1st Maine Heavy Artillery survivor opens a Bar Harbor hotel

John Huston Douglass of Eden (Bar Harbor) married Margarette Higgins of Eden in April 1862, four months before he went to war with the 18th Maine Infantry Regiment. That unit became the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, and John survived the suicidal charge at Petersburg on June 18, 1864. This photo was taken circa 1870. (Courtesy Daniel and Holly Green)

From Confederate target to Bar Harbor hotel keeper, such were the fortunes of war and peace for John H. Douglass.

Living in Eden (now Bar Harbor) in 1862, the 21-year-old Douglass married Margarette Higgins of Eden on April 19. A sailor since he had hired on as a $5-per-month cook on a fishing schooner at age 13, Douglass enlisted in Co. C, 18th Maine Infantry Regiment that July and mustered at Bangor on August 21.

On the 27th of … August we left Bangor Maine for Washington D.C. for further orders,” Douglass recalled years later. The 18th Maine boys garrisoned forts defending Washington, D.C., and “after 3 months delay … we were made into the 1st Maine” Heavy Artillery Regiment, Douglass wrote.

The War Department expanded the regiment by eight companies and 800 men, and the 1st MHA boys lived comfortably compared to other Maine regiments assigned to the Army of the Potomac.

After that army took horrible losses at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse in May 1864, Ulysses Simpson Grant ordered several heavy artillery regiments rousted from their District of Columbia billets as reinforcements.

In May 1864, we left the defenses of Washington D.C. on board of a U.S. Transport & went down to Bellsplain [Belle Plain] Landing” on the Potomac River in Virginia, Douglass recalled. The 1st MHA lads “went on shore & started across country to Fredericksburg.” he wrote.

At Harris Farm on May 19 occurred “our first engagement against canon (sic) and Bullets,” and “we lost heavily in Men & officers here. I had 3 bullets cut my clothing but no blood brought in this Battle,” Douglass remembered.

Moving south with the Army of the Potomac, the 1st MHA crossed the James River on a pontoon bridge and “went in[to] camp for a day or two of very much needed rest,” Douglass recalled. “We had to go out foraging for something to eat. We lived on Old Dry corn on the cobb for awhile.”

Then came June 18, 1864. The botched initial thrust to capture Petersburg had let Confederate reinforcements dig fortifications closer to the city, especially “a new line beyond the Hare house,” 1st MHA survivor Horace H. Shaw wrote in The First Maine Heavy Artillery.

Our Brigade was in 2nd Corps, Gen. [Winfield Scott] Hancock was our Corps Commander,” Douglass wrote.

Unfortunately “fragments of bones, splintered at Gettysburg, had been for the past few days … making their way to the surface” of Scott’s skin, Shaw noted. Late day on June 17, Scott relinquished corps command to Maj. Gen. David Birney.

He “pushed forward a strong skirmish line” along “the Prince George Courthouse Road” at dawn, June 18, Shaw wrote. The skirmishers discovered the fresh-dug enemy fortifications on the Hare Farm.

George Gordon Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, ordered pressure applied to the Confederate defenses. That afternoon Meade urged Birney to “at once, as soon as possible, assault in a strong column. The day is fast going, and I wish the practicability of carrying the enemy’s line settled before dark.”

Some II Corps elements tried. Clambering from a sunken road, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery boys advanced in three lines “about 4 o’clock … with 900 able-bodied young men,” Douglass remembered. Supporting regiments did not advance; left with a single target, Confederate infantry and artillery opened fire.

The charge was a most gallant one though unsuccessful, the Maine men advancing over a space of three hundred and fifty yards swept by musketry,” Shaw recalled.

Out on the battle line, John Douglass later reported that “600 of our Regt fell dead & wounded in the charge.

I got up within 20 yds of the forts and was shot with two Bullets – one through the right arm above the elbow and another Bullet through my left shoulder. This Bullet broke up my collar bone, split off some of my shoulder blade[,] passing out just clearing my backbone and through everything,” Douglass wrote.

He survived the charge, and someone braved enemy fire to bring him to safety. The next night, “an ambulance wagon” transported Douglass “3 miles to the U.S. Division Hospital & [I was] laid down on the ground near the tables for amputation of limbs & draning (sic) wounds.”

Douglass “laid there until [the] next day & next night & on the eve of the 21st of June I was put into an Army wagon & jolted over a rough” corduroy road and stumps “a distance of 8 miles to City Point on the shore of the James River, VA.”

Unloaded from the ambulance, “I laid there on the bare ground for 24 hours, then [was] carried on board of the Floating Hospital on the [James] River,” he remembered.

The 2d Day there Gen’l U.S. Grant came a board & try to comfort us wounded Boys by telling us that we would be sent North as soon as a Transport Ship come in which had been ordered here,” Douglass wrote. “He took each one of us by the hand as he past along through the Hospital Ship.”

After 3 or 4 days we were on our way [with] some 700 badly wounded boys all on board of one ship,” a steamer “going down the James River and out to Sea bound North,” Douglass recalled.

Then at 4 o’clock P.M. on the 11th Day from the day I received my wounds in front of Petersburgh Va I had my wounds dressed at Portsmouth Grov[e] U.S. Hospital for the first time,” he wrote.

John Huston Douglass was among the first hoteliers in Eden, which became Bar Harbor. He was some 50 years old when this photograph was taken circa 1890. (Courtesy of Daniel and Holly Green)

Portsmouth Grove Hospital was located in the Melville district of Portsmouth, R.I.., a city sited across the Sakonnet River from Fall River, Mass. Portsmouth shares the same island with Middletown and Newport, and the Melville District spread along the island’s western shore in the central portion of Portsmouth. The Melville District was called Portsmouth Grove in the mid-19th century.

According to Laura Damon writing in the Jan. 10, 2019 issue of the Newport Daily News, the Portsmouth Grove Hospital was also known as the Lovell General Hospital. The site “consisted of a large summer estate, repurposed, and 14 pavilions serving as temporary barracks,” Damon reported.

John Douglass was among 10,593 patients treated at the hospital; 308 patients died there.

Discharged in early 1865, he returned to Maine, worked a while as lightkeeper at Goose Rock Lighthouse off North Haven, and moved to Eden to build the three-story Atlantic House, a hotel on Atlantic Avenue. The hotel opened on July 4, 1873, promptly burned flat in late August, and went up anew, grander and larger than its predecessor.

John and Margarette Douglass had 10 children, of whom six survived childhood. Margarette died in Bar Harbor on March 2, 1887. John Douglass married Lorinda “Rena” Anderson in Ellsworth on April 13, 1888, and two of their five children reached adulthood.

A Mason and a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Douglass moved with Rena to Longmont, Colorado in 1906 and died there on Monday, January 1, 1917. He was survived by Rena and seven children.

Sources: The First Maine Heavy Artillery, Horace H. Shaw and Charles J. House, Portland, Maine, 1903, pp. 127-129, 263; John H. Douglass diary, courtesy of Daniel and Holly Green

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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.