Spring peepers added a special touch to a ceremony held in Bangor Saturday, May 24 to honor a Maine regiment shattered during a tragic charge in Virginia almost 150 years ago.
The Queen City was among 11 sites across the United States selected to participate in a National Park Service-sponsored program titled “Reverberations.” Specific Union regiments that fought in the spring 1864 Overland Campaign were honored in ceremonies held in eight cities on May 24; other ceremonies took place at Civil War-related national parks in Virginia.
Earlier this year, Ann Blumenschine, the Petersburg National Battlefield public information officer, asked Holden authors Diane and Ned Smith if they could organize a “Reverberations” ceremony honoring the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment. The Smiths have written several Civil War books.
According to Blumenschine, the NPS selected Bangor as a “Reverberations” site because the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery had strong ties to the city and the lower Penobscot Valley. The program’s purpose, she said, was to emphasize the effect that the spring 1864 fighting had on families and communities “back home.”
“We should think about the families and the impact,” Diane Smith said. “For each family, it was an individual impact.”
The May 24 tribute featured an afternoon program held at the Bangor Public Library and an evening remembrance ceremony held at the Grand Army of the Republic “fort” at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor. The afternoon program, which saw more than 40 people pack a BPL lecture hall, featured a well-illustrated presentation by the Smiths on the history of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery and brief presentations by several descendants of the regiment’s members. Blumenschine detailed the immediate events leading to the regiment’s disastrous charge on June 18, 1864.
Ned Smith highlighted the regiment’s history. Raised in summer 1862 as the 18th Maine Infantry Regiment, the 1,000-soldier outfit was led by Col. Daniel Chaplin of Bangor. He took the regiment to Washington, D.C., where the Maine soldiers built forts and later garrisoned them after the War Department converted the 18th Maine to a heavy artillery regiment that December.
Its ranks bolstered to 1,800 men, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery remained in the D.C. forts until the Army of the Potomac suffered some 18,000 casualties during the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness. Asked by Ulysses Simpson Grant to send replacement troops, the War Department emptied the D.C. forts of their heavy artillery regiments. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery “headed for the front” on May 13, 1864, according to Diane Smith.
Six days later, as Union forces left the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield, Robert E. “Lee sent part of a corps to try and reach around the Federal [left] flank,” Diane Smith said. Now fighting as infantry, three heavy-artillery regiments (including the 1st Maine) got in the way and stopped Lee’s strategy at the Battle of Harris Farm.
Suffering 532 casualties, “the 1st Maine Heavies held their ground against some formidable Rebel divisions,” Smith said. Seeing little additional action until deployed at Petersburg a month later, the regiment now lost men in a trickle.
According to Diane Smith, Pvt. Levi Curtis was the only 1st MHA soldier wounded during the Battle of Cold Harbor in early June 1864, but for his family, the pain and suffering was no less than that experienced by the families of the 532 men lost at Harris Farm. That was an important point of “Reverberations,” she explained; the loss of one man in one fight was as traumatic to his family and community as the loss of many men to their families and communities in another fight.
On June 18, 1864, the 1st MHA and two other regiments were detailed to charge well-defended Confederate earthworks at Petersburg. “The Mainers would lead the charge,” Blumenschine said, but when the Maine soldiers launched their attack, the supporting regiments “left them out there all by themselves.”
In 10 minutes the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost 632 men of the approximately 900 men who started the charge. “It was the worst loss of any single regiment in any action in the Civil War,” Blumenschine said.
Among the regimental descendants present for the afternoon program were:
• Ted Littlefield of Hampden, related to Corp. Sam Tasker of Co. E;
• Bruce Moore of Bangor, related to Lt. Richard Moore of Old Town;
• Gary Edwards of Sullivan. His ancestor, Nelson W. Edwards, was wounded in 1864 and now lies buried at Arlington National Cemetery;
• Trip Sproul, a retired Army officer from Tucson who traveled to Bangor with his wife, Betty, to attend the “Reverbations” program. His ancestor was Sgt. Adelbert Sproul of Orono.
During the afternoon program, the losses experienced by soldiers’ families were illustrated in the letters read by several audience members. Written primarily to Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon later in 1864 or 1865, the letters came from relatives seeking information on Maine soldiers who for the most part had simply vanished after particular battles.
In almost every situation, Hodsdon had to inform the worried relatives that their husbands, sons, or fathers had died of disease or wounds while defending the Union.
The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery “was involved right to the end of the war” and ultimately suffered 1,428 casualties, Ned Smith said.
That evening some 30 people gathered at the GAR fort at Mount Hope Cemetery. Civil War re-enactors participating in the remembrance ceremony included an honor guard from Co. B, 20th Maine Infantry and a color guard from the Daniel Chaplin Camp, Sons of Union Veterans. Staff Sgt. Micah Maurio of the 195th Army Band, Maine Army National Guard, played taps.
Referring to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery’s casualties, Blumenschine described “how those tragedies … would have a rippling effect into those communities which those men came from.” Tim Sproul detailed how he discovered that he had a great-great uncle, Adelbert Sproul, who served with the 1st MHA. Tim later found Adelbert’s grave at a national cemetery in Hopewell, Va.
As the light faded, peepers lent their sweet springtime music to the ceremony. Participants held lighted candles while volunteers read the names of 1st Maine Heavy Artillery soldiers killed or mortally wounded during the Petersburg charge. Broken down by company, the list of names encompassed some 115 men lost so long ago.
Then volunteers spread Virginia soil around a floral arrangement placed at the base of the GAR fort. Contained in a glass jar, the soil “came from the route taken by the 1st Maine Heavies” during their epic charge, Blumenschine said.
“Reverberations” ended with a volley fired by the Co. B honor guard and taps played by Maurio.
Brian Swartz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.