Sheridan (May 16, 1864)

Philip Sheridan and Meade developed a cantankerous relationship (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan and Meade developed a cantankerous relationship (Library of Congress).

Meade mentions cavalry commander Philip Sheridan in his letter to his wife from May 16. In the battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, one of Sheridan’s men mortally wounded Jeb Stuart, a major blow to Lee’s army. Meade does not mention the unpleasant encounter he had had with Sheridan early in the morning on May 8 at a place called Todd’s Tavern. Meade had been angry that Sheridan’s men hadn’t cleared the road all the way to Spotsylvania. Sheridan, already chafing under Meade’s command, was incensed that Meade had felt it necessary to issue some orders directly to his cavalry. According to Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, Meade was in “a towering passion” while Sheridan was “equally fiery.” The two men argued and Sheridan said, “If I am permitted to cut loose from this army I’ll draw Stuart after me and whip him, too.” Meade reported Sheridan’s insubordination to Grant, and repeated what the cavalry commander had said about Stuart. “Did Sheridan say that?” replied Grant. “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.” Meade issued the orders, no doubt irritated that Grant was rewarding Sheridan for his insubordination to a superior officer. Sheridan did kill Stuart, but he also deprived the Army of the Potomac of the eyes and ears of his cavalry during a vital part of the Overland Campaign.

The weather still continues unfavorable for military operations, so, unless the enemy attack us, we shall probably remain quiet to-day. Our cavalry, under Sheridan, have been heard from. He was sent to get in the enemy’s rear, destroy their communications and supplies, fight their cavalry, and when his forage was exhausted, make his way to [Benjamin] Butler, on the James River. He reports having executed his orders, and it is said that J. E. B. Stuart was killed in the battle with Sheridan.

In his letter of May 16, Lyman resumes his account of the fighting in the Wilderness, especially the struggle around the Brock Road and the arrival of James Longstreet’s corps. Fortunately for the Union, Longstreet’s flank attack faltered when its commander was accidentally shot by his own troops. Lyman writes about the death of Henry Abbott, his Harvard friend and the commander of the 20th Massachusetts Earlier Abbot had commented on how Meade and Grant worked together. He thought the combination was “the next best thing to having a man of real genius at the head.” Meade was “a good combiner and maneuverer” and “unquestionably a clever man intellectually,” while Grant had “force” and “character” and wasn’t “afraid to take the responsibility to the utmost.”

I will continue the letter of this morning, describing our first day’s fight. I had got as far as the death of General Hays and the wounding of Carroll. This was between five and six o’clock. Hays commanded one brigade of Birney’s division. He was a strong-built, rough sort of man, with red hair, and a tawny, full beard; a braver man never went into action, and the wonder only is that he was not killed before, as he always rode at the very head of his men, shouting to them and waving his sword. Mott’s division behaved badly (as you observed, it broke and came back). This is a curious instance of a change of morale. It is Hooker’s old fighting division, but has since been under two commanders of little merit or force of character; then there was some discontent about re-enlistments and about the breaking up of the old 3d Corps, to which it had belonged; and the result has been that most of this once crack division has conducted itself most discreditably, this campaign. However, the fresh troops saved the day, and, at dark, we occupied our old line (the dotted one along the Brock road). . . .

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

It was long after dark when I rode back, and, with some difficulty, found our camp, now pitched in a dusty, ploughed field. The fight of this day had been an attack by parts of our three corps against the Corps of Ewell on our right, and of Hill on our left. The fight had swayed back and forth and ended in a drawn battle, both sides holding their lines. General Grant ordered the attack all along the line, the next morning at 4.30; but put it off to 5 o’clock on the representation that Burnside could not get up in time. He was ordered to get in position by daylight and to go in on Hill’s left flank, where you see a dotted line nearly parallel to the Parker’s Store road. We were all up right early on that Friday the 6th of May, you may depend. “Lyman,” said the General, “I want you to take some orderlies and go to General Hancock and report how things go there during the day.” It was after five when I mounted, and already the spattering fire showed that the skirmishers were pushing out; as I rode down the crossroad, two or three crashing volleys rang through the woods, and then the whole front was alive with musketry. I found General Hancock at the crossing of the plank: he was wreathed with smiles. “We are driving them, sir; tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully. Birney has gone in and he is just cleaning them out be-auti-fully!” This was quite apparent from the distance of the receding firing and the absence of those infernal minie balls. “I am ordered to tell you, sir, that only one division of General Burnside is up, but that he will go in as soon as he can be put in position.” Hancock’s face changed. “I knew it!” he said vehemently. “Just what I expected. If he could attack now, we would smash A. P. Hill all to pieces!” And very true were his words. Meantime, some hundreds of prisoners were brought in; all from Hill’s troops. Presently, however, the firing seemed to wake again with renewed fury; and in a little while a soldier came up to me and said: “I was ordered to report that this prisoner here belongs to Longstreet’s Corps.” “Do you belong to Longstreet?” I hastened to ask. “Ya-as, sir,” said grey-back, and was marched to the rear. It was too true! Longstreet, coming in all haste from Orange Court House, had fallen desperately on our advance; but he had uphill work. Birney’s and Getty’s men held fast and fought with fury, a couple of guns were put in the plank road and began to fire solid shot over the heads of our men, adding their roar to the other din. The streams of wounded came faster and faster back; here a field officer, reeling in the saddle; and there another, hastily carried past on a stretcher. I stood at the crossing and assisted in turning back stragglers or those who sought to go back, under pretext of helping the wounded. To some who were in great pain I gave some opium, as they were carried past me.

