Harris Farm: The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery’s Baptism of Fire

Harris Farm – 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery site

General Ulysses S. Grant had decided to move around Gen. Robert E. Lee’s right once again in another flanking maneuver in the Overland Campaign. On the night of May 18, 1864, the Union’s Army of the Potomac started shifting away from Spotsylvania Court House.

On the following day, Private Joseph W. Gardner of Company K, 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery described May 19, 1864 as “beautiful almost beyond description… The stillness and splendor of all nature was to me ominous, and the thought struck me forcibly that any change in the surroundings and situation could not be for the better, but must be for the worse.”[i]

At the same time, Lee sent Gen. Richard Ewell and his Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia to perform a reconnaissance-in-force to find the Union army’s right, not knowing that the Union VI Corps had already pulled out as Grant’s movement started towards the North Anna River.

Ewell’s Corps had seen hard service so far during the Overland Campaign. After the fighting in the Wilderness, and at the Bloody Angle, it was down to around 6,000 men, and those who remained were not in the best of fighting condition. As Ewell began moving around the right of the Army of the Potomac, he began to encounter problems. Due to the heavy rains, the artillery was not able to ford the Ny River and had to turn back.

When Ewell’s two divisions were within three-quarters of a mile from the Fredericksburg Road, they discovered skirmishers from the Fourth Division of the Federal II Corps. This Union division, comprised of heavy artillery units converted to infantry, had no previously battle experience. Ramseur’s brigade attacked these “green regiments” in the late afternoon, striking the 4th New York Heavy Artillery. The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery followed by the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery rushed to support. As more troops on both sides arrived, the Battle of Harris Farm continued until dark when Ewell withdrew to his previous position.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Ramseur’s brigade attacked three times, twice with Pegram’s brigade, that afternoon, and each time was driven back. The next day he wrote to his wife the next day that “. We had a terrible fight yesterday eve’ng. & last night. My Brig. behaved splendidly & lost severely.”[ii] It wasn’t until early August that Ramseur had a chance to submit his report about both the battles of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. Of the action at Harris Farm he writes, “…after the enemy discovered our movement, and when further delay, as I thought, would cause disaster, I offered to attack with my brigade. I advanced and drove the enemy rapidly and with severe loss until my flanks were both partially enveloped.” Of the battle’s waning actions he says, “Several attacks of the enemy were repulsed, and we were able to hold our position until night, when we quietly and safely withdrew to our original lines.” [iii]

The casualties for Ewell’s entire Corps are estimated to be approximately 900, while the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery alone suffered 394 casualties, almost 25% of their strength. Corp. J.W. Whipple, Company L, wrote that “the ground was strewn with dead and wounded, and it was a sad sight that greeted us with the dawn of the next day…” He continued, “Many a brave fellow we laid away that day.”[iv]

On May 19, 1901, the 37th anniversary of the battle, surviving regimental members placed a monument on the ground that they held during the battle, a small knoll near the Harris farmhouse.

A small piece of the Harris Farm battlefield has been preserved by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and is a Civil War Trails site. You can now look down between the rows of trees that frame the site, and on a nice spring or summer day you can see the splendor of nature and feel the stillness that Joseph Gardner felt that day in 1864, just before the whirlwind of battle exploded around him.

[i] Roe, Alfred Seelye, and Charles Nott. 1917. History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery Massachusetts Volunteers: Formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry 1861-1865. Worchester & Boston. The Regimental Association. 153.

[ii] Kundahl, George G., ed. 2010 The Bravest of the Brave: The Correspondence of Stephen Dodson Ramseur. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 222.

[iii] Ibid, 225-226.

[iv] Roe and Nott. History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery Massachusetts Volunteers: Formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry 1861-1865. 158.

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1 Response to Harris Farm: The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery’s Baptism of Fire

  1. Dave Bieksza says:

    Those looking for the monument should come prepared. It’s in the middle of an upscale development, and when a friend and I tried to find it some years ago (i.e., pre-covid) no roadside directions were evident. We followed “Monument Ave.” (or something similar) thinking that was the logical route, but found the road actually leads to the back side of the reservation at the foot of the knoll. After bumbling through the development for some time we finally found the parking area, located about where the accompanying photo was taken.

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