A Desperate Undertaking (February 27, 1864)

In this letter Meade alludes to an upcoming raid on Richmond. The story of this raid will continue in Meade’s future letters. Led by Judson Kilpatrick with assistance by one-legged Ulric Dahlgren, who lost his limb fighting in Hagerstown during the Gettysburg campaign, it will not end well. There will be repercussions.

I am glad George wrote you an account of the ball. I should have been delighted, if I had owned the carpet in the Arabian Nights to have transported sister and yourself to the army for that night, but the journey here and back, the expense and fatigue, besides exposure, were all drawbacks, greater than the compensation to be found in the pleasure of your presence.

I have been a good deal occupied with an attempt I am about making, to send a force of cavalry into Richmond to liberate our prisoners. The undertaking is a desperate one, but the anxiety and distress of the public and of the authorities at Washington is so great that it seems to demand running great risks for the chances of success.

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. 167-8. Available via Google Books.

Advertisements

A Ball and a Review (February 24, 1864)

Artist Edwin Forbes sketched the 2nd Corps ball, held in honor of Washington's Birthday, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist Edwin Forbes sketched the 2nd Corps ball, held in honor of Washington’s Birthday, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Today we have the opportunity to see how General Meade and his aide, Theodore Lyman, wrote about events in the Army of the Potomac in letters composed on the same day. Meade first:

Since writing last we have had quite a gay time. The ball of the Second Corps came off on the 22d, and was quite a success. The room constructed for the purpose was beautifully decorated. There were present about three hundred ladies, many coming from Washington for the occasion, an elegant supper furnished by Gautier, indeed everything in fine style. I rode over in an ambulance a distance of five miles, and got back to my bed by four o’clock in the morning. The next day I reviewed the Second Corps for the benefit of our lady guests. I mounted my horse at 11 o’clock, rode over to the review and got back at six, having been seven hours in the saddle, and I believe I was less fatigued than any of my staff, so you can judge I have quite recovered my strength. George went to the ball and enjoyed himself hugely.

And here’s Lyman’s account, which provides much more detail than Meade’s rather terse description. Governor Sprague is the governor of Rhode Island; the vice president is Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. The “Abbott” Lyman mentions is fellow Harvard graduate Henry Abbott. Within a few months, in the Wilderness, Lyman will sit by Abbott’s hospital bed and watch him die of his wounds.

Judson Kilpatrick. Lyman did not think much of him (Library of Congress)

Judson Kilpatrick. Lyman did not think much of him (Library of Congress)

…I went yesterday to a review of the 2d Corps gotten up in honor of Governor Sprague. It was some seven or eight miles away, near Stevensburg, so that it was quite a ride even to get there. General Meade, though he had been out till three in the morning at the ball, started at eleven, with the whole Staff, including General Pleasonton and his aides, the which made a dusty cavalcade. First we went to the Corps Headquarters, where we were confronted by the apparition of two young ladies in extemporaneous riding habits, mounted on frowsy cavalry horses and prepared to accompany. General Meade greeted them with politeness, for they were some relations of somebody, and we set forth. The review was on a large flat (usually very wet, but now quite dry, yet rather rough for the purpose) and consisted of the Corps and Kilpatrick’s division of cavalry. When they were all ready, we rode down the lines, to my great terror, for I thought the womenkind, of whom there were half a dozen, would break their necks; for there were two or three ditches, and we went at a canter higglety-pigglety. However, by the best of luck they all got along safe and we took our place to see the troops march past. We made a funny crowd: there were the aforesaid ladies, sundry of whom kept chattering like magpies; then the Hon. Senator Wilkinson of Minnesota, in a suit of faded black and a second-hand felt that some officer had lent him. The Honorable rode bravely about, with a seat not laid down in any of the textbooks, and kept up a lively and appropriate conversation at the most serious parts of the ceremony. “Wall, Miss Blunt, how do you git along? Do you think you will stan’ it out?” To which Miss Blunt would reply in shrill tones: “Wall, I feel kinder tired, but I guess I ‘ll hold on, and ride clear round, if I can.” And, to do her justice, she did hold on, and I thought, as aforesaid, she would break her neck. Then there was his Excellency, the Vice-President, certainly one of the most ordinary-looking men that ever obtained the suffrages of his fellow citizens. Also little Governor Sprague, a cleanly party, who looked very well except that there is something rather too sharp about his face. Likewise were there many womenkind in ambulances discreetly looking on. The cavalry came first, headed by the valiant Kilpatrick, whom it is hard to look at without laughing. The gay cavaliers themselves presented their usual combination of Gypsy and Don Cossack. Then followed the artillery and the infantry. Among the latter there was a good deal of difference; some of the regiments being all one could wish, such as the Massachusetts 20th, with Abbot at its head; while others were inferior and marched badly. Thereafter Kill-cavalry (as scoffers call him) gave us a charge of the 500, which was entertaining enough, but rather mobby in style. And so home, where we did arrive quite late; the tough old General none the worse.

