After Abraham Lincoln asked the loyal states to send more men to fight the Confederacy in early summer 1862, the War Department requested that Maine raise four additional infantry regiments. That meant Maine would send 4,000 men (at 1,000 men per regiment).
With 15 infantry regiments already sent to far-flung battlefields, Maine would create the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Infantries. The War Department needed them ASAP, if only to guard Washington, D.C. fortifications vacated by veteran regiments now chasing Robert E. Lee across Virginia.
Ultimately some 4,900 men would enlist that summer, and the spillover coalesced as the 20th Maine Infantry.
In Saco, 22-year-old John W. Haley debated whether or not he should enlist. We are indebted to his voracious journaling and to Ruth L. Silliker for collecting Haley’s journal entries into “The Rebel Yell & the Yankee Hurrah.” From that book’s pages Haley reveals the war as experienced by a Union foot soldier, and from the book he tells us about answering the call.
“During the summer of 1862 the North at last removed its gloves and a call was issued for 600,000 troops,” Haley wrote. “It was under this muster that the 17th Maine was raised, and in Company I of that regiment several companions and I signed up.
“Our enlisting was like many other things in this world; one started and the rest thoughtlessly followed, like sheep over a fence, until six of us had enlisted from one class in Sunday School,” he commented.
Although dedicated to the Union, Haley was not a fervent flag-waver hustling to the nearest recruiting office. “I had no inclination for the business, but once committed in a momentary spasm of enthusiasm to serve under certain circumstances, which I never expected to occur, I found myself face to face with the alternative of going or showing a white liver by backing out,” he admitted.
Haley’s reference to a “white liver” eerily mirrors the “white feather” that brought shame to many young Englishmen during the Great War (renamed World War I after Hitler and Stalin split up Poland 25 years later). A young man in civilian garb might be accosted on a city street by young women (the practitioners often worked in pairs) who demanded to know if he was a coward or not. A mufti-clad soldier would quickly draw admiration; a civilian would draw scorn – and would often receive a “white feather,” usually a chicken feather, that symbolized cowardice.
Established in January 1915 in Great Britain, the Order of the White Feather actually encouraged its members (often attractive young women) to give white feathers to military-age civilian men. No matter if a lung disorder or a weak heart or another medical condition disqualified a young man: If he was deemed a coward, a white feather he might receive.
So John Haley experienced second thoughts about his liver’s color: “I decided to do as I had agreed and enlisted for ‘three years, unless sooner discharged,’ he decided.
“Shot or starved should have been added to the contract,” Haley growled in print.
He joined the 17th Maine on Aug. 6 and passed a rudimentary medical inspection. Yet Haley still wrestled with his decision.
“Naturally timid and shrinking, it seemed impossible that I had, even for a moment, thought seriously of going into the service,” he wrote. “I consoled myself with the thought that I should, if I lived, have a chance to see some of the country and might witness a battle, which I greatly desired only I wished to be a safe distance from it – a mile at least.”
Haley went off to war. We will hear more about his adventures in the future.
Brian Swartz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.