Winter 1865 found John Haley of Saco serving with the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment in the Union lines southwest of Petersburg. He and his Co. I comrades alternated their duty between the monotony and military regimen of camp life and dangerous duty at picket posts much nearer Confederate lines.
“A new year dawns, the third in the service of my country,” Haley wrote on Sunday, Jan. 1, 1865.
“Hope and fear mingle — hope the war will end soon; fear that however soon it ends, I might not live to see it,” he admitted.
No 17th Maine boys could foresee that in less than 4½ months, the war would end in Virginia — and that they would participate in the final effort to run Robert E. Lee to earth.
In their camp, the Co. I soldiers drilled, marched into the surrounding woods to cut firewood, wrote and received letters, and went out on the picket lines. On Wednesday, Jan. 11, Haley lost a sole of a shoe while marching toward his picket post; he made “a hasty retreat in the direction of camp” and spent “the rest of the day … writing and making sketches of places hereabouts.”
Four days later he joined several comrades at a picket post near Hatcher’s Run, which, crossed by the Vaughan Road, was a de facto boundary between Confederate and Union lines. “In front of us in a clearing was a log hut occupied by two women and a little girl, no males present,” Haley noticed.
Discovering the civilians were “destitute of everything but a few walnuts,” the 17th Maine boys dug into their food rations, “set the table and took supper with this female trio,” which included “an ancient damsel,” Haley said.
Then the soldiers slipped away to their assigned picket posts; that night “all was quiet although we are but a short distance from the Johnnies,” he recalled.
Boredom engulfed the Co. I lads as January stretched interminably toward its conclusion. Writing as would any Mainer enduring an endless winter, Haley noted on Jan. 18, “Time drags provokingly slow. A month seems an age.”
The next day was “miserably cold … overcast and gloomy” as he and other Maine soldiers worked outdoors at “Fort Welch … a monstrous earthwork in the main line. The very air seemed laden with sadness and uneasiness, as cheerless as a graveyard.”
Soldiers in blue and gray attacked the Virginia soil with pickax (when available) and shovel that January — and leveled entire forests with axes. Earthworks and bomb proofs and trenches sheltered men from enemy sharpshooters; Virginia trees provided shoring for excavated defenses and firewood for cooking and warmth.
“Every tree, stump, and fence has disappeared, and all the breastworks, except the main line, have been levelled,” Haley noted on Jan. 20. “What was once verdant is now a wasteland of dust and dirt.”
A hard rain blanketed southern Virginia on Saturday, Jan. 21, when Haley reported for picket duty at a post on the Vaughan Road, about seven miles southwest of Petersburg and near Hatcher’s Run. By an informal agreement, Confederate and Union pickets refused to shoot at each other along this section of the line; many Maine soldiers noted this practice elsewhere at Petersburg as the enlisted men on both sides grew tired of random, senseless killing.
The Co. I pickets “found the Rebels quite anxious to trade,” and one Confederate “posted in the road tried to dicker for an overcoat,” Haley said. The Confederate soldier wore draped around his shoulders “a piece of carpet” that doubled as a coat and a blanket.
“He looked like an animated rag bag,” Haley acerbically commented.
Six nights later he reported to a picket post beside Hatcher’s Run at 9 p.m. The rain had stopped; Haley noticed how “the fallen leaves rustled in the chilly air, crackling beneath my boot as I trod my lonesome beat.”
He studied the cloudless Virginia night sky, where “one bright star bloomed like a deathless flower above the horizon” and “a slender crescent [moon] hung, like a twenty-five cent scarf pin.”
The spooked Haley realized that “picketing is not especially pleasing under such circumstances; it is solemn, cold, cemeterial, and ghostlike.
“The gloom of night gives to all an air of mystery, and silence,” he muttered.
Like all Maine soldiers, Haley thought often about his home and the relatives and friends he had left in Saco after joining the 17th Maine Infantry in August 1862. Sometimes memories of Maine would suddenly intrude, as happened to Haley on Jan. 30.
Wounded in action “in a previous encounter,” a 17th Maine lad received a medical disability and reported that Monday to Patrick’s Station, then the terminus of the United States Military Railroad that ran behind Union lines all the way to the docks at City Point. Likely accompanied by other men who knew the Maine-bound veteran, Haley went to the station to see him off.
“As the train receded from view, a great wave of homesickness swept over me,” Haley suddenly realized. “He is all done with soldiering, while I know not what I have yet to pass through.”
Two days later Haley returned to Patrick’s Station “to see one of my tentmates off on furlough.” The lucky soldier would be gone 30 days — long enough to miss the ensuing excitement.
On Sunday, Feb. 5, the 17th Maine left camp and, for the next two days, participated in the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, which involved the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps and 5th Corps supporting a cavalry raid on Confederate wagon trains. Marching hither and yon, Haley and his comrades finally got to cross Hatcher’s Run and deploy toward the main “Rebel works” as skirmishers.
When the shooting finally stopped after dark on Feb. 7, Union troops had pushed their lines farther west. Robert E. Lee thinned his already inadequately defended lines elsewhere to offset the Union sidestep.
Hatcher’s Run brought both sides a few miles closer to Appomattox.
After a few days of fatigue duty spent cutting “down everything in front [fn the extended Union line] for a space of 800 yards,” Haley returned to picket duty on Valentine’s Day. The Maine boys “had an uncommonly easy time, not being in any way disturbed although in sight of the enemy,” he remembered.
Relieved at noon on Feb. 15, Haley and his comrades returned to the 17th Maine camp. He heard cannonading over “toward Petersburg” the next day, witnessed the execution of a deserter from the 124th New York Infantry on Feb. 17, and noted that “we are six-months men” on Feb. 18, exactly a half year before the 17th Maine would muster out.
Six months “is a long, long time, in view of probably events,” Haley thought. “As time grows shorter, its grows longer, seemingly.” A whole lot of war waited to be fought; “it would be doubly hard to die now when we are so near an end,” he realized.
Along with J.M. Paine and Mike Welch, Haley went on picket duty at 7 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 21. The early morning was quiet; then the officer of the day, “who had been taking observations through a bottle (i.e, had been drinking),” suddenly appeared and ordered the three soldiers “to stand up and hold our guns all the time, whether on post or not.”
The men obeyed the officer, but “as soon as his back was turned, we resumed our indifference and grounded our arms as before,” Haley admitted. “We have been in the business long enough to know our duties on picket.”
But “the solemn-faced nincompoop soon returned … and ordered us to get up and stand guard,” a chastened Haley confided to his journal. “We compiled as before.”
News about the surrender of Charleston, S.C. simultaneously reached the Confederate and Union lines that Tuesday. “A salute of 100 guns” marked the celebration among Union troops at Petersburg, according to Haley; that night “a lot of deserters came in. They were especially down in the mouth and reported the rest of the Confederacy to be in the same condition.”
Haley, of course, could not realize that every Johnny Reb crossing into Union lines that winter was one less enemy soldier that the 17th Maine would soon chase along Appomattox Road.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble.
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.