Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. had yet to see a serious “elephant” as his 4th Maine Battery crossed hot and dusty Virginia in July 1862.
Robinson, the Bethel attorney whose Democratic Party leanings had concerned Maine’s Republican Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. the previous autumn, had detrained with his battery in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, April 3. After freezing all winter in their Augusta camp, the gunners had camped briefly in Portland in mid-March before boarding a southbound train with the 3rd and 5th Maine batteries, now needed as Union troops shifted from the capital’s outskirts to the Virginia Peninsula.
Robinson brought with him four officers and approximately 100 enlisted men. His battery fielded six 3-inch wrought-iron ordnance rifles, each weighing 820 pounds and capable of firing a 9½-pound projectile at least 1,850 yards. In Army fashion, the gun crews and their guns were numbered one through six; referred to as a detachment, each gun crew consisted of “a Sergeant, two Corporals and thirteen men,” noted Corp. Judson Ames of Foxcroft, assigned to the Second Detachment (No. 2 gun) commanded by Sgt. Algernon S. Bangs of Augusta.
“The extra men of the Battery are divided among the detachments,” Ames observed.
Accompanied by the 6th Maine Battery of Capt. Freeman McGilvery of Searsport, Robinson and his men initially trained at Fort Ramsey in Alexandria; the 6th Maine went to nearby Fort Buffalo. To pay for tobacco, thrifty Yankees from Robinson’s battery earned money by gathering and selling “old bullets” as “old lead.”
Scrounging “an old shell” on Saturday, May 10, privates Lewis Davis and Charles Robie “attempted to extract the fuse plug,” Ames said. The exploding shell mortally wounded both men. Robie died that day; Davis lingered until May 29.
Receiving their horses on May 25 and their six cannons on May 26, Robinson’s men entrained for the Shenandoah Valley on June 13; McGilvery and the 6th Maine Battery boarded the same train. On the hilly journey from Harper’s Ferry to Charleston, the 4th Maine gunners helped push their train up a steep incline; the underpowered engine chugged so slowly in places that the Maine men, still fresh from their farms, stepped away from their pushing and picked blackberries alongside the tracks.
Catching up with the train took only a short run afterwards.
The blue-clad tourists visited the John Brown-related Charleston jail and gallows, “still standing in a field near by,” Ames breathlessly noted. “Here we first met the genuine Secesh and about the only good looking girls that we saw in Virginia.
“They did not smile very sweetly on us,” he admitted.
The War Department attached the 4th Maine Battery to the 2nd Brigade (Brig. Gen. Henry Prince) of the 2nd Division (Brig. Gen. Christopher C. Augur) of the II Corps, commanded by the Stonewall Jackson-manhandled Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks. As part of the Army of Virginia commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope, Augur started his division east on July 5; breaking camp that afternoon, the 4th Maine Battery crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at Manassas Gap and rolled toward Warrenton.
Accidents and smallpox cost Robinson men as his battery reached the Piedmont. Blacksmith Albert V. Thompson and brother privates Asa and Charles Coombs obtained permission to leave the battery’s camp near Warrenton to pick the “very abundant” blackberries — and promptly deserted. Ames figured the trio “got on the wrong road and did not discover their mistake until they arrived in Canada.”
The battery went into camp at Little Washington, but men fell sick there. A few died; two “were buried under a large locust tree in a field near our camp” before Augur started his 2nd Division on the road to Culpeper. Brigades started arriving around the village on July 24,
Nathaniel Banks brought both his divisions, the 2nd of Augur and the 1st of Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, east to central Virginia. Passing through Warrenton, the divisions converged on Culpeper; elements of the 1st Division, including the 10th Maine Infantry, started arriving there on July 24.
Tramping along in blisteringly hot weather, Christopher Augur’s 2nd Division reached Culpeper late on Friday, Aug. 8. Trailing along with the 2nd Brigade’s hard-marching infantrymen (plus a cavalry company), O’Neil Robinson and the 4th Maine Battery went into camp a mile north of Culpeper about midnight.
Earlier that Friday, Williams had marched much of his division toward Cedar Mountain, an approximately 800-foot high monadnock rising from the Piedmont about 8 miles southwest of Culpeper. Thomas J. Jackson was pushing Confederate troops across the Rapidan toward the village, and the Union boys had to stop ol’ “Stonewall.”
As they settled down, Robinson’s boys knew that a battle lurked somewhere in the warm Virginia darkness; couriers galloped to and fro in the Union camps in the wee hours of Saturday, and the Maine men slept little.
Next week: Charged up to fight: 4th Maine Battery rolls toward Cedar Mountain — Part II
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.