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.

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