic drills before being thrown against Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. Their role was minimal and losses slight but here Ike got his first peek at battle. The 20th spent a cruel cold night pinned down on the blood soaked sod amid the smashed bodies. Long into the night, the wounded cried for water, death or their mothers, making sleep impossible. The next day, the 20th built breastworks of the dead and sniped at the Rebel positions, burying their dead before withdrawing that night. It was Ike's first glimpse of war and this worms eye view was certainly muddier and bloodier than he had supposed.

During that years winter encampment, Ike slipped into his new life as a soldier as uncomplaining as any Maine farm boy accustomed to shifting for himself. He drilled, marched and guarded and ate his saltpork and hardtack. He was present at every muster and always drew his pay. June of 1863 found his Army of the Potomac chasing Gen. Lee deep into Pennsylvania. His training came in handy as the 20th Maine racked up incredible miles in pursuit of Lee- June 26 :20 miles; June 27 :20 miles; June 29: 18 miles; June 30: 23 miles; and July 1: 26 miles. That evening found them on a field in the hamlet of Gettysburg, sleeping the sleep of the just while musketry popped in the hills around them. The next day they were assigned their place in history on the slopes of Little Round Top. In the fateful fighting of that July 2, Ike fought near the regimental colors and likely fired the 60 rounds assigned each man. Like others in his company his throat was parched, his mouth ringed with grime and everything tasted of gunpowder from biting the ends of cartridges. In the intense heat, everything was viewed through a haze of smoke, giving the fierce struggle a surreal, red cast. The 20th’s desperate charge into immortality left the slopes covered with dead Maine boys and even more dead sons of Alabama. As for the living, their ears rung, their senses were dazed and all around them the blood ran between the rocks in rivulets. The regiment had gone into the fray with 358 guns and suffered 130 casualties (40 dead). Our boy Ike emerged unscathed. He must have felt a long way from home.

Back in Alfred, George Came struggled to overcome the lack of Whitten power on his farm. In Sept., Sam went to Sanford and returned with Ed Bennett, “ he is about 16 years old and very small and poor, cannot read his ABC’s .” The Cames tried to teach him to read and George bribed him with a knife (worth .62 cents) to stop chewing tobacco, a nasty habit which Ed had enjoyed for 3 years. Ed ran off for good by end of November. (Came 140, 142, 145-7) Charlie Bracy worked steadily until he enlisted and joined Charles Whitten in Co. F, 8th Me. along with Lewis Yeaton and George Rowe, all of Alfred. (Came 190) The Cames then hired Charlie Whitten’s younger brother Edward, age 15 and the father Henry Whitten despite “he is very lame and cannot mow any.” Henry was hoeing Came’s corn on the hot, dry day his son Ike was making history on Little Round Top.

At the 20th Me. winter encampment of 1863/4, there was a letter writing contest with the saddest story to win a 10 day furlough home. Initially amused by the soldiers inventive tales, the judges were eventually overcome with these tales of woe and settled the matter by drawing names. Ike was among their number granted leave. Coincidentally, Charles Whitten received a furlough during this time. On a frosty morning in January, George Came looked across his field and noted the Whitten boys were hunting rabbits in his pasture. (Came 186) Both had been corresponding sporadically with George. (Came 151,161) In November, Ben Allen, Came's former renter had been home on furlough after being transferred to the Veterans Reserve from the 20th Me., apparently unable to withstand the rigors of any more campaigning. (Came 180, 200)

May 1864, the army of the Potomac was on the move again under a new commander, Gen. Grant, determined to grapple and hold the Confederates until the matter was settled. They crossed the Rapidan River and plunged into the Wilderness, a tangle of brush and thickets. Savage fighting broke out as the armies groped and stumbled through the maze. The gunfire set fire to the underbrush and consumed the wounded, the 20th had 100 casualties in the fight, the worst since Gettysburg. The fighting and marching then became continual as strike and counterstrike melded into one continual battle. On May 11, the 20th Maine lay in support at Spotsylvania Courthouse, digging rifle pits and exchanging sniper fire. Somewhere in the course of events, Ike was shot on the first joint of the little finger of his left hand. Compared to the horrendous wounds he had seen all around him, this was not a serious wound. He had likely been hurt as badly while logging or butchering hogs on Came’s farm. But on Cames farm, Ike would not spend the next 2 weeks laying in mud as he did at Spotsylvania. In fact, the next month was constant marching and entrenching in stifling heat and heavy rains, existing on hardtack, coffee and bad bacon. The regimen was so grueling that often only 15 men were left standing from each company at days end. Ike’s hand, initially a nuisance, was not bad enough to put him down so he stayed in the field with his company. But the hand but grew ominously more sore and heavy as the days worn on. Finally able to stand it no more, Ike sought medical aid. Unable to deal with his infected wound at the front, Ike was sent to a New York hospital in May and was admitted June 22. His entire personal inventory was 1 pair pants, 1 pair shoes, 1 shirt and $ 16.43 in cash. On July 9, at 7 o clock in the evening, Isaiah Whitten died from the infection that began in his little finger. Later generations of Whittens believed he died of yellow fever but George had it right in his diary as he gave the latest news from the front, “ Frank Bracy is dead and Ike Whitten. Ike was wounded in the hand, Frank was sick and died. Oliver Yeaton is home, wounded in the hand, lost a little finger.” (Came 198) On the day Ike died, George Came was hoeing his own corn. Several days later, young Ed Whitten began haying for $1/day.

Ike’s company captain, W. H. Keene, signed his posthumous discharge after assuring Ike owed no debts to the laundress or sutler. A penny-wise man, Capt. Keene had always carried enough cash to embalm his own body and have it shipped back to Maine. Six weeks after clearing Ike’s paperwork, Keene’s money was put to its intended use. Ike was not so fortunate. Henry Whitten sent after Ike’s things and the cash ($18) was wired to him posthaste. Ike was buried in Cyprus Hill Cemetery, Brooklyn NY, never again to feel the cool breeze off Bunganut or hear the pines whisper overhead.

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