Eyes like a Rattlesnake’s (May 24, 1864)

Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan described this image as "Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank (Library of Congress).

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan described this image as “Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank.” Grant and Meade booth crossed here  (Library of Congress).

Meade writes on May 24, 1864, from Mt. Carmel Church, where he and Grant established headquarters while deciding what to do with Lee, who had established a strong position across the North Anna River. He does not mention that on this day Grant issued orders placing Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps under Meade’s command. Until now Burnside had answered directly to Grant. Grant’s Special Orders, No 25, read, “To secure the greatest attainable unanimity in co-operative movements, and greater efficiency in the administration of the army, the Ninth Army Corps, Maj. Gen. A.E. Burnside commanding, is assigned to the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. G.G. Meade commanding, and will report accordingly.”

We have maneuvered the enemy away from their strong position on the Po, near Spottsylvania Court House, and now have compelled them to fall back from the North Anna River, which they tried to hold. Yesterday Warren and Hancock both had engagements with them, and were successful. We undoubtedly have the morale over them, and will eventually, I think, compel them to go into Richmond; after that, nous verrons.

I am writing this letter in the House of God, used for general headquarters. What a scene and commentary on the times!

Another one of O'Sullivan's images from May 24. Of this one he said, "Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge" (Library of Congress).

Another one of O’Sullivan’s images from May 24. Of this one he said, “Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge” (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s letter fills in much of the detail, including much about General Meade’s gunpowder disposition and an incident at Mt. Carmel Church concerning a message from General Sherman. Lyman also noted this incident in his journal, where he said Meade’s “grey eyes grew like a rattlesnake’s.” Meade had reason for anger at Sherman’s effrontery–as David W. Lowe points out in his excellent book of Lyman’s journals, “If one compares casualties along, Sherman’s men were having an easy time of it.”

We started quite early—a little before six—to go towards the North Anna; and halted at Mt. Carmel Church, where this road from Moncure’s strikes the “telegraph road” (so called, because the telegraph from Fredericksburg ran along it). If you want a horrible hole for a halt, just pick out a Virginia church, at a Virginia cross-roads, after the bulk of an army has passed, on a hot, dusty Virginia day! There was something rather funny, too. For in the broad aisle they had laid across some boards and made a table, round which sat Meade, Grant, General Williams, etc., writing on little slips of paper. It looked precisely like a town-hall, where people are coming to vote, only the people had unaccountably put on very dusty uniforms. General Meade is of a perverse nature; when he gets in a disagreeable place, he is apt to stay there. I think he likes to have officers who are prone to comfort feel decidedly uncomfortable. That reminds me of an anecdote. The day before yesterday, when we had our bloody attack along the whole line, General Meade had ordered his whole Staff ready at four in the morning. Now, such people as the Judge-Advocate-General are Staff officers and at Headquarters, but not aides. Ours is an old army officer, with many characteristics of a part of his class, that is, rather lazy and quite self-sufficient. He came to the front with us and staid some time; but, as dinner-time approached, late in the afternoon, he thought it would be bright to go to the camp and arrange a snug dinner. Pretty soon the suspicious and not very kindly gray eyes of the chief began to roll about curiously. “General Williams! did you give orders that all my Staff should accompany me?” “Yes, sir; certainly, sir.” (Seth is rather scared at his superior, as are many more.) “Where is Major Platt?” “I think he must have gone to camp for a moment, sir.” “Send at once for him!” In no great time the Major arrived at a gallop. “Major Platt,” said the General slowly and solemnly, “I wish you to ride along our whole lines (possibly about eight miles) and ascertain as accurately as possible the amount of our casualties during the day!” Somewhere about nine o’clock that night Platt returned with his statement, having missed a nice, six o’clock dinner, and happily been missed by stray balls and shells. . . .

