The stench grew as Col. Harris Plaisted and an 11th Maine Infantry companion known only as “S” approached the front lines west of Seven Pines, Va. on Friday, June 19, 1862.*
Here, on Saturday, May 31, Maj. Robert F. Campbell of Cherryfield had brought companies A, C, and F out of the 11th Maine camp to meet attacking Confederates during the Battle of Seven Pines. Plaisted, who commanded the regiment, met the 90-odd men and led them to a position north of the Williamsburg Stage Road (modern Route 60).
Plaisted’s seven other companies were strung along the Union picket line already shattered by enemy infantry.
Plaisted positioned 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 Regiment to the north. The Union artillery and infantry opened fire on Confederate troops advancing from the west.
With enemy infantry threatening to capture the four 3-inch Parrott rifles of Battery H, only the cold steel could save those guns. Around 1 p.m., Plaisted received an order “to charge. With the greatest enthusiasm, the order was obeyed.”
Moving simultaneously with the 104th Pennsylvania on its right (north) flank and the 100th New York Infantry on the south side of the Williamsburg Stage Road, the 11th Maine boys had charged. Color Sgt. Alexander Katon (a newspaper misspelled his name as “Katen”) of Co. B and Pittston “bore our standard bravely in front of the line,” Plaisted remembered.
Forward to a worm (rail fence) charged his men, and there they deployed to the right and left to duel with Confederate infantry. The fighting was intense and bloody; by the time that Plaisted withdrew his three companies from the fence, he had lost 52 men: six dead, 39 wounded, and seven missing.
The participating Confederates, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians were as badly hammered.
So now, on June 19, Plaisted and “S” rode “over the ground” across which the 104th Pennsylvanians and the three 11th Maine companies had charged on May 31. The two officers rode “to the fence the men took refuge under, laying down and firing between the rails … though now scattered, are pierced and shattered by musket balls,” “S” noted.
As the horsemen crossed the field that witnessed the 11th Maine’s charge, fat flies buzzed around the riders and relentlessly tormented the horses by attacking their eyes, nostrils, and hides. Horse hooves splattered across the ground left sodden not by precipitation fallen from the sky, but by what lay beneath the field’s sloppy surface.
Plaisted and “S” had reached the Cemetery of Flies.
The men possibly held handkerchiefs to their noses as the rot invaded their nostrils. The stink was so bad, how could the Massachusetts soldiers holding this section of the Federal picket line stand it?
Pickets had already signaled Plaisted and “S” to ride no farther. A wide field separated the shattered fence, the westernmost limit of Federal power in this region of the Tidewater, from the Confederates in the brushy woods to the west. Technically both officers had reined up within rifle shot of the enemy, but nobody was shooting today at the Cemetery of Flies.
“S” gazed around from the saddle. “Of this vicinity the best description, is that of ‘a field of blood,’” he decided.
“Blood literally colors the ground” upon which his horse stood. “Here swarms of flies are collected to feast on the blood” and anything living that passed by.
“So numerous are they, as actually to startle our horses, as we rode over the field; and the stench was so powerful as to render unpleasant our whole stay there,” said “S.”
The blood and stench rose from what lay within the soil.
“Just here the dead were all buried,” their rotting bodies still oozing fluids and miasmatic smells into the soil, “S” realized. “A few rods distant” beyond the fence in no man’s land, “and we saw bodies yet untouched” by burial details.
Officers from the 16th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which held that part of the line, approached Plaisted and “S.” The Maine soldiers must have mentioned the unburied bodies they could see; “a great many such are to be seen just outside the picket lines,” a Massachusetts officer pointed out.
Through Wednesday, June 4, “our men had covered 2,840 of the rebel dead, finding them most thickly strewn over the ground, killed by the fire of the 104th Penn. And Maine 11th and that battery whose guns were not taken, than anywhere else,” a Bay State officer said.
“The low, swampy plain is now, for more than a mile square, one vast cemetery, peopled by Unionists and rebels, the latter far outnumbering the former,” “S” realized.
Plaisted and “S” expressed their desire to visit the graves of the 11th Maine lads buried a bit farther into the field. “We … were urged not to advance to the graves of our men because it was too dangerous, and was under the fire of the enemy’s picket,” “S” learned.
Plaisted could only look at the 11th Maine graves, still identifiable by the rough boards placed at each man’s head. He pointed out to “S” the grave “of the kind hearted” 2nd Lt. J. William West of Co. C and East Machias.
West “had escaped the hardships of the Peninsular march by being detailed to remain at Newport News to care for the sick,” “S” learned. But West had “reached the regiment soon enough to engage in this his first and last battle.”
First Lieutenant Melville M. Folsom of Co. K and Newburgh “was near” West “when he fell” and “remained with him while he lived, regardless of the deadly storm of bullets,” “S” already knew that tale.
After the battle, Plaisted had brought the 11th Maine survivors out to find their missing comrades. Folsom “returned to decently inter the remains of his friend,” according to “S.”
Heroes from several states lay in the Cemetery of Flies. “We wish it could be visited by both friends and defamers, for there they would unite in bestowing deserved praise upon those who fought with unsurpassed bravery,” stated “S.”+
“It is the post defended by these brave but misrepresented men for honors, and until its soil drank the blood of one half its sturdy defenders,” he stated.
*The source for the events of June 19, 1862 is “From the 11th Maine Regiment,” Ellsworth American, Friday, July 11, 1862. The letter writer identified himself only as “S,” but evidence suggests he was Capt. Winslow P. Spofford of Co. G and Dedham.
+ Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, blamed the inexperienced regiments he had left dangling and poorly supported west of Seven Pines for the near disaster that engulfed that part of his army on May 31-June 1, 1862. Although they had fought superbly against more numerous Confederate troops, the “green” regiments like the 11th Maine felt the sting of the criticism emanating from headquarters. “S” had more to say about such criticism elsewhere in the letter published in the Ellsworth American on July 11, 1862.
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.