A Few Lines (May 15, 1864)

On the night of May 15, 1864, both George Meade and Theodore Lyman sat down to put pen to paper and write letters home. Meade’s is short. As he often is, the general is concerned with how others think of his work. He has reason to feel good about it. The letter from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton read in part, “This department congratulates you and your heroic Army and returns its cordial thanks for their gallant achievements during the last seven days, and hopes that the valor and skill thus far manifested will be crowned with the fruits of ultimate and decisive victory.” The dispatch from Grant is quoted here.

One thing Meade does not mention is how close he came to being captured on the previous day, May 14. Here’s what I wrote in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Artist Alfred Waud made a sketch of Meade's near capture by the Confederates on May 14 (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud made a sketch of Meade’s near capture by the Confederates on May 14 (Library of Congress).

On May 14 Meade almost fell into enemy hands when he rode forward to observe the Union position on Myer’s Hill . . . . Upton’s brigade was holding this forward position when Meade and Horatio Wright rode forward to examine the ground. The generals were conferring inside the house when the rattle of muskets and the thud of bullets striking the building delivered unwelcome news: the Confederates were attacking. Meade had to move fast. He jumped on his horse and, guided by Capt. Nathaniel Michler, a topographical engineer with some knowledge of the terrain, hastily made his way back toward the Ni River. A Confederate major galloped over to intercept him and even grabbed Meade’s bridle before his headquarters guard intervened and captured the rebel. The only thing Meade lost, other than his dignity, was his glasses.

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s account of the fighting is much more detailed, the start of a fascinating and detailed account of the Overland Campaign. His letter of May 15 covers only the first day of fighting in the Wilderness. In it he mentions how General Charles Griffin rode up to headquarters and complained that Horatio Wright and the VI Corps had not protected the right of Griffin’s V Corps division. A footnote in the collection of Lyman’s letters includes a further description from Lyman’s journal. He wrote, “2.45. Griffin comes in, followed by his mustering officer, Geo. Barnard. He is stern and angry. Says in a loud voice that he drove back the enemy, Ewell, ¾ of a mile, but got no support on the flanks, and had to retreat—the regulars much cut up. Implies censure on Wright, and apparently also on his corps commander, Warren. Wadsworth also driven back. Rawlins got very angry, considered the language mutinous, and wished him put in arrest. Grant seemed of the same mind and asked Meade: ‘Who is this General Gregg? You ought to arrest him!’ Meade said: ‘It’s Griffin, not Gregg; and it’s only his way of talking.’” 

I have often read a little coda to that incident and I tracked it down to The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere, a book my publisher, Stackpole Books (then the Stackpole Company), issued way back in 1960. In Steere’s account, Grant stood up and began fastening the buttons of his blouse and as Meade spoke, “seeking as it were to placate an angry child with soothing words,” he helped Grant with his buttons. “Grant fastened the middle button without further comment,” Steere continued. “Resuming his seat, he lit a fresh cigar and lapsed into meditation.”

I always found this odd and out of character. I couldn’t imagine George Meade helping Grant button his shirt, picturesque as that image may be. Surely Lyman would have mentioned something so unusual. Then I read Steere’s footnote. “The author admits to a slight embellishment of Lyman’s account,” he wrote. “Lyman abruptly concludes with Meade’s remark: ‘And it’s only his way of talking.’ While a reasonable presumption, there is no documentary evidence that Grant lit a fresh cigar.” Or that Meade helped him with his clothing. While I’m glad Steere pointed out his fabrication, I wonder why he made that stuff up in the first place. It may be okay for historical fiction, but it’s not good history.

Spottsylvania Court House Battle-field, May 15, 9 p.m.

A lull in the roar of battle enables me to write you a few lines. It has been raining hard, both yesterday and to-day, putting the roads in such condition as to compel both armies to keep still—a rest that the men on both sides were glad to have. I do not see the papers, and therefore cannot tell how true their accounts are, and I have not time to give you any details. I think we have gained decided advantages over the enemy; nevertheless, he confronts us still, and, owing to the strong position he occupies, and the works he is all the time throwing up, the task of overcoming him is a very difficult one, taxing all our energies. I send you a letter received from the Secretary of War, for safe keeping, as it shows I am not utterly ignored by the Department. General Grant showed me a despatch he had written to the War Department, speaking in complimentary terms of my services, and asking I be made a major general in the regular army. I told him I was obliged to him for his good opinion, but that I asked and expected nothing from the Government, and that I did not myself attach any importance to being in the regular army, so long as I held an equal rank in the volunteer service. What the result will be I cannot tell.

