An Army on the Move (October 11, 1863)

Artist Alfred Waud drew Union soldiers burning the railroad bridge at Rappahannock Station on October 13 as the Army of the Potomac fell back to keep from being outflanked (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

Artist Alfred Waud drew Union soldiers burning the railroad bridge at Rapphannock Station on October 13 as the Army of the Potomac fell back to keep from being outflanked (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

There’s no letter from George Meade on October 11, but his aide Theodore Lyman wrote a typically fascinating account in which he described the Army of the Potomac on the move. Robert E. Lee had sparked the activity by putting his own army into motion, the start of a flanking maneuver much like the one that had caused so much grief for John Pope in the Second Bull Run campaign. In order to prevent his army from being outflanked, Meade opted to pull back from his position on the Rappahannock towards Centreville. Lyman observed it all in his inimitable fashion.

As all is packed, I take to pencil correspondence. Uncle Lee has concluded that we have stared long enough at each other, and so is performing some fancy antics, though whether he means to fight, or retreat after a feint, or merely take a walk, I know not. He is now paddling along, in the general direction of Warrenton, between us and the Blue Ridge; and so has entirely left his station on the other bank of the river. . . . Last night I, being of a foxy disposition, turned in at an early hour, so that I was fresh and fine at four this morning, when we were routed out, and assisted to coffee and bread and cold ham. It was a Murillo-esque (!) sight to behold the officers, in big coats and bigger sabres, standing with the bright light of the camp-fire on their faces. The cavalry cloaks, slouched hats, and great boots, though, as Co [Lyman’s sister] says, “drunk “-looking, are much more suited to a painter than the trig uniforms of the Europeans. So here we are, with horses saddled, waiting to see what is what. You understand that Mr. Reb is not very near us, in fact further off than before, but he is moving, and so we, too, are “en garde.” Our army, I say with emphasis, ought to be able to whip the gentlemen. Down comes General Meade; I clap the pencil in my pocket, and in two minutes we are off, escort, orderlies, Staff and all, winding our way midst miles of baggage and ammunition waggons and slow columns of moving infantry. Ha, ha, ha! They don’t look much like the “Cadets,” these old sojers on the march. There is their well-stuffed knapsack, surmounted by a rolled gray blanket, the worse for wear; from their belt is slung a big cartridge-box, with 1 His sister. forty rounds, and at their side hangs a haversack (satchel you would call it) quite bursting with three days’ rations. Hullo! what has that man, dangling at the end of his musket? A coffee-pot! an immense tin coffee-pot! and there is another with a small frying-pan — more precious to them than gold. And there goes a squad of cavalry, the riders almost obscured by the bags of oats and the blankets and coats piled on pommel and crupper; their carbine hangs on one side and their sabre clatters from the other. And then behold a train of artillery (the best-looking arm of the service), each gun drawn by six or eight horses, and the caissons covered with bags of forage. And so the face of the country is covered, when an army is on the march, the waggons keeping the road, the infantry winding through the open land. It is singular, in regard to the latter, that, however dirty or slovenly the men may be, their muskets always shine like silver; they know it is an important member. Well, you perceive I have leisure to get a pen-full of ink, to continue the letter, begun this morning. In fact we have done our day’s march and our movable houses are all up at a new “Headquarters.” We hear nothing much of the Insurges, but are all ready to pitch into them if we find them in a soft spot. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 29-30.Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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