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“All the Island Boys are gone”: The Charge of the First Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment

Tim Garrity, Executive Director, Mount Desert Island Historical Society

The Cornfield

1863 Battle of Petersburg Map

1863 Petersburg Map with Cornfield Forts

When they finally received the order to attack, the men of the First Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment scrambled up from the sunken dirt road and quickly formed up in ranks at the edge of the cornfield. An officer cried, “Forward men!” and they began to advance toward the fortifications 500 yards away. As if facing a headwind, they tilted their cap brims down and pushed forward. Canister shot and Minié balls tore through their lines. They heard the crash of artillery and chatter of musket fire ahead of them, the nearby sound of lead smacking into the bodies of their closest friends, and screams. An observer reported, “The Maine boys fell fast…. Half the distance is traversed, canister is let loose by the Rebels and dirt is flying, yet the Maine men who crept up the bank do not flinch, but sullenly close up ranks, now decimated.”[1]

A survivor of the assault recalled, “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. . . . So in ten minutes those who were not slaughtered had returned to the road or were lying prostrate upon that awful field of carnage.”[2] Of the 900 men who left the road, 632 fell in the field before Petersburg.[3] On June 18, 1864, the First Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment suffered the greatest proportional loss in a single day’s combat of any regiment in the Civil War.[4]

The Blundered Orders

The result would have been different if the attack had been launched a few days earlier.

The First Maine’s regimental historian wrote, “Had Petersburg been captured and held on the night of the 15th, Lee’s army, cut off from all its sources of supplies, must have come out of his intrenchments and fought the final and decisive battle of the war, or would have been shut up there to be starved into a speedy surrender.”[5] But three days of delay had Union General George Meade seething with impatience and frustration. His order read, “You have a large corps, powerful and numerous, and I beg you will at once, as soon as possible, assault in a strong column. The day is fast going, and I wish the practicability of carrying the enemy’s line settled before dark.”[6] But by then, a survivor wrote, the Confederates were “now strongly posted in a new line, the best that engineering skill could devise, bristling with rifles in the hands of veteran troops, with artillery at every advantageous point, covering every square rod of the territory between the lines.”[7] The First Maine was ordered to attack these defenses, charging across wide-open ground, exposed at every step to musket and artillery fire.

The day was hot. Behind the protection of an embankment, in the shade of tall oak trees, the men got ready for the assault. Their knapsacks and blankets were placed in a pile to the rear, and guards posted to watch them. Many wrote final letters home. They filled their cartridge boxes and their canteens. They fixed their bayonets and loaded their muskets with a single round, to be fired only when they reached the fortifications. Then, with white faces, they waited. Afterwards, survivors said that waiting for the attack to begin was the hardest thing they had ever done.[8]

The Failure of Surrounding Regiments

The First Maine was to be the point of a spear to pierce the Confederate defenses, attacking in three successive lines of about 300 men in each. The first line was to lead the charge across the field, reach the enemy fortifications, clear away obstructions, and capture the trench. The second line was to provide covering fire for the first, to keep the enemy off their parapets and prevent them from firing, and then assist in clearing the trenches. The third line was to follow the others and provide a final rush to drive the Confederates out of their defenses. Two other regiments, the Sixteenth Massachusetts and the Seventh New Jersey, were to follow the First Maine and exploit the breach. On the left and right, other regiments were to join in the attack, giving the Rebels a broader front to defend, and keeping them from focusing their fire on the First Maine.

