Generals (May 20, 1864)

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Lyman mentions all four generals in his letter of May 20, 1864 (Library of Congress).

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Lyman mentions all four generals in his letter of May 20, 1864 (Library of Congress).

There’s no letter from Meade on May 20, but Theodore Lyman contributes another detailed report. One of the people he mentions is Francis Barlow. Like Lyman, Barlow was a Harvard man. He had practiced law before the war and looked more like a newsboy than a general, but Barlow had been wounded at Antietam and left for dead at Gettysburg (after posting his XI Corps division in a too-extended position). He carried an especially large sword—so that when he hit stragglers with it, he would hurt them, he told Lyman. Lyman called him “an eccentric officer.”

Lyman also writes about the death of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. Col. Martin McMahon, the officer who informed Lyman of General John Sedgwick’s death, wrote an account of the incident that appeared in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (Vol IV, p. 175). Here’s what he wrote:

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

I gave the necessary order to move the troops to the right, and as they rose to execute the movement the enemy opened a sprinkling fire, partly from sharp-shooters. As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged. The general said laughingly, “What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the general, and at the same moment a sharp-shooter