USCT (May 18, 1864)

You can suffer from chronological whiplash when reading Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox. For instance, the opening of the letter he wrote on May 18 (150 years ago today), opens with interesting observations about the recent fighting in general he noted during a lull at Spotsylvania. It includes some especially interesting observations about the use of breastworks. He then jumps back to May 7 to continue his narrative of the Overland Campaign.

"Make Way for Liberty!" by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

“Make Way for Liberty!” by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

Lyman’s comments on the use of African-American soldiers are also interesting, if less insightful. Lyman was certainly not alone in wondering if black soldiers could fight. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln also opened the door for black men to fight for the Union, but many white soldiers did not accept the new arrivals with open arms. Lyman either was unaware of the irony in his words or refused to acknowledge that Lincoln had transformed the war into more than a crusade to restore the Union. It was now a war to end slavery as well. By the end of the war Lyman had gained a grudging respect for the African-American soldiers, but he never abandoned his conservative views on race.

When I was researching Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg I spent a day exploring Spotsylvania with historian John Cummings. He had recently started a reenactment group to commemorate the 23rd United States Colored Troops, a regiment from Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division that fought here on May 15. These were some of the black soldiers that so distressed Lyman. “By 2014 I think it’s vitally important to do something to commemorate the first time that black troops actually fired on the Army of Northern Virginia,” Cummings told me then. I’m pleased to say he helped make that happen, as you can read here.

I have no right to complain: I have less hardship, more ease, and less exposure than most officers, and, if I must be with the army in the field, I have as good a place as one can well expect. I did hope (though there was no proper ground for it) that we might have the great blessing of an overwhelming victory. Such things you read of in books, but they do not happen often, particularly with such armies to oppose as those of the Rebels. . . .

The great feature of this campaign is the extraordinary use made of earthworks. When we arrive on the ground, it takes of course a considerable time to put troops in position for attack, in a wooded country; then skirmishers must be thrown forward and an examination made for the point of attack, and to see if there be any impassable obstacles, such as streams or swamps. Meantime what does the enemy? Hastily forming a line of battle, they then collect rails from fences, stones, logs and all other materials, and pile them along the line; bayonets with a few picks and shovels, in the hands of men who work for their lives, soon suffice to cover this frame with earth and sods; and within one hour, there is a shelter against bullets, high enough to cover a man kneeling, and extending often for a mile or two. When our line advances, there is the line of the enemy, nothing showing but the bayonets, and the battle-flags stuck on the top of the work. It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good rifle-pit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first twenty-four hours. Our men can, and do, do the same; but remember, our object is offense—to advance. You would be amazed to see how this country is intersected with field-works, extending for miles and miles in different directions and marking the different strategic lines taken up by the two armies, as they warily move about each other.

The newspapers would be comic in their comments, were not the whole thing so tragic. More absurd statements could not be. Lee is not retreating: he is a brave and skilful soldier and he will fight while he has a division or a day’s rations left. These Rebels are not half-starved and ready to give up — a more sinewy, tawny, formidable-looking set of men could not be. In education they are certainly inferior to our native-born people; but they are usually very quick-witted within their own sphere of comprehension; and they know enough to handle weapons with terrible effect. Their great characteristic is their stoical manliness; they never beg, or whimper, or complain; but look you straight in the face, with as little animosity as if they had never heard a gun.

Now I will continue the history a little. But first I will remark that I had taken part in two great battles, and heard the bullets whistle both days, and yet I had scarcely seen a Rebel save killed, wounded, or prisoners! I remember how even line officers, who were at the battle of Chancellorsville, said: “Why, we never saw any Rebels where we were; only smoke and bushes, and lots of our men tumbling about”; and now I appreciate this most fully. The great art is to conceal men; for the moment they show, bang, bang, go a dozen cannon, the artillerists only too pleased to get a fair mark. Your typical “great white plain,” with long lines advancing and manoeuvring, led on by generals in cocked hats and by bands of music, exist not for us. Here it is, as I said: “Left face—prime—forward!”—and then wrang, wr-r-rang, for three or four hours, or for all day, and the poor, bleeding wounded streaming to the rear. That is a great battle in America. Well! to our next day.

Saturday, May 7

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African American soldiers (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African-American soldiers (Library of Congress).

At daylight it would be hard to say what opinion was most held in regard to the enemy, whether they would attack, or stand still; whether they were on our flanks, or trying to get in our rear, or simply in our front. However, it was not long before they were reported as fallen back — a good deal back from the left and right and somewhat from our centre on the pike. Reconnaissances were at once thrown out; and the General sent me to the front, on the pike, to learn how matters stood; where I found, on the most undoubted evidence, that we were throwing solid shot and shell at the rebels, and they were throwing solid shot and shells at us. . . . There was heavy skirmishing, with some artillery, all that morning, until we determined that the enemy had swung back both wings; and shortened and straightened his line. There lay both armies, each behind its breastworks, panting and exhausted, and scowling at each other. At five this morning a novel sight was presented to the Potomac Army. A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them! . . .

As General Grant sat under a pine tree, stoically smoking his briarwood pipe, I heard him say: “To-night Lee will be retreating south.”* Ah! General, Robert Lee is not Pemberton; he will retreat south, but only far enough to get across your path, and then he will retreat no more, if he can help it. In fact, orders were out for the whole army to move at dark on Spotsylvania Court House. But Lee knew it all: he could see the waggons moving, and had scouts besides. As night fell, his troops left their works and were crowding down the Parker’s Store road, towards Spotsylvania—each moment worth untold gold to them! Grant had no longer a Pemberton! “His best friend,” as he calls him. And we marched also. . . .

We [Headquarters] did not start till nearly nine o’clock. … It was a sultry night—no rain for many days; the horses’ hoofs raised intolerable clouds of dust, which, in this sandy region, is fine almost like flour. I never saw—nobody could well see—a more striking spectacle than that road as we passed slowly along. All the way was a continuous low breastwork behind which lay crowded the sleeping infantry. They were so close as almost to be on top of each other; every man with his loaded musket in his hand, or lying at his side. A few yards outside stood a line of sentries, their muskets cocked, and others sat on top of the breastwork. Few of the officers allowed themselves any rest, but paced up and down, in their great coats and slouched hats, looking sharply after the sentries. That looked like war, I do assure you. By the roadside was Gibbon, and a tower of strength he is, cool as a steel knife, always, and unmoved by anything and everything. There we lay down, literally in the dust, after a drink of iced water (for all the farms have ice-houses in this region, which our men are not slow to hunt out), and then we waited for General Meade, who had waited behind to speak with Hancock. By and by he came, with more clouds of dust, and then on again, past more sleeping men, and batteries in position, losing the road, finding it again, tearing our clothes among trees and bushes, then coming to cavalry pickets and finally to Todd’s Tavern, where General Gregg had his Headquarters, with his division of cavalry camped about there. . . . There was a porch in front with a dirt floor, and there I lay down, with my head on a timber, and got some sleep. On Sunday morning, May 8th,—it was not much like a Sabbath,—we were all staring sleepily about us, forlorn with dust and dirt. The road was full of the infantry, passing at a rapid rate; in light order they were, many without knapsacks, or coats: most had thrown away all baggage but a blanket and haversack. Then came batteries, then more infantry, all of the 5th Corps; the Second had not yet begun to pass. An old nigger made us some coffee and hoe-cake — very acceptable. . . .

*In a footnote taken from his journal entry of May 6, Lyman noted that on the day before, “Grant told Meade that Joe Johnston would have retreated after two such days’ punishment. He recognized the difference of the Western Rebel fighting.”

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 99-104 . Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

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