A Gift (May 17, 1864)

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

Meade writes on May 17 on the eve of a renewed attack against Lee’s Spotsylvania lines. After the terrible fighting against the Mule Shoe salient, the Confederates had withdrawn to a new position, one the Federals hope will be more susceptible to assault.

The Gerhard Meade mentions is his wife’s brother-in-law. In the end Mrs. Meade will get her way regarding the house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia and the Meades will receive the home as a gift from their friends. The General died in the house in 1872. The building still stands and you can see the word “Meade” carved on one of the lintels.

To-morrow we shall begin fighting again, with, I trust, some decided result, for it is hardly natural to expect men to maintain without limit the exhaustion of such a protracted struggle as we have been carrying on.

The last few days have given our men rest, and the arrival of reinforcements has put them in good spirits. There is a determination on all sides to fight it out, and have an end put to the war; a result which I think will most certainly be accomplished if we can overcome the army before us.

I received to-day a kind letter from Mr. Gerhard, written from his sick room, and informing me of the generosity of kind friends in Philadelphia, who had subscribed to pay for your house in DeLancey Place. I have replied to Mr. Gerhard, and whilst I have tried to express my sense of the generosity of my friends, I have declined the gift, believing that, under existing circumstances, it would not be proper in me to accept. At the same time I have said if it should be God’s will that I should fall in this war, then anything to assist you and my orphans would be most gratefully and thankfully received. I hope you will approve of my course, and that my feelings will be understood. It would not do to lose our independence, and I don’t think we would be comfortable in a house bought with our friends’ money.

I have been riding all day, getting ready for to-morrow’s battle. I shall now retire to rest, earnestly praying God to protect us, and give victory to our side.

On May 17 Theodore Lyman resumes his account of the fighting in the Wilderness. Here he talks about Confederate General John B. Gordon’s flank attack on the Union right late in the day on May 6. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

The attackers were under Brig. Gen. John Gordon, a hard-fighting Georgian. The first troops the screaming rebels hit were brigades under the command of Brigadier Generals Alexander Shaler and Truman Seymour. It was the continuation of a string of bad luck for Seymour, the general Meade had suspected of sucking up to Reynolds back in 1862. Since then Seymour had been disastrously defeated at the Battle of Olustree in Florida and seriously injured leading an attack on Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina. Now his bad luck continued. His troops broke for the rear. The Confederates captured both Seymour and Shaler.

The men of the VI Corps fell back against Warren’s V Corps to their right. “Suddenly there was a wild, fearful yell, a terrific crash, and the tide of battle rolled backward,” remembered Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. “A portion of the Sixth corps had given way, and the enemy followed up the advantage thus gained, until they had completely turned our flank, and the firing was almost in our rear. Some of the regiments in our brigade showed signs of alarm at this situation, but the sons of Maine were determined to hold their position, even if they were surrounded and destroyed in so doing. The enemy’s advance on our right was finally checked, and our line was re-established.”

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

When Meade received reports that another Confederate flank attack had routed a portion of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, he appeared less concerned about it than Grant did. Fixing a cold eye on the panicked courier who had reported the VI Corps’ destruction, he demanded sarcastically, “Do you mean to tell me that the Sixth Corps is to do no more fighting this campaign?” In fact, Sedgwick had ridden to the front to help rally his demoralized men and soon had things under control.

Things did look bad for a time. Horace Porter reported an incident in which a general whom he did not identify reached Grant’s headquarters and expressed his fears that Lee would seek to get between the Union army and the Rapidan, cutting off the line of communications. “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience,” the officer declared with some self-importance. The normally unflappable general in chief reacted with uncharacteristic temper. He stood up and yanked the cigar from his mouth. “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do,” Grant barked. “Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Meade and Grant were right not to worry. Gordon’s flank attack was the last major action of the Battle of the Wilderness. It had been two days of bloody and confused conflict, “a battle fought with the ear, and not with the eye,” according to Horace Porter. “All circumstances seemed to combine to make the scene one of unutterable horror. At times the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moans with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of the artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.”

Here’s how Lyman wrote about it:

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

. . . Just at dark there occurred a most disgraceful stampede in the 6th Corps — a thing that has been much exaggerated in the papers, by scared correspondents. You will remember I told you that we had two dubious divisions in the army: one, the Pennsylvania Reserves, has done finely and proved excellent; but the other, General Ricketts’s division of the 6th Corps, composed of troops from Winchester, known as “Milroy’s weary boys,” never has done well. They ran on the Mine Run campaign, and they have run ever since. Now, just at dark, the Rebels made a sort of sortie, with a rush and a yell, and as ill-luck would have it, they just hit these bad troops, who ran for it, helterskelter. General Seymour rode in among them, had his horse shot, and was taken. General Shaler’s brigade had its flank turned and Shaler also was taken. Well, suddenly up dashed two Staff officers, one after the other, all excited, and said the whole 6th Corps was routed; it was they that were routed, for Wright’s division stood firm, and never budged; but for a time there were all sorts of rumors, including one that Generals Sedgwick and Wright were captured. In a great hurry the Pennsylvania Reserves were sent to the rescue, and just found all the enemy again retired. A good force of them did get round, by a circuit, to the Germanna plank, where they captured several correspondents who were retreating to Washington! Gradually the truth came out, and then we shortened the right by drawing back the 5th and 6th Corps, so as to run along the interior dotted line, one end of which ends on the Germanna plank.

General Meade was in favor of swinging back both wings still more, which should have been done, for then our next move would have been more rapid and easy.

The result of this great Battle of the Wilderness was a drawn fight, but strategically it was a success, because Lee marched out to stop our advance on Richmond, which, at this point, he did not succeed in doing. We lost a couple of guns and took some colors. On the right we made no impression; but, on the left, Hancock punished the enemy so fearfully that they, that night, fell back entirely from his front and shortened their own line, as we shortened ours, leaving their dead unburied and many of their wounded on the ground. The Rebels had a very superior knowledge of the country and had marched shorter distances. Also I consider them more daring and sudden in their movements; and I fancy their discipline on essential points is more severe than our own — that is, I fancy they shoot a man when he ought to be shot, and we do not. As to fighting, when two people fight without cessation for the best part of two days, and then come out about even, it is hard to determine.

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. 196-7. 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 97-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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  1. Surrender (May 25, 1864) | Searching for GEORGE GORDON MEADE

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