Moral Courage (November 30, 1863)

Alfred Waud titled this sketch "Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run--opposite Warrens last position." Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee's entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud titled this sketch “Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run–opposite Warrens last position.” Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee’s entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

We continue with an account by Theodore Lyman as he details the climax—the anti-climax actually—of George Meade’s Mine Run campaign. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, Gouverneur Warren had planned to launch his offensive the next morning, with an artillery barrage signaling the start of the attack. Warren would go in at 8:00, and then John Sedgwick, on the opposite end of Robert E. Lee’s line, would begin his movement. The guns began roaring on time at 8:00, but at 8:50 Capt. Washington Roebling (of later Brooklyn Bridge fame) came galloping up to Meade’s headquarters with a message from Warren. Meade read it. “My God!” he exclaimed. “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!”

Warren had carefully surveyed the enemy position opposite his and decided, on his own authority, that the Confederates had strengthened it so much during the night that it was now much too strong to attack.

The Mine Run defenses did appear strong indeed. Chaplain Alexander Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania felt certain an attack on them would lead to a great loss of life. The men in his regiment agreed, and as the day passed they came to him and filled his pockets with all the mementos of the lives they expected would soon end—money, photographs, rings, watches. Some soldiers began pinning their names to their coats so their bodies could be identified. What impressed Stewart, though, was that despite the terrible odds, these soldiers were still willing to go into battle.

Lt. Col. Charles H. Morgan of the II Corps staff suspected that many officers shared their soldiers’ misgivings but kept their doubts to themselves. One picket from the 1st Minnesota, not realizing that Morgan was an officer, didn’t hide anything. He told Morgan the enemy position was “a damned sight worse than Fredericksburg” and added, “I am going as far as I can travel; but we can’t get more than two-thirds of the way up the hill.”

Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, at the other end of the Union line with Sedgwick’s VI Corps, studied the Confederate defenses with great interest because there seemed a pretty fair chance that he would soon be testing them personally. “There was a deep creek between us and the enemy, and the rebels had been busy digging rifle-pits and strengthening their position ever since we came up to them,” he wrote. “Both banks were abrupt and steep and difficult to get over, while on the rebel side they had added to these disadvantages by placing every conceivable obstacle in the way of our advance. Trees were felled, abattis made, breastworks were thrown up until they occupied a position that if we had occupied we should have considered impregnable against all the rebels in the universe.”

After consulting with Warren and examining the defenses for himself, Meade reluctantly agreed with his subordinate’s opinion—attacking Lee’s position here would be nothing more than a useless slaughter, another Fredericksburg. Meade suspected someone else would have to take the responsibility for renewing the war against the Army of Northern Virginia, because he expected to be removed from command for canceling his attack.

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, and chief of staff Andrew Humphreys (Library of Congress).

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and the V Corps’ George Sykes (Library of Congress).

Almost before daylight our waggons were loaded and away, for the Headquarters are only a few hundred yards in the rear of our heavy guns and directly on the road, so that we expected a nice lot of shells, say at 8.10 A.m. A little before that the General mounted and rode towards General [John] Newton’s quarters, and, while near there, bang! went a cannon on the right; then boom! boom! from the 32 pounders, and then, bang, boom, bang, pretty generally. In all the woods the troops were massed for the attack, waiting orders. We rode back to Headquarters, and, a moment after, Captain [Augustus] Roebling from General Warren’s Staff, galloped up. He is the most immovable of men, but had, at that moment, rather a troubled air. He handed a scrap of paper. General Meade opened it and his face changed. “My God!” he said, “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!” Roebling shrugged his shoulders. The note was to the effect that General Warren had made a careful examination of the enemy’s works, had altered his opinion of last evening, and considered an assault hopeless!!! Orders were at once issued to cease firing. We tried to take it all philosophically, but it was hard, very hard. Most of all to General Meade and General [Andrew] Humphreys, who really took it admirably, for both of them have excellent tempers of their own, which, on occasions, burst forth, like twelve-pounder spherical case. In a little while the General again rode away; this time to see General Warren, some four miles off. Two aides, besides myself, went with him. We rode along the rear of our batteries, which were still, from time to time, exchanging shots with those opposite; though not when I chanced to be passing, I am happy to say. General Warren had a sad face, as well he might. He drew aside, with the two other generals, and there they stood, in long consultation, over a fire which had been made for them, for the air was sharp. Then we started back again, stopping half-way at General [William] French’s, whom we found in a fuming passion, partly because two of his divisions had been, in some way, put under guidance of General Warren, and partly because he was all ready for the assault and had pushed his skirmish line to within 300 yards of the Rebel works, while the storming parties were in a great rage at not being led on. Alas! it was of no use; General Humphreys, with a heavy sigh, pronounced the opportunity (if it had ever existed) now past; and, when he cries no fight, you may be sure there is not much chance. At a meeting that evening, the other generals concurred. It was physically impossible to flank any more on either side, and the only thing that remained was:

The King of France with forty thousand men,
Marched up a hill; and then marched down again.

