A Look at the Field (August 1, 1864)

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a "covered way" used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a “covered way” used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides an interesting description of Union fortifications at Petersburg and takes advantage of a truce to examine the aftermath of the mine explosion. He spares his wife a description of what he saw, but he included one in his journal (edited by David W. Lowe and published in 2007 as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt.Col. Theodore Lyman). “In the moderate space between us and the enemy—some 110 yards—lay perhaps 200 bodies,” he wrote. “The heat and intense sun of 48 hours had so swollen and blackened them that negroes were not to be told from whites, save by the hair! The faces and hands of many were actually white with a moving layer of maggots!”

I waked at about six in the morning and heard the General say, “Very well, then, let the truce be from five to nine.” Whereby I knew that Beauregard had agreed to a cessation of hostilities for the burial of the dead and relief of the wounded. After struggling awhile with my indolence, I tumbled out of bed, waked Rosencrantz and ordered my horse. We speedily got ready and sallied forth to look at the field. We rode into a piece of pine woods, at the corner of which I was during the assault of the 18th of June. Some of the advanced camps were here, the danger of their position being plainly marked by the banks of earth put up by each tent. Getting out of the wood, we came on an open tract, a good deal elevated. Here, on the left, and by the ruins of a house was a heavy battery, known as the Taylor house battery. And here too begins the “covered way.” Before I saw real operations I never could understand the management of cannon. On the principle of your battle on “the great white plain,” I had an idea that all the guns were put in the front line: else how could they hit anybody? But really there are often no cannon at all there, all being placed in a second or a third line, or in isolated batteries in these relative positions. One of our heavy siege guns would sometimes have to fire as many as 1700 yards to hit the enemy’s breastwork. You see that cannon-shot must rise high in the air to go any distance; so they fire over each other’s heads. In practice this system is not without its dangers, owing to the imperfections of shells. In spite of the great advances, much remains to be done in the fuses of shells; as it is, not a battle is fought that some of our men are not killed by shells exploding short and hitting our troops instead of the enemy’s, beyond. Sometimes it is the fuse that is imperfect, sometimes the artillerists lose their heads and make wrong estimates of distance. From these blunders very valuable officers have lost their lives. Prudent commanders, when there is any doubt, fire only solid shot,which do not explode, and do excellent service in bounding over the ground.

We got off our horses at the edge of the wood and took to the covered way (we might better have ridden). A covered way is singularly named, as it is open on top. It is simply a trench, about four feet wide, with the dirt thrown up on the side towards the enemy. It should be deep enough to cover a man standing upright. The great thing is, so to run it that the enemy cannot get a sight of it lengthwise, as they could then enfilade it. To this end the way is run zig-zag, and advantage is taken of every hollow, or knoll, that may afford shelter. I was not impressed with the first part of our covered way, as it could be shot into in many places, and was so shallow that it covered me no higher than the shoulders. Probably it was dug by a small officer who was spiteful against men of great inches. . . . We scrambled up the opposite steep bank and stood at the high breastwork of Burnside’s advanced salient. The parapet was crowded with troops, looking silently at the scene of the late struggle. We got also on the parapet and at once saw everything. Opposite, and a little above us, distant about 350 feet, was the rough edge of the crater, made by the mine. There were piles of gravel and of sand, and shapeless masses of hard clay, all tumbled on top of each other. Upon the ridge thus formed, and upon the remains of the breastwork, stood crowds of Rebel soldiers in their slouched hats and ghostly grey uniforms. Really they looked like malevolent spirits, towering to an unnatural height against the sky. Each party had a line of sentries close to his works, and, in the midst, stood an officer with a white flag, where the burial parties were at work.* I jumped down and passed towards the enemy’s line, where only officers were allowed to go, with the details for work. I do not make a practice of describing disagreeable spectacles, and will only say that I can never again see anything more horrible than this glacis before the mine. It did not take long to satisfy our curiosity, and we returned to camp, getting in just as the General was at breakfast. He takes his disappointments before Petersburg in an excellent spirit; and, when the “Herald” this morning said he was to be relieved and not to have another command, he laughed and said: “Oh, that’s bad; that’s very bad! I should have to go and live in that house in Philadelphia; ha! ha! ha!” The papers will tell you that Grant has gone to Washington. As I don’t know what for, I can make Yankee guesses. I presume our father Abraham looks on his election prospects as waning, and wants to know of Ulysses, the warrior, if some man or some plan can’t be got to do some thing. In one word he wants to know—WHY THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC DON’T MOVE. A month since there was a talk of putting Hancock at the head: that is, losing the most brilliant of corps commanders and risking (there is always a risk) the making of a mediocre army commander!

*“The Rebels were meanly employing their negro prisoners in this work.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 201-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

Aftermath (July 31, 1864)

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

George Meade and Theodore Lyman write home about the explosion of the mine and the failed attack afterwards.

But first, here’s another excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, relating the aftermath. Meade’s account follows, and then Lyman’s.

The attack had been a fiasco. Union casualties numbered around thirty-eight hundred, mostly from the IX Corps. Meade requested that Grant relieve Burnside from command. Grant did just that following a court of inquiry that parceled out the blame to Burnside, Ledlie, Ferrero, and others.

Ambrose Burnside left the Army of the Potomac on August 13. Officially he was on furlough, but his active role in the war was over. He later became the governor of Rhode Island and served in the U.S. Senate. Maj. Gen. John Parke, like Meade a Philadelphian and a West Point-trained engineer, took over command of the IX Corps.

There was plenty of blame to go around for the fiasco. Some must be attributed to Meade for interfering with Burnside’s preparations at the last minute. Apparently he realized that. According to Col. Joshua Sigfried, “Had the original plan been adhered to, I am PERFECTLY satisfied Petersburg would have been in our possession before 10 o’clock. Generals Grant and Meade both admitted that to me afterwards.”

Why did Meade order Burnside to replace Ferraro’s division? Was it because of their inexperience or their race? Lyman once noted that if Meade had a bias regarding black soldiers, “it is towards and not against them, and indeed it would go to the heart of the best Bob to see the punctilious way in which he returns their salutes.” “The best Bob” referred to Lyman’s Harvard friend Robert Gould Shaw, who took command of the 54th Massachusetts and died with the regiment’s African American soldiers fighting to capture Battery Wagner outside Charleston. Matthew Broderick portrayed him in the 1989 movie Glory. “I can say with certainty,” Lyman continued, “that there is not a General in this army from whom the nigs might expect a judicious helping hand more than from Meade.”

