The Only Exception (November 20, 1864)

"Photograph showing Generals Wesley Merritt, Philip Sheridan, George Crook, James William Forsyth, and George Armstrong Custer around a table examining a document." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Photograph showing Generals Wesley Merritt, Philip Sheridan, George Crook, James William Forsyth, and George Armstrong Custer around a table examining a document.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Meade is steaming over Philip Sheridan’s promotion to major general in the regular army, and rightly so. Adding to his insecurity are his doubts about Grant role in this. Is the general-in-chief conniving against him? Is he being sincere? This issue will continue to gnaw at Meade.

General Grant promised me he would, when in Washington, use all his influence to have justice done to me, disclaimed any agency in Sheridan’s appointment, acknowledged I was entitled to it before, and ought now to be appointed his senior; and that if he found any difficulty in Washington (which he did not anticipate) he would have me relieved. He furthermore expressed regret at not having insisted on my appointment when Sherman was appointed, and assured me my not being assigned to the Middle Military Division was accidental, as he always intended I should go there, until it was too late. Finally, he assured me, on his word of honor, he had never entertained or expressed any but the strongest feeling in my favor, and that whenever speaking or writing of me, he had expressed his appreciation of my services. Now, I believe Grant, hence my eyes are not opened by Sheridan’s appointment. He was to return to Washington to-night, spend to-morrow and perhaps the next day there, and then return here. I shall await his return and hear what he has to say.

Every other officer in this army, except myself, who has been recommended for promotion for services in this campaign has been promoted. It is rather hard I am to be the only exception to this rule.

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. 244. Available via Google Books.

All’s Well! (November 19, 1864)

Theodore Lyman gives us a taste of life in camp. Even when nothing happens, he finds a way to make it amusing.

The rain continued, being cold, by way of variety, and from the northeast; whereby it happened that we got no mail. Be-cause what? as small Co says. Well, because the captain of that gallant ship went and ran her aground somewhere on a shoal which they told me the name of—whereat I was no wiser. The result to us was disastrous; when I say to us, I mean our mess; for the chef, Mercier, (no relation of French minister) was on board with many good eatables for us, but in the confusion, the knavish soldiery, who were on board as passengers, did break the boxes and did eat much and destroy and waste more. “Aussi,” said little Mercier, “they broke many bottles; but,” he continued, with the air of a good man, whom a higher power had protected, “that made no difference, for they belonged to other people!” In the night we were favored with quite a disturbance. The officer of the guard, who had possibly been storing his mind from some mediaeval book on the ordering of warders in a walled town, suddenly conceived an idea that it was proper for the sentries to call the hours. So we were waked from the prima quies by loud nasal and otherwise discordant cries of: “Post number eight! Half-past twelve! All’s well!” etc., etc. The factionaries evidently considered it a good joke, and, as they had to keep awake, determined no one else should sleep; and so roared often and loud. Some of the officers, hastily roused, fancied the camp was on fire; others conceived the sentinels were inebriated; others that Mosby was in the camp; and others again, like myself, didn’t think anything about it, but growled and dropped off again to sleep. “What was that howling?” said the testy General, at breakfast. “Yes, what did the confounded fools mean?” added the pacific Humphreys. But the most indignant personage was Rosencrantz. “I do svear!” he exclaimed, “this whole night have I not a single vink slept. It is not enough that those sentry fellows should tell us vat time it is, but they must also be screaming to me a long speech besides! Vat do I care vat time it is; and if all is vell, vy can they not keep it to themselves, and not be howling it in my ears and vaking me up? This is the most fool tings I have seen!” You may be sure that was the first and last of the warders.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 276-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Brits (November 18, 1864)

A stereo view of Fort Hell, a.k.a. Fort Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

A stereo view of Fort Hell, a.k.a. Fort Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman relates the visits of even more Britishers. The “Fort Hell” they visit was officially known as Fort Sedgwick. In his journal entry, Lyman wrote, “What is the reason that Englishmen, whether they know anything or not, always succeed in looking more or less idiotic?” In Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, David W. Lowe identifies Smyth as Henry Augustus Smyth, who published his observations in Minutes of Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution.

