John Gibbon’s Bible Lesson (May 31, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the firing of a coehorn mortar at Cold Harbor. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the firing of a cohorn mortar at Cold Harbor. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

John Gibbon explains some Biblical history in Theodore Lyman’s letter from May 31. Gibbon had been born in Philadelphia but he grew up in North Carolina. When war broke out he remained loyal to the Union, although three of his brothers joined the other side. Badly wounded at Gettysburg, he commanded a division of the II Corps. There will be more about the arrival of William H. “Baldy” Smith and his XVIII Corps from Butler’s Army of the James in Lyman’s next letter.

Last night, what with writing to you and working over some maps of my own, I got to bed very late, and was up tolerably early this morning, so to-day I have passed a good deal of time on my back fast asleep; for the General has not ridden out and has sent out very few officers. As I implied, to-day has been an occasion of Sybarite luxury. What do you think we mustered for dinner? Why, green peas, salad, potatoes, and fresh milk for the coffee! Am I not a good forager? Yes, and iced water! The woman (a fearful Secesh) asked two dollars for half a bushel of ice; upon which I, in a rage, sent a sergeant and told him to pay only a reasonable price and to take what we needed. But, in future, I will not pay for ice; it costs these Rebels nothing, and they can’t eat it. For food I will always pay the scoundrels. They have usually plenty of ice for the hospitals, and the bands are kept there to play for the wounded, which pleases them. The Sanitary are doing, I believe, a great deal of good at the rear, between this and Washington. There is room for any such people to do good, when there are such multitudes of wounded. I was amused to read a letter from one of the Sanitaries at Fredericksburg, who, after describing his good works, said that, for eight days, his ears were “bruised by the sound of cannon.” To me, Fredericksburg and Montreal seem about equally far away!

Brigadier General John Gibbon. He became a major general in June 1864 (Library of Congress).

Brigadier General John Gibbon. He became a major general in June 1864 (Library of Congress).

The armies lay still, but there was unusually heavy fighting on the skirmish line the whole time; indeed there was quite an action, when Birney, Barlow, and Wright advanced and took the front line of the enemy. We used, too, a good deal of artillery, so that there was the noise of battle from morning to night. We took in some cohorn [coehorn] mortars, as they are called. These are light, small mortars, that may be carried by two or three men, and are fired with a light charge of powder. They throw a 24-lb. shell a maximum distance of about 1000 yards. As these shells go up in the air and then come down almost straight, they are very good against rifle-pits. General Gibbon says there has been a great mistake about the armies of Israel marching seven times round Jericho blowing on horns, thereby causing the walls to fall down. He says the marching round was a “flank movement,” and that the walls were then blown down with cohorns. Some of the heavy artillerists of the German regiment were first sent to fire these mortars; but it was found that they could give no definite account of where the projectiles went, the reason of which was that, every time they fired, the officer and his gunners tumbled down flat in great fear of Rebel sharpshooters!

“Baldy” Smith arrived, by steamer, at Whitehouse, from Bermuda Hundreds, with heavy reinforcements for this army. The Rebels, on their side, have been also bringing up everything—Breckinridge from the valley of the Shenandoah, Hoke from North Carolina, and everything from the South generally. . . . General Wilson’s division of cavalry was sent out towards our rear and right, to cover that quarter and to continue the destruction of the railroads below Hanover Junction. General Sheridan, with the remaining cavalry, swung round our left flank and pressed down towards Shady Grove and Cool Arbor (this name is called Coal Harbor, Cold Harbor, and Cool Arbor, I can’t find which is correct, but choose “Arbor” because it is prettiest, and because it is so hideously inappropriate). In vain I try to correct myself by the engineer maps; they all disagree. The topographical work of the engineers is rather uphill in this country. Before we opened the campaign the engineers prepared a series of large maps, carefully got up from every source that they could come upon, such as state, county, and town maps, also the information given by residents and refugees, etc., etc. In spite of all this the result has been almost ludicrous! Some places (e.g. Spotsylvania) are from one to two miles out of position, and the roads run everywhere except where laid down. I suppose the fact is that there was no material whatever wherewith to make a map on a scale so large as one inch to a mile. It is interesting to see now how the engineers work up the country, as they go along. Topographers are sent out as far as possible in the front and round the flanks. By taking the directions of different points, and by calculating distances by the pacing of their horses, and in other ways, they make little local maps, and these they bring in in the evening, and during the night they are compiled and thus a map of the neighborhood is made. If the next day is sunny, photographic copies are taken of this sketch and sent to the principal commanders, whose engineers add to, or correct it, if need be, and these corrections are put on a new sketch. Much information is gotten also by the engineers sent with the cavalry. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.134-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Disputing Every Inch of Ground (May 30, 1864)

"At Totopotomoy Creek," a drawing Alfred Waud did around this time 150 years ago. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“At Totopotomoy Creek,” a drawing Alfred Waud did around this time 150 years ago. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

I get the sense of George Meade tossing off quick notes to reassure his wife while his attention and energies are engaged in the huge task of moving his army through Virginia. Theodore Lyman, on the other hand, finds time to pen another long, detailed account of life in a blighted country.  Meade first.

We are within sixteen miles of Richmond, working our way along slowly but surely. I expect we shall be a long while getting in, but I trust through the blessing of God we will at last succeed, and if we do, I think, from the tone of the Southern press, and the talk of the prisoners, that they will be sensible enough to give it up. They are now fighting cautiously, but desperately, disputing every inch of ground, but confining themselves exclusively to the defensive.

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman goes into much, much more detail in his letter of May 30. His journal entry for the same day ends with these ominous words: “The cavalry have reached Cold Harbor.”

