Monday, May 19, 2014

Harris Farm

The Battle of Spotsylvania is just about done in 1864, but this morning, 150 years ago, there was one last fight. Lee sent Richard Ewell's corps (which had been chopped to pieces at the Battle of the Bloody Angle) on a kind of reconnaissance in force - march around the right flank of the Union army, see if they could find out what Grant was up to (Grant was up to something), and maybe cut them off and force them to change their plans. Ewell did so - and found the right rear of the Union army fairly open. His men ran into a brigade of Heavy Artillery regiments - men who had enlisted as artillerymen, had spent most of the war posted in the Washington defenses, but were converted to infantry in 1864 and sent off to die with Grant in Virginia. There were, as it happened, more men in this brigade's 5 regiments than in all of Ewell's corps - but when the rebels found them, they didn't think about that. They were confident, and they were fighting rookies, and they expected to win, so they attacked - which turned into a hard little battle. The raw artillerymen fought, not always well - but they held - and eventually reinforcements arrived, and the rebels did well to get away.

One of the regiments there, seeing action for the first time, was the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. I mentioned them last year - my great-great-grandfather was there. This was their first battle - like the other heavies, they stood up to the attack - unfortunately, like the other heavies, they stood up a bit too literally. By 1864, infantrymen had pretty much learned not to fight in the open unless they had no choice - even in a battle line, veterans would do all they could to find cover, at least kneel, make themselves small - anything except stand in well dressed 18th century style battle lines and blast it out with men who'd been at this for 3 years. But that is what the heavies did. Stood and fought - and eventually chased the rebels off - but took a beating doing it. The 1st Maine brought 1800 men into the fight (more than some of Ewell's divisions, the one at the point of the mule shoe on May 12, anyway) - they lost 523. (Per Gordon Rhea.) That would prove to be just a warm up for what would happen to them at Petersburg - but it's staggering.

My great great grandfather came out unscathed - he would't be so lucky in a month, though he would survive... Not so John P. Higgins, ae 17 yrs. 2 mos.

Meanwhile, though this delayed Grant's plans, it didn't stop them - he was done with Spotsylvania, and soon would be heading south, looking to lure Lee out of his trenches, make him fight in the open. And while he never managed to get him in the open, he did, increasingly, manage to control where the fighting would take place, until he had backed Lee into a corner at Petersburg. Though a lot of men would die on the way...

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