But the First Maine went into the assault alone. Most of the nearby regiments were composed of disillusioned and exhausted veterans, who cried, “Played out! Let the 1st Maine go!”[9] The men of the Sixteenth Massachusetts were serving the last month of their enlistment.[10] One Massachusetts captain wrote, “No amount of urging, no heroic examples, no threats, or anything else, could get the line to stir one peg.”[11] A New Jersey officer wrote, “The First Maine Heavy Artillery led the column, the Sixteenth Massachusetts following, and this regiment [Seventh New Jersey] behind the latter regiment. The Sixteenth Massachusetts failed to follow the First Maine.”[12] Another heavy artillery regiment, the First Massachusetts, was convinced to stay low by nearby veterans, who told them, “Lie down you damn fools, you can’t take them forts!”[13] A First Massachusetts’ survivor wrote, “The old campaigners were in front and knew better than to charge through a slaughterpen.”[14]

The Recruiter’s Promise

James Parker photoWhen the First Maine was recruited in the summer of 1862, the new enlistees had reason to believe they could fulfill their patriotic duty in relative safety. A heavy artillery regiment, the Ellsworth [Maine] American reported, “Will remain stationary, or on garrison duty. It will not, like others, have to be on the move and subject to all the inconveniences, and exposures of a frequent change of position. If there are any more patriotic young men that have a wish to go into the service of their country, this presents a rare opportunity.” A young enlistee from Mount Desert Island, James M. Parker, wrote to his sister that the doctor who conducted his physical examination told him, “There is no danger of us if we take care of ourselves.”[15]

From the fall of 1862 to the spring of 1864, the soldiers of the First Maine were stationed in fortresses near Washington. They slept in the same bunks every night, ate hot meals, drilled on the parade ground, and were entertained by the regimental band. They even polished their uniform brass on mechanical lathes. But in November, 1863, Parker picked up a rumor that “There is going to be a big move soon. They had orders to send to General Hospital all who were not able to endure a long and fatiguing march.”[16]

Over the winter of 1863 to 1864, the federal command prepared for a spring offensive to force the Army of Northern Virginia into a fight of attrition against the North’s superior supply of men and material. To boost the numbers of men available for the offensive, Major General Ulysses S. Grant sent orders back to Washington: “Send to Belle Plain all the infantry you can rake and scrape. With present position of the armies, 10,000 men can be spared from the defenses of Washington.”[17] The Maine First Heavy Artillery was ordered to leave its fortress post and join the veteran infantry regiments in the field. James Parker wrote to his sister, “I presume before a week we shall be where the cold lead flies round careless. They handle their guns very careless. They have been known to point it at a man and fire.”[18]

The Aftermath

After the disaster, Samuel Savage of Mount Desert Island wrote to his sister in law that he was, “lonesome for all the island boys are gone.” Savage wrote that before the assault, the regiment “numbered over 1000 men and was ordered to charge on the enemys works which was a strong place, not far from here . . . they were to charge across on open field to the enemies batteries but they were about all cut down before they got half way there by the storm of grape and canister and musketry that was hurled into them. There was only 334 men came out.” He named the friends that were killed, including James M. Parker. Because of Confederate sharpshooters, he wrote, “There probably were a great many wounded that have laid there and starved to death isn’t that cruel.”[19]A witness wrote, “What did it amount to? I doubt if a man on the Union side saw a Confederate during the charge. They were completely sheltered by a strong earthwork.”[20]

Why?

Though the facts lie right before us, the disastrous assault of the First Maine remains incomprehensible to the modern reader, who finds it is easier to understand the soldiers who kept their heads down than the men who charged into the guns. Why did the men of the First Maine attempt the assault at Petersburg? Surely a patriotic fervor propelled them to enlist, and they knew that taking the forts could mean a swift end to the war. But what immediate motive caused them to obey their suicidal orders? Maine’s best-known Civil War hero, Joshua Chamberlain, wrote that such men acted out of “simple manhood, force of discipline, pride, love, or bond of comradeship,” and that “the instinct to seek safety is overcome by the instinct of honor.”[21]