Warm it is this morning—too much so; I would prefer it frosty, but remember the farmer whom Jupiter allowed to regulate the weather for his own farm, and who made very poor crops in consequence. As Albert came last night, I honorably discharged the ebony John this morning, giving him a character, an antique pair of trousers and a dollar or two extra wages, whereat John showed his ivory, but still remarked, standing on one leg: “Er ud like er pass.” “What do you want a pass for?” asked I, in that fatherly voice that should always be used to a very black nig. “Go a Washington.” “If you go to Washington they’ll draft you, if you don’t look out.” “Oh,” said John, with the grave air of a man of mundane experience, “dem fellers what ain’t travelled none, dey gets picked up: but I’s travelled a right smart lot!” Whereupon the traveller departed. It should be stated that his travels consist in having run away from his master, near Madison Court House, and in having since followed the army on the back of a spare horse. We were favored with a batch of two J. Bulls (lately they have taken to hunting about here, in couples and singly). These were a certain legation person, Kirkpatrick, and an extraordinary creature named H____, who is said to have been once in the British army and to be now in Oxford—rather a turning about. He had a sort of womanish voice and a manner of sweet sap; his principal observations were: “Ao, inde—ed”; “Ao, thank you”; and “Ao, I wish you a good morning.” He had an unaccountable mania for getting shot through the head, and insisted on going to Fort Hell, and staring through embrasures; from which I judge he was more idiotic than he seemed. He was also, it would appear, very fond of fresh air, while his companion (who also disagreed with him on the shooting-through-the-head matter) rather liked a door shut. They were put in a log cabin to sleep, and H____ secretly opened the door at night; whereupon it came to rain and blow, and the Bulls awaked in the morning to behold their shoes and stockings sailing about the room! Really, General Hunt, to whom these creatures are usually billetted, ought to get board free from his many former guests for the rest of his life.

In the evening we had a charge on the enemy under a new form, or rather a very old one, for it was after the fashion of Samson’s foxes. A number of beef cattle, in a pen near Yellow Tavern, were seized, in the night, with one of those panics for which oxen are noted, and to which the name “stampede” was originally applied. They burst out of the enclosure and a body of them, forty strong, went, at full gallop, up the Halifax road, towards Petersburg! What our pickets did does not appear; one thing they did not do—stop the fugitive beef. On they went in wild career through the dark, with no little clatter, we may be sure. The Rebel videttes discharged their pieces and fled; the picket sentries opened fire; the reserves advanced in support, and fired too; heedless of killed and wounded, the oxen went slap through the whole of them; and, the last that was heard from that drove was the distant crash of a volley of musketry from the enemy’s breastworks! When the gray morn lifted, the first sight that greeted our disgusted pickets was a squad of grey-backs comfortably cutting savory steaks from a fat beef, the quarry of their bow and their spear! The evening brought us warm rain; also, as toads fall in a shower, one military Englishman, and one civilian Blue-nose. The Briton was a Major Smyth, of the Royal Artillery—a really modest, gentlemanly man, with a red face, hooked nose, and that sure mark of greatness, a bald head. The Blue-nose was modest also (the only one I ever saw) and was of the class of well-to-do, honorable Common-Councilmen; his name was Lunn, suggestive of “Sally Lunns.”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 273-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Nobody Hurt (November 17, 1864)

Meade's aide Frederick Rosenkrantz, in a detail from Alexander Gardner's photo "Studying the Art of War" (Library of Congress).

Meade’s aide Frederick Rosenkrantz, in a detail from Alexander Gardner’s photo “Studying the Art of War.” About Rosenkrantz, Gardner wrote, “A very reliable soldier, and one of the best Aids on the Staff, his genial disposition, unfailing amiability, and keen appreciation of humor, made him acceptable everywhere. He was probably as well known as any officer in the field.” (Library of Congress).

George Meade writers to his oldest son, who is slowly dying of tuberculosis back in Philadelphia. He covers some of the same topics he had written about to his wife previously. “Owen Meredith” was the pen name for Robert Bulwer-Lytton, an English author who also served as the Viceroy of India. He was the son of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the man for whom the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, for the best bad writing, is named. “Lucille” was one of the younger Bulwer-Lytton’s most popular poems.

Theodore Lyman also wrote home about the story of Meade aide Frederick Rosenkrantz and the British visitors.

Well, the election is over, and nobody hurt. In the army it passed off very quietly, Mr. Lincoln receiving two votes to McClellan’s one. This result was fully anticipated by me—indeed, McClellan’s vote was larger than I expected.

