Saturday, June 10, 2017

'It was folly': Maine regiment's disastrous charge at Petersburg

Near the edge of a wood, the monument for the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery at Petersburg, Va.
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"Nine hundred men from Maine were we,
As brave and true,
As hot to do,
As any ever wore the blue.
Nine hundred men from Maine!
Where shall their like be found again?"

 -- The Charge of the Nine Hundred, unknown author, The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1862-1865, published 1903.

Of all the Civil War battlefield monuments for individual regiments, perhaps none tell as stunning a story as the tall, granite monument for the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery at Petersburg, Va. Two large, bronze tablets -- one listing mortally wounded, the other  those killed outright -- honor the 241 soldiers who didn't survive the futile charge against Confederate works on June 18, 1864. In all, the regiment of nearly 900 soldiers suffered 632 casualties in about 10 to 20 minutes in the attack on Colquitt's Salient -- the greatest number of losses of any regiment in any single day of battle during the war.

All the death and maiming occurred in a little more than an acre.

Here are historical images -- as well as my own photos taken during a recent visit -- paired with words from those who were there that late-spring day in 1864:

The Heavies formed in this plank road before the assault began. The road no longer exists.
(The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, 1862-1865)


Horace Shaw:
War-time image of
1st Maine Heavies office
In a post-war account, 1st Maine Heavy Artillery officer Horace Shaw described the prelude to the attack:

"The First Maine had been designated as the center or storming column. They were posted in a portion of the old Prince George Courthouse road, where that road made a sharp turn to the right, running northwest past old New Market Race Course and nearly parallel with the enemy's line of works, and about five hundred yards distant from them. At this point this road, partly a plank road [above], was dug into the ground, the dirt thrown up at the sides (a common method of making roads in Virginia), the embankments being covered with small trees and bushes a portion of the way, thus affording a good shelter from bullets and shell during the period of waiting for orders."

SOURCE: Shaw, Horace H. and House, Charles J., The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1862-1865Portland, Maine, 1903.

                 PANORAMA: The remains of Colquitt's Salient, the Heavies' objective. 
                                         (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)


Nearly 30 years after the battle, Joel Brown, a private in Company I of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, wrote a searing, and eloquent, account of the charge:

Private Joel Brown:
"What a sight
was before us ..."
"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 [Daniel Chaplin], who was I believe, the coolest man that it would be possible to find, gave the command to halt, took his station as on dress parade, 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."

SOURCE: "The Charge of the Heavy Artillery" by Joel Brown, The Maine Bugle, April 1894.

          PANORAMA: The 1st Maine Heavies charged from right to left across this field.
                                    (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)


Lt. Samuel W. Crowell:
Mortally wounded
during charge.
In a post-war account, George Washburn, a private in the 108th New York, described how veteran regiments huddled for cover rather than join the attack with the Maine Heavies against the well-entrenched Confederates at Colquitt's Salient.

"While engaged in the frequent fierce contests about Petersburg, our Brigade, which was lying upon I think the Jerusalem road screening themselves as much as possible from rebel sharpshooters, were ordered to support the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery in a charge. The charge was to be made across or into a large field of corn beyond which was a rising eminence and on the left of the field was a wooded acclivity. 

"So experienced were the old veterans in such matters in espying masked batteries and concealed musketry that the deadly issue was easily noticed by them, and General [Thomas] Smyth remarked that it was folly for the old boys to be sacrificed in such a place, but as orders must be obeyed, 'Fall in and we ll do our duty.' The Maine's being in line started into the field, the corn being three or four feet in height, and with a ringing shout advanced double quick, and when within the range, the rebels desired a terrible fire from masked batteries and infantry swept through the Maine's line.  Our Brigade in support, the 108th being on the left, dropped at once upon the ground face downward, by so doing the furious storm of shot passed over them. It was their only salvation."

SOURCE: Washburn, George H. A Complete Military History and Record of 108th Regt. N.Y. Vols., from 1862 to 1894, Rochester, N.Y., 1894.

Colquitt's Salient, stormed by 1st Maine Heavy Artillery on June 18, 1864.


An unknown Confederate veteran wrote of the attack by "Lincoln's pets" in this post-war account:

Capt. Andrew Jaquith:
Mortally wounded
during charge.
"...Then ... Lincoln's pets, 1,950 strong [sic], the Maine battery charged us and went back with 250. I can realize that this was so, for except at Cold Harbor I never saw such slaughter ..."

