A legal beagle recruits for the wrong regiment

On Friday, September 27, 1861, recruiting officer H.M. Plaisted issued posters announcing that he was recruiting a company for the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment. There was a problem, however. (Courtesy Scott Thomas)

Did a Bangor attorney recruit a company for the wrong regiment?

In late summer 1861 Gen. Benjamin F. Butler convinced President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that they needed more pro-war Democrats commanding volunteer regiments. Loyal state governors (mostly Republicans after the 1860 election) overwhelmingly commissioned Republican officers, and War Democrats needed an incentive to support the war, Butler reasoned.

Being a Massachusetts Democrat, he could talk political turkey in New England. Butler wanted to lead an expedition to capture New Orleans; would Lincoln and Stanton authorize him to raise six regiments in New England and take them to the Gulf Coast?

General Benjamin Butler lobbied New England governors in late summer 1861 to create infantry regiments to which Democratic officers would be appointed. (Library of Congress)

Lincoln and Stanton approved. Meeting with governors in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, Butler talked up the new regiments, his expedition, and Democrat officers. He convinced Maine Governor Israel Washburn Jr. to raise an infantry regiment (the 12th) and an artillery battery (the 1st). To command the 12th Maine Infantry, Butler wanted Portland attorney George Foster Shepley, a true-blue War Democrat.

In Bangor, 31-year-old attorney and “recruiting officer” Harris Merrill Plaisted plastered recruiting posters all over the Queen City as he sought “One Hundred Able-bodied Men,” needed “Immediately!”

Launching his recruiting campaign on Friday, September 27, 1861, Plaisted wanted 100 men “to form a Company of Riflemen, for the 12th Maine Regiment.” Recruits would “go into [the] Camp of Instruction within three weeks. Young men of decided intelligence and good habits alone are wanted!” Plaisted proclaimed.

Qualified recruits would receive $13 per month, “Clothing and Rations,” and a $100 bounty “paid each faithful soldier at the close of his service,” if he survived military service (recruiters avoided that point). Casting his recruiting net farther afield, Plaisted opened recruiting offices in Newburgh, Stetson, and East Bradford, rural towns in an arc stretching from west to northwest of Bangor.

Reflecting unofficial state policy, a man who recruited enough men to form a company usually got its captaincy. But there was a problem with Plaisted; he had enlisted in the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment on September 25, two days before his 12th Maine broadsides popped up around southern Penobscot County.

Why was he suddenly recruiting a company for the wrong regiment? Or was he?

Bangor attorney Harris Merrill Plaisted technically was lieutenant colonel of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment when he started recruiting a company for the new 12th Maine Infantry. (Maine State Archives)

No … maybe … sort of. Plaisted sought permission from Governor Washburn earlier in September to raise a company. One source claims Plaisted would recruit for the 13th Maine. When the Guv authorized him to start recruiting on September 23, Plaisted immediately hied to the State House in Augusta.

There, Washburn changed his mind and made the Bangor attorney the 11th Maine’s lieutenant colonel. However, Plaisted apparently agreed to recruit a 12th Maine company, and on September 27 the posters went out over his name. Thus Harris Plaisted lent his local celebrity status to fleshing out George Shepley’s new command.

Born in Jefferson in northern New Hampshire, Plaisted arrived in Maine via Waterville College (later Colby College) and then studied law in Albany, N.Y. Admitted to the Maine bar, he set up a law practice in Bangor in the mid- to late 1850s.

Standing 5-8½, he had blue eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion. In 1860 he and his wife, Sarah, had no children, but lived comfortably (his real estate was worth $8,000). They employed a 27-year-old, Ireland-born “domestic,” Margaret Nyer.

Baby Harold M. Plaisted joined the household on March 12, 1861. By then his father was well known in Bangor and Penobscot County. Late that September, word quickly spread through the region that Lt. Col. Plaisted was busy helping pull together the 11th Maine Infantry.

Of the 10 companies recruited for the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment, only Co. I could be described as Bangor-centric. Mustered on November 16, 1861, the company was led by Capt. Menzias Fessenden of Portland. His two lieutenants, Samuel Thompson and Abram Coombs, also hailed from Bangor, as did sergeants Charles Buswell, William Garnsey, and Joseph Thompson.

Ben Butler specifically requested that Portland attorney George Shepley, a Democrat, command the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment. (LOC)

Six corporals and 27 privates called Bangor “home.” Those recruiting offices outside Bangor drew a few recruits (including only one man from Stetson) from Carmel, Charleston, Corinna, Corinth, Dexter, and Glenburn, all located west and northwest of Bangor. The 12th Maine (and three more Butler-inspired infantry regiments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th) ultimately went to the Gulf Coast with Butler in early 1862.

Plaisted mustered with the 11th Maine on November 7, 1861 and served until honorably discharged on March 25, 1865. He led several 11th Maine companies into a bullet-filled hell at Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. Promoted to colonel and named the regiment’s commander, he led the 11th Maine during its service on the South Carolina and Florida coasts and later in Virginia.

Plaisted left the army as a brevet brigadier general and returned to Sarah and his law practice. He and Sarah had other children, but she died in 1875, Plaisted married Mabel Hill (21 years Sarah’s junior) in late September 1881 and had at least one daughter, Gertrude, with her. Gertrude would live until 1985.

Elected as a Democrat/Greenback, Plaisted served as Maine’s 38th governor, from January 1881 to January 1883. After his death on January 31, 1898, he was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor.

Sources: Brian F. Swartz, Maine at War, Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, Maine Origins Publications, Brewer, ME, 2019, pp. 95-97; Harris M. Plaisted Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives; 1860 U.S. Census for Bangor, Maine; Harris M. Plaisted cemetery record, Maine Births and Christenings, 1739-1900, familysearch.org; Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, 1861, Appendix D, Stevens & Sayward, Augustra, ME, 1862, pp. 522-523; R. H. Stanley and George O. Hall, Eastern Maine and the Rebellion, 1887, pp. 367-376

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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. 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 visionsofmaine@tds.net.