It has been a tolerably quiet day, though there was a quite sharp fight at evening on our left — the Rebels badly used up. The people in Richmond must hear plainly the booming of our cannon: they scarcely can feel easy, for we are closing in on the old ground of McClellan. Fair Oaks was two years ago this very day. What armies have since been destroyed and rebuilt! What marchings and countermarchings, from the James to the Susquehanna! Still we cling to them — that is the best feature. There is, and can be, no doubt of the straits to which these people are now reduced; particularly, of course, in this distracted region; there is nothing in modern history to compare with the conscription they have. They have swept this part of the country of all persons under 50, who could not steal away. I have just seen a man of 48, very much crippled with rheumatism, who said he was enrolled two days ago. He told them he had thirteen persons dependent on him, including three grandchildren (his son-in-law had been taken some time since); but they said that made no difference; he was on his way to the rendezvous, when our cavalry crossed the river, and he hid in the bushes, till they came up. I offered him money for some of his small vegetables; but he said: “If you have any bread, I would rather have it. Your cavalry have taken all the corn I had left, and, as for meat, I have not tasted a mouthful for six weeks.” If you had seen his eyes glisten when I gave him a piece of salt pork, you would have believed his story. He looked like a man who had come into a fortune. “Why,” said he, “that must weigh four pounds — that would cost me forty dollars in Richmond! They told us they would feed the families of those that were taken; and so they did for two months, and then they said they had no more meal.” What is even more extraordinary than their extreme suffering, is the incomprehensible philosophy and endurance of these people. Here was a man, of poor health, with a family that it would be hard to support in peacetimes, stripped to the bone by Rebel and Union, with no hope from any side, and yet he almost laughed when he described his position, and presently came back with a smile to tell me that the only two cows he had, had strayed off, got into a Government herd, and “gone up the road” — that’s the last of them. In Europe, a man so situated would be on his knees, tearing out handfuls of hair, and calling on the Virgin and on several saints. There were neighbors at his house; and one asked me if I supposed our people would burn his tenement? “What did you leave it for?” I asked. To which he replied, in a concise way that told the whole: “Because there was right smart of bullets over thaar!” The poorest people seem usually more or less indifferent or adverse to the war, but their bitterness increases in direct ratio to their social position. Find a well-dressed lady, and you find one whose hatred will end only with death — it is unmistakable, though they treat you with more or less courtesy. Nor is it extraordinary: there is black everywhere; here is one that has lost an only son; and here another that has had her husband killed. People of this class are very proud and spirited; you can easily see it; and it is the officers that they supply who give the strong framework to their army. They have that military and irascible nature so often seen among an aristocracy that was once rich and is now poor; for you must remember that, before the war, most of these landowners had ceased to hold the position they had at the beginning of this century. There, that is enough of philosophizing; the plain fact being that General Robert Lee is entrenched within cannon range, in a sort of way that says, “I will fight you to my last gun and my last battalion!” We had not well got our tents pitched before the restless General, taking two or three of us, posted off to General Hancock. That is his custom, to take two or three aides and as many orderlies and go ambling over the country, confabbing with the generals and spying round the country roads. There, of course, was Hancock, in a white shirt (his man Shaw must have a hard time of it washing those shirts and sheets) and with a cheery smile. His much persecuted aides-de-camp were enjoying a noon-tide sleep, after their fatigues. The indefatigable [William] Mitchell remarked that there were many wood-ticks eating him, but that he had not strength to fight them! The firing was so heavy that, despite the late hour, General Meade ordered Hancock and Burnside to advance, so as to relieve Warren. Only Gibbon had time to form for an attack, and he drove back their front line and had a brief engagement, while the other commands opened more or less with artillery; and so the affair ended with the advantage on our side. — The swamp magnolias are in flower and the azaleas, looking very pretty and making a strong fragrance.

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. 199. 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.132-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

18 Miles from Richmond (May 29, 1864)

Just a short note from George Meade today. It is cautiously optimistic. General Grant was feeling even more confident. On May 26 he had written to Henry Halleck, ““Lee’s army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the action of his army shows it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy and attack with confidence. I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already insured.”

We have crossed the Pamunkey, and are now within eighteen miles of Richmond. Lee has fallen back from the North Anna, and is somewhere between us and Richmond. We shall move forward to-day to feel for him. We are getting on very well, and I am in hopes will continue to manoeuvre till we compel Lee to retire into the defense of Richmond, when the grand decisive fight will come off, which I trust will bring the war to a close, and that it will be victory for us.

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. 199. Available via Google Books.

Crossing the Pamunkey (May 28, 1864)

 

Alfred Waud depicted a portion of the Army of the Potomac crossing the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown on May 28. click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted a portion of the Army of the Potomac crossing the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown on May 28. click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

One thing I wanted to do when I worked on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, was to follow in Meade’s footsteps and see the things he would have seen. I visited a lot of battlefields and I also retraced his steps during the Overland Campaign. I found that some places had changed a great deal in the century and a half since the Civil War but occasionally I found places that, if I squinted a bit and used my imagination, gave me a sense of what things looked like in the 1860s. One of those places was Nelson’s Crossing, where a portion of the Army of the Potomac crossed the Pamunkey River on May 28. I followed narrow, winding Route 615 toward the river. At the bottom of a small decline in the road, I pulled off to the side and got out. Other than the Civil War Trails marker here, it seemed that little has changed since May 28, 1864. The Widow Nelson’s house stood there then as stands here now, a big white house on a bluff overlooking the fields leading to the river.

As a passing soldier crossed the pontoon bridge over the swampy Pamunkey, he noticed the generals—Meade thoughtfully rubbing his face, Hancock talking and gesturing, and Grant watching the soldiers marching past “as though trying to read their thoughts.” The men stared back at Grant. “He had the power to send us to our deaths, and we were curious to see him,” the soldier said. “But the men did not evince the slightest enthusiasm. None cheered him, none saluted him.”

Once I crossed the river I made a left turn on Route 605, a narrow country road that roughly parallels the river’s course. I was looking for the Newton House, where Lyman found Grant and Meade on May 28 after they crossed the river. But the road was closed and I had to make a long detour to approach from the opposite direction. I finally got a glimpse of the building, called Summer Hill today. The white house was nearly hidden among trees down a fence- and shrub-lined drive. It’s private property and I didn’t intrude, unlike Charles Carleton Coffin, the correspondent for the Boston Journal. When Lyman reached here he found the newspaperman in the garden stealing onions.

As the army crossed the Pamunkey and moved south, the soldiers could hear the sound of gunfire from a fierce cavalry battle being waged at Haw’s Shop, now the crossroads of Routes 615 and 606. David Gregg’s Union cavalry drove Wade Hampton’s Confederates back from the crossroads to nearby Enon Church, another little house of peace that became a landmark for war. There’s a Civil War marker there today, along with an obelisk commemorating the Confederate soldiers who died here and were buried in the cemetery across the road.

“We began to derive one satisfaction from the situation,” wrote a soldier from the 20th Maine about the fighting south of the Pamunkey, “and that was from the fact that we were now so near to Richmond that the sounds would be borne from the battle-field to that city, and each booming cannon would be a solemn reminder to the people of the rebel capital that justice was thundering at its gates, and demanding its dues.”

Here’s Lyman’s account of May 28.

