A chicken ratted out Lawrence Kelley.
The son of Patrick and Rachel Whitenacht Kelley of Eaton Grant (which became the eastern half of the Aroostook County town of Lyndon in 1859), Kelley was familiar with farm animals, especially with which critters made a tasty treat. The knowledge came in handy when marching past Confederate farms.*
Already married when he was drafted at age 29, Kelley traveled by ship to the Deep South as “filler material” for Co. D, 11th Maine Infantry Regiment. Baptized by fire at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 29-June 1, 1862, the regiment had soon transferred to South Carolina to participate in the siege of Charleston; the 11th Maine and Kelley transferred to Virginia in April 1864.
One day Co. D was “in camp and just getting ready to have our dinner,” an unidentified (and brand new) soldier noted. Suddenly “orders came for us to hurry forward and join a brigade that was likely to engage the enemy at any minute.”
The 23-year-old soldier “was scared through and through and afraid my buddies would find … out” that “I was nervous before my first battle.” He was afraid that he might run away upon reaching the battlefield.
Warned that they would soon march, the 11th Maine boys ate “a cold snack” before stepping off. “I didn’t have much stomach for fighting,” the soldier admitted. “At first I was mighty scared thinking I would get killed by the first volley … or horribly wounded and left to die on the battlefield.”
“But then I got interested looking at the left hand overcoat pocket of my buddy[,] Larry Kelley of Eaton Grant,” the soldier said.
The pocket seemed a bit full and “looked to me as though there was something alive” in it, he said. Kelley was definitely nervous; he occasionally “would clap his hand over it, as if he was afraid the critter might get out.”
Whatever was inside the overcoat pocket kept making “stifled noises,” noticed the soldier, now so engrossed in the Kelley mystery that he forgot about getting shot.
Then something distracted Kelley’s attention. His left hand eased off the pocket, “and the thing poked its head out far enough to screech, ‘Cut! Cut!’”
Nabbing the chicken by its beak, Kelley “squelched the third cut in two” and stuffed the hen back inside his pocket, his friend noted.
Drawn by the clucking — and the thoughts of a Southern fried chicken dinner — hungry soldiers turned and looked at the embarrassed Kelley, frantically attempting to stifle the hen he had purloined from a Virginia farm.
“Silence in the ranks!” a lieutenant bellowed.
Men started snickering, “and I wanted to laugh,” Kelley’s friend admitted. Then “the order came down the line to shift our guns to the right shoulder.
“Then, of course, Larry had to use both hands, and the second he let go of his pocket, out scrambled as mad a hen as I ever saw,” the soldier watched the inevitable happen. “after she had flopped to the ground, she started screeching, ‘Cut! Cut!’ as the top of her voice.”
Trying to melt into the ranks and become invisible, Kelley stood stock still. The company’s captain “couldn’t help hearing the ruckus,” Kelley’s friend noticed. “He looked back to see what happened to cause all the noise.”
Spotting the angry (non-wet) hen, the captain yelled, “Corporal Vance, take three men and bring back that deserter!”
The four men pounced on the hapless hen. “This made everybody feel very cheerful, for a chicken stew was quote an event in our lives at the time,” Kelley’s friend said.
Then “we got another laugh” when the mortified Kelley slid his left hand into the overcoat pocket “and pulled out a new laid egg,” the soldier chuckled.
“I forgot all about being afraid after that,” he realized.
Kelley never explained where he stole the hen.
*Lyndon later became part of the City of Caribou.
Source: “They Went From Caribou: From the Civil War Papers of George Whitneck,” Caribou Historical Society, 1995
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.