The business of war wasn’t always hell; there was frivolity, too, especially in winter camp. In this letter Theodore Lyman details some of the less-serious side of life in the Army of the Potomac. Humphreys, of course, is Meade’s chief of staff, Andrew Humphreys.
If you saw the style of officers’ wives that come here, I am sure you would wish to stay away. Quelle experience had I yesterday! I was nearly bored to death, and was two hours and a half late for my dinner. Oh, list to my harrowing tale. I was in my tent, with my coat off, neatly mending my maps with a little paste, when Captain [Adolphus] Cavada poked in his head (he was gorgeous in a new frockcoat). “Colonel,” said he, “General Humphreys desires that you will come and help entertain some ladies!” I held up my pasty hands in horror, and said,”What!” “Ladies!” quoth Cavada with a grin; “ a surprise party on horseback, thirteen ladies and about thirty officers.” There was no moyen; I washed my hands, put on the double-breaster, added a cravat, and proceeded, with a sweet smile, to the tent, whence came a sound of revelry and champagne corks. Such a set of feminine humans I have not seen often; it was Lowell factories broken loose and gone mad. They were all gotten up in some sort of long thing, to ride in. One had got a lot of orange tape and trimmed her jacket in the dragoon style; another had the badge of the Third Corps pinned all askew in her hat; a third had a major’s knot worked in tarnished lace on her sleeve; while a fourth had garnitured her chest by a cape of grey squirrel-skin. And there was General Humphreys, very red in the face, smiling like a basket of chips, and hopping round with a champagne bottle, with all the spring of a boy of sixteen. He spied me at once, and introduced me to a Mrs. M , who once married somebody who treated her very badly and afterwards fortunately went up; so Mrs. M seemed determined to make up lost time and be jolly in her liberty. She was quite bright; also quite warm and red in the face, with hard riding and, probably, champagne. Then they said they would go over to General [John] Sedgwick’s, and General Humphreys asked if I would not go, too, which invitation it was not the thing to refuse; so I climbed on my horse, with the malicious consolation that it would be fun to see poor, modest Uncle John with such a load!
But Uncle John, though blushing and overcome, evidently did not choose to be put upon; so, with great politeness, he offered them sherry, with naught to eat and no champagne. Then nothing would do but go to Headquarters of the 3d Corps, whither, to my horror, the gallant Humphreys would gang likewise. Talk about cavalry raids to break down horses! If you want to do that, put a parcel of women on them and set them going across the country. Such a Liitzow’s wild hunt hath not been seen since the day of the respected L. himself! Finally one lady’s horse ran away, and off went the brick, Humphreys, like a shot, to stop her. Seeing her going into a pine tree, he drove his horse between the tree and her; but, in so doing, encountered a hidden branch, which slapped the brisk old gent out of his saddle, like a shuttlecock! The Chief-of-Staff was up in a second, laughing at his mishap; while I galloped up, in serious alarm at his accident. To make short a long story, the persistent H. tagged after those womenfolk (and I tagged after him) first to Corps Headquarters, then to General Carr’s Headquarters, and finally to General Morris’s Headquarters, by which time it was dark! I was the only one that knew the nearest way home (we were four miles away) and didn’t I lead the eminent soldier through runs and mud-holes, the which he do hate!
To-day we have had a tremendous excitement: a detail of 250 men to “police” the camp, under charge of [James C.] Biddle, just appointed Camp Commandant. They have been sweeping, cutting down stumps, burning brush, and, in general, making the worst-looking camp in the army neat and respectable.
Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 65-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.