Under Fire: “You Did Not Wear The Marks Of The Muddy Trenches”

In May 1901, veterans of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery journeyed to Central Virginia, returning to the battleground at Harris Farm, north of Spotsylvania Court House. Thirty-seven years early these men had come under battle fire for the first time, despite the majority of them enlisting in 1861 and 1862. Called from the Defenses of Washington to bolster the Army of the Potomac, the artilleryman turned foot-soldiers and found themselves fighting against tough veterans of the Confederate Second Corps on May 19, 1864. Some of the Bay Staters had been in small skirmishes earlier in the war, but the Battle of Harris Farm was their first major battle experience.

In the 20th Century when the Union veterans returned to the battlefield, Confederate veterans met them—peacefully this time. Both sides participated in the dedication of a memorial for the fallen Massachusetts soldiers; the regiment had lost nearly 25% of its strength at Harris Farm, leaving 55 killed, 312 wounded, and 27 missing. The old-school infantry tactics employed by the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artilleryman that day in 1864 contributed to their devastating losses. They held a close formation and refused to take cover, while veteran fighting troops regularly constructed earthworks or found other cover by this point in the Overland Campaign.

At the memorial dedication, C. B. Watson who had been Sergeant of Co. K in the 45th North Carolina Infantry addressed his former foes, giving a unique description of an enemy regiment observed under first fire:

Thirty-seven years ago this afternoon, General Ewell marched his corps of Confederate veterans from the main line over beyond the bloody ” horseshoe ” about a mile from us, for the purpose of turning the right wing of General Grant’s army and taking possession of yonder highway leading from Fredericksburg to his army, and capturing or destroying his supply trains. And we came expecting to do it. Ours was the old 2nd Corps formerly commanded by Stonewall Jackson. Many of its regiments had participated in every engagement from the first battle of Manassas to Spotsylvania Court House. We had been fighting for fourteen days in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. We met your forces that afternoon and discovered at once that we were confronted by fresh troops. You wore fresh uniforms. You did not wear the marks of the muddy trenches. We discovered at once that, while you did not have the art of protecting yourselves under fire which the veterans of many battles had, you had the courage, the discipline and the soldierly qualities that meant a stubborn fight for us. My surviving comrades and I have often spoken of the conduct of our enemies on that day. You marched as if on dress parade. Your fire was awfully effective. Your men did not know how to protect themselves by taking advantage of the inequalities of the ground which they defended, as they afterwards doubtless learned, but they did know how to stand up and fight and die like men…. Had you retired before our advancing lines that day, this field would not have become historic. Had you done so, I, as your contestant on this field, would not have troubled myself to quit business and travel three hundred miles to meet you here and witness your ceremonies…. 

A veteran of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery in the early 20th Century, wearing his old uniform.


Alfred Seelye Roe, History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers, Regimental Association, 1917. Accessed through Google Books.

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