Disputing Every Inch of Ground (May 30, 1864)

"At Totopotomoy Creek," a drawing Alfred Waud did around this time 150 years ago. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“At Totopotomoy Creek,” a drawing Alfred Waud did around this time 150 years ago. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

I get the sense of George Meade tossing off quick notes to reassure his wife while his attention and energies are engaged in the huge task of moving his army through Virginia. Theodore Lyman, on the other hand, finds time to pen another long, detailed account of life in a blighted country.  Meade first.

We are within sixteen miles of Richmond, working our way along slowly but surely. I expect we shall be a long while getting in, but I trust through the blessing of God we will at last succeed, and if we do, I think, from the tone of the Southern press, and the talk of the prisoners, that they will be sensible enough to give it up. They are now fighting cautiously, but desperately, disputing every inch of ground, but confining themselves exclusively to the defensive.

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman goes into much, much more detail in his letter of May 30. His journal entry for the same day ends with these ominous words: “The cavalry have reached Cold Harbor.”

It has been a tolerably quiet day, though there was a quite sharp fight at evening on our left — the Rebels badly used up. The people in Richmond must hear plainly the booming of our cannon: they scarcely can feel easy, for we are closing in on the old ground of McClellan. Fair Oaks was two years ago this very day. What armies have since been destroyed and rebuilt! What marchings and countermarchings, from the James to the Susquehanna! Still we cling to them — that is the best feature. There is, and can be, no doubt of the straits to which these people are now reduced; particularly, of course, in this distracted region; there is nothing in modern history to compare with the conscription they have. They have swept this part of the country of all persons under 50, who could not steal away. I have just seen a man of 48, very much crippled with rheumatism, who said he was enrolled two days ago. He told them he had thirteen persons dependent on him, including three grandchildren (his son-in-law had been taken some time since); but they said that made no difference; he was on his way to the rendezvous, when our cavalry crossed the river, and he hid in the bushes, till they came up. I offered him money for some of his small vegetables; but he said: “If you have any bread, I would rather have it. Your cavalry have taken all the corn I had left, and, as for meat, I have not tasted a mouthful for six weeks.” If you had seen his eyes glisten when I gave him a piece of salt pork, you would have believed his story. He looked like a man who had come into a fortune. “Why,” said he, “that must weigh four pounds — that would cost me forty dollars in Richmond! They told us they would feed the families of those that were taken; and so they did for two months, and then they said they had no more meal.” What is even more extraordinary than their extreme suffering, is the incomprehensible philosophy and endurance of these people. Here was a man, of poor health, with a family that it would be hard to support in peacetimes, stripped to the bone by Rebel and Union, with no hope from any side, and yet he almost laughed when he described his position, and presently came back with a smile to tell me that the only two cows he had, had strayed off, got into a Government herd, and “gone up the road” — that’s the last of them. In Europe, a man so situated would be on his knees, tearing out handfuls of hair, and calling on the Virgin and on several saints. There were neighbors at his house; and one asked me if I supposed our people would burn his tenement? “What did you leave it for?” I asked. To which he replied, in a concise way that told the whole: “Because there was right smart of bullets over thaar!” The poorest people seem usually more or less indifferent or adverse to the war, but their bitterness increases in direct ratio to their social position. Find a well-dressed lady, and you find one whose hatred will end only with death — it is unmistakable, though they treat you with more or less courtesy. Nor is it extraordinary: there is black everywhere; here is one that has lost an only son; and here another that has had her husband killed. People of this class are very proud and spirited; you can easily see it; and it is the officers that they supply who give the strong framework to their army. They have that military and irascible nature so often seen among an aristocracy that was once rich and is now poor; for you must remember that, before the war, most of these landowners had ceased to hold the position they had at the beginning of this century. There, that is enough of philosophizing; the plain fact being that General Robert Lee is entrenched within cannon range, in a sort of way that says, “I will fight you to my last gun and my last battalion!” We had not well got our tents pitched before the restless General, taking two or three of us, posted off to General Hancock. That is his custom, to take two or three aides and as many orderlies and go ambling over the country, confabbing with the generals and spying round the country roads. There, of course, was Hancock, in a white shirt (his man Shaw must have a hard time of it washing those shirts and sheets) and with a cheery smile. His much persecuted aides-de-camp were enjoying a noon-tide sleep, after their fatigues. The indefatigable [William] Mitchell remarked that there were many wood-ticks eating him, but that he had not strength to fight them! The firing was so heavy that, despite the late hour, General Meade ordered Hancock and Burnside to advance, so as to relieve Warren. Only Gibbon had time to form for an attack, and he drove back their front line and had a brief engagement, while the other commands opened more or less with artillery; and so the affair ended with the advantage on our side. — The swamp magnolias are in flower and the azaleas, looking very pretty and making a strong fragrance.

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. 199. 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.132-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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