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. 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.”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 56-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Preparing for the Assault (November 29, 1863)

Once again Theodore Lyman provides our narrative. Gouverneur Warren,  with his own II Corps and a portion of the VI, prepares to outflank Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

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

I rode to and along our front to see the enemy’s position, which is a fearfully strong one. Within about a mile of our position, there runs a high, gradually sloping ridge, which trends in a northerly and southerly direction, and crosses the turnpike at right angles, where it is naked, though to the right and left it is wooded in some parts. Between this and a parallel high ground, occupied by us, is a shallow ravine, in which was a small stream, Mine Run. Along their ridge the Rebels have thrown up a heavy and continuous breastwork, supported by entrenched batteries; and, in some places at least, they probably have a second line. Any troops, advancing to the assault, would be exposed to a heavy artillery fire from the very outset, over the space of a mile, besides having to encounter the still worse musketry at the end. At daylight this morning, General Warren, with his own corps and a division of the 6th, marched towards our extreme left, where, it was understood, the right of the enemy could be turned. His attack was to be a signal for attacking in other places on the line. However, despite that the rain had ceased, the bad roads delayed a good deal, and a false report of entrenchments delayed more; so that, when he got there, after driving in an outlying force, the day was too far advanced for an attack. Major Ludlow, however, came back with a fine account from General Warren of the prospects, and all things were made ready for an assault, next day. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 55-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Towards the Front (November 28, 1863)

Theodore Lyman celebrates an anniversary while the Army of the Potomac slogs forward on the Mine Run Campaign. This is Lyman’s letter from November 28. Meade, with other things on his mind, remains silent today.

I thought that our wedding day would be celebrated by a great battle, but so it was not fated. Let us see, a year ago, we were in Paris; and this year, behold me no longer ornamenting the Boulevards but booted and spurred, and covered with an india-rubber coat, standing in the mud, midst a soft, driving rain, among the dreary hills of Old Virginny. It was early in the morning, and we were on the crest, near Robertson’s Tavern. On either side, the infantry, in line of battle, was advancing, and a close chain of skirmishers was just going into the woods; while close in the rear followed the batteries, laboriously moving over the soft ground. The enemy had fallen back during the night, and we were following. When the troops had got well under way, the General took shelter in the old tavern, to wait for the development. He had not to wait long, before a brisk skirmish fire, followed by the light batteries, announced that we had come on them. Immediately we mounted and rode rapidly towards the front, slop, slop, slop, through the red mud, and amid ambulances and artillery and columns, all struggling forward. We had come on them sure enough, and on their line of works into the bargain, whereof we had notice beforehand, by spies. A halt was therefore ordered and the different corps ordered into position. This was a tremendous job, in the narrow wood-roads, deep with mud; and occupied fully the whole day. If you consider that the men must often move by fours, then a division of 4000 men, closed up, would occupy in marching some 1000 yards, and, by adding the space for pack horses, and the usual gaps and intervals, it would be nearer a mile; so you see how an army would string out, even with no artillery. You must remember also that these long columns cannot move over two miles in an hour; often not so much. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 54-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Payne’s Farm (November 27, 1863)

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this sketch "Rebel earthworks commanding the passage at Germanna ford, abandoned on the approach of Meade's army" (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this sketch “Rebel earthworks commanding the passage at Germanna ford, abandoned on the approach of Meade’s army” (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

In his letter of November 27, Theodore Lyman details the beginning of Meade’s Mine Run campaign. It was an inauspicious start, marked by delays and disappointments. Here’s how I described the situation in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Meade planned to cross his army at various fords along the Rapidan below Lee’s right and make a flanking attack instead of risking a frontal assault against his strong entrenchments. The III Corps would cross at Jacob’s Ford, with the VI Corps following, and then make its way through various woods roads to a place called Robertson’s Tavern. The roads the army had to follow were narrow and winding, as they still are today. The II Corps would cross at Germanna Ford, while the I and V Corps would use Culpeper Mine Ford. Cavalry would guard the flanks. “The plan promised brilliant success,” said chief of staff Andrew Humphreys; “to insure it required prompt, vigorous action, and intelligent compliance with the programme on the part of the corps and other commanders.”

