Robert H. Gray
July 21, 1861
At 27, Robert Gray, of Stockton, decided that he could not stay away from the Civil War.
Soon after President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers, Gray enlisted in Maine’s 4th Infantry Regiment. Mature, physically impressive, and well liked, Gray was named a Sergeant and given a leadership position in Company I.
Within three months, Gray and the regiment were tested as Union and Confederate armies clashed for the first time at Manassas Junction, the First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861.
Confident beforehand that the battle would be brief and victorious, the inexperienced Union troops cracked under the pressure of a Confederate counterattack, and their withdrawal quickly turned into a rout.
In the panicked retreat, many of the Union wounded were left on the battlefield and captured by Rebel troops. Gray was among those wounded. He had been shot through his left wrist and in the chest. Confederate cavalry captured him among a group of injured soldiers as the battle ended. Surgeons decided that Gray was too badly wounded to travel, so he was held at Manassas.
Seven days later, Gray noticed that the Confederate guards were paying little attention to their charges, perhaps thinking there was not much chance of the badly wounded men escaping. That night, Gray gathered some hardtack bread and stole some extra bandages and salve for his wounds. Then he wrapped a blanket around himself to hide his Union uniform and walked out of the Confederate camp.
For the next day and a half, Gray dodged Confederate pickets and cavalry patrols. He swam the Potomac River one-handed and eventually staggered, exhausted and feverish, into the camp of a Maine regiment 34 hours after his escape. Sent home on furlough to recover, he returned to the 4th Maine Infantry a month later, and was promoted to lieutenant for his bravery.
Gray remained with the regiment through the battles of Seven Pines, Gaines Mill, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, the Second Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. By the battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, he had been promoted to Captain, and was later promoted to the rank of Major. He died on May 9, 1864 after the battle of The Wilderness.
- At a time when many captured soldiers were exchanged, why would Gray choose to escape?