At Church (May 22, 1864)

Timothy O'Sullivan took those photograph of New Bethel Church on May 23, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Timothy O’Sullivan took those photograph of New Bethel Church on May 23, 1864. Burnside had departed earlier that morning. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman takes up his pen on a warm Sunday evening and writes home about the war. In his journal entry for today Lyman wrote, “Reviewing the progress of the campaign, Gen. Meade said to me at breakfast: ‘I am afraid the rebellion cannot be crushed this summer!'”

New Bethel Church today (Tom Huntington photo).

New Bethel Church today (Tom Huntington photo).

I don’t know when I have felt so peaceful — everything goes by contrast. We are camped, this lovely evening, in a great clover field, close to a large, old-fashioned house, built of bricks brought from England in ante-revolutionary times. The band is playing “Ever of Thee I’m Fondly Dreaming”—so true and appropriate—and I have just returned from a long talk with two ultra-Secessionist ladies who live in the house. Don’t be horrified! You would pity them to see them. One, an old lady, lost her only son at Antietam; the other, a comparatively young person, is plainly soon to augment the race of Rebels. Poor creature! Our cavalry raced through here yesterday and scared her almost to death. Her eyes were red with crying, and it was long before she fully appreciated the fact that General Meade would not order her to instant death. To-night she has two sentries over her property and is lost in surprise. Have I not thence obtained the following supplies: five eggs, a pitcher of milk, two loaves of corn bread, and a basket of lettuce—all of which I duly paid for. I feel well to-night on other accounts. If reports from the front speak true, we have made Lee let go his hold and fall back some miles. If true, it is a point gained and a respite from fighting. Hancock had got away down by Milford. Warren had crossed at Guinea Bridge and was marching to strike the telegraph road, on which the 6th Corps was already moving in his rear. The 9th Corps would cross at Guinea Bridge, last, and follow nearly after the 2d Corps. We started ourselves not before noon, and crossed the shaky little bridge over the Po-Ny (as I suppose it should be called), and so we kept on towards Madison’s Ordinary, crossing, a little before, the Ta, a nice, large, clear brook. An “Ordinary” in Virginia seems to be what we should call a fancy variety store, back in the country. Madison’s is a wooden building, just at cross-roads, and was all shut, barred, and deserted; and, strange to say, had not been broken open. On the grass were strewn a quantity of old orders, which people had sent by their negroes, to get—well, to get every conceivable thing. I saved one or two, as curiosities, wherein people ask for quarts of molasses, hymn-books, blue cotton, and Jaynes’s pills! The 5th Corps was passing along, as we stood there. After a while we went across the country, by a wood road, to the church you will see south of Mrs. Tyler’s. Close to Madison’s Ordinary was one of those breastworks by which this country is now intersected. A revival of the Roman castrum, with which the troops of both sides protect their exposed points every night. This particular one was made by the heavy artillery, whose greenness I have already spoken of. When they put it up the enemy threw some shells. Whereupon an officer rode back in all haste to General Hancock, and said: “General, our breastwork is only bullet-proof and the Rebels are shelling us!” “Killed anybody?” asked the calm commander. “Not yet, sir,” quoth the officer. “Well, you can tell them to take it comfortably. The Rebels often throw shells, and I am sure I cannot prevent them.” We passed, on the wood road, some of the finest oak woods I have seen; nothing could be finer than the foliage, for the size, fairness, and rich, polished green of the leaves. The soil, notwithstanding, is extremely sandy and peculiarly unfavorable to a good sod. At the church (do I call it Salem? I am too lazy to hunt after my map; no, it is New Bethel), the 9th Corps was marching past, and Burnside was sitting, like a comfortable abbot, in one of the pews, surrounded by his buckish Staff whose appearance is the reverse of clerical. Nothing can be queerer (rather touching, somehow or other) than to see half a dozen men, of unmistakable New York bon ton, arrayed in soldier clothes, midst this desolated country. I am glad to see that such men have the energy to be here. They are brave and willing, though, like your hub, their military education has been rather neglected.

And this leads me to remark that it is a crying mistake to think, as many do, that an aide is a sort of mounted messenger—an orderly in shoulder-straps. An aide should be a first-rate military man; and, at least, a man of more than average intelligence and education. It is very difficult, particularly in this kind of country, to deliver an order verbally, in a proper and intelligent way; then you must be able to report positions and relative directions, also roads, etc.; and in these matters you at once see how deficient some men are, and how others have a natural turn for them. To be a good officer requires a good man. Not one man in ten thousand is fit to command a brigade; he should be one who would be marked anywhere as a person (in that respect) of superior talent. Of good corps commanders I do not suppose there are ten in this country, after our three-years’ war. Of army commanders, two or three. When we had seen enough of the 9th Corps and had found out that Hancock had mistaken Birney’s line of battle (down by Milford) for that of the enemy,—whereat there was a laugh on the chivalric H.,—we departed for the Tyler house. In one of Burnside’s regiments are a lot of Indian sharpshooters, some full, some halfbreeds. They looked as if they would like to be out of the scrape, and I don’t blame them. . . .

