For a brief moment in mid-June 1864, Union troops could have swept through the wide-open doors of Petersburg to capture that Virginia city and its key railroads. Confederate troops would have fled Richmond, and the Army of the Potomac might have caught and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia somewhere during that retreat.
But Union generals dithered, the Petersburg doors slammed shut, and the Overland Campaign bogged down. Among repeated assaults made on the city’s strengthening defenses, senior Union commanders ordered an attack on Saturday, June 18.
The brigade recently joined by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was ordered to charge across open terrain. “I think it must have been about three o’clock in the afternoon when we came out from our breastworks and began to advance” to where the charge would begin, said Joel Brown, an Orono private assigned to Co. I.
That day Col. Daniel Chaplin, who commanded the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, had temporarily taken over the brigade. He watched from the Hare House (located about a quarter mile away) as the Maine regiment moved into position.
“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,” Brown recalled. “The bank of the road was so high in our front as to completely cover us from the enemy.”
Other regiments deployed nearby to participate in the “charge in mass, we to lead,” Brown said. The Maine boys shed their “knapsacks, haversacks and blankets … everything that would lighten our load.”
Sensing their fate, men left “messages … to be sent home, in case anything happened, and good byes were said,” he recalled those final minutes. “I stood there leaning upon my musket, looking on.
“I had no particular comrade to say good bye to,” Brown realized. “Both were dead, one at Spottsylvania (sic), the other at Cold Harbor. I expect my face was white.”
“It was just a few minutes before 4 o’clock when the last preparations were, and at 4 came the order to load, fix bayonets and charge,” recalled Marcus Alley of Co. L and Eden (Bar Harbor). “As we were off I remember our [company] first sergeant said, ‘Boys, put your cartridge boxes around in front, so the Rebs can’t hit you below the belt.’”
An officer (likely Maj. R.B. Sheppard) shouted, “Attention, First Maine Heavy Artillery. Forward, guide right, march!”
As the Maine boys “scrambled up out of the road, what a sight was before us,” the awestruck Brown said. At an estimated “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.”
Alley estimated the open ground across which the regiment must charge was “not more than three or four hundred yards from the [enemy] breastworks.”
Behind the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, soldiers from supporting regiments and brigades refused to budge. Critics later eviscerated Chaplin for letting the Maine regiment charge unsupported — and for charging, period. From adjoining regiments, veterans even hollered at the Maine boys not to attack.
The regimental lines were “somewhat broken in climbing up out of the road,” Brown recalled.
The 1st Maine formed three long lines, each containing four companies.Sheppard commanded the first line. Capt. Whitney Clark of Co. E commanded the second line, and Capt. Christopher Crossman of Co. D. commanded the third line.
Ordered to charge, “with a wild cheer which seemed to me more like the bitter cry wrung out in a death agony, we sprang forward,” Brown said. He “saw the blinding flash of red flame run along the crest” of the Confederate earthworks; he “heard the deafening crash as the awful work began.”
“There was not a Confederate visible when we started, but the regiment had not moved a dozen steps in the open before the storm of cannister (sic) and grape began, supplemented by volleys of musketry,” Alley recalled.
“The air seemed filled with … the hiss of the deadly minie [ball], the scream of the shell, the crackle, crash and roar of every conceivable missile,” Brown realized. “Through it all that red blaze along the crest of that work which we must cross, as we, with bowed heads, breasted that storm.”
Onward charged the Maine boys toward the gates of hell. “The cannister (sic) would sweep a whole line [away], and the line just back of it closed up and went forward,” Alley described the suicidal bravery crossing a storm-swept Virginia cornfield. “The regiment never faltered … although the men were being mowed down like grain before a scythe.”
Onward charged the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Brown “glanced from right to left”; he saw “the boys, bent forward with arms at a trail,” and they “were still rushing on.” Now he could see the faces of the Confederates and hear their taunting “shouts of ‘Come on, Yanks.’”
Alley and Brown estimated that shattered regimental fragments reached to within 30 feet of the enemy defenses; “one man crossed, and fell dead on the other side,” Alley learned later.
Scoured by bullets, cannonballs, and canister, the Maine boys melted away. “Again I looked to right, to left, and found that I was almost alone; we were turning back,” the startled Brown saw. He ran “to get off the field and under cover.”
Alley believed that seven minutes elapsed from when the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery climbed from the road to when the first survivors plunged into it. Brown figured that 20 minutes had passed.
Fleeing across “the ground” now “covered thick with those who were down, the wounded, dead and dying together,” Brown “felt something strike my foot, numbing it, and I stumbled forward on my face.”
Bullets whizzed low overhead as Brown bent the knee “to see how bad” his foot “was hurt.” He discovered that a bullet had “shot off” his shoe’s heel; still intact, “I sprang up and rushed on again.
“At last I reached the sunken road,” Brown recalled.
Not many other Maine boys did. Brown evidently lifted his head and gazed across the battlefield. “But what a scene!” he exclaimed. “It is too horrible to attempt to describe.
“Those who have seen such pictures” — Brown referred to the graphic photos of combat dead that had started appearing after Antietam — “know all about them,” he said. “Let those who have not thank God for it and not try to learn about them.”
He took stock once out of harm’s way. Besides the missing shoe heel, “I had a bullet through my cap, cutting off a lock of hair close to the skin,” he realized. “Two [bullets] 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.”
Brown then “went up the [sunken] road towards the left to where the colonel was.” After observing the slaughter from the Hare House, Chaplin had ridden his horse to where the survivors gathered.
.Brown watched as Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott (the division commander) rode to Chaplin and asked, “Col. Chaplin, where are your men?”
Likely pointing toward the distant Confederate defenses, Chaplin replied, “There they are, out on that field where your tried veterans dared not go.
“Here, you take my sword,” the valiant Chaplin held his blade out to Mott. “I have no use for it now.”
Then “the old hero sat down in the road and cried like a child,” Brown vividly recalled.
Now the counting began. Nine hundred men had climbed from the sunken road and charged with Chaplin. Perhaps 300 men returned to Union lines; out on that accursed corn field lay 604 men, of whom 115 were killed and 489 were wounded. Confederates kept firing across the corn field until dark; their wounds untended, more Maine boys would die by that bloody sunset.
The attack lasted 10 minutes, according to official accounts. Thus the 1st Maine lost one man every second of that 10-minute eternity.
Within Union lines, an officer “told us to get together and call the roll,” Brown said. “We did … we had gone in with forty-nine men; six privates had come out.”
Later that night Lt. Samuel Oakes rejoined Co. I. “He had been knocked senseless on the field, but at night revived and crawled off,” Brown could not believe the company’s good fortune. “How we hugged him and cried over him!”
On June 17, Co. L had ordered rations for 103 men, Alley remembered. The rations arrived on Friday, June 19, but “a sergeant, a corporal and four privates was all that left” to eat so much food, he said.
There stands at Petersburg National Battlefield a name-laden monument to a shattered regiment, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. One name is missing and should be added.
At nearby Deep Bottom on Wednesday, Aug. 17, a Confederate sharpshooter mortally wounded Daniel Chaplin; he died in a Philadelphia hospital three days later. The official cause was from the bullet wound.
Joel Brown knew better. “Our colonel was broken hearted over his [regiment’s] loss and threw his life away at Deep Bottom soon after,” he believed. “He seemed not to care to live after his regiment was gone.”
Brian Swartz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.