The election being over, it is now to be hoped the earnest attention and best energies of the Government and people will be devoted to raising and sending men enough so to swell our armies that our onward movement will be irresistible, and the Confederacy convinced that further resistance is useless. There are significant signs that our enemies are beginning to feel the exhaustion and effects of a three years’ war. Among these the most important is the proposition of Mr. Davis to arm forty thousand slaves, who are to receive their freedom as a boon for faithful services. They are to be employed, it is ingeniously said, as engineer troops, and to act as a reserve to be called on in an emergency. This is a plausible disguise, to sound the temper of the Southern people on the question of arming and freeing the slaves. Nothing but the conviction of the necessity of this measure could ever have justified its enunciation. It has produced the most violent discussions pro and con in the Southern journals, and bids fair to be as great a firebrand with them as it has been with us. My own judgment is it will be abandoned, for although the number as yet is fixed at forty thousand, as a test, to see if the negroes can be relied on and will fight, I believe that the experiment will prove that the arming the slaves is more dangerous to the Confederacy than to us. I have no doubt that many will be faithful to their masters, but the great body will, after being armed, desert to us or go back to their homes. Now, in view of the position the South has always taken on this subject the change of ground can only be attributed to desperation, and a conviction that the war in its present gigantic proportions cannot much longer be carried on by the whites at the South. Should this theory be correct, the end cannot be far distant, when we have such armies in the field, as we ought to and I hope soon will have.

I have recently picked up a story in verse by Owen Meredith, called “Lucille.” I don’t suppose you are well enough to read a great deal. The story is quite interesting, and told with much pathos, though I don’t think the poetry very superior.

We have recently had an influx of John Bulls in the form of officers and others. You would have been delighted to see the admirable display of whiskers, fine clothes, etc. An amusing incident occurred with Rosencrantz, who was showing a couple of them our lines. On finding him a foreigner, they were delighted and said, now you can tell us what the American officers really think of us. “Veil,” said Rosey, “they no like you, they say,’ven this war be over they vill take Canada.’” “God bless me, you don’t say so,” they exclaimed, and did not ask Rosey any more questions of this nature. Approaching a part of the lines, where it was dangerous from sharpshooters, Rosey said they had better not go, but they pooh-poohed him, and he started on. Pretty soon the balls began to fly pretty thick and close, when they changed their mind, expostulated, and finally begged Rosey to turn back, but he had his dander up and replied, “No, ve vill go on, ve vill go on,” and go on he did, and return, fortunately without any one being hit.

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. 242-3. Available via Google Books.

The Case for Meade (November 16, 1864)

Matthew Brady took this photograph of Meade at Cold Harbor on June 12, 1864. (Library of Congress).

Matthew Brady took this photograph of Meade at Cold Harbor on June 12, 1864. This is the cover image for the 2015 George Gordon Meade calendar, which you can order through Lulu.com  (Library of Congress).

News of Philip Sheridan’s promotion spurs Theodore Lyman to write a stirring defense of General Meade. True, he overestimates Lee’s numbers at Gettysburg, but still. This is a fair statement of the case for General Meade, without taking anything away from Sheridan.

