- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

In the fourth year of the Civil War, the combination of the rifled musket and fortified earthworks demonstrated the folly of using the Napoleonic tactic of massing troops in the open to assault prepared works. Evidence of the futility of this tactic was amply provided by the battle of Cold Harbor, where about 7,000 Union troops were slaughtered in less than half an hour in an assault against well-engineered trenches.

However, it could be argued that the deadliest example of the stupidity of massed troops assaulting strong earthworks manned by troops skilled in the use of the rifled musket occurred on June 18, 1864, when the Army of the Potomac had a wisp of a chance to capture Petersburg, Va. The attack involved troops from the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment.

This regiment of outdoorsmen came primarily from the Penobscot Valley of eastern Maine and was organized in August 1862. It originally was established as an infantry unit, and when it reached Washington in late August of that year, its principal duties lay in defending the nation’s capital from Confederate attack. It drilled constantly as both infantry and artillery. In late 1863, the regiment was reorganized and expanded and designated the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.

By the spring of 1864, Union commander Gen. Ulysses S. Grant needed more infantry than heavy artillery, so the 1st Maine was pulled out of Washington and joined the Army of the Potomac at Spotsylvania, Va. On arrival, it was assigned to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. The veterans greeted the Maine men with jeers and laughter because of the softness of their previous service. That changed on May 19, 1864, when they helped repulse a Confederate attack on the corps’ supply train, losing more than 500 men, about one-third of its strength.

The regiment participated in the ensuing movements of Grant’s Overland Campaign, including Cold Harbor, but was not seriously involved in any of the fighting. Deciding against further attack, Grant pulled out of the trenches at Cold Harbor, sidestepped Gen. Robert E. Lee and made a dash for the strategic railroad center at Petersburg. He was successful in beating Lee there, but then, somehow, communications within the Union high command failed to work properly.

Despite Gen. George G. Meade’s orders to attack, delays and confusion ensued. As a consequence, the opportunities to take Petersburg on the 15th, 16th or 17th of June had all but slipped away. By the 17th, most of Lee’s army had arrived and occupied several miles of trenches dug two years earlier (the Dimmock Line).

Grant wanted another try, so late in the afternoon of June 18, he ordered Meade to make one more attack. Meade chose David Birney’s II Corps (Birney taking over for the wounded Hancock) to make the assault. Birney selected Gershom Mott’s 3rd Brigade, including the 1st Maine, to spearhead it.

If Grant or Meade thought the assault had any chance for success, the men in the ranks knew it did not. Having survived attacks against prepared defenses at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, these veterans knew that only death awaited them if they charged.

Birney organized his attack by putting his veteran infantry units in the front, with two heavy artillery regiments, including the 1st Maine, behind. When the order to advance came, the veterans hardly budged, despite their officers’ exhortations. However, the two heavy-artillery regiments got to their feet in obedience to orders. When the prone veterans saw this, they yelled, “Lie down, you damn fools, you can’t take them forts.”

The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery wisely followed this advice. The 1st Maine did not. They gamely ran through the prostrate Union men and charged the Confederate lines. Enemy muskets opened with a terrific fire, and enemy cannon let fly with canister that came in just off the ground. One survivor described the field as a “burning, seething, crashing, hissing hell” that no troops could bear for long.

The slaughter was fearful, and 10 minutes after rising to make the charge, the 1st Maine retreated, leaving more than 600 of comrades on the field. The loss was the highest total of killed and wounded suffered by any regiment in the war. Grant realized that Petersburg’s works were too strong to be taken by storm, and he settled in for a siege that lasted 10 months.

The II Corps veterans had greeted the 1st Maine’s arrival with laughter. After June 18, the laughter ceased. The 1st Maine had earned the veterans’ respect with a check written in blood.

Joseph E. Lowry lives in Arlington.

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