A Difficult Decision

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren. During the Mine Run campaign he commanded the II Corps while Winfield Scott Hancock recovered from his Gettysburg wound. ( Library of Congress photo.)

Meade’s Mine Run Campaign, an attempt to turn Lee’s flank in November 1863, was undoubtedly a failure, but at least it was not a disaster. When General Gouverneur Warren, then in command of the II Corps, examined the position he was supposed to attack he decided his men had no possibility of making a successful assault. Although Meade was not happy that his subordinate took it upon himself to make such an important decision, when he studied the lines he conceded that Warren was right. He called off the attack and the Army of the Potomac withdrew to its winter quarters.

“Wherever the fault lies, I shall always be astonished at the extraordinary moral courage of General Meade, which enabled him to order a retreat, when his knowledge, as an engineer and a soldier, showed that an attack would be a blunder,” noted Theodore Lyman, who served on Meade’s staff. “The men and guns stood ready: he had only to snap his fingers, and that night would probably have seen ten thousand wretched, mangled creatures, lying on those long slopes, exposed to the bitter cold, and out of reach of all help! Then people would have said: ‘He was unsuccessful; but then he tried hard, and did not get out.’”

I recently came across a book by George H. Washburn called (take a breath) A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regiment N.Y. Vols. From 1862 to 1894 together with Roster, Letters, Rebel Oaths of Allegiance, Rebel Passes, Reminiscences, Life Sketches, Photographs, Etc., Etc. In it Washburn includes an interesting account of his experiences during the Mine Run Campaign and his opinions of Meade’s actions. The 108th New York, also called the Rochester Regiment, served in the second brigade, third division, II Corps.

 In that locality, Mine Run is a stream running hundreds of feet below the rising heights on each side of it, and as the distance across the canon was too far for effective musketry, the batteries on each side held frequent soirees, throwing shot and shells, requiring the boys to keep a sharp look out to hold their base, yet several were seriously hurt. A cold rain storm prevailed, the mud was deep and adhesive, all were drenched and shivering, and unanimously coincided that it was rough.

During the evening, Reynold’s battery, of Rochester, occupying a prominent point, espying a group of Confederates cooking far below them, gave them balls (not fish balls), for hasty dessert, spilling their coffee, and scattering fire and men so skillfully that the bravos were stentorian. Being relieved by the First Corps, we struck out the next morning (Sunday) for a walk through a sterile pine country to a point on the railroad to Orange C. H., which became the extreme left of our line. We arrived in the vicinity of the objective purpose in the afternoon as a cold snow storm set in. Trees and brush were at once cut down in our front, for protection against a surprise. It was rather demoralizing in efforts to eke out comfort from heat coaxed and sworn over from green brush. Early in the morning of the 30th (being bitter cold), orders were given to “fall in,” and we advanced about half a mile, when the work designed for our brigade was discovered. Getting through bushes, upon a rise of ground in front of us, could be seen a field two or three hundred yards across, to the railroad embankment, upon the other side of which it was evident there lurked a large quantity of shooting irons, with well backed power to use them effectively, and the bushy hillside beyond appeared adroitly adapted for masked batteries. The boys pronounced it another “Fredericksburg calamity trap,” and momentarily expecting the signal for advance, shook hands, bade one another good-bye, fully resolved to do their whole duty. The design was, that upon hearing the guns of the Second corps, a general assault was to be made along the whole line by our army. The signal for the first move was not given, and report was current that eight o’clock was the time ; as that hour drew near, there was another scene of good-byes, and “if any of you come out alive, tell my folks I fell doing my duty.” In the meantime Generals Meade and Warren were seen on an eminence in rear of us in anxious consultation, and the question, “Will the assault be made ?” was asked among the men. No signal came for it, and the men breathed more freely. The day waned along in efforts to keep warm. General Jeb Stuart of the Confederate cavalry was getting well around upon our left flank, and exchanging shots with one of our batteries. Soon after sunset orders came to pile up all the rails obtainable and fire them, and as the smoke therefrom began to rise densely, we fell back from our dreaded position, and striking a plank road in the wilderness began to pull away lively.