They have made Sheridan a Major-General in the Regular Army. I think he deserves it for that remarkable battle of Cedar Creek. Those of Opequon and of Fisher’s Hill were joyous occasions; but he ought to have won those, because his forces were probably at least as two to one, and his cavalry immeasurably superior; but this last battle was the thing that brought out his high merit. The language of the order is not to be commended, as it makes Sheridan a cat’s-paw to give McClellan an insulting hit. It is hard on Meade, and I think he feels it; during a long campaign, in many respects unprecedented in military history for its difficulties and its grandeur, he has handled an army, which has at times considerably exceeded 100,000 men; and that too under circumstances very trying to a man who has had a chief command; that is to say, obliged to take the orders and tactics of a superior, but made responsible for all the trying and difficult performance, which indeed is more than one half the game of war. I undertake to say that his handling of his troops, when a mistake would be the destruction of the entire plan, has been a wonder: without exaggeration, a wonder. His movements and those of Lee are only to be compared to two exquisite swordsmen, each perfectly instructed, and never erring a hair in attack or in defence. Of course, it is idle to tell such facts to people at large; they don’t understand, or care, or believe anything about it. It is true, the army has played what seems its destined role, to kill and to be killed without decisive actions, until both sides pause from mere exhaustion; but do people reflect what a tremendous effect all this has on the Rebels? that by wearing ourselves, we have worn them down, until they are turning every teamster into the ranks and (of all things) are talking of arming the negroes. Suppose there had been no army capable of clinging thus for months in a death-grapple, and still clinging and meaning to cling; what would have become of Sherman and his great work? The record of General Meade is a remarkably clear one. He has risen from a brigadier of volunteers to all the higher commands, by hard fighting and an experience that dates from the first days of McClellan. He has done better with the Army of the Potomac than McClellan, Pope, Burnside, or Hooker; and—I will add boldly and without disparagement to the Lieutenant-General—better than Grant! and you would agree with me did you know what power and what men Grant has had to command. Meade’s great virtue is, that he knows when to fight, and when not to fight. Taking up an army on the march, he fought and won the greatest battle of this war—Gettysburg—100,000 men against 110,000—a battle that saved Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia, and nobody knows what besides. He wouldn’t fight (assault) Lee at Williamsport, and immediately he was “timid, timid, timid!” Now look here: we assaulted at Spotsylvania, at Cool Arbor, at Petersburg, and were repulsed with perfect slaughter; after all that, if Lee had assaulted us in position what would, what would have become of him? Why, we would have used him up so, that he wouldn’t have known himself. Just turn this about and apply it to Gettysburg and reflect how “the people” are frequently semi-idiotic! He followed Lee to the Rappahannock and got orders to stop. In September he was to move and attack Lee on the Rapid Ann; the day before this move they took 20,000 men from him and sent West: it couldn’t be done to Grant. Then Lee marched on Centreville; Meade beat him and got there first; Lee wouldn’t fight and retreated (he also knows when not to fight). It was in just such a move that Pope was smashed all to pieces and driven into Washington. Then Meade forced the Rappahannock, and drove Lee in haste over the Rapid Ann. The Mine Run expedition followed; we did not go fast enough—that was unfortunate; but it would have been more unfortunate to have left 10,000 men on the slopes there. If Meade had lacked the great moral courage to say “retreat,” after having been called “timid” by the papers, and having been hounded on by Halleck and Stanton to “do something,” he would not only have got a disastrous defeat, but would have destroyed the plan of re-enlistments by which we obtained the very backbone of our army for this campaign. His “timidity” lies in this, that he will not try to build a house without enough of tools and timber. Lately, they have turned round, 180 degrees, and now call him “butcher”; but that does just as well—blow hot, blow cold. This is a fair statement. I don’t say he is Napoleon, Caesar and Alexander in one; only that he can handle 100,000 men and do it easy—a rare gift! Also, as Sherman and Sheridan, commanding the two other great armies, have been made regular Major-Generals, he too, who is doing his part, and has fought more than both of them put together, ought to have equal rank. General Grant, as far as I can hear, thinks everything of General Meade, and it is said will have him promoted like the others. I believe it will turn out that Sherman is our first military genius, while Sheridan is most remarkable as a “field fighter,” when the battle is actually engaged. Bless my soul! quelle lecture on my commanding General! Never mind, variety is the spice of life.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 270-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Life of Devotion to Duty (November 15, 1864)

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

George Meade’s off-hand mention of Philip Sheridan’s promotion belies the anger he truly felt over the fact that Grant seemed to favor Sheridan over him.  He will return to the topic in future letters. In the meantime, he continues to worry about the health of his oldest son, John Sergeant.

I am very glad Bishop Odenheimer was so kind as to visit you and talk to Sergeant, and am truly happy to hear dear Sergeant proposes to make public what I felt sure was the case, that he is a sincere and good Christian. With such a life of devotion to duty, and freedom from all the faults that youth is liable to, it needed for me no more evidence to feel satisfied that my dear boy was in the right path as far as human infirmity admitted.

General George McClellan (Library of Congress).

General George McClellan (Library of Congress).

I hear from City Point this evening that McClellan’s resignation has been accepted, and that Sheridan has been appointed a major general in the regular army. It is also reported that General Canby, commanding in Louisiana, has been mortally wounded whilst going up Red River.

An officer called to see me to-day, just from Detroit, bringing me many kind messages from friends. This officer says that, whilst at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, he heard a man publicly proclaim that the Army of the Potomac, under my influence, was going to vote for McClellan. My friend told the individual his statement was false, that he knew me and the army, and he knew I would never influence a man for either side, and he knew the army would vote largely for Mr. Lincoln. But this report of my interference was circulated all through the Western country.

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. 242. Available via Google Books.

Ivory and Ebony (November 14, 1864)

Col. Charles Sawyer Russell (via Wikipedia).

Col. Charles Sawyer Russell (via Wikipedia).

