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.

Great Excitement and Idle Talk (July 15, 1864)

Jubal Early’s raid to the outskirts of Washington continues to create excitement. In his letter of July 15, Meade also mentions the latest in what will become a series of meetings with Ulysses S. Grant regarding his future with the Army of the Potomac. In his letter of July 12 Meade had written about rumors that Meade was going to be replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac by Winfield Scott Hancock. From this point on Meade and Grant will have what must have been increasingly uncomfortable conversations about Meade’s status with the army.

General William Franklin. An engineer like Meade, Franklin had been overseeing construction of the U.S. Capitol's new dome when war broke out  (Library of Congress).

General William Franklin. An engineer like Meade, Franklin had been overseeing construction of the U.S. Capitol’s new dome when war broke out (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade also mentions General William Franklin. At the Battle of Fredericksburg Franklin had commanded the Left Grand Division of Ambrose Burnside’s army, in which Meade commanded his division of the Pennsylvania Reserves. After the battle Franklin had criticized Burnside, who had him removed from the army and sent west. Franklin’s bad luck continued when he was wounded during the Red River campaign under General Nathaniel Banks. Bad luck followed him back east, too. In this letter Meade refers to an incident in which Confederate partisans under Harry Gilmore attacked Franklin’s train during a raid into Maryland and captured the general. The rumors Meade hears of Franklin’s escape will turn out  to be true

I suppose you are in a great state of excitement on account of the rebel invasion. I wrote you in my last that I thought it was a serious affair, and subsequent developments prove it to be so. Day before yesterday I went down to City Point to see General Grant, having heard a rumor that I was to be sent to Washington. I found Grant quite serious, but calm. He seemed to think that with the Sixth Corps from this army, and the Nineteenth from Louisiana, there would be troops enough, with Hunter’s, Couch’s and Augur’s commands, not only to defeat the rebels, but to bag them. He said he had not contemplated sending me to Washington, but if another corps had to go, he would send me with it. I do not think the position a desirable one, as the difficulty will be to get the various commands together and harmonize such conflicting elements. If, however, I am ordered, I will do the best I can. I think Grant should either have gone himself or sent me earlier. He has given the supreme command to Wright, who is an excellent officer. I expect that after the rebels find Washington too strong for them, and they have done all the plundering they can, they will quietly slip across the Potomac and rush down here to reinforce Lee, who will then try to throw himself on us before our troops can get back.

I spoke to Grant about the report that I was to be relieved, and he said he had never heard a word of it, and did not believe there was any foundation for it, as he would most certainly have been consulted. I have therefore dismissed the matter as some idle talk from some person with whom the wish was father to the thought.

Lee has not sent away any of his army, and is doubtless disappointed that his diversion has not produced a greater weakening of Grant’s army. He confidently expected to transfer the seat of war to Maryland, and thought his menace of Washington would induce the Government to order Grant back there with his army.

I was very sorry to hear of Franklin’s capture, for his health is not good, owing to a wound he received in Louisiana, and I fear, if they send him to Charleston, his health may give way under the confinement in that climate, or be permanently injured.

Whilst I was writing we have a telegram reporting the withdrawal of the enemy across the Potomac, Wright in pursuit. Just as I expected. It also states there is a rumor that Franklin has made his escape, which I earnestly hope may prove true.

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. 212-13. Available via Google Books.

“An Escaped Pig” (July 13, 1864)

This photograph of Horatio Wright was half of a stereographic image titled "General Wright, Commander of the "Bloody Sixth Corps" (Library of Congress).

This photograph of Horatio Wright was half of a stereographic image titled “General Wright, Commander of the “Bloody Sixth Corps” (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides another snapshot of the tedious life in front of Petersburg. It’s quite a contrast to the bustle and excitement around Washington, where General Horatio Wright and the VI Corps have gone to repel Jubal Early’s invasion. We can add Mr. Shaw, Winfield Scott Hancock’s English valet, the Lyman’s gallery of great characters.

