“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.

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