The Most Sanguinary Acre in Virginia ?
By Clarence L. Woodcock - 2005
In 1860, the farmland that comprised the Hare Farm, just a mile east of Petersburg, Virginia, was peaceful and quite. It was being farmed, with most area planted in corn. In the coming years that peace would be lost, and in 1864 and 1865 a single acre of that farm would become the scene of horror and death on a scale impossible to imagine.
On June 18th, 1864 the First Maine Heavy Artillery was ordered to advance and capture the fortified Confederate positions just beyond the Hare farmhouse. The reasoning behind the order has been considered elsewhere, as has a substantial discussion of why the order was followed. The point here is that the order was followed, with disastrous consequences.
In the words of Captain Horace Shaw in his autobiography:
“The 1st Maine were in their assigned position in the dug out road 500 yards from the enemy's strong new line of breast works. These breast works were now full of General Lee's veterans, and artillery was posted all along the line. To the right across the Appomatox, a dozen batteries of 50 guns could concentrate their fire into the open field they must cross. The troops on the right and left of the 1st Maine were to charge at the same time keeping up a hot fire at the Confederate Lines, to keep them from concentrating their fire on the charging lines of the storming column.
At the appointed moment word was given. The ranks of the 1st Maine rushed from their shelter into the open field in their front, and the enemy's guns began their deadly fire. From thousands of rifles, and from hundreds of pieces of artillery, belched flames of fire and tons of iron and shrieking shell, tearing men and earth! The field over which they were passing became a furnace of hissing Hell, of bursting shrieking shell, of fallen dying men, of torn, mangled, bleeding flesh, and groans and shrieks of death. Earth and stones were mingled with the flame. No flesh in life could long endure it!
Men fell as they ran! From the 850 men who led that forlorn hope, 614 had fallen within ten minutes. “
The brave men who had fallen in this charge all lay within a single acre of ground on the Hare farm ! One acre! A space that measures only 264 feet by 124 feet on the plat map!
But the carnage visited on that small plot was not yet finished. After the fateful charge of the First Maine Heavy Artillery, General Grant decided on a siege of Petersburg, a siege that would last until March 25th, 1865. On that date the Confederates attempted a breakout. General Gordon had a bold and desperate plan to attack the Union forces at Ft. Steadman to open a path for retreat. Ft. Steadman just happened to be on the southern edge of the Hare farm!
Once again, the words of Captain Shaw:
“They were not aware, however, that this move had been provided for. They suddenly found themselves facing veteran troops ready to receive them. Moreover, every way of retreat had been suddenly barred behind them. They were enclosed in a triangle of Union troops. To go forward meant destruction - to attempt to go back meant death or captivity. That portion of the corps that had not passed over the lines in attempting to do so, met with terrific losses. Struggling rearward, they passed over the same field where the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery had made their famous charge of the June before.
[I] reached Ft. Steadman in time to see the closing acts of Gordon's disaster. For a second time [I] saw men enough dead and dying on that five acres of land so that [I] could have walked from the Union to the Confederate line, stepping only on the bodies of fallen men. This time it was Confederates only.”
While the Confederate losses in this second carnage are not clearly documented (nor are the regiments involved) it appears that there were some 600 brave young men from Alabama and South Carolina who perished on that exact same bit of land in Virginia.
By the end of 1865 the acreage was back to a more peaceful time. The dead and dying had been reclaimed, and the war had ended. But that is not the final chapter for this story. The sacrifices of the brave men who died, both Union and Confederate, was to be preserved so that generations would know of them and never forget the real costs of this war.
In the early 1890’s, the remaining members of the First Maine Heavy Artillery formed The First Maine Heavy Artillery Association, Inc. Their purpose was to maintain communication with all members still living, create a Regimental History that was as accurate as possible, and to establish a memorial for those who had perished in the war. This last goal would ultimately include the acreage of Hare farm.
On October 13th, 1893, Horace H. Shaw of Portland, Maine, purchased a 5 acre tract of land in Petersburg which was then owned by Francis Lathrop and which included much of the old Hare farm. That tract was then transferred to a trust for the First Maine Heavy Artillery Association. At the same time donations from the Association members for the purchase, transportation, and erection of a monument honoring the fallen which was to be placed in the center of the southwestern one acre parcel of the property. The center of that single acre where more than 600 Maine men and some 500 Confederate men had perished. On September 30th, 1895 the acreage and the monument, which had been completed and erected, were deeded as a gift to the State of Maine, to be held as a cemetery.
In Legislative Document 730, of the Eighty-Sixth Legislature of the State of Maine, the 5 acre parcel of land, with the monument as erected, was conveyed to the Petersburg National Park Commission of the United States. This document transferred the property to the Government in a fee simple manner, and includes an agreement by the Government for perpetual care and maintenance as a park. That park is now included in the Petersburg National Battlefield, and is available for all to visit.
The acre surrounding the First Maine Monument – on the old Hare farm - is again a peaceful place !