I hear this evening that General Wright has been put in command of all forces to repel the invasion. But our attempt to bag the raiders may be somewhat like the domestic rural scene of surrounding an escaped pig in the vegetable garden. Don’t you know how half a dozen men will get in a circle about him, and then cautiously advance, with an expression of face between confidence and timidity? The piggie stands still in the midst, with a small and a treacherous eye. Suddenly, picking out the weakest man, he makes an unexpected rush between his legs, upsets him, and canters away midst an impotent shower of sticks! I suppose you think I take a very light view of things, but in reality I do not; only, after seeing so many fine men knocked over, this business of tearing up tracks and eating all the good wife’s fresh butter seems of lesser consequence. Another thing is, I hope it will do us good, sting us to the quick, and frighten us into a wholesome draft. You must remember that this sort of raiding has been a continual and every-day thing in the southern country, though to us it seems to be so awful.

The mail man who came down to-night says they are in a great tremble at Washington, while down here we are pleasantly building bowers against the sun, and telling stories to wile away the time. To these last our French Colonel contributes many, of the Midi, which, with the peculiar accent, are very laughable. To illustrate the egotistical ideas of the Marseillais, he told of a father who was showing to his son a brigade of Zouaves who had just come from Italy and were marching through the streets. “Mon enfant! Vois-tu ces Zouaves? Eh bien, ils sont tous-e des Marseillais. II y avait des Parisiens, mais on les a mis dans la musique!” You remember that long, hot street there they call the Canebiere. A certain citizen, who had just been to see Paris with its present improvements, returned much gratified. “Ah,” said he, “Paris est une bien jolie ville; si, ga avait une Canebiere, ca serait un petit Marseille.” As an offset to which we must have an anecdote of this region. Did I ever tell you of “Shaw,” the valet of Hancock (formerly of General French)? This genius is a regular specimen of the ne’er-do-weel, roving, jack-of-all-trades Englishman. I fancy from his manner that he has once been a head servant or butler in some crack British regiment. He has that intense and impressive manner, only to be got, even by Bulls, in years of drill. He is a perfect character, who no more picks up anything American, than a duck’s feathers soak water. He is full of low-voiced confidence. “Oh, indeed, sir! The General rides about a vast deal in the dust, sir. I do assure you, that to-day, when he got in, his undergarments and his hose were quite soiled, sir!”

“That fellow,” said Hancock, “is the most inquisitive and cool man I ever saw. Now I don’t mind so much his smoking all my cigars and drinking all my liquors—which he does—but I had a bundle of most private papers which I had hidden in the bottom of my trunk, and, the other day, I came into my tent and there was Mr. Shaw reading them! And, when I asked him what the devil he meant, he said: “Oh, General, I took the liberty of looking at them, and now I am so interested, I hope you will let me finish the rest!”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 190-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Generals in Conversation (July 12, 1864)

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Francis Barlow leans against the tree to Hancock’s right. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Things remain quiet before Petersburg but, as Meade writes on July 12, things are getting a little interesting up north, as Jubal Early threatens Washington. It was on either July 11 or 12 that President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Fort Stevens on the outskirts of Washington and came under fire in the Union defenses. (One soldier, supposedly Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., yelled at the president, “Get down, you damned fool!”) Within the Army of the Potomac other conflicts are brewing. As detailed below, Winfield Scott Hancock had heard that Meade was to be relieved as commander. This is the start of a series of rumors that would leave Meade feeling increasingly angered and disrespected and ultimately result in Philip Sheridan getting his own command in the Shenandoah Valley, a command Meade believed Grant had promised to him. (It was also a command intended to unify the competing army elements that Meade writes about here.)

Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Senators Zachariah Chandler and Morton Wilkinson were persistent Meade critics in Washington. Chandler, of Michigan, nursed a grudge that dated back to 1861 when Meade was still a captain in Detroit. The citizens of Detroit, in a burst of early patriotic fervor, had asked Meade and his men to publicly take an oath of loyalty to the United States. Meade refused out of principle but said he would be happy to if the war department requested it. This angered Chandler.

Theodore Lyman also writes about Winfield Scott Hancock in a letter that captures the Union generals at their most human.

