The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery at the Battle of Harris’s Farm May 19th,1864
Following the costly opening battles of his Overland Campaign of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered reinforcements from the heavy artillery regiments serving in the forts and garrisons guarding Washington DC. These regiments were much larger (1800-2000 men) than a typical infantry regiment, but were trained to handle the big guns of the DC defenses and had little or no training in infantry tactics. One of these regiments was the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. Organized in 1861 as the 14th Massachusetts Infantry, the unit did not see action that year and was assigned to heavy artillery duty on January 1st, 1862. It was formally redesignated the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery on September 19th, 1863.
On May 14th, 1864, the unit received orders to move out. The regiment boarded a steamer in the Potomac River and was transported to Belle Plain, Virginia. It then joined a brigade of heavy
artillery regiments (the others were the 1st Maine, and 2nd, 7th, and 8th New York) in Brigadier General Robert O. Tyler’s division of the 2nd Corps.
The heavy artillery brigade would not have to wait long to see action. Over the next few days, the brigade marched to the area near Spotsylvania Court House where fighting had been going on for several days. The brigade saw a little action on May 18th when the men were formed in line of battle in support of an artillery battery. A few Rebel shells landed nearby, but there were no casualties.
The next day, May 19th, General Richard Ewell led his Confederate 2nd Corps on a reconnaissance around the Union right flank to locate the exact position of Federal forces and determine if they were on the move. That morning, some companies of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery were deployed as pickets in an area near two farm houses, the Clement Harris house and the Susan Alsop house, located approximately 500 yards north of the Harris house. In the afternoon, skirmishers from Brigadier General Stephen D. Ramseur’s Brigade of Major General Robert E. Rodes’ Division clashed with the 4th New York’s picket line. The New Yorkers held off the Rebels as best as they could, but with much more infantry moving up, it was clear that reinforcements were needed.
Help was on the way in the form of more heavy artillerymen, including the 1st Massachusetts (under the command of Colonel Thomas R. Tannatt) and 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Upon arrival, the 1st Massachusetts deployed in line on the west of the Alsop house, while the 1st Maine deployed to the east of Alsop’s.
Two companies of the 1st Massachusetts were sent forward and to the left as skirmishers. The large regiment was divided into battalions; the 1st battalion, consisting of three companies under Major Frank Rolfe, was ordered forward into a wooded area to ascertain the size of the enemy force there. “Boys” said Rolfe “the general wants you to advance and see what is here.” The order was given: “Fix bayonets, forward, double quick.” This was the first time most of these men had seen significant action, and one of them recalled:
As if on parade, we marched, touching elbows, to the edge of the wood on the north side of the opening, when we got the order to charge, passed down the line in low tones. Into the wood we went in complete line, reserving fire….
We had proceeded but a short distance when we received a volley from Ramseur’s brigade (Rodes’s Division), and so complete was the surprise and so deadly the effect that the battalion was demoralized…In an instant the scene was transformed from peace and quiet to one of pain and horror. Maj. Rolfe fell from his horse, pierced by eleven Rebel bullets. Fully half of the three hundred and fifty men were dead or disabled…
The cries of pain from loved comrades, wounded or dying; the rattle of musketry; the sound of leaden missiles tearing through the trees and the dull thud of bullets that reached their human marks produced a felling of horror among those whose ears could hear.
Ramseur’s Brigade then charged, firing at close range. Those Massachusetts men who were able to retreat did so to a knoll near the Alsop House. The battered 1st battalion then got some help
from Major Nathaniel Shatswell’s 2nd battalion, located on the right of the 1st battalion. Shatswell directed his men to fire into the left flank of the Rebels as they emerged from the woods. Two cannon from the 15th New York Independent Battery opened fire with cannister on the advancing Rebels as well. The 2nd New York Heavy Artillery also arrived on the scene and delivered a volley—although some in the 1st Massachusetts claimed the firing took out some of their men as well, but the net effect of all this forced the Rebels to pull back to regroup.
Ramseur resumed the assault, and, unable to break through the 1st Massachusetts line, retired and reformed and then resumed the attack multiple times. With Major Rolfe dead, Major Shatswell took over command of the 1st Massachusetts line. Shatswell received a head wound early on and went to the rear for treatment but as soon as he was bandaged up, he returned to command. Leading while blood ran down his head from underneath his bandages, “Shatswell was an inspiration…he won the undying admiration of his men and unperishable glory for himself and his regiment” recalled one soldier.
The fighting continued all afternoon and into the evening, and more Union reinforcements in the form of veteran infantrymen arrived. The Confederates finally withdrew for good after dark, ending the Battle of Harris’s Farm. It had been especially costly for the Heavy Artillerymen, whose lack of training showed by how they exposed themselves to enemy fire and made easy targets, as some Confederate veterans of the fight told them years later. Nonetheless, they had fought well. The 1st Massachusetts went into the fight with 1617 officers and men and had a total of 55 killed, 312 wounded, and 27 missing of captured for a total of 294. This was second only to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, which had 524 total casualties out of 1800. The 1st Massachusetts continued to serve as infantrymen throughout the rest of the war.
Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864 by Noah Andre Trudeau
History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery Massachusetts Volunteers by Alfred Seelye Roe and Charles Nutt.
If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania (Civil War America) by William D. Matter
To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea
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