“Heavy” Fighting at the Harris Farm, Conclusion

by Dan O'Connell on March 18, 2012 · 1 comment

Tall and Grand

Ewell’s attack began on the right, where Rodes entire line charged forward into the area around the Harris residence. The 1st Massachusetts heavy Artillery received the brunt of the attack with assistance from the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery on their left. The massed firepower again proved too much for the attackers. One participant noted that “to escape in the midst of such fire…seemed almost miraculous.” On the far right of Rodes’s line the brigade of BG Bryan Grimes North Carolina Brigade also suffered from the fire of Barnes’s artillery. The initial attempt repulsed, the hard fighting Tar Heels tried again only to meet the same fate. A third attempt fared no better. The massive throng of Federals, inexperienced though they might have been, could dominate the field by volume of fire. Prominent in the Union efforts to beat back the Confederate attacks was Major Nathaniel Shatswell of the 1st Massachusetts. Wounded in the early fighting he returned to his line. He stood “tall and grand, with a voice like the roar of a lion, hatless, blood trickling from beneath the bandage down his cheek till his coat was saturated with it.” Shatswell had not faltered nor had his regiment. Despite losing 394 casualties (15k, 312 w, and 27m) the line did not break.

The Confederate left came nearer to success. The Union right, now held by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, contained “an opening between the right of our line” and the Fredericksburg Road. In an effort to exploit the hanging flank Gordon’s men were maneuvering to gain the rear of the enemy line. In a stroke of luck a provisional battalion of veteran’s from the 1st Maryland and 87th Pennsylvania were returning from furloughs as guards on “a long train of wagons, conveying provisions and ammunition” to Spotsylvania.   When the commander, Colonel Nathan Dushane, heard the battle in his front he marched his men to the sound of the guns. The battalion ran headlong into the enemy’s flanking element. Dushane’s battalion, alone and badly outnumbered, “was forced to retire to the road.”They were reformed and again readied for the uneven struggle. The outcome looked exceedingly grim but just as they were about to be overwhelmed by the Confederates the last remaining unit from Tyler’s division of artillerymen, the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, arrived and drove the Confederates back. The far right of the Union position was restored.

The rapidly changing face of the battlefield left some of the Confederate troops trapped behind the advancing Federal units. During a brief pause in the firing several made a desperate attempt to make it back to their regiments by sprinting through the Union lines. The effort was reported by a 1st Maryland historian as “a spirited chase.”  Sgt Jesse Childs, of Co. E, took up the challenge to his physical abilities and “quite a lively foot race ensued.” Child was successful in running down his man; capturing a private from the 21st Virginia.

The Confederate private was not alone in his misfortune. The promised reinforcements from V Corps began to lengthen the odds against Ewell. Colonel Richard Bowerman arrived with the three other regiments of the Maryland Brigade. From II Corps Hancock dispatched MG David Birney’s entire 3rd Division toward the fight. The 15th New York Independent Battery supplemented Barnes’s artillery support. Ewell’s chance to accomplish anything but survival was gone. His Corps was now seriously endangered by the growing strength of the opposition at Harris Farm.

“The saddest part yet to be told”

Ewell was not the only one to realize that the tide had turned. General Lee also saw the growing threat to his left. As Ewell discarded any further offensive moves in favor of improving his defensive posture Lee ordered MG Jubal Early* to extend his line in an effort to unite with Ewell. Two brigades, BG Scales and BG Thomas, were sent northward in search of Ewell’s right. The path of the relief column passed directly in front of BG Lysander Cutler’s division of the Union V Corps. Cutler was holding the Federal entrenchments as the II Corps and the remainder of V Corps executed Grant’s flanking march to the south. The Union pickets were driven in and the advance of Thomas’s brigade reached Ewell. The veteran Georgians were shocked at the carnage on the field.  They were soon engaged by the far left of Cutler’s line and the 6th and 15th New York Heavy Artillery and the advance halted. Colonel Joseph Brown’s South Carolinians joined the main body of Scales and Thomas in front of Cutler’s works. With the shoe on the other foot, the Confederate commanders opted against a direct assault on the Federal works. Rosser’s cavalry also made a late appearance on the field but added little more than a short barrage from the horse artillery before his troopers rode off.

