When I was young, we sometimes played “Quaker meeting has begun, no more laughing, no more fun.” Participants turned stone-faced and silent; the first one to crack a smile or laugh lost the game, which took its name from the stillness that Quakers allegedly practiced during their meetings.
The tough 5th Maine Infantry boys played a similar game called “Quaker cannon has begun” when the Army of the Potomac needed a perfectly good forest flattened.
A few days after the July 1, 1862 slaughter of Confederate infantrymen atop Malvern Hill, the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment left the pestilential Harrison’s Landing on the James River and “after one or two moves … finally went into camp on high and dry ground,” said Portland soldier George W. Bicknell, soon to be named the regiment’s adjutant.
Hard fighting during the Seven Days Battles had left the so-called “Forest Regiment” (nicknamed for its affiliation with Portland) short on men, food, and temperament. The “fearfully hot” weather of a Virginia July did not help, and “the outrageous food … provided for the men” caused “a great deal of sickness,” Bicknell groused.
The War Department had contracted almost every aspect of the war (except for the actual shooting and dying) to civilian companies. “Paid the highest price for everything” (according to Bicknell), too many unscrupulous contractors manufactured:
• Substandard shoes (“brogans”) that disintegrated as a soldier marched in them for the first time;
• Poor quality cloth that introduced the term “shoddy” into the American lexicon;
• Food that maggots would avoid.
Bicknell remembered the 5th Maine boys being issued blister-covered “sides of hogs … as meat.” Men received bacon that “was of the meanest description” and that “at home … would make a decent man sick to look at it.” There was “hard bread … literally alive with worms.”
But the 5th Maine lads made do, although disease (Bicknell really blamed the food) killed some of them. Despite the torrid daytime heat, “the nights were cool and pleasant,” so the men could sleep — and they maintained a sense of humor when “detailed to chop down a piece of woods … in front of the encampment,” Bicknell said.
“Armed with their axes” and escorted by Pennsylvania infantrymen, the 5th Maine lads marched to the woods, which lay a half mile beyond the camp’s entrenchments. While the Pennsylvanians went “about halfway through the woods” and stopped, the Maine lumberjacks “went to work with a will,” said Bicknell, who may have participated in the fatigue duty.
Two or three hours later, the Mainers reached the Pennsylvanians deployed to guard them. Asked to advance his men so the Maine lads could keep chopping, the Pennsylvanians’ “commanding officer absolutely refused to do so, upon the ground that it was dangerous,” Bicknell snorted.
If they moved past their guards, the Maine lads might encounter well-armed Confederates. “But the Fifth Maine had been detailed to do a piece of work; and do it they would, support or no support,” Bicknell said.
Cheerfully “singing away and indifferent to whether the rebs were ten rods or ten miles away,” the 5th Maine lumberjacks felled every tree around the Pennsylvanians’ position.
Admitting that “I cannot explain” exactly what happened, Bicknell suddenly noticed that the trees were felled with their leafy tops pointed toward the Pennsylvanians. Trees “timbered” into piles with their limbs intertwined, and with their skillful ax-manship the 5th Maine boys formed “a barricade completely around the [Pennsylvania] troops.”
They were “imprisoned among the prostrate trees,” Bicknell commented.
The Pennsylvanians quickly realized their plight; Bicknell did not record what words flew from the Keystone Staters, but the 5th Maine boys “enjoyed their discomfiture sufficiently,” he admitted.
Then the axes again flew, “and in a few moments [the Mainers] cut a passage through … which the troops might escape.”
Some intrepid Maine lads noticed all the nice logs lying around. Oxen or mules were soon harnessed to selected logs that the animals promptly dragged back to the 5th Maine’s camp.
The Maine boys made good use of those logs.
Bicknell and his comrades heralded the return of Col. Nathaniel Jackson of Lewiston, recovered from wounds incurred earlier during the Peninsula Campaign. Jackson was barely back when “we received orders on the thirteenth of August to be ready to move at once,” orders “with which we speedily complied,” Bicknell said.
With Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on the move in central Virginia, the Army of the Potomac was finally leaving the Peninsula. Troops marched past the 5th Maine’s camp, where “our tents were struck” and, along with all baggage, packed into wagons, according to Bicknell.
Troops kept tramping past the camp, and the Maine lads waited; “hour after hour we waited,” and “the night passed” with regiments, brigades, and divisions marching past, he groused.
Suddenly tapped as the army’s rear guard, the 5th Maine and its division waited “until the entire force had got well on the road,” Bicknell said. The Maine boys “finally took up route step” at 4 p.m., Aug. 15, and bid farewell to their camp.
But guards remained beside the cannons left pointing toward the distant Confederate lines. Enemy scouts had watched the Union troops marching away, but the earthworks were obviously manned.
Not until that evening or even the next day did Confederate scouts venture closer — and discover that they’d been scammed.
The enterprising 5th Maine lads shaped “logs about the size of ordinary cannons” into the actual outlines of artillery pieces and positioned the “Quaker guns” in the artillery emplacements built into the earthworks, Bicknell chuckled well along on his southerly march.
The Maine boys turned the Quaker guns black by covering them with army blankets. Then the boys converted cast-off uniforms into straw-stuffed scarecrows replete with foraging caps and intact, but busted firearms. These scarecrows the 5th Maine lads placed strategically amidst the Quaker guns and along the earthworks.
“The disguise was perfect,” Bicknell said afterwards. “With the works thus guarded, we left them.”
Confederate troops had made similar use of Quaker guns in mid-July 1861, when Union soldiers ventured out from Washington, D.C. to attack Manassas Junction in Virginia. “So it seems that it was possible for others to be deceived by wooden guns,” Bicknell shared the joke with his comrades.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.