I am glad to hear that you take once more an interest in the furniture coverings; an excellent sign! Keep a-going; that’s the way! That is the way I do: heart in my mouth for half a day; then come home and eat a good supper; there is no use in “borrowing trouble”—you do learn that here. You know I am not sanguine in my military hopes; but I have the strongest hopes of ultimate success, taking into consideration the uncertainty of war. You must go by the general features; and these are: 1st: Watchfulness, caution, and military conduct of our generals. 2d: The defensive attitude of the enemy; an attitude which Lee never assumes unless driven to it. 3d: The obstinacy and general reliability of our troops. 4th: The fact, that we have worked them, from one position to another, to within nine miles of Richmond across a highly defensible country. 5th: That their counter-attacks on us have been few and comparatively weak, and of no great moment, showing that they have no large force with a “free foot”; but have to put all their men on their lines. Nevertheless, I look on the future as still long and full of the common hazards of war. If the Rebels are forced to abandon Richmond, I believe the effect would be very heavy on them. This I judge not only on general grounds but also from the stupendous efforts, the general concentration, they are using to defend it. Do not, for a moment, look for the “annihilation,” the “hiving,” or the “total rout” of Lee. Such things exist only in the New York Herald.

To return to our Mt. Carmel. About seven came a negro who reported the whole Rebel army retreating on Richmond—a vague expression which left them room to halt anywhere this side of it. Soon after “Tick” Wadsworth—son of the late General—came in from General Sheridan and reported the cavalry corps at Dunkirk. This was welcome news to us. Sheridan had been sent on a raid towards Richmond and had destroyed railroads and depots of stores to a considerable extent. Also recaptured some hundreds of our prisoners on their way to the capital. He was delayed on his return by the rise of the Pamunkey, but got pontoons from Fortress Monroe and crossed it. On his way down, Stuart’s cavalry tried to stop him, but he pitched into them, took two guns and a number of prisoners, and killed Stuart, driving off his command completely. It is curious that the southern cavalry cannot now cope with ours. We have beaten them every time this campaign; whereas their infantry are a full match for us. Sheridan was a great help on his return, to watch our flanks and threaten the enemy’s rear. . . . About ten there came in a very entertaining nigger, who had been servant of Colonel Baldwin, Rebel Chief of Ordnance. He gave a funny description of Lee’s Headquarters. From him and from other sources I judge that the reports of Lee’s humble mode of living are true. He has only corn bread and bacon for the “chief of his diet,” and this sets an example to all his men. There can be no doubt that Lee is a man of very high character (which you may reconcile as you may with his treacherous abandonment of the flag). He carries on war in a merciful and civilized way, his correspondence is dignified and courteous, and his despatches are commonly (not always) frank and not exaggerated. General Meade got awfully mad, while waiting at the church. There came a cipher despatch from Sherman, in the West. Mr. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, hastened—with considerable want of tact—to read it to the General. Sherman therein told Grant that the Army of the West, having fought, could now afford to manoeuvre, and that, if his (Grant’s) inspiration could make the Army of the Potomac do its share, success would crown our efforts. The eyes of Major-General George Gordon Meade stood out about one inch as he said, in a voice like cutting an iron bar with a handsaw: “Sir! I consider that despatch an insult to the army I command and to me personally. The Army of the Potomac does not require General Grant’s inspiration or anybody’s else inspiration to make it fight!” He did not get over it all day, and, at dinner, spoke of the western army as “an armed rabble.” General Grant, who is one of the most candid men I ever saw, has repeatedly said that this fighting throws in the shade everything he ever saw, and that he looked for no such resistance. Colonel Comstock and others, who have fought with both armies, say distinctly that our troops are fifty per cent better than the western, and that the good Rebel soldiers have always been kept near Richmond except when Longstreet went temporarily to the West. At dusk we rode down to cross the North Anna, midst a fearful thunderstorm; some of the lightning fell so near that it really hissed, which was disagreeable, as there was an ammunition train close by. The North Anna is a pretty stream, running between high banks, so steep that they form almost a ravine, and, for the most part, heavily wooded with oak and tulip trees, very luxuriant. It is perhaps 125 feet wide and runs with a tolerably swift and deep stream, in most places over one’s head. The approaches are by steep roads cut down the banks, and how our waggons and artillery got across, I don’t know! Indeed I never do know how the trains get up, seeing that you are not over well off, sometimes, on a horse. . . .

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 letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 122-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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