May 19, 1864, was “a day long to be remembered by the 1st Maine Heavy,” wrote a member of the regiment, “as it was on this day that we received our baptism of fire and learned the stern duties of a soldier.”
With the Overland Campaign bleeding the Army of the Potomac dry, Ulysses S. Grant called for fresh blood. Among those answering the call were “heavy artillery” units from the defenses around Washington—including the 1st Maine Heavies, shipping south from Fort Sumner, located in what is now Bethesda, Maryland.
No sooner had they joined the army, though, than they found themselves embroiled in a hot fight.
The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery—or “Heavies” as the units came to be called—initially consisted of some 37 commissioned officers and 969 enlisted men. By the early spring of 1864, the muster roles swelled further with some 800 additional recruits, including four African-Americans and eight Native Americans. The men came from towns all across Penobscot County, located in the central part of the state, although some recruits signed up from as far southwest as Lewiston and Portland and as far east as Pembroke and Calais along the Downeast coast.
Unlike some units who enjoyed the comforts of garrison duty, the 1st Maine Heavies were spoiling to get into the fight. “With feelings of joy, the orders for the lst Maine Regt Heavy Artillery to take the field were received,” wrote Walter S. Gillman of Company D, in an August 1864 memoir. “The boys had been hoping to hear such news for a long time before it came, but it came at last.”
The unit’s hometown newspaper, the Bangor (ME) Whig & Courier reported the move south on Thursday, May 19—the same day, ironically, that the 1st Maine Heavies found themselves on the front line for the first time. In a page-two article, the newspaper said:
First Heavy Artillery. The First Maine Heavy Artillery left for Belle Plains and the front Sunday morning at 9 o’clock. Previous to their departure their arms were exchanged for the Springfield rifle, and they are to do duty as infantry. The boys were highly gratified at the prospect of having a finger in the final grand struggle, and went forward with the greatest enthusiasm. The First is a magnificent regiment, eighteen hundred strong, and will win a name alike honorable to themselves and creditable to the State of Maine.
By May 17, the Mainers were marching through Fredericksburg, and on May 18, they occupied a position that put them under fire for the first time in the war. “[A]nd we were actually under fire,” Gillman said, “for the Johnnies would cast a stray shot among us once in a while. Often enough to get us acquainted with the whistling of bullets and the screeching of shells.” There was “considerable artillery fire,” too. By early afternoon, though, the unit was withdrawn.
The real “baptism of fire,” as the Mainer had called it, came the next day—May 19.
Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell received permission to move his Second Corps out of the Confederate works and outflank the Union right for a strike at the Federal supply route along the Fredericksburg Road. The once-proud corps numbered only 8,000 strong, but they still possessed their fighting elan.
By 4:00 that afternoon, Ewell slipped into the Federal rear near Clement Harris’s farm—a path that brought him into contact with the units of the Second Corps’ fourth division, including the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.
The Mainers comprised one of three regiments stationed to the east of the Fredericksburg Road. On the west side of the road, three other heavy artillery units—the 4th New York Heavies, the 2nd New York Heavies, and the 1st Massachusetts Heavies—caught the brunt of Ewell’s first strike. The green units scattered. Some of the Confederates even advanced as far as the Fredericksburg Road, where they looted Federal supply wagons.
Among the first reinforcements to respond, the 1st Maine Heavies crossed the road and advanced through the fields of the Susan Alsop farm, about three-quarters of a mile northeast of Harris’s farm. “[W]e charged at the double quick, retook it, and pressed on for half or three quarters of a mile beyond,” one Mainer crowed. “We kept our line under a murderous fire.”
“[W]hen we came out into the open we fetched up against a rebel line of battle about forty yards off,” said George Coffin, a private from Harrington, Maine. “They gave us a terrible volley and we returned the fire, and for over one hour we stood up there and blazed away. After a volley or two it was all smoke and confusion and we could see nothing to fire at….”
The 1st Maine Heavies were 1,800 strong and, said a veteran who then arrived on the field, “presented a splendid front to the foe—much larger than any brigade of ours . . . ”
but this was their first experience on the battlefield and they didn’t understand how to take advantage of the situation. Being novices in the art of war, they though it cowardly to lie down, so the Johnnies were mowing them flat. Had our arrival been delayed only a short time, they would have been nearly annihilated. The Rebel loss was insignificant; indeed I don’t know that they lost any until our arrival. Being simple and cowardly enough to lie down and take advantage of the situation, we lost but two men in the time the other regiment had lost over 200. We not only took advantage of our trees and hillocks, but we dug trenches with our tin plates and bayonets.