In a letter dated February 1863 Meade told his wife about a somewhat ambiguous encounter he had had in Washington. He had dropped by George McClellan’s after dinner and found the ex-commander of the Army of the Potomac dining with a number of politicians and soldiers. One of them was Andrew Porter, a general who had served on McClellan’s staff. For some reason he and Meade did not get along. Porter, apparently miffed over Meade’s recent promotion to major general, decided to needle him. He said he had heard that Meade would receive command of “an Army Corps of Niggers,” as Meade related it. “I laughingly replied I had not been informed of the honor awaiting me, but one thing I begged to assure Porter, that if the niggers were going into the field and really could be brought heartily to fight, I was ready to command them, and should prefer such duty to others that might be assigned to me.”<+>48 It was a polite thrust and parry, no doubt conducted behind tight smiles and with icy cordiality. We may find the language offensive today, but it was common parlance in 1863. Still, there is a mystery at the heart of this encounter. As a McClellanite, Porter certainly would have been opposed to waging a war of “servile insurrection,” much less arming black soldiers. Meade was certainly no abolitionist, so I’m not sure whether he was expressing his real opinions or just saying something he knew would irritate Porter.

Meade was essentially conservative, as were many in the army, especially the officers who owed their positions to McClellan. It’s probably not surprising that two of the generals with whom Meade had bad relationships were Birney and Doubleday, two men who sided with the abolitionists. Certainly he was not the only Union general who doubted the black soldiers’ fighting abilities. H. Seymour Hall, who had served on the staff of the abolitionist Emory Upton before leaving to take command of the 43rd United States Colored Troops, noted that there was a “strong prejudice” against the use of African American soldiers. Said one general to Hall, “I am sorry to have you leave my command, and still more sorry that you are going to serve with negroes. I think it’s a disgrace to the Army to make soldiers of them.”

Such attitudes were probably more common than otherwise. In July 1864 Grant suggested Andrew Humphreys for command of the X Corps in the Army of the James, which included African American soldiers. Although Humphreys was eager to receive a corps command, he declined this offer because he did not want to command blacks, telling Grant, “I confess that while I have the kindliest feelings for the negro race and gladly see anything done that promises to ameliorate their condition, yet as they are not my own people, nor my own race, I could not feel towards negro troops as I have always felt towards the troops I have commanded, that their character, their reputation, their honor was a part of mine, that the two were so intimately connected that they could not be separated.” And Lyman wrote, “I say, as I always have, that you never, in the long run, can make negroes fight with success against white men.”

By the end of the war, more than 186,000 African American men had joined the army to fight for the Union in a war that had started because of slavery and that Lincoln had turned into a war to end slavery. Great men rise above the accepted wisdom. When it came to the role of African American soldiers in his army, Meade, along with many of his fellow generals, fell short of greatness.

Here’s Meade’s letter:

Our attack yesterday, although made under the most advantageous circumstances, was a failure. By a movement to the north bank of the James, Lee was completely deceived, and thinking it was a movement of the whole army against Richmond, he rushed over there with the greater portion of his army, leaving his works in our front held by only three out of the eight divisions of his army. When this was ascertained, it was determined to spring a mine which had been dug under one of the enemy’s batteries on their line, assault the breach, and push the whole army through to the Appomattox River. The mine had been dug by a Pennsylvania regiment of coal miners in Burnside’s Corps, and to this officer was entrusted the assault. At 5 A. M. yesterday the mine was most successfully exploded, throwing into the air, and subsequently burying, four guns and a South Carolina regiment. Our column immediately took possession of the crater and the adjacent part of the enemy’s first line; but instead of immediately pushing on and crowning the hill in front, which was the key to the whole of the enemy’s position, our men crouched in the crater and could not be got forward. Burnside and myself had a dispute, he not being willing to admit his men would not advance; at the same time it was evident to all no progress was being made. In this manner, after a delay of five hours, finding it impossible to get an advance, the thing was given up and Burnside ordered to withdraw. In the meantime the enemy, seeing we did not come forward, rallied, and massing on the point held by our troops, drove them back, with confusion and the loss of a number of prisoners.

The affair was very badly managed by Burnside, and has produced a great deal of irritation and bad feeling, and I have applied to have him relieved. In one of my despatches I asked if the difficulty was the refusal of his officers and men to obey his orders to advance, and I said I wanted to know the truth, and to have an immediate answer. This he chose to construe into an imputation on his veracity, and replied that the charge on my part was unofficer-like and ungentlemanly. Of course this has brought matters to a focus, and either he or I has got to go. It was a real misfortune, because we can hardly expect again to have such a good chance, and a failure at this time is most unfortunate. Grant was on the field with me all the time, and assented to all I did. I am afraid our failure will have a most unfavorable influence on the public mind, prone as it is to despondency. I was not much in favor of the plan, but it being determined on, I wanted to try everything for success.

Grant went last night to see the President. What the result will be I cannot tell; but what with the re-advance of the enemy into Pennsylvania, and the failure to accomplish anything here, matters are becoming complicated.

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the Battle of the Crater, which he started on July 30:

I will continue now my letter that broke off last night, and confide to you in all honesty, that I went fast to sleep on the bed and never woke till it was too late for more writing! The fact is, it was a day of extraordinary heat, and remarkably close also. I had been up at half-past two that morning, and I felt a great deal depressed by the day’s work. Well, I had got my fuse to the mouth of the gallery. You must know that all the time they were putting in the powder they could hear the enemy digging pretty near them, over their heads; for they had suspected we were mining, and had begun digging, to try to find it: they sunk a “shaft” or well inside their bastion, and then ran a gallery outside, from which they dug each way, to cut our gallery. But they did not go deep enough and so missed their object. The enemy had lately sent a large part of their force to head off Hancock at Deep Bottom, across the James, a movement that had seriously alarmed them. So the forces in our front were much weakened and the moment was favorable. . . .

On the 29th Hancock was ordered to withdraw, hold two divisions in reserve, and relieve the 18th Corps on the line with the third. The 18th Corps was then to move up in the night, and take position to support the 9th Corps in the assault. The 5th Corps was to be held in readiness on its part of the line, and to open with musketry as soon as the mine was sprung, in order to keep down the enemy’s fire on the assaulting column. New batteries of heavy mortars and siege guns were put in position and the whole artillery was ordered to open on the enemy’s batteries, the moment the mine was blown up. The 9th Corps was arranged to make a rush to the gap, the moment the explosion took place, and then one column was to keep on, and occupy the crest beyond (the key of the whole position), and others were to look out for an attack on either flank. The hour for springing the mine was 3.30 A.m.