A little before eight we left the neighborhood of the squeaky Mr. Thompson and, turning presently to the right, pushed along towards the Pamunkey. We now had struck a classic ground where the old McClellan men began to have “reminiscences,” worse than you and Anna Curtis, when you get together. “Ah,” says [Charles] Cadwalader, “that is the house, the very house, where I came up with my regiment—Rush’s Lancers. We drove the Rebs across that field, and then we burned the bridge, and picketed the river,” etc. The bridge destroyed by the valiant Cadwalader had never been replaced, and now our engineers had thrown a pontoon, over which the artillery of the 6th Corps was rapidly passing, while the flat was full of batteries, and of waggons waiting their turn. These canvas pontoons are funny looking; they consist of a boatshaped frame, which is wrapped in a great sheet of canvas and put in the water, this making a boat, on which part of the bridge-floor may rest. It looks as if the Commanderin-Chief had undertaken the washing business on a large scale, and was “soaking” his soiled clothing. At about half-past ten I crossed (having been told to go back and inform General Grant of General Meade’s whereabouts) and tried to find my General on the south side; but I got among a lot of German artillery men, who could not tell whether they were on their heads or heels, much less whether they had seen the Staff go that way. Really it is surprising how poorly the Germans show, out of their own country, where they are an honest and clever, though rather slow people. But here they seem almost idiotic, and, what is worse, they will plunder and they won’t fight. Really, as soldiers, they are miserable. Actually, a Yankee regiment would drive a brigade of them. They have no grit as a rule. The Paddies, on the contrary, will go in finely, and if well officered, stand to it through everything.

Pamunkey photo2

Timothy O’Sullivan took a photograph of the scene at Hanovertown crossing, the same place that Alfred Waud captured in his drawing (Library of Congress).

This Timothy O'Sullivan photo shows a second crossing of the Pamunkey at Nelson's. The setting today is remarkably similar to what it was like then, minus the pontoon bridge (Library of Congress).

This Timothy O’Sullivan photo shows the second crossing of the Pamunkey, Nelson’s. The setting today is remarkably similar to what it was like then, minus the pontoon bridge (Library of Congress).

Having ascertained the Headquarters, I rode over to Mrs. Newton’s, where I found a romantic lot of officers reposing, very flat on the grass. . . . Poor Mrs. Newton! — she was the one whose husband fell in my Raccoon Ford fight. . . . Presently arrived an aunt, a Mrs. Brockenbrough, a conceited, curious, sallow, middle-aged woman, itching to “tackle” a Northerner. She said the Cavalry Provost-Marshal had been very kind to her. She then began to catechize Grant, with an eager relish, who replied with entire calmness and candor, whereat she was plainly taken aback, as she looked for a volley of gasconade! Their negro houses were full of wounded cavalry men, some of them Rebels. As we sat there the cavalry cannon began again, in the direction of Haw’s store, and there followed, in the afternoon, a very desperate engagement in which we lost from 400 to 500 men, including the extraordinary proportion of nearly fifty officers killed and wounded. We drove them at all points, after a desperate resistance. Our cavalry is full of confidence and does wonders. The whole army had crossed by evening. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.130-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Tender-hearted Man (May 27, 1864)

Theodore Lyman shows us two sides of General Meade. One is the hot-tempered snapping turtle, the other a man who would give a southern family his lunch and five dollars.

David A. Russell of the VI Corps, photographed when he was the colonel of the 7th Massachusetts (Library of Congress).

David A. Russell of the VI Corps, photographed when he was the colonel of the 7th Massachusetts (Library of Congress).

Last night Russell’s trusty division of the 6th Corps set out on a very long march, as our advanced guard in a flank movement to the Chickahominy. . . . This necessitated our early “getting out of that,” for we were on the bank of the river, and the Rebel skirmishers would be sure to follow right down with the first daylight to the opposite side. Indeed, a little while after we were gone they did come down and fired into the telegraph waggon, wounding the side of the same. By four we had taken our breakfast and were in the saddle. Wonderful how promptly all the servants pack the things and strike the tents when they expect to be shot at! We rode first to Burnside, into whom the General pitched for cutting the march of General Warren and not sending up the brigades to hold the fords; and B. rather proved that he was right and Warren wrong. I can tell you aquafortis is mild to the Major-General commanding when he gets put out; which is quite not at all unfrequently; but I have seen him in no such fits as in the falling back from Culpeper to Centreville. Here he can lean upon Grant more or less, though he does all the work; so much so that Grant’s Staff really do nothing, with the exception of two or three engineer officers. Then we passed by the gushing Hancock, who explained what he was going to do, in his usual flowing style. At Chesterfield Station we found two divisions of the 6th Corps massed, and just then beginning to march out. They were issuing rations, to each man his bit of beef and his “hard tack.” We got ahead of the infantry and kept on the way, sending some cavalry ahead in case of wandering Rebels. The road was strown with dead horses, worn out and shot by the cavalry, when they came this way from their raid. Really whenever I may see civilized parts again, it will seem strange to see no deceased chargers by the roadside. We made a halt to let the column get up, at a poor house by the way. There were a lot of little children who were crying, and the mother too, for that matter — a thin ill-dressed common-looking woman. They said they had been stripped of nearly everything by the cavalry and expected to starve. So the soft-hearted General, who thought of his own small children, gave them his lunch, and five dollars also; for he is a tender-hearted man. We kept on, through a very poor and sandy country, scantily watered; for this was the ridge and there was no water except springs. At 9.30 we dismounted again at an exceptionally good farm, where dwelt one Jeter, . . . who was of a mild and weak-minded turn. He said he was pleased to see such well-dressed gentlemen, and so well-mannered; for that some others, who had been there two days since, had been quite rude and were very dusty; whereby he referred to the cavalry, who, I fear, had helped themselves. . . . About one o’clock, having ridden some twenty-two miles in all, we stopped at the house of one Thompson and, that afternoon, camped near by, just close to Mangohick Church. . . . I discovered to-day that the Lieutenant-General has sick-headaches periodically — one now, for example, for which he put some chloroform on his head.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.128-30. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Surrender (May 25, 1864)

Mrs. Meade (and her mother) do not give up regarding the donation of a house. The General waves the white flag.

Yours of the 21st reached me this morning, also one from your mother to the same effect, that it was too late to refuse the house. Setting aside the injustice to me of placing the affair in such condition that I have no option in the matter, I have written a letter to Mr. Gerhard, which I enclose, and which you can hand to him at such time as may be deemed suitable. My contributing friends must know there was nothing personal in my action, because I do not know the name of a single contributor. I acted on the general principle I have always held, that a public man makes a mistake when he allows his generous friends to reward him with gifts. I wrote Mr. Gerhard it was not a case of necessity, as, by proper economy, we could and should live on our means; that if anything should happen to me, then I would be grateful for the smallest assistance given to you and the children; but until that time, I thought it better for me to preserve my independence, although no one could be more sensible to and grateful for the generous kindness of my friends than I was. My opinions are still unchanged; but if the affair is settled, and it is too late to decline, I have no disposition to be ungenerous, and certainly no design of doing anything that would be offensive to the feelings of those who have been so kind to me. You can therefore take the house, and express to all you know my deep obligation and sincere gratitude.

