The Bloody Charge of the 1st Maine

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Bloody Charge of the 1st Maine


Byline: Joseph E. Lowry, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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