General Hunt had been everywhere and arranged his artillery like clockwork; each chief of piece knew his distances and his directions to an inch. We were all up and horses saddled by 2.30. . . . We were to go to Burnside’s Headquarters to wait — an arrangement that I regretted, as you can see nothing from there. It was near half-past three when we got there, and only a faint suspicion of daylight was yet to be noticed. It was an anxious time — eight thousand pounds of gunpowder to go into the air at once! I had considered all I had read about explosions and had concluded it would make little noise and be very circumscribed in its effects. Others, however, thought it might be a sort of earthquake, overturn trees, etc., which idea was founded on the fact that even a dozen pounds confined would pretty nearly blow a house down. However, we were something like a mile away and would not be likely to get the worst of it. General Burnside with his Staff had gone to the front. Presently General Grant arrived, I think after four o’clock. He said, “What is the matter with the mine?” General Meade shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know—guess the fuse has gone out.” Which was a true guess. Where the fuse was spliced, it stopped burning; upon which Colonel Pleasants coolly went into the gallery and fired the new end! At ten minutes before five there was a distant, dull-sounding explosion, like a heavy gun, far away; and, in an instant, as if by magic, the whole line of batteries burst forth in one roar, and there was nothing but the banging of the guns and the distant hum of the shells! My back was turned at the moment, but those that had a good view say that a mass of earth about 50 feet wide and 120 long was thrown some 130 feet in the air, looking like the picture of the Iceland geysers. The explosion made a crater some 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 25 deep (so it was described to me). The mine blew up about under the bastion and rather on one side of it.

[The description of what followed, is copied from Lyman’s “Journal.”]

Elisha G. Marshall commanded a brigade in Ledlie's division (Library of Congress).

Elisha G. Marshall commanded a brigade in Ledlie’s division (Library of Congress).

So astounded was the enemy and so covered was their position by our augmented artillery, that their reply was weak indeed and was soon almost silenced. Meantime, after incomprehensible delay (usually described as at least twenty minutes), the assaulting column moved forward, in a loose manner. This was ]Elisha G.]Marshall’s brigade of Ledlie’s division, a brigade composed of dismounted cavalry and demoralized heavy artillery (!), the whole good for nothing, over which Marshall, a severe, courageous man, had been put, in the vain hope of beating in some discipline! Burnside, with inconceivable fatuity, allowed the troops for leading the assault to be selected by lot! The Corps was enough run down to make it hard to get a good forlorn hope with the most careful picking. Then no gap had been made in the parapet, which, next the mine, was at least eight feet high — all in disobedience to orders. All this time there was more or less cannon and musketry. Orders were sent to take the crest: to push on at once! But plainly there was a hitch! Colonel de Chanal, who was standing with me, was frantic over this loss of precious moments. “Mais, cette perte de temps!” he kept saying. In fact Marshall’s brigade had gone into the crater and had filled it, and now were utterly immovable and sullen! The supports, brought up by the flank in bad order, crowded into the crater and the neighboring bomb-proofs and covered ways. There was some fighting, and the Rebel breastworks for 200 or 300 yards were taken, with a few prisoners; but advance to the crest the men would not. Our own covered ways were jammed with supporting troops that could do no good to anyone. 7 A.m. A lull. At a few minutes after 8 A.m. the troops of the 18th Corps and the black division of the 9th attempted a charge. Sanders, who saw it, said the troops would not go up with any spirit at all. The negroes came back in confusion, all mixed with the whites in and about the crater. Their officers behaved with distinguished courage, and the blacks seem to have done as well as whites — which is faint praise. This attack was over three hours after the springing of the mine. Meanwhile, of course, the enemy had strained every nerve to hold their remaining works and had made all preparations to retake the lost ground. They got guns in position whence they could play on the assailants without fear of getting silenced; and they brought a heavy musketry to bear in the same direction. The space between our line and the crater now was swept by a heavy fire, and made the transit hazardous. 9.15 A.m. or thereabouts; a charge by a brigade of the 18th Corps and a regiment of blacks; a part of one white regiment got to, or nearly to, the crest, but of course could not stay. During the morning a despatch had come, by mistake, to General Meade. It was from Lieutenant-Colonel C. G. Loring, Inspector of 9th Corps, who reported that the troops jammed in the crater and could not be made to advance. Loring had himself gone into the crater. This was the first news from the spot that showed Meade the hitch in affairs; because Burnside’s despatches had been of a general and a favorable character. Hereupon Meade telegraphed Burnside that he wanted the full state of the case, which B. took to mean that he had not told the truth! and at once flew into one of his singular fits of rage. Grant mounted his horse and rode down towards the Taylor Battery to try and see something. Meade remained, receiving despatches and sending orders. Grant is very desirous always of seeing, and quite regardless of his own exposure. 10.30 A.m. Burnside and Ord came in. The former, much flushed, walked up to General Meade and used extremely insubordinate language. He afterwards said he could advance, and wished of all things to persist; but could not show how he would do it! Ord was opposed to further attempts. Meade ordered the attack suspended. As Ord and Burnside passed me, the latter said something like: “You have 15,000 men concentrated on one point. It is strange if you cannot do something with them.” Ord replied angrily, flourishing his arms: “You can fight if you have an opportunity; but, if you are held by the throat, how can you do anything?” Meaning, I suppose, that things were so placed that troops could not be used. Burnside said to one of his Staff officers: “Well, tell them to connect, and hold it.” Which was easy to say, but they seem to have had no provision of tools, and, at any rate, did not connect with the old line. Poor Burnside remarked, quite calmly: “I certainly fully expected this morning to go into Petersburg!”1 At 11.30 A.m. Headquarters mounted and rode sadly to camp. 3.30 P.m. Harwood, of the Engineers, said to me: “They have retaken that point and captured a brigade of our people!” Indeed, the Rebels had made a bold charge upon the huddled mass of demoralized men and retaken the crater, killing some, driving back others, and capturing most. And so ended this woeful affair! If you ask what was the cause of this failure to avail of one of the best chances a besieging army could ask for, I could answer with many reasons from many officers. But I can give you one reason that includes and over-rides every other—the men did not fight hard enough.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 217-18. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 196-201. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Mine (July 30, 1864)

A depiction of the Battle of the Crater by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

A depiction of the Battle of the Crater by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater. The attack started with one heck of a bang when the Union exploded 8,000 tons of gunpowder at the end of a tunnel dug beneath the Confederate defenses. Things went downhill from there. Ulysses S. Grant called  the end result “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”

Here’s a rather lengthy excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: the Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg (If you don’t have the book already, you can buy it here). Following that is the letter Theodore Lyman wrote on July 30.

Gen. Robert Potter. His men came up with the idea for the Petersburg mine (Library of Congress).

Gen. Robert Potter. His men came up with the idea for the Petersburg mine (Library of Congress).

The plan behind the crater was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the IX Corps’ 48th Pennsylvania. Like Meade, Pleasants had cosmopolitan origins, born in Buenos Aires of a Philadelphia Quaker and his Spanish bride. His regiment included many miners from Pennsylvania’s coal country, men who knew a thing or two about digging. Some of them told Pleasants they could dig a tunnel beneath the Confederate breastworks, stuff it full of gunpowder, and blow a huge gap in the rebel defenses. Pleasants told his division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter, about the idea. Potter told corps commander Ambrose Burnside, who approved the scheme.