 Therein lay the proverbial rub. Meade wanted his army to rumble into motion on November 24, but heavy rainfall delayed the movement until the twenty-sixth. Then [William] French and the III Corps were two hours late in reaching their ford. Two pontoon bridges turned out to be too short, forcing the engineers to do some time-consuming improvisation, and the banks on the opposite side of the river were steep and difficult to climb. Like many best-laid plans, Meade’s attempt to flank Lee began to unravel. Things slipped further and further behind schedule, giving the Confederates time to react to the Federals’ threatening move.

A native of Eastport, Maine, Henry Prince commanded a division of William French's III Corps (Library of Congress).

A native of Eastport, Maine, Henry Prince commanded a division of William French’s III Corps (Library of Congress).

[Gouverneur K.] Warren and the II Corps reached Robertson’s Tavern on November 27 and began “a brisk little contest” with the rebels there. But French’s III Corps was nowhere to be found. That’s because once the commander of French’s lead division, Brig. Gen. Henry Prince, managed to cross the river, he sat at a crossroads for a couple hours while he tried to determine which road to take; a historical marker stands at this crossroads now.

After driving around here I can understand how the generals became confused. I spend a lot of time stopped at crossroads myself as I peer at my directions and try to figure out which way to go. The stakes, though, were considerably higher for French and Prince. Around 11:30 headquarters finally received a message from French. He said he was waiting for Warren—who was already at Robertson’s Tavern skirmishing with the enemy. Steam must have been shooting out of Meade’s ears at this point. But before French could join Warren, he stumbled into battle on the land of a man named Payne.

The Battle of Payne’s Farm was the only serious fighting of the Mine Run Campaign—although I’m sure the skirmishers and other soldiers who had been killed and wounded in other actions would have said their fights had been serious enough. The Confederates here were commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, also known as “Clubby.” The thirty-two thousand men of the III Corp greatly outnumbered Johnson and his fifty-three hundred troops, but the Confederates fought stubbornly enough to delay French even longer.

Humphreys later complained that French’s tardiness and the holdup at Payne’s Farm essentially paralyzed the entire operation. By the time the army was in a position to attack on the twenty-eighth, Lee had moved his army to a strong position behind Mine Run, a line “crowned with intrenchments for infantry and artillery, strengthened by abates,” said Humphreys. Any frontal assault appeared doomed, but Warren thought he could shift his forces and, reinforced by a division of the VI Corps, attack Lee’s weak right flank. Meade later gave him two additional divisions from the III Corps. While the V and VI Corps made a diversionary attack on the enemy’s left, Warren would make the main attack on its right.

Here we are, camped south of the Rapid Ann, and I find a leisure moment to write you a letter, or rather to begin one. My last formal note, I believe, informed you we were to move “to-morrow” (26th). And, sure enough, yesterday we kept our Thanksgiving by marching, horse, foot, and artillery, as hard as we could paddle towards Germanna Ford.

