Sometimes a historian discovers a poignant story written between the lines — and later stumbles elsewhere onto an obscure written reference to that untold tale.
Such occurred as I researched the honor that Col. Harris Plaisted bestowed on the slain lions of his 11th Maine Infantry Regiment.
Perhaps two days after staging a fighting retreat at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia, survivors of the shot-to-shreds 11th Maine ventured onto the battlefield to find and bury their heroic dead.
The extremely well-written and -detailed regimental history — “The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion” (by Robert Brady Jr. and Albert Maxfield) — will not tell you this particular tale.
Nor will the official report written on June 2 by Plaisted, who led three companies in a bayonet charge on Saturday May 31, 1862. The fact that he made it back safely is a miracle, for Seven Pines was a killer and mangler of Union colonels and generals.
In the separate “Company D of the Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion” that he co-authored with Maxfield, Brady described how “after the battle we had occasion to look over the battlefield” while searching for eight men missing from Co. D.
Brady made no mention of burying the regiment’s dead.
Neither did Plaisted in a June 20 letter written to Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. However, the burial actually happened, as you can can read between the lines of this letter (published June 30, 1862 in the Portland Daily Press).
The events that Plaisted described in his letter could only have happened if he and his men went out to bury their dead. Let me explain.
Driven out of their Seven Pines defenses on May 31, Union troops fell back east of the village to fight alongside arriving reinforcements. Fighting that raged on Sunday, June 1 saw the Confederate troops driven west about as far as the kick-off point for their Saturday attack.
Plaisted’s casualty reports fluctuated as to the 11th Maine’s losses; on June 2 he reported six men killed, 46 wounded, and 29 missing, for a total of 81 casualties. Plaisted later revised his losses to 12 men killed, 50 wounded, and 17 captured.
He could not have confirmed those numbers without finding some missing men dead on the field. This means that 11th Maine boys searched the areas where they had fought to see who lay there.
That explains how Pvt. Daniel Gray of Co. D, initially reported as missing along with seven other comrades, was later listed as “killed.” Neither Plaisted’s report nor “The Story of One Regiment” explains how Gray’s death was confirmed, but comrades found him and evidently buried him on site.
The other missing Co. D soldiers were captured; they were exchanged that fall.
Now for the “read between the lines” story.
Deep into the second paragraph of his June 20 letter, Plaisted informed Washburn, “The 11th boys are buried nearer Richmond than any soldiers of the Union army.”
How could Plaisted state that fact unless he had seen the graves of his fallen warriors?
Referring to his claim about his men’s geographical proximity to Richmond (which lay 6 miles to the west), Plaisted continued, “That is true of Lieut West’s grave, and he fell several rods in rear of where some others fell.”
He thus confirmed seeing the grave of 2nd Lt. J. William West of Co. C and East Machias.
“Willis Maddocks, corporal in [the] color guard, fell at the very front, and his grave marks the extreme point where the Union men fought,” Plaisted then wrote.
He thus confirmed standing at Maddocks’ grave and noticing its location in relationship to the graves of other Union soldiers, including those of perhaps another eight 11th Maine lads.
So Plaisted’s dead heroes were buried by their comrades. We know this because, in reading between between the lines, we realize that Plaisted could not have accurately described two particular graves unless he had seen them.
And he could not have identified the graves into which Maddocks and West had been laid unless he had seen them buried – or at least read the grave markers.
I think Plaisted cried as he studied the graves. Referring to the 93 men he had led in the May 31 charge and the subsequent bloody shoot-out along a worm fence, he wrote on June 20, “They put themselves into my hands and obeyed my orders, just as promptly and calmly—under the hottest fire, while their comrades were dropping all around them—as they did on parade.”
He went on. “There was no difference, all—young and old, officers and privates, ready to make the fight to the death.”
Where did Plaisted find such heroes? He knew — and he told Washburn where: “If I had a thousand men—Maine men—such men as I now have, God helping us, we would make a name for our good old State.”
So that’s the tale of the honor that Plaisted bestowed on his slain soldiers. In reading between the lines of the June 20 letter, Washburn probably understood that Plaisted had stood beside the graves.
But he never mentioned, in that letter or his official report, crossing the battlefield on June 2nd or 3rd to look for his fallen men. Yet in describing the graves of Maddocks and West, Plaisted indirectly revealed that he had retraced the steps of the May 31 charge.
But, as I later discovered, Plaisted had already mentioned doing so in a letter written June 7 to Washburn. Plaisted was justifiably spouting off about a George McClellan-caused morale issue when he noted, “In passing where the 11th ME and 104 Pa., which was on our right, fought, we counted 196 dead Rebels besides 60 new graves [of Confederates buried] side by side killed too by rifle balls—mostly artillery.”
With first-person, eyewitness language incorporated into this sentence, Plaisted confirmed taking his men across the battlefield to where they had fought on May 31.
And while Plaisted never refers to a burial party, we know that the living 11th Maine boys buried their dead friends. We know because that story is written 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.