It’s Theodore Lyman writing today. How he avoided developing writer’s cramp remains a mystery. In this letter, he writes about African-American soldiers, and Lyman’s views on that subject often create some discomfort for us here in the 21st century. Lyman seems unable to see black soldiers as anything but objects of curiosity or comic relief. Although race is obviously a major factor in his outlook, I don’t think it is the only one. Lyman tended to see Irish and German soldiers in a similar light, as subjects for jokes or condescension. Lyman was from Boston and Havard and considered himself of the best pedigree, so he would have considered most soldiers in the army to be below him in class standing. The Col. Russell he mentions is Charles S. Russell, who had commanded the 28th USCT before being promoted to brigade command in the IX Corps. In his journals back in July, Lyman had described him as “a bald headed and extremely funny man and a good officer, though coarse.”

If doctors and quartermasters had not quarrelled, I should not have come unto sorrow; thus, a hospital was placed nigh to a place on the railroad where the quartermasters would fain have a platform. “Move your tents,” said the quartermasters. “We won’t,” said the doctors. “You shall,” retorted the quartermasters. “We shan’t,” reiterated the M.D’s. The strife waxed hot. Inspectors were called: they inspected much and shook their heads; that being a negative conclusion, the Major-General Commanding the Army of the Potomac was appealed to, and he rode out to enter a fiat. In riding out he took me, and I took a chill. So confusion to all doctors and quartermasters! But the former shall be forced to cure me and the latter to make me comfortable in mine house. There came over, for a visit, the Colonel Russell, of the funny turn, who commands now a brigade of negro troops. He has always something funny to relate of their manners and customs. It would appear that his nigs were once relieved by troops of the 2d Corps, and, as both parties had just been paid off, the ivory and the ebony sat down to play poker, wherein the ebony was rapidly getting the better of their opponents. The enemy meanwhile began to fire shells over the woods, but the players were too interested to leave off. At last one cute Yankee, who, despite his cuteness, had been entirely cleaned out, wandered off and found an empty shell, which he carefully filled with damp gunpowder, adding a paper fuse. Approaching the group that seemed to have most money on the board, he lighted the innocent combustible, screamed “Look out!” and threw it into the midst of them, following up himself, to secure the greenbacks left by the fugitives. Russell said when the recruits first come down they get into all sorts of snarls. As, for example, two of them found what they call “one er dese ere mortisses,” by which they would say mortar shell. “Hullo, dar’s er mortiss: s’pose dat ar’ll ’splode?” “‘Splode! ’corse it’ll ’splode.” “No, it wun’t; how’s gwine to ’splode, when’s been shot out uv er cannon?” “Bet yer five dollars ’ll ‘splode.” “Bet yer it wun’t!” The next thing the Colonel knew was a tremendous report, and two or three bits of iron flying through his tent. He rushed forth and collared a handful of the darks, and demanded immediate explanation. Whereunto one replied, with the utmost simplicity: “Didn’t mean nuphin, Kernul; all fault er dat ar stupid nigger — said er mortiss wouldn’t ’splode!” This day was further remarkable by the erection of a stately flagstaff, which seemed to imply that General Williams thought we should stay some time; but I think it will doubtless make us move at once; just as building log huts has a similar effect.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 269-70. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

“Unmistakable Evidences of Despondency” (November 13, 1864)

Confederate President Jefferson Davis (National Archives).

Confederate President Jefferson Davis (National Archives).

In his annual address to the Confederate Congress on November 7, 1864, President Jefferson Davis raised the troubling (for the South) question of arming slaves to aid in the war. He approached the subject delicately, suggesting that maybe 40,000 slaves could be used only as pioneers and engineers. “If the recommendation above made for the training of 40,000 negroes for the service indicated should meet your approval, it is certain that even this limited number, by their preparatory training in intermediate duties, would  form a more valuable reserve force, in case of urgency, than threefold their number  suddenly called from field labor, while a fresh levy could, to a certain extent, supply  their places in the special service for which they are now employed.” Meade was correct that this indicated a greater desperation on the part of the Confederacy. However, it wasn’t until March 1865 that the Confederate Congress approved the use of African-Americans as soldiers. By then it was too late.

See below for Theodore Lyman’s impression of the British visitor.

To-day I had a visit from a Colonel Coles, of the English Army, who is the Military Commandant of New Brunswick. He was quite a gentlemanly person. I took him around our lines and showed him all that was to be seen.

