So big they all but clogged his horse’s nostrils, the swarming flies also targeted Col. Harris Plaisted as his nervous horse clopped across a sloppy Virginia field on Friday, June 19, 1862.
Beside him a mounted 11th Maine Infantry Regiment officer — Plaisted commanded the battle- and disease-shredded unit — waved a hand at the flies gyrating around his own head. He dared not complain about the flies, especially not to Plaisted, who had left a comfortable legal practice in Bangor to muster with the 11th Maine in September 1861.
After all, the officer had asked Plaisted to bring him out here today to the “Cemetery of Flies,” located on the battlefield at Seven Pines, Va.
The two officers halted their horses near a shattered wood-rail fence. Union pickets cautioned the men to proceed no farther, under peril of their lives. “The fence stood within rifle shot of the standing woods” to the Confederate-held west, and the “underbrush so completely covered the enemy that, when first seen, the seams of their clothes were distinctly visible,” noticed Plaisted’s companion.
He had a name and a rank, but both would have slipped unknown into the annals of obscure historical stuff if not for a letter the soldier soon wrote to the editors of the Ellsworth American.
“Ever since the battle of the ‘Seven Pines,’ I have desired to visit that field,” the soldier explained to the Ellsworth American editors. He signed his letter “S,” which could refer to a first name, a surname, or neither.*
Assuming the reference was to a surname, the soldier could have been Capt. Winslow P. Spofford of Co. G, which included many Hancock County men. Hailing from Dedham, Spofford would have been familiar with the Ellsworth American, particularly if he lived in that section of Dedham nearer Ellsworth than Brewer.
We can only speculate as to the identity of the writer, who wanted to tour the battlefield “not from a morbid wish to view the ghastly effects of the strife, in mutilated forms, where friend and foe lay … stricken down.”
Neither did he wish “to calculate upon the comparative soldierly conduct and energy or fighting qualities of Southern and Northern troops.
He wanted to see the places where “my friends, brothers in arms” from the 11th Maine, “held in deadly conflict for comparatively a long time, a force probably tenfold their own.” He also wanted to see “where another part of our regiment passively lay, under the fire of shells, grape and round shot and rifle bullets, not permitted to move to fire a gun in return.”
So “S” got his wish on Tuesday, June 19, “when Col. Plaisted, our noble commander, invited me to accompany him to the place.”
Guided by the foremost expert on the 11th Maine’s involvement in the May 31-June 1, 1862 slaughter fest seven miles east of Richmond, “S” soon reached the battlefield. “We at once saw an entire change had been and was being made,” he noted.
Along “the entire length of the” 1½-mile line stoutly defended by the “less than 6,000 men” of the 3rd Division of Brig. Gen. Silas Casey on Saturday, May 31, 1862, the Union troops had since felled “a belt of the woods, some thirty rods (495 feet) in width,” “S” observed.
Where Casey’s warriors had fought protected by “no works, or only a trifling rifle pit and one small earthwork,” now stood “a strong log and earth breastwork extending the whole distance, with at least two forts mounting six guns each,” pointed “at every opening in the woods through which the enemy might seek to advance,” “S” commented.
What happened next lends credence to the identity of “S” as Bill Spofford, 44 when he had marched off to war with the 11th Maine. At Seven Pines on May 31, companies B, G, H, and K had held a picket-line position west by northwest from the regiment’s camp near the crossroads town of Seven Pines, named for the seven pine trees standing there.
A fifth company, D, was stationed farther north along the picket line, and soon after dawn, Plaisted had sent companies E and I to reinforce the northern end of the picket line, not far from Co. D.
Only companies A, C, and F remained in the 11th Maine camp.
So Spofford was out with companies B, G, H, and K. Attacking Confederates drove the companies east some 800 yards, where the Maine boys formed up with the 56th New York Infantry. Enemy troops took a dirt fort, swung around the captured cannons, and “turned his whole attention to us, and opened with grape and shells,” a Co. G soldier had previously informed Ellsworth American readers.+
Ordered to lay down, the Mainers and New Yorkers endured the incessant shelling “for about half an hour,” but fortunately the Confederates fired high. “The trees now standing afford unmistakable evidence of the severity of that fire, in being cut or smashed by shells and shot,” said the Co. G soldier.
He described the trees as “standing but silent witnesses” to the mayhem.
On Tuesday June 19, Plaisted and “S” “first passed over” that “section of the plain” where the lads of the 11th Maine and 56th New York “lay for a half an hour” under enemy artillery bombardment, “S” noted the site. “The trees now standing afford unmistakable evidence of the severity of that fire, in being cut or smashed by shells and shot, all being more or less marked thereby.”
“The men who bore that fire need no evidence of its duration or violence, and those standing but silent witnesses will convince any one of the truth told by those men,” “S” wrote.
The phrase “standing but silent witnesses” appears in both letters; we know that he wrote the letter published July 11, and the shared phraseology suggests he also wrote the letter published June 20.
Almost as if he been there before, “S” expended only one paragraph describing where Co. G fought with the 56th New York. Then “S” and Plaisted rode on to the “Cemetery of Flies.”
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* “From the 11th Maine Regiment,” Ellsworth American, Friday, July 11, 1862
+ “From the 11th Me. Regiment,” June 2, 1862, published in the Ellsworth American, Friday, June 20 1862. Unidentified by name or pseudonym, the letter writer was a soldier from Co. G; he very well could have been Winslow Spofford. Italicization by Brian Swartz.
Next week: Cemetery of Flies — Part II
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.