It was about seven o’clock, I think, that Webb’s brigade marched along the Brock road, and, wheeling into the pike, advanced to the support of Birney. Among them was the 20th Massachusetts. Abbot smiled and waved his sword towards me, as he rode by, and I called out to him wishing him good luck; and so he went on to his death, as gallant a fellow as fell that day; a man who could ride into the fight with a smile on his face. Just before eight o’clock came one brigade of Stevenson’s division (Burnside’s Corps) which had been sent to strengthen Hancock; the other brigade came later and was put on our left, where we were continually paralyzed by reports that the enemy was coming up the Brock road to take us in the flank. This prevented proper mobility of our left, and, after all, they turned out to be a division of Rebel cavalry, who were defeated later in the day by our men. Stevenson’s brigade was now put in to relieve the advanced lines that had long been under fire, and all other fresh troops were marched to the front. But Longstreet knew full well (they know everything, those Rebels) that Burnside was coming up with two divisions, on his flank; and knew too that he was late, very late. If Hancock could first be paralyzed, the day was safe from defeat, which now impended. Gathering all his forces, of both corps, he charged furiously. At a little after eleven Mott’s left gave way. On the right the brigade of Stevenson, consisting of three raw Massachusetts regiments miscalled “Veterans,” broke, on being brought under a tremendous fire. . . .The musketry now drew nearer to us, stragglers began to come back, and, in a little while, a crowd of men emerged from the thicket in full retreat. They were not running, nor pale, nor scared, nor had they thrown away their guns; but were just in the condition described by the Prince de Joinville, after Gaines’s Mill. They had fought all they meant to fight for the present, and there was an end of it! If there is anything that will make your heart sink and take all the backbone out of you, it is to see men in this condition! I drew my sword and rode in among them, trying to stop them at a little rifle-pit that ran along the road. I would get one squad to stop, but, as I turned to another, the first would quietly walk off. There was a German color-bearer, a stupid, scared man (who gave him the colors, the Lord only knows!), who said, “Jeneral Stavenzon, he telled me for to carry ze colors up ze road.” To which I replied I would run him through the body if he didn’t plant them on the rifle-pit. And so he did, but I guess he didn’t stick. Meanwhile there was no danger at all; the enemy did not follow up — not he. He was busy swinging round to oppose Burnside, and was getting his men once more in order. At half-past one I rode to General Meade and reported the state of affairs. The Provost-General went out at once and stopped and organized the stragglers. At two o’clock Burnside, who had been marching and countermarching, did attack. He made some impression, but it was too late, and he had not enough force to follow on. About this time I returned to General Hancock.* His men were rallied along the road; but regiments and brigades were all mixed up; and we were obliged to listen to Burnside’s fighting without any advance on our part. In our front all was quiet; and I got permission to go back to the 2d Corps hospital and look up the body of Major Abbot. Two miles back, in an open farm surrounded by woods, they had pitched the hospital tents. I will not trouble you with what I saw there, as I passed among the dead and dying. Abbot lay on a stretcher, quietly breathing his last — his eyes were fixed and the ashen color of death was on his face. Near by lay his Colonel, Macy, shot in the foot. I raised Macy and helped him to the side of Abbot, and we stood there till he died. It was a pitiful spectacle, but a common one on that day. I left in haste, after arranging for sending the remains home, for the sudden sound of heavy firing told of some new attack. The Rebels (unquenchable fellows they are!), seeing that Burnside had halted, once more swung round and charged furiously on Hancock in his very rifle-pits. I rode at once to General Meade, to ask that Burnside might attack also. This he did, without further orders and with excellent effect. When I got back to the cross-road, I was told the enemy had broken through on the plank and cut us in two; this turned out an exaggeration. They did get into a small part of a rifle-pit but were immediately driven out leaving near sixty dead in the trench at the point.

*The book includes this footnote, taken from Lyman’s journal: “1.15 (about). Back to Hancock. He alone, in rear of Brock road; and there he asked me to sit down under the trees, as he was very tired indeed. All his Staff were away to set in order the troops. They had now constructed a tolerable rifle-pit extending along the Brock and to the head of the cross-road. He said that his troops were rallied but very tired and mixed up, and not in a condition to advance. He had given orders to have the utmost exertions put forth in putting regiments in order, but many of the field officers were killed and wounded, and it was hard. At 2 P.m. Burnside, after going almost to Parker’s Store and again back, made a short attack with loud musketry. Ventured to urge Hancock (who was very pleasant and talkative) to try and attack too; but he said with much regret that it would be to hazard too much, though there was nothing in his immediate front, which had been swept by Stevenson’s other brigade, which marched from left to right.”

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. 195-6. 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 92-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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