“At the time of my entry into the service, the war had been in progress about a year and a quarter,” wrote John Haley, then a 22-year-old resident of Saco, Maine.
“In 1861 I concluded I had a duty to perform, but hesitated about embarking on this troubled sea. I feared I lacked those qualities which soldiers so much need. And so that year passed and still the matter stood status quo.”
But Federal setbacks at the gates of Richmond in June and July 1862 shook up that status quo. Northern governors urged Lincoln to call up more troops—a rallying cry cleverly engineered by Secretary of State William Seward—and on July 6, Lincoln obliged, asking the states for another 300,000 men.
“During the summer of 1862 the North at last removed its gloves,” Haley wrote. “The drowsy lion must have time to collect itself.”
Haley, too, had needed to collect himself, and now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, his time had come.
Under Lincoln’s July call for troops, the state of Maine mustered its 17th, 18th, 19th, and the 20th regiments. The 16th Maine, already in the process of being formed when the call went out, also counted toward Maine’s quota of 9,609 men.
“A very intimate friend became fired up under this call,” Haley explained, “also some other friends, five of us in the same class in Sunday School, and we were getting hot under the collar.” Their teacher, though, “one of the best of men,” was nonetheless a bitter opponent of the war “and labored hard to knock the war spirit into a cocked hat.”
But Haley’s friend, who remained nameless, would not be dissuaded.
“My friend sounded his parents out,” Haley recounted, “and . . . they decided to give their consent if I was going—they never thinking I would—and all the time my going depended on his getting their consent, which I thought they never would give.”
The friend saw this apparent conundrum as a loophole, not a roadblock, and on August 5, he visited the local recruiting office, opened by a local high school teacher, Ed Eastman. The next day, “As soon as morning dawned,” Haley said, the friend “sought my society and informed me of what he had done.”
From there, it was like a row of dominos. “Our enlisting was like many other things in this world,” Haley said:
one started and the rest thoughtlessly followed, like sheep over a fence, until six of us had enlisted from one class in Sunday School. Speaking for myself, I had no inclination for the business, but once committed in a momentary spasm of enthusiasm to serve under certain circumstances, which I never expected to occur, I found myself face to face with the alternative of going or showing a white live by backing out. I decided to do as I had agreed and enlisted for ‘three years, unless sooner discharged.’ Shot or starved should have been added to the contract.
“Given time for reflection, I had a thousand fears and misgivings,” Haley admitted. “I moved in a dazed sort of way and couldn’t believe I had done such a thing. Naturally timid and shrinking, it seemed impossible that I had, even for a moment, thought seriously of going into the service. I consoled myself with the thought that I should, if I lived, have a chance to see some of the country and might witness a battle, which I greatly desired, only I wished to be a safe distance from it—a mile at least.”
William Hobson served as captain of the company to organize the men. “We were accepted and ordered to hold ourselves in readiness to report in Portland whenever they desired our company,” Haley said. “And they desired it much sooner than we anticipated—the very next day.”
In Portland, the men were shuffled across the Fore River to Camp William King in the town of Cape Elizabeth, where they were mustered into state service by Capt. Joe Perry. “[H]aving nothing else to do, we were turned out into the field to run about like a flock of sleep, as long as we didn’t run away,” he said.
It was a strange experience for Haley, who’d never really been away from home or family before. The men had no regiment yet, nor even any quarters. “[N]early all who are in camp are strangers,” he noted. Haley grew homesick for the first time in his life, experiencing a feeling “akin to being in solitary confinement.”
He was soon formally assigned to Company I, which consisted almost entirely of men, like him, who were from York and Cumberland Counties. Among them were sixteen graduates of high school, nine collegians, two clergymen, and one attorney—a group Haley described as “scholars to a greater or lesser degree.”
“In addition to all this erudition,” he added, “a decidedly moral tone pervades the company; there are not less than thirty who are really pious, and quite a number whose spasmodic bursts are noticeable because of their violence as well as their obtrusiveness.”