In addition to a sense of honor, powerful bonds of friendship held these men together. A veteran recalled that they had “sailed the same ‘coasters,’ fished in the same smacks, cut their initials, side by side, deep in the same schoolhouse desks, and together been switched therefor.”[22] Finally, there was pride. The men of the First Maine wanted to prove their regiment better than those around them. They had the discipline to follow orders, to entrust their lives to their officers, however unwarranted that trust proved. They feared the shame of cowardice in the presence of their closest friends. They believed the fortifications would fall if attacked with the extra measure of courage they thought only Maine men possessed. Their pride was also reactionary, stimulated by the goads and jeers of the veteran infantry troops that lined the roads on their march from Washington and surrounded them as they prepared to charge. Two fears must have pounded in their chests. They feared death, surely. But they feared disgrace and dishonor even more. When the order was given, they went forward with their friends.

Tim Garrity, “‘All the Island Boys are gone’: The Charge of the First Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), June 18, 2014, http://khronikos.com/2014/06/18/all-the-island-boys-are-gone-the-charge-of-the-first-maine-heavy-artillery-regiment/.

Tim Garrity is the executive director of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society and recently defended his MA thesis in History at the University of Maine. Tim spent twenty-five years as a healthcare executive, and then decided he’d rather be a historian. In 2009 he enrolled in the University of Maine’s graduate program in History and worked as an interpretive ranger at Acadia National Park before landing his dream job as Executive Director of the MDI Historical Society. Tim and his wife Lynn Boulger live in Somesville, and never cease to marvel at their good fortune to find each other, and the beauty of life on Mount Desert Island.

Those interested in more MDI history should visit the Historical Society’s Mount Desert Island Cultural History Project at http://research.mdihistory.org/.

 

[1] Alfred Seelye Roe and Charles Nutt, First Regiment of Heavy Artillery Massachusetts Volunteers: 1861-1865 (Boston: Commonwealth, 1917), 181.

[2] Horace H. Shaw and Charles W. House, The First Maine Heavy Artillery: 1861-1865 (Portland: No publisher listed: 1903), 122.

[3] Ibid., 126.

[4] William F. Fox, “The Chances of Being Hit in Battle,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 36 (May 1888), 94, accessed December 24, 2012, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=cent;cc=cent;q1=the%20chances%20of%20being%20hit%20in%20battle;rgn=full%20text;view=image;seq=104;idno=cent0036-1;node=cent0036-1%3A13;page=root;size=100.

[5] Shaw and House, First Maine Heavy Artillery, 120.

[6]United States War Dept. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Washington, 1880-1901), 167; Online facsimile at:  http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/browse.monographs/waro.html; Visited on: 3/13/2014; hereafter cited as “OR,” followed by series, volume, part, and page numbers.

[7] Shaw and House, First Maine Heavy Artillery, 121.

[8] Joel F. Brown, “The Charge of the Heavy Artillery,” The Maine Bugle, Campaign 1, Call 1, January 1894, 6.

[9] Alfred Seelye Roe and Charles Nutt, First Regiment of Heavy Artillery Massachusetts Volunteers: 1861-1865 (Boston: Commonwealth, 1917), 181.

[10] Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines: Dyer, 1908), 1253.

[11] John Talbot, “Combat Trauma in the American Civil War,” History Today 46 (March 1996): 45.

[12] Thomas C. Thompson, Seventh New Jersey Infantry, in OR, Series 1, Volume 40, Part I, 418. Accessed December 24, 2012, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/m/moawar/waro_fulltext.html.

[13]Roe and Nutt, Heavy Artillery Massachusetts, 175.

[14] Ibid., 179.

[15] James M. Parker to Letitia Parker, July 1, 1862. Mount Desert Island Historical Society; hereafter cited as JMP to LP.

[16] JMP to LP, November 8, 1863.

[17] OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, 3.

[18] JMP to LP, May 12, 1864.

[19]Samuel T. S. to Emily Savage, June 26, 1864. Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

[20] Roe and Nutt, Heavy Artillery Massachusetts, 181.

[21] Joshua L. Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 20.

[22] Shaw and House, First Maine Heavy Artillery, 83.

 

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