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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