Note: This is the second of a two-part article about the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery’s involvement in the Battle of Harris Farm, Va.
Unable to break the Confederate lines at Spotsylvania despite repeated assaults, Ulysses Simpson Grant tried in mid-May 1864 to slip the Army of the Potomac east and south around the enemy entrenchments, which ended near Massaponax Church.
Noticing eerily quiet Union entrenchments;, Confederate pickets discovered that their blue-clad opponents had vanished along the battlefield’s western sector.
Unsure as to where Federal troops maneuvered — although he suspected a flanking action to his east — Robert E. Lee ordered Gen. Richard Ewell and his corps to probe north find the enemy. Ewell commanded some 6,000 men split between the divisions led by major generals John B. Gordon and Robert E. Rhodes.
Assigned to Rodes’s division, Brig. Gen. Stephen Ramseur and his brigade led the advance. The brigade encompassed six under-strength North Carolina regiments: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 14th, and 30th.
Confederate troops started north on Brock Road (modern Route 613) at 1 p.m., Thursday, May 19. Turning northeast on Gordon Road, the weary Confederates crossed the Ni River by 3 p.m. and turned east.
By then Grant’s veteran divisions had departed the Spotsylvania battlefield. Behind the combat arms trailed “an ambulance train and several supply trains” on “the Fredericksburg and Spottsylvania turnpike” (modern Route 208 or Courthouse Road), wrote Charles Carleton Coffin, a Boston Journal correspondent bylined as “Carleton.”
That day the Federal heavy artillery regiments assigned to a provisional infantry division commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler guarded the Army of the Potomac’s right flank and supply trains. Probing to the east about 4 p.m., Ramseur’s skirmishers encountered the 4th New York Heavy Artillery a mile west of a farm owned by Clement Harris. The farm was about a mile west of the turnpike.
Assigned to the Fifth Corps rather than the Second Corps, the green New Yorkers stubbornly gave ground as more Confederate troops hustled forward to capture the supply trains. According to Coffin, “a [Confederate] flanking force which numbered about two hundred men” slipped among the supply trains and “commenced firing on the mules. The guards rallied and after a short conflict repulsed the party.”
With the 4th New York falling back toward the Harris Farm, Tyler “called upon his men to move against the enemy,” Coffin wrote. Riding to where the men of the 1st Maine and 1st Massachusetts stood, he shouted, “The sons of Massachusetts and Maine are not cowards!”
“No, no!” the soldiers replied.
“Follow me, then!” Tyler shouted, and “away they went with a cheer,” Coffin wrote.
Writing in “The First Maine Heavy Artillery: 1861-1865,” Horace Shaw recalled that the 7th New York Heavy Artillery — Tyler had summoned his other regiments — led the advance before veering to the left to clear Confederate riflemen from some woods. Enemy troops had captured a supply train; shifting slightly to the right, the 1st Maine boys cut through many wagons not yet in Southern hands and charged “at once down both sides of the road.
“This they did in fine style[,] sweeping the Confederates away from the train[,] recovering what they had taken,” Shaw noted. The 1st Maine chased their enemies “speedily back through the woods” and swung left as the Confederates “retreated across an opening and through a point of woods extending down into a small creek[,] where we halted.”
Tyler fed his Heavies in line from the Harris Farm northeast past the Susan Alsop Farm, where the 1st Maine and 1st Massachusetts “came within musket range and the contest began — Ewell’s old veterans on the one hand and the troops who till last week had not handled a musket, on the other,” Coffin wrote.
“The heavy artillery knew little about infantry tactics, of handling muskets, of loading and firing, but they poured in their volleys — no, not volleys, but each man loaded a piece, irrespective of all orders. It was a continuous roll,” he reported.
Coffin’s assessment was partially wrong; the Heavies handled their firearms well, proved by the 900 casualties that Ewell sustained. But while the Confederates sheltered amidst the available cover, the inexperienced Heavies stood in regimental ranks as if drilling on a parade ground.
“The engagement lasted two hours and twenty minutes, against superior numbers and in an open field,” J.H. Rice wrote from Washington, D.C. to the Daily Whig & Courier on Sunday, May 22. Men fired repeatedly and blindly into the thickening gun smoke as comrades fell around them.
Chaplin evidently rode back and forth along the 1st Maine’s line; “his voice was constantly heard above the din … calling to his men, ‘Steady! Steady, men! Fire low!’”
That last command, as quoted by Rice, suggests that Chaplin, who “inspired all by his coolness and gallant bearing,” knew how to shoot in combat — why did he not order his men to hid behind trees and stumps?
The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery absorbed brutal punishment. “In repeated instances [of] brothers fighting side by side, one fell dead or wounded, and the other, stepping over his prostrate form, ‘closed up’ the advancing line without loss of step or cessation of fire,” Rice wrote.
While Maine soldiers fell in windrows, “not an officer nor a man failed in duty, and none left the field unless so ordered, or borne away dead or wounded,” he reported.
By sunset Ewell realized that approaching Union reinforcements endangered his shrinking corps. The Confederates withdrew and left the Alsop and Harris farm fields in Union hands …
… and covered by Union bodies. The Federal butcher’s bill amounted to 1,535 men, including the 532 casualties suffered by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. In its first action, the regiment lost 155 men killed, 375 wounded, and two captured.
The survivors realized that Chaplin had erred in deploying his regiment in line on open ground. Shaw regretted the lack of combat training and its tragic cost.
“It is unquestionably true that had we been engaged in several less encounters and in connection with old troops[,] we should have sooner become accustomed to the scattering[,] covering[,] and crawling up style of the field instead of using [the] more formal style of the [drill] books in fighting,” he admitted, “and our losses would have been much less while our effectiveness would have been increased.”
Admittedly the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery would have taken casualties at Harris Farm, but proper training of its men and better field handling by Chaplin would have reduced that number.
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.