Edwin Forbes sketched the stand where the band played at the 2nd Corps' ball. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Edwin Forbes sketched the stand where the band played at the 2nd Corps’ ball. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

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. 167. 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 75-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Excellent Spirits (February 22, 1864)

For those who can’t get past the image of George Gordon Meade as “the old goggle-eyed snapping turtle,” the idea of the general cracking jokes and telling stories may come as a surprise. But such accounts provide the joy of reading Theodore Lyman’s accounts of his life with the Army of the Potomac and the detailed portraits of Meade and the other generals he encounters. Here he talks about not only Meade but also chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, another general with a temper (and an admirable command of profanity).

In this letter Lyman touches on the question of African-Americans serving in the army. Lyman was not in favor of it. Later in the spring he will write, “Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayoneted by the unsparing Southerners?” The idea that these may also be the black man’s battles did not seem to cross his mind. Ironically, one of Lyman’s Harvard friends had been Robert Gould Shaw, who will die commanding the black troops of the 54th Massachusetts.

The Mr. Kennedy of the Census Bureau was Joseph C.G. Kennedy, who served as the bureau’s head from 1853-1855 and again from 1860-1865. According to the bureau’s website, “Joseph Kennedy was a major innovator in census taking; specializing schedules to cover specific demographic areas and centralizing data processing to improve control and efficiency.”

A tale of two tempers: Meade and Humphreys (Library of Congress).

A tale of two tempers: Meade and Humphreys (Library of Congress).

General Meade is in excellent spirits and cracks a great many jokes and tells stories. You can’t tell how different he is when he has no movement on his mind, for then he is like a firework, always going bang at someone, and nobody ever knows who is going to catch it next, but all stand in a semi-terrified state. There is something sardonic in his natural disposition, which is an excellent thing in a commander; it makes people skip round so. General Humphreys is quite the contrary. He is most easy to get on with, for everybody; but, practically, he is just as hard as the Commander, for he has a tremendous temper, a great idea of military duty, and is very particular. When he does get wrathy, he sets his teeth and lets go a torrent of adjectives that must rather astonish those not used to little outbursts. There came down with the General (who returned yesterday from Washington) a Mr. Kennedy, Chief of the Census Bureau, a very intelligent man, full of figures. He can tell you how many people have pug noses in Newton Centre, and any other little thing you want. There was a bill passed in the House of Reps to raise 100,000 negro troops, from the free colored men of the North. When the bill came before the Senate, Mr. Kennedy sent in word that there were less than 50,000 colored men who were free and capable of bearing arms in the whole North, which rather squelched the bill! He says that the free negroes South increase hardly at all; while those in the North even decrease; but the slaves increase more than any other class. So I think it will be best to free the whole lot of them and then they will sort of fade out.

There are perfect shoals of womenkind now in the army — a good many, of course, in Culpeper, where they can live in houses. The rest of them must live a sort of Bedouin life. The only one I have seen of late is Mrs. Captain Commissary Coxe, for behold we had a service al fresco, near General Patrick’s tent. There was Mr. Rockwell as clergyman, quite a good preacher, and very ready to speak, nevertheless not too long in his remarks. I marched over with a camp-stool very solemnly. There were quite a collection of officers from the Headquarters, also a company of cavalry, which was marched down dismounted and stood meekly near by; for this cavalry belongs to General Patrick, and the General is pious, and so his men have to be meek and lowly. Likewise came some of the red-legs, or Zouaves, or 114th Pennsylvania, who finally had an air of men who had gone to a theatre and did not take an interest in the play. There too were some ladies, who were accommodated with a tent open in front, so as to allow them to see and hear. The band of the Zouaves sang the hymns and were quite musical. .. . To-night is a great ball of the 2d Corps. The General has gone to it; also General Humphreys. None of the Staff were invited, save George Meade, to the huge indignation of the said Staff and my great amusement.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 73-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Washington Fatigue (February 21, 1864)

One of the tasks facing Meade in the winter of 1864 was working with Henry Halleck and others in Washington, D.C., to reorganize the Army of the Potomac. Big changes were afoot, with some corps destined to be sent west and others to be eliminated completely. The congressman Meade mentions is Moses Odell, a Democrat from New York. It would be interesting to know what the two men talked about. The only House Democrat on the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which will target Meade in the spring, Odell will support the general on an otherwise hostile panel. Judge Harris is probably Ira Harris, who had served on the New York State Supreme Court before becoming a Republican senator from that state. Speaker Colfax is Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, who had been elected Speaker of the House back in December.