Lyman mapThe above rough map, with the other I sent when I wrote ;at Centreville, will sufficiently explain our moves. From Rapid Ann Station to Morton’s Ford, the Rebels have a strong line of entrenchments, but, beyond that, it is practicable to force a crossing, because the north bank commands the south. Our forces were encamped in a sort of semi-circle, of which one end rested on Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock, and the other (at the north) on a tributary of the same river; the centre being about at Brandy Station. . . . The artillery officers had placed two masked batteries, ready to open on the south bank. On the other side of the river there were extensive breastworks, which, however, seemed not occupied. Nevertheless, we could not tell that the woods were not full of them. As the main resistance might be offered here, it was necessary that all the corps should force the passage at the same time, if possible. It so happened that General French was much delayed by heavy roads and other causes, so we had to wait till past twelve before throwing the pontoons. When this was done, there was no opposition whatsoever; but the engineers were stupid enough not to have enough boats, and this made more delay. However, about two P.m. the troops and artillery began to cross, one division having already forded. The solemn and punctual Sykes crossed below, at twelve. But the 3d and 6th, being very large, did not all get over till night, and their artillery, by reason of bad roads, had to come over by Germanna Bridge, and was not over till five the next morning. We (Headquarters) camped on the north bank of the river, near the reserve artillery. It was a magnificent night, but cold. The trains came in after dark, and we had quite a time in finding tents and bedding. Everything is comparative: when I got my tent pitched, my roll of bedding in position, and a little end of a candle lighted, I felt as comfortable as if I came home to a nicely furnished house, with a good fire burning and the tea-table just set! I was up this morning a good deal before daylight. The moon shone very bright and the hoar frost glittered on the tents. … At an early hour the Staff crossed, passing on the steep bank crowds of ambulances and waggons, which of course made the General very mad. . . . Do you know the scrub oak woods above Hammond’s Pond, a sort of growth that is hard for even a single man to force his way through for any great distance? That is the growth of most of this country, minus the stones, and plus a great many ‘‘runs” and clay holes, where, in bad weather, vehicles sink to their axles. Along this region there are only two or three roads that can be counted on. These are the turnpike, the plank road south of it, and the plank road that runs from Germanna Ford. There are many narrow roads, winding and little known, that in good weather may serve for the slow passage of columns (though they are mere farmers’ or woodcutters’ thoroughfares); but a day’s rain will render them impassable for waggons and artillery. This whole region (which includes the field of Chancellorsville, a little to the east) is known as the “Wilderness.” Over much of it there is no chance to deploy troops, scarcely skirmishers, and no place for artillery. . . .

Somewhere about 10.30 we got to the turnpike and halted, say a mile before Robertson’s Tavern; where the 2d Corps had arrived and found the enemy in front; about eleven they had heavy skirmishing and drove the enemy back, getting also a few prisoners. They then formed line of battle and waited news from French on the right, and Sykes on the left, coming on the plank road. The day was raw and we stood near the road, over some fires we had built, waiting for news of French, to form a junction and attack at once; for Warren alone formed a weak centre and could not risk an engagement. Officer after officer was despatched to him, piloted by niggers who said they knew the country. The indefatigable Ludlow went in the opposite direction, and reported Sykes coming along all right. . . . At 12.30 we heard cannon on our extreme right, which seemed to announce French; still no authentic news, and the precious minutes fled rapidly. At last, late in the afternoon, came authentic despatches that General French’s advance had had a heavy fight with the Rebels, in force, and had driven them from the field; but had thus been greatly delayed, and besides had found no roads, or bad roads, and could not effect a junction that evening. And so there was Sedgwick’s Corps jammed up in the woods behind, and kept back also! So we pitched camp and waited for morning.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 51-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Don’t forget: Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg makes a superb Christmas present for the Civil War enthusiast on your list! You can order the book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The Eve of Battle (November 25, 1863)

Newspaper vendors with the Army of the Potomac in November 1863 in a photography by Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress).

Newspaper vendors with the Army of the Potomac in November 1863 in a photography by Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress).

Both Meade and Theodore Lyman took the time to write letters home on November 25. For the Army of the Potomac it was the eve of battle—the start of the ill-fated Mine Run campaign. Meade felt he had one last chance to strike a major blow before winter put an end to campaigning for the season. Weather was on the mind of both men on November 25, which underscores how much of an impact it had on the performances of Civil War armies. The year had begun with Ambrose Burnsides’ disastrous “Mud March,” and obviously Meade preferred not to repeat that episode.

Yesterday it stormed, which required a postponement of the contemplated movement. I was going to advance to-morrow, and may yet do so, although at present the sky is overcast and threatening. It is of the utmost importance to the success of any movement to have good weather, particularly at this season of the year, when the roads, after a day’s rain, become impassable. I think if I advance we shall have a great and decisive battle, with what result, He who reigns above alone can tell in advance. My army is in excellent condition and in high spirits, and confident of success, if they can get anything of a fair chance, and so far as mortals can anticipate such doubtful matters as battles, I have a right to be hopeful. Let us trust it may please God to crown our efforts with victory, and to extend to me, as He has hitherto so signally done, His mercy and protection.

George is quite well; he has been occupied, taking care of the English Guardsmen, who are so pleased with their visit they are remaining to see the fight.

 Here’s Lyman’s view of events from the same day.

