Excerpts from The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Hurrah

by John West Haley, 17th Maine Volunteers

Edited by Ruth Silliker, Down East Books, Camden, Maine, 1985.

Presented here for your reading enjoyment are diary excerpts from John W. Haley's early days in the 17th Maine, just after his enlistment on August 7 1862 (the numbers in parentheses are journal entry dates). I have read a great many diaries of civil warriors, but Haley's is my favorite. See if you don't agree with me that this guy, with his ironic wit, could have been a reenactor! - Jonah

Life as a New Soldier

"Company I, to which we are to belong, is composed almost entirely of men from York and Cumberland counties, with a few "Oxford bears" sandwiched in. Most of the men are scholars to a greater or lesser degree: sixteen graduates of high schools, nine collegians, two clergymen, and one lawyer. In addition to all this erudition, 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." (8/7)

"We cannot drill as there seems to be no one who knows enough about it to teach us. 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 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." (8/8-10)

"Men must be forthcoming, even if it takes a draft to do it, and it is touching to see the number of persons who are ready, even anxious, to sacrifice their relatives on the altar of their country. This "spontaneous" uprising of the people should teach the South!"

"Thompson brought with him a crew who seem to regard him with a species of profound awe. If he condescends to notice them, they immediately mount to the third heaven. As for us common trash, we don't expect any notice from him and our expectations are pretty generally met. The men who came with him know their place and understand that the Reverend J.O. Thompson of the remote country village and Lieutenant J.O. Thompson of the U.S. Army are not the same person. He is overbearing and supercilious, and can be patronizing to serve his own interests. Like a little dog who wags his tail in the presence of a big dog with a bone, there is nothing more deferential than Lieutenant Thompson in the presence of his superiors."

"As we are now officered and our noncommissioned officers appointed, we have commenced drilling. The paucity of military knowledge of both officers and privates renders this pretty dull music. One of our sergeants, who claims to be better posted than the average, was corrected so many times by a private that, in sheer desperation, he begged the latter to assist him. This is private refused to do but offered to take over the entire exercise." (8/11)

"We found mustering into the service by a West Pointer a slow, painful performance. Red tape stuck out all over him like porcupine quills."

"In the afternoon the Reverend Lovering of Park Street Unitarian Church came out and gave us a flowery discourse in which he was pleased to inform us that "all who died in defense of the flag had a sure passport to heaven." This is all very well for talk, but the Reverend evidently doesn't care to try it on." (8/18-19)

"About midnight we arrived at Stonington and were marched onto a steamboat named Plymouth Rock, so named, I decided, because of the resemblance of her crew to that piece of rock. Their hearts were stony. The ship's officers were human hogs. They lacked only bristles, which some of my companions averred were concealed about their persons."

"Our vivacious comrades proved conclusively that Man can descend to the level of the monkey - whether or not descended from him - whenever the requisite amount of tanglefoot can be imbibed. They made the night hideous with their howling, ribald songs, and vulgar jokes, swearing frightful oaths and cursing niggers and the administration without stint. Our officers came in for their share of curses - some of them justly. One of our company, especially pugnacious, was spoiling for a fight. He became so boisterous that Captain Hobson took away his bottle and threw it out the window. This so enraged the bellicose Lamberton that he threatened the most blood-curdling things, even to performing a delicate surgical operation on the captain which would release him from further military service, or any other kind of service. A hint from the captain that he would be put into irons had a most salutary effect on Lamberton, and he became as meek as a lamb." (8/21)

"On shore we were instantly besieged by a small army of Agents of the Christian Commission who seemed to entertain the reprehensible idea that we were from some remote part of the world where the light of civilization has never dawned, instead of from puritanical New England where Bibles are as plentiful as dogs in an Irish neighborhood." (8/22)

"Nothing was furnished us, but some women came around with a villainous compound alleged to be pie. Having in mind the delicious article bearing this appellation in our section, I was simple-minded enough to invest a few of my stamps (postage stamps are in use for change) to the extent of fifty cents, anticipating a feast. My feast was a feast of fancy, soon dispelled by a closer acquaintance with this beastly imitation of pastry. A turkey buzzard could not have eaten one of them without having his gizzard thoroughly demoralized. Unfortunately, I had invested in two pastries and sunk my teeth into one before discovering the disagreeable contents of the so-called pies. Judging from their internal appearance, they were composed of the sweepings of some Irish den, held together by a generous contribution of hair and flavored with grapes. Not being partial to that kind of sauce, I decided to fill up with less pretentious food whose ingredients had less of the charm of mystery."

