Houlton’s Henry Clay Merriam: Military leader, builder

Tom Clark, Special to The County
12 years ago

Henry Clay Merriam was arguably Houlton’s most notable veteran. His lengthy resume included battles in the Civil War, the War with Mexico and the Battle of Wounded Knee. One might say he had a knack for appearing at the right time, having fought in the concluding battles of both the Civil and American Indian wars. During his well-traveled 38-year career he rose from the ranks to the title of brigadier general (one star) and to major general (two stars) in retirement by a special act of Congress.
    Even if Henry’s career were confined to the narrow definition of “soldier “ perhaps he still would have merited the title of Houlton’s most notable. But Henry was much, much more than a warrior. As we will see he was a pioneer in both the social and geographic arenas. He was a builder of both forts and men and never one to back down from a challenge. And his contributions live on even today, 100 years after his death in 1912.
Formative years
According to Dr. Jack Ballard in his book “Commander and Builder of Western Forts” (http://jackstokesballard.com/commander-and-builder-of-western-forts/):
“Henry C. Merriam, the second child and second son of Lewis and Mary Ann (Foss) Merriam was born in Houlton, Maine on November 13, 1837. His father had settled in Houlton from New Salem, Massachusetts in 1828 and lived on a farm in North Road, two miles north of Houlton, a location at least partially selected to enable his children to attend village schools.”
“Henry as he advanced in years had responsibilities to care for his younger brothers and sisters, but his main task, like those of his contemporaries, related to farm chores. Fields had to be cleared, cows had to be milked, chickens and all animals had to be fed and watered, and horses had to be hitched and harnessed. He became an expert horseman as a consequence, and this became a critical part of his later military life.”
“Whatever the many and diverse tasks, Henry would be imbued with a strong work ethic and with the strong self-initiative. Despite the family’s role in the farming and lumbering business, the Merriams placed a high priority on education. He attended Houlton Academy, which had been formed and supported by concerned and conscientious community leaders. The Academy began in 1847 and thus Merriam could have begun his education there when he was 10 years old.”
Henry would later attend Colby College, where he attained a BA concentrating in the study of law. But larger forces were at work steering Henry in an entirely different and unexpected future career path.
Civil warrior
In 1862, a then 24-year-old Henry enlisted in the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry accompanying other Houlton soldiers as they headed south to join in the fighting. Henry at once distinguished himself in the Battle of Antietam — the bloodiest warfare in American history — and was brevetted for his bravery and immediately promoted to captain.
The army transferred him farther south to the Department of the Gulf where he was placed in command of several U.S. Colored Troop regiments (“USCT”). He served as captain of the 80th USCT in March 1863 and as lieutenant colonel of the 85th USCT in May 1864. He successful led his 73rd USCTs in the final battle of the war in the campaign against Mobile and was cited for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ at Fort Blakeley, April 9, 1865.”
Post-war constructionist
Henry continued his career through the Reconstruction era and into the West, where he served in numerous posts from Texas to the Pacific Northwest. And it was in the West that he would make his true mark as a builder of forts. He was responsible for establishing posts in present-day Idaho, Wyoming, California and in the state of Washington. Merriam also invented a new form of field backpack for infantrymen that the Army officially adopted for many years. However he is best known for the development and later expansion of Fort Logan in Colorado. Here he was in command for eight years and created permanent buildings that still exist today.
But this success came at a huge personal cost.
According to the Jack Stokes Ballard:
“The narrative of his life, particularly in the West offers insights into the harsh realities of life for an army officer’s family. Arguably the greatest tragedy of his life came at the hands of the elements, when a thunderstorm caused a sudden flooding of the Concho River that swept away his wife, Lucy, and infant daughter, Mamie, on the night of April 24, 1870.”
More action
He was often called away from his construction endeavors to join in more fighting. The first in the series came during 1873-76 when Mexico attacked U.S. citizens near the Rio Grande River. Next he was called upon to participate in the last of the American Indian Wars in the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. In 1899 he interceded in Coeur d’Alene mining riots where he called on his diplomatic talents to end hostilities. And it was during this period that his Civil War bravery was officially recognized when he received the Congressional Medal of Honor on June 28, 1894.
“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay Merriam, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 9 April 1865, while serving with 73d U.S. Colored Infantry, in action at Fort Blakely, Alabama. Lieutenant Colonel Merriam volunteered to attack the enemy’s works in advance of orders and, upon permission being given, made a most gallant assault.”
Henry later retired as Major General on February 19, 1903.
Just nine years after his formal retirement, Henry passed from this life on November 18, 1912, one hundred years ago this month. His achievements and accomplishments were many and he represented Maine and Houlton as the consummate soldier, leader and citizen. His tradition of military service carried on to his children and grandchildren; sadly some following Henry to the grave but a few years later.
According to the Arlington National Cemetery website:
“General Merriam died on November 18, 1912 and was buried in Section 1 of Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Una McPherson Merriam (1843-1933) is buried with him. His son, Henry MacPherson Merrill, Colonel, United States Army, is buried in Section 3 of Arlington National Cemetery. The General’s grandson, Henry L. Merriam, who died in 1918, is buried in Section 8 of Arlington National Cemetery and is listed only as the son of Henry M. Merrill. His brother, Lewis Merriam, Captain, United States Army, is buried nearby in Section 1.”
In summary Maj. Gen. Merriam’s life was enormously remarkable. He was of humble beginnings yet rose to some of the highest honors in his country. He cheated death on many occasions, and served as a mentor and leader to the under represented of our society. And even today he has left an indelible impression upon the American landscape. We honor his memory this Veterans Day, 2012.
Tom Clark is a freelance writer living in Washington D.C. and works as the chief financial officer for a university law school. More of his work can be found at http://contributor.yahoo.com/user/869626/thomas_clark.html