Maine soldiers dissatisfied with any aspect of military life — much less getting shot at — often voted with their feet by abandoning flag and comrades to find safety far from Civil War battlefields.
Desertion plagued armies North and South throughout the war. The reasons why men vanished from their regimental ranks varied with the individual, as the tales of two Maine deserters reveal — and then there was the hardcore “hell, no, you can’t make me go” deserter.
Jackson Van Buren Darling of Franklin evidently underwent a cursory physical examination before joining Co. M, 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment, in October 1861. Along with a few infantry regiments and at least four artillery batteries, the 1st Maine Cav spent that frigid and snowy winter encamped in tents at Augusta.
On Monday, Feb. 10, 1862, the Co. M rolls listed Darling as “deserted.” He had packed up and fled to Canada — and his mother explained why to Maine Adjutant General John L. Hodsdon in a May, 26, 1862 letter.
The army should not have taken her son in the first place because “he was hard of hearing,” a medical condition caused by scarlet fever when Darling was 7, Elizabeth C. Hallett wrote.
Darling’s hearing seemed slightly improved in summer 1861, so “being desirous to serve his country,” the young man joined the 1st Maine Cavalry. Many other local men deigned to enlist, “but were willing to go when they found he was going,” Hallett told Hodsdon.
She believed that his poor hearing would disqualify her son as a soldier. Several of Darling’s friends visited Hallett; one man assured her that he would ride beside Darling and “tell him” the orders he could not hear.
And another Franklin youth remarked that while Darling “could not hear the small guns[,] he could [hear] the larger ones.”
So Darling reported for duty. The cold weather ruined his remaining hearing, according to Hallett; “when on drill he could not hear a word the Officers said and had to look around to see what” other riders were doing “so as to know how to act,” she told Hodsdon.
Darling and his horse thus lagged behind the maneuvering cavalrymen and “broke up the ranks,” she wrote. “The Officers took it for heedlessness, and would give him abusive language.”
Described by his mother as “very sensitive, and wanting to do as well or better than the others,” Darling finally gave up and fled to Canada.
He “rather liked … going to help his country,” and when the 1st Maine Cavalry boys received no pay after three months in uniform, Darling “sent home, and got fifty dollars to let the soldiers have,” Hallett wrote.
Neighbors suggested to her that Darling should have been discharged. Hallett, who had “buried my second husband of late,” explained that Darling “has no father, and is an only Son. He has always laid near my heart.”
Hallett named “John West of Franklin,” a former legislator, and “James M. Blaisdell” as men who “have always knows him (Darling).” These references “will give you any information that you want.”
Darling survived the later; he later married and raised a family in Franklin.
When Thomas Crowell of Lisbon learned that Co. F, 11th Maine Infantry Regiment, was carrying him as a deserter on its rolls, he wrote Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. to correct the problem.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1842, Crowell was working in Lisbon when the war started in April 1861. He joined the 11th Maine as a private that October.
Taken ill in Virginia in spring 1862, Crowell received medical permission to travel to Maine and stay there until he recovered. Instead he detoured to Brooklyn to visit relatives without telling Army officials where he could be found.
In time Co. F finally listed Crowell as a deserter. Word reached Crowell, but he could not find his regiment. So on Saturday, August 9, 1862, he sat at a desk at 69 Adelphi St. in Brooklyn and penned a succinct letter to Washburn.
“Can you inform me of the whereabouts of the 11 th Maine Vols.?” Crowell asked, providing his Brooklyn address and addressing his letter to “Adjutant General Regimental Correspondence” at Box 47 2203-0409, “Augusta 1862 Folder 13.”
In spring 1863, the 11th Maine Infantry literally booted Crowell from its rolls. He failed to rejoin his outfit.
Some men simply refused to serve. After deserting from the Navy in late 1864, William Green of Deer Isle joined a Maine infantry regiment in Belfast as a substitute that October. He likely received $300 to take another man’s place as a draftee.
Transported south, Green deserted in Alexandria, Va. and fled to Baltimore. Arrested there, he escaped confinement and traveled to Boston, where local authorities arrested him; Green promptly fled a Beantown jail and boarded the steamer Katahdin, which stopped at Penobscot Bay ports.
Apparently someone recognized Green on the Boston docks. A telegram warned Rockland police that Green would arrive on the Katahdin, and four police officers “were on the wharf when the steamer arrived,” the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier reported under the headline “A Hard Deserter” on Friday, Jan. 6, 1865. The article was condensed from the Belfast Age.
A law-enforcement farce unfolded as Green “managed to get ashore unperceived” and steal “a wagon belonging to one of the officers,” the newspaper chortled. Probably applying the lash, Green “drove out the city and abandoned” the wagon “some miles out.”
The collective laughingstock of Army provost marshals and Maine law officers could not catch and detain William Green, who “was next heard from at Deer Isle,” where he was arrested on Nov. 10, according to the mysteriously delayed press account of Green’s adventures.
Adorned with his handcuffs, Green escaped from law officers on Friday, Nov. 11.
“He was next heard from in Rockport,” the Whig and Courier continued the tale. During the night, officers raided the house where Green’s wife lived. Apparently awakened from sleep, she denied that Green was in the house, and the officers “could see no sign of him.”
During the search, Green’s wife remained in bed with the blankets pulled up, possibly to her chin. Then a smarter-than-average law-enforcement officer suggested his companions “give the bed a more thorough search,” the article turned slightly lurid, casting an image of male peace officers searching a bed occupied by a married woman.
Officers turned down the bed clothes and discovered Green “snugly ensconced within the folds of his wife’s nightdress,” the Whig and Courier informed its readers.
The arresting officers hustled Green to the Waldo County Jail in Belfast, where he was “lodged … over-night, and the next morning he made his escape by dodging out of the door, and ran.”
A pursuing posse ran Green to earth at a Northport house, “whither he had gone to get something to eat,” the article noted. Green evidently had many friends on the Midcoast or knew the names and addresses of draft opponents.
“Whether he has escaped again since being sent to headquarters, we have not learned,” the Belfast Age reporter threw up his hands in disgust.
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.