The Charge of the Heavy Artillery

Written on:December 12, 2011
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[This is one of more thoughtful and provoking reflections by a soldier concerning a battle that I have ever come across while curator for Soldier Studies. This account was published in the “Main Bugle” (January, 1894.) a short lived quarterly publication depicting the exploits and histories of various Maine regiments. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment took part in one of the most intense and bloodiest engagements you will ever read about. On a stretch of farmland outside of Petersburg, Virginia, the greenhorns (the regiment spent much of its time safe and secure protecting Washington) of the 1st Maine numbering 900 strong made one of the most deadly assaults of the Civil War. Of the 900 brave souls, 632 were casualties, including 210 dead. Here is a first hand account by one of the few who survived. The regiment would go on to lose 1,179 men in 30 days according to one account. Sources: Brown, Joel F. “The Charge of the Heavy Artillery”, Maine Bugle, January 1894; House , Charles J. “How the First Maine Heavy Artillery Lost 1179 Men in 30 Days”, Maine Bugle, April 1895.]


Nearly thirty years have passed since 1864, and scenes clear and bright to memory once have become dim and misty now. Time and the smoke of the battle of life have obscured the recollection of those days of trial and danger. One scene, in which it was my lot to act an humble part, is burned on my memory so deeply that nothing will ever efface it. I have only to close my eyes and I can see it clear and distinct as I saw it then. It was the charge of the famous First Maine Heavy Artillery at Petersburg on the eighteenth day of June, 1864. I was a member of Co. I of that regiment, and after having lain in the defenses of Washington for eighteen months, where it was a ceaseless routine of drill six days in a week with inspection and dress parade, supplemented with a little battalion drill and church service for variety, on Sunday, we joined the Army of the Potomac, a full artillery regiment, eighteen hundred strong, just in season to receive our first baptism of fire at Spottsylvania Court House in an action known as the fight at the Fredericksburg Road.

How well I remember, when we joined the army, the old veterans laughed at and jeered us, called us “Abe’s pets,” “Paper collars,” ” Band box soldiers,” etc., just as though we could help staying in the defenses of Washington when the “Powers ” thus decreed. How well I remember that first fight, where our heavy artillery brigade under the lead of the gallant Gen. Tyler confronted the whole of the rebel Gen. Elwell’s corps and held them in check for two hours and a half until reinforcements arrived and drove them off the field. The rebs outnumbered us three or four to one, and according to all the rules of war we were whipped several times over, but it was our first fight and we were green at the business, as well as being Abe’s pets, etc., so we did not know we were whipped and kept on fighting. The rebs got disgusted with our way of shooting straight at them and kept behind a stone wall, and the reinforcements coming up, we did not all go to Andersonville as we should have done if they had been disposed to advance their flanks and simply scoop us all in. I well remember also that an old veteran came over to where we were lying in a piece of woods and said, “Well, you can fight if you did come out of the defenses.”