Meade entertained no great hopes for the idea; according to Pleasants, Meade told Burnside “it was all clap-trap and nonsense” and predicted that the tunnel would collapse or the men would suffocate. He also was not happy about the location, which would expose attackers to fire from the flank and rear as they moved forward. Meade could not summon any more enthusiasm when he summarized the plan for Grant. “I am not prepared to say the attempt would be hopeless” was the best he could manage. Still, he allowed it to move forward, although Pleasants complained about the lack of support he received.

After scrounging what equipment they could, the Pennsylvania miners set to work on June 25. Over the next few weeks they dug a tunnel that stretched more than five hundred feet to a point beneath a Confederate fort in front of Burnside’s position. At the end they dug two shorter tunnels to each side, one thirty-seven feet long and the other thirty-eight. The coal miners drew on all their experience not only to dig shafts to provide air to the men inside, but also to hide the dirt they removed so the Confederates would not suspect that something was going on beneath their feet. In fact, the rebels did suspect something but could not determine the tunnel’s location. At the battlefield today you can still see the shallow depressions left behind by the countermines they dug.

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Excitement grew as it became more apparent that Pleasants’s crackpot scheme might actually work. Grant had already made plans to have Hancock attack the Confederates north of the James River, and he decided that movement would also provide a perfect way to draw troops from the site of the mine explosion. Burnside, in the meantime, prepared a plan of attack. He assigned Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division of African American troops the mission of leading the assault on the enemy’s lines after the explosion. Ferrero’s men began training for their role.

Burnside preferred Ferrero’s soldiers because, unlike the rest of the IX Corps, they had not seen any serious fighting, so they remained fresh. At the last minute, Meade decided that having the black soldiers lead the attack was not wise. He advised Grant that this was not a good time to give untested troops their first combat experience. Furthermore, Meade continued, if the attack should fail, it would be said “that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them.” Grant agreed. On the day before the mine explosion, Meade told Burnside to pick a different division to lead the attack.

Brig. Gen. James Ledlie (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. James Ledlie (Library of Congress).

Rather than choosing the second-best men available, Burnside had his division commanders draw straws. The winner–or loser, depending on how you look at it–was Brig. Gen. James Ledlie. This was the same Ledlie who had been visibly intoxicated at the North Anna. (“Ledlie was a wretched, incapable drunkard, not fit to command a company, and was the ruin of his division,” said Lyman.) Meade also interfered with Burnside’s tactics. Burnside wanted the first wave of attacking soldiers to swing left and right to roll up the Confederate lines on each side of the crater. Meade overruled him. He wanted the first troops to charge forward and take the high ground occupied by Blandford Cemetery, about four hundred yards away and off to the right. The divisions following would then turn to the sides to cover the leaders’ flanks, with Ferrero’s 4th Division taking up the rear. Ord’s XVIII and Warren’s V Corps would wait in support.

Soldiers quietly lugged bags of powder down the long, cramped tunnel and placed them in galleries along the lateral extensions at the end. Pleasants had planned to use twelve thousand pounds, but after consultation with his engineers, Meade decreed that eight thousand pounds would be sufficient. The miners strung a long, spliced-together fuse down the tunnel. The schedule called for the explosion to happen at 3:30 a.m. on July 30. In the predawn darkness Ledlie’s division quietly filed down protected trenches to the front lines, and then they waited. The fuse was lit; time ticked by; the sky began lightening in the east; nerves were on edge as all ears strained for the sound of the explosion . . . and nothing happened.

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Carrying powder into the mine. The soldiers detailed for this duty carried the power a keg in either end of a grain bag thrown across the shoulder. A portion of the c̀overed way' along which they had to pass, was exposed to the enemies fire. At the dangerous points they would watch their oppartunity[sic] and dash over the exposed ground into comparative safety (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Carrying powder into the mine. The soldiers detailed for this duty carried the power a keg in either end of a grain bag thrown across the shoulder. A portion of the c̀overed way’ along which they had to pass, was exposed to the enemies fire. At the dangerous points they would watch their oppartunity[sic] and dash over the exposed ground into comparative safety (Library of Congress).

Meade waited impatiently at IX Corps headquarters. Burnside had gone forward to observe from a gun battery, later named Fort Morton, but remained in communication with Meade by telegraph wire.

Grant arrived around 4:00. “What’s the matter with the Mine?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” said Meade, but he figured rightly that the fuse had gone out. Sgt. Henry Rees took on the unnerving duty of going into the tunnel to determine the problem and set things right. He found that the fuse had indeed been extinguished at one of the splices. With the help of Lt. Jacob Douty, he fixed the splice, relit the fuse, and hightailed it out of the tunnel.

The result was everything its planners hoped it would be. “The explosion was the grandest spectacle I ever saw,” wrote Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts, part of Ledlie’s division. “The first I knew of it, was feeling the earth shaking. I looked up and saw a huge mass of earth and flame rising some 50 or 60 feet in the air, almost slowly and majestically, as if a volcano had just opened, followed by an immense volume of smoke rolling out in every direction.” It looked as though the debris would rain down on the Union soldiers, and some of them broke and ran. It required twenty minutes or so to re-form the lines for the attack. (Imagine what would have happened had the mine used the full twelve thousand pounds of powder.) Then the men had to clamber over entrenchments and through abatis, further delaying them.

The explosion had created a crater indeed, one that was 60 feet wide, 170 feet long, and 30 feet deep. When Weld and his men reached the pit, he recalled, “The scene inside was horrible. Men were found half buried; some dead, some alive, some with their legs kicking in the air, some with the arms only exposed, and some with every bone in their bodies apparently broken.”

The Confederates had been surprised by the explosion, which wiped out some 150 feet of their defensive line. But the attacking troops seemed equally stunned. With Ledlie taking shelter behind the lines in a bombproof, drunk, there was no one in authority to spur the Union soldiers forward. The men moved into the crater and milled about in confusion as the defenders began to recover from the initial shock and turn to the business of killing their attackers. Back at IX Corps headquarters, Meade intercepted a message intended for Burnside that said the men would not advance. He telegraphed Burnside and demanded information. “I wish to know the truth and desire an immediate answer,” he said.

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Meade’s implication enraged Burnside. “I have never in any report said anything different from what I conceived to be the truth,” he telegraphed back. “Were it not insubordinate I would say that the latter remark of your note was unofficerlike and ungentlemanly.”

Meanwhile, the situation at the front was going from bad to worse. At 6:00 Meade told Burnside to push his entire command forward. Burnside interpreted that to mean he should order Ferrero’s men to the crater, even though it was already crowded with soldiers who would not move forward. “It was a perfect pandemonium,” Weld recalled. “The negroes charged into the mine, and we were packed in there like sardines in a box. I literally could not raise my arms from my side.” Some of the black soldiers did advance beyond the crater, but the intense Confederate fire soon drove them back in disorder.