Here is Lyman’s account of the first day’s fight in the Wilderness:

Well, to be more or less under fire, for six days out of seven, is not very good for the nerves, or very pleasant. But now that there is a quiet day, I thought I would make a beginning of describing to you the sad, bloody work we have been at. I will write enough to make a letter and so go on in future letters, only writing what can now be of no importance to the enemy. The morning of Wednesday the 4th of May (or rather the night, for we were up by starlight) was clear and warm. By daylight we had our breakfast, and all was in a hurry with breaking up our winter camp. To think of it to-night makes it seem a half-year ago; but it is only eleven days. About 5.30 A.m. we turned our backs on what had been our little village for six months.

Already the whole army had been some hours in motion. The 5th Corps, followed by the 6th, was to cross at Germanna Ford, and march towards the Orange pike. The 2d Corps to march on Chancellorsville, crossing at Ely’s Ford; each corps was preceded by a division of cavalry, to picket the roads and scour the country. The main wagon train rested on the north side at Richardsville. So you see the first steps were much like the Mine Run campaign. I have drawn a little map to help you in understanding; not very exact in proportions, but still enough so.

Lyman mapThe roads were hard and excellent, full of waggons and black with troops; as we got past Stevensburg and went through a more wooded country, there were the little green leaves just opening, and purple violets, in great plenty, by the wayside. As the sun got fairly up, it grew much warmer, as one could see by the extra blankets and overcoats that our men threw away, whenever they halted. By 8 a.m. we drew near the Ford, and halted at a familiar spot, where we had our camp on the Mine Run campaign. How bitterly cold it was then! And now there was green grass all about, and wild flowers. Griffin’s division was already over, and the others were following steadily on. At 9.30 we went over ourselves, and, for a long time, I sat on the high bank, some seventy feet above the river, watching the steady stream of men and cannon and trains pouring over the pontoons. It was towards six in the evening before the last were across; and then one bridge was left for Burnside to cross by; for he was marching in all haste, from Rappahannock station. Meantime the head of the 5th Corps had reached the Orange pike, and that of the 2d, Chancellorsville. The Headquarters pitched their now reduced tents on the bank of the river that night, and I went down and took a slight bath in the stream, by way of celebrating our advance. General Grant came up betimes in the morning and had his tents near ours. He has several very sensible officers on his Staff, and several very foolish ones, who talked and laughed flippantly about Lee and his army. But they have changed their note now, and you hear no more of their facetiousness. The more experienced officers were sober, like men who knew what work was ahead. Our first grief was a ludicrous one. Our cook, a small Gaul, had mysteriously disappeared, and all we had left to cook for us was a waiter lad, who however rose with the occasion and was very conspicuous for activity. It turned out after, that the cook was arrested as a suspicious person, despite his violent protestations. . . .

We were off betimes the next morning (Thursday, May 5th), and about 7 o’clock got to the junction of the plank and pike, the troops meantime marching past us, as we stood waiting news from the front. Presently Griffin (5th Corps), who was two miles out on the pike (going west), reported the enemy in his front; while the cavalry, thrown out on the plank road, towards Parker’s Store, sent to say that the Rebel infantry were marching down in force, driving them in. General Wright’s division of the 6th Corps was turned off the Germanna plank to the right and ordered to march down the cross-road you see on the map, leading to the pike; and he and Griffin were directed to press the enemy and try to make a junction by their wings. At 10.40 A.m. General Getty’s division (6th Corps) was sent to hold the Orange plank road. It marched down the Germanna plank and took the little cross-road where the dotted line is, and got to the Orange plank just in time to stop the advance of A. P. Hill’s Corps. Meantime the rest of the 5th Corps was ordered into position on the left of, or in support of, General Griffin, about parallel to the most westerly dotted line, crossing the pike. Word was sent to 2d Corps, near Chancellorsville, that the Rebels were moving on us, and ordering Hancock to at once bring his men across to the Brock road and so take position on the left in support of General Getty. At noon, I was sent to General Getty, to tell him the disposition of the various troops and to direct him to feel along to his right, and find roads to communicate with the left of the 5th Corps, where, you will see, there was a considerable gap. Our Headquarters were on a piney knoll near the join of the Germanna plank and the pike. I rode down the dotted cross-road and came immediately on General Eustis, just putting his brigade into the woods, on Getty’s right. I stopped and directed him to throw out well to the right and to try to find Crawford, or a road to him.