As more reinforcements converged on the area—most of them veterans from the Fifth and Sixth Corps—Ewell’s men found themselves outnumbered. The besieged Confederates hung on until nightfall, then withdrew under the cover of darkness.
On May 26, the first account of the fight appeared in the hometown newspaper. The Whig & Courier printed a letter from correspondent J.H. Rice. Sent from Washington, and dated May 22, it read:
Our First Maine Artillery was in the sharp fighting of Thursday evening last. The engagement lasted two hours and twenty minutes, against superior numbers and in an open field. This, you are aware, was its first exposure “under fire,” and right gallantly it sustained the high reputation of our Maine troops, and more than fulfilled the expectations of its friends. Not an officer nor a man failed in duty, and none left the field unless so ordered, or borne away dead or wounded. In repeated instances brothers fighting side by side, one fell dead or wounded, and the other, stepping over his prostrate form, “closed up” the advancing line without loss of step or cessation of fire.
Col [Daniel] Chaplin inspired all by his coolness and gallant bearing. His voice was constantly heard above the din of the death concert, calling to his mean, “Steady! Steady, men! Fire low!”
Rice also passed along news about Captain Roscoe F. Hersey of Company F, who arrived in Washington “with an ugly wound in his left ankle”:
The surgeons at Fredericksburg told him that he must submit to an amputation, but he objected, and it is now quite confidently thought that it may not be necessary. He is cheerful and well cared for at the house of your late townsman, J A Cushing, Esq. His only regret seems to be that he is thus early forced to leave the command of his company. He reports total losses in the Regiment in killed and wounded, from 400 to 450. The field officers all escaped unhurt.
On Monday, May 30, the Whig & Courier had additional information to pass along to readers. It ran a May 20 letter by Lieutenant Frederick C. Low of Company B written to his father:
We had a terrible battle last night, and our regiment behaved splendidly, although we were dreadfully cut up. Ewell’s corps, some 10 or 15,000 men, attempted to get on to the Fredericksburg road, either to make a move on Fredericksburg or to capture our provision rain. The brigade, consisting of the 7th New York Artillery and the 1st Maine Artillery, were formed to the right of the army as the rebels were moving on us, and they had already captured one of our provision trains, when we charged at double quick, retook it, and pressed on for half or three quarters of a mile beyond. We got a position in read or a ridge of land—the rebels on the outer side and our boys on the inner. We kept out line under a murderous fire for an hour or two without supports, out men falling and dying, while many wounded were carried to the rear. We held our line until ordered back for more ammunition. We lost some noble men.
Low listed the names of nine dead and thirty-seven wounded before continuing:
The above list is as near correct as it is possible to get it at the present time. All those who were killed have been buried. Our forces held the ground and made an advance this morning capturing about three hundred prisoners. We killed a large number of rebels, and among them a Colonel, and I hear still a higher officer. The Colonel is having a list of all the killed and wounded in the Regiment made out to send to the Whig & Courier.
His letter closed with a last-minute update on his company’s casualty figures. “I have just learned from Musician G P Smith that Lamuel B Whitney, James McGrath died this morning and were buried from the hospital,” he wrote. “This would add to our killed 2—making 11 killed and 35 wounded. We went into the fight with 125 men.”
In his memoirs, Grant specifically mentioned the role of the Heavies in repulsing Ewell’s foray on May 19. Brigadier General Robert O. Tyler, commanding the division to which the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery belonged, “received the attack with his raw troops, and they maintained their position, until reinforced, in a manner worthy of veterans.”
Shortly after the fighting ended, the Mainers were pulled back from the front. “That night we camped along side of a road in a swamp and it was so cold that I don’t think I slept a wink all night,” Pvt. Coffin said. During the day’s fighting, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery suffered 524 casualties—nearly one man in three.
“The boys all felt very bad when they saw how many of their comrades had fallen a victim to the Reb’s bullets,” wrote Corporal Walter S. Gilman of Company D, “but this is the fortune of war.”
For more information on this engagement, see “The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery at the Battle of Harris Farm: The Hometown Press Reports Their Baptism of Fire” by Chris Mackowski in vol. XXVII, issue 6 of Blue & Gray (2011). The main focus of the issue, co-authored by Mackowski and Kris White, focuses on the action of Spotsylvania Court House from May 13-20, 164. The main article also includes more details about Harris Farm.