The attack had clearly failed. Sometime before 10:00 Meade ordered Burnside to recall his men. Burnside rode over to protest in person. He said his men could still take the hill. At the very least, he did not want to withdraw them until nightfall. Horace Porter described the encounter as “peppery” and said it “went far toward confirming one’s believe in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute.” Meade repeated his order for a withdrawal, but it remained unclear how the men could leave without being gunned down during the retreat. For hours the Union soldiers remained trapped within the crater under a sweltering sun, enemy fire making it impossible to move forward or backward. “It was a sickening sight,” recalled one soldier: “men were dead and dying all around us; blood was streaming down the sides of the crater to the bottom, where it gathered in pools for a time before being absorbed by the hard red clay.”

Confederates under Brig. Gen. William Mahone finally charged to retake their lines. “Over the crest and into the crater they poured, and a hand-to-hand conflict ensued,” recounted Maj. William H. Powell. “It was of short duration, however; crowded as our troops were, and without organization, resistance was vain.” Some of the Confederates were enraged to see the black soldiers and slaughtered them without mercy when they tried to surrender. Weld was standing next to a black soldier when they both were captured. “Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man,” one of their captors yelled, and the rebels gunned down the black man. As Weld climbed out of the crater, rebels shot another black man in front of him, killing the man after three shots. Afterward A. P. Hill had the Union prisoners, white and black, marched through Petersburg so the residents could jeer and abuse them.

Theodore Lyman began a letter about the crater debacle on July 30. I will print that letter today and then continue with letters from both Meade and Lyman tomorrow.

My spirits to-night are not very high; our project of attack, which in the beginning promised well, has not been a success in the result. You must know that there has always been a point on Burnside’s line that was quite near that of the enemy, say 250 feet. A mine was begun there over a month since, and has been quite finished for a week. It was at first rather an amateur affair, for the policy of the future operations had not then been fixed. However, it was steadily pushed, being in charge of Colonel Pleasants, who has a regiment of Pennsylvania coal-miners. He first ran a subterranean gallery, straight out to the enemy’s bastion, where they had four guns. Then three lateral passages were made, each terminating in a chamber, to be filled with gunpowder. These chambers or magazines were about twenty feet underground. The final springing of the mine was delayed, in order to build heavy batteries and get the guns and mortars in. A couple of days ago orders were given to charge the chambers with 8000 pounds of gunpowder (four tons).* The powder was laboriously carried in in kegs (the gallery was so low, the men were forced to double themselves over in passing), and the kegs were packed in, after removing their heads. When a chamber was charged, loose powder was poured over the whole. The magazines were connected by a wooden casing filled with powder, and this was also run along the gallery for some distance, where it was connected to a fuse which ran to the mouth of the gallery. To-morrow I will continue, but now it is rather late.

*”[James] Duane had sent for the mining records before Sebastopol and got me to read them to learn the proper charge; for, what with malaria, and sunstroke, and quinine, whiskey, and arsenic, he can hardly see, but clings to duty to the last! Finding nothing there, he said the book was a humbug, and determined on 8000 lbs. The charge was tamped with twenty-five feet of sand bags.” — Lyman’s Journal [Note: Major Duane was the army's chief engineer.]

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 195-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Very Bad Spirits (July 29, 1864)

Ulysses S. Grant and his staff at City Point (Library of Congress).

Ulysses S. Grant and his staff at City Point (Library of Congress).

Intrigue and rumors continue to plague the Army of the Potomac. The Franklin that Grant wanted to command the new department is William Franklin, whose career had never really recovered after his maneuverings against Ambrose Burnside following Fredericksburg. The other refugees from the Army Meade mentions are Oliver O. Howard and Joe Hooker.

The upcoming attack that Meade mentions is the debacle we remember as the Battle of the Crater.

Your letters of the 24th and 27th arrived this evening. They are written in very bad spirits, and I am tempted to scold you for indulging in such. I want you to recover your original elasticity of spirits which characterized you in the early days of our married life, when you were always sure something was going to turn up. You must now try to look on the bright side and hope for the best. I think we have a great deal to be thankful for, and things might be much worse.

I had a visit yesterday from our old friend the Rev. Mr. Neill. He was very complimentary to me, and promised to call and see you on his return to Philadelphia. He was here as agent of the Christian Commission.

Yesterday I went to see General Grant at City Point. He said he wanted an officer to go to Washington to take command of the Department of West Virginia, Susquehanna, Baltimore and Washington. That not wishing to take any one from the field, he had suggested Franklin, but they had declined to have Franklin. He then suggested my name, to which he had received no reply, but a message from the President asking him to meet him at Fortress Monroe. I made no reply to Grant, except to say I was ready to obey any order that might be given me. So far as having an independent command, which the Army of the Potomac is not, I would like this change very well; but in other respects, to have to manage Couch, Hunter, Wallace and Augur, and to be managed by the President, Secretary and Halleck, will be a pretty trying position that no man in his senses could desire. I am quite indifferent how it turns out. I think the President will urge the appointment of Halleck; but Grant will not agree to this if he can help it.

Grant told me Sherman has assigned Howard to McPherson’s command. This had disgusted Joe Hooker, who had asked to be and had been relieved. To-morrow we make an attack on Petersburg. I am not sanguine of success, but hope for the best.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 216-17 Available via Google Books.

Abandonment of Slavery (July 26, 1864)

Horace Greeley (Library of Congress).

Horace Greeley (Library of Congress).

Meade returns to the subject of Horace Greeley’s peace conference at Niagara Falls. The general was essentially conservative. While never as outspoken as George McClellan about not turning the war into one of “servile insurrection,” we can assume Meade agreed with those sentiments. By this time, though, there was no turning back. Lincoln would not (and could not) reverse course on the subject of slavery. Once the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation the North’s war had changed from one to restore the Union to one to restore the Union without slavery.

Lincoln knew perfectly well that the Confederates would reject the terms he offered in the“To Whom It May Concern” letter he sent with Greeley (and had published in northern newspapers). He feared that simply demanding the restoration of the Union might lead to a cease-fire that could ultimately scuttle the Union’s war efforts. But his insistence on the abolition of slavery emboldened his critics. Wrote David Herbert Donald in Lincoln, “The New York Herald announced the publication of the President’s ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letter ‘sealed Lincoln’s fate in the coming Presidential campaign.’ . . . ‘All he has a right to require of the South is submission to the Constitution,’ Democratic editors announced. They were sure that ‘the people of the loyal states will teach him, they will not supply men and treasure to prosecute a war in the interest of the black race.’”

I consider the peace movement in Canada, and the share Horace Greeley had in it, as most significant. The New York Times of the 23d has a most important article on the President’s “To whom it may concern” proclamation, in which it is argued that Mr. Lincoln was right to make the integrity of the Union a sine qua non, but not to make the abandonment of slavery; that this last is a question for discussion and mutual arrangement, and should not be interposed as a bar to peace negotiations.