I received to-night your letter of the 10th, and am glad to see you are not excited about the rebel invasion. This is a bold stroke of Lee’s to endeavor to procure the withdrawal of this army from its menacing attitude, and to prevent the sending of reinforcements to Grant. The manoeuvre thus far has been successful, as not only has the Sixth Corps been sent away, but the Nineteenth Corps (twenty thousand strong), which was to reinforce us, has been diverted to Washington. This loss of strength will practically prevent our doing anything in the way of offensive movements until the campaign in Maryland is settled and the rebels so crippled as to quiet all apprehensions of their return. I understand Ord has been sent to Baltimore to command, in place of Wallace, defeated, and that Howe has been sent to supersede Sigel. Augur is in Washington, and Hunter coming from Cumberland. The danger is that with so many commanders, independent of each other (I ought to have mentioned Couch also), and their forces so scattered, that the rebs will have it all their own way to commit depredations and collect supplies, and when our troops leave the places they are now guarding, and attempt the offensive, that before they can concentrate, the rebs will fall upon some portion and whip them in detail. I consider the situation as critical; not that I believe the enemy can effect anything permanent, but I fear they will so embarrass and check our operations as to paralyze our efforts and prolong the period when we can collect enough troops here to do the work before us.

Hancock told me to-day he had been confidentially informed it was intended to remove me from command, and that he was to be my successor. He would not give me his authority, but said it was reliable. He did not know the grounds on which this action was to be based. This seemed to me so preposterous that I could not help laughing, but Hancock assured me it was undoubtedly in agitation, and thought I ought to be warned. He said, from what he could gather, he thought that Grant opposed it, but that he would be overruled. Hancock thought I would not be relieved entirely, but would be ordered somewhere, perhaps to Pennsylvania. Now, as my conscience is clear that I have done my duty to the best of my ability since this campaign commenced, and as I feel I have been unjustly treated, and have not had the credit I was and am entitled to, I shall not worry myself about any such outrage as being relieved without cause. I mention all this confidentially to you, simply as a preparation for the coming event, should it take place.

There have been recently with the army several Senators and Representatives; among others, Chandler and Wilkinson of Minnesota. The latter individual was at General Crawford’s. He was very severe on me, showing he still retained the animus that dictated his attack on me in the Senate last winter.

Theodore Lyman, too, writes about Winfield Scott Hancock. I wonder if the conversation he witnesses was the same one that Meade describes?

I sent off a detail of fifty men at daylight to prepare the ground for the new camp, and at eight o’clock, the waggons moved off with all our worldly effects, and the Staff remained under the shade of the abandoned gourbis [An Algerine word for a bower over a tent].We live very much after the way of Arabs, when you think of it — nomadic, staying sometimes a day, sometimes a month in a place, and then leaving it, with all the bowers and wells that cost so much pains. Afterwards most of the officers went to the new camp, while the General, with two or three of us, went down the road, towards the Williams house. There was an odd group at Hancock’s temporary Headquarters, by a little half-torn-to-pieces house, on whose walls some fellow had inscribed “the Straggler’s Rest.” Hancock lay, at full length, in a covered waggon, which had been placed under a weeping willow, one of the few green objects midst the desert of dust. He was attired in a white shirt and blue flannel pantaloons, quite enough for the intensely hot day. He lies down as much as he can, to give his wounded leg rest. General Meade mounted on the front seat, put his feet on the foot-board and lighted a cigar; and we all knew he was fixed for an hour at least. When he gets down with Hancock they talk, and talk, and talk, being great friends. Hancock is a very great and vehement talker but always says something worth hearing. Under the ruined porch was [Francis] Barlow, in his costume d ‘ete — checked shirt and old blue trousers, with a huge sabre, which he says he likes, because when he hits a straggler he wants to hurt him. He immediately began to pump the Captain Guzman, for he never neglects a chance to get information. After we had been well fried and dusted, General Meade rose to go, but I budged not, for I knew he would sit down again. He always rises twice or three times before he finally leaves Hancock. By the time we got to camp, it was all ready and looked quite neat.

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. 211-12. 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. 189-90. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Remembrance, Not Reverence

The Civil War has been over for almost 150 years and still the Confederate flag ignites controversy. The latest conflagration is taking place at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Originally just Washington University, it added the Lee in 1870 after the death of Robert E. Lee, who had served as its president since 1865. Lee is buried in the school’s Lee Chapel.

Recently some of the school’s African American students demanded, among other things, the removal of Confederate battle flags in the Lee Chapel. These were not original flags from the Civil War; they were replicas placed there after the originals had been removed because they were deteriorating. The university agreed to take the replica flags down. (You can read university president Richard Ruscio’s reasoned statement about the controversy here.)

