Turning Operation (May 23, 1864)

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 "The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico Ford." Click to enlarge  (Library of Congress).

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 “The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico [sic] Ford.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Lee entrenches south of the North Anna River and the Army of the Potomac prepares to attack. Meade’s prediction in his letter of May 23 is correct in general, but the turning operations will continue until Lee is in Petersburg, south of Richmond.

Apparently Mrs. Meade does not think too highly of General Grant.

We expected yesterday to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.

I am sorry you will not change your opinion of Grant. I think you expect too much of him. I don’t think he is a very magnanimous man, but I believe he is above any littleness, and whatever injustice is done me, and it is idle to deny that my position is a very unjust one, I believe is not intentional on his part, but arises from the force of circumstances, and from that weakness inherent in human nature which compels a man to look to his own interests.

Theodore Lyman picks up his account of the Overland Campaign where he left off. Here he resumes his account of May 12 and the terrible fighting at the Mule Shoe salient of Lee’s line at Spotsylvania. Meade has sent him to find Horatio Wright, the commander of the VI Corps.

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

… I asked on all sides for General Wright. One said he had gone this way; another that he had gone that; so finally I just stood still, getting on the edge of the woods, on a ridge, where I dismounted and wrote a short despatch to General Meade, midst a heavy rain that now began to come down. Just before me was a very large field with several undulations, close to me was a battery firing, and in the wood beyond the field was the fighting. I stood there a short time, while the second line was deployed and advanced in support of the first. The Rebels were firing a great many explosive bullets, which I never saw before. When they strike they explode, like a fire-cracker, and make a bad wound; but I do not suppose, after all, that they are worse than the others. Presently there came along Captain Arthur McClellan (brother of the General and a very nice fellow). He said he would show me where General Wright was, which proved to be not far off, in a little hollow place. There was the stout-hearted General, seated with his aides, on the ground. He had just been hit on the leg by a great piece of shell, but was smiling away, despite his bruises. A sterling soldier he is! I soon found that the hollow did not exclude missiles, which fly in curves, confound them! There came a great selection of bullets about our ears, in the first of it. By-and-by a Rebel battery began to suspect that, from the number of horses, there must be a general about that place, and so, whing! smash, bang! came a shell, striking in the woods just beyond. “My friend,” said calm Colonel Tompkins, addressing the invisible gunner, “if you want to hit us you must cut your fuses shorter” — which indeed he did do, and sent all sorts of explosives everywhere except in our little group, which was only reached by a fragment or two. None of us got hurt, but one horse was wounded and another killed. There I staid for five hours (very long ones), and pelted all the time, but most of the balls flew too high, and, as is well known, shells make a horrid noise, but hurt comparatively few.

All this time the enemy was rolling up his fresh troops and frantically endeavoring to regain that salient. He made as many as five desperate charges with the bayonet, but in vain. At one place called the “Corner” the lines stood within fifty feet of each other, for hours!* The breastwork made a ridge between, and any living thing that showed above that line fell dead. The next day the bodies of friend and foe covered the ground. Some wounded men were then taken out from under three or four dead ones. One body, that lay exposed to the fire, had eighty bullets in it. At 12.30 I rode back to General Meade, to tell him our extreme right was hard pressed; and he sent me back to say that the whole 5th Corps had been moved to the left and that Griffin’s division could go to Wright’s support. I found that Wright had been fairly shelled out of his little hollow, and had retired to the Landron house. We clung to the salient, and that night the Rebels fell back from that part of their lines, leaving twenty-two guns, eighteen colors, and 3500 prisoners in our hands. . . . That night our Headquarters were at the Armstrong house. It was a day of general battle, for Warren attacked on the right and Burnside on the left, which kept the enemy from sending reinforcements. You will notice that the army was gradually shifting to the left, having now given up the Po River and Todd’s Tavern road.

*This footnote was taken from Lyman’s journal: “The great historical fight of this day extended over a front of only 1000 to 1500 yards, along the faces of the salient, or the ‘Death-angle,’ as it was afterwards called. Within that narrow field two corps were piled up to assault and in support. Indeed we had too many troops, as the generals justly said. The lines got mixed and jammed together and were hard to handle. The amount of bullets fired may be known from the fact that a red oak, twenty-three inches in diameter, was reduced, about six feet from the ground, to a fibrous structure and blew down that night! Bodies that lay between the lines were shot to pieces and could only be raised in a blanket! The result was damaging to the enemy—very—but the army of Lee was not cut in two—an issue clearly looked for by Rawlins and some others of Grant’s Staff, but not so confidently assumed by those who knew a little more.”—Lyman’s Journal.

May 16 Mott’s division, that had hitherto behaved so badly, was broken up and put with Birney—a sad record for Hooker’s fighting men! Napoleon said that food, clothing, discipline, and arms were one quarter, and morale the other three quarters. You cannot be long midst hard fighting without having this brought home to you. This day was a marked one, for being fine, nearly the whole of it; we have been having a quantity of rain and a fine bit was quite a wonder. There did appear a singular specimen to behold, at my tent, a J. Bull —a Fusileer—a doctor. Think of an English fusileer surgeon—what a combination! He walked on the tips of his toes, with his knees bent, was dressed in full uniform, and had a smirk on his face as much as to say: “Now I know a good deal; and I am coming to see; and I am not going to be put off.” Poor Medical Director McParlin was horribly bored with him; but finally got him to the 6th Corps hospital, where I afterwards saw him, running round with some large instrument. I hope they didn’t let him do much to the wounded. We were honored at dinner by the company of Governor Sprague and Sherman of the Senate. The Governor is a brisk, sparrowy little man with perky black eyes, which were shaded by an enormous straw hat. He is very courageous, and went riding about in various exposed spots. Sherman is the tallest and flattest of mortals—I mean physically. He is so flat you wonder where his lungs and other vitals may be placed. He seems a very moderate and sensible man.

