Perhaps jealous that their Union foes inside Fort Sedgwick were getting more company than they were, Confederate gunners at Fort Mahone across the Jerusalem Plank Road came calling one Sunday morning in winter ’65.
Senior 1st Lt. William B. Lapham, 7th Maine Battery, commanded the Union artillery and gunners assigned to Sedgwick, also called “Fort Hell.” Mahone was called “Fort Damnation.” Lapham was never quite sure how the monikers came to be.
“Fort Hell was a spot well known all along the army line, and visitors to the army of the Potomac did not like to return without carrying away some memento from this place,” Lapham noticed.
The fort stood on “a very commanding position,” and the “central bomb-proof” constructed by his men to protect both ammunition and officers thrust above the fort’s walls, he said.
From this perch, “the rebel lines could be seen for several miles,” Lapham said. Today a Baptist church and its parking lot occupy the Fort Sedgwick site, and development and tree growth have eliminated the views of 1865.
“Also in a clear day … the spires of the churches in Petersburg were plainly in view,” he noted.
“The consequence was that we had many visitors,” Lapham said, but “as a general thing [they] did not care to remain long after the rebels commenced shelling us.”
He noticed that the Confederates usually did not shoot “on the Sabbath,” and other wartime anecdotes related how soldiers, at least devout Christians, thought that fighting on Sunday was religious anathema.
There came a Saturday when “a severe rain … converted the Virginia clay in our fort into mortar,” Lapham recalled. “A large party” came a-knocking on Hell’s front door the next morning (a Sunday) “and asked permission to go upon the bomb-proof.” Lapham climbed atop the bomb-proof with his civilian guests, “and they were much pleased with the objects that I pointed out.”
Among the civilians “was a farmer from the interior of Pennsylvania.” The man stood “nearly six feet and a half tall, and wore a tall, stove-pipe hat which made him look like a giant,” Lapham said.
Imagine a Confederate officer standing over at Fort Damnation (now an elementary school), glassing with his binoculars. He sees people standing atop Hell’s high point — and among them is a very tall gentleman wearing a stove-pipe hat.
Lincoln! the Confederate exclaims. Abraham Lincoln is over there!
As he pointed to this Confederate post here and that Petersburg church spire there, Lapham “cast my eye across” to Fort Mahone. “I saw the end of a sponge staff appear above the parapet and then disappear, and I knew pretty well that they were charging a gun.”
Surely the Confederates at Damnation would not shoot at the civilians in Hell, would they?
Yes, they would.
“In less than a half-minute a rifled gun was discharged, and a shell passed over the bomb-proof, only a few feet above our heads,” Lapham recalled. The shell “exploded a little distance to our rear.”
With a rifled cannon, the skilled enemy gunners could have nailed the tourists in Hell. Instead the Confederates placed the shell where it would achieve the greatest entertainment value.
“The effect on our visitors was most remarkable,” Lapham grunted. The civilians “leaped down the side of the earthwork and rolled, slid or tumbled into the mud below.”
The Lincolnesque “Pennsylvanian lost his balance and came down head first, and got up and walked away with a ‘shocking bad hat,’” he reported. The 7th Maine boys split their sides in mirth, the Confederates fired “one shot more,” and “then we could hear the derisive laughter of the rebels across the way.”
Sources: William B. Lapham, My Recollections of the War of the Rebellion, Burleigh & Flynt, Augusta, Maine, 1892
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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.