“Heavy” Fighting at the Harris Farm, Part 1

Introduction When U.S. Grant assumed command of all Union forces the nature of combat in the east was significantly changed. Gone was the battle/respite cycle that had predominated during the first three years of the war. When Grant designated the Army of Northern Virginia the objective point for the Army of the Potomac (AoP) he ensured a non-stop flow of combat operations. He understood that going wherever the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) might go would, quite naturally, result in increased casualties. The simultaneous effort of five campaigns:

1. Bermuda Hundred (Butler)
2. Shenandoah Valley (Sigel)
3. Red River (Banks)
4. Atlanta (Sherman)
5. Overland (Grant)

to put pressure on the Confederate armies left the availability of veteran infantry was negligible. If the AoP was to be reinforced as it prepared to enter the Wilderness an innovative approach had to found to supply the requested troops. As Confederate forces were moved further away from a position that threatened Washington a new source of manpower became available. The capital was ringed with an impressive set of defensive fortifications loaded with heavy ordnance. This massive array of armaments required huge details of men to maintain the vigil against an enemy strike at the capital. These men generally served out their terms in the boredom of garrison duty, but as the ability of the enemy to strike at the city diminished this pool of readily available manpower came under scrutiny. The thousands of men being wasted manning guns that no longer served a valid purpose could be reassigned to infantry roles. To fortify his army in Virginia Grant called on the commander of the Washington defenses to send forward “10,000 of his best troops (to) join him at once.”

Among the first “Heavies” to be converted for this duty were the 6th and 15th New York Heavy Artillery Regiments. It was joined shortly thereafter by the 1st Maine, 1st Massachusetts, and the 2nd, 4th, 7th, and 8th New York Heavy Artillery Regiments. The transformation was not universally accepted by the affected soldiers. While most were stoically resolved to their new role others railed against the perceived violation of their enlistments. Nevertheless, the Heavy Artillery units were called forward, often with only speculation about what their role at the front was to be.

On 19May1864 the soldiers of these eight regiments would be joined in battle against LTG Richard Ewell’s combat veterans of the ANV’s II Corps at the Harris Farm near Spotsylvania, Virginia. For many of these troops it would be their first combat experience. Others had seen some action at the Mule Shoe Salient, but for all this engagement would be one of the most important of the war. At stake was quite possibly the survival of the AoP.

The “Heavies” at Harris Farm The 1st Maine Heavy artillery began their service as the 18th Maine Infantry. They arrived for duty in Washington in August 1862. The early war reversals spurred BG John Barnard, Chief Engineer for the Department of Washington, to call for the construction of an extensive set of defenses to protect the capital from Confederate invasion. To man the rapidly growing works available units had to be converted to the artillery branch. In the early winter of 1863 the 18th Maine was so designated. The regiment was expanded to 12 companies of 150 men each and learned how to operate the big guns. They manned their guns in the defenses, occasionally practicing their skirmish drill, until General Grant called for reinforcement in April of 1864. Once again the 1st Maine was asked to change branches. Reverting to their infantry heritage the 1st Maine Heavy artillery was whisked off to Belle Plain “as fast as steamers could be supplied.”

The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery began their service as the 14th Massachusetts Infantry in July of 1861. In January of 1862 they were reassigned duties as a heavy artillery regiment. To fill the roster “many men would be added to each company and two new companies would be raised.” It wasn’t until 19 September 1863 that the designation of the regiment was formally changed to the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. The regiment served in a number of forts in the Washington defenses and Harper’s Ferry. Garrison life created discipline problems for the regiment until January of 1863 when Colonel Thomas Tannatt banned lager beer because of frequent alcohol related problems. In January 1864 the regiment was supplemented by 300 recruits. They continued their duties with the only excitement being some fire fighting duties when a bomb proof was accidently set ablaze. On May 14 the regiment received orders to join the Army of the Potomac. They boarded the steamer John Brooks and were deposited at Belle Plain the next day.

The 2nd New York Heavy Artillery was originally formed by the consolidation of two artillery units recruited by Colonel John Latson and Colonel Jeremiah Palmer. In October of 1861, after Latson had fallen out of favor, the assets of the two formed the nucleus of the 2nd New York. The organization was completed in December of 1862 by the addition of the Morgan Artillery and the Flushing Artillery. After 25 months of service in the Washington defenses they were summoned to Virginia for service with the Army of the Potomac. On May 18th, 1864 they joined BG Robert O. Tyler’s 4th Division brigade of II Corps.

The 4th New York was recruited as a heavy artillery unit, originally designated as the 1st Heavy Artillery in January of 1862. In February of the same year they were renamed the 4th New York Heavy Artillery but did not complete their organization to 12 companies until 16 Oct1863 with the addition of Companies A, B, C, and D of the 11th Artillery. The regiment served in the Washington defenses until 26March1864 when the unit was ordered to Virginia. The following day they were relieved of their duties in the capital defenses by the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and the 3rd Pennsylvania Artillery. After a march to Alexandria they took a train to Brandy Station. There they spent their first night in shelter tents. Although the cold and snow of early April caused great discomfort the men “behaved well and accommodated themselves to circumstances with excellent grace.”

The camp rumors that the unit was to be used as infantry in the coming campaign seemed confirmed as “considerable drilling was done…in infantry movements.” On 9 April Special Order #92 directed Colonel J.C. Tidball to break his unit into three battalions that were to be assigned “to each of the three infantry corps.” His dismembered unit marched into the Wilderness with the feeling “that our heavy guns would be carried on our shoulders.” The Second Battalion (Co’s D, H, and K) was sent to V Corps to join the 4th division brigade of Colonel J. Howard Kitching.

