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.

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