With thousands of boiling angry Confederate troops knocking on his door, Col. Harris Plaisted could find only one piece of his 11th Maine Infantry Regiment at Seven Pines, Va. on Saturday, May 31, 1862.
That left the other three pieces of the 11th Maine pie to fight independently under the splendid line officers (and a talented first sergeant) with which this oddball regiment was blessed.
Raised in autumn 1861 under Col. John C. Caldwell, the 11th Maine remains historically invisible along with the other numbered regiments between the vaunted 10th Maine and the destroyed-at-Gettysburg 16th Maine. What Maine teen-ager learns about regiments 11 through 15 in a high school Maine history class?
Ditto regiments 21 through 32; did Maine actually need any more infantry regiments after the 20th Maine’s heroism at Little Round Top?
Hold that thought for another day, for after enduring exploding thunder and pouring rain on Friday night, May 30, 1862, the soaked-to-the-skin 11th Maine lads knew that the Johnnies were coming.
Let’s set the stage.
Promoted to brigadier general on May 4, Caldwell had turned over the regiment to Harris Plaisted, a New Hampshire-born Maine transplant who began his law practice in Bangor in 1856. Assigned to the 1st Brigade (Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee) of the 3rd Division (Brig. Gen. Silas Casey) of the 4th Army Corps (Maj. Gen. Erasmus D. Keyes), the 11th Maine was camped west of Seven Pines in late May.
Named for seven prominent trees, Seven Pines marked the intersection of the Nine Mile Road and the Williamsburg Stage Road. Perhaps a mile north of the crossroad, the Richmond & York River railroad ran from west to east. The station nearest Seven Pines was Fair Oaks; many commentators would later refer to the “Battle of Fair Oaks,” but Seven Pines was the actual location of the 11th Maine’s tale.
Heavy rains had flooded the Chickahominy River to the north and east, effectively trapping the 4th Corps and the 3rd Corps, Army of the Potomac. If Johnston got his divisions in gear, he could shatter the two Federal corps and defeat Union Gen. George McClellan.
That’s why Confederate troops attacked on May 31. Casey and his 3rd Division caught the brunt of the assault — and he had fewer than 4,500 men to try and stop the Johnnies.
One thousand men strong in fall 1861, the 11th Maine numbered only 229 combat-ready soldiers that Saturday. Including the regimental surgeons and a hospital steward, another 60 or so men were in the hospital; other men were away on “detached duty.”
On Friday, Capt. Leonard Harvey had taken Co. D out on picket duty, on the far right (north end) of Casey’s picket line, not far from the Richmond & York River Railroad tracks. The D boys bagged an aide-de-camp to Joe Johnston around 7 a.m., Saturday.
Harvey marched the prisoner (Lt. James Barrall Washington) off to Casey’s headquarters — and never came back. He left 2nd Lt. Francis M. Johnson of Springfield in charge; Johnson’s senior noncom was 1st Sgt. Robert Brady of Enfield.
Meanwhile, four more 11th Maine companies — B, G, H, and K — were stationed together farther south along the picket line facing west toward Richmond. The senior officer was Capt. Winslow P. Spofford of Co. G. Capt. Nathaniel Cole commanded Co. B; 2nd Lt. Charles Fuller Co. H; and 2nd Lt. Albert Mudgett Co. K.
Five companies remained in camp, but around 7 a.m., Naglee ordered more 1st Brigade companies sent to the picket line. From the 11th Maine camp came 1st Lt. Francis Sabine and 27 men of Co. E, plus Capt. Simeon H. Merrill rustled up 22 men from Co. I.
These were all the healthy warriors that Sabine and Merrill could find in their respective companies, which were stationed somewhere near Co. D on the north end of the picket line.
Only three companies — A, C, and F — remained in the 11th Maine camp.
The Confederate attack began “a little after noon,” when “the roar of the attack on the left (south) was heard,” said Pvt. Robert Brady Jr. of Co. D. He was the teen-age son of 1st Sgt. Robert Brady.
Warned by 12 noon “that a body of the enemy was in sight, advancing (east)” on the Williamsburg Stage Road, Casey may have initially missed the maneuver’s significance. Warned again about the size of the attack and startled when two Confederate artillery shells howled over his headquarters, Casey finally figured out “that a serious attack was contemplated.”
He ordered the brigade’s camps emptied of every soldier who could carry a rifle.
From the 11th Maine camp hustled Maj. Robert F. Campbell and companies A, C, and F. Campbell had served with the Cherryfield Light Infantry during the 1837 “Bloodless” Aroostook War; older than most men in uniform in spring 1862, he would earn his monthly pay in the next hour or so.
With shooting already increasing along the picket line, Plaisted rode back to bring up his last three companies; image his pleasant surprise when he encountered them marching west, Campbell riding at their head.
The three companies had numbered 100 men apiece in autumn 1861; including himself, Campbell brought out 93 men. He originally had only 92 soldiers, but from the regimental hospital had staggered the ill 1st Lt. William H.H. Rice of Co. G. Grabbing a cartridge box and a rifled musket, he turned to the other patients and exclaimed, “Boys, all who can hold up your heads, follow me!”
Some sick enlisted soldiers may have accompanied Rice as he scurried to catch up with Campbell.
Turning his horse as the three companies marched past, Plaisted led his “battalion” (his term) to a position north of the Williamsburg Stage Road.
So the Seven Pines stage is set for the sliced and diced 11th Maine Infantry Regiment. Its colonel has direct control of only three companies; the other seven are somewhere north of him, the Johnnies are kicking in the door, and the fight is on.
Next week: Sliced and diced 11th Maine fights in four pieces: Part II
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.