Deserters were not the only man-made plague that drove Maine officers crazy during the Civil War; independent-minded Maine soldiers might mutiny, too, if they so decided.
Patriotic fervor swept the Midcoast in mid-April 1861. A business partner with Hiram Berry, Elijah Walker sold coal and lumber in Rockland, recently split from Thomaston and designated the county seat for Knox County, Maine’s newest (and last) county. War talk had simmered all winter, but despite Berry’s urgings, Walker figured he would not join “in the defence of the Union,” he recalled years later in “The Old Soldier.”
Walker also served as foreman of the Dirigo Engine Company, a local firefighting outfit. Watching Confederate states secede in winter 1861 and reading in early spring the latest news from Charleston, S.C., Walker’s firefighters “urged me, in case troops were called for, to lead them as their captain.”
After Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on Saturday, April 13, the North exploded in anger. President Abraham Lincoln swiftly called for the loyal states to recruit 75,000 men to quash the Southern rebellion.
Across the Midcoast, men like Walker scrambled to raise companies for an infantry regiment. On Wednesday, April 24, Walker received some blank recruiting forms; by 11 a.m. he had signed up 73 men, and Maj. Gen. William H. Titcomb in Augusta “would not allow me to make further enlistments as he wanted others to raise companies,” Walker recalled.
Walker’s recruits converged on a Rockland court room at 5 p.m. that day to elect officers. Excited volunteers elected Walker as their captain, O.P. Mitchell as their first lieutenant, and J.B. Mitchell as their second lieutenant. The officers realized that their men were fired up, were ready to give their all to defend the country as members of Co. B, 4th Maine Infantry Regiment.
After signing up for a two-year commitment, the 4th Maine boys mustered into the Army as three-year volunteers on Saturday, June 15 and headed for Washington, D.C. two days later. After fighting at First Manassas, the regiment camped near the capital.
Not long after sunrise on Friday, Aug. 16, Walker learned “to my astonishment (I might properly say, horror)” from Sgt. Arthur Libby “that several of our best men” had “conceived the idea they were no longer held in the service” and “refused duty.” Walker discussed “the revolt” with Berry, the 4th Maine’s commander; the two officers kicked the issue upstairs to Col. Oliver Otis Howard, the Leeds soldier who had taken the regiment and its brigade into combat at Manassas.
Howard “visited the regiment, saw the mutinously inclined, and in a very kind and pleasant manner gave them some good advice” before reading the mutineers the riot act, according to Walker. “All but three [men] consented to return to duty.”
Cavalrymen escorted the miscreants to Alexandria, Va. Confined in some abandoned slave pens for “about two weeks,” the men learned at their court martial that Walker had “made a request to have the charges withdrawn.”
After the judge advocate delivered “some needed admonition,” the mutineers rejoined Co. B as “wiser and better men,” Walker recalled.
“With the exceptions of a few desertions I had no further trouble in my Company B,” he stated.
Insisting that they had enlisted for 90 days and not two or three years, many 2nd Maine Infantry soldiers had also mutinied that August. Their action apparently inspired some 4th Maine malcontents to mutiny on Saturday, Sept. 16.
That morning Co. H was assigned picket duty. Having obviously discussed the issue for some time, the company’s enlisted men “informed the adjutant” that since their service time had expired, “they would do no more military duty … and they were going home,” Walker reported.
A flustered Berry “tried to convince them of their error, but they were stubborn and refused further duty,” according to Walker. Fed up with these Maine soldiers “determined to bring disgrace upon … the regiment,” Berry discovered a solution.
“I’ll have the company broken up, get rid of the officers and have a new company sent from home,” he decided.
Col. John Sedgwick, the brigade commander, promptly had the 4th Maine “formed in line,” except for the 100 men (Walker, Co. B, and some Co. C boys) sent on picket duty. He then “requested all those who were unwilling to do further duty to step to the front,” Walker learned from witnesses.
“About eighty men (a majority of Co. H and some from D and other companies) formed a new line. They were at once placed under arrest,” he reported.
Sedgwick then ordered the mutineers marched under armed guard to the camp belonging to the 38th New York Infantry. The Army assigned the mutineers to the 38th “until the expiration of” its “time of service,” upon which Walker asked that the surviving 4th Maine troublemakers be returned to his regiment.
Making good on his threat, Berry broke up Co. H. Its loyal members he dispersed among other 4th Maine companies; “there being no command for the officers … they were allowed the option of resigning or being dismissed as worthless,” Walker commented.
Some time later, Capt. William Pitcher of Bangor brought the replacement Co. H to Virginia to join the 4th Maine — which had no further problems with mutineers.
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.