Home Maine The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, Tragic Heroes of the Civil War

The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, Tragic Heroes of the Civil War

No unit suffered more

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All the Union regiments that fought in the Civil War paid a price in lives for the cause. While illness often took as many men as combat, some regiments saw more than their share of sacrifice on the field of battle. No regiment in the Union Army paid a higher price in blood than the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Mustered in Bangor, Maine, on Aug. 21, 1862, it was originally raised as the 18th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Recruits, enlisting for three years, came mostly from the Penobscot River Valley area. As their history notes: “With the exception of the colonel, quartermaster and sergeant major our officers had seen no real service, so the lieutenant colonel, major, ten original captains, and all the lieutenants were entirely new to the service.”

Three days later it left for Washington, D.C. The regiment saw duty for the next four months manning the defenses around the capital and Alexandria, Va. On Jan. 6, 1863, the regiment was reconstituted as the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Trained as infantry, it now had to learn the art of artillery. Fortunately for the men, it remained in the defenses of Washington for the entire year. Had nothing changed, the regiment would have had a quiet term of service far from danger,  something most of the men did not desire.

Members of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment

The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery at the Front

Fate intervened on May 15, 1864. The 1st Maine was assigned to Taylor’s Heavy Artillery Division, part of the 2nd Brigade, 4th Division, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac. It was one of 5 heavy artillery regiments sent to the front as reinforcements. While it would retain its heavy artillery designation, it fought as infantry for the rest of the war. The regiment immediately took part in the Rapidan Campaign. As its history also notes: “The order May, 1864, to join the Army of the Potomac for active service was gladly received. Camp and fatigue life had become monotonous. We had not up to this time realized what actual war was.”  They soon experienced the most brutal of welcomes.

On May 19, 1864, the regiment saw its first action in the Spotsylvania battle at Harris’ Farm/Fredericksburg Road. Suddenly thrust into combat after their long, sedentary garrison service, the largely untrained regiment must have had a rude awakening. What they lacked in training, however, they did not lack in courage.

The Battle of Spotsylvania

Over 1,000 men went into the fight. For two hours they stood in classic line formation, exchanging fire with their Confederate foes. Completely exposed, in a poorly chosen position, they lost half their men. The regiment suffered 155 killed and mortally wounded, 375 wounded and two captured. Pvt. Charles J. House, lightly wounded in the battle, recalled returning to the field later that night.

Ghastly and Lifeless

“I noticed eight or ten of our men laid out side by side, the beams of the moon struggling through the fleecy clouds, lighting their upturned faces all smeared with smoke of battle, some showing gaping wounds, and all ghastly and lifeless,” he wrote. The 532 total casualties were the largest loss up to that time in the war of any single Union regiment. The 1st Maine would shortly surpass its own dubious record.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant noted their courage in this fight. “These artillery troops fought with the steadiness of veterans. The impressions made upon the old organizations of the army established the reputation of all these new arrivals as well-disciplined veterans worthy to be classed with an equal number of regulars.”

In miliary terms, a 50 percent loss traditionally makes a unit combat ineffective. At this point of the war, however, neither side could afford to pull units out of action regardless of loss. Without pause, the 1st Maine went on to fight small actions. On May 21 at Milford Station they lost one killed, two captured.  From May 23-26, they lost two more killed and six wounded at North Anna River. And on May 28-31 at Totopotomoy, the regiment lost three killed, 10 wounded and three captured.

With only a one-day pause, it next fought in the ill-advised campaign at Cold Harbor from June 2-13, 1864, suffering one killed, one captured and 27 wounded. Moving on to Petersburg at the start of the siege, the 1st Maine would undergo a trial of fire unequaled by any other regiment.

The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery at Petersburg

On June 18, 1864, General Grant attempted to storm the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg with a grand assault. Charging in the center of the Union effort, the 1st Maine had to cover at least 350 yards of open ground into the mouth of Confederate guns and cannon. The 850-man strong regiment charged in three lines of three battalions, which included lightly wounded men and presumably a scattering of replacements.

Ulysses S. Grant

Union commanders delayed the attack from early morning to later in the afternoon.  As the 1st Maine history states: “The period of waiting for the word seemed an eternity. There was probably not a staff officer in Mott’s division who had seen these lines that did not feel that the undertaking was well nigh impossible at this hour.”

With the 1st Maine in the lead, the attack stepped off and all the assaulting units faced a storm of fire from a well-prepared and forewarned enemy. Gradually the veteran regiments on either side of the 1st Maine fell back.  The 1st Maine history then picks up the story.

“The enemy’s firing along their whole line was now centered into this field. The earth was literally torn up with iron and lead. 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 return with much hope of life. So in 10 minutes those who were not slaughtered had returned to the road or were lying prostrate upon that awful field of carnage.”

