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.

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