"After going a few miles we came to a city over which the railroad ran, and here I deposited my pastries, giving the inhabitants a chance to witness the remarkable celestial phenomenon of a shower of pies. That they were not of heavenly origin was attested by the strong flavor of Old Ireland that pervaded them." (8/22)

Fast forward to the following exasperated excerpts from April, May and June 1865 - the end of Haley's enlistment. If you're interested in what happened in between - and you should be - you'll have to read the book! - Jonah

Life After Appomattox

"This army is virtually out of a job. Sherman's army, which has accomplished the stupendous task of marching through a country that resembles an empty eggshell with both ends stove in, some time since gave out the word that they will "finish Johnston and come up and assist us in reducing Lee to subjugation." They will need have no solicitude concerning General Lee, that individual having suffered defeat at our hands alone. If there is to be any assisting business, we will take a hand in it." (4/21)

"General Meade and "Grandmarm" Halleck, along with some smaller fry, stood on the courthouse steps to review us as we passed by." (5/6)

"A host of young niggers followed us to camp and soon made themselves too familiar. We bounced them up in blankets and made them butt against each other - also against some pork barrels and hard-bread boxes. A couple hours' worth of bouncing satisfied them. One young nigger had an arm broke, and several others were more or less maltreated." (5/6)

"Turned out at five, but 8 o'clock found us still on the ground, sweltering. This refreshing condition was the result of that little joke of yesterday - yelling "hardtack" at General Humphreys. That entire division was ordered to stand in line two hours with all their things on while the sun did its best to cook them. The righteous had to suffer with the wicked. Our division didn't stand in line but we had to wait for them while the sun mounted to the zenith in hot haste, so hot that it seemed nothing short of a miracle that we were not converted into soap grease." (5/11)

"We marched almost continually until 5 P.M. On inquiry of an aged citizen of this section we were informed that we are no nearer Washington than when we started this morning. We must have been traveling around in a circle all day, or else we have just encountered an ignoramus or a colossal liar. This is a kind of crablike progress that we don't think desirable just now." (5/12)

"If old Blinky French were at the head of this column, I shouldn't wonder at the slowness, for he almost invariably contrives to get off the track. (If one could fancy a bulldog come into man's estate and wearing coat and hat, one would have an apt idea of Frenchy's physique, but it wouldn't do to judge his intellect by this standard, as I'm convinced that the dog would show points of superiority.)" (5/13)

"Sunday. No move today, and I didn't use more than two handkerchiefs bemoaning the fact, either." (5/14)

"It is not enough that we frizzle and fry, but the authorities must add to our burdens by promoting Major Mattox to colonel. Having in his system an inordinate love of show, he orders us, old soldiers all, to drill several hours each day. He has sent to Maine for all the old, tattered battle flags we have cast aside. He also has ordered new caps and silver figures and letters, and new chevrons for the noncommissioned officers. As one want creates another, I expect he will soon add paper collars, white gloves, and other finery. We might even carry gold-headed canes and part our hair in the middle, put on eyeglasses, and, if need be, we can lisp." (5/17)

"Sherman's army passed through our "sweat box" on their way to Bladensburg to camp. There isn't room enough for both these armies on this side of the Potomac, I am convinced, until those braggarts learn better to taunt this army with being "bread and butter men," a most insulting term, considering the circumstances. Their impudence was promptly hurled back into their teeth when they ventured to insult us as they passed by. Hot words were followed by blows and then by a resort to firearms. Two were killed and several wounded. After this little exchange, all ammunition except two cartridges each was taken away from us." (5/24)

Haley's description of President Andrew Johnson: "He has a very prominent nasal organ that has an upward tendency as though it were indulging in a fit of lofty scorn for matters terrestrial. It has the look of one that is trying to get away from an unpleasant odor. If current rumor is true, his own breath is sufficiently pungent to cause this recoil." (5/30)

"Some portions of old Virginia are intensely lovely under certain circumstances, but this is not the section nor these the circumstances." (6/2)

"We hear that there are two transports at Alexandria, ready for whoever is first ready to go. As I am in that interesting condition I don't know why I may not go. It taxes my patience immensely to endure the slow motions of those who are in no hurry to relinquish their authority." (6/3)

"Glad to get up as soon as daylight showed itself. About nine o'clock we marched out to Camp Berry (formerly Camp King) and were put under guard as though we were prison birds. Some from Saco and Biddeford took French leave and struck out for home. Myself and some others procured passes and were soon approaching old Saco.

It was with no small emotion that I neared the place I left nearly three years before. Here we are, some with whole skins, and some not so whole. Others have been left behind. For myself, I can only wonder that there is a bone left in my carcass when I think of the wholesale carnage through which I have passed. My bruises are inward.

It is all over now, and I can only regard it as a hideous dream - the smoking ruins, the sodden field, the trailing banner, the slaughtered thousands and wailing families, the roar of cannon, the Rebel yell and the Yankee hurrah have all passed away and we again return to peace." (6/9)

On June 19, 1865, John W. Haley returned to civilian life and to the shop he had left three years before - the same room, the same boss, the same job.