Ordered to shoot when he wasn’t supposed to, Senior 1st Lt. William Berry Lapham of the 7th Maine Battery promptly complied — and all hell quickly broke loose at the Petersburg position that Union soldiers called “Fort Hell.”
An Oxford County man to his core — born in Greenwood, raised in Bethel, settled into a medical practice at Bryant Pond in Woodstock — Lapham had raised an infantry company in spring ’61. Citing too many brogans on the ground in Washington, D.C., the War Department soon suspended recruiting and dispersed all unattached companies.
Dr. Lapham went home. Then Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. summoned him to Augusta in late autumn to provide medical care for the thousands of recruits assembling there. He finally donned a blue uniform in late September 1862 as the second lieutenant in Co. F, 23rd Maine Infantry Regiment, a nine-month regiment that pulled guard duty along the Potomac River.
Lapham’s closest exposure to combat occurred in Maryland in mid-June 1863, when Co. F. protected a “signal station on Sugar Loaf, a conical hill … between Poolesville and the Potomac.” With “a field glass” he and other Mainers watched “a rebel cavalry raid” on nearby Frederick, which “we could see … very plainly.”
That was that for military service. Minus 56 men felled by disease, the 23rd Maine mustered out in mid-July. Afterward, “a large number of the men re-enlisted and served to the end of the war,” said Lapham, promised a captaincy if he recruited a company for the fledgling 2nd Maine Cavalry Regiment.
For a reason unclear, Gov. Abner Coburn asked Lapham to transfer to the new 7th Maine Battery. Obtaining “the consent of the men” he had enlisted in the 2nd Maine and negotiating a position as second-in-command in the battery, Lapham mustered with the 7th Maine on Dec. 29, 1863.
Living in “board barracks made warm and comparatively comfortable,” the gunners spent several weeks at Camp Coburn in Augusta. Their commander, Capt. Adelbert Twitchell (the Bethel warrior who survived the 5th Maine Battery’s Chancellorsville Gotterdammerung) lodged at the Augusta House. His NCOs and enlisted men purchased for him “a fine stallion, black as the raven’s wing,” Lapham recalled.
Horse and rider would survive the war.
On Monday, Feb. 1, 1864, Lapham formed the 7th Maine Battery “into line … with great precision.” Marching “up the avenue between the avenues,” the “men and officers … made a very fine appearance” as they stopped on State Street outside “the State House.”
Then, “taking the center of State Street[,] we marched toward the [railroad] station,” Lapham reported.
As the gunners reached the Augusta House, legislators and businessmen tipped off by Twitchell packed “the doors and verandas.” Joining the admirers were many “ladies,” all cheering while the 7th Maine Battery passed in review, Lapham recalled.
Traveling by rail and ship, the battery trained under Maj. James Hall (former commander of the 2nd Maine Battery) at the Artillery Camp of Instruction at Camp Barry in Washington, D.C. Issued six 12-pounder bronze Napoleons on March 12, the 7th Maine Battery joined IX Corps in late April.
Bloodied at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House — Lapham remembered one morning in May on the latter battlefield when “the air was full of whizzing, whistling [enemy] bullets” before his gunners replied “with cannister [sic] shot” — the 7th Maine Battery ultimately reached Petersburg and shifted among the Union forts sprouting up along the lengthening siege lines.
Felled by malaria in early July, Lapham shipped home to recover physically and to recruit more gunners. He returned healthier and wiser, escorting from Boston to Bermuda Hundred on the James River “900 recruits” — including “my own squad” — packed into the steamship Northern Light.
Describing the non-7th Maine recruits as “a more villainous looking set of men, I ever saw,” Lapham identified them as “largely deserters, bounty jumpers,” and many “rebels who had come to Maine and Massachusetts” from Canada to enlist “for the large bounties, then paid” His escorts, from a Massachusetts heavy-artillery company, prowled the steamer with loaded rifles and threatened to shoot any recruit causing trouble.
Delivering his mutinous cargo Bermuda Hundred, Lapham caught a steamer to Washington, reported for duty, and in mid-September received orders to rejoin the 7th Maine Battery.
Next week: William Lapham notices that Confederates defenses lay not too far from Fort Sedgwick.
Sources: William B. Lapham, My Recollections of the War of the Rebellion, Burleigh & Flynt, Augusta, Maine, 1892; Seventh Battery, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine 1864-1865, Stevens & Sayward, Augusta, Maine 1866
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.