The decision led to an eruption from those who decry “political correctness” and protest that the flags represent history and heritage. It’s not a position with which I agree. I share no sense of idolatry for Robert E. Lee, nor do I have any sympathy for the “Lost Cause.” I agree with what Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs about Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” wrote Grant. “I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

I do not question the sincerity of those who advocate the display of Confederate flags (battle flags or otherwise), whether it’s in South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, or elsewhere. Flag supporters often argue that they are on the side of “heritage, not hate.” I can understand their reasoning, without agreeing with it. Because I do think the Confederacy was, as Grant said, a bad cause. Not only did the men in the Confederate government seek to break up the United States (something anyone who claims to be a patriot should agree was a bad cause indeed) but they also did it because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.

Some people insist that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. I have argued with a few of them. I cannot understand how anyone could say that. As I write in my book, Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “The South fought to preserve a culture that rested on a foundation of human bondage. Don’t take it from me—take it from the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In a famous speech he made in March 1861, less than a month before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War, Stephens declared that slavery ‘was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.’ Furthermore, he added, the foundation of the Confederate government–its very cornerstone, in fact—‘rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’ Claiming that slavery did not cause the Civil War is like clearing the iceberg of any responsibility for sinking the Titanic. That’s why I find it galling to see the Sons of Confederate Veterans contend that the South’s ‘motivating factor’ for war was ‘the preservation of liberty and freedom.’ Except, of course, for the approximately four million people of African descent whom the slave-holding states kept in bondage. It’s a stain that will forever sully the story of the Confederate States of America. There’s no escaping it.”

I had one Amazon reviewer criticize my book for taking the “revisionist” view that slavery led to the outbreak of the Civil War. Revisionist! The real revisionist history was the one that came after the war, when ex-Confederates began recasting the story so they could airbrush slavery out of the picture altogether, like a guilty man cleaning up a crime scene. Of course slavery played a role in the Civil War. Just read South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” which the state issued in December 1860. South Carolina, as everyone should know, was the first state to secede from the Union. After citing its reasons for thinking it could secede, South Carolina explained its motivations. (I’m using the text posted by the Yale Law School, which you can find here.) Here’s one portion of the Declaration:

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The men who drafted this declaration did not have any hidden agenda. They did not think slavery was wrong—in fact, they believed it to be just, proper, and sanctified by the Bible. Slavery was the economic engine that drove their economy and they knew its eradication would have created great difficulties for the South. So South Carolina decided to leave the Union and, like dominoes, other states followed—and they cited slavery as a reason, too.

I can understand why some people refuse to acknowledge the fundamental role slavery played in the outbreak of the American Civil War. It’s the unpleasant truth at the heart of the Confederacy. It tarnishes the glory and blights the valor. It strips away what some like to remember as romantic, chivalric, and honorable aspects of the war. “States’ rights” is a much loftier cause. Of course, many men from the South fought bravely and well. No doubt many of them couldn’t have cared care less about slavery. They were fighting for their home states or out of loyalty to their friends and neighbors. But no matter what the motivations of individual soldiers were, the foundation upon which their cause rested was morally indefensible.

Slavery is, unfortunately, inextricably entwined with the heritage behind the Confederate flag. Is there any wonder why some people find public displays of the flag offensive? Is anyone really blind to the kind of heritage that many African Americans—though not only African Americans—see when they look at the Confederate flag, especially after the flag had been hijacked and used as a symbol by racist and hate groups? Confederate flags carry a lot of baggage with them, and sometimes the things denounced as “political correctness” are merely signs of people fumbling their way toward decency and respect.

I can also understand why some Southerners resent Yankees (like me) who seemingly use the issue of slavery to assert the moral superiority of our side. Slavery was a blight on the entire nation, north and south. Northern merchants and bankers grew rich on its proceeds. Northern ship captains brought captured slaves to North America. None of us can take any pride in its existence, but we can take a measure of pride that Americans did end slavery in our nation, even if it came at the cost of a long and bloody war. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

So if Washington and Lee University wants to take the Confederate flags down from the Lee Chapel, I am all for it. The original battle flags—not the replicas—will rotate through the Chapel’s museum exhibit, where they will serve as artifacts from history, not objects of veneration. I have nothing against display of Confederate flags in their proper context. I support remembrance. I am just against treating a Confederate flag as an object of reverence. We must remember—but we do not always have to revere.