I write a line, merely to say that the entire army is under marching orders, for daylight to-morrow; the men in high spirits. As to the officers, you would suppose they were all going on a merrymaking, to hear them when the order was issued. Our object is to fight the enemy, which I pray we may do, and with success, but Dieu dispose.

Our stopper has been the weather, which to-night promises to be set fair, and the roads are passable, though not good. I wish some critics, who complain of our inactivity, could be compelled to take a soldier’s load and march twenty miles through this mud. Their next article would, I think, clearly set forth the necessity of doing nothing till the driest of weather.

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. 156. 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. 50-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Meanwhile, Back in Gettysburg (November 19, 1863)

With Meade remaining silent, we stick with Theodore Lyman’s accounts of live with the Army of the Potomac with his letter from November 19, 1863. On this day in Pennsylvania, Abraham Lincoln was speaking at the dedication of the new National Cemetery in Gettysburg. The president was not the headliner, though. That honor fell to Edward Everett, a former congressman, Massachusetts governor, and president of Harvard. Everett had also run for vice president on the Union platform with John Bell, the ticket for which Meade and Lyman voted in the 1860 election. Everett’s speech at Gettysburg ran for more than two hours—about sixty times longer than the president’s—but who today remembers what he said? The situation reminds me of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones encounters a scimitar-wielding assassin who dazzles him with an elaborate display of swordsmanship. Indy then draws his gun and shoots him dead with a single shot.

Edward Everett, the man who spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg and therefore forever doomed to be a footnote to history (Library of Congress).

Edward Everett, the man who spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg and therefore forever doomed to be a footnote to history (Library of Congress).

Meade was invited to attend the ceremonies at Gettysburg but obviously had other matters demanding his attention. However, he and Lyman were, in a small fashion, involved with Everett’s speech. In his journal entry for October 5 (quoted in Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, edited by David Lowe) Lyman says this: “Prepared, by order, a sort of résumé of Gen. Meade’s official report of the battle of Gettysburg, to be sent to Mr. Everett, who is to deliver an oration at the cemetery, to be made at that place.” On October 26 he noted getting a letter from Everett asking for more information about the battle. Lyman was a Harvard graduate himself and his father and Everett had once traveled through Europe together. Lyman happened to be in Boston in January 1865 when Everett died and attended the funeral, “which took place with the usual solemnities.”

Meade made his own Gettysburg Address in 1869, which you can find here.

The Britons still continue with us. Yesterday we took them, with a small escort, to [John] Buford’s Headquarters beyond Culpeper. By Brandy Station we came across a line of rifle-pits that the Rebs had thrown up, probably on the Saturday night of their retreat, so as to cover the trains falling back on the Rapid Ann. We found the cavalry Chief afflicted with rheumatism, which he bore with his usual philosophy. Hence we made haste, across the country, to General [Gouverneur K.] Warren’s, where he had prepared some manoeuvres of infantry for us. This was one of the finest sights I have seen in the army. There were some 6000 or 7000 men on the plain, and we stood on a little hill to look. The evolutions ended by drawing up the force in two lines, one about 300 yards in rear of the other; and each perhaps a mile long. Then they advanced steadily a short distance, when the order was given to charge, and, as if they were one man, both fines broke into a run and came up the hill, shouting and yelling. I never saw so fine a military spectacle. The sun made the bayonets look like a straight hedge of bright silver, which moved rapidly toward you. But the great fun was when part of the line came to a stone wall, over which they hopped with such agility as to take Colonel Earle prisoner, while Captain Stephenson’s horse, which was rather slow, received an encouraging prod from a bayonet. Which events put us in great good humor, and we rode merrily home.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 50. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Very British Visit (November 15, 1863)

Captain Henry J. Sleeper, whom Lyman mentions in his November 15 letter, sits at the right in this photograph showing members of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. This was taken in December 1863. The man on the left is not a battery member--he is artist Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Captain Henry J. Sleeper, whom Lyman mentions in his November 15 letter, sits at the right in this photograph showing members of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. This was taken in December 1863. The man on the left is not a battery member–he is artist Alfred Waud, who just a few weeks earlier had sketched the battery in action (Library of Congress).

Foreigners loved to visit the Army of the Potomac, and Theodore Lyman’s letters and journal entries are filled with accounts of people from overseas popping in for a look-see. The Sir Robert Peel he mentions is Britain’s former prime minister. The McClellan saddle is a saddle that George McClellan had designed. Sleeper, the artillery man Lyman mentions, is Captain Henry Sleeper, who served with the 10th Massachusetts Battery, not the 9th.

