There stands at Petersburg National Battlefield a name-laden monument to a shattered regiment, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.
Located slightly off the beaten National Park Service path, the monument honors the “604 brave members who fell charging here” on a late spring afternoon in ’64. Two bronze markers inset in the monument’s rear face identify by rank the 1st Maine “heavies” killed or mortally wounded that long-ago day.
One name is missing. Daniel Chaplin, the regimental colonel hailing from Bangor, survived the epic charge, but he incurred a broken heart.
Chaplin loved his men, and he loved his regiment. He took it to war as the 18th Maine Infantry in late August 1862. By the next summer the regiment had morphed into the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, assigned to operate the large cannons protruding from the embrasures of Washington, D.C. forts.
Chaplin’s men evidently thought highly of their colonel, who celebrated his 44th birthday at Fort Sumner in late January 1864. Turning out on in weather that one soldier described as “very pleasant, like a May day in Maine,” almost the entire regiment formed a hollow square in a D.C. field about 3 p.m. The regimental band and a drum corps tooted and thumped until Chaplin and his staff rode into the square.
Representing the non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, Pvt. Nathan Mills of Old Town presented Chaplin with an exquisite $750 sword placed in a silver scabbard, a sash, a belt, a magnificent saddle, holsters laden with pistols and cartridges, and silver spurs.
More than a thousand enlisted men who earned only $13 a month — and that when they were paid — had, along with the noncoms, contributed more than $1,000 to buy these gifts for Chaplin.
He loved them, and they knew it.
Duty was light within those forts, and life was sweet for a soldier like Joel Brown. Hailing from Orono and 18 when he joined Co. I, Brown enjoyed garrison duty, “where it was a ceaseless routine of drill six days a week[,] with inspection and dress parade, supplemented with a little battalion drill and church service for variety, on Sunday.”
Marcus Alley, also 18 when he joined up, came from Eden (today’s Bar Harbor) and served in Co. L. He, like Brown, was single.
Unlike the Army of the Potomac’s combat veterans preparing to march south in mid-spring ’64, the heavy artillery soldiers wore clean, intact uniforms and devoted little time to marching fast and long.
On Wednesday, May 4, Ulysses Grant sent the Army of the Potomac marching toward Richmond. Crossing the Rapidan River, some 118,000 Union soldiers marched south along the few narrow roads cutting through the heavily forested Wilderness. During a bloody three-day battle fought there, the Union lost an estimated 15,000-18,000 men.
Needing warm bodies, Grant summoned the heavy artillery regiments from their snug D.C. billets. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery numbered about 1,800 men that early May.
The garrison troopers did not impress the veterans. “How well I remember, when we joined the army, the old veterans laughed at and jeered us, called us ‘Abe’s pets.’ ‘paper collars,’ [and] ‘Band box soldiers,’” Brown recalled.
The taunts did not last long.
As fighting raged at Spotsylvania Courthouse, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment and other units screened Union supply trains strung out along the Fredericksburg Road behind the Army of the Potomac’s left flank. On Thursday, May 19, Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell led the 6,000 men from his II Corps around that exposed flank.
Driving back the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, the advancing Confederates soon ran into more “heavies,“ including the 1st Massachusetts and the 1st Maine. “Our heavy artillery brigade under the lead of the gallant [Brig.] Gen. [Robert O.] Tyler” fought Elwell’s men “and held them in check for two hours and a half until reinforcements arrived and drove them off the field,” Brown remembered.
“We were green at the [combat] business,” he said. The heavy artillery regiments (particularly the 1st Maine) deployed in line as if on a parade ground and exchanged volleys with Confederates who “kept behind a stone wall” and trees.
“According to all the rules of war we were whipped several times over, but it was our first fight … so we did not know we were whipped and kept on fighting,” Brown said.
During that slugfest later called the Battle of Harris Farm, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost 532 men: 155 soldiers killed, 375 wounded, and two captured. Now Brown and his surviving comrades were veterans who no longer heard the “Band Box Soldiers” epithet.
Next: The Maine ‘Heavies’ charge into hell