Private Nickerson in New Orleans ... "Well, I guess I ain't!"

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
Ira Nickerson was a 53 year old fisherman from Harwich, on Cape Cod. He was in Boston on Feb. 19, 1862, when he somehow got it into his head to lie about his age (claimed he was 44) and enlist in the 31st Mass. Volunteer Infantry. Known as the Western Bay State Regiment, the unit was stopping in Boston only briefly, waiting to ship out for points south … the Gulf, to be precise, as part of Butler’s expedition against New Orleans.

It didn’t take long for it to become clear that Ira and the Army were not a match made in heaven. He was easy going and popular enough most of the time .. at least with his fellow privates of Company K. But, his behavior was somewhat peculiar to say the least, and increasingly so as the months wore on. Undisciplined and habitually insubordinate, he was so good natured about it that his officers found it hard to punish him. It all came to a head the following May, as related in a memoir by private George U. Young:

“At this time the Regiment was united for a while and went into Camp in Tchoupitulas Square, where the usual amount of drill, guard-mounting, and carousing went on, the boys having as good a time as circumstances would permit. We had one man in our Company that had from the first shown signs of eccentricity, but here in New Orleans he outdid himself; he wouldn’t do any guard duty or obey orders, he would even let the smallest boy in the Regt., or any of the officers, take away his gun while he was on Sentinel duty; he would then go back to his Quarters as unconcerned as a woodchopper, and if questioned by the officers he would say he didn’t care about standing there with a gun in his hand to be laughed at by everybody.​
“By this time it began to be pretty well understood by most of us that he was either crazy, or that he was playing crazy to get his discharge. The first surmise was I think the correct one, for he went off one day, got on a spree, and after selling or giving away his whole suit of uniform with his gun and all its belongings, he came back after an absence of two or three days covered with dirt and dressed in rags. The Capt. asked him where he had been. ‘How do I know where I’ve been?’ he answered as innocent as if he had committed no misdemeanor whatever. ‘Do you suppose,’ he said, ‘that I am going to tell every time I come back where I’ve been? Well I guess I ain’t.’​
"Another time when we were on dress parade, he was in the front rank right near me at the time, and as I write I can almost see him. The order had been given — Parade Rest. The Line Officers had just started off to report when Ira threw his gun down on the grass and sitting himself flat down, coolly took one of his boots off and began to shake out the dirt. The Sergeant didn’t dare go out of the ranks to get at him, but the one in the rear ordered him to stand up at once, and to take his position in the ranks. He said, ‘Waall I guess now they ain’t in so big a hurry but what they can wait a few minutes. Whether they can or not, I don’t intend to tramp around with sand in my boots.’ At this, some of the boys burst out laughing while he was escorted ignominously [sic] to the rear. He was now taken in hand by Ramrod (all the boys ought to recognize this name, but in case some of them shouldn’t, I will just say it was our Regt. Doctor), and after a careful examination, his discharge papers were made out and he was sent back to the banks of Cape Cod to chew tobacco and swear in comfort for the rest of his days.” []​

His discharge certificate was quickly made out by Regimental Surgeon "Ramrod" Bidwell:

Ira Nickerson got off pretty easy, actually (his incapacity must have been pretty obvious). I don't know what became of him -- he apparently never applied for a pension. Hope there was somebody back home in Harwich to look after him and keep him out of trouble.
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Forum Host
Nov 27, 2018
Chattanooga, Tennessee
He spent four months in the army under constant supervision that clearly indicates the 'eccentricity' of his character. His true age was found out somewhere down the line, and for whatever reason other than incompetence, is anyone's guess. But the acting upon impulse without thinking things through was how it all began when he joined the army. Maybe it was better for him to join than take off for England in his fishing boat. I would not want to be his deckhand! "I just thought it would be a good idea, so I tried it."
Jun 7, 2021
It's interesting that he was just allowed to go home. The criteria for being put in a Lunatic Asylum was pretty high in the 1800s.
Growing up, our little town had four or five characters who clearly weren't right in the head, but they had their niche among the 1100 or so people who live there.
One man in particular I recall- he wore a heavy winter jacket and a fur hat with ear flaps year round whenever he was outside. The heat and humidity is pretty bad in Kentucky in July-August but it didn't seem to bother him. He never took a bath - everyone knew to keep upwind from him. The neighbors mowed his lawn.