It is a pity Mr. Lincoln employed the term “abandonment of slavery,” as it implies its immediate abolition or extinction, to which the South will never agree; at least, not until our military successes have been greater than they have hitherto been, or than they now seem likely to be. Whereas had he said the final adjustment of the slavery question, leaving the door open to gradual emancipation, I really believe the South would listen and agree to terms. But when a man like Horace Greeley declares a peace is not so distant or improbable as he had thought, and when a Republican paper, like the Times, asserts the people are yearning for peace, and will not permit the slavery question to interpose towards its negotiations, I think we may conclude we see the beginning of the end. God grant it may be so, and that it will not be long before this terrible war is brought to a close.

The camp is full of rumors of intrigues and reports of all kinds, but I keep myself free from them all, ask no questions, mind my own business, and stand prepared to obey orders and do my duty.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 215-16. Available via Google Books.

Tree Lover (July 24, 1864)

Soldiers dig wells in front of Petersburg in an illustration by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Soldiers dig wells in front of Petersburg in an illustration by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues in his duty as escort to the French observers with the Army of the Potomac. The Agassiz to whom he refers is his old professor at Harvard, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz. Lyman had studied starfish under him. In fact, it was while on a scientific expedition to Florida in 1856 to study starfish that young Lyman first met Lt. George Gordon Meade, who was building lighthouses there.

All appears quiet on the Petersburg front for now, but that will change dramatically in less than a week.

The appearance of the sky is what the sailors term “greasy,” though whether that betokens rain or not I don’t venture to guess. Mayhap we will have a storm, which indeed would serve to lay the dust, which already begins to return, in force. This drought has been in one respect beneficial: it has kept the soldiers from using surface water and forced them to dig wells, whence healthy water may be got. One well near this was productive of scientific results, as they got from it a quantity of shells which I shall send to Agassiz. All this country is underlain more or less by “marl beds,” which are old sea-bottoms full of a good many different shells. The good Colonel de Chanal took a ride with me. He is so funny, with his sentimental French ways. He, with a true French appreciation of wood, looks with honest horror on the felling of a tree. As we rode along, there was a teamster, cutting down an oak for some trivial purpose. “Ah,” cried De Chanal, “Ah! encore un chene; encore un beau chene!” If you tell him twenty men have been killed in the trenches, he is not interested; but actually he notices each tree that falls. “Ah,” he says, “when I think what labor I have been at, on the little place I have at home, to plant, only for my grandchildren, such trees as you cut down without reason!” As he has always lived in the South of France, where greenery is scarce, he is not offended by the bareness of the soil; but when riding through a dreary pine wood, will suddenly break out: “Oh, que c’est beau, que c’est beau!”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 194-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Mere Canards (July 23, 1864)

General E.O.C. Ord. His soldiers called him "Old Alphabet." Meade had served with him early in the war (Library of Congress).

General E.O.C. Ord. Thanks to the profusion of initials, his soldiers called him “Old Alphabet.” Meade had served with him early in the war (Library of Congress).

The peace movement Meade mentions in this letter is the one undertaken by newspaper publisher Horace Greely, in which he met with Confederate commissioners at the Canadian border. Greeley, often a thorn in Lincoln’s side, ended up being outmaneuvered by the president, who made sure the conditions Greeley offered for talks required  restoration of the Union and an end to slavery, conditions he knew the Confederates would not accept.

It’s true that Meade professed great friendship for Winfield Scott Hancock. It’s also probably true that he never had a quarrel with the recently departed William F. “Baldy” Smith, but there was certainly no longer any friendship there. Earlier Meade had said he and Smith were “avowed antagonists.” David Birney, formerly a division commander in the II Corps under Hancock, was no friend, either, although Meade did admire his fighting abilities.

The stories you hear about me, some of which have reached camp, are mere canards, I have never had any quarrel with either General Hancock or Smith. Hancock is an honest man, and as he always professes the warmest friendship for me, I never doubt his statements; and I am sure I have for him the most friendly feeling and the highest appreciation of his talents. I am perfectly willing at any time to turn over to him the Army of the Potomac, and wish him joy of his promotion.

We have been very quiet since I last wrote; there are signs of approaching activity. The army is getting to be quite satisfied with its rest, and ready to try it again.

It would appear from the news from Niagara Falls that the question of peace has been in a measure mooted. The army would hail an honorable peace with delight, and I do believe, if the question was left to those who do the fighting, an honorable peace would be made in a few hours.

Ord has been placed in Smith’s place in command of the Eighteenth Corps, and General Birney has been assigned to the Tenth Corps, largely composed of colored troops.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 215. Available via Google Books.

A Visit to Butler (July 22, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler's headquarters (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler’s headquarters (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman, French observer Francois De Chanal and Meade aide Frederick “Rosie” Rosenkrantz pay a visit to Benjamin Butler. The general gives them a hint about one of his great schemes of the war, his idea of reducing Confederate fortifications by exploding barges stuffed with gunpowder next to them. Butler will try this out in December against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and, as De Chanal predicts, it will prove a miserable failure. But while it does no damage to the Confederates, the barge will blow up Butler’s military career. By the time of the Fort Fisher fiasco, the presidential election will be over and Grant will have a free hand to remove this politically connected general from the Army of the James.

Of course, even as Lyman visits Butler and the Army of the James, the Army of the Potomac is preparing its own big explosion, one that will also damage some military careers.

I had one of the most amusing excursions that I have had during the campaign—really quite a picnic. Colonel de Chanal, Rosy, and myself made the party. The distance to Butler’s Headquarters, whither we were bound, is about eight miles, and the road all the way was either through the woods or shaded by trees, and the dust had not yet had time to show its head after the rain. It was a new part of the country to me and very interesting. We struck the Appomattox at the Point of Rocks, where the river appears double by reason of a long, swampy island in the middle. The width, between the two steep, high, gravelly banks, cannot be less than 350 yards. Here is a pontoon bridge, and, near each end of it, on the top of the bank, a fort for its defence. Below it, too, lies a gunboat. Crossing this, we soon came to the Great Ben’s, who received us very hospitably, and exhibited a torpedo and a variety of new projectiles, the virtues of which in the destruction of the human race I explained in pure Gallic to the Colonel. During dinner he said to me: “They spoiled a good mechanic when they made me a lawyer, and a good lawyer when they made me general.” He delivered a long exposition (which I translated) on the virtues of a huge powder-boat, which he would explode between Moultrie and Sumter, by clockwork, and not only flatten both forts, but Charleston into the bargain! De Chanal replied (citing examples) that no such result would follow and that the effect would be limited to a very small radius. “No effect!” cried B., suddenly bursting into French, “mais pourquoi non?” “Ah,” said De C, with his sharp French eye, “mais pourquoi si?” . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 193-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Last of Baldy Smith (July 20, 1864)

William F. "Baldy" Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

William F. “Baldy” Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

On July 20 both George Meade and Theodore Lyman note the departure of William F. “Baldy” Smith from the Army of the James. Smith, who had commanded the XVIII Corps, and Meade had once been friends but became “avowed antagonists” as time passed. Smith was adept at sowing friction. Over at the Army of the James, Smith, Ulysses S. Grant, and Army of the James commander Benjamin Butler became involved in a struggle for power. Grant longed to rid himself of Butler, a general who was much more skilled at politics than war. He contrived to have Smith take control of the Army of the James’s field operations while Butler remained behind the lines in a strictly administrative role. Butler would have none of it. When the dust settled, Butler remained firmly in charge while Grant had sent Smith to New York. Smith later claimed that Butler gained the upper hand by blackmailing Grant over his drinking. The more likely scenario was that with the presidential election looming, the administration realized that this was no time to turn the politically connected General Butler into an enemy.