The last act of the Battle of Harris Farm was played out by the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery. In a less than vigorous effort they attempted an attack on the center of Ewell’s line. A miscalculation in the growing darkness and smoke brought their line of march in front of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery section of the line. Rattled by the unexpected ferocity of the afternoon fight the 7th became nervous about a large body of troops in their front. Assuming they were being assaulted again they loosed a volley into their fellow New Yorkers. The would be attack dissolved having accomplished nothing more than adding to the already staggering casualty figures.

Thankfully darkness ended the hostilities. Early’s men praised their leadership for the “charge not charged”, Ewell’s troops settled uneasily into their muddy defenses, and the Union line solidified without enthusiasm for offensive operations. An orderly Confederate retrograde movement began near 2200 but quickly degenerated into chaos in the darkness. Many men became lost and simply fell down exhausted where they were.  The “Heavies” also sought rest. Most just laid down in the mud and went to sleep.

Writing to his wife on 20 May, one 8th New York Artillery soldier reported that during the night this unit was moved into position “to go in again” that morning. Instead the enemy was found to be gone and the battered “Heavies” were relieved. The hardened veterans of Birney’s division were appalled by the slaughter that had been accrued in such a short fight.  The empty enemy positions were explored but only dead and wounded were left. Scores of Confederates, lost or too tired to keep pace with the retreat, were gobbled up as prisoners. The price paid for the defense of the Federal right was staggering for both sides. Ewell admitted to 900 losses, while the Union figures were mind numbingly high;

2nd Battalion 4th New York Heavy Artillery – 76 k, w, m

1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery – 394 k, w, m

1st Maine Heavy Artillery – 524 k, w, m

7th New York Heavy Artillery – 98 k, w, m

The 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 15th New York Heavy Artillery**, in comparison, added moderately to this total.

Conclusion and Assessment

The outcome at Harris Farm was greatly influenced by several factors, including coincidence, luck, and some wise early decision making by the Federal chain of command. For the Confederates it was a fight that they had desperately tried to avoid and were unprepared to execute in the first phases.  Ewell’s wide swing around the end of the Union line was specifically designed to side step any heavy concentrations of Union forces. Instead he ran headlong into some of the largest regiments in the US Army.  His attacks led to little more than a brief delay of the Federal operations. Battle changing moments included;

-Despite large numbers of troops available the first Union deployment was extremely thin at the northern end. Writing to his father on 29 may 1864, Colonel Kitching admitted that he “had to scatter my brigade too much.”

-Ewell’s decision to divert to a side road deprived him of artillery support in the event he met any resistance, funneled his troops into a narrow column that made deployment difficult, and unknowingly allowed the Federals extra time to reinforce.

– The early detection of Ramseur’s brigade negated what should have been an early advantage for the Confederates. Ramseur’s early contact with the 4th New York pickets left him pretty much alone on the field. Rodes follow on brigades and Gordon’s division was still trying to get into position as he became heavily engaged. Although he badly wounded the original Federal line his initial repulse again allowed time for Tyler’s division to take the field.

-Tyler’s decision to reinforce after the early contact.

– The fortuitous appearance of Dushane’s provisional battalion again blunted an apparent Confederate advantage just long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

Ultimately though, it was the steadfast courage of the inexperienced and largely untrained “Heavies” that won the day at a fearful price. Kitching would write to his father that no one could say that his men were afraid to fight as infantry. The Union high command welcomed the artillery men into its family of veterans. Meade issued an order that they would be relied upon, as were “the tried veterans of the Second and Fifth Corps.” They would suffer more casualties in upcoming fights at Cold Harbor and Petersburg without the rewards of victory.

The most intriguing aspects of the Battle of Harris Farm are the what ifs. Had Ewell followed Rosser’s cavalry down the Gordon Road instead of detouring on to the narrow side road they would have struck the Unions trains nearly undefended and nothing in position to stop them from advancing on AoP headquarters only ¾ mile away.

Harris Farm (Campaign Series)

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

mark newton kelman July 31, 2012 at 12:07 pm

My great grandfather 2nd. Lt. Newton Holt was a member of I Co. of the 1st. Mass. According to his daughter, my grandmother, that night after the fight he slept on pulled together dead bodies to avoid the mud. Thanks to Roe’s description of the battlefield together with MacIsaac’s recounting the torrential rain that fell during the battle I would imagine the family oral history was correct. Thank you for your superb recounting of a heretofore little known engagement.

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