"... In one of these charges while the shells were flying, I peeped up to see the approaching Federals. Just in front of me there suddenly appeared something like a black, buzzing bee. It was a shell. I knew what it was and down I ducked behind the breastwork. The shell burst in the breastwork right in front of me and covered me with dirt all to my protruding legs. I was pulled out and my head bandaged where a piece of the shell had struck me. It was my duty to report the casualties. I did not report myself. How is this, asked Major Rion? I told him it was slight and I did not want my wife to be unnecessarily alarmed. 'Wounds, sir. are honorable to a soldier and his command. A wound is any blood letting. Don t let this occur again.' I told him, 'I hoped it would not.' "

SOURCE: Charleston (S.C.) Sunday News, July 25, 1897.

An acre of death: 241 soldiers in the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery were killed/mortally wounded here.


Like General George Pickett at Gettysburg, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery's colonel was shattered by his losses. Here is Private Joel Brown's heart-rending, post-war account:

Colonel Daniel Chaplin:
Mortally wounded at

 Deep Bottom on 
Aug. 17, 1864.
"History says that Gen. [David] 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 [Daniel Chaplin] 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."

SOURCE: "The Charge of the Heavy Artillery" by Joel Brown,  The Maine Bugle, April 1894.

Two plaques on the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery monument at Petersburg show the awful toll.


Lt. Gardner Ruggles, 23:
Killed at Petersburg.
A post-war account from Horace Shaw, an officer in Company F of the 1st Maine Heavies:

"In the gray dawn of the morning of the 19th the writer [Horace Shaw], accompanied by comrades [James] Dole and [Ephraim] Drew of Company F, attempted to rescue Lieutenant [Gardner] Ruggles and some other comrades, who were believed to be wounded not far from the enemy's lines. Taking advantage of the dense fog, they approached to where he was supposed to have fallen, within one hundred yards of the enemy's breastworks and not far from where the monument [above] now stands. The fog suddenly lifted, they were discovered by the enemy and fire blazed from their guns. They were obliged to drop into the field gullies where the dead were piled and to make a most perilous run to the cover of the breastworks, when the fog again shut down.

"So terrible was the fire for days at this point that no further attempt was made, either to bring any off or to bury the dead, except in the darkness of the night. It was an appalling sight, to take a desperate chance for life and peer over the breastworks across this field of slaughter, strewn thick with the blue-coated bodies of those sterling sons of Maine, decomposing in the fierce rays of a Southern sun. What ghastly evidence of the inhumanity of man to man!"

Ruggles was found dead; his remains were returned to Maine, where he was buried in a family cemetery.  Dole, Drew and Shaw survived the war.

SOURCE: Shaw, Horace H. and House, Charles J., The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1862-1865, Portland, Maine, 1903.

1st Maine Heavy Artillery veterans, others at Petersburg monument dedication on Sept. 14, 1894.
(The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1862-1865)


On Sept. 14, 1894, Horace Shaw, author of the Maine Heavies' regimental history, addressed a gathering of veterans at the dedication of the monument to the regiment at Petersburg. Confederate vets also were present.

Horace Shaw:
A post-war image.
I find myself oppressed with conflicting sentiments of sorrow and gladness, of confidence and fear. We come to this spot sacred to us to dedicate this simple stone which tells of the great sacrifice our comrades made here. The only sentiment upon the stone is in our motto of three links binding Maine and Virginia together in union and peace. This is expressive of our sincere desire. We come from distant states to honor and perpetuate the memory of dead who gave their lives and poured their blood out here. We cannot honor them without expressing our admiration for courage and soldierly qualities of those opposed to us here. The unsuccessful assault is always a fatal one. The charge of your own Pickett at Gettysburg was no less brilliant because unsuccessful. We cannot come here to honor our own loyal dead without paying tribute to the courage of [John] Gordon’s men, who made a gallant, though unsuccessful, charge over the same ground on the following 25th of March. This ground is the more sacred to us because the blood of your sons mingled with ours, has made this spot sacred to you."

SOURCE: Petersburg (Va.) Index Appeal, Sept. 15, 1894.

"Comrades will recognize many familiar faces here," reads the caption for this image in the
Heavies'  regimental history. "The empty sleeves and trousers legs tell the story. 27 of
 these lost an arm or leg, nearly every one had been wounded in battle." The photo was
 taken at a gathering at Horace Shaw's house in Maine in 1885.  (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.) 

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  1. Great post!!.my great great grandfather was wounded that day while serving with the 98th Pennsylvania...

  2. Thank you for this. My ancestor was Calvin Farnsworth.

  3. I've been to the monument for the First Maine Heavy Artillery and walked this killing field, now hallowed ground. It's a sad and somber place off the beaten path, made more so the day of our early June visit five years ago when no one was there save me and my best friend. In terms of bravery and futility, it ranks up there with the Charge Of The Light Brigade, Cold Harbor, Franklin, Gallipoli and probably every charge from the trenches in WW1.