For Smith’s explanation of the affair, see below. He printed the letter he wrote to Vermont’s Senator Solomon Foote in his book From Chattanooga to Petersburg Under Generals Grant and Butler: A Contribution to the History of the War, and a Personal Vindication (Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1893). It’s quite an interesting account and does a good amount of score settling.

I am a good deal amused at your fear that I will become entangled with politicians. You may make your mind easy on that point, as, with the exception of what you write, I have never heard a word breathed on the subject. I rather fancy I should be considered too independent and too intractable for the purposes of any of these gentlemen.

Much excitement was created to-day by the announcement that General W. F. Smith, who returned last evening from his sick leave, was this morning relieved from his command of the Eighteenth Corps and ordered to New York. It was only the other day he was assigned by the President to this command, and Butler sent to Fortress Monroe. It appears now the tables are turned—Butler remains and Smith goes.

We have had a little rain, which has added greatly to our comfort and allayed somewhat the dust which has been such an annoyance. We are waiting the return of the Sixth Corps, sent to relieve Washington, after which I suppose we shall begin anew.

Here’s Theodore Lyman’s take on things. If anyone was born to serve Lyman as an object for description, it was Ben Butler.

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Our camp was this morning taken by assault by a cavalcade which turned out to be Major-General Ben F. Butler and a portion of his Staff. He is the strangest sight on a horse you ever saw: it is hard to keep your eyes off him. With his head set immediately on a stout shapeless body, his very squinting eyes, and a set of legs and arms that look as if made for somebody else, and hastily glued to him by mistake, he presents a combination of Victor Emmanuel, Aesop, and Richard III, which is very confusing to the mind. Add to this a horse with a kind of rapid, ambling trot that shakes about the arms, legs, etc., till you don’t feel quite sure whether it is a centaur, or what it is, and you have a picture of this celebrated General. Celebrated he surely is, and a man of untiring industry and activity. Woe to those who stand up against him in the way of diplomacy! Let the history of “Baldy” Smith be a warning to all such. It is an instructive one, and according to camp rumor, runs thus. It was said that Smith, relying on his reputation with Grant, had great ideas of shelving Butler, and Fame even reported that he had ideas also of giving Meade a tilt overboard. So what do we see but an order stating that Major-General Smith was to command the “forces of the field” of the Department, while Major-General Butler would continue to command the Department, with his “Headquarters at Fortress Monroe.” Next day everybody says: “So, Butler has gone.” Not exactly. Butler was still there, precisely as before. “As long as I command the Department, I command its troops; therefore, Headquarters where I please. I please here.” Off goes Smith to Washington, mysteriously. Down pounces Butler on City Point. Long confab with General Grant. Back comes Smith comfortably and is confronted by an order to “proceed at once to New York and await further orders!” Thus did Smith the Bald try the Macchiavelli against Butler the cross-eyed, and got floored at the first round! “Why did he do so?” asked Butler, with the easy air of a strong man. “I had no military ambition; he might have had all that. I have more important things in view!” Speaking of Butler’s visit, he had sent him an aide without consulting him, and Benjamin thought it a good chance to hit Halleck over the aide’s head. “Aide-de-camp, sir! Ordered on my Staff, sir! I’m sure I do not know what you are to do. I have really nothing for you. All the positions are filled. Now there is General Halleck, what has he to do? At a moment when every true man is laboring to his utmost, when the days ought to be forty hours long, General Halleck is translating French books at nine cents a page; and, sir, if you should put those nine cents in a box and shake them up, you would form a clear idea of General Halleck’s soul!”

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 214-15. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 192-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Now it’s time to give William F. “Baldy” Smith time for his defense. He does go down swinging in this letter to Senator Foote. (The correctionto the date was provided by Smith himself in his book).

Ulysses S. Grant. Questions about his drinking are still debated today  (Library of Congress).

Ulysses S. Grant. Questions about his drinking are still debated today (Library of Congress).

I am extremely anxious that my friends in my native state should not think that the reason of General Grant’s relieving me from duty was brought about by any misconduct of mine, and therefore, I write to put you in possession of such facts in the case as I am aware of, and think will throw light upon the subject. About the very last of June, or the first of July, Generals Grant and Butler came to my headquarters, and shortly after their arrival General Grant turned to General Butler, and said: “That drink of whiskey I took has done me good.” And then, directly afterwards, asked me for a drink. My servant opened a bottle for him, and he drank of it, when the bottle was corked and put away.

I was aware at this time that General Grant had within six months pledged himself to drink nothing intoxicating, but did not feel it would better matters to decline to give it upon his request in General Butler’s presence.

After the lapse of an hour or less, the general asked for another drink, which he took. Shortly after, his voice showed plainly that the liquor had affected him, and after a little time he left. I went to see him upon his horse, and as soon as I returned to my tent I said to a staff officer of mine who had witnessed his departure, “General Grant has gone away drunk. General Butler has seen it, and will never fail to use the weapon which has been put into his hands.” Two or three days after that I applied for a leave of absence for the benefit of my health, and General Grant sent word to me not to go, if it were possible to stay, and I replied in a private note warranted by our former relations, a copy of which note I will send you in a few days. The next day, the Assistant Secretary of War, Mr. Dana, came to tell me that he had been sent by General Grant to say what it becomes necessary to repeat in view of subsequent events, to wit: That he, General G., had written a letter the day before, to ask that General Butler might be relieved from that department, July 2, and I placed in command of it, giving as a reason that he could not trust General Butler with the command of troops in the movements about to be made, and saying also, that, next to General Sherman, he had more confidence in my ability than in that of any general in the field. The order from Washington, dated July 7, sent General Butler to Fortress Monroe, and placed me in command of the troops then under him; and General Grant said he would make the changes necessary to give me the troops in the field belonging to that department. I had only asked that I should not be commanded in battle by a man that could not give an order on the field, and I had recommended General Franklin or General Wright for the command of the department. I was at the headquarters of General Grant on Sunday, July 10 [actually, July 9] and there saw General B., but had no conversation with him. After General B. had left, I had a confidential conversation with General Grant about changes he was going to make. In this connection it is proper to state that our personal relations were of the most friendly character. He had listened to and acted upon suggestions made by me upon more than one important occasion. I then thought, and still think (whatever General Butler’s letter writers may say to the contrary), that he knew that any suggestion I might make for his consideration would be dictated solely by an intense desire to put down this rebellion, and not from any considerations personal to myself, and that no personal friendships had stood in the way of what I considered my duty with regard to military management, a course not likely to be pursued by a man ambitious of advancement. In this confidential conversation with General Grant, I tried to show him the blunders of the late campaign of the Army of the Potomac and the terrible waste of life that had resulted from what I had considered a want of generalship in its present commander. Among other instances, I referred to the fearful slaughter at Cold Harbor, on the 3d of June. General Grant went into the discussion, defending General Meade stoutly, but finally acknowledged, to use his own words, “that there had been a butchery at Cold Harbor, but that he had said nothing about it because it could do no good.” Not a word was said as to my right to criticise General Meade then, and I left without a suspicion that General Grant had taken it in any other way than it was meant, and I do not think he did misunderstand me.

