Orono soldier followed his colonel to the gates of hell

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN
Posted March 10, 2014, at 9:04 a.m.

After Union troops bogged down outside Petersburg, senior Union commanders ordered an attack on Saturday, June 18, 1864. Among the regiments sent to charge across open terrain was the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.

“I think it must have been about three o’clock in the afternoon when we came out from our breastworks and began to advance” to where the charge would begin, said Pvt. Joel Brown of Orono.

Other regiments deployed nearby to participate in the “charge in mass, we to lead,” Brown said. Sensing their fate, men left “messages … to be sent home, in case anything happened, and good byes were said,” he recalled those final minutes. “I stood there leaning upon my musket, looking on.

“I had no particular comrade to say good bye to,” Brown realized. “Both were dead, one at Spottsylvania (sic), the other at Cold Harbor. I expect my face was white.”

“It was just a few minutes before 4 o’clock when the last preparations were, and at 4 came the order to load, fix bayonets and charge,” recalled Marcus Alley of Eden (Bar Harbor).

The regiment’s commander, Col. Daniel Chaplin, shouted, “Attention, First Maine Heavy Artillery. Forward, guide right, march!”

As the Maine boys “scrambled up out of the road, what a sight was before us,” the awestruck Brown said. At an estimated “ten or fifteen hundred yards away, across an open field having a little rise and covered with old corn stubble, were the rebel works, bristling with artillery, still as death, awaiting our onslaught.”

Alley estimated the open ground across which the regiment must charge was “not more than three or four hundred yards from the [enemy] breastworks.”

With his lines “somewhat broken in climbing up out of the road … our old colonel [Chaplin], who was I believe, the coolest man that it would be possible to find, gave the command to halt, took his station as on dress parade, ordered his guides on a line, dressed up the regiment, and then put us through the manual of arms as quietly as though we were still in the defences of Washington,” Brown recalled.

“All the while the bullets from the sharpshooters [are] humming about his (Chaplin’s) ears like bees,” he noticed.

Ordered to charge, “with a wild cheer which seemed to me more like the bitter cry wrung out in a death agony, we sprang forward,” Brown said. He “saw the blinding flash of red flame run along the crest” of the Confederate earthworks; he “heard the deafening crash as the awful work began.”

“There was not a Confederate visible when we started, but the regiment had not moved a dozen steps in the open before the storm of cannister (sic) and grape began, supplemented by volleys of musketry,” Alley recalled.

“The air seemed filled with … the hiss of the deadly minie [ball], the scream of the shell, the crackle, crash and roar of every conceivable missile,” Brown realized. “Through it all that red blaze along the crest of that work which we must cross, as we, with bowed heads, breasted that storm.”

Onward charged the Maine boys. They followed their colonel to the gates of hell that afternoon.

“The cannister (sic) would sweep a whole line [away], and the line just back of it closed up and went forward,” Alley described the suicidal bravery crossing a storm-swept Virginia cornfield. “The regiment never faltered … although the men were being mowed down like grain before a scythe.”

Onward charged the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Brown “glanced from right to left”; he saw “the boys, bent forward with arms at a trail,” and they “were still rushing on.” Now he could see the faces of the Confederates and hear their taunting “shouts of ‘Come on, Yanks.’”

Alley and Brown estimated that shattered regimental fragments reached to within 30 feet of the enemy defenses; “one man crossed, and fell dead on the other side,” Alley learned later.

Scoured by bullets, cannonballs, and canister, the Maine boys melted away. “Again I looked to right, to left, and found that I was almost alone; we were turning back,” the startled Brown saw. He ran “to get off the field and under cover.”

Alley believed that seven minutes elapsed from when the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery climbed from the road to when the first survivors plunged into it. Brown figured that 20 minutes had passed.

Fleeing across “the ground” now “covered thick with those who were down, the wounded, dead and dying together,” Brown “felt something strike my foot, numbing it, and I stumbled forward on my face.”

Bullets whizzed low overhead as Brown bent the knee “to see how bad” his foot “was hurt.” He discovered that a bullet had “shot off” his shoe’s heel; still intact, “I sprang up and rushed on again.

“At last I reached the sunken road,” Brown recalled.

Not many other Maine boys did. Brown evidently lifted his head and gazed across the battlefield. “But what a scene!” he exclaimed. “It is too horrible to attempt to describe.”

Brown then “went up the [sunken] road towards the left to where the colonel was.” Chaplin had somehow survived the slaughter; so punctilious that he had obeyed an order to led his men to their collective massacre, he nevertheless was a brave man.

Brown watched “as Gen. [David] Birney rode up” to Chaplin and asked, “Col. Chaplin, where are your men?”

Pointing toward the distant Confederate defenses, Chaplin replied, “There they are, out on that field where your tried veterans dared not go.

“Here, you take my sword,” the valiant Chaplin held his blade out to Birney. “I have no use for it now.”

Then “the old hero sat down in the road and cried like a child,” Brown vividly recalled.

Now the counting began. Nine hundred men had climbed from the sunken road and charged with Chaplin. Perhaps 300 men returned to Union lines; out on that accursed corn field lay 604 men, of whom 115 were killed and 489 were wounded. Confederates kept firing across the corn field until dark; their wounds untended, more Maine boys would die by that bloody sunset.

Within Union lines, an officer “told us to get together and call the roll,” Brown said. “We did … we had gone in with seventy-five men; six privates had come out.”

There stands at Petersburg National Battlefield a name-laden monument to the shattered 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. One name is missing and should be added.

At nearby Deep Bottom on Wednesday, Aug. 17, a Confederate sharpshooter mortally wounded Daniel Chaplin; he died in a Philadelphia hospital three days later. The official cause was from the bullet wound.

Joel Brown knew better. “Our colonel was broken hearted over his [regiment’s] loss and threw his life away at Deep Bottom soon after,” he believed. “He seemed not to care to live after his regiment was gone.”

Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2014/03/10/news/orono-soldier-followed-his-colonel-to-the-gates-of-hell-2/ printed on November 20, 2014