That was my last picket line

Notified in mid-July 1865 that they would soon muster out, some 20th Maine lads looked forward to drinking their way home.

Col. Ellis Spear quickly put the kibosh to that idea.

Engaging in common 1860s’ vices, two unidentified Union soldiers play cards while drinking whiskey. The bottle is almost empty, the glass is not, and if the men started with a full bottle, they are feeling pretty good by now. (Library of Congress)

He realized that when the War Department had called for infantry regiments in summer 1862, surgeons did not examine recruits “in the matter of moral character,” which “did not fill the quota of the state …

Only able bodied men could serve that purpose,” Spear explained. “Sound legs were of primary use in marching, & good arms and eyes for shooting.”

Whether or not soldiers drank alcohol was not a recruiter’s business in ’62. However, other departing regiments had seen men slurp their respective ways through the nearest saloons while marching to the Washington, D.C. train station, and Spear would have none of that with his 20th Maine.

His boys “pictured themselves as going into a land flowing with milk and honey, and drinks, and [themselves] greeted as conquering heroes,” he noted. “They were all young fellows; many mere boys,” so he “out the regiment into column” to make himself heard “from the saddle.”

Spear reiterated how some liquor-filled homeward bound troops had rioted, at least according to the press, and he believed “that most, if not all of the 20th Maine,” would not sully their “fair fame, won in the service,” by behaving likewise. The Mainers were still soldiers, “there must be no whiskey drinking,” so let’s head home.

Before marching the 20th Maine Infantry to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad depot in Washington, D.C., Col. Ellis Spear warned his men against imbibing in alcohol and dishonoring the regiment before it reached Maine in July 1865. The drinkers in the regiment could not wait to consume alcohol before they got home. Trouble started in the nation’s capital, but the liberal use of the bayonet headed the potential drinking off at the pass. (Library of Congress)

The 20th Maine marched to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station in Washington. No train available, Spear “massed the regiment in an enclosure, near the station, and kept strict guard.”

Then “an Irish woman came along with … a bucket of milk” for the boys, and Spear let her inside the enclosure. Scurrying up to the naive colonel, a local cop warned that the milk “was doubtless well saturated with whiskey.”

Spear ordered the loudly protesting woman ejected, accomplished by “the application of a couple of bayonets to her back.”

A train took the 20th Maine and the 45th Pennsylvania Infantry from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore on Monday, July 17. The Mainers reached Philadelphia around noon and the New Jersey shore opposite New York City at 6 p.m. A ferry took them across the Hudson River.

After spending Tuesday night in the Battery Barracks, the 20th Maine lads marched to a wharf and boarded the steamship John Brooks at 11 a.m. The “old boat,” which Spear thought “not very seaworthy,” sailed 30 minutes later.

The steamer John Brooks cruises past the Sixth Street wharf in Washington, D.C. The steamer transported the 20th Maine Infantry from New York City to Providence, R.I. in July 1865. Col. Ellis Spear described the “old boat” as “not very seaworthy.” (Library of Congress)

The sea was rough” outside New York Harbor, he noticed, so “lest we drown so many veterans saved from the war,” the skipper stood into New London, Conn. “for the night.”

Thursday, July 20 dawned “cloudy with some rain,” and the John Brooks steamed eastward, reaching Providence, R.I. around noon, Spear recalled.

A train awaited the Maine boys. The officers (including Spear) occupied the rear car, “the officers of the day and the guard of picket men” the next car in line, and the remaining enlisted men “in the other cars ahead.”

A major when this photo was taken midway through the Civil War, Col. Ellis Spear commanded the 20th Maine Infantry at war’s end. While bringing the regiment home to muster out in July 1865, Spear quickly quashed a potential “whiskey rebellion” involving his lads in Providence, R.I. (Bangor Public Library)

In the best military hurry-up-and-wait tradition, time passed, and the train remained inert. Maine lads stirred in their seats and complained. Although the pickets watched the railroad-car doors, “the more restless, enterprising, and thirsty” Mainers slipped out the car windows and bolted for the nearest saloons “and small grocers,” Spear learned.

There was a fair prospect of having a drunken squad,” which would reflect badly on the regiment’s commander, “so I turned out the guard and deployed them as a picket line in wide sweeps around the station.”

Assigned one guard per “saloon and grocery,” the armed Mainers turned away all imbibers, Spear having stressed that the pickets “let no man pass … for one hour or so that part of the town was fairly dry.

That was my last picket line,” Spear later realized.

The train crew finally got its act together, and the train chugged north to deposit the Maine lads in Boston. “We marched quietly through the town with an escort of police leading the way,” Spear said. Reaching North Station, his men boarded a Boston & Maine Railroad train that left for Portland around 5 p.m.

It was a very slow train, and late” was the hour (about 1 a.m.) “when we reached” Portland, he observed. Portlanders provided the hungry 20th Maine lads with “a bountiful supper[,] and with [the] men well fed I moved over to Cape Elizabeth and Camp Mason, where the regiment had assembled in late summer 1862.”

Spear arrived at Camp Mason around 4-4:30 a.m., Friday, July 21. Buried in paperwork (primarily completing the company rolls so the men could be paid and discharged), he made sure that the soldiers turned their firearms in to the proper authorities and that the officers’ horses were dispersed to the proper destinations.

Our military career terminated on the spot where it began within a few days of the term of [three] years for which we had enlisted,’ Spear commented. “The world was all before us where to choose, but we were out of training and out of touch with everything [civilian], and as we had been able to save little, all whom I knew, without capital [money].”

Former Col. Ellis Spear left Portland and traveled to Bath on Saturday, July 29.

He was a civilian again.

Sources: Abbott Spear, Andrea C. Hawkes, Marie H. McCosh, Craig L. Symonds, and Michael H. Alpert, editors, The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear, The University of Maine Press, Orono, Maine, 1997, pp. 191-194, 282-284

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Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at