Yesterday the General made a start at six A.m. for Washington, taking with him Major Biddle, Captain Meade, and Captain Mitchell, and suppose he will perhaps get back to-morrow. A little before one o’clock came a telegraph that four officers of the “Ghords” were coming in the train, and that we were to send an officer, with ten men, also four led horses, to bring them up. So Major Barstow asked if I would go, whereat, there being nothing to do, I said I would. It is about eight miles to Bealton, the nearest place the railroad runs to, and, by making haste a little, we got there by two o’clock, and the train came a few minutes after. And there, sure enough, were four gents, much braided and striped, who were the parties in question: viz., Lieutenant-Colonel Earle, and Lord Castle Cuff (Grenadier Guards), Captain Peel and Captain Stephenson (Scotch Fusiliers). This was the best lot of Bulls I have seen for a long time. The nobile Lord is, I should say, about sixteen, and, with his cap off, is as perfect a specimen of a Pat as you ever saw; but he is manly, and not so green as many I have seen of double his age. Colonel Earle is extremely quiet and well mannered, and was down here in Burnside’s time. Captain Stephenson is in the beefy style, and Captain Peel (son of Sir Robert) is of the black order; but both have free use of their legs and tongues, a remarkable phenomenon in a Bull. We put them on horses, where they were well at home, except they would persist in trying to rise to the trot in a McClellan saddle, which is next to impossible. We had to cross the river, close to the railroad, where I showed them the work they took last Saturday; at which they remarked: “Oh! Ah! A nasty place, a very nasty place!” Then we rode to Headquarters, just in time to avoid a heavy rain, which continued much of the night. To-day we have lain quiet; but this evening we took them over to see Captain Sleeper, 9th Massachusetts Battery. The Colonel was very inquisitive about artillery, whereupon the enthusiastic Sleeper had a newly contrived shell, which was loaded, suddenly brought into the tent! The great improvement in the shell seemed to be that it was bound to go off, somehow; so that there was a marked nervousness about him of the Guards, as the Captain poked and twisted the projectile, to illustrate its manifold virtues! . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 48-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Alfred Waud drew Sleeper's Battery at work during the November 7 battle at Kelly's Ford, part of William French's diversionary attack during the Battle of Rappahannock Station (Library of Congress; click to enlarge).

Alfred Waud drew Sleeper’s Battery at work during the November 7 battle at Kelly’s Ford, part of William French’s diversionary attack during the Battle of Rappahannock Station (Library of Congress; click to enlarge).

“Tough and Unterrified” (November 13, 1863)

There are no letters from Meade for a while, but on November 13 Theodore Lyman weighs in with his observations on the Army of the Potomac after the victory at Rappahannock Station. He also runs into an old friend, whose experiences demonstrate how tough life could be for a Union man in Virginia.

John Minor Botts (Library of Congress).

John Minor Botts (Library of Congress).

Here we continue to dwell in our pine wood, in grave content, consuming herds of cattle and car-loads of bread with much regularity. Yesterday, who should turn up but John Minor Botts, the tough and unterrified. [We met Botts here.] The Rebs treated him pretty badly this time, because he invited General Meade to dine; burnt his fences, shot his cattle and took all his corn and provisions, and finally arrested him and took him as far as Culpeper, but there concluded he was a hot potato and set him free. He was inclined to pitch into us, for not following sharper after the Rebs on Sunday morning, that is, the day after we forced the river. He said the first of their waggons did not pass his house till two at night and the rear of the column not till ten next morning; that the roads were choked with footmen, guns, cavalry and ambulances, all hurrying for the Rapid Ann. In good sooth I suppose that a shade more mercury in the feet of some of our officers might do no harm; but, on the other hand, it is to be noticed that we had excellent reason to expect, and believe, that they would not run, but only retire to the ridges near Brandy Station and there offer battle. In this case, the premature hurrying forward of a portion of the troops might well have ruined the day. All of which reminds me of Colonel Locke’s remark: “If we were omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, we might, with care, get a very pretty fight out of the Rebs!” As it was, what we did do was done as scientifically as any army in the world could have done it, and with a minimum loss of life. I do assure you that Rappahannock station was a position where thousands of men might have been destroyed, with no gain whatsoever, if managed by unskilful officers; and even Kelly’s Ford was not without serious difficulties. I don’t recollect whether I told you that the enemy had made preparations for nice winter quarters, and were hutting themselves and had made some capital corduroy roads against the mud season. In one hut was found a half-finished letter, from an officer to his wife, in which he said that the Yanks had gone into winter quarters, and that they were doing the same, so that he expected a nice quiet time for some months. Poor man! The Yanks made themselves very comfortable that same evening in his new cabin. Our future movements, or standing still, lie between the General and the weather. Meantime we have to pause a little, for there isn’t a thing to eat in this broad land, and every pound of meat and quart of oats for tens of thousands of men and animals must come by a broken railroad from Alexandria. . . . The Palatinate, during the wars of Louis XIV, could scarcely have looked so desolate as this country. The houses that have not been actually burnt usually look almost worse than those that have: so dreary are they with their windows without sashes, and their open doors, and their walls half stripped of boards. Hundreds of acres of stumps show where once good timber stood, and the arable fields are covered with weeds and blackberry vines, or with the desolate marks of old camps — the burnt spots, where the fires were, the trenches cut round the tents, and the poles, and old bones and tin pots that invariably lie about. . . .