Congressman Moses Odell, a Democratic congressman from New York (Wikipedia).

Congressman Moses Odell, a Democratic congressman from New York (Wikipedia).

I returned from Washington to-day, very much fatigued and worn out with two days passed in that place. I reached there Friday about 2 P. M., and immediately went to the Department, where I stayed till 6 P. M., returned to the hotel, dined, and spent the evening with Mr. Odell, member of Congress, and Judge Harris. The next day, Saturday, I was with General Halleck till 3 P. M., when I went out to Georgetown and saw Margaret [Meade’s sister]. I ought to have mentioned that before going to see Margaret, I stopped at the President’s, where Mrs. Lincoln was holding a levee, and spent a half-hour. I also ought to have stated that the evening before, after leaving Judge Harris, I was persuaded by Mr. Harding and Cortlandt Parker to go to Speaker Colfax’s reception, where I was a great lion, Mr. Colfax himself turning usher and bringing every man and woman in the room to introduce to me. All this going about, sitting up late at night and standing so much, had its effect on me, wearying and fatiguing me so that I was very glad to get back to-day.

The army is overrun with women. There is to be a grand ball to-morrow at the headquarters of the Second Corps, and I believe half of Washington is coming down to attend. I expected the Secretary of the Interior and his lady to come down with me to-day, but he did not come to the cars. As the ball is nearly five miles from my headquarters, I don’t think I shall have the courage to go. I don’t mind the going, but it is the coming back which is so unpleasant.

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. 166-7. Available via Google Books.

Cold and Colds (February 18, 1864)

In today’s letter Meade actually says something favorable about a member of the press. Perhaps it helped that said member was dead. Barstow is Maj. Simon Forrester Barstow. Like Theodore Lyman, Barstow was a Harvard man.

I have got quite well again; the slight cold I had in Washington has disappeared, and I have lost the sensation of weakness which I retained till I left Washington. I find there has been a good deal of pneumonia in camp. Major Barstow, on my staff, was quite sick with it. He is now well. He is, by-the-by, a son of your father’s old friend in Salem and remembers visiting your house in Philadelphia. To-day a very nice fellow, the agent of the Associated Press, died of pneumonia. Everything was done for him in the way of medical attendance and nursing, but without avail. The weather has been intensely cold, the thermometer last night being as low as zero. To-day it is more moderate and cloudy, looking like snow.

I have to go up to Washington to-morrow, which I dislike very much, besides its being so expensive. Affairs here are very quiet.

I have not seen many of the officers except those immediately around me. I have to go to Washington to arrange the details of the proposed reorganization, which will make a great noise when they are made public.

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. 166. Available via Google Books.

Back in Camp (February 16, 1864)

George Gordon Meade as he appeared in a carte de visite (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade as he appeared in a carte-de-visite (Library of Congress).

After a long absence, George Gordon Meade returns to the Army of the Potomac.

I reached camp yesterday about 4 p.m., but was so much engaged talking to those who came to see me that I had no time to write to you. I had a grand sleep last night in my old buffalo robe, and feel a great deal better to-day, the cold in my head being much better. Indeed, it may be imagination, but I think getting back to camp has been decidedly beneficial, notwithstanding I arrived in a snow storm and that it has been very cold to-day. My friend Lyman had a big fire in my tent all day before I came. By-the-by, Lyman tells me his father-in-law, Mr. Russell, studied law in your father’s office, and remembers you very well. If you see Colonel Bache, you can tell him Lyman is the son of his old friend, as Lyman tells me his father was Mayor of Boston and married a Miss Henderson, of New York.

I have been overwhelmed with business and papers to-day. Among others, I have some fifteen applications for autographs and cartes-de-visite.

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. 165-6. Available via Google Books.

The Return of Meade (February 14, 1864)

Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher (Library of Congress).

Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade has been in Philadelphia, on a leave from the army that became extended after he fell ill. The result has been a long gap with no letters home. Now recovered, Meade has left Philadelphia behind to begin his journey back to the Army of the Potomac.

