Reading the report he addressed to Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. on July 18, 1862, you can just “see” the steam venting from the ears of Maj. Robert F. Campbell.
The 6-foot, 45-year-old Cherryfield lumberman was livid. Third in command of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment, he was filling in for the ill Col. Harris Plaisted. Campbell was supposed to be informing Washburn about the regiment’s performance “in the great movements of the past few days” (a.k.a., the Seven Days Battle), but something else was really ticking him off.
A New York artillery battery had just stolen five men from the battle- and disease-depleted 11th Maine.
“Sir,” Campbell greeted Washburn, “a few days since [July 18] we were ordered by our division commander (Brig. Gen. John J. Peck) to make a detail of 5 men to fill up a New York Battery. We accordingly made the detail.
“But [we] protested that they had no right to put a man that is enlisted as an infantry man into the artillery service,” Campbell growled.
And why did the 11th Maine so loudly protest losing five men to temporary duty with an Empire State artillery battery? “Because our regiment is so small,” explained Campbell, his deep blue eyes afire as he wrote inside a tent at the regiment’s camp at Harrison’s Landing on the James River in Virginia.
The 11th Maine had suffered heavy casualties during the May 31-June 1 Battle of Seven Pines. Afterwards the regiment had recuperated in a camp near the Richmond & York River Railroad bridge spanning the Chickahominy River east of Seven Pines.
At the time, “our position did not seem to be one of much importance,” Campbell had believed.
The regiment had fought with the 1st Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee and the 3rd Division commanded by Brig. Gen. Silas Casey. But a vengeful George B. McClellan had sacked Casey, deemed the scapegoat for McClellan’s failure to anticipate the Confederate attack at Seven Pines.
McClellan then replaced Casey with Peck, a New Yorker.
So the New York-born division commander ordered the 11th Maine to transfer men to a New York artillery battery? So what else was new?
Campbell was having nothing of it. “If the service demands that the New York Batteries be filled up[,] there are plenty of New York regiments that are small and without officers and could be well used for that purpose,” he told Washburn.
The steam whistling from Campbell’s ears could have powered a locomotive’s whistle. “It is not very pleasing to the commander of a Maine regiment to have his men taken from him and put into New York Batteries,” Campebell fumed.
“Nor is it right to use the enlisted men in this manner,” he snorted.
Campbell used the entirety of page 1 of his four-page letter to discuss the artillery battery’s theft of five good men. Peck pooh-poohed Campbell’s protest; after all, five backwoods farmers or loggers or whatever their occupation from Maine could probably make good artillerymen … once they were trained.
“I therefore respectfully request that you will lay the matter before the Secretary of War,” Campbell asked Washburn. “And ascertain whether Maine is obliged to fill up Batteries from other states. And if possible have the men returned to us.”
Did Campbell have any other requests of the Guv pertaining to this issue?
No. In fact, Campbell abruptly changed the subject.
“Knowing that your excellency has always taken a very great interest in the 11th,” he wrote, “perhaps it might be pleasing to you to know what part we took” during the Seven Days Battle and the Union army’s embarrassing retreat from the Gates of Richmond to a hellhole landing on the James River.
Unfortunately for the five 11th Maine lads, cross-pollinating artillery batteries with foot sloggers was a common practice. Each cannon typically had an eight-man crew. During a battle, solid shot and case shot striking around targeted cannons had a habit of knocking the gunners to pieces; sometimes enemy artillery fire wiped out gunners faster than they could be replaced.
And sometimes transfer to an artillery battery saved an infantryman’s hide. West of Gettysburg on the Chambersburg Pike on Wednesday, July 1, 1863, Capt. James A. Hall deployed his 2nd Maine Battery and fired on approaching Confederate infantry.
Off to his right flank, perhaps three-quarters of a mile to the north, the 16th Maine Infantry was sacrificed later that day to buy precious time for Union soldiers (including Hall’s battery) escaping the Confederate juggernaut. The regiment was essentially annihilated, with most men captured or shot —
— except for the 31 soldiers from the 16th Maine serving on detached duty with Hall’s Battery on July 1. Four of the TDY artillerymen were wounded, but they all got away when Hall withdrew his battery through the streets of Gettysburg.
Source: Maj. Robert F. Campbell, July 18, 1862 letter to Gov. Israel Washburn Jr., Maine State Archives
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.