The enemy, though he has fallen back, still confronts us, and is being reinforced.

Theodore Lyman, in the meantime, pays a visit to Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of the V Corps.

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Burnside’s Corps, hitherto a sort of fifth wheel, was today incorporated in the A. of P., and so put under Meade. . . . The enemy, with consummate skill, had run their line like a V, with the point on the river, so that our army would be cut in two, if we attacked, and either wing subject to defeat; while the enemy, all the time, covered Hanover Junction. At 7.30, I was sent to General Warren, to stay during the day, as long as anything of interest was going on, and send orderlies back to report. I found the General among the pines, about halfway up his line. In front a heavy skirmish was going on, we trying to push on our skirmish line and they resisting obstinately. Presently we rode down to where [Charles] Griffin was, near the spot where the common road crosses the Gordonsville rail. Griffin always goes sitting in unpleasant places. There was a sharpshooter or two who, though we were hid by the small trees, would occasionally send a bullet through, as much as to say: “I know you are there — I’ll hit you presently.” Appleton was shot through the arm near here, while placing a battery in position. Then we rode to the extreme right, near to the picket reserve of the 22d Massachusetts. Warren, who is always very kind to me, told all the others to stay behind, but let me come. We rode under the crests, and along woods a little, and were not shot at; and went as far as a log barn, where we stopped carefully on the off side, and talked to the picket officer. When we left, we cantered gracefully and came off all right. Then to General Wright at E. Anderson’s house; a nice safe place, and the family still there; likewise iced water, very pleasant this hot weather. After which, once more for a few minutes to Griffin, passing on the road one of his aides, on a stretcher, exceeding pale, for he had just been hit in the artery of the arm and lost a deal of blood before it could be stopped. Also there came a cheery soldier, shot through the leg, who said: “Never mind, I hit five or six of them first.” Finally we rode the whole length of Warren’s and Crittenden’s lines, seeing Weld on the way. . . .

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. 198-9. 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.127-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Eyes like a Rattlesnake’s (May 24, 1864)

Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan described this image as "Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank (Library of Congress).

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan described this image as “Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank.” Grant and Meade booth crossed here  (Library of Congress).

Meade writes on May 24, 1864, from Mt. Carmel Church, where he and Grant established headquarters while deciding what to do with Lee, who had established a strong position across the North Anna River. He does not mention that on this day Grant issued orders placing Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps under Meade’s command. Until now Burnside had answered directly to Grant. Grant’s Special Orders, No 25, read, “To secure the greatest attainable unanimity in co-operative movements, and greater efficiency in the administration of the army, the Ninth Army Corps, Maj. Gen. A.E. Burnside commanding, is assigned to the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. G.G. Meade commanding, and will report accordingly.”

We have maneuvered the enemy away from their strong position on the Po, near Spottsylvania Court House, and now have compelled them to fall back from the North Anna River, which they tried to hold. Yesterday Warren and Hancock both had engagements with them, and were successful. We undoubtedly have the morale over them, and will eventually, I think, compel them to go into Richmond; after that, nous verrons.

I am writing this letter in the House of God, used for general headquarters. What a scene and commentary on the times!

Another one of O'Sullivan's images from May 24. Of this one he said, "Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge" (Library of Congress).

Another one of O’Sullivan’s images from May 24. Of this one he said, “Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge” (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s letter fills in much of the detail, including much about General Meade’s gunpowder disposition and an incident at Mt. Carmel Church concerning a message from General Sherman. Lyman also noted this incident in his journal, where he said Meade’s “grey eyes grew like a rattlesnake’s.” Meade had reason for anger at Sherman’s effrontery–as David W. Lowe points out in his excellent book of Lyman’s journals, “If one compares casualties along, Sherman’s men were having an easy time of it.”

We started quite early—a little before six—to go towards the North Anna; and halted at Mt. Carmel Church, where this road from Moncure’s strikes the “telegraph road” (so called, because the telegraph from Fredericksburg ran along it). If you want a horrible hole for a halt, just pick out a Virginia church, at a Virginia cross-roads, after the bulk of an army has passed, on a hot, dusty Virginia day! There was something rather funny, too. For in the broad aisle they had laid across some boards and made a table, round which sat Meade, Grant, General Williams, etc., writing on little slips of paper. It looked precisely like a town-hall, where people are coming to vote, only the people had unaccountably put on very dusty uniforms. General Meade is of a perverse nature; when he gets in a disagreeable place, he is apt to stay there. I think he likes to have officers who are prone to comfort feel decidedly uncomfortable. That reminds me of an anecdote. The day before yesterday, when we had our bloody attack along the whole line, General Meade had ordered his whole Staff ready at four in the morning. Now, such people as the Judge-Advocate-General are Staff officers and at Headquarters, but not aides. Ours is an old army officer, with many characteristics of a part of his class, that is, rather lazy and quite self-sufficient. He came to the front with us and staid some time; but, as dinner-time approached, late in the afternoon, he thought it would be bright to go to the camp and arrange a snug dinner. Pretty soon the suspicious and not very kindly gray eyes of the chief began to roll about curiously. “General Williams! did you give orders that all my Staff should accompany me?” “Yes, sir; certainly, sir.” (Seth is rather scared at his superior, as are many more.) “Where is Major Platt?” “I think he must have gone to camp for a moment, sir.” “Send at once for him!” In no great time the Major arrived at a gallop. “Major Platt,” said the General slowly and solemnly, “I wish you to ride along our whole lines (possibly about eight miles) and ascertain as accurately as possible the amount of our casualties during the day!” Somewhere about nine o’clock that night Platt returned with his statement, having missed a nice, six o’clock dinner, and happily been missed by stray balls and shells. . . .