Patriotism prompted most of his company-mates to enlist, Haley said, but he laid claim to “but very little of what goes by that name.” He was motivated more by a love of change and a desire to see the country. “But here I am, however I came,” he conceded.
The next few days were filled with a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. “We cannot drill as there seems to be no one who knows enough about it to teach us,” Haley said. “Several days of this regime have so disgusted and sickened us that we have lost all enthusiasm over the war and desire to depart for home although we have not fired a gun, nor have any of our officers drawn their ‘cheese knives’ in defense of the Union. By the end of the third day, our military ardor had so abated that a thermometer which stood at fever heat on Wednesday would have been found at or below zero on Saturday with the mercury congealed.”
One bright spot was that Haley received a financial windfall for enlisting. His hometown of Saco awarded him “the princely sum” of $55; the state gave him an additional $45; the federal government gave him $25, plus a month’s ages in advance—a total of $140. “Here is richness, and we consider ourselves very wealthy,” he crowed. He was later disappointed to discover other states offered their volunteers more. “If only we’d thought of it in time, we could have gone to New York and enlisted there,” he said. “If one is going to sell his life, he might as well get all he can out of it.”
August 18th finally saw the men officially muster into Federal service, overseen by a Major Gardiner, “a full-blooded West Pointer who has a crushing hatred for all volunteer troops.”
How we lived through this day I know not. Somebody has surely formed a conspiracy to see how much the back can carry and not break, how much the flesh can suffer and not die. Several men fainted and fell from the ranks of dress parade but we managed to stand for hours while one company at a time was inspected. We found mustering into the service by a West Pointer a slow, painful performance. Red tape stuck out all over him like porcupine quills.
One man only failed to measure up and was “given permission to retire from service,” but Haley says the man declined: “He enlisted to escape domestic tyranny and has no desire to return.”
These final days in Maine were spent drilling and “otherwise preparing for the business before us,” Haley recounted. A steady stream of visitors—wives, mothers, and sisters—came to camp daily on one pretense or another. The men appreciated the attentions and distractions, but overall, they chaffed at their holding pattern. “Anywhere for a change!” Haley wrote on August 20. “We are sick of this inactivity and its concomitant state of mind.”
The next day, August 21, the regiment finally headed out, through Portland, down to Boston, then New York and Philadelphia, and down to “the Land of Dixie.” They spent the next two months around Washington, training and drilling, and eventually joined the Army of the Potomac on its march toward Fredericksburg.
Haley described his service in the war as “successful mediocrity” and said his chief virtue was that he was “Present all the time.” But that steadfastness kept him in the ranks all the way through Appomattox Court House, plunging him into every major battle from Fredericksburg through Sailor’s Creek. He returned to civilian life on June 19, 1865, and lived until April 7, 1921—56 years nearly to the day after Lee’s surrender. His journal is a remarkable account of an incredible journey.
Haley’s memoir, based on his diary entries written during the war, remains one of my own absolute favorite accounts of the war. Haley has a remarkable eye for detail, a snarky sense of humor, and a clear writing style. He really knows how to turn a phrase, making his book a pleasure to read. Here are a couple other posts I’ve written that feature a little of his writing:
“The New Year, 1863 and 1865” (Jan. 2, 2020)
“To Destroy This Kind of Theology: Federals at the Fox House” (June 3, 2020)
“About Phil Kearny on the Anniversary of his Death” (Sept. 1, 2020)
“In the Wake of Ball’s Bluff” (Oct. 22, 2020) — This post recounts part of the unit’s march to join the AoP in the wake of Antietam
 John W. Haley, The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer, edited by Ruth L. Silliker (Down East Books, 1985). Quotes in this post from Haley come from his journal, which make up the bulk of the book, pp. 22-27, and from his unpublished autobiography, which is quoted by Editor Ruth Silliker in her introduction, pp. 12-13.
 William B. Jordan, Red Diamond Regiment: The 17th Maine Infantry, 1862-1865, (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1996), 2.