Carnage

Pvt. Joel Brown witnessed his regimental commander, Col.  Daniel Chaplin, confronted by the Division commander, Gen. David Birney. Birney said, “’Col. Chaplin, where are your men?’

“I shall never forget his answer,” said Brown. “‘There they are, out in the 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.”

Hundreds of dead and wounded now lay in the open. Attempts to recover the dead or rescue the wounded failed because of increased firing and more casualties.

The 1st Maine history described the scene.

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, peering over the breastworks across this field of slaughter, strewn thick with blue-coated bodies of those sterling sons of Maine, decomposing in the fierce rays of a Southern sun.

Siege of Petersburg

With this desperate attempt, the Siege of Petersburg had begun. Grant would try no more mass frontal assaults. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment lost 615 men of the approximately 850 engaged — 242 killed, 372 wounded, one captured. It would sadly be the greatest loss suffered by any Union regiment during the war. In little over a month since it reached the field of battle, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery sustained 1,209 casualties, killed, wounded and captured. Lest one begin to try to match the math of casualties with the men present for battle, it should be remembered that many lightly wounded came immediately back to their regiments, and many men were wounded more than once.

The Siege of Petersburg would last until April 3, 1865. With the few uninjured men, the returning lightly wounded men, and a trickle of replacements, the 1st Maine would now be embroiled in the fighting around Petersburg for the rest of the war. They were now a shadow of their former selves that somewhat naively marched into Virginia just over a month before. While the History of the 1st Maine is not clear, it does note that the Army of the Potomac was receiving replacement troops at this time, how many of them, if any, went to the 1st Maine is unknown. It is likely that the regiment had less than 300 effective men present for duty at this time.

On June 22, 1864, only four days after their ill-fated charge, the 1st Maine was again in action at the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, losing 4 killed, 15 wounded and 21 taken prisoner. Though present at the ill-fated mine explosion at Petersburg on July 30, it only had one man wounded. Thata indicates the regiment was not seriously involved.

The Loss of Chapin

The Second Battle of Deep Bottom/Strawberry Plains from Aug. 16-19, 1864, resulted in two killed and eight wounded. Though a small affair on the surface, one of those killed was Col.  Daniel Chaplin (brevet major general). Beloved by his men, in the midst of all of their suffering he had held the regiment together.

His loss was a bitter blow, according to the 1st Maine history. Chapin was “a born soldier, attractive and magnetic in person, a fine horseman with commanding presence. He gave to his officers a royal friendship, to his soldiers a fatherly care, and to all a considerate appreciation of merit wherever found. He was brave almost to recklessness, but modest withal. His service was that of the Regiment till his wound at Deep Bottom brought grief to us and death to our beloved Colonel.”

Daniel Chaplin

War allows little time for grief. The regiment then took part in the relatively minor affair at The Chimneys on Sept. 9, 1864,  with six taken prisoner.  Then it lost four killed, three wounded and one captured at Squirrel Level Road on Oct. 2, 1864. The regiment saw its next major action at the Battle of Boyden Road.

More Losses for the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery

The Battle of Boydton Road took place on Oct. 27-28, 1864. The battle, a move to cut a vital Confederate supply line, went back-and-forth until the Union won.  At one point, the 1st Maine made a rush at Confederates who held two captured guns. The regiment recaptured the guns. As they noted: “Considering the small number of men in our regiment at this time, our loss was heavy; indeed it was more than any other engagement except at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. Ten of our men were killed or died of their wounds, 25 were wounded, and 12 were made prisoners.” The Union, in an exposed position, pulled back after the victory. Both sides essentially went into winter camp, with the major fighting dying down.

From Dec. 7-12, 1864, the 1st Maine took part in Warren’s Hickford Raid, destroying a rail line. The regiment didn’t suffer any casualties in that small affair. But it did witness an episode that did not make it into the often-sterilized Southern histories of the war.

Sussex Courthouse

Stuck out in the open, without real shelter, things started routinely, if uncomfortably enough. The 1st Maine history describes what happened.

“None of us will ever forget the night of the 8th. The rain which began to fall in the evening changed to sleet, and the ground was covered with a coating of ice, thickening every hour. Trees were loaded, and the wind tearing through the branches made them snap and groan and shriek, like complaining phantoms. Colder still it grew all through the night, until a chilly-looking sun came creeping up to look out upon a crystal landscape.  None of us who had occasion to be about in the night, breaking through the ice and snow into the mud, were in any humor to appreciate the beauties of the landscape in the morning.”

Happy to be on the move in the morning, the regiment soon encountered large numbers of Blacks fleeing their servitude.  “They came in bands with bundles and bags, the strong assisting the weak, women toting their babies, leading their young.” In spite of the hardships, it was a somewhat light-hearted affair, until the regiment reached the Sussex Courthouse.