Here it is proper to say something of the nature of this country, whereof I have already spoken somewhat during Mine Run times. A very large part of this region, extending east and west along the plank and pike, and the south, nearly to Spotsylvania, is called “The Wilderness,” a most appropriate term—a land of an exhausted, sandy soil, supporting a more or less dense growth of pine or of oak. There are some cleared spaces, especially near Germanna plank, where our Headquarters are marked. The very worst of it is parallel with Orange plank and upper part of the Brock road. Here it is mostly a low, continuous, thick growth of small saplings, fifteen to thirty feet high and seldom larger than one’s arm. The half-grown leaves added to the natural obscurity, and there were many places where a line of troops could with difficulty be seen at fifty yards. This was the terrain on which we were called to manoeuvre a great army. I found General Getty at the plank road (a spot I shall remember for some years) and gave him instructions. He told me the whole of Hill’s Corps was in his front and the skirmishers only 300 yards from us. For all I could see they might have been in Florida, but the occasional wounded men who limped by, and the sorry spectacle of two or three dead, wrapped in their blankets, showed that some fighting had already taken place. I got back and reported a little before one o’clock, and had scarcely got there when B-r-r-r-r wrong went the musketry, in front of Griffin and of Wright, which for the next hour and a half was continuous—not by volley, for that is impossible in such woods; but a continuous crackle, now swelling and now abating, and interspersed with occasional cannon. Very soon the ambulances began to go forward for their mournful freight. A little before two, I was sent with an order to a cavalry regiment, close by. The pike was a sad spectacle indeed; it was really obstructed with trains of ambulances and with the wounded on foot; all had the same question, over and over again; “How far to the 5th Corps’ hospital?” As I returned, I saw, coming towards me, a mounted officer—his face was covered with blood and he was kept in the saddle only by an officer who rode beside him and his servant who walked on the other side. “Hullo, Lyman!” he cried, in a wild way that showed he was wandering; “here I am; hurt a little; not much; I am going to lie down a few minutes, and then I am going back again! Oh, you ought to have seen how we drove ’em—I had the first line!” It was my classmate, Colonel Hayes, of the 18th Massachusetts; as fearless a soldier as ever went into action. There we were, three of us together, for the officer who supported him was Dr. Dalton. Three classmates together, down in the Virginia Wilderness, and a great fight going on in front. I was afraid Hayes was mortally hurt, but I am told since, he will recover. I trust so.

Alexander Hays was killed in the Wilderness (Library of Congress).

Alexander Hays was killed in the Wilderness (Library of Congress).

Gradually the musketry died away; and, at a quarter before three, General Griffin rode up —his face was stern and flushed, as it well might be. He said he had attacked and driven Ewell’s troops three quarters of a mile, but that Wright had made no join on his right and Wadsworth had been forced back on his left, so that with both flanks exposed he had been obliged to fall back to his former position. Meantime we got word that the head of Hancock’s column had moved up the Brock road and made a junction with Getty. At 3.15 I was sent with an order to General Getty to attack at once, and to explain to him that Hancock would join also. He is a cool man, is Getty, quite a wonder; as I saw then and after. “Go to General Eustis and General Wheaton,” he said to his aides, “and tell them to prepare to advance at once.” And so we were getting into it! And everybody had been ordered up, including Burnside, who had crossed that very morning at Germanna Ford. General Grant had his station with us (or we with him); there he took his seat on the grass, and smoked his briarwood pipe, looking sleepy and stern and indifferent. His face, however, may wear a most pleasing smile, and I believe he is a thoroughly amiable man. That he believes in his star and takes a bright view of things is evident. At 4.15 P.m. General Meade ordered me to take some orderlies, go to General Hancock (whose musketry we could now hear on the left) and send him back reports, staying there till dark. Delightful! At the crossing of the dotted cross-road with the plank sat Hancock, on his fine horse—the preux chevalier of this campaign—a glorious soldier, indeed! The musketry was crashing in the woods in our front, and stray balls—too many to be pleasant—were coming about. It’s all very well for novels, but I don’t like such places and go there only when ordered. “Report to General Meade,” said Hancock, “that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only a part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Up rides an officer: “Sir! General Getty is hard pressed and nearly out of ammunition!” “Tell him to hold on and General Gibbon will be up to help him.” Another officer: “General Mott’s division has broken, sir, and is coming back.” “Tell him to stop them, sir!!” roared Hancock in a voice of a trumpet. As he spoke, a crowd of troops came from the woods and fell back into the Brock road. Hancock dashed among them. “Halt here! halt here! Form behind this rifle-pit. Major Mitchell, go to Gibbon and tell him to come up on the double-quick!” It was a welcome sight to see Carroll’s brigade coming along that Brock road, he riding at their head as calm as a May morning. “Left face—prime—forward,” and the line disappeared in the woods to waken the musketry with double violence. Carroll was brought back wounded. Up came Hays’s brigade, disappeared in the woods, and, in a few minutes, General Hays was carried past me, covered with blood, shot through the head.

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. 195. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s correspondence is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 85-92. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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