I am glad to hear that you take once more an interest in the furniture coverings; an excellent sign! Keep a-going; that’s the way! That is the way I do: heart in my mouth for half a day; then come home and eat a good supper; there is no use in “borrowing trouble”—you do learn that here. You know I am not sanguine in my military hopes; but I have the strongest hopes of ultimate success, taking into consideration the uncertainty of war. You must go by the general features; and these are: 1st: Watchfulness, caution, and military conduct of our generals. 2d: The defensive attitude of the enemy; an attitude which Lee never assumes unless driven to it. 3d: The obstinacy and general reliability of our troops. 4th: The fact, that we have worked them, from one position to another, to within nine miles of Richmond across a highly defensible country. 5th: That their counter-attacks on us have been few and comparatively weak, and of no great moment, showing that they have no large force with a “free foot”; but have to put all their men on their lines. Nevertheless, I look on the future as still long and full of the common hazards of war. If the Rebels are forced to abandon Richmond, I believe the effect would be very heavy on them. This I judge not only on general grounds but also from the stupendous efforts, the general concentration, they are using to defend it. Do not, for a moment, look for the “annihilation,” the “hiving,” or the “total rout” of Lee. Such things exist only in the New York Herald.

To return to our Mt. Carmel. About seven came a negro who reported the whole Rebel army retreating on Richmond—a vague expression which left them room to halt anywhere this side of it. Soon after “Tick” Wadsworth—son of the late General—came in from General Sheridan and reported the cavalry corps at Dunkirk. This was welcome news to us. Sheridan had been sent on a raid towards Richmond and had destroyed railroads and depots of stores to a considerable extent. Also recaptured some hundreds of our prisoners on their way to the capital. He was delayed on his return by the rise of the Pamunkey, but got pontoons from Fortress Monroe and crossed it. On his way down, Stuart’s cavalry tried to stop him, but he pitched into them, took two guns and a number of prisoners, and killed Stuart, driving off his command completely. It is curious that the southern cavalry cannot now cope with ours. We have beaten them every time this campaign; whereas their infantry are a full match for us. Sheridan was a great help on his return, to watch our flanks and threaten the enemy’s rear. . . . About ten there came in a very entertaining nigger, who had been servant of Colonel Baldwin, Rebel Chief of Ordnance. He gave a funny description of Lee’s Headquarters. From him and from other sources I judge that the reports of Lee’s humble mode of living are true. He has only corn bread and bacon for the “chief of his diet,” and this sets an example to all his men. There can be no doubt that Lee is a man of very high character (which you may reconcile as you may with his treacherous abandonment of the flag). He carries on war in a merciful and civilized way, his correspondence is dignified and courteous, and his despatches are commonly (not always) frank and not exaggerated. General Meade got awfully mad, while waiting at the church. There came a cipher despatch from Sherman, in the West. Mr. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, hastened—with considerable want of tact—to read it to the General. Sherman therein told Grant that the Army of the West, having fought, could now afford to manoeuvre, and that, if his (Grant’s) inspiration could make the Army of the Potomac do its share, success would crown our efforts. The eyes of Major-General George Gordon Meade stood out about one inch as he said, in a voice like cutting an iron bar with a handsaw: “Sir! I consider that despatch an insult to the army I command and to me personally. The Army of the Potomac does not require General Grant’s inspiration or anybody’s else inspiration to make it fight!” He did not get over it all day, and, at dinner, spoke of the western army as “an armed rabble.” General Grant, who is one of the most candid men I ever saw, has repeatedly said that this fighting throws in the shade everything he ever saw, and that he looked for no such resistance. Colonel Comstock and others, who have fought with both armies, say distinctly that our troops are fifty per cent better than the western, and that the good Rebel soldiers have always been kept near Richmond except when Longstreet went temporarily to the West. At dusk we rode down to cross the North Anna, midst a fearful thunderstorm; some of the lightning fell so near that it really hissed, which was disagreeable, as there was an ammunition train close by. The North Anna is a pretty stream, running between high banks, so steep that they form almost a ravine, and, for the most part, heavily wooded with oak and tulip trees, very luxuriant. It is perhaps 125 feet wide and runs with a tolerably swift and deep stream, in most places over one’s head. The approaches are by steep roads cut down the banks, and how our waggons and artillery got across, I don’t know! Indeed I never do know how the trains get up, seeing that you are not over well off, sometimes, on a horse. . . .

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. 198. 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 122-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Turning Operation (May 23, 1864)

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 "The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico Ford." Click to enlarge  (Library of Congress).

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 “The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico [sic] Ford.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Lee entrenches south of the North Anna River and the Army of the Potomac prepares to attack. Meade’s prediction in his letter of May 23 is correct in general, but the turning operations will continue until Lee is in Petersburg, south of Richmond.

Apparently Mrs. Meade does not think too highly of General Grant.

We expected yesterday to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.

I am sorry you will not change your opinion of Grant. I think you expect too much of him. I don’t think he is a very magnanimous man, but I believe he is above any littleness, and whatever injustice is done me, and it is idle to deny that my position is a very unjust one, I believe is not intentional on his part, but arises from the force of circumstances, and from that weakness inherent in human nature which compels a man to look to his own interests.

Theodore Lyman picks up his account of the Overland Campaign where he left off. Here he resumes his account of May 12 and the terrible fighting at the Mule Shoe salient of Lee’s line at Spotsylvania. Meade has sent him to find Horatio Wright, the commander of the VI Corps.

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

… I asked on all sides for General Wright. One said he had gone this way; another that he had gone that; so finally I just stood still, getting on the edge of the woods, on a ridge, where I dismounted and wrote a short despatch to General Meade, midst a heavy rain that now began to come down. Just before me was a very large field with several undulations, close to me was a battery firing, and in the wood beyond the field was the fighting. I stood there a short time, while the second line was deployed and advanced in support of the first. The Rebels were firing a great many explosive bullets, which I never saw before. When they strike they explode, like a fire-cracker, and make a bad wound; but I do not suppose, after all, that they are worse than the others. Presently there came along Captain Arthur McClellan (brother of the General and a very nice fellow). He said he would show me where General Wright was, which proved to be not far off, in a little hollow place. There was the stout-hearted General, seated with his aides, on the ground. He had just been hit on the leg by a great piece of shell, but was smiling away, despite his bruises. A sterling soldier he is! I soon found that the hollow did not exclude missiles, which fly in curves, confound them! There came a great selection of bullets about our ears, in the first of it. By-and-by a Rebel battery began to suspect that, from the number of horses, there must be a general about that place, and so, whing! smash, bang! came a shell, striking in the woods just beyond. “My friend,” said calm Colonel Tompkins, addressing the invisible gunner, “if you want to hit us you must cut your fuses shorter” — which indeed he did do, and sent all sorts of explosives everywhere except in our little group, which was only reached by a fragment or two. None of us got hurt, but one horse was wounded and another killed. There I staid for five hours (very long ones), and pelted all the time, but most of the balls flew too high, and, as is well known, shells make a horrid noise, but hurt comparatively few.

