Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
IT WAS A FEARFUL CHARGE.
THE FIRST MAINE HEAVY ARTILLERY AT PETERSBURG.
Mr. Marcus M. Alley, of this City, One of the Survivors—His Company Went into Action with 103 Men, and Seven Minutes Later Five of the Number Returned to the Union Lines—His Experiences in Prisons.
Living quietly in Charleston, engaged in peaceful avocations and never harboring an unkind feeling for the people who some years ago gave him a rather warm reception, Mr. Marcus M. Alley, late of the 1st Maine heavy artillery, sometimes recounts his experience before Petersburg, and experience that has not often been equalled in the history of the world, for he was one of six men who came out of an engagement, representing a command of one hundred and three.
Mr. Alley does not often speak of the terrible charge of the 1st Maine artillery, but yesterday, his attention having been called to a published article in regard to some fearful battles in which the loss of life has been enormous, he was persuaded to tell from personal experience some of the details of that frightful slaughter before Petersburg.
“I was twice enlisted during the war.” Said Mr. Alley: “first in the 28th Maine infantry. I am a native of Eden, Maine. After serving two years in that regiment I obtained my discharge and re-enlisted early in 1863 in the 1st Maine artillery. This command was then in Washington, and had been there for a year or more. It was regarded as a sort of picnic party, and the regiments stationed there were called ‘Lincoln’s pets.’ But some little time after this Grant took a hand and moved about twenty thousand men out to the front. The 1st artillery numbered when we left Washington 1,960 men. My regiment was a part of Hancock’s 2d corps, and a finer body of men never went out to meet an enemy.
“The fight that you wish to hear of, I suppose, was the charge of the 1st artillery upon the earthworks just outside of Petersburg, on the 18th of June, 1863 [sic, 1864]. Well, the regiment was ordered to make an attack on that day, and it was expected that we would force an opening in the Confederate line, and that other troops would follow us right in and take the fortifications. The regiment was formed in a depression of ground—I suppose it was not more than three or four hundred yards from the earthworks, but protected by the conditions of the land. The artillery, marching as infantry, was drawn up for this charge in a mass. The twelve batteries were massed in double rank, with just marching distance between. I belonged to Battery L, and our position was second from the front. It was just a few minutes before 4 o’clock when the last preparations were made, and at 4 came the order to load, fix bayonets and charge. As we were moving off I remember our first sergeant said: ‘Boys, put your cartridge boxes around in front, so the Rebs can’t hit you below the belt.’ Poor fellow, he was killed by just such a wound as he warned us against.
“And then, that charge! Well, you may talk about heroes and all that, but I don’t believe in it. I have been there, and I believe that in a fight like that, where men are dropping all around you, the only thing that keeps you from running right off is pride. You just say to yourself, ‘Now I won’t run until John Brown does, and that is sure.’ And so you stay in. There was very little bravery in trying to stem that tide of lead and fir, and the men did not stand it long. We went within thirty feet of the earthworks, and one man crossed, and fell dead on the other side—this I learned from Capt Joe Hanahan, of Charleston, who was present during the engagement, inside the Confederate lines. We were only seven and a half minutes going and returning, but the hell we passed through in that short interval could never be described in words. There was not a Confederate visible when we started, but the regiment had not moved a dozen steps in the open before the storm of cannister and grape began, supplemented by volleys of musketry. The regiment never faltered, however, until within about thirty feet of the breastwork, although the men were being mowed down like grain before a scythe. The cannister would sweep a whole line, and the line just back of it closed up and went forward. But human endurance could not stand this long, and when almost in reach of the earthwork the tide turned, and the survivors of that splendid regiment that had gone out with “three cheers and a tiger” came back to the Union lines. A thousand men had raised their voices in that cheer as the order came, “Forward, double-quick,” and seven minutes later seven hundred and fifty-three men lay dead and dying on the field.
“My battery, L, had ordered rations the day before the attack on June 18, and the day afterwards the rations came for one hundred and three men. A sergeant, a corporal and four privates was all that was left of Battery L, and when we came for the rations we could not have attempted to carry them. Of course, all the batteries had not fared as badly as L, but you can draw your own conclusions from the numbers: 753 from 1,000 doesn’t leave very many, and it is a matter of record that in six weeks’ service the 1st artillery came down from 1,960 to 250 men.
“Talking about these rations reminds me that we decided to save the ration of whisky, anyhow, and a few days after that, on the 22d it was, I believe, I was captured while working with the regiment to cut the Weldon Railroad. The Confederates flanked us on the left. It was Hill’s division. Sergt Burlingame and I were among those who were captured, and we had five canteens of whiskey with us at the time. Our captors took us to some small island, and that night we had a sort of consolation celebration, and got pretty happy with the aid of the liquor, in spite of surrounding circumstances.
“After that I was sent around to various prisons. I don’t know why. I never could understand it about Libby prison. Such much has been said and written about that place, that seems to me to have been made up. I was well treated there. Had plenty to eat, a comfortable place to sleep, a chance to bathe every day, and in fact everything but liberty. The place was kept clean while I was there, and the men would keep themselves so if they desired. I was also at Andersonville, Charleston Race Track, Florence Stockade and Goldsboro, from which latter place I was paroled. I had a pretty tough time at Andersonville and Florence, but of the other places I have no complaints to make.
“After the war I went to sea for many years, and then moved to Charleston, and have been in business here for some years. I like the old city and the South, and expect to end my days here.1
- “It Was a Fearful Charge.” Charleston (SC) News and Courier. July 18, 1897, p. 3 col. 1 ↩