A note about some of the people he mentions in this letter. Henry Cram was Meade’s wife’s brother-in-law. Colonel Hartman Bache was not only Meade’s brother-in-law, before the war Meade had served under him in the topographical engineers, making lighthouses. The Senators with whom Meade dined included Jacob Collamore of Vermont and Henry Wilson of Massachusetts (later the vice president under President Ulysses S. Grant). “Wilkeson” was probably Morton S. Wilkinson of Minnesota; and Powell must have been Lazarus Powell of Kentucky. If that is so, Powell was the odd man out, as the only Democrat present as well as a harsh critic of the Lincoln administration. The host, Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher of Indiana, had traveled with President Lincoln to Gettysburg back in November and had been seated with the president on the stage when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Judge Holt was Joseph Holt, later one of the three prosecutors at the trial of Lincoln’s assassins. As the Union Army’s judge advocate general, Holt had also presided over the court-martial of General Fitz John Porter. The conversation at Usher’s dinner party must have been interesting indeed.

Joseph Holt (center) was one of the guests at Secretary of the Interior Usher's dinner party (Library of Congress).

Joseph Holt (center) was one of the guests at Secretary of the Interior Usher’s dinner party (Library of Congress).

I felt very badly at leaving you, but I tried to reconcile myself to what was inevitable and could not be helped. We had a very pleasant journey to this place. Mr. Cram and Colonel Bache joined us at the depot, and at Wilmington I found General Hartsuff and Colonel Sackett on the train and took them into the car. Mr. Felton, the president of the company, was at the cars and was very civil. When we crossed the Susquehanna an elegant cold collation with champagne was set out, of which we all freely partook. On arriving here we took tea, and soon afterwards, about nine o’clock, I went to bed. The next day I spent all the day at the Department and White House. The Secretary was, as he always is, very civil and ready to accede to all my suggestions. He gratified me very much by saying that there was no officer in command who had to so great a degree the implicit confidence of all parties as myself; but he said there were several officers in my army that did not have the confidence of the country, and that I was injuring myself by retaining them. I told him I did not know who they were, but that if he was aware of this fact, I thought it was his duty to retire them, and I should not object; and I suppose the result will be a pretty general sweeping out. While with the Secretary, Mr. Usher, Secretary of the Interior, came in and invited me to his house at seven o’clock. Supposing it to be an evening party, where I could show myself and slip out, I accepted; but on going there I found it to be a regular dinner party. Senators Collamore, Wilson, Wilkeson and Powell, together with Judges Holt and Law, and the ladies of the family, constituted the party. All received and treated me with great distinction and civility, and about 10 p.m. I got home, and, after a talk with Cram, went to bed, a little tired. I had intended to go down to the army this morning, but received last night a note from the Secretary, saying he wanted to see me to-day; so I had to spend some four or five hours at the Department, and the rest of the day have remained quietly in the house with Cram.

Mr. Harding with Mrs. Harding are here, also Cortlandt Parker. I have not seen our friends the Harrises, except the Senator.

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. 164-5. Available via Google Books.

Dinner Party (February 12, 1864)

Winter camp could be muddy, cold, damp, uncomfortable and boring, but it sometimes offered compensations, at least for officers. Here Theodore Lyman describes one example. He and Joseph Hayes had attended Harvard together. Hayes started the war with the 18th Massachusetts. Later, Hayes will be wounded in the head in the Wilderness and captured in the fighting for the Weldon Railroad during the Petersburg campaign.

General George Sykes. (Library of Congress photo.)

General George Sykes. (Library of Congress photo.)