All this time the enemy was rolling up his fresh troops and frantically endeavoring to regain that salient. He made as many as five desperate charges with the bayonet, but in vain. At one place called the “Corner” the lines stood within fifty feet of each other, for hours!* The breastwork made a ridge between, and any living thing that showed above that line fell dead. The next day the bodies of friend and foe covered the ground. Some wounded men were then taken out from under three or four dead ones. One body, that lay exposed to the fire, had eighty bullets in it. At 12.30 I rode back to General Meade, to tell him our extreme right was hard pressed; and he sent me back to say that the whole 5th Corps had been moved to the left and that Griffin’s division could go to Wright’s support. I found that Wright had been fairly shelled out of his little hollow, and had retired to the Landron house. We clung to the salient, and that night the Rebels fell back from that part of their lines, leaving twenty-two guns, eighteen colors, and 3500 prisoners in our hands. . . . That night our Headquarters were at the Armstrong house. It was a day of general battle, for Warren attacked on the right and Burnside on the left, which kept the enemy from sending reinforcements. You will notice that the army was gradually shifting to the left, having now given up the Po River and Todd’s Tavern road.

*This footnote was taken from Lyman’s journal: “The great historical fight of this day extended over a front of only 1000 to 1500 yards, along the faces of the salient, or the ‘Death-angle,’ as it was afterwards called. Within that narrow field two corps were piled up to assault and in support. Indeed we had too many troops, as the generals justly said. The lines got mixed and jammed together and were hard to handle. The amount of bullets fired may be known from the fact that a red oak, twenty-three inches in diameter, was reduced, about six feet from the ground, to a fibrous structure and blew down that night! Bodies that lay between the lines were shot to pieces and could only be raised in a blanket! The result was damaging to the enemy—very—but the army of Lee was not cut in two—an issue clearly looked for by Rawlins and some others of Grant’s Staff, but not so confidently assumed by those who knew a little more.”—Lyman’s Journal.

May 16 Mott’s division, that had hitherto behaved so badly, was broken up and put with Birney—a sad record for Hooker’s fighting men! Napoleon said that food, clothing, discipline, and arms were one quarter, and morale the other three quarters. You cannot be long midst hard fighting without having this brought home to you. This day was a marked one, for being fine, nearly the whole of it; we have been having a quantity of rain and a fine bit was quite a wonder. There did appear a singular specimen to behold, at my tent, a J. Bull —a Fusileer—a doctor. Think of an English fusileer surgeon—what a combination! He walked on the tips of his toes, with his knees bent, was dressed in full uniform, and had a smirk on his face as much as to say: “Now I know a good deal; and I am coming to see; and I am not going to be put off.” Poor Medical Director McParlin was horribly bored with him; but finally got him to the 6th Corps hospital, where I afterwards saw him, running round with some large instrument. I hope they didn’t let him do much to the wounded. We were honored at dinner by the company of Governor Sprague and Sherman of the Senate. The Governor is a brisk, sparrowy little man with perky black eyes, which were shaded by an enormous straw hat. He is very courageous, and went riding about in various exposed spots. Sherman is the tallest and flattest of mortals—I mean physically. He is so flat you wonder where his lungs and other vitals may be placed. He seems a very moderate and sensible man.

Tuesday, May 17

Our Headquarters were moved to the left, and back of the Anderson house. We rode, in the morning, over, and staid some time at the house, one of the best I have seen in Virginia. It was a quite large place, built with a nest of out-houses in the southern style. They have a queer way of building on one thing after another, the great point being to have a separate shed or out-house for every purpose, and then a lot more sheds and outhouses for the negroes. You will find a carpenter’s shop, tool-room, coach-shed, pig-house, stable, out-kitchen, two or three barns, and half-a-dozen negro huts, besides the main house, where the family lives. Of the larger houses, perhaps a quarter are of brick, the rest of wood. They are plain, rarely with any ornament; in fact, these “mansions” are only farmhouses of a better class. Anderson was reputed a rich man, but he had carpets on very few rooms; most were floored with hard pine. Round these houses are usually handsome trees, often locusts, with oaks and, perhaps, some flowering shrubs. Often there is a small corner with a glass front, to serve as a greenhouse in winter. It is hard to judge what this country once was; but I can see that each house of the better class had some sort of a flower-garden; also, there are a great number of orchards in this part of the country and plenty of peach trees. Nothing gives such an air of desolation as a neglected flower-patch! There are the perennial plants that start each spring, all in disorder and struggling with weeds; and you are brought to think how some woman once took an interest in the flowers, and saw that they were properly kept. These little things appeal more pointedly to you than great ones, because they are so easily understood. In the few days’ fighting I have seen, I have come to be entirely unmoved by the appearance of the horrible forms of wounds or death; but to-day I had quite a romantic twinge at finding in a garden a queer leaf, with scallops on it, just like one I found in Bologna and put in your scrapbook. . . .

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

At Anderson’s I saw quite a galaxy of generals, among others the successor of General Stevenson, Major-General Crittenden. He is the queerest-looking party you ever saw, with a thin, staring face, and hair hanging to his coat collar — a very wild-appearing major-general, but quite a kindly man in conversation, despite his terrible looks. . . . The waggoners and train rabble and stragglers have committed great outrages in the rear of this army. Some of the generals, particularly Birney and Barlow, have punished pillagers in a way they will not forget; and they will be shot if they do not stop outrages on the inhabitants. The proper way to stop the grosser acts is to hang the perpetrators by the road where the troops pass, and put a placard on their breasts. I think I would do it myself, if I caught any of them. All this proceeds from one thing—the uncertainty of the death penalty through the false merciful policy of the President. It came to be a notorious thing that no one could be executed but poor friendless wretches, who had none to intercede for them; so that the blood of deserters that was shed was all in vain—there was no certainty in punishment, and certainty is the essence of all punishment. Now we reap the disadvantage in a new form. People must learn that war is a thing of life or death: if a man won’t go to the front he must be shot; but our people can’t make up their minds to it; it is repulsive to the forms of thought, even of most of the officers, who willingly expose their own lives, but will shrink from shooting down a skulker.

And now here’s a letter from Lyman from May 23, which picks up his narrative from the day before.

