A few hours spent learning rudimentary combat skills could have saved many Maine lives near Spotsylvania Court House, Va. on Thursday, May 19, 1864.
The modern Army’s concept of “Advanced Infantry Training” did not exist during the Civil War. The small pre-war Army primarily fought Indians in the far West, where parade-ground maneuvers drawn from the Napoleonic era made little sense.
However, to the regular Army officers and their militia counterparts embroiled at Manassas and subsequent battles, the same regimental and divisional maneuvers employed at Austerlitz, Borodino, and Waterloo should work well on American soil. Thus did soldiers North and South practice drill morning and afternoon, at least six days a week when encamped.
By-the-book maneuvers required a regiment to form a line (usually two rows of men deep) facing a similarly deployed enemy regiment. Soldiers opened fire, initially by company, then by individual as shooting discipline declined. Lead flew both directions through the swirling, sight-obscuring gun smoke; unless one regiment or the other quickly launched a bayonet charge, the winner in a stand-up shoot out should be the side with the most men standing when the smoke cleared.
Soldiers learned to load and fire their rifled muskets, preferably at three rounds per minute, a rate unchanged since Waterloo and Monterey decades earlier. As repeaters (carbines and rifles) reached them later in the Civil War, soldiers shot faster — but not necessarily more accurately.
Neither Washington nor Richmond instituted training programs to teach new soldiers the combat skills learned at precious price on the battlefield. By spring 1864, the combat veterans had learned to dig when — and wherever the opportunity arose; a soldier crouching behind a head log topping deep-dug earthworks presented a far smaller target than a soldier advancing across an open field toward those same earthworks.
Even lying behind a few stacked logs, a fallen tree, or a stone wall made a man less a target than standing up. While a muzzle loader was difficult to load when a soldier lay prone in cover, he could still load and shoot — and he knew his survival odds improved the closer he hugged Mother Earth.
These and other combat skills the veteran soldiers could pass along to the recruits and draftees joining the Army of the Potomac by early spring 1864. The War Department should have required the novice soldiers to learn these potentially life- or limb-saving skills in training conducted by the veterans.
The War Department did not do so. Instead, each regiment’s veterans — and by mid-May 1864 there were precious few in many units — might or might not teach the novices how to survive on a battlefield. Fortunate was the soldier joining a Maine regiment that spring whose battle-hardened comrades showed him the tricks of the trade.
But no matter the skills taught in camp, orders were orders during a fight. A grizzled noncom or up-from-the-ranks officer would know instinctively when the regiment should go belly to earth, but if the colonel ordered his men to stand and fight, they stood and fought and died.
Reconfigured as the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment in January 1863, the former 18th Maine Infantry experienced no combat before slipping into comfortable garrison duty in the Washington, D.C. forts. Similar heavy artillery regiments from other loyal states helped guard the nation’s capital; presenting a spiffy appearance on parade and well in “working” their siege cannons against a gray-clad enemy that refused to appear, the “Heavies” never trained as infantry.
After all, had not Ulysses Simpson Grant taken enough infantrymen into The Wilderness to bust apart the Army of Northern Virginia?
Grant lost at least 17,000 soldiers — primarily infantrymen — in The Wilderness. Suddenly he needed reinforcements, and the only men available to him were the Heavies guarding D.C.
The War Department orders sent “to all regiments in … the defenses of Washington … brought bustle and hurry to all camps,” recalled Horace Shaw in “The First Maine Heavy Artillery: 1861-1865.” “Disposing of all extra clothing and baggage was the business of the first day.”
Ranks swelled by new recruits and draftees, every summoned regiment turned out in full regalia to leave the capital. Commanded by Col. Daniel Chaplin of Bangor, the 18th Maine Infantry had taken 1,000 men to Washington, D.C. in late summer 1862; the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery now numbered 1,800 men, roughly the equivalent of a battle-depleted brigade.
Other “heavy” regiments were just as large.
Washingtonians flocked to watch the departing regiments. “The march of one after the other of these splendid regiments[,] each 1,800 strong with full complements of officers [and the enlisted men] splendidly equipped [and] trained like regulars was a sight which called throngs of spectators to witness their passing,” Shaw noticed.
He would soon realize that the Heavies had not “trained like regulars.”
Boarding a steamer, the 1st Maine boys shipped down the Potomac River to disembark at Belle Plain, a Virginia backwater 13 miles from Fredericksburg. On Wednesday, May 18 the Army tossed five heavy artillery regiments — 1st Maine, 1st Massachusetts, and 2nd, 7th, and 8th New Yorks — into a provisional division commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler.
Five days earlier, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock had seen his battle-damaged 4th Division (a major participant in the May 12 Bloody Angle butchery) disbanded and its components transferred to his 3rd Division. Now Hancock, who commanded the Second Corps, picked up Tyler’s division, designated the 4th.
Tyler pointed his men west toward the war. “We marched through Fredericksburg [and] out over the Wilderness battlefield,” Shaw described the 1st Maine’s approach to the combat zone. About the time that the division joined the Second Corps, the Maine boys encountered reality.
“We began meeting ambulances loaded with wounded men[,] some on foot with their arms in slings and heads bandaged, long before we arrived at a position just in rear of our other divisions then in the front line,” Shaw noticed.
The martial initiation continued as the “we arrived upon the battlefield late at night and listened to the popping of the pickets [shooting] on the advanced lines during our slumbers among the pines,” Shaw recalled.
The next morning, the heavy artillery regiments shifted position to “where an immediate attack was expected,” he noted. Artillery batteries banged away “very heavy in our front,” and “shells and fragments of shells” from Confederate cannons “were passing over our heads much too low down on many cases to be appreciated.
“While lying there we had many narrow escapes[,] but were getting our nerves steadied to situations we should frequently face in the future,” Shaw commented.
The 1st Maine “Heavies” had just learned a vital lesson: if possible, lay down when under enemy artillery fire. Shells bursting overhead amidst the trees could inflict some casualties, but not at the level of shot and shell plunging into ranks of standing men.
Next week: 1st Maine Heavies shot it out with Ewell’s best at Harris Farm
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.