Arriving at Fort Sedgwick about Dec. 1, 1864, the 7th Maine Battery’s gunners noticed no protection against indirect mortar fire. Aided by “a detail of infantry,” the Maine and New Jersey gunners used “gabions, sand-bags, timber and earth” to construct “bomb-proofs … along the parapet” to shelter the artillerymen and a large bomb-proof in the fort’s center to protect “the ammunition and officers,” Lapham said.
Soldiers standing atop “the central bomb-proof” could see the Petersburg church spires “and the main line of the enemy for several miles,” he noted.
His uniformed builders paid particular attention to the central bomb-proof. Lapham’s men, “most of whom were familiar with … the axe,” into “the heavy growth of pine timber” east of Fort Sedgwick to fell trees and hew them into eight-foot logs “about a foot in diameter” and “square at the ends.”
Soldiers dug a hole “about fifteen feet square and three feet deep” and set the logs “close together” inside the hole. Leaving “only a place for a door,” the soldiers raised more logs to form the walls and then “laid across the upright timbers of a covering,” Lapham noted.
After piling and tamping dirt (which may have been a sandy loam) “around and atop” the bomb-proof “to the depth of nearly ten foot,” the soldiers then placed sand-filled gabions “on each side and upon the top at the rear, to keep the sand in place,” he said.
Safe from direct enemy fire, a chimney stood on the southeast side of the bomb-proof, next to a rough wooden, right-hinged, and outward-opening door door, Lapham said. Inside the door, three steps descended into “a room about twelve feet square and eight feet high.”
Set in the southeast wall behind the chimney, “a glass window taken from some rebel house” let in the sunlight and brightened the interior several hours a day. Lapham noted the adjacent magazine, with its separate entrance, and the smaller bomb-proofs, called “gopher holes,” built along Sedgwick’s walls to shelter the enlisted men.
Twitchell established the 7th Maine Battery’s camp a few miles behind Fort Sedgwick and left Lapham and 1st Lt. Daniel Staples at the front all winter. Twitchell occasionally visited the fort, but seldom hung around; he “did not remain long and lodged every night at the camp,” sniffed Lapham.
With Confederates nearby, the Sedgwick garrison practiced “constant vigilance” night and day, and enemy lead and iron often whizzed overhead or thumped into the fort, he noticed. Confederate deserters bragged about mines reaching beneath Sedgwick; Union soldiers soon dug “deep wells … in the ditch outside the fort” and monitored the water levels, Lapham reported.
If a well suddenly emptied, the Union boys could figure a mine had passed beneath it.
All night long, “the pickets commenced a steady, severe fire” to discourage nocturnal attacks between the lines, William Hopkins recalled. The opposing pickets often warned their counterparts before shooting, and the rattling musketry ended with daylight, when the artillery took up the combat.
Shelling occurred “about every day,” Hopkins said. On Saturday, Dec. 3, a Confederate cannon fired on some Rhode Islanders “digging a ditch across the Jerusalem Plank Road.” The 7th Maine Battery section in Battery 21 “accurately and vigorously” returned fire and “silenced” the enemy gun.
Inside Fort Sedgwick, the bomb-proofs worked fairly well. Occasionally a 64-pound “mortar shell … buried itself” in a bomb-proof’s roof “and exploding, would throw out a ton of earth, more of less,” Lapham spoke from experience. No mortar round ever “penetrated far enough to injure the men.”
Lapham was standing atop the central bomb-proof “one day” when a mortar shell “passed over to the rear” and exploded in the 7th Rhode Island’s camp. “I … saw fragments of bedding, furniture and cooking utensils” flying out of the hole the explosion left in “an officer’s quarters.”
Hopkins remembered the “very severe mortar shelling” administered to Fort Sedgwick on Friday evening, Dec. 16. “Some of our bomb-proofs were blown in every direction,” he said. While the 48th Pennsylvania lost seven men “killed or wounded,” the Rhode Islanders “fortunately escaped all loss.”
Ordered not to shoot unless shoot at by Confederate artillery or attacked by Southern infantry, Lapham and his gunners usually kept quiet, despite the mortar shells dropping into Fort Sedgwick. Lapham had “to give a good and substantial reason” for shooting at any time.
Around mid-December, Pleasants sent for Lapham and told him the 7th Maine Battery “had not yet discharged a gun, and … wished to know the reason why.” Lapham showed Pleasants the V Corps orders’ banning willy-nilly artillery fire.
“I thought they presented a good and sufficient reason” for not firing, Lapham said.
Pleasants believed the gunners should open fire to “get the range of, and distance to, the enemy’s works.” If the good colonel “should give me a written order” to that effect, Lapham would comply.
Pleasants’ order arrived “the next day … about the same hour” to open fire with all eight Napoleons, Lapham recalled. The Union gunners started shooting, “and the enemy properly responded with his artillery in our front, and his mortar battery on our right.”
Multiple 64-pound mortar shells dropped into Fort Sedgwick and the nearby infantry camps. Henry Pleasants suddenly appeared, walking behind the thumping Napoleons while watching the action. As he passed the central bomb-proof, a mortar shell plunged into the earthen roof.
The resulting explosion “threw up a large quantity of frozen earth,” Lapham witnessed the moment. A big piece of earth — its weight estimated at “several pounds” — struck Pleasants “on the crown of his head” and knocked him senseless.
Infantrymen carried Pleasants “to his quarters,” Lapham said. Regaining consciousness, Pleasants soon sent “an orderly to inform me that I could stop firing.” The Yankees stopped shooting: the Confederates followed suit soon afterwards. The intervarsity shelling killed two Pennsylvania infantrymen dead, wounded “several others,” and destroyed some Federal winter quarters.
Pleasants issued no such order again while he remained at 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; Brevet Maj. William B. Lapham, With the Seventh Maine Battery, War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 1, The Thurston Print, Portland, Maine, 1898
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Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.