In this epistle I shall describe to you the whirl of fashion, the galaxy of female beauty, the grouping of manly grace. Behold, I have plunged into the wild dissipation of a military dinner-party. The day before yesterday, there appeared a mysterious orderly, with a missive from Colonel Hayes (my classmate) saying that he should next day entertain a select circle at dinner at five of the clock, and wouldn’t I come and stay over night. To which I returned answer that I should give myself that pleasure. The gallant Colonel, who commands the 3d Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps, has his Headquarters on the north side of the river, about half a mile from Rappahannock station. At 4 P.m. I was ready, very lovely to look on, with full tog and sash, neatly finished by white cotton gloves and my thick laced shoes. With great slowness did I wend on my sable mare, for fear of splashing myself in a run or a puddle. On the other side of the pontoon bridge I fell in with Lieutenant Appleton wending the same way — he splashed his trousers in Tin Pot Run, poor boy! The quarters were not far, and were elegantly surrounded by a hedge of evergreen, and with a triumphal arch from which did float the Brigade flag. Friend Hayes has an elegant log hut, papered with real wall-paper, and having the roof ornamented with a large garrison flag. The fireplace presented a beautiful arch, which puzzled me a good deal, till I found it was made by taking an old iron cog-wheel, found at the mill on the river, and cutting the same in two. Already the punctual General Sykes, Commander of the Corps, was there, with Mrs. S., a very nice lady, in quite a blue silk dress. . . . Also several other officers’ wives, of sundry ages, and in various dresses. Then we marched in and took our seats, I near the head and between Mrs. Lieutenant Snyder and Mrs. Dr. Holbrook. Next on the left was General Bartlett, in high boots and brass spurs. There must have been some twenty-four persons, in all. The table ran the length of two hospital tents, ingeniously floored with spare boards from the pontoon-train and ornamented with flags and greens. The chandeliers were ingeniously composed of bayonets, and all was very military. Oyster soup had we; fish, biled mutting, roast beef, roast turkey, pies, and nuts and raisins; while the band did play outside. General Sykes, usually exceeding stern, became very gracious and deigned to laugh, when one of his captains said: “He was the mildest-mannered man that ever cut a throat or scuttled ship.”

After dinner, songs were encouraged, and General Sykes told two of his Staff, if they didn’t sing immediately, he would send them home at once! I sang two comic songs, with immense success, and all was festive. I passed the night there, and took breakfast this morning, when Albert came down with the horses. Joe Hayes is a singular instance of a man falling into his right notch. In college he was not good at his studies at all; but, as an officer, he is remarkable, and has a reputation all through the Corps. Though only a colonel, he was entrusted, at Mine Run, with bringing off the picket line, consisting of 4000 men, which he did admirably. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 71-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Taste of Combat (February 7, 1864)

Artist Alfred Waud captured in pencil the same scene Lyman sketched in words. He titled this drawing "Scene at the late reconnaisance at Morton Ford -(night). It appeared as an engraving in Harper's Weekly on March 5, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud captured in pencil the same scene Lyman sketched in words. He titled this drawing “Scene at the late reconnaisance at Morton Ford -(night).” It appeared as an engraving in Harper’s Weekly on March 5, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In this descriptive letter from February 7, Theodore Lyman describes an action that took place the previous day. He also included an account of these events in his journals, edited by David W. Lowe and published in 2007 by Kent State University Press as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col.  Theodore Lyman. In that version, Lyman included this detail: “On the other side saw a soldier laid out for burial, as sad a sight as could be; his white hands folded across his breast and the cape of his coat folded up over his face.” Perhaps Lyman kept this from his letter because he wanted to shield his family back home from this glimpse of death. Lowe reports the casualties from this brief encounter as 255 (dead, wounded and missing) for Warren’s II Corps and 15 for the cavalry. With Meade still ill back in Philadelphia, John Sedgwick had temporary command of the Army of the Potomac.

