After bloodying the Army of the Potomac during 11 days of fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and Major General George G. Meade prepared their forces for another move around the Confederate right flank. General Robert E. Lee had anticipated this movement, and on May 19, 1864, ordered the Second Corps commander Major General Richard S. Ewell to find out what forces remained along the Confederate front. Ewell decided to lead his badly depleted force – now down to just 6,000 soldiers – on a reconnaissance-in-force to locate the Union troops and if found outside their defenses, to attack wherever the opportunity appeared. The Confederates crossed the no man’s land of the Spotsylvania battlefield and entered the Federal defenses with little incident, then turned east and crossed the Ni River.
The Confederate force eventually emerged from the woods lining the Ni into the fields of the Harris and Alsop farms. Beyond them lay the Fredericksburg Road, modern day Route 208, and on May 18, 1864, still the main line of supply for the Union Army. They had stumbled into the rear area of the Federal II Corps, which was on the move and unprepared to receive an attack. In fact, the nearest troops available to react to the Confederate probe was Brigadier General Robert O. Tyler’s newly arrived division of heavy artillery troops who had been gathered from the defenses of Washington D.C. Accustomed to the uneventful routine of garrison duty, these units had never operated as infantry, and most had never experienced combat. One of the units was the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, memorialized here by a stone monument, and the left flank of a line that stretched north from Harris Farm.
The Confederate attack was not well coordinated. Ewell had his horse shot from under him and appeared dazed after his fall. On the Federal side the inexperienced “Heavies” fought bravely but in drill field formations that unnecessarily exposed them to enemy fire. The 1st Massachusetts suffered 390 casualties here. Next to them the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost 481. All together the Union II Corps lost 1,500 men, the attacking Confederates of Ewell’s Second Corps lost 900. Ewell called off the attack around nightfall. The Confederates had confirmed that Union forces were on the move but failed to capitalize on the opportunity to cut the Federals’ supply line and to inflict greater damage upon an enemy army on the move. For Lee this was a costly operation with little substantive result. These were losses he could not easily replace, and the affair further exhausted his confidence in Ewell. The fight at Harris Farm would be one of the last offensive operations attempted by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust owns two parcels totaling 4.9 acres at the 1st Massachusetts monument site, the only preserved parcels on the battlefield.