Encampment of refugees from slavery

Awful Tales

“It became apparent to us that farmers roundabout were acting as guerillas. They had been riding around our vicinity, picked up some of our sick men who had not been able to keep up and had murdered a number of them. The information was brought to us by negroes, who offered to prove it by leading us to different places where the victims had been buried during the night. Detachments were sent out to ascertain the truth, and it was found that the awful tale brought by the negroes was not fiction. We found bodies with throats cut, heads crushed in; some stabbed with knives and pitchforks; one quartered with legs and arms cut off; others with their faces blown full of shot and powder.”

In retaliation the troops burned the courthouse, but the worst had yet to come.

“When we recrossed the river [the Nottoway] …we found that some of our men who had been sick and too weak to keep up with rapidly moving column had not reached the Nottoway until after the pontoons had been taken up and were unable to cross,” the 1st Maine history reported. “They had evidently been murdered in cold blood by some of the natives; old men, women, or boys who were not in the Confederate Army. Some had been stabbed with knives, heads and limbs severed from their bodies by axes; others had been felled by shot from shotguns, and others stabbed by pitchforks where they had taken refuge in an old tobacco house. The rage and indignation of officers and men aroused by these sights in indescribable.”

More Action for the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery

Gen. Gouverneur Warren may or may not have issued a specific order to retaliate. But in any event, squads set out into the nearby countryside and destroyed everything they came across. Given the evil they had witnessed, there is no record of anyone killed in retaliation.

The fall of Richmond

Not until March of 1865 did the regiment see its next action. The war in Virginia was drawing to a close. The Union Army had cornered Lee in the area in and around Petersburg and Richmond. Lee belatedly tried to retake Fort Steadman on March 25, 1865, a see-saw affair that again saw the 1st Maine in the heart of the battle. It ended in a complete Confederate failure.

The Appomattox Campaign started on March 28, 1865. The 1st Maine remained on the periphery of the fighting around Petersburg as Grant sought to box in the Confederate Army. On April 1, 1865, Confederate forts around Petersburg quickly fell to Union assaults.   “The johnnies were on the run,” trying desperately to avoid getting cut off, noted the regimental history.  Lee could no longer hold either Petersburg or Richmond, and the Confederate government fled. A race now began on April 2, 1865, between the Union forces and Lee’s army. The Army of the Potomac and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery moved to stop Lee from fleeing to North Carolina.

On April 6-7, 1865, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery fought in the last major battle of the Civil War around Sailor’s (Saylor’s) Creek, Va. Really a series of running battles, the Confederate forces were caught strung out in two lines and met with disaster. They lost a quarter of their remaining combat forces and several generals. The 1st Maine suffered its last combat losses: three men killed and 37 wounded. Three days later, on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse.

Appomattox Courthouse

Still More War

This was not the end of the war. Confederate armies remained in the field in North Carolina and Texas. But it was the end of the war for the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Setting off on a march north from Appomattox, the regiment was joined by released Confederate soldiers going home. The mood, at least for the Maine men, was joyful. But two days into the march, the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached them, shattering that bright spirit.

“Groups of men gathered about their officers to learn the truth,” the regimental history reported. “A grim and funereal silence seized the camp, officers and men seemed to be dazed…All day they stood in groups, looking into each other’s faces, scarcely speaking.” The next morning, the regiment continued north, a little more sober, but still filled with hope for a brighter future that the nation would endure.

By May 16, 1865, the regiment reached Washington, D.C. A week later, it took part in the Grand Review. The entire Army of the Potomac marched through the capital, reviewed by the new president, Generals Grant and Meade, the Cabinet, the Congress, diplomats and throngs of civilians. The next day, Sherman’s army also passed in review. Nothing, perhaps, will ever equal the spectacle, forever imprinted in the memory of all who marched.

The Grand Review

Finally, Home

The regiment’s combat days may have ended, but their service had not. With no little irony, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery reported to garrison forts in the Washington defenses. They had left those forts 13 months previously. Not until September 11th did the regiment muster. It traveled by rail to Bangor, Maine, arriving on Sept. 17, 1865 and camping on the old arsenal grounds. They received their discharge on Sept. 20, 1865.

The regiment that marched home to Maine had changed from the one that left in August 1862. A shadow of its former self, after 10 months of combat, 441 men would never return to their families. Another 923 men came back wounded, many with injuries that would bother them for the rest of their lives. The Confederates had imprisoned 64 of them. All told, the regiment lost 1,428 men. At least they had not sacrificed in vain. They had helped preserve the Union and end slavery. They would take justifiable pride in their accomplishments and sacrifice for the rest of their lives.


The author had two cousins that fought with the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Cpl. Abijah K. Ayer was wounded at Spotsylvania and in the charge at Petersburg, being discharged due to his wound. Pvt. Horace Howes, wounded at Spotsylvania, rejoined the regiment in early 1865.

 

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