Crossing the Pamunkey (May 28, 1864)

 

Alfred Waud depicted a portion of the Army of the Potomac crossing the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown on May 28. click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted a portion of the Army of the Potomac crossing the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown on May 28. click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

One thing I wanted to do when I worked on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, was to follow in Meade’s footsteps and see the things he would have seen. I visited a lot of battlefields and I also retraced his steps during the Overland Campaign. I found that some places had changed a great deal in the century and a half since the Civil War but occasionally I found places that, if I squinted a bit and used my imagination, gave me a sense of what things looked like in the 1860s. One of those places was Nelson’s Crossing, where a portion of the Army of the Potomac crossed the Pamunkey River on May 28. I followed narrow, winding Route 615 toward the river. At the bottom of a small decline in the road, I pulled off to the side and got out. Other than the Civil War Trails marker here, it seemed that little has changed since May 28, 1864. The Widow Nelson’s house stood there then as stands here now, a big white house on a bluff overlooking the fields leading to the river.

As a passing soldier crossed the pontoon bridge over the swampy Pamunkey, he noticed the generals—Meade thoughtfully rubbing his face, Hancock talking and gesturing, and Grant watching the soldiers marching past “as though trying to read their thoughts.” The men stared back at Grant. “He had the power to send us to our deaths, and we were curious to see him,” the soldier said. “But the men did not evince the slightest enthusiasm. None cheered him, none saluted him.”

Once I crossed the river I made a left turn on Route 605, a narrow country road that roughly parallels the river’s course. I was looking for the Newton House, where Lyman found Grant and Meade on May 28 after they crossed the river. But the road was closed and I had to make a long detour to approach from the opposite direction. I finally got a glimpse of the building, called Summer Hill today. The white house was nearly hidden among trees down a fence- and shrub-lined drive. It’s private property and I didn’t intrude, unlike Charles Carleton Coffin, the correspondent for the Boston Journal. When Lyman reached here he found the newspaperman in the garden stealing onions.

As the army crossed the Pamunkey and moved south, the soldiers could hear the sound of gunfire from a fierce cavalry battle being waged at Haw’s Shop, now the crossroads of Routes 615 and 606. David Gregg’s Union cavalry drove Wade Hampton’s Confederates back from the crossroads to nearby Enon Church, another little house of peace that became a landmark for war. There’s a Civil War marker there today, along with an obelisk commemorating the Confederate soldiers who died here and were buried in the cemetery across the road.

“We began to derive one satisfaction from the situation,” wrote a soldier from the 20th Maine about the fighting south of the Pamunkey, “and that was from the fact that we were now so near to Richmond that the sounds would be borne from the battle-field to that city, and each booming cannon would be a solemn reminder to the people of the rebel capital that justice was thundering at its gates, and demanding its dues.”

Here’s Lyman’s account of May 28.

A little before eight we left the neighborhood of the squeaky Mr. Thompson and, turning presently to the right, pushed along towards the Pamunkey. We now had struck a classic ground where the old McClellan men began to have “reminiscences,” worse than you and Anna Curtis, when you get together. “Ah,” says [Charles] Cadwalader, “that is the house, the very house, where I came up with my regiment—Rush’s Lancers. We drove the Rebs across that field, and then we burned the bridge, and picketed the river,” etc. The bridge destroyed by the valiant Cadwalader had never been replaced, and now our engineers had thrown a pontoon, over which the artillery of the 6th Corps was rapidly passing, while the flat was full of batteries, and of waggons waiting their turn. These canvas pontoons are funny looking; they consist of a boatshaped frame, which is wrapped in a great sheet of canvas and put in the water, this making a boat, on which part of the bridge-floor may rest. It looks as if the Commanderin-Chief had undertaken the washing business on a large scale, and was “soaking” his soiled clothing. At about half-past ten I crossed (having been told to go back and inform General Grant of General Meade’s whereabouts) and tried to find my General on the south side; but I got among a lot of German artillery men, who could not tell whether they were on their heads or heels, much less whether they had seen the Staff go that way. Really it is surprising how poorly the Germans show, out of their own country, where they are an honest and clever, though rather slow people. But here they seem almost idiotic, and, what is worse, they will plunder and they won’t fight. Really, as soldiers, they are miserable. Actually, a Yankee regiment would drive a brigade of them. They have no grit as a rule. The Paddies, on the contrary, will go in finely, and if well officered, stand to it through everything.

Pamunkey photo2

Timothy O’Sullivan took a photograph of the scene at Hanovertown crossing, the same place that Alfred Waud captured in his drawing (Library of Congress).

This Timothy O'Sullivan photo shows a second crossing of the Pamunkey at Nelson's. The setting today is remarkably similar to what it was like then, minus the pontoon bridge (Library of Congress).

This Timothy O’Sullivan photo shows the second crossing of the Pamunkey, Nelson’s. The setting today is remarkably similar to what it was like then, minus the pontoon bridge (Library of Congress).

Having ascertained the Headquarters, I rode over to Mrs. Newton’s, where I found a romantic lot of officers reposing, very flat on the grass. . . . Poor Mrs. Newton! — she was the one whose husband fell in my Raccoon Ford fight. . . . Presently arrived an aunt, a Mrs. Brockenbrough, a conceited, curious, sallow, middle-aged woman, itching to “tackle” a Northerner. She said the Cavalry Provost-Marshal had been very kind to her. She then began to catechize Grant, with an eager relish, who replied with entire calmness and candor, whereat she was plainly taken aback, as she looked for a volley of gasconade! Their negro houses were full of wounded cavalry men, some of them Rebels. As we sat there the cavalry cannon began again, in the direction of Haw’s store, and there followed, in the afternoon, a very desperate engagement in which we lost from 400 to 500 men, including the extraordinary proportion of nearly fifty officers killed and wounded. We drove them at all points, after a desperate resistance. Our cavalry is full of confidence and does wonders. The whole army had crossed by evening. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.130-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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