It was with regret that early this morning we left the fine clover field of Dame Tyler, and wended our way towards the North Anna. We crossed the Mat (or what is called South River, I am not sure which, at any rate a mere brook), and kept straight on for Garrett’s Tavern. Grant, mounted on the purloined black pony, ambled along at a great pace, but General Meade, who got his pride up at Grant’s rapidity, set off at a rate that soon raised a cloud of dust and left the Lieutenant-General far behind; whereat George G. was much pleased, and his aides much the contrary, as they had to scramble after. About ten we got to a side road, leading to the right, and here we turned off the 9th Corps, so as to keep the telegraph road open for the passage of the 5th. Then we took a bend to the left again and came out by the Moncure house, crossing the Polecat Creek by the way — a pleasant stream running over stones, and with the trees quite growing into it. There, I knew, Biddle and Mason “straggled” and took a bath. We passed also a house where dwelt four women, all alone; we left them a guard, to stay till next morning. A hazardous position for these people, with all the stragglers and camp scoundrels about! Old Ma’am Moncure was a perfect old railer, and said: “They should soon see us coming back on the double-quick.” However, they (the family) were amazing sharp and eager in selling us sheep, and took our greenbacks with avidity. A gold dollar now is worth about $30 in Confederate money! This afternoon Warren crossed the North Anna at Jericho Bridge, and was fiercely attacked on the other side by Longstreet; but he repulsed him with heavy loss, after a sharp fight. Hancock coming along more to the left, stormed the rifle-pits near Chesterfield station and seized the bridge, ready to cross. I have been lately up at three and four in the morning and I am so sleepy I must stop.

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. 198. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 112-117 and 121-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

 

At Church (May 22, 1864)

Timothy O'Sullivan took those photograph of New Bethel Church on May 23, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Timothy O’Sullivan took those photograph of New Bethel Church on May 23, 1864. Burnside had departed earlier that morning. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman takes up his pen on a warm Sunday evening and writes home about the war. In his journal entry for today Lyman wrote, “Reviewing the progress of the campaign, Gen. Meade said to me at breakfast: ‘I am afraid the rebellion cannot be crushed this summer!'”

New Bethel Church today (Tom Huntington photo).

New Bethel Church today (Tom Huntington photo).

I don’t know when I have felt so peaceful — everything goes by contrast. We are camped, this lovely evening, in a great clover field, close to a large, old-fashioned house, built of bricks brought from England in ante-revolutionary times. The band is playing “Ever of Thee I’m Fondly Dreaming”—so true and appropriate—and I have just returned from a long talk with two ultra-Secessionist ladies who live in the house. Don’t be horrified! You would pity them to see them. One, an old lady, lost her only son at Antietam; the other, a comparatively young person, is plainly soon to augment the race of Rebels. Poor creature! Our cavalry raced through here yesterday and scared her almost to death. Her eyes were red with crying, and it was long before she fully appreciated the fact that General Meade would not order her to instant death. To-night she has two sentries over her property and is lost in surprise. Have I not thence obtained the following supplies: five eggs, a pitcher of milk, two loaves of corn bread, and a basket of lettuce—all of which I duly paid for. I feel well to-night on other accounts. If reports from the front speak true, we have made Lee let go his hold and fall back some miles. If true, it is a point gained and a respite from fighting. Hancock had got away down by Milford. Warren had crossed at Guinea Bridge and was marching to strike the telegraph road, on which the 6th Corps was already moving in his rear. The 9th Corps would cross at Guinea Bridge, last, and follow nearly after the 2d Corps. We started ourselves not before noon, and crossed the shaky little bridge over the Po-Ny (as I suppose it should be called), and so we kept on towards Madison’s Ordinary, crossing, a little before, the Ta, a nice, large, clear brook. An “Ordinary” in Virginia seems to be what we should call a fancy variety store, back in the country. Madison’s is a wooden building, just at cross-roads, and was all shut, barred, and deserted; and, strange to say, had not been broken open. On the grass were strewn a quantity of old orders, which people had sent by their negroes, to get—well, to get every conceivable thing. I saved one or two, as curiosities, wherein people ask for quarts of molasses, hymn-books, blue cotton, and Jaynes’s pills! The 5th Corps was passing along, as we stood there. After a while we went across the country, by a wood road, to the church you will see south of Mrs. Tyler’s. Close to Madison’s Ordinary was one of those breastworks by which this country is now intersected. A revival of the Roman castrum, with which the troops of both sides protect their exposed points every night. This particular one was made by the heavy artillery, whose greenness I have already spoken of. When they put it up the enemy threw some shells. Whereupon an officer rode back in all haste to General Hancock, and said: “General, our breastwork is only bullet-proof and the Rebels are shelling us!” “Killed anybody?” asked the calm commander. “Not yet, sir,” quoth the officer. “Well, you can tell them to take it comfortably. The Rebels often throw shells, and I am sure I cannot prevent them.” We passed, on the wood road, some of the finest oak woods I have seen; nothing could be finer than the foliage, for the size, fairness, and rich, polished green of the leaves. The soil, notwithstanding, is extremely sandy and peculiarly unfavorable to a good sod. At the church (do I call it Salem? I am too lazy to hunt after my map; no, it is New Bethel), the 9th Corps was marching past, and Burnside was sitting, like a comfortable abbot, in one of the pews, surrounded by his buckish Staff whose appearance is the reverse of clerical. Nothing can be queerer (rather touching, somehow or other) than to see half a dozen men, of unmistakable New York bon ton, arrayed in soldier clothes, midst this desolated country. I am glad to see that such men have the energy to be here. They are brave and willing, though, like your hub, their military education has been rather neglected.

And this leads me to remark that it is a crying mistake to think, as many do, that an aide is a sort of mounted messenger—an orderly in shoulder-straps. An aide should be a first-rate military man; and, at least, a man of more than average intelligence and education. It is very difficult, particularly in this kind of country, to deliver an order verbally, in a proper and intelligent way; then you must be able to report positions and relative directions, also roads, etc.; and in these matters you at once see how deficient some men are, and how others have a natural turn for them. To be a good officer requires a good man. Not one man in ten thousand is fit to command a brigade; he should be one who would be marked anywhere as a person (in that respect) of superior talent. Of good corps commanders I do not suppose there are ten in this country, after our three-years’ war. Of army commanders, two or three. When we had seen enough of the 9th Corps and had found out that Hancock had mistaken Birney’s line of battle (down by Milford) for that of the enemy,—whereat there was a laugh on the chivalric H.,—we departed for the Tyler house. In one of Burnside’s regiments are a lot of Indian sharpshooters, some full, some halfbreeds. They looked as if they would like to be out of the scrape, and I don’t blame them. . . .

Ambrose Burnside (reading paper) and staff at Cold Harbor, June 11 or 12, 1864. That's photographer Matthew Brady in the straw hat (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside (reading paper) and staff at Cold Harbor, June 11 or 12, 1864. That’s photographer Mathew Brady in the straw hat (Library of Congress).

