Fort Hell and the 7th Maine Battery, part 3

An extraordinary photograph taken in early April 1865 reveals a member of the 7th Maine Battery lounging outside the central bomb-proof at Fort Sedgwick, manned by the battery since the previous December. The bomb-proof’s details — especially the chimney, door, and window — were described by the post’s commander, Senior 1st Lt. William B. Lapham. Other Maine gunners stand on the ramparts. (Library of Congress)

Arriving at Fort Sedgwick about Dec. 1, 1864, the 7th Maine Battery’s gunners noticed no protection against indirect mortar fire. Aided by “a detail of infantry,” the Maine and New Jersey gunners used “gabions, sand-bags, timber and earth” to construct “bomb-proofs … along the parapet” to shelter the artillerymen and a large bomb-proof in the fort’s center to protect “the ammunition and officers,” Lapham said.

Soldiers standing atop “the central bomb-proof” could see the Petersburg church spires “and the main line of the enemy for several miles,” he noted.

His uniformed builders paid particular attention to the central bomb-proof. Lapham’s men, “most of whom were familiar with … the axe,” into “the heavy growth of pine timber” east of Fort Sedgwick to fell trees and hew them into eight-foot logs “about a foot in diameter” and “square at the ends.”

Soldiers dug a hole “about fifteen feet square and three feet deep” and set the logs “close together” inside the hole. Leaving “only a place for a door,” the soldiers raised more logs to form the walls and then “laid across the upright timbers of a covering,” Lapham noted.

Commanding the infantry assigned to guard Fort Sedgwick in December 1864, Col. Henry Pleasants wanted to see the 7th Maine Battery fire its cannons. (Photo by Deborah Nouzovsky, courtesy of Find-A-Grave_

After piling and tamping dirt (which may have been a sandy loam) “around and atop” the bomb-proof “to the depth of nearly ten foot,” the soldiers then placed sand-filled gabions “on each side and upon the top at the rear, to keep the sand in place,” he said.

Safe from direct enemy fire, a chimney stood on the southeast side of the bomb-proof, next to a rough wooden, right-hinged, and outward-opening door door, Lapham said. Inside the door, three steps descended into “a room about twelve feet square and eight feet high.”

Set in the southeast wall behind the chimney, “a glass window taken from some rebel house” let in the sunlight and brightened the interior several hours a day. Lapham noted the adjacent magazine, with its separate entrance, and the smaller bomb-proofs, called “gopher holes,” built along Sedgwick’s walls to shelter the enlisted men.

Twitchell established the 7th Maine Battery’s camp a few miles behind Fort Sedgwick and left Lapham and 1st Lt. Daniel Staples at the front all winter. Twitchell occasionally visited the fort, but seldom hung around; he “did not remain long and lodged every night at the camp,” sniffed Lapham.

With Confederates nearby, the Sedgwick garrison practiced “constant vigilance” night and day, and enemy lead and iron often whizzed overhead or thumped into the fort, he noticed. Confederate deserters bragged about mines reaching beneath Sedgwick; Union soldiers soon dug “deep wells … in the ditch outside the fort” and monitored the water levels, Lapham reported.

If a well suddenly emptied, the Union boys could figure a mine had passed beneath it.

Located at 2223 South Crater Road in Petersburg, Va., the Good Shepherd Baptist Church and its parking lot occupy the site of Fort Sedgwick, manned by the 7th Maine Battery late in the war. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

All night long, “the pickets commenced a steady, severe fire” to discourage nocturnal attacks between the lines, William Hopkins recalled. The opposing pickets often warned their counterparts before shooting, and the rattling musketry ended with daylight, when the artillery took up the combat.

Shelling occurred “about every day,” Hopkins said. On Saturday, Dec. 3, a Confederate cannon fired on some Rhode Islanders “digging a ditch across the Jerusalem Plank Road.” The 7th Maine Battery section in Battery 21 “accurately and vigorously” returned fire and “silenced” the enemy gun.

Inside Fort Sedgwick, the bomb-proofs worked fairly well. Occasionally a 64-pound “mortar shell … buried itself” in a bomb-proof’s roof “and exploding, would throw out a ton of earth, more of less,” Lapham spoke from experience. No mortar round ever “penetrated far enough to injure the men.”

Lapham was standing atop the central bomb-proof “one day” when a mortar shell “passed over to the rear” and exploded in the 7th Rhode Island’s camp. “I … saw fragments of bedding, furniture and cooking utensils” flying out of the hole the explosion left in “an officer’s quarters.”

Located at 300 West South Boulevard in Petersburg, Va., Walnut Hill Elementary School was constructed on the site of Confederate-held Fort Mahone. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Hopkins remembered the “very severe mortar shelling” administered to Fort Sedgwick on Friday evening, Dec. 16. “Some of our bomb-proofs were blown in every direction,” he said. While the 48th Pennsylvania lost seven men “killed or wounded,” the Rhode Islanders “fortunately escaped all loss.”

Ordered not to shoot unless shoot at by Confederate artillery or attacked by Southern infantry, Lapham and his gunners usually kept quiet, despite the mortar shells dropping into Fort Sedgwick. Lapham had “to give a good and substantial reason” for shooting at any time.

Around mid-December, Pleasants sent for Lapham and told him the 7th Maine Battery “had not yet discharged a gun, and … wished to know the reason why.” Lapham showed Pleasants the V Corps orders’ banning willy-nilly artillery fire.

I thought they presented a good and sufficient reason” for not firing, Lapham said.

Pleasants believed the gunners should open fire to “get the range of, and distance to, the enemy’s works.” If the good colonel “should give me a written order” to that effect, Lapham would comply.

Pleasants’ order arrived “the next day … about the same hour” to open fire with all eight Napoleons, Lapham recalled. The Union gunners started shooting, “and the enemy properly responded with his artillery in our front, and his mortar battery on our right.”

Multiple 64-pound mortar shells dropped into Fort Sedgwick and the nearby infantry camps. Henry Pleasants suddenly appeared, walking behind the thumping Napoleons while watching the action. As he passed the central bomb-proof, a mortar shell plunged into the earthen roof.

The resulting explosion “threw up a large quantity of frozen earth,” Lapham witnessed the moment. A big piece of earth — its weight estimated at “several pounds” — struck Pleasants “on the crown of his head” and knocked him senseless.

Infantrymen carried Pleasants “to his quarters,” Lapham said. Regaining consciousness, Pleasants soon sent “an orderly to inform me that I could stop firing.” The Yankees stopped shooting: the Confederates followed suit soon afterwards. The intervarsity shelling killed two Pennsylvania infantrymen dead, wounded “several others,” and destroyed some Federal winter quarters.

Pleasants issued no such order again while he remained at Fort Sedgwick.

Sources: William B. Lapham, My Recollections of the War of the Rebellion, Burleigh & Flynt, Augusta, Maine, 1892; Seventh Battery, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine 1864-1865, Stevens & Sayward, Augusta, Maine 1866; Brevet Maj. William B. Lapham, With the Seventh Maine Battery, War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 1, The Thurston Print, Portland, Maine, 1898

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Brian Swartz can be reached at 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