Reflection (July 10, 1864)

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

July 10 finds Theodore Lyman in a philosophical mood as he wonders at the determination of the fighting men in the Army of Northern Virginia. He reflects the war-weariness that infected both armies by this point.

The Major Wooten to whom Lyman refers was the Confederate officer he met at Cold Harbor when delivering the flag of truce. Governor William Sprague (actually, former governor and at this point senator) is from Rhode Island. Lyman has mentioned him before. General Birney is David Bell Birney, who had provided damaging testimony against Meade for the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He had commanded the II Corps while Winfield Scott Hancock was incapacitated by his Gettysburg wound.

It seems sometimes sort of lonely and hopeless, sitting here in the dust by Petersburg, and hearing nothing except now and then a cannon in the distance. Sometimes I feel like saying to the Rebels: “You’re a brave set of men, as ever were; and honest—the mass of you. Take what territory you have left and your nigs, and go and live with your own delusions.” But then, if I reflect, of course I see that such things won’t do. Instead of being exasperated at the Southerners by fighting against them, I have a great deal more respect for them than ever I had in peace-times. They appear to much more advantage after the discipline of war than when they had no particular idea of law and order. Of course I speak only of a certain body, the army of Northern Virginia; of the rest I know nothing. Also do I not speak of their acts elsewhere; but simply of the manner of warfare of our particular opponents. It is always well, you know, to speak of what you see, and not of what you hear through half a dozen irresponsible persons. There is no shadow of doubt that the body of the Southerners are as honestly, as earnestly and as religiously interested in this war as the body of the Northerners. Of course such sentiments in the North are met with a storm of “Oh! How can they be?”—“That is morally impossible”—“No one could really believe in such a cause!” Nevertheless there is the fact, and I cannot see what possible good can come from throwing a thin veil of mere outcries between ourselves and the sharp truth. I am not so witless as not to be able to tell in five minutes’ conversation with common men whether they are reasonably honest and sincere, or false and deceitful. I was much struck with something that Major Wooten said, when we were waiting together, by night, at Cool Arbor. After listening to the tremendous noise of cannon and musketry that suddenly had burst forth, he said: “There they are, firing away; and it is Sunday night, too.” The great thing that troubles me is, that it is not a gain to kill off these people—now under a delusion that amounts to a national insanity. They are a valuable people, capable of a heroism that is too rare to be lost.

William Sprague of Rhode Island (Library of Congress).

William Sprague of Rhode Island (Library of Congress).

It is a common saying round here that the war could be settled in half an hour if they would leave it to the two armies. But I fear the two armies would settle it rather for their own convenience and in the light of old enemies (who had beaten at each other till they had beaten in mutual respect) than on the high grounds on which alone such a decision could rest. And, on second thoughts, I do not think it might turn out so smoothly. Doubtless the treaty would make excellent progress the first ten minutes; but then would arise questions at which there would be hesitation, and, at the end of the half-hour, it is to be feared both parties would be back in their breastworks. General Meade is fond of saying that the whole could be settled by the exercise of common Christian charity; but (entirely sub rosa) I don’t know any thin old gentleman, with a hooked nose and cold blue eye, who, when he is wrathy, exercises less of Christian charity than my well-beloved Chief! I do not wish to be understood as giving a panegyric on the Secesh, but merely as stating useful facts. Little Governor Sprague appeared again. He was last with us at Spotsylvania. This time he came over with Birney, who, with his thin, pale, Puritanic face, is quite a contrast. Sprague has two rabbit teeth in front that make him look like a small boy. Birney looks rather downcast. You see he was ambitious to do well while he had temporary command of the Corps; but all went wrong. His great charge of nine brigades, on the 18th of June, was repulsed; and on the 22d the Corps had that direful affair in which the whole Corps was flanked, by nobody at all, so to speak. The more I think on that thing, the more extraordinary and disgraceful does it appear. At the same time, it is in the highest degree instructive as showing what a bold and well-informed enemy may do in thick woods, where nobody can see more than a company front. The Rebel official accounts show that Mahone, with some 6000 or 7000 men, marched in the face of two corps in line of battle, took 1600 prisoners, ten flags, and four guns, paralyzed both corps, held his position till nightfall, and retreated with a loss of not over 400 men! I was with the 6th Corps and never heard a musket from the 2d nor dreamed it was doing anything, till an aide came to say the line had been driven in. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 186-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


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