Shoulder-strap desire met gubernatorial reality on Monday, Sept. 9, 1861 at the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment camp near Washington, D.C. — and the “shoulder straps” led the subsequent mutiny.
Known as the “Forest City Regiment,” the 5th Maine mustered into federal service at Portland (the “Forest City”) on Monday, June 24, 1861. Exactly a month earlier, Mark H. Dunnell of Portland had pinned to his uniform’s shoulders the winged-eagle insignia of an infantry colonel.
While enlisted men (from corporals to sergeant majors) wore their stripes on their sleeves, officers wore their insignias sewn on their shoulders. Only weeks into the war, enlisted men started referring to all officers as “shoulder straps,” a vaguely derogatory term that identified the world of difference between commissioned officers and the rank and file.
Besides Dunnell, other 5th Maine staff officers were Lt. Col. Edwin Illsley of Lewiston and Maj. Samuel C. Hamilton of Biddeford. The regiment’s first adjutant was Charles S. Whitman of Portland.
These four officers, who saw action with the 5th Maine atop Chinn Ridge at Manassas on July 21, developed favorable reputations among the surviving enlisted men. The regiment went into camp in the Washington, D.C. defenses after the battle; soldiers settled into a relatively comfortable life in their camp.
Then Dunnell upset the apple cart after church services on Sunday, Aug. 25. Confirming regimental scuttlebutt, he announced that he was resigning to take a civil-service job.
The news stirred excitement among the remaining officers, who saw in Dunnell’s departure “a race for the vacant colonelcy and other positions,” observed George W. Bicknell of Portland in his 1871 “History of the Fifth Maine Regiment.” He became the regiment’s adjutant in late autumn 1862.
The 5th Maine’s officers figured they could elect Dunnell’s replacement. The available voters had lessened by late August because “most of the captains … were resigning and going home, Bull Run having dimmed the ‘shiny’ on their shoulder-straps,” Bicknell sarcastically commented.
He hit upon what was to Union enlisted men an infuriating distinction between them and officers. A shoulder-strap could resign his commission and go home; an enlisted man could not resign under any circumstances, and if he headed home without authorization, he could be shot for desertion.
Some Maine lads were, later in the war.
On Saturday, Aug. 31, the 5th Maine Infantry officers met and elected Illsley as colonel, Hamilton as lieutenant colonel, and Capt. Edward Thompson of Brunswick and Co. D as major. The officers expected that Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr., a Republican, would approve the election’s results.
Dunnell had exited the 5th Maine camp on Aug. 28, and his resignation took effect on Sept. 2.
That same day, Washburn named Nathaniel Jackson of Lewiston as colonel of the 5th Maine. He had commanded the 1st Maine Infantry during its 90-day service earlier that year. The regiment had returned to Maine, but Washburn had not let its members muster out. Instead he reconstituted the 1st Maine as the 10th Maine Infantry and spread the 1st Maine’s field officers across other units.
Jackson got the 5th Maine — and he was told to whip the regiment into shape.
“Our discipline was at the lowest ebb,” Bicknell said. During one particular brigade drill, only 150 men from the 5th Maine formed up, although “there ought to have been five hundred at least,” he admitted.
Jackson’s impending arrival negated the Aug. 31 vote, which meant Illsley and his ilk would not advance in rank. Perhaps initiated by the disappointed officers, rumors started swirling that Jackson was a tyrant sent “to straighten us out,” Bicknell said.
Jackson rode into the 5th Maine camp on Monday, Sept. 9, and “not a cheer was given to welcome our new commander,” Bicknell noticed. “It was soon evident that there were a violent opposition” to Jackson and that “the men were strongly in favor of” Illsley and Hamilton.
The latter, while conducting the evening dress parade, “received cheer upon cheer” from the men, according to Bicknell. Jackson, of course, attended the parade and noticed the “ragged” condition of his new command.
Bicknell explained that “scores of us” possessed “but a single shirt each.” When possible, the men washed and dried their lice-ridden shirts, which were developing holes along their oft-sewn seams.
Within hours after Jackson formally took over, his officers evinced “an intensely bitter feeling” toward him and insubordinately shared their animosity “with their men,” Bicknell described the mutiny’s nascent moment.
Except for two or three wiser heads, officers urged the enlisted men “to show defiance to the orders of the ‘usurper’ and ‘intruder,’” he noticed. Without considering the consequences of their mutinous actions, angry enlisted men decided to voice their disapproval of Jackson.
Someone mentioned that Jackson was a Republican, Illsley a Democrat; that’s why Jackson got the job, because Washburn rewarded his uniformed cronies. Many enlisted men were Democrats; playing to a perceived party loyalty, the disaffected officers claimed that Jackson was such a crony.
Suddenly word circulated that Monday evening that “Adjutant Whitman and Quarter-master [John] Merrill” of Gorham were being replaced by other 1st Maine officers. Many enlisted men (Bicknell estimated upwards to 75 percent of them) groused that they had been in combat while the 1st Maine had stayed safe in the Washington defenses.
Just before nightfall, the livid 5th Maine lads marched to Illsley’s quarters and called “at the top of their voices” for the insubordinate Illsley “to come out and address them,” Bicknell said. Instead Edward Thompson appeared, stepped up on a box, and excoriated “the action of the governor” and the newly appointed [former 1st Maine] officers “in bitter and unmeasured terms.”
Listening soldiers responded “with immense applause,” Bicknell said.
Hamilton announced that he was resigning because he could not serve with Jackson. Then Illsley announced that the War Department (more likely Washburn) had accepted his resignation.
“We won’t have anybody but you!” one soldier shouted.
“No Jackson can come here!” another man yelled.
Signaling for silence, Illsley asked the men to return to their quarters. They did so after “giving three rousing cheers” for the shoulder-strap speeches.
On Tuesday, Sept. 10, many men signed papers protesting Jackson’s presence. Then the mutiny exploded at the evening parade.
With every available soldier present, the 5th Maine resembled “more the appearance of a band of ragamuffins than a regiment of soldiers,” the embarrassed Bicknell noted. Many soldiers “were in their shirt sleeves,” some mutineers stood bare-footed, and other men “smoked their pipes” or went hat-less.
Whitman’s replacement, George Graffam of Portland, stood aghast as he arrived on the parade ground. Then Illsley took charge of the evening parade.
Once dismissed, the mutineers marched past regimental headquarters and shouted in unison, “Send Jackson home!” Soldiers hurled bottles and canteens filled with gunpowder into a fire burning near headquarters; these mini-bombs were soon “exploding with terrible noise,” Bicknell said.
The mutineers ran amuck for almost an hour. Suddenly an aide to Brig. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum (commander of the 2nd Brigade to which the 5th Maine was assigned) rode into the camp. Bicknell did not record what the aide said, but a good paraphrase would be, “What the hell is going on here?”
Through his aide, Slocum threatened to ship the mutineers to Fort Jefferson, a godforsaken outpost in the Dry Tortugas. Suddenly Illsley and Hamilton realized their own precarious positions; with “a stint of hard labor,” the line officers suppressed the mutiny that they had inspired.
Illsley resigned on Sept. 24, Hamilton on Sept. 25. “So ended the mutiny in the Fifth Maine, nor was a second ever attempted,” Bicknell breathed easier. Jackson established “a strict discipline,” and “special care was given to the comfort and welfare of the troops.”
In “a few weeks … we were as proud of our battalion as we were ashamed before,” Bicknell said.
And with the shoulder-strap mutineers leaving, the enlisted men were not punished for their actions. That “fact … served to render Jackson popular at once,” Bicknell admitted.
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.