Why would a young Mainer join the Army?

Although a native of Albion, 21-year-old John S. French was working as a carpenter in Lewiston when he answered a patriotic call to arms. Serving with the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment, he was later promoted to lieutenant. In a letter to his family, he explained why he joined the Army.

During the first weeks and months after Fort Sumter fell, patriotism led many Maine men to join the Army. They flocked to where aspiring officers-to-be recruited men to round out a company (typically 100 men) and signed their names with little thought as to the fate that awaited them.

In Patten, 18-year-old Ira B. Gardiner chafed when “a large part of our militia company went to the front as Company B, 8th Regiment Maine Volunteers” in July 1861. He was an only son; military authorities evidently decided that such a young man, no matter his soldierly aspiration, would “not [be] allowed to go with them.”

Gardiner got his wish late that year when, “after my presence at home became to my parents so uncomfortable,” his mom and dad “consented for me to enlist.” He joined the 14th Maine Infantry and later lost an arm during a Virginia battle.

That spring, 21-year-old John S. French was a carpenter from Albion who had found work in Lewiston. He enlisted as a private in Co. E, 5th Maine Infantry Regiment, on April 27 and left for the war on June 24.

On April 30, French explained his reasons for enlisting in a letter addressed to “Dear Parents, Brothers & Sisters” in Albion.

“Perhaps you will condemn my actions, but I feel that I am but doing my duty to my country. I have enlisted and when you get this letter I shall probaly (sic) be in Fort Preble at Portland. think not that this is a hasty step, for it is not so,” he wrote.

“I did not act in a moment of excitement but concidered (sic) it calmly. I wanted to go with the first companies but thought I would wait and concider (sic) so that no chance for regret should remain,” French wrote.

“I at my being in a hurry last Friday two companies left this town and immedeatly (sic) another company began to form and is now more than full numbering 75 members  We drill three times every day and are expecting orders to go to Portland,” he told his family.

“We may stay at Portland all summer but I hope not for I have made up my mind to fight and if I have a chance to I shall do it now you but don’t think that I am reckless or excited for I am as calm and have been ever so since I enlisted as I ever was in my life but somebody must go but I don’t know of any body who can go better than I,” French wrote, finally coming up for grammatical air.

“I shall endeavor to do my duty and if I am unfortunate why so mite (sic) it be the cause is just, and if my humble life can help drive out those traitors from the soil it may freely go,” he wrote.

“I should not have hesitated in the first place if I had been alone but the thoughts that it might cause you sorrow held me back, but the strong desire in my bosom grew stronger and at last I thought I must go and go I did and I wouldn’t back out now on no terms,” French told his relatives.

So he had given serious thought about serving his country, which he would ably do for the next 30 months. A capable soldier, French was later promoted to lieutenant.

He was shot and killed as the 5th Maine conducted a nighttime attack against Confederates entrench at Rappahannock Station, Va. on Nov. 7, 1863. The young patriot never saw his family again after leaving for the war.

Captain Ira B. Gardiner of Patten was 18 when most members of his militia company were called up in spring 1861. As an only son, he could legally stay home; he wanted to fight, however.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.