In mid-April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln asked the loyal states to send 75,000 men to help quash the Southern rebellion. Numerically insufficient, his request reflected the widespread belief that a war would last weeks, perhaps months, but definitely not past the first big battle.
Like his New England counterparts, Governor Israel Washburn relied on the existing militia units to fill Maine’s obligation. Many towns sported a militia company, typically a loosely disciplined fraternity featuring fancy uniforms that impressed the ladies whenever the local boys marched on the village green.
After Fort Sumter fell, patriotism surged across the loyal states. Men flocked to join the local militia companies. As the ranks of those companies filled, wannabe soldiers enlisted wherever an aspiring officer held court; if a man gathered enough signatures to raise a company — officially 100 men — he might claim its captaincy.
Records indicate that ambitious men sought recruits wherever possible. That fall in Houlton, Black Hawk Putnam decided to raise a cavalry company. “It was near night when he came into the [family] store with his [recruiting] papers & before nine o’clock he had his names of 50 picked young men, the flower of our place,” John Varnum Putnam wrote about his son’s recruiting efforts in a Nov. 10, 1861 letter.
Black Hawk rounded up additional recruits and became Capt. Black Hawk Putnam of Company E, 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment.
But in April and May 1861, only existing militia companies were available to coalesce into infantry regiments. The War Department wanted lots of infantry to protect Washington, D.C. from Confederate troops gathering in northern Virginia. Not until late summer would the War Department ask Maine to raise a cavalry regiment and a few artillery batteries — and didn’t many Pine Tree State boys lobby to join those outfits!
An infantry regiment comprised 10 companies of 100 men each. By late 1862, a cavalry regiment or an artillery battery fielded 12 companies; in a cavalry regiment, each company could also be called a “squadron,” a nomenclature that today’s Army still reserves for such outfits as the 1st Cavalry Division. In an artillery battery, each company was a separate battery, usually comprised of four cannons.
In infantry regiments like the 1st Maine (glorified guards who served three months before returning home) and the 2nd Maine (shot up while charging onto Henry House Hill at Manassas), companies were numbered A through K, with no I, because I resembled J in the period’s cursive writing.
Companies drawn from various towns formed the early infantry regiments. The 2nd Maine had militia companies from Bangor, Brewer, Old Town, and elsewhere, for example.
Each infantry company fielded a captain, a first lieutenant, and a second lieutenant. The politicking involved in filling all those officers’ slots would fill volumes. The right surname or political connection could swiftly raise a private to a lieutenancy.
So Maine’s best-trained “soldiers,” the uniformed militiamen who proudly marched through town every July 4th, became Maine’s first actual soldiers. The 1st Maine boys left Maine soon after Lincoln’s request, did their 90 days, and came home without “seeing the elephant” (experiencing combat).
Delayed as their companies gathered, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Maine infantry regiments left later. For those boys, their 90-day enlistments unfortunately expired after July 21, the day that Southern hotheads and Northern newspapermen got what they wanted: a big battle that would settle the war.
But Manassas settled nothing.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.