Ambrose Burnside (reading paper) and staff at Cold Harbor, June 11 or 12, 1864. That's photographer Matthew Brady in the straw hat (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside (reading paper) and staff at Cold Harbor, June 11 or 12, 1864. That’s photographer Mathew Brady in the straw hat (Library of Congress).

Grant’s aide Horace Porter also wrote about his encounter with the Tylers and published it in his book Campaigning with Grant. It’s an interesting tale. I quote it (from pages 137-9 in Porter’s book).

Early in the afternoon General Grant decided to halt for a couple of hours, to be in easy communication with the troops that were following. He selected for the halt a plantation which was beautifully situated on high ground, commanding a charming view of the valley of the Mattapony. A very comfortable house stood not far from the road along which Burnside’s corps was marching. In making halts of this kind a house was usually selected, for the reason that good water was easily obtainable, and facilities were afforded for looking at maps and conducting correspondence. General Grant never entered any of the houses, as they were usually occupied by ladies, and he did not wish to appear to invade their dwellings; he generally sat on the porch. When we reached this plantation, the escort and the junior staff-officers lounged about the grounds in the shade of the trees, while General Grant, accompanied by two or three of us who were riding with him, dismounted, and ascended the steps of the porch. A very gentle and prepossessing-looking lady standing in the doorway was soon joined by an older woman. General Grant bowed courteously and said, “With your permission, I will spend a few hours here.” The younger lady replied very civilly, “Certainly, sir.” The older one exclaimed abruptly, “I do hope you will not let your soldiers ruin our place and carry away our property.” The general answered politely, “I will order a guard to keep the men out of your place, and see that you are amply protected”; and at once gave the necessary instructions. The ladies, seeing that the officer with whom they were conversing was evidently one of superior rank, became anxious to know who he was, and the older one stepped up to me, and in a whisper asked his name. Upon being told that he was General Grant, she seemed greatly surprised, and in a rather excited manner informed the other lady of the fact. The younger lady, whose name was Mrs. Tyler, said that she was the wife of a colonel in the Confederate army, who was serving with General Joe Johnston in the West; but she had not heard from him for some time, and she was very anxious to learn through General Grant what news he had from that quarter. The general said, “Sherman is advancing upon Rome, and ought to have reached that place by this time.” Thereupon the older lady, who proved to be the mother-in-law of the younger one, said very sharply: “General Sherman will never capture that place. I know all about that country, and you haven’t an army that will ever take it. We all know very well that Sherman is making no headway against General Johnston’s army.”

We could see that she was entertaining views which everywhere prevailed in the South. The authorities naturally put the best face upon matters, and the newspapers tried to buoy up the people with false hopes. It was not surprising that the inhabitants of the remote parts of the country were in ignorance of the true progress of the war. General Grant replied in a quiet way: “General Sherman is certainly advancing rapidly in that direction; and while I do not wish to be the communicator of news which may be unpleasant to you, I have every reason to believe that Rome is by this time in his possession.” The older lady then assumed a bantering tone, and became somewhat excited and defiant in her manner; and the younger one joined with her in scouting the idea that Rome could ever be taken. Just then a courier rode up with despatches from Washington containing a telegram from Sherman. General Grant glanced over it, and then read it to the staff. It announced that Sherman had just captured Rome. The ladies had caught the purport of the communication, although it was not intended that they should hear it. The wife burst into tears, and the mother-in-law was much affected by the news, which was of course sad tidings to both of them.

The mother then began to talk with great rapidity and with no little asperity, saying: “I came from Richmond not long ago, where I lived in a house on the James River which overlooks Belle Isle; and I had the satisfaction of looking down every day on the Yankee prisoners. I saw thousands and thousands of them, and before this campaign is over I want to see the whole of the Yankee army in Southern prisons.”

Just then Burnside rode into the yard, dismounted, and joined our party on the porch. He was a man of great gallantry and elegance of manner, and was always excessively polite to the gentler sex. He raised his hat, made a profound bow to the ladies, and, as he looked at his corps filing by on the road, said to the older one, who was standing near him, “I don’t suppose, madam, that you ever saw so many Yankee soldiers before.” She replied instantly: “Not at liberty, sir.” This was such a good shot that every one was greatly amused, and General Grant joined heartily in the laugh that followed at Burnside’s expense.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 118-21. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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