As you walk about the country, you often see fragments of shell scattered around; for all this country has been fought over, back and forth, either in skirmishes or battles; and here and there, you come on a little ridge of earth, marked by a bit of board, on which is scrawled the name of the soldier, who lies where he fell, in this desert region. Our people are very different from the Europeans in their care for the dead, and mark each grave with its name; even in the heat of battle.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 46-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Satisfaction (November 9, 1863)

On November 9 Meade writes to his wife with his comments on the Battle of Rappahannock Station.

When I last wrote to you I thought we were on the eve of a great battle, and I was also under the impression that the work I had before me was likely to prove a very severe task. The enemy occupied very strong positions on the Rappahannock, which at one place I knew were strongly entrenched, and I believed they were so at other points. Thanks, however, to their being entirely deceived as to my capacity to move, and to the gallantry of my men, we were enabled to carry then- strong works and to force the passage of the river (considered one of the most critical operations in war), with a comparatively small loss, and with great eclat, as we captured four guns, eight battle flags and nearly two thousand prisoners. The operation being successful, the army is in fine spirits, and of course I am more popular than ever, having been greeted yesterday as I rode through the ranks with great cheering; and my having forced the passage of the Rappahannock and compelled Lee to retire to the Rapidan, will I trust convince the intelligent public that my retreat to Centreville was not to avoid battle, and that Lee, who was not outflanked, or had his communications threatened, but was attacked in front, and yet withdrew, is really the one who has avoided battle. I certainly expected he would fight, and can only now account for his not doing so on the ground that he was deceived as to my strength and construed my sudden and bold advance into an evidence that I had been strongly reinforced and greatly outnumbered him. I must say I was greatly disappointed when I found Lee refused my offer of battle, because I was most desirous of effecting something decisive, and I know his refusal was only a postponement of a question that had to be met and decided.

I have received a telegram from the President, expressing his satisfaction with my operations.

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. 155-6. Available via Google Books.

Rappahannock Station (November 7, 1863)

 

Artist Alfred Waud called this drawing "Capture of the fortifications on the Rappahannock at the Railway Bridge--by the right wing commanded by Genl. Sedgwick" (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

Artist Alfred Waud called this drawing “Capture of the fortifications on the Rappahannock at the Railway Bridge–by the right wing commanded by Genl. Sedgwick” (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

In his letter of November 7, 1863, Theodore Lyman describes the Army of the Potomac’s small but unexpected triumph at a spot called Rappahannock Station. Today the small village alongside the river is called Remington, but it’s been a place of many names. First a riverside gristmill gave it the name of Millview. In 1850 it became Bowenville, after a prominent resident. Three years later the arrival of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad rechristened it Rappahannock Station. In 1890 the post office requested a change because of confusion with a town called Tappahannock. A Captain Remington was supposedly a popular conductor on the railroad, so the residents decided to name it after him.

