Beloved Physician in Blue: Doctor and Brother Abner O. Shaw of the 20th Maine Regiment

by Brother Charles W. Plummer, Ph.D.

Prayer Of A Physician


O stand by me, my God, in this truly important task;
Grant me success! For - Without Thy loving counsel and support,
Man can avail but naught.
Inspire me with true love for this my art
And for Thy creatures
O grant - That neither greed nor gain, nor thirst for fame, nor vain ambition,
May interfere with my activity
For these I know are enemies of Truth and Love of men,
And might beguile one in profession
From furthering the welfare of Thy creatures.
O strengthen me.
Grant energy unto body and soul

That I might e'er unhindered ready be,
To mitigate the woes,
Sustain and help
The rich and poor, the good and bad, enemy and friend.
O let me e'er behold in the afflicted and suffering,
Only the human being.


(from The Road To Bithynia, by Frank G. Slaughter)


* * * 


There is something intrinsically admirable in the profession of medicine that illumines by reflected light all those who practice it. Something that is concerned with its prime object, the alleviation of human suffering, something about the self-sacrifice that it must necessarily involve that makes us regard, and rightly so, all those who chose to follow its difficult way and devote themselves to its great aims, with a certain amount of respect and reverence.


(from Maine, A History, by Louis Clinton Hatch, writing about Dr. Shaw)

Doctor and Brother Abner O. Shaw first saw the light of day on February 16, 1837 in Readfield, Maine. His father, Eaton Shaw, was a Methodist preacher and his mother was Mary Roberts Shaw, a native of Portland, Maine. It is highly unlikely that on that day their son was born, they would have had any inkling that he would become a respected and beloved physician and that firsthand he would experience the human tragedy and suffering that was so prevalent during the Civil War.


The first two years of his infancy were spent in his native town of Readfield. Then his was to become a rather transitory life for the family moved from town to town throughout Maine as a result of his father being assigned to a number of Methodist pastorates. He received his early public school education in various schools as a result of the family's frequent moves and while a relatively young boy he decided to enter the medical profession.


He traveled to New York City where he entered the New York City College of Physicians and Surgeons, graduating in 1863. However, between the time he entered medical school and his graduation in 1863, he served for a time in the Civil War as a private with the 7th NY Infantry participating in several battles, the most notable one being the battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862.


Following his graduation he became a surgeon in a regiment of his native state, the 20th Maine Infantry, commanded by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain. He saw extensive service with the 20th Maine for a period of two years being on duty during and after thirteen battles, most of them being in the Virginia Campaigns.


It was largely through his efforts that Joshua Chamberlain was returned from the brink of death following heavy fighting at Petersburgh, Virginia on June 18, 1864. As Chamberlain was leading his brigade against Rive's Salient outside the city of Petersburgh, he was severely wounded by a minie' ball that passed through his hips. He was conveyed to a field hospital at the rear of the Union lines where the regular surgeon on duty examined him and stated that there was no hope that he could survive. His brother, Major Thomas Chamberlain, would not accept this prognosis and upon finding Dr. Shaw, they searched through the woods for half the evening until they found the field hospital where Chamberlain had been taken. With assistance from Dr. M.W. Townsend of the 44th New York, he artificially connected badly torn, mangled, and severed body parts upon the completion of which both doctor and patient expressed joy in the knowledge that there was indeed hope for recovery.


The tremendous skill that Dr. Shaw displayed in tending to Chamberlain's wounds can best be attested to by the fact that the musket balls of that day made far worse wounds than the present day steel- jacketed bullets. The old lead balls, traveling at a slower rate of speedy quickly lost its shape upon contact with the human body carrying with it particles of clothing and outer skin which almost always left an infected wound. Coupled with this was the fact that during the Civil War, wounds in the abdominal area were usually fatal with an overall mortality rate of eighty-seven per cent. The mortality rate among patients who suffered fractured pelvises was eighty per cent and Chamberlain's wounds also included damage to the pelvis as well.


As the war drew to a close, there was a scarcity of surgeons in the Union Army and Dr. Shaw was appointed a brigade surgeon and achieved the rank of Major. At the conclusion of the war he returned to Portland where he became a general physician and was soon numbered with that city's most distinguished and respected doctors. Following General Chamberlain's discharge from service in January of 1866, Dr. Shaw became his personal physician and remained so until Chamberlain's death in March of 1914, oddly enough that death as a result of the wounds he had received at Petersburgh fifty years earlier.


Dr. Shaw continued his medical practice until the age of eighty. Retirement however, did not dim his interest in the profession and he maintained an active interest in the affairs of the medical fraternity until his death. He remained a prolific reader and read all of the medical journals available enabling him to keep abreast of the latest discoveries in medicine and surgery.


During his lifetime he maintained an active interest in politics, current events, and civic affairs. He was a dedicated Republican and served two terms on Portland's Common Council. He had also been a member of the Odd Fellows and the Knights of Pythias.


In terms of his Masonic membership, he was made a Mason in Massachusetts Military Lodge which was attached to the 16th Regiment. Dispensation was granted to that Lodge on August 2, 1861. Because records of many of the military ledges that were granted dispensations during the Civil War are scarce or almost non-existent, the writer has not been able to locate any additional information that would shed light in terms of the circumstance surrounding Dr. Shaw's membership. He was presented for membership in Ancient Landmark Lodge No. 17 of Portland on March 1, 1871, admitted on April 5, 1871, and signed the by-laws on May 3, 1871. He was healed upon being admitted a member of Ancient Landmark Lodge and this was necessary because the Grand Lodge of Maine did not recognize military lodges during the Civil War. For those who may not be familiar with the Masonic term "heal" the following definition has been extracted from Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia: "to ... cure the illegality of a body or individual unlawfully created or made. A person who has received a degree from an illegal or unauthorized body may be healed by receiving the degree lawfully ..."


He was married in the year 1865 to Elizabeth Sanford and they became the parents of four children. He died of pneumonia at the age of ninety-six at his Bowdoin Street home in Portland on January 27, 1934. I have little doubt that when he crossed over, his longtime friend and Masonic brother, Joshua L. Chamberlain, was waiting for him on the other side with arms wide open and a smile on his face.


  • Adams, George Worthington, Doctors in Blue, Morningside Press, (Dayton), 1985.
  • Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, American Heritage Publishing Company, (New York), 1960.
  • Chamberlain, Joshua L., The Passing of the Armies, Morningside Press, (Dayton), 1982.
  • Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches, Time-Life Books, (New York), 1985.
  • History of Ancient Landmark Lodge No. 17, Grand Lodge of Maine, (Portland).
  • In Memoriam: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Late Major-General, U.S. V. Circular No. 5, Series of Loyal Legion of the United States, Commandery of the State of Maine, (Portland), 1914.
  • Hatch, Louis Clinton, Maine - History, American Historical Society, (New York), 1919.
  • Moulton, Augustas Freedom, Memorials of Maine, The American Historical Society, (New York), 1916.
  • Portland Evening Express, January 27, 1934 Edition, (Portland).
  • Pullen, John J., The Twentieth Maine, J.B. Lippincott Company, (Philadelphia), 1957.
  • Slaughter, Frank G., Road to Bithynia, Peoples Book Club, (Chicago), 1951.
  • Vrooman, John Black and Allen E. Roberts, Sword and Trowel, The Ovid Bell Press, Inc. (Fulton, Missouri), 1964.
  • Wallace, Willard, Soul of the Lion, Thomas Nelson and Sons, (New York), 1960.

Copyright © 1987 by Maine Lodge of Research & Charles Plummer

All Rights Reserved.