Artillery and wagon trains passing over the road during the rains had broken many of the planks, and the ends of them were standing at all angles frozen firmly in the mud. “Double quick” was the order, and we double quicked, until brought to a sudden halt by the artillery being snagged by an upright piece of plank. This sort of procedure occurred several times, and the halts in zero air, after double quick headway, strained the boys’ observance of faith inculcated from early piety much. To illuminate the occasion, the leaves by the sides of the road were fired, and we had a vivid illustration of the children of Israel moving through the wilderness by a cloud of fire. About eight o’clock on the morning of December 1st, we arrived at Germania Ford, on the Rapidan, fording the same. We were not out of sight when General Jeb Stuart appeared in hot pursuit. One of our batteries made ugly mouths at him, and he did not attempt to cross after us and give us the grip. It was said he captured our rearguard of one hundred and twenty men belonging to the 126th New York.

The five days of the Mine Run movement, with sharp skirmishes, rain, mud, zero weather, and the night retreat of fifteen miles through the wilderness, was a severe test of endurance, and when camp was reached at Stevensburg, there was rest of righteousness, and all were thankful that the work designed for us to do, and ready to do, and which did not occur was our salvation. Had we reached Orange C. H., and been sandwiched between Lee’s divisions as designed, or made the charge contemplated, we do not think there would have been boys enough of the 108th (in the movement) left for a corporal’s guard.

From Washburn, George H. A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regiment N.Y. Vols. From 1862 to 1894 together with Roster, Letters, Rebel Oaths of Allegiance, Rebel Passes, Reminiscences, Life Sketches, Photographs, Etc., Etc. Rochester, NY: E.R. Andrews, 1894. The entire book is available through Google Books.

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“They Say He’s a Brick”

The 124th New York’s monument at Gettysburg stands above Devil’s Den. There’s also a smaller marker off Pleasonton Avenue.

I just came across another interesting reference to General Meade in a memoir written by a veteran of the 124th New York. Known as the Orange Blossoms because it hailed from the Empire State’s Orange County, the regiment saw hard fighting at Devil’s Den on July 2. This excerpt deals with the change of command from Joe Hooker to George Meade, which took place on June 28.

Just after muster, orders which announced a change of commanders and stated that Hooker had given place to General Meade, of the Fifth corps, were read at the head of each regiment. Now every intelligent soldier believed that we were on the eve of a great, if not a decisive battle, and at first quite a number shook their heads as if saying to themselves, “There is something wrong somewhere.” But the majority remembering that Hooker had been found wanting at Chancellorsville, expressed their feelings in regard to the change of commanders at that critical period, in such terms as the following, “I’m satisfied. It’s all right boys. That’s ‘Old Pennsylvania Reserves,’—they say he’s a brick.” These remarks came in whispered tones from the ranks behind me, just after the orders referred to had been read. Half an hour later a man in Company F, who had just finished boiling a cup of coffee, raised it toward his lips, and striking a sort of stage attitude, shouted “Soldiers of the army of the Potomac; take out your little Mammy Random books; I am neither a prophet, nor yet the son of a prophet, nevertheless, I am about to prophesy, so draw pencils, ready! aim! The traitor army of Northern Virginia, in the trackless forests of Virginia, surrounded on all sides by traitorous Virginians, and commanded by the arch traitors Lee and Jackson of Virginia, is one thing. But Lee and his army, without Jackson, on open northern soil, surrounded by loyal men, women and children of the north, is another thing. The next battle is on the free soil of old Pennsylvania, and Lee is whipped, no matter who commands us—do you hear me? shoulder pencils. Parade is dismissed.”

This bombastic semi-comical speech, in reality expressed the profound convictions of not only the man who uttered it, but of nineteen out of every twenty in the army of the Potomac; and when a Pennsylvanian standing near replied—“You are right, my boy,” and proposed “three cheers for the sentiment,” they were given with a will by all who heard him.

From History of the One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Regiment: N.Y.S.V. by Charles H. Weygant. Newburgh, New York, Journal Printing House, 1877. You can find the whole book online at Google Books here.

And you can find Weygant’s obituary here.