Grant has gone to-day to pay a visit to Admiral Porter, at Fortress Monroe, and as Butler is absent, this leaves me in command of all the forces operating against Richmond.

I suppose you have seen Mr. Davis’s Message to the Confederate Congress. Although a dignified and well-written document, to my mind it betrays unmistakable evidences of despondency. His proposition to arm and free forty thousand slaves, to make engineer soldiers, is most significant, for nothing but an acknowledged exhaustion of the white race could ever make him willing to free and arm the black race. The idea of limiting the number to forty thousand, and making them engineer soldiers, simply means that this is an experiment, the result of which is doubtful, and until the fidelity of the race is tested, it is better not to have too many. I think this is prudential on their part, for I cannot believe they will get the blacks to fight for them.

Gibbon was here to-day, the first time I have seen him since his return.

I judge from the tone of the Tribune, Washington Chronicle, and other Administration papers, that there is a disposition on the part of the successful party to be magnanimous and invite harmony among all the friends of the Union. I see it reported the President has declined McClellan’s resignation, and it is said is going to give him a command. I doubt the latter part, but think the former very probable. I have no means of hearing or knowing anything that is going on till it is made public. I never go to City Point, and Grant does not come here, so that I am not au courani des affaires.

In his letter today, George Meade mentioned the visit of Colonel Cole from the British Army, the latest European to show up and observe the Army of the Potomac. Meade doesn’t spend much time on the visit, so we must rely on Theodore Lyman for a more expansive (and typically comic) account. He also provides a snapshot of John Gibbon, who commanded a division in the II Corps.

We had a Lieutenant-Colonel C___, a Britisher, up for a visit; he is commander of the forces in that tropical climate of New Brunswick. In aspect Colonel C____ was not striking; he had done injustice to what good looks he had by a singularly shapeless suit of city clothing, which I judge must have been purchased ready made from a village tailor in New Brunswick. He had a sort of soft cloth hat, an overcoat of a grey-rhubarb tint and trousers which once might have had a pure color, but seemed to have become doubtful by hanging in the sun outside a shop. I don’t think the gallant Lieutenant-Colonel was much interested in matters military. Perhaps he had read out, perhaps he had no natural taste that way, or perhaps he felt cold and uncomfortable. At any rate he looked bored, and his only military remark did not indicate deep reflection. “This,” said I, “is what we call a corduroy road.” “Oh! ah! Indeed; yes, well, it’s very well now, you know, but what will you do when it comes wet weather?” I was too much overcome at this putting the cart before the horse, to inform him that the corduroy was built for no other purpose than for wet weather. After this I confined myself to considerations of the state of health of the Hon. Mr. Yorke (he who came back with us from Liverpool). He is under the command of the Colonel, it would appear, and afforded an innocent topic of conversation. Since then two other English officers have been entrusted to the fatherly care of Rosencrantz, and diligently shown round. When they got near the end, they said: “Now we are much pleased to find you are a foreigner, because we can frankly ask you, what you consider the general feeling towards the English in this country.” To which Rosie (who don’t like to miss a chance) replied: “Vell, I can tell you that, so far as I have observed, some Americans do just care nothing about you, and many others do say, that, when this war is over, they will immediately kick you very soon out from Canada!” When the horrified Bulls asked: “Aw, aw, aw; but why, why?” Rosie replied in the following highly explanatory style: “Be-cause they say you have made for the Rebs very many bullets.”

John Gibbon (Library of Congress).

John Gibbon (Library of Congress).

General Gibbon dined with us and was largely impressed by our having oysters on the shell, which he pitched into with the fervor of a Baltimorean long separated from his favorites. Gibbon is by birth a Pennsylvanian, but lived, since boyhood, in North Carolina. When the Rebellion broke out, two of his brothers went into the Rebel service, but he remained loyal. One of his sisters was in the South but could not escape, and it was only the other day that they allowed her to come on board the flag-of-truce boat and come down the river to our lines, where her brother met her and took her North. He had sent word to his younger brother to meet him on the same occasion, but the young gentleman sent word, “It would not be agreeable”; which shows they are pretty bitter, some of them. Gibbon has an Inspector named Summerhayes, who is of the 20th Massachusetts, and who has got so used to being shot at, that he seems not to be able to do without it, and so gallops along the picket line to rouse the foe to pop at him. Which reminds me of what Grant said (either by accident or on purpose). He had come out, with a great crowd of civilians, to ride round the lines. Someone proposed to go out and visit the pickets. “No,” said Grant, innocently, “no; if I take a crowd of civilians, the enemy may fire and some of the soldiers might get hurt!”

