Did Col. Daniel Chaplin lose his desire to live after watching the annihilation of his beloved 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment at Petersburg on Saturday, June 18, 1864?
Yes, surmised Pvt. Joel Brown of Orono and Co. I.
And Chaplin’s own behavior suggests the behavior of a man who cared not if he lived or died.
Born a British subject in Red Bank, New Brunswick in January 1820, Chaplin arrived in Bridgton a few years later. Seeking better economic opportunities (and perhaps slightly better weather, Bridgton being farther south than Red Bank), his family had moved to Maine, and Chaplin eventually became an American citizen.
He moved to Bangor circa 1841 to clerk for a ship chandlery and became well known in local business circles. When Maine raised several infantry regiments in spring 1861, “old” men like the 41-year-old Chaplin were not needed, but he insisted on mustering into federal service on May 28 as captain of Co. F, 2nd Maine Infantry. Chaplin fought at First Manassas in mid-July and received his promotion to major on Sept. 13.
Comrades noticed his martial ardor and his affection for his men; “on the field of battle none were braver or more thoughtful of the men, than Col. Chaplin,” George O. Hall and R.H. Stanley wrote in their 1887 “Eastern Maine and the Rebellion.”
On Tuesday, May 27, 1862, a Massachusetts artillery officer (and future Boston mayor), Augustus P. Martin, saw his battery overrun by Confederate troops during the historically overlooked Battle of Hanover Courthouse, Va. “Major Chaplin seeing this this started to recapture them, leading in person a portion of the Second [Maine] in the charge,” Hall and Stanley noted.
His scabbard struck and dented by a Confederate bullet, Chaplin could not draw his sword. Martin drew and handed his sword to Chaplin, “who charged again, retaking the guns … Martin afterwards wrote a handsome letter of thanks” to Chaplin and refused “to take back his sword.”
Within two months, the now Col. Chaplin returned home to raise the 18th Maine Infantry, one of four infantry regiments the War Department had tasked Maine to create in summer ’62. The state sought 4,00 volunteers; when almost 5,000 men turned out, Augusta established a fifth regiment, the 20th Maine.
Chaplin established his headquarters in Bangor, where the 18th Maine’s first company — 97 men drawn from the Lincoln region — arrived on Tuesday, July 24, 1862. The Houlton company arrived on Aug. 4. Soon after local women presented a flag to the regiment in a rousing ceremony, the 18th Maine mustered into federal service on Thursday, Aug. 21.
Chaplin and his men wound up garrisoning a few District of Columbia forts, so in January 1863 the War Department designated the regiment as the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment. Chaplin’s boys spent their time drilling with siege guns, similar to the 15-inch Rodman cannon located in Battery A at Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect.
The “Heavies,” as the collective artillery regiments were known, spent much time in marching and parading and precious little time in combat training, an oversight that proved costly during the May 19, 1864 Battle of Harris Farm, Va. Chaplin lost more than 500 men in that fight, his regiment’s first.
Outside Petersburg that June 18, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was ordered to charge Confederate earthworks several hundred yards away across open ground. Delegated the brigade commander that day, Chaplin watched from the Hare House, located about a quarter mile away.
Joel Brown participated in the charge. Supporting regiments refused to budge, so 900 men from the 1st Maine went in alone. Confederate gunners and infantrymen could not miss; in about 10 minutes, the regiment lost more than 600 men.
Chaplin watched the slaughter through his binoculars. Brown, who had survived the charge, “went up the ]sunken] road [that had initially sheltered the 1st Maine] towards the left to where the colonel was.” Chaplin had ridden his horse to where the regiment’s survivors gathered.
Brig. Gen. Gerhsom Mott, who commanded the division to which the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was assigned, rode to Chaplin and asked, “Col. Chaplin, where are your men?”
“There they are, out on that field where your tried veterans dared not go,” Chaplin rebuked Mott for the failure of his veteran regiments to support the 1st Maine’s attack.
“Here, you take my sword,” Chaplin said, holding the blade out to Mott. “I have no use for it.”
Then “the old hero sat down in the road and cried like a child,” Brown watched Chaplin’s reaction to losing so many of his precious men in a useless charge.
The Army kept the shattered 1st Maine Heavy Artillery in action; the regiment lost men in dribs and drabs through July. Wednesday, Aug. 17, found Chaplin and his men holding the front lines at Deep Bottom, Va.
Sometime before 10 a.m., Chaplin stood “on the picket line, examining the enemy’s works with his glass” and recklessly exposing himself to Confederate snipers, Capt. Frederick E. Shaw of Co. D wrote later that morning.
According to Shaw, Chaplin “was seen, probably, by a sharpshooter” — more likely two snipers who coordinated their shots. A bullet “wizzed (sic) by” Chaplin, who told Shaw, “Ah, they see me.”
“At that instant he was struck [by a second bullet] and fell, saying, ‘They have hit me this time,’” Shaw witnessed Chaplin’s wounding. He quickly reached Chaplin, who “was faint and bled freely,” yet spoke with Shaw.
Blood evidently spread across Chaplin’s blouse. “The wound is above the breast, I think, but we cannot tell now of its character,” Shaw admitted.
Before men hustled him to a hospital, Chaplin told Shaw, “I’m sorry to leave the boys, but tell them to do their duty, and never to make any feints.” According to Shaw, that statement alluded “ to a brigade that refused to make a charge” on Aug. 16, the same brigade “that refused to support our regiment” during the June 18 charge.
The 1st Maine boys hoped that Chaplin would survive. “We think the Colonel’s wound is too high up to be fatal,” Shaw noted the regimental assessment of Chaplin’s condition. “He appeared strong for one wounded so severely.
“We all feel badly — the whole regiment is attached to him,” Shaw commented.
“His men loved him as a man, and honored him as a true and heroic patriot,” Hall and Stanley concurred.
Evacuated to a Philadelphia hospital, Chaplin died there on Saturday, Aug. 20. Later that day, his family “received the sad intelligence that, during a severe engagement on the James River, he had received a severe wound in the breast, and yesterday a second despatch was received that he died of his wounds, ” the Daily Whig and Courier reported on Aug. 22.
“This is added another to the already long record of Bangor’s brave and heroic dead,” the paper commented.
The bullet wound was listed as Chaplin’s official cause of death. Joel Brown disagreed; “our colonel was broken hearted over his [regiment’s] loss and threw his life away at Deeo Bottom soon after,” he explained. “He seemed not to care to live after his regiment was gone.”
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.