Three more New York regiments, the 6th, 7th and 8th Heavy Artillery also began as infantry units. The 6th, or 135th New York Infantry, was mustered in on 2 September 1862 and was reassigned as the 6th New York Heavy Artillery on 3October1862. They served in a number of assignments in the Washington defenses and Harper’s Ferry before joining the Artillery Reserve Brigade of the Army of the Potomac in August 1863 as ammunition guards. In May 1864 they were transferred to the Heavy Artillery Brigade of V Corps. The 113th New York Infantry was similarly reorganized as the 7th New York Heavy Artillery in December of 1862. It remained in the Washington defenses until 18 May 1864 when it was assigned to BG Tyler’s 4th Division of Heavy Artillerist in II Corps where it was joined by the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, formerly 129th New York Infantry, from Baltimore.

The final Regiment to find itself on the field at the Harris farm on 19 May 1864 was the 15th New York Heavy Artillery. The regiment was formed by the consolidation of the 3rd Regiment of Artillery, 12th Regiment of Artillery, and the 34th Independent Battery and featured a very strong German presence. They were originally mustered in as separate units but upon consolidation were designated as the 15th New York Heavy Artillery on 30 September 1863. The unit saw service in the 22nd Army Corps in the defenses of Washington. They were assigned to the Artillery Reserve of the AoP in February of 1864 and were attached to Kitching’s Independent Brigade of V Corps at the start of May.

The combined strength of these regiments was impressive, but their experience level was nearly zero. While some of the gunners had seen some action many would be thrown together to “see the elephant” at the Harris Farm. It would be an experience that the survivors would never forget.

The Situation – May 19th, 1864 Grant’s Overland campaign began with a bloody toe to toe brawl in the Wilderness. Two days of brutal fighting left the combatants at an impasse. With no hope of gaining a decisive advantage remaining in the tangled woodlands offered no prospect of victory. The first to maneuver away for better position was the Army of the Potomac, but Lee’s quick reaction allowed him to block their path at Spotsylvania Court House. For four days the Confederate works dared the Federals to try and dislodge them. The challenge was accepted but several assaults failed to break the line. Finally on May 12, in an unprecedented display of military carnage, the Mule Shoe Salient was collapsed. The Confederate defense was seemingly pierced. Unfortunately for Grant’s troops the early optimism that the ANV had been driven from the field disappeared when reconnaissance revealed they had re-established a line only a short distance away. After a short respite the deadlock at Spotsylvania resumed. The cost of the campaign to this point was enormous. The flood of casualties into Washington and the list of dead shocked even the most stout hearted. But Grant had promised to go where the enemy was and he would not relent. To sustain operations in the face of such losses he needed men. The Washington defenses were stripped and the “Heavies” began their movement to the front.

While the reinforcements made their way to the front Grant attempted to find a way through the stubborn defense. Six days of marching and counter-marching culminated with yet another bloody repulse on the 18th. Stymied again Grant decided to move around the right flank of the Confederate line. Overnight on the 18th-19th II Corps (Hancock) and V Corps (Warren) began to sidle away to the south. Cutler’s Division of V Corps Became the northern end of the Union line, anchored on the southern banks of the Ni River. As the movements progressed Warren became aware that a significant gap was developing between Cutler’s troops and the Fredericksburg Road. The road represented the logistical lifeline of the AoP and needed to be protected against any foray Lee might send against it. To extend the line northward to the road Warren selected Kitching’s Brigade of Heavy Artillerist (6th NY, 15th NY and the attached 2nd Battalion of the 4th NY). The brigade moved quickly to their task. The 6th tied into Cutler’s line at the Ni, the 15th New York fell in on their right, and finally the three companies of the 4th New York at the extreme northern end of the Federal position. The position was over watched by four 3” guns of Battery C, 1st New York Light artillery.

Warren’s concerns over his right flank were well founded. As Kitching was deploying his men to extend the line Lee was meeting with LTG Richard S. Ewell to discuss an operation to test that end of the Union position. Ewell returned to his II Corps headquarters and briefed his division commanders, MG Robert Rodes and BG John B. Gordon on the proposed action to “find Grant’s right” and “develop his purpose.” The I Corps division of BG Joseph Kershaw was moved up from their reserve position to hold Ewell’s portion of the line and Gordon followed Rodes out of the entrenchments. The march was preceded by BG Thomas Rosser’s Brigade of Virginia cavalry. Despite Lee’s belief that the works in his front were being abandoned Ewell decided not to challenge them directly. Instead, he set off on a circuitous march looking to avoid any possible confrontation with an entrenched enemy. During the march two decisions would be made that would significantly impact the result of the coming fight.

Harris Farm (Campaign Series)





2 responses to ““Heavy” Fighting at the Harris Farm, Part 1”

  1. Andy MacIsaac Avatar
    Andy MacIsaac

    Very good article. I have always been fascinated with the First Maine Heavy Artillery and how in 30 days they would set a very dubious record in blood. Harris Farm was the start. Today alot of the battlefield has been lost to development. Back in the 90’s you could stand on the small hills that each battle line stood on. I am looking forward to part 2 of the article.

  2. Dean West Avatar
    Dean West

    Good tactical studies. The one on Iuka was very interesting.

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