Tuesday, May 17

Our Headquarters were moved to the left, and back of the Anderson house. We rode, in the morning, over, and staid some time at the house, one of the best I have seen in Virginia. It was a quite large place, built with a nest of out-houses in the southern style. They have a queer way of building on one thing after another, the great point being to have a separate shed or out-house for every purpose, and then a lot more sheds and outhouses for the negroes. You will find a carpenter’s shop, tool-room, coach-shed, pig-house, stable, out-kitchen, two or three barns, and half-a-dozen negro huts, besides the main house, where the family lives. Of the larger houses, perhaps a quarter are of brick, the rest of wood. They are plain, rarely with any ornament; in fact, these “mansions” are only farmhouses of a better class. Anderson was reputed a rich man, but he had carpets on very few rooms; most were floored with hard pine. Round these houses are usually handsome trees, often locusts, with oaks and, perhaps, some flowering shrubs. Often there is a small corner with a glass front, to serve as a greenhouse in winter. It is hard to judge what this country once was; but I can see that each house of the better class had some sort of a flower-garden; also, there are a great number of orchards in this part of the country and plenty of peach trees. Nothing gives such an air of desolation as a neglected flower-patch! There are the perennial plants that start each spring, all in disorder and struggling with weeds; and you are brought to think how some woman once took an interest in the flowers, and saw that they were properly kept. These little things appeal more pointedly to you than great ones, because they are so easily understood. In the few days’ fighting I have seen, I have come to be entirely unmoved by the appearance of the horrible forms of wounds or death; but to-day I had quite a romantic twinge at finding in a garden a queer leaf, with scallops on it, just like one I found in Bologna and put in your scrapbook. . . .

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

At Anderson’s I saw quite a galaxy of generals, among others the successor of General Stevenson, Major-General Crittenden. He is the queerest-looking party you ever saw, with a thin, staring face, and hair hanging to his coat collar — a very wild-appearing major-general, but quite a kindly man in conversation, despite his terrible looks. . . . The waggoners and train rabble and stragglers have committed great outrages in the rear of this army. Some of the generals, particularly Birney and Barlow, have punished pillagers in a way they will not forget; and they will be shot if they do not stop outrages on the inhabitants. The proper way to stop the grosser acts is to hang the perpetrators by the road where the troops pass, and put a placard on their breasts. I think I would do it myself, if I caught any of them. All this proceeds from one thing—the uncertainty of the death penalty through the false merciful policy of the President. It came to be a notorious thing that no one could be executed but poor friendless wretches, who had none to intercede for them; so that the blood of deserters that was shed was all in vain—there was no certainty in punishment, and certainty is the essence of all punishment. Now we reap the disadvantage in a new form. People must learn that war is a thing of life or death: if a man won’t go to the front he must be shot; but our people can’t make up their minds to it; it is repulsive to the forms of thought, even of most of the officers, who willingly expose their own lives, but will shrink from shooting down a skulker.

And now here’s a letter from Lyman from May 23, which picks up his narrative from the day before.

It was with regret that early this morning we left the fine clover field of Dame Tyler, and wended our way towards the North Anna. We crossed the Mat (or what is called South River, I am not sure which, at any rate a mere brook), and kept straight on for Garrett’s Tavern. Grant, mounted on the purloined black pony, ambled along at a great pace, but General Meade, who got his pride up at Grant’s rapidity, set off at a rate that soon raised a cloud of dust and left the Lieutenant-General far behind; whereat George G. was much pleased, and his aides much the contrary, as they had to scramble after. About ten we got to a side road, leading to the right, and here we turned off the 9th Corps, so as to keep the telegraph road open for the passage of the 5th. Then we took a bend to the left again and came out by the Moncure house, crossing the Polecat Creek by the way — a pleasant stream running over stones, and with the trees quite growing into it. There, I knew, Biddle and Mason “straggled” and took a bath. We passed also a house where dwelt four women, all alone; we left them a guard, to stay till next morning. A hazardous position for these people, with all the stragglers and camp scoundrels about! Old Ma’am Moncure was a perfect old railer, and said: “They should soon see us coming back on the double-quick.” However, they (the family) were amazing sharp and eager in selling us sheep, and took our greenbacks with avidity. A gold dollar now is worth about $30 in Confederate money! This afternoon Warren crossed the North Anna at Jericho Bridge, and was fiercely attacked on the other side by Longstreet; but he repulsed him with heavy loss, after a sharp fight. Hancock coming along more to the left, stormed the rifle-pits near Chesterfield station and seized the bridge, ready to cross. I have been lately up at three and four in the morning and I am so sleepy I must stop.

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), p. 198. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 112-117 and 121-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

 

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