At Saco in York County, 22-year-old John West Haley wondered if he should enlist as Maine formed five new infantry regiments in summer 1862. Looking back some 15 months, he realized that “in 1861 I concluded I had a duty to perform[,] but hesitated about embarking on this troubled sea,” said Haley, recently a Saco Water Power Shop employee.
“I feared I lacked those qualities which soldiers so much need,” so he had avoided enlisting a year earlier, he said.
After Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon announced the formation of the 17th and 18th Maine infantries, “a very intimate friend became fired up” about joining; along with “some other friends, five of us in the same class in Sunday School … were getting hot under the collar,” Haley recalled.
One friend enlisted on August 5, and “the rest thoughtlessly followed, like sheep over a fence,” said Haley, realizing he had agreed to enlist “in a momentary spasm of enthusiasm.”
Describing himself as “naturally timid and shrinking,” he wondered why “I had, even for a moment, thought seriously of going into the service.” Rather than reveal “a white liver (cowardice) by backing out,” Haley signed his enlistment papers on Wednesday, August 6.
Passing a medical examination the next day, Haley officially joined Co. I, 17th Maine Infantry. The company was “composed almost entirely of men from York and Cumberland counties” in southern Maine, “with a few ‘Oxford [County] bears’ sandwiched in,” he said.
Shipped to Portland on Thursday, August 7, the new recruits were “mustered into the state service by Captain Joe Perry,” Haley recalled. The fledgling soldiers then crossed the Fore River and reported to their first official post, Camp King in Cape Elizabeth.
Taking stock of his Co. I comrades, Haley counted 16 high school graduates, “nine collegians, two clergymen, and one lawyer.” He figured “patriotism prompted most of these” to join the 17th Maine; “as far as my own case is concerned, I lay claim to but very little of what goes by that name.
“Love of a change, an overwhelming desire to see the country … furnished the key to my conduct,” Haley commented.
That night the Co. I boys ate “salt horse” and drank “copious draughts of some kind of tea which tasted strongly of turkey stuffing,” he noticed. The recruits slept two-men-per-shared blanket inside a Sibley tent; only “a few wisps of hay” formed the tent’s floor, and the recruits evidently chatted for a while. Not until “the ‘wee small hours’” did Haley and his tent mates fall asleep.
“The next morning dawned on a tired and disgusted set of mortals,” he remembered.
Maj. John Gardiner, the regular Army officer in charge of recruiting efforts in Maine, traveled to Cape Elizabeth to muster the 17th Maine Infantry into federal service on Monday, August 18. Haley remembered him as “a full-blooded West Pointer who has a crushing hatred for all volunteer troops,” a viewpoint with which Small would have vigorously disagreed.
Formed in “the ranks of dress parade,” the 17th Maine boys stood at attention “for hours while one company at a time was inspected,” Haley said. “Several men fainted and fell” as Gardiner continued with his inspection; “by the time the first three companies were inspected,” all the enlisted men but one lay “flat on the ground.”
For whatever reason, that single soldier, Jim Jose, “stood as a monument of endurance and folly” as the ceremony dragged on, Haley said.
Gardiner finished mustering the 17th Maine boys, who also received “our guns.” According to Haley, Gardiner discovered one recruit who “was given permission to retire from service”; citing a “desire to escape domestic tyranny,” the soldier declined.
Marching across Tukey’s Bridge into Portland about 6 a.m. on Thursday, August 21, the 17th Maine boys discovered that they were horribly out of shape. On that warm morning “the sweat ran down our faces,” Haley recalled, and the “dust filled our eyes and ears and throats.”
Boarding their train, the new soldiers rolled south “amid a great hurrahing at a speed of not less than a mile a minute,” he believed. The train “flew through Saco so fast” that the soldiers could not “recognize friends … assembled at the depot to see us off.
“But it was best to go in this way; it prevented many trying scenes,” Haley admitted.
Sources: John Haley, “The Rebel Yell & the Yankee Hurrah,” edited by Ruth L. Silliker, Down East Books, Camden, Maine, 1985
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.