For a precious few minutes around 12 noon on Saturday, May 31, 1862, all four pieces of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment stood on the battlefield at Seven Pines, Va.
Then the Confederate onslaught smashed into the Union picket line astride the Williamsburg Stage Road, and the collision sliced and diced the already quadrisected regiment.
Col. Harris Plaisted and Maj. Robert Campbell had slid companies A, C, and F between the four cannons and gunners of Battery H, 1st New York Light Artillery to the south and eight companies of the 104th Pennsylvania Infantry to the north. The New York gunners had deployed just north of the stage road; on the other side of the road spread the 100th New York Infantry.
About a mile north on the far right flank of Brig. Gen. Silas Casey’s 3rd Division, Co. D of the 11th Maine had manned the picket line since Friday. Pvt. Robert Brady Jr. heard the intensifying shooting; “the left of the picket line was forced back” and finally broken, he learned later.
Somewhere on that broken picket line were companies B, G, H, and K of the 11th Maine. Realizing his probably less than 80 men could not stem the Southern tide, Capt. Winslow P. Spofford of Co. G pulled all four companies back some 800 yards.
Retreating in good order, Spofford’s men fell in with the 56th New York Infantry Regiment near the Richmond & York River Railroad tracks north of Seven Pines. Here these particular 11th Maine lads would fight for the rest of the day.
As for Co. D, “it was uncertain what the pickets should do,” Brady admitted. Capt. Leonard Harvey had marched away hours earlier with a prisoner; D’s de facto on-site commander, 2nd Lt. Francis M. Johnson, now took a corporal and disappeared into the woods north of the company’s picket post “to learn, if they could, what (Union) force … guarded the [right] flank,” Brady said.
Johnson’s nonchalant decision left 1st Sgt. Robert Brady (the younger Brady’s father) in charge. He acted like a responsible adult and stayed with his men.
Johnson and the corporal showed up later, much too late to help Co. D.
Meanwhile, heavy fighting engulfed the south end of the defense line formed by the 3rd Division to which the 11th Maine was attached. Ordering his to move “about 30 yards to the right” of Battery H, Plaisted had his 93 men “lie down behind a ridge” to avoid Confederate artillery fire.
He also told his men to “reserve their fire until the rebels emerged from the woods” to the west.
Though the Battery H gunners “kept throwing canister into their (Confederate) ranks with great effect,” Brig. Gen. Silas Casey (the division commander) realized that enemy infantry threatened to turn his division’s flanks and capture the artillery’s four 3-inch Parrott rifles.
Only the cold steel could save those guns.
The 11th Maine served in the 1st Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Naglee. Around 1 p.m., he “rode up in front of my line amidst a shower of bullets, and ordered me to charge,” Plaisted said. “With the greatest enthusiasm, the order was obeyed.”
Moving simultaneously with the 104th Pennsylvania on its right (north) flank and the 100th New York on the south side of the stage road, the 11th Maine boys charged. Color Sgt. Alexander Katon of Co. B and Pittston “bore our standard bravely in front of the line,” Plaisted said.
When he heard, “Forward to the fence!,” Katon ran “several yards in advance” of the Pennsylvania line some 200-300 yards “across the open space” to an old worm fence, Plaisted said. Reaching the fence first, Katon “firmly planted our flag” against it.
He held the flag staff “with the greatest steadiness, amidst such a shower of bullets” that no man could possibly survive, Plaisted believed.
Scaling the fence, the Mainers and Pennsylvanians stood about 50 yards from the woods swarming with enemy troops. The Maine boys fired repeatedly, and Confederates — lots of ’em — shot back. In the color guard, Corp. Willis Maddocks of Co. K fell dead beside Katon.
Enemy bullets shattered the flag staff held by Katon; kneeling so that he leaned over Mattocks’ body, Katon held the shattered staff and flag as high as his arms and hands could reach. Later, he counted 11 fresh bullet holes in the 11th Maine’s flag.
Moving from north to south as bullets filled the air around him, Robert Campbell leaned over and tapped the back of almost every soldier shooting at the nearby Confederates. “Fire lower, boys, fire lower,” Campbell told the sweating, gunpowder-stained soldiers. “Aim lower, boys, aim lower.”
Maine boys pitched and fell along the regiment’s thinning line. With the 104th Pennsylvanians falling back and “two-thirds of my commissioned officers and one half of my little battalion … either killed or wounded,” Plaisted “reluctantly … gave the order, ‘Retreat.’”
Falling back through their camp, the 11th Maine boys then flowed east across the Nine Mile Road and into Seven Pines, where Casey had organized another defense line. There Plaisted learned about the fight that companies B, G, H, and K had, while fighting with the 56th New York, “behaved nobly and retired from the field in good order.”
Two pieces comprising seven companies of the 11th Maine pie were back together. That left three 11th Maine companies out on the far right of the picket line.
At the Co. D position, 1st Sgt. Robert Brady “realized by the sound of the battle that he was cut off from his camp,” his son said later. The elder Brady told his men that if Co. D retreated, they should carefully withdraw “toward the right and rear.”
A Confederate line of battle appeared about noon and moved toward Co. D; 1st Sgt. Brady ordered men to drop trees across the woods road leading into the company’s position. Other soldiers fired on the advancing Confederates and momentarily checked them.
Not far away, 1st Lt. Francis Sabine of Co. E had also spotted the approaching enemy troops. They passed a bit north of the position held by companies E and I and overlapped Co. D, whose members retreated to avoid capture.
Most (including Brady Jr.) reached Union lines; the elder Brady and six other men were captured.
Confederates shoved the 3rd Division east through Seven Pines as the day progressed; “we heard a terrible firing” to the east, behind the picket line, Sabine said.
Involving a considerable number of troops, another Confederate attack headed toward the woods defended by companies E and I late on Saturday. Along with Capt. Simeon Merrill of Co. I, Sabine ordered his men “all on to their posts.”
The last 11th Maine lads this far out on the battlefield, the 60-odd soldiers ran into the wheat field between them and the Confederates, reached a rise, and fired.
Three Confederate cavalrymen toppled from their horses, and the enemy advance briefly halted.
As “the bullets whistled round us loosely,” the 11th Mainers ran for the trees, Sabine said. Enemy officers “saw us there, and probably supposed we had support” from artillery and infantry and stopped the attack. “Instead of having support, we knew we were cut off from it.”
Rather than sacrifice their men to a possible night attack, Merrill and Sabine pulled back, formed “a new line behind a fence,” and waited, Sabine said. “It was rainy and dark, and a hard night.”
Although the battle continued on Sunday, the fighting was over for the 11th Maine. Plaisted pulled together his sliced-and-diced regiment by late morning; a thorough nose count revealed that of the 229 men on the battle line about 12 noon Sunday, 79 were now casualties.
The regiment that had fought in four pieces had lost 12 men killed, 50 wounded, and 17 missing — but had lived to fight another day.
Next week: Sliced and diced 11th Maine: Part III – reading between the lines
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.