It is one in the morning and I have, so to speak, just taken a midnight dinner, having come in from the front between 11 and 12 oclock. Well, who would have thought of marching out of comfortable winter quarters, to go poking round the Rapidan! . . . Only last night orders were suddenly issued to the 1st and 2d Corps to march at sunrise, the one on Raccoon, the other on Morton’s Ford; where they were to make a strong demonstration and perhaps cross at Morton’s (Raccoon being too strong). Certain cavalry, also, were to go to other points, with special orders. The whole thing was very sudden, all round, and none of our fish. This morning we took an early breakfast, which, with the ready horses, quite reminded one of campaigning times. General Sedgwick was over, being in command, as viceroy. At 10.30 we began to hear the cannon, but General Humphreys would not stir, as he said he must stay to attend to the despatches and telegraph. However, at 3 p.m., he suddenly did start, with his own aides and Biddle, Mason, Cadwalader and myself, de la part de General Meade; also Rosencrantz. To Morton’s Ford is some ten miles, but you might as well call it fifty, such is the state of the roads. Mud, varying from fetlocks to knees, then holes, runs, ditches and rocks — such was the road. With utmost diligence it took fully two hours. . . . Here we had thrown across a division, and General Warren was with them. The enemy had offered a good deal of opposition, with a skirmish fire and with artillery; despite which the whole division had waded the stream, up to their waists (cold work for the 6th of February!), and were now in line, behind some ridges; while a heavy skirmish line covered their front. Enclosing them, almost in a semi-circle, were the Rebel earthworks. It looked a shaky position for us! All was quiet; the men were making coffee, and nothing broke the stillness but an occasional shot from the sharpshooters. “Well,” said General Humphreys, “I must go across and look about, while there is light left. I don’t want many to go. McClellan, you will come; and Major Biddle and Colonel Lyman, if you would like, I shall be glad of your company.” So off we four rode, and met Warren coming back, before we got to the river. But he at once turned horse and kept on with us. The ford was very bad, deep and with steep sides, but we floundered over, and I was once again south of the Rapid Ann. … As we got to the main line, “Now,” said General Warren, “get off here and I will take you as far as you can go, very soon.” We dismounted and remained, while the two Generals went some 150 yards to Morton’s house on the crest of the ridge, where they no sooner got than a sharpshooter fired at them and the ball flew harmless over our heads, though it came close to General Warren. But hang it all! We had not been there five minutes when that infernal old sound came, whing-z-z-z-z, and over went a spherical case! “Fall in, fall in!” shouted the colonels, and the men took their arms. Whing-z-z! Bang! came another, right into the infantry, killing a poor man. “Steady! steady!” roared the colonels. Whing-z-z-z-z! Bang! and one of the pieces struck close to me, while one of the bullets struck the scabbard of the orderly next me, who coolly picked up the missile. We were a little sheltered by the road, but, I don’t care who knows it, I did duck when that spherical case came over. By this time the Generals got back and mounted, the enemy continuing the fire but throwing their shot too high. We had not got far towards the river, when they began with musketry, a very heavy skirmish fire, and seemed about to make a general attack; but it turned out to be a strong attempt to drive back our skirmish line from a favorable fence they had secured; and the artillery was a cover for their advance. When we got back to the high ground by Robinson’s, we could look across and see the fight, though it was growing dark and the air was very foggy. Our artillery opened on them also, and, in course of an hour or so, night set in, and the firing ceased, our line holding its own everywhere. And now the poor wounded fellows began to come in, some alone, some supported, and some in ambulances. The surgeons were numerous and all that could be wished for. Except one or two mortally hurt, there was nothing sad in it, so manly were the men and so cheerful. Not a groan, not a complaint. I asked one man who was staggering along, if he were much hurt. “Very slightly,” he remarked, in a lively tone. I found what he called “very slightly” was a musket-ball directly through the thigh. These men are wonderful, much more so, I think (proportionately), than the officers. There was a whole division wet to the waist, on a rainy February day, exposed each instant to attack, and yet making little pots of coffee, in the open air, as calmly as if at Revere House.

Oh! what a ride had we home! It took us over three hours, with the help of a lantern. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 68-71. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Butler (February 5, 1864)

Another letter from Theodore Lyman, while Meade remains ill in Philadelphia. In this missive Lyman mentions Major General Benjamin Butler, who commanded the Army of the James. Butler was one of the Union’s political generals, promoted not because of military experience but because of his political influence. He had aroused Southern ire for his heavy-handed military rule in New Orleans (where he earned the nickname of “Spoons” for allegedly looting the town. Southerners also called him “Beast” Butler.) During Grant’s spring  campaign, the cockeyed Butler and his army were supposed to form one part of Grant’s multipronged campaign against the Confederacy. Instead, Butler had gotten his army bottled up at Bermuda Hundred with his back against the James River, where it remained, impotent and useless until it was too late for them to do any good. Here Lyman describes a plan by Butler and the opinions about it expressed by the non-political generals of the Army of the Potomac.

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

General [Andrew] Humphreys sent for me and showed me a cipher correspondence between Butler and [Henry] Halleck, and Halleck and [John] Sedgwick. B. telegraphed that large reinforcements had been sent from the Rapid Ann to North Carolina, and that he wished a demonstration to “draw their forces from Richmond.” S. replied that, with the exception of some two or three brigades, nobody had been sent to that place from the army in our front. B. then said he was going to move on Richmond, or something of the sort, and would like a demonstration not later than Saturday (to-morrow). S. said it was too short a time to make any great show and that it would spoil our chances for a surprise on their works, in future. H. then telegraphed to do, at any rate, what we could. So [Judson] Kilpatrick has been sent to their right via Mine Ford, and [Wesley] Merritt is to threaten Barnett’s Ford; and to threaten Raccoon Ford, while the 2d will make a stronger demonstration at Morton’s Ford. Old Sedgwick and General Humphreys are cross at the whole thing, looking on it as childish.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 68. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.