A New Arrival (September 3, 1863)

Theodore Lyman

Theodore Lyman

In September 1863 Theodore Lyman reached the Army of the Potomac. For the rest of the war he performed a valuable service by documenting his experiences with George Meade while serving as a volunteer aide to the general. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “Lyman was a Boston patrician and Harvard graduate who traveled among the best families and married well. He had first met Meade in Florida in 1856, when he was studying starfish and Meade was overseeing lighthouse construction. While in Europe during the war, a conflict that had already killed many in his circle, Lyman wrote to the general and asked about a staff position. ‘My military accomplishments are most scanty,’ he admitted. ‘I can ride, shoot and fence tolerably, speak French fluently and German a little, have seen many thousands of troops of most nations of Central Europe, and have read two or three elementary books.’“Meade wrote back and warned him that it would not be an ‘easy berth.’ Two of his aides had already been killed, he warned. ‘If you join my staff, which I would be most delighted were you to, you must make up your mind to see the elephant in his most formidable proportions.’ ‘Seeing the elephant’ was army slang for experiencing combat. Lyman was willing, and once he returned to the United States, he used his Boston connections to get a commission as a lieutenant colonel. He reached Meade’s side on September 3, 1863, and remained with him until Lee surrendered.

I thought it would be illuminating to include portions of Lyman’s letters alongside Meade’s and present their joint impressions of the war. Lyman, much more than Meade, was a keen observer who enjoyed writing about the personal idiosyncrasies of the people around headquarters and he provides some lively and personal accounts of life with the army. Lyman’s letters were published in 1922. In 2007 the Kent State University Press published Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman. Edited by David W. Lowe, the journals overlap the letters at times but also provide much unique information about the army. I highly recommend both books for anyone interested in George Meade and the Army of the Potomac.

Meade’s letter comes first. In it he mentions Montgomery Meigs, the Union army’s quartermaster general. A native of Georgia, Meigs graduated from West Point in 1836 and is one of the Civil War’s unsung heroes, having managed to keep the Union forces equipped and fed throughout the war, which was no small task. He was also the man who insisted that Union dead be interred as close as possible to Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s home in Arlington, Virginia, overlooking Washington, D.C. Today the burial ground is Arlington National Cemetery.

Montgomery Meigs, the Union army's efficient quartermaster general (Library of Congress).

Montgomery Meigs, the Union army’s efficient quartermaster general (Library of Congress).

The expedition has been quite successful; the boats were found at Port Royal and were destroyed by our artillery fire from this side. The expedition sent to destroy them consisted of cavalry and artillery, but as they had to go a long distance, over forty miles from the main part of my army, I had to send infantry to support them, and to guard the lower crossing places to prevent the enemy coming over and cutting them off. This has stirred us up a little. We have also had a visit from Brigadier General [Montgomery] Meigs, Quartermaster General, who has been inspecting the transportation of this army and who has been pleased to express himself very much gratified with all he has seen. The conscripts continue to come in very slowly, and I fear it will be some time before I am in a condition to move with any prospect of being able to accomplish anything.

I think I told you that one of William Parker’s sons was on my staff. [William Parker was Meade’s cousin.] The other day he paid a visit to his regiment, and on his return must have been captured, as nothing has since been heard of him. I have written Cortlandt [Williams’ brother] about it, but I fear the news of his disappearance got into the papers before my letter reached him, as I received a telegram to-day from his father enquiring about it.

I sent up my sword and fixings, but at the request of our express agent, it is to be exhibited for a short time at Gait’s jewelry shop, in Washington.

Here’s what Theodore Lyman wrote home on the same day:

Behold me, installed in solemn state! having thus far lost no limb. Betimes, at seven this morning, I was duly at the Alexandria ferryboat with horses, Silas and Albert. Having shown my pass, I assured the worthy corporal on guard that there was no liquor in the saddle-box, and was allowed to go on board, and twenty minutes took us to Alexandria, a town in no wise remarkable except for an antique pavement, much resembling that of Pompeii and of the Via Appia at Rome, in respect to deep holes and ruts. Here I was driven to the “Depot,” which consisted in one wooden counting-room, closely beset on all sides by puffing engines and innumerable freight cars. Having, at great risk, got into the shanty, I of course found a Marbleheader at the head of all affairs, viz., Colonel Devereux. He received me with tenderness, my horses were put in the best car and I was placed in a state chair until the train was ready, when the conductor solemnly took me and placed me first in the only passenger car. Shoulder-straps is shoulder-straps down here, and folks is obleeged to stand round. The conductor (the dirtiest mortal I ever saw, but extremely energetic and capable) said we should have no trouble with guerillas, as they had a very nice colonel in command near there, who had taken the wise precaution to seize the father and brother of the chief guerilla and then to send a civil message to him stating that, if any trains were fired into, it would be his (the Colonel’s) painful duty to tie said relations on the track and run an engine over them! This had an excellent effect. I have only time to-night to say that we got down all safe. . . . You may rest easy on my account for the present. There is about as much appearance of an enemy near at hand, as there would be on Boston Common. The nearest of them (except a few guerillas) are many miles from here.

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.146-7. 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, p. 4-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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