On my return from a short leave of absence on the 19th of July, General Grant sent for me to report to him, and then told me that he “ could not relieve General Butler,” and that as I had so severely criticised General Meade, he had determined to relieve me from the command of the 18th Corps and order me to New York City to await orders. The next morning the general gave some other reasons, such as an article in the “Tribune” reflecting on General Hancock, which I had nothing in the world to do with, and two letters, which I had written before the campaign began, to two of General Grant’s most devoted friends, urging upon them to try and prevent him from making the campaign he had just made. These letters, sent to General Grant’s nearest friends and intended for his eye, necessarily sprang from an earnest desire to serve the man upon whom the country had been depending, and these warnings ought to have been my highest justification in his opinion, and indeed would have been, but that it had become necessary to make out a case against me. All these matters, moreover, were known to the general before he asked that I might be put in command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and therefore they formed no excuse for relieving me from the command I held.

I also submit to you that if it had been proven to him that I was unfitted for the command I then held, that that in nowise changed the case with reference to General Butler and his incompetency, and did not furnish a reason why he should not go where the President had ordered him at the request of General Grant; and that as General Grant did, immediately after an interview with General Butler, suspend the order and announce his intention of relieving me from duty there, other reasons must be sought, different from any assigned, for this sudden change of views and action. Since I have been in New York, I have heard from two different sources (one being from General Grant’s headquarters and one a staff officer of a general on intimate official relations with General Butler), that General Butler went to General Grant and threatened to expose his intoxication, if the order was not revoked. I also learned that General Butler had threatened to make public something that would prevent the President’s re-election. General Grant told me (when I asked him about General Butler’s threat of crushing me), that he had heard that General Butler had made some threat with reference to the Chicago convention, which he (Butler) said, he “had in his breeches pocket,” but General Grant was not clear in expressing what the threat was. I refer to this simply because I feel convinced that the change was not made for any of the reasons that have been assigned; and whether General Butler has threatened General Grant with his opposition to Mr. Lincoln at the coming election, or has appealed to any political aspirations which General Grant may entertain, I do not know; but one thing is certain, I was not guilty of any acts of insubordination between my appointment and my suspension, for I was absent all those days on leave of absence from General Grant. I only hope that this long story will not tire you, and that it will convince you that I have done nothing to deserve a loss of the confidence which was reposed in me.

Yours very truly, Wm. F. Smith, Major-General.

P. S. I have not referred to the state of things existing at headquarters when I left, and to the fact that General Grant was then in the habit of getting liquor in a surreptitious manner, because it was not relevant to my case; but if you think, at any time, the matter may be of importance to the country, I will give it to you. Should you wish to write to me, please address, care of S. E. Lyon, Jauncy Court, 39 Wall Street, New York.

 

An Attack in the Times (July 17, 1864)

Once again, the press irritates General Meade. On July 6 he had issued an order banning two reporters from the army. “Mr. William Swinton, a duly registered correspondent with this army for the New York Times, and Mr. Kent, a correspondent for the New York Tribune, have, by direction of the lieutenant-general commanding the armies in the field, been ordered to leave the lines for having abused he privileges conferred upon them by forwarding for publication incorrect statements respecting the operations of the troops, and they have been warned not to return,” the order read. The attack in the Times to which Meade alludes read in part, “Gen. MEADE must have a very vague idea of the duties of a correspondent, and of the difficulties which attend their performance, if he requires perfect and exact accuracy in regard to all the details of army operations, as the condition of remaining within his lines. He has not always found it easy to be thus exact in his own official reports, even after he had taken weeks to compile and prepare them. Possibly he may, at some future day, condescend to specify the particular default which has led to Mr. SWINTON’s exclusion from the limits of his army,–though it is, after all, a matter of very little consequence. Judging from Gen. MEADE’s previous action in similar cases, and from the general temper he exhibits toward the press, Mr. SWINTON is quite as likely to have been excluded for being too accurate as for any other offence.” (You can read the full article here.) The Times attack does not mention that Swinton had been caught eavesdropping outside a tent while Grant and Meade conversed inside, and that he had tried to bribe a telegraph operator to give him some classified material.  

I had a visit to-day from General Grant, who was the first to tell me of the attack in the Times, based on my order expelling two correspondents. Grant expressed himself very much annoyed at the injustice done me, which he said was glaring, because my order distinctly states that it was by his direction these men were prohibited remaining with the army. He acknowledged there was an evident intention to hold me accountable for all that was condemned, and to praise him for all that was considered commendable.

As to these two correspondents, the facts are, that Grant sent me an order to send Swinton, of the Times, out of the lines of my army. Swinton was in Washington, and he was accordingly notified not to return. In regard to the other, Kent, of the Tribune, Hancock wrote me an official letter, enclosing the Tribune, and complaining of the misstatements of Kent. As Kent was a correspondent with General Butler’s command, and not under my jurisdiction, I simply forwarded Hancock’s letter to General Grant, asking that proper action should be taken in the case. He replied that, on reference to General Butler, it was found Kent had gone off, but that he, Grant, had prohibited his return. I therefore issued my order, stating these men were by General Grant’s directions excluded from the army, and directing, if they returned, they should be arrested and turned over to the Provost Marshal General. They might just as well attack General Patrick, the Provost Marshal, because he is ordered to execute the order, as to attack me, who merely gave publicity to General Grant’s order.

We are quite on the qui-vive to-night, from the reports of deserters, who say we are to be attacked to-morrow. Their story is that Johnston is so pressed by Sherman that if he is not reinforced, he will have to succumb, and that he cannot be reinforced until we are driven back. We consider this great news, and are most anxiously and impatiently awaiting the attack, feeling confident we can whip twice our numbers if they have the hardihood to attack us.

Franklin’s escape has delighted every one, and we all hope his luck has now turned.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 213-14. Available via Google Books.

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