Back in 1863 Meade’s plan called for William French and the III Corps to cross the Rappahannock River downstream at ever-busy Kelly’s Ford. At the same time John Sedgwick, in overall command of the V and VI Corps (with Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright taking immediate command of Sedgwick’s corps), would attack the rebel breastworks at Rappahannock Station. Most of the Confederate army lay in wait on the other side of the river, but the rebels had constructed a strong advance position on the north bank, using entrenchments that Union soldiers had constructed earlier in the war. For once, not only did everything go according to plan, but everything went better than anyone dared hope. On the morning of November 7 French successfully crossed the river at Kelly’s Ford. At Rappahannock Station, the VI Corps approached the Confederate works to the right of the railroad, with the V Corps to the left. Then the men of the VI Corps began charging the rebel lines at double-quick and rushed over the works like a tsunami. The first man over the Confederate breastworks was supposedly a sergeant from the 6th Maine, who looked around, realized he was surrounded by rebel troops, and shouted that he surrendered. Then he saw other men from his regiment jumping over the works behind him. “I take it back!” he cried and snatched up an enemy flag. The fighting was fierce and concentrated until elements of the V Corps attacked from the flank and rear, shattering the rebel defenses. Night fell and the battle was over. It was a sudden and unexpected victory, with the Federals having killed, wounded, or captured more than sixteen hundred Confederates.

 . . . This morning, forward march! horse, foot, and artillery, all streaming towards Dixie; weather fresh and fine, nothing to mar but a high wind, and, in some places, clouds of dust. Everyone was hearty; there was General [Alexander] Hays, in bed with rheumatism, but he hopped up, and got on his horse, remarking that, “if there were any Rebs to catch, he was all well.” Our last Headquarters were on the Warrenton branch railroad, half a mile north of it and three miles from Warrenton Junction. This morning, about 8.30, when all the troops were reported under way, the General started and rode, first to Warrenton Junction, and then down the railroad, towards the Rappahannock. At a rising ground, where a smoke-stained chimney marked the ruins of “Bealton,” we halted. Hence we could see a considerable distance, in both directions, and here was canny [Gouverneur] Warren, waiting while his corps filed past, his little black eyes open to everything, from the grand movements of the entire army down to the inscription on my swordguard, which he immediately detected, and read with much gravity. The last I saw of him he climbed on his big white horse and remarked with a wink: “As soon as I get there, I shall bring on a general action, right off.” It was here that I had quite a surprise. Looking through my glass at General [Alexander] Webb’s division, I detected two civilians, in English-looking clothes, riding with the Staff. As they approached, it seemed to me that the face of one was familiar; and as they rode up, behold, to be sure, the Hon. Mr. Yorke, who was our fellow passenger and played on the fiddle and admired the baby! He was in the Royal Artillery, you know, and had come down to see what he could. And there he was, much covered with dust, but cheerful and pleasant to the last.

A view of the modern railroad bridge across the Rappahannock at Remington. In 1863 this was Rappahannock Station and the bridge had been burned (Tom Huntington photo).

A view of the modern railroad bridge across the Rappahannock at Remington. In 1863 this was Rappahannock Station and the bridge had been burned (Tom Huntington photo).

It was a fine sight to see the great, black columns of infantry, moving steadily along, their muskets glittering in the sun (for the day was quite perfect as to clearness), and then the batteries on the flank, and, in the rear, the train of ambulances preceded by their yellow flag. As the masses drew near, they resolved themselves, first into brigades, then into regiments, and then you could distinguish the individual soldiers, covered with dust and bending under their heavy packs, but trudging manfully along, with the patient air of old sojers. And so we kept on to these Headquarters; but we were only half way (at 1.30), when bang! bang! we heard the cannon, in the direction of Rappahannock station. It was General Sedgwick attacking the enemy’s works on this side of the river. We had not got a mile, when whang! whang! in another direction, announced General French preparing to force Kelly’s Ford. For, at these two points, among others, we proposed to cross and wake up our Uncle Lee. The gallant General did not wait to play long shots or throw pontoon bridges. An entire division took to the water, forded the river, in face of the enemy, and, charging up the opposite bank, took 300 prisoners. The Rebs threw forward a supporting division, but the crafty French had established guns on this side of the river, that suddenly opened on them and drove them back. All the afternoon Sedgwick has been engaged against the rifle-pits and a redoubt, that the enemy held on this side of the river. Quite late, we got a despatch that he had driven them from their rifle-pits, and we thought he had done pretty well for an afternoon. But, just at dusk, the distant roll of musketry indicated that he was assaulting; and a telegraph has just come, that he has taken the redoubt with four cannon, and some prisoners; I do not yet know how many. So we go to sleep, encouraged and hopeful. Our losses I do not know, but they can hardly be much, as but a portion has been engaged. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 42-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.