The Siege of Petersburg: The 1st Maine Heavies

During the Spotsylvania sesquicentennial, I called particular attention to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, which saw its first major combat of the war at the battle of Harris Farm on May 19. Members of the unit called Harris Farm their “baptism of fire.”

But the 1st Maine is probably best known for an even heavier engagement during the early days of the siege of Petersburg.

On June 18, 1864, the 900-man regiment charged across an open field of fire and sustained sixty-seven percent casualties: 115 men killed, 489 wounded, and 28 missing. It’s the highest casualty rate sustained by any unit in the army during the entire war.

The regiment was one of several ordered to assault Confederate fortifications that morning, and they attacked their assignment with the gusto of rookies. Aside from their stand-up fight at Harris Farm, the Mainers had not seenany major action, and so they were still relatively green. That, according to regimental historian Horace H. Shaw, cost the First Maine Heavies dearly.

“If the attack had been made promptly by our troops all along the line as ordered, the enemy would have had plenty to attend to in their immediate front,” Shaw contended. “But the veteran troops on the right and left had not forgotten their experience in assailing breastworks at the Wilderness, at Spottsylvania [sic], and at Cold Harbor.”

Those veteran troops fell back into the Federal works soon after the assault started, but the 1st Maine rushed headlong across the field toward the Confederates. With no one else to shoot at, Confederates concentrated their fire. “The enemy’s firing along their whole line was now centered into this field,” Shaw wrote. “The field became a burning, seething, crashing, hissing hell, in which human courage, flesh, and bone were struggling with an impossibility, either to succeed or to return with much hope of life. So in ten minutes those who were not slaughtered had returned to the road or were lying prostrate upon that awful field of carnage.”

In just under a month of fighting, beginning with the battle at Harris Farm on May 19 and ending outside Petersburg on June 18, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost a staggering 1,205 men out of the 1,800 it had started with when it arrived in Belle Plain.

Today, a monument stands on the Petersburg battlefield marking the location of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery’s charge. It sits nestled at the bottom of a swale near Fort Stedman, an action that took place some nine months later.

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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). 

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