ORONO — Robert Modery and his first cousin, John A. Modery, cannot be sure, but their great-grandfather might have defended the Union with a German accent.
Robert, known as “Bob,” lives in the Orono house occupied by the Modery clan for generations. John A. Modery — the middle initial is important to this story — lives in Hermon. When he was young, he occasionally visited the family homestead, where grandmother Ida Modery lived on the second floor, and Bob Modery’s family lived on the first floor.
Above it all was a third-floor attic. “It was kind of a taboo place back then,” Bob recalled. “We used to play in the attic, but our grandmother didn’t want us up there. We tried not to let her catch us.”
Modery children exploring the attic then — it has long since been converted to living space — noticed some unusual items stored there: a Union uniform, a musket, and a saber. John H. Modery left that military memorabilia in the attic sometime before his death in 1916.
John H. was a great-grandfather of Bob and John A. They never knew him, and despite their close association with John H.’s daughter-in-law, Ida Modery, “they didn’t say much about him when we were growing up,” Bob Modery said.
But the uniform, musket, and saber spoke volumes, as did several papers preserved by the family. John H. Modery had bravely and capably defended his country, the United States — and he had not even been born here.
But he loved the Union all the same.
Born in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1825, Modery immigrated to the United States (assumedly with his parents) before 1856. German émigrés often fled the internecine warfare that wracked Europe in the early to mid-19th century.
Bob Modery theorizes that John H. or his father decided that rather than see the young man drafted into someone’s army — many ran amuck on the Continent in that era — he should flee to the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. German immigrants poured into the United States in the decades before the Civil War; many headed for the Midwest, where Milwaukee and St. Louis sported sizable German contingents.
Not many Germans aimed for Maine. Bob and John A. do not know why John H. settled in the lower Penobscot Valley; he lived in Orono and Alton, and he lies buried in Hudson.
But on Friday, Oct. 31, 1856, John H. Modery stood before Parker W. Perry, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court clerk in Ellsworth. Raising his right hand and likely speaking German-accented English as he took an oath, John H. “was duly admitted a Citizen of the United States of America,” according to the document signed by Perry.
So John H. was an American, a Maine “farmer” as another document attested on Saturday, Nov. 21, 1863. That day, having left behind his home in Alton, the 38-year-old John H. again raised his right hand and swore to defend the United States, this time as Pvt. John H. Modery, Co. H. 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment.
Today no romantic glory clings to that outfit’s name, unlike the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn or the 1st Cavalry at the Ia Drang Valley. Like his comrades in winter 1863-64, John H. Modery stood guard beside large cannons placed in the forts surrounding Washington, D.C.
Then in May 1864, Ulysses Simpson Grant summoned from those forts the artillery regiments guarding them. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery numbered 1,800 men; Grant needed them to replace infantrymen lost in the Wilderness.
John H. Modery probably fought on May 19, when the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost 524 men in the regiment’s first stand-up fight. Then in late afternoon on Saturday, June 18, Modery joined some 900 comrades as the regiment crossed the Prince George Courthouse Road east of Petersburg to attack Confederate entrenchments some 350-400 yards away.
Modery survived the ensuing slaughter. Forming three lines, with four companies assigned to each line, the Maine boys advanced at the “double quick.” They “ran headlong into a wall of shell, flame, and lead,” wrote Andrew J. MacIsaac in his May 2001 thesis, “Here the Reaper was the Angel of Death.”
John H. Modery and Co. H apparently charged behind the regimental colors. He knew that company’s Sgt. Charles Coffin, who took a bullet in his right hip and survived the battle.
By 5:30 p.m. the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost 615 men: 242 killed and 372 wounded. John H. Modery may have been among the latter; “I have heard that he was wounded” sometime during the war, Bob Modery said.
He came home to Maine and mustered out at Augusta on June 1, 1865. Then Modery returned to farming in the Orono-Alton area. He did live for a while in the house now owned by Bob Modery.
An Alton farm seems to be his primary abode. John A. Modery remembers his grandparents — Ida and her husband — talking about John H.’s reputation as a good breeder of horses.
On March 8, 1907, the Maine Adjutant General’s Office confirmed that John H. Modery had served during the Civil War. That November, the federal government approved a $20-per-month pension for him, retroactive to March 21, 1907.
So 42 years after he mustered out of the Army, John H. finally received a pension. He and his wife, Anna, had children, and they had children, and so on and so forth. Great-grandsons Bob and John A. are both interested in the Civil War; both also served in the Army years ago.
Like John H. Modery, they proudly wore the uniform while defending their country.