Grant’s aide Horace Porter also wrote about his encounter with the Tylers and published it in his book Campaigning with Grant. It’s an interesting tale. I quote it (from pages 137-9 in Porter’s book).

Early in the afternoon General Grant decided to halt for a couple of hours, to be in easy communication with the troops that were following. He selected for the halt a plantation which was beautifully situated on high ground, commanding a charming view of the valley of the Mattapony. A very comfortable house stood not far from the road along which Burnside’s corps was marching. In making halts of this kind a house was usually selected, for the reason that good water was easily obtainable, and facilities were afforded for looking at maps and conducting correspondence. General Grant never entered any of the houses, as they were usually occupied by ladies, and he did not wish to appear to invade their dwellings; he generally sat on the porch. When we reached this plantation, the escort and the junior staff-officers lounged about the grounds in the shade of the trees, while General Grant, accompanied by two or three of us who were riding with him, dismounted, and ascended the steps of the porch. A very gentle and prepossessing-looking lady standing in the doorway was soon joined by an older woman. General Grant bowed courteously and said, “With your permission, I will spend a few hours here.” The younger lady replied very civilly, “Certainly, sir.” The older one exclaimed abruptly, “I do hope you will not let your soldiers ruin our place and carry away our property.” The general answered politely, “I will order a guard to keep the men out of your place, and see that you are amply protected”; and at once gave the necessary instructions. The ladies, seeing that the officer with whom they were conversing was evidently one of superior rank, became anxious to know who he was, and the older one stepped up to me, and in a whisper asked his name. Upon being told that he was General Grant, she seemed greatly surprised, and in a rather excited manner informed the other lady of the fact. The younger lady, whose name was Mrs. Tyler, said that she was the wife of a colonel in the Confederate army, who was serving with General Joe Johnston in the West; but she had not heard from him for some time, and she was very anxious to learn through General Grant what news he had from that quarter. The general said, “Sherman is advancing upon Rome, and ought to have reached that place by this time.” Thereupon the older lady, who proved to be the mother-in-law of the younger one, said very sharply: “General Sherman will never capture that place. I know all about that country, and you haven’t an army that will ever take it. We all know very well that Sherman is making no headway against General Johnston’s army.”

We could see that she was entertaining views which everywhere prevailed in the South. The authorities naturally put the best face upon matters, and the newspapers tried to buoy up the people with false hopes. It was not surprising that the inhabitants of the remote parts of the country were in ignorance of the true progress of the war. General Grant replied in a quiet way: “General Sherman is certainly advancing rapidly in that direction; and while I do not wish to be the communicator of news which may be unpleasant to you, I have every reason to believe that Rome is by this time in his possession.” The older lady then assumed a bantering tone, and became somewhat excited and defiant in her manner; and the younger one joined with her in scouting the idea that Rome could ever be taken. Just then a courier rode up with despatches from Washington containing a telegram from Sherman. General Grant glanced over it, and then read it to the staff. It announced that Sherman had just captured Rome. The ladies had caught the purport of the communication, although it was not intended that they should hear it. The wife burst into tears, and the mother-in-law was much affected by the news, which was of course sad tidings to both of them.

The mother then began to talk with great rapidity and with no little asperity, saying: “I came from Richmond not long ago, where I lived in a house on the James River which overlooks Belle Isle; and I had the satisfaction of looking down every day on the Yankee prisoners. I saw thousands and thousands of them, and before this campaign is over I want to see the whole of the Yankee army in Southern prisons.”

Just then Burnside rode into the yard, dismounted, and joined our party on the porch. He was a man of great gallantry and elegance of manner, and was always excessively polite to the gentler sex. He raised his hat, made a profound bow to the ladies, and, as he looked at his corps filing by on the road, said to the older one, who was standing near him, “I don’t suppose, madam, that you ever saw so many Yankee soldiers before.” She replied instantly: “Not at liberty, sir.” This was such a good shot that every one was greatly amused, and General Grant joined heartily in the laugh that followed at Burnside’s expense.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 118-21. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Massaponax Church (May 21, 1864)

massaponnox croppedToday is the 150th anniversary of one of the most famous photographs from the Civil War. It was exactly a century and a half ago when Timothy O’Sullivan lugged his camera equipment up to the second floor of a little brick building called Massaponax Church and captured an image of Union officers, among them Grant and Meade, sitting outside on pews their staffs had hauled outside. They are tremendous photos. In this one you can see Meade at the end of the pew to the left, looking at a map. Theodore Lyman sits next to him. Andrew Humphreys sits at the end of the adjacent pew, reading a paper. Grant sits next to him, puffing on one of his ever-present cigars. After the long, bloody stalemate at Spotsylvania Court House, the Army of the Potomac was on the move, shifting to the left to pass by Lee’s flank and head south. The wagons of the V Corps are in the background in the photo. (This image is from the Library of Congress; click to enlarge).

Charles A. Dana (Library of Congress).

Charles A. Dana (Library of Congress).

Sitting next to Grant is Charles Dana, the assistant secretary of war. Lyman described him as “a combination of scholar and newspaper editor, with a dab of amiability, a large dab of conceit, and another large dab of ultraism.” Dana had accompanied Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign, and Lincoln dispatched him from Washington to report from Virginia. In a memoir Dana recounted his rather critical impressions of Meade. “He was a tall, thin man, rather dyspeptic, I should suppose from the fits of nervous irritation to which he was subject,” Dana said. “He was totally lacking in cordiality toward those with whom he had business, and in consequence was generally disliked by his subordinates. With General Grant Meade got along always perfectly, because he had the first virtue of a soldier–that is, obedience to orders. He was an intellectual man, and agreeable to talk with when his mind was free, but silent and indifferent to everybody when he was occupied with that which interested him.”

Massaponax Church as it appears today (Tom Huntington photo).

Massaponax Church as it appears today (Tom Huntington photo).

Below is an engraved version based on O’Sullivan’s image. The population of generals has increased substantially! If you read the caption to the print, you’ll also see the artist has added the presence of generals who were nowhere near–not only Winfield Scott Hancock, who had moved with the II Corps ahead of the army, but also General William T. Sherman, who was making his way through Georgia at the time, Daniel Sickles, George Thomas, and James Garfield.

Here's an artist's conception of that scene. He has allowed his imagination some free play. If you read the caption to the print, you'll also see that has added the presence of generals who were nowhere near--not only Hancock, who had moved with the II Corps ahead of the army, but also General Sherman, who was making his way through Georgia at the time, and General Sickles.

Here’s an artist’s conception of that scene. He has allowed his imagination some free play (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).