Generals (May 20, 1864)

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Lyman mentions all four generals in his letter of May 20, 1864 (Library of Congress).

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Lyman mentions all four generals in his letter of May 20, 1864 (Library of Congress).

There’s no letter from Meade on May 20, but Theodore Lyman contributes another detailed report. One of the people he mentions is Francis Barlow. Like Lyman, Barlow was a Harvard man. He had practiced law before the war and looked more like a newsboy than a general, but Barlow had been wounded at Antietam and left for dead at Gettysburg (after posting his XI Corps division in a too-extended position). He carried an especially large sword—so that when he hit stragglers with it, he would hurt them, he told Lyman. Lyman called him “an eccentric officer.”

Lyman also writes about the death of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. Col. Martin McMahon, the officer who informed Lyman of General John Sedgwick’s death, wrote an account of the incident that appeared in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (Vol IV, p. 175). Here’s what he wrote:

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

I gave the necessary order to move the troops to the right, and as they rose to execute the movement the enemy opened a sprinkling fire, partly from sharp-shooters. As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged. The general said laughingly, “What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the general, and at the same moment a sharp-shooter’s bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the general, dodged to the ground. The general touched him gently with his foot, and said, “Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,” and repeated the remark, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” The man rose and saluted, and said good-naturedly, “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.” The general laughed and replied, “All right, my man; go to your place.”

For a third time the same shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk, when, as I was about to resume, the general’s face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction; I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I fell with him.

Colonel Charles H. Tompkins, chief of the artillery, standing a few feet away, heard my exclamation as the general fell, and, turning, shouted to his brigade-surgeon, Dr. Ohlenschlager. Major Charles A. Whittier, Major T. W. Hyde, and Lieutenant-Colonel Kent, who had been grouped near by, surrounded the general as he lay. A smile remained upon his lips but he did not speak. The doctor poured water from a canteen over the general’s face. The blood still poured upward in a little fountain. The men in the long line of rifle-pits, retaining their places from force of discipline, were all kneeling with heads raised and faces turned toward the scene; for the news had already passed along the line.

I was recalled to a sense of duty by General Ricketts, next in command, who had arrived on the spot, and informed me, as chief-of-staff, that he declined to assume command of the corps, inasmuch as he knew that it was General Sedgwick’s desire, if anything should happen to him, that General Horatio G. Wright, of the Third Division, should succeed him. General Ricketts, therefore, suggested that I communicate at once with General Meade, in order that the necessary order should bo issued. When I found General Meade he had already heard the sad intelligence, and had issued the order placing General Wright in command. Returning I met the ambulance bringing the dead general’s body, followed by his sorrowing staff. The body was taken back to General Meade’s headquarters, and not into any house. A bower was built for it of evergreens, where, upon a rustic bier, it lay until nightfall, mourned over by officers and soldiers. The interment was at Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut.

Now let’s see what Lyman had to say on May 20, 1864.

To-day has been entirely quiet, our pickets deliberately exchanging papers, despite orders to the contrary. These men are incomprehensible— now standing from daylight to dark killing and wounding each other by thousands, and now making jokes and exchanging newspapers! You see them lying side by side in the hospitals, talking together in that serious prosaic way that characterizes Americans. The great staples of conversation are the size and quality of rations, the marches they have made, and the regiments they have fought against. All sense of personal spite is sunk in the immensity of the contest.

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

In my letter of yesterday I got you as far as the evening of Sunday the 8th. On Monday, the 9th, early, Burnside was to come down the Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg road to the “Gate,” thus approaching on the extreme left; Sedgwick and Warren respectively occupied the left and right centre, while Hancock, in the neighborhood of Todd’s Tavern, covered the right flank; for you will remember that the Rebel columns were still moving down the Parker’s Store road to Spotsylvania, and we could not be sure they would not come in on our right flank and rear. Betimes in the morning General Meade, with three aides, rode back to General Hancock, and had a consultation with him. The day was again hot and the dust thicker and thicker. As we stood there under a big cherry tree, a strange figure approached; he looked like a highly independent mounted newsboy; he was attired in a flannel checked shirt; a threadbare pair of trousers, and an old blue kepi; from his waist hung a big cavalry sabre; his features wore a familiar sarcastic smile. It was General Barlow, commanding the 1st division of the 2d Corps, a division that for fine fighting cannot be exceeded in the army. There, too, was General Birney, also in checked flannel, but much more tippy than Barlow, and stout General Hancock, who always wears a clean white shirt (where he gets them nobody knows); and thither came steel-cold General Gibbon, the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up-and-down manner of telling the truth, no matter whom it hurts. . . .

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John" (Library of Congress).

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John” (Library of Congress).

It was about ten o’clock, and I was trotting down the Piney Branch road, when I met Colonel McMahon, Adjutant-General of the 6th Corps; I was seriously alarmed at the expression of his face, as he hurriedly asked where General Meade was. I said, “What is the matter?” He seemed entirely unnerved as he replied: “They have hit General Sedgwick just here under the eye, and, my God, I am afraid he is killed!” It was even so: General Sedgwick, with a carelessness of consequences for which he was well known, had put his Headquarters close on the line of battle and in range of the sharpshooters. As he sat there, he noticed a soldier dodging the bullets as they came over. Rising from the grass, he went up to the man, and, laying his hand on his shoulder, said, “Why, what are you dodging for? They could not hit an elephant at that distance.” As he spoke the last word, he fell, shot through the brain by a ball from a telescopic rifle. . . . The dismay of General Sedgwick’s Staff was a personal feeling; he was like a kind father to them, and they loved him really like sons. So fell “good Uncle John,” a pure and great-hearted man, a brave and skilful soldier. From the commander to the lowest private he had no enemy in this army. . . .

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I found General Meade with Generals Wright, Warren, and Humphreys consulting together in the same spot where Grant sat yesterday among the bullets, for no apparent reason. You never saw such an old bird as General Humphreys! I do like to see a brave man; but when a man goes out for the express purpose of getting shot at, he seems to me in the way of a maniac. … In the afternoon there was some fighting on the right centre, without result; Burnside pushed down on the left, driving the enemy before him; and so the day closed, our army crowding in on Lee and he standing at bay and throwing up breastworks.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 106-108. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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