We lost as near as I can remember, about four hundred of our regiment here. I also remember sometimes, in a dim, hazy kind of way, of the march to Milford Station, of the North Anna, of Cold Harbor, and skirmishes and fights without names, all parts of the great battles, I suppose. Some of these memories are dim to me; it seems as though the smoke of burning powder obscures them; and some are quite sharp and clear yet. I recollect the march to, and the crossing of the James, the advance on Petersburg, of lying all night—we were in the Second Corps then—and hearing the roar of the trains as the advance of Lee’s army was being hurried into the defences of the city; also the fighting on the sixteenth and seventeenth of June, and the rumors of an advance on the eighteenth, when it was our duty to lead; all of this comes back to me as a dream. During all this marching and fighting our regiment had dwindled down until scarce nine hundred men remained, but we had learned how to fight. On the morning of the eighteenth of June seventy-five men of Co. I answered “Here” at roll call. There were one hundred and fifty at Spottsylvania. Just onehalf was gone. I was the second man on the right of the company in the front rank, and next but one to the regimental colors. Of the original eight who formed the first two files on the right, two were dead and three wounded, leaving but three in the ranks, but others had closed up to the right, and our front although shorter, was still solid. I think it must have been about three o’clock in the afternoon when we came out from our breastworks and began to advance. We moved a short distance to the front and then up to the right, down a sunken road that ran parallel to the line, where we halted in the line of battle for some time. There was a piece of open woods in our rear and the bank of the road was so high in our front as to completely cover us from the enemy. We soon found that the rest of the corps was being massed in our rear and were told what was to be done. The whole corps was to charge in mass, we to lead; and then came the getting ready. Knapsacks, haversacks and blankets were thrown off, in fact everything that would lighten our load; messages were delivered to be sent home, in case anything happened, and good byes were said. I can call to mind how I stood there leaning upon my musket, looking on. I had no particular comrade to say good bye to; both were dead, one at Spottsylvania, the other at Cold Harbor. I expect my face was white. I know I saw other white faces there and some of them wore shoulder straps, but there was no flinching; it is always harder to wait than to fight. At last we heard from our colonel, ” Attention, First Maine Heavy Artillery—Forward, Guide Right, March!” As we scrambled up out of the road, what a sight was before us: about ten or fifteen hundred yards away, across an open field having a little rise and covered with old corn stubble, were the rebel works, bristling with artillery, still as death, awaiting our onslaught. We had become somewhat broken in climbing up out of the road and the sight before us, together with a few stray shots from the sharpshooters along our front, did not tend to steady the line, so our old colonel, who was I believe, the coolest man that it would be possible to find, gave the command to halt, took his station as on dressparade, ordered his guides on a line, dressed up the regiment, and then put us through the manual of arms as quietly as though we were still in the defences of Washington, and all the while the bullets from the sharpshooters humming about his ears like bees. Then came the word, ” Forward, Double Quick, Charge,” and with a wild cheer which seemed to me more like the bitter cry wrung out in a death agony, we sprang forward. I saw the works plainly before me. I saw the blinding flash of red flame run along the crest of those works and heard the deafening crash as the awful work began; then the air seemed filled with all the sounds it was possible for it to contain, the hiss of the deadly minie, the scream of the shell, the crackle, crash and roar of every conceivable missile, and through it all that red blaze along the crest of that work which we must cross, as we, with bowed heads, breasted that storm. Once I fancied I heard the order to fall back and glanced from right to left to see if it were so; but no, the boys, bent forward with arms at a trail, were still rushing on. At last I could see the faces of the rebels and hear above the roar their shouts of “Come on, Yanks.” Again I looked to right, to left, and found that I was almost alone; we were turning back. Then came the rush to get off the field and under cover; the ground over which we must return was covered thick with those who were down, the wounded, dead and dying together. How I ever got back I cannot tell; it seemed but a moment and yet we were twenty minutes in that awful place. When about half way I felt something strike my foot, numbing it, and I stumbled forward on my face. I remember drawing up the foot to see how bad it was hurt and found that only the heel of the shoe was gone, shot off, and I sprang up and rushed on again, but the whole foot was black the next day from the bruise. At last I reached the sunken road. But what a scene! It is too horrible to attempt to describe. Those who have seen such pictures know all about them; let those who have not thank God for it and not try to learn about them. I remember well that about the first thing I heard as I came into the road was this greeting, from the rest of the corps, ” Didn’t you fellows know any better than to go in there?” History says that Gen. Birney massed the Second Corps and made a desperate charge that day. So he did, but it was the First Maine Heavy Artillery that made the charge alone. The rest of the corps never crossed the sunken road. I went up the road towards the left to where the colonel was, just as Gen. Birney rode up, and heard him say, “Col. Chaplin, where are your men?” and I shall never forget his answer: ” There they are, out on that field where your tried veterans dared not go. Here, you can take my sword; I have no use for it now;” and the old hero sat down in the road and cried like a child. Just as night began to close in, the adjutant came along and told us to get together and call the roll. We did. Company I got together; we had gone in with seventy-five men; six privates had come out. There was no roll call in that company that night; one of our number wrote the names on a piece of paper and with tears running down his cheeks handed it to the adjutant; that was all. Out of the nine hundred men of the regiment about seven hundred had fallen. Late that night Lieut. Sam Oakes came to us. He had been knocked senseless on the field, but at night revived and crawled off. How we hugged him and cried over him! His coming saved our company from being wiped out, but the bruises he got that day cost him his life within one short year. Our colonel was broken hearted over his loss and threw his life away at Deep Bottom soon after. He seemed not to care to live after his regiment was gone.

Such was the charge of the First Maine Heavy Artillery on the eighteenth day of June, 1864, before Petersburg. I do not believe there was a man came out of that charge without some mark about his clothes. I had a bullet through my cap, cutting off a lock of hair close to the skin, one took off the heel of my shoe, two went through my canteen, one cut the bayonet scabbard in two, and one went through the left sleeve of my blouse leaving a small splinter in the arm, where it is yet. I have never attempted to talk about that charge; I cannot, neither can I describe it; it is beyond description; but I can see it yet, and suppose I always shall.

Has any regiment in ancient or modern time suffered so severely? Behold the record!

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