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. 241-2. 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. 267-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Birney and Sleeper (November 12, 1864)

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Pictured (left to right)  are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan, Capt. J. Henry Sleeper, Capt. O'Neil W. Robinson, and artist  Alfred R. Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Capt. J. Henry Sleeper is second from left and artist/correspondent Alfred Waud is on the right. The other two men are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan (left) and Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman offers one of his finely observed letters today. We get his impressions of the late David Bell Birney and his account of a visit with Capt. Jacob Henry Sleeper of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. Sleeper was from Boston, where his father had been a founder of Boston University. His battery was attached to the II Corps. Sleeper had only recently returned to his unit after recovering from a wound he received at Reams Station, a battle in which his battery lost four guns.

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

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

We have the usual play of rumor about cabinets — everybody seems inclined to heave out Stanton: some to heave him up to the Supreme Court — some to heave him down to unknown depths of nothingness. Many would fain fancy Ben Butler in the chair of War, where he would be certain to make things spin either for good or for bad. How he will get on, across the James, I know not. He lost a strong man in Ord, wounded; and in Birney, dead, also: Birney was one who had many enemies, but, in my belief, we had few officers who could command 10,000 men as well as he. He was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair. As a General he took very good care of his Staff and saw they got due promotion. He was a man, too, who looked out for his own interests sharply and knew the mainsprings of military advancement. His unpopularity among some persons arose partly from his promotion, which, however, he deserved; and partly from his cold covert manner. I always felt safe when he had the division; it was always well put in and safely handled. The longer I am in the army, the more I see that great bodies of men take their whole tone from a few leaders, or even from one. I climbed on a horse and took a ride to visit Captain Sleeper, whose camp I easily recognized by its neat appearance. He always has things in a trig state about him. His own domicile was a small log cabin, with a neat brick chimney, very smooth-looking, but made in truth of only odd bits of brick, picked up at random and carefully fitted by a skilful Yank. The chimney-piece was of black walnut, made indeed from the leaf of an old table, discovered in the neighborhood. As to his tongs, a private, of prospective views, picked them up sometime last summer, and had carried them, ever since, in waggon! For arras he had artillery horse-blankets. The Sleeper is now more content, having his battery full, new sergeants appointed, and a prospect of officers. His only grief is that with three years’ service and many battles he is only a captain. You see Massachusetts has not her batteries in a regiment and can’t have field officers. So Sleeper’s only hope is a brevet.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 266-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Political Imbroglio (November 11, 1864)

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Meade continues to worry about his oldest son, who is slowly dying in Philadelphia. He also follows up on the ballot controversy he wrote about on the previous day. Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman goes into greater—and more comic—detail about the election scandal and other incidents of camp life.

I note all you write of dear Sergeant, and of his condition. It is hard for me to know that he continues so sick, and that I cannot be with you to assist in taking care of him and in trying to keep up his courage and spirits. I never doubted Sergeant’s firmness of purpose and moral courage. He had too often exhibited these qualities in the highest degree. I fully sympathize with you in your anxiety, but can only urge you to watch him closely. I am glad Mr. Keith goes to see him; the intercourse of good and liberal men and women cannot but be beneficial, and I consider Mr. Keith one of the best of men.

The Secretary of War relieved me of my political imbroglio by ordering me to send the persons arrested to Washington. From all I could understand of the matter, these people are innocent of any wrong intended; it is known no wrong was actually perpetrated. Still, when they were charged by others with intent to commit fraud, I was compelled, under the orders of the Department and my own sense of duty, to hold them in arrest until the matter could be investigated.

Mr. Johnny Reb has been moving about to-day, as if he had taken it into his head to do something. I am sure I would be very grateful to Lee if he would try his hand at the offensive for awhile.

To-day’s papers say Sherman has burned Atlanta and moved on Charleston. This is a bold move, the success of which will depend on Thomas’s ability to keep Hood out of Kentucky and Ohio.

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

In his letter, Lyman waxes philosophical, puts a comic spin on the ballot incident, and describes a contretemps in the headquarters kitchen.

The McClellan procession might have spared their tapers, as he has gone up, poor Mac, a victim to his friends! His has been a career manque, and a hard time he has had, and low he has fallen. The men who stood, as green soldiers, with him in front of Yorktown, where are they? Many thousands lie in the barren land of the Peninsula and the valley of Virginia; thousands more in the highlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania and in the valley of the Shenandoah. Many are mustered out—their time expired—or sick, or crippled. The small remnant are sifted, like fine gold, through this army, non-commissioned officers, or even full officers. What an experience it is for an infantry soldier! To have carried a musket, blanket, and haversack to the Peninsula, and to the gates of Richmond, then back again to the second Bull Run; up to Antietam in Maryland; down again to Fredericksburg; after the enemy again to the Rappahannock; and at last, the great campaign, like all others concentrated in six months, from the Rapid Ann to Petersburg! All this alone on foot, in three long years, at all seasons and all hours, in every kind of weather, carrying always a heavy load, and expecting to fight at any moment; seeing so many men shot in each fight—the great regiment dwindling to a battalion—the battalion to a company—the company to a platoon. Then the new men coming down; they shot off also. Till at last the infantry-man, who left Boston thinking he was going straight to Richmond, via Washington, sits down before Petersburg and patiently makes his daily pot of coffee, a callous old soldier, who has seen too many horrors to mind either good or bad. It is a limited view of a great war, but, for that very reason, full of detail and interest.

Of course we might have known that this pack of political “commissioners” could not get down here without a shindy of some sort. The point they brought up was fraudulent votes. A long-haired personage, fat and vulgar-looking, one of that class that invariably have objectionable finger-nails, came puffing over to General Meade’s tent, with all the air of a boy who had discovered a mare’s nest. He introduced himself as a Mr. Somebody from Philadelphia, and proceeded to gasp out that a gentleman had been told by an officer, that he had heard from somebody else that a Democratic Commissioner had been distributing votes, professedly Republican, but with names misspelled so as to be worthless. “I don’t see any proof,” said the laconic Meade. “Give me proof, and I’ll arrest him.” And off puffed Mr. Somebody to get proof, evidently thinking the Commanding General must be a Copperhead not to jump at the chance of arresting a Democrat. The result was that a Staff officer was sent, and investigation held, and telegraphs dispatched here and there, while the Somebody puffed about, like a porpoise in shallow water! Finally, four or five people were arrested to answer charges. This seemed to please Stanton mightily, who telegraphed to put ‘em in close arrest; and, next morning, lo! a lieutenant-colonel sent, with a guard of infantry, by a special boat from Washington, to conduct these malefactors to the capital—very much like personages, convicted of high treason, being conveyed to the Tower. Were I a lieutenant-colonel, I should feel cheap to be ordered to convey a parcel of scrubby politicians under arrest! But that is the work that Washington soldiers may expect to spend their lives in. General Meade, I fancy, looked with high contempt on the two factions. “That Somebody only does it,” he said, “to appear efficient and get an office. As to X____, he said he thought it a trying thing for a gentleman to be under close arrest; and I wanted to tell him it wasn’t so disgraceful as to have been drunk every night, which was his case!” That’s the last I have heard of the culprits, who, with their accusers, have all cleared out, like a flock of crows, and we are once again left to our well-loved ragamuffins, in dirty blouses and spotted sky-blue trousers.

The day was further marked by an emeute in the culinary department. I would have you to know that we have had a nigger boy, to wait on table, an extraordinary youth, of muscular proportions and of an aspect between a drill sergeant, an undertaker and a clergyman—solemn, military and mildly religious. It would, however, appear, that beneath this serious and very black exterior worked a turbulent soul. The diminutive Monsieur Mercier, our chef, had repeatedly informed me that “le petit” (the unbleached brother is about a head taller than Mercier) was extremely indolent and had a marked antipathy to washing dishes—an observation which interested me little, as my observation went to show that the washing of dishes by camp-followers tended rather to dirty than to cleanse the platter, and that the manifest destiny of the plate military was to grow dirtier and dirtier, till it at last got broken. However, Anderson was reproved for not washing his crockery, and replied with rude words. On being reproved again, he proposed to smite Mercier, remarking, he “would as soon knock down a white man as a nigger.”

At this juncture the majestic Biddle interfered and endeavored to awe the crowd; but the crowd would not be awed, so Biddle put Anderson at the pleasant occupation of walking post with a log on his shoulder. Upon being liberated from this penalty, he charged upon Mercier, giving him the dire alternative of “Pay me mer wages, or I’ll smash yer crockery!” This being disorderly, I allowed him to cool his passions till next morning in the guardhouse, when he was paid off.

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. 240-1. 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. 262-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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