More on Harris Farm

It is raining again today in Massachusetts as it has been for most of the past 13 days or so. I only bring this up because 142 year ago it rained at the Battle of Harris Farm. As the story goes when the battle opened up so did the skies.

Major George Sabine from the First Maine Heavy Artillery described the battle and the toll it took on his regiment in his diary. His entry for May 19th contains the following:

"about 5 P.M. moved on the double quick a mile or two to the right to check rebels who were attempting to turn our flank and get possession of our supply trains. Had already possession of portion of train when we arrived and drove them. Engaged the enemy from 5 to 10:30 p.m. until we had expended all our ammunition and were relived by Berry’s Division. Our Brigade held tight against persistent efforts of the enemy to press through it. Fire very hot and severe. Our Reg’t lost in killed and wounded about 461. Co. K, 2 Comm. Officers and 9 men killed, and about 34 wounded. Capt. Pattingal and Lt. Bibber killed. Lt. Bibber buried where he fell and Capt. Pattingal near the hospital where he died. Men behaved well. After replenishing ammunition, moved to the right and slept on our arms.[1] "

Throughout the night survivors from the engagement stumbled, limped, and walked into the bivouac of the First Maine. Officers attempted to account for the losses within their respective companies. Friends of the dead, wounded, and missing searched well into the night and throughout the next day trying to locate their comrades upon the field. Having to deal with the corpses of their comrades that littered the battlefield at Harris Farm was something new for the men of the First Maine Heavy Artillery. Viewing the destructive nature of war first hand was a trying and difficult experience for the men of the First Maine. To see, for the first time the corpses of their comrades lying on the field, in some cases as if they were sleeping, and to see others that were in many various states of mutilation was a very emotional and moving scene. Horace Shaw described the aftermath of the Battle of Harris Farm:

"It was a great sorrow to some of us to perform for the first time the duty of burying the dead upon the battlefield. When they had been brought together, we saw among the upturned and bloody faces of many young and worthy officers, and men who were our friends and whose friends at home we knew. We had read and heard much of these sad experiences, but until now we had actually known nothing of the anguish we were to experience when we gave to our own comrades the rude burial in the long trench upon the battlefield. We could only cover their faces tenderly and faithfully marked, as best we could, their names, regiment, and company at their heads. Two of our most worthy captains, Parker and Pattengall, were laid at the head of this column of the dead.[2] "

Charles House also spent time looking for his comrades after the engagement. What House saw was almost impossible to describe as he wrote after the war:

"I accompanied a squad of men who were going on to the field to bring off the body of Lieutenant John F. Knowles of our company who had been killed. As we neared the point where we had stood in line I noticed eight or ten of our men laid out side by side, the beams of the moon struggling through the fleecy clouds, lighting their upturned faces all smeared with the smoke of battle, some showing gaping wounds and all ghastly and lifeless. Looking to right where the color guard and Company M had stood, was a similar lot of dead carefully laid out, beyond this another and another until the woods were reached, and the same thing away to the left. It was a solemn moment as I gazed on the scene at the midnight hour, my first look upon a deserted battlefield, and how forcibly those rows of dead men reminded me of the gavels of reaped grain among which I had worked on my native hills, but here the reaper was the angel of death. I picked up a canteen to replace my own which had been pierced by two bullets and hurried from the field. One look was enough.[3]"

The initial response to combat by the men of the First Maine Heavy Artillery was one of sorrow and one of pride . In one letter Private Peleg Bradford wrote to his mother about how the Rebels could not move the regiment one bit at Harris Farm but that the regiment had seen hard times since leaving Washington:

When we left Washington, we had a hundred and forty men in our Company, and now all that we have got is about seventy... We lost sixty men killed and wounded out of our company.” After one battle Peleg Bradford had seen enough when he looked upon the battlefield the morning. When he saw the dead of his regiment laid out on the field he wrote that he never wanted to see that sight again.[4]"

For the First Maine Heavy Artillery Harris Farm was just the start of a long ten months that would earn this regiment a record in blood that could not be matched by any other Union regiment.

[1]John L. Raye, Island Sacrifice (Clarkson, ME: Dutch Island Press, 1993) 42.
[2] Shaw, The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 212 - 213.
[3]House, “How the First Maine,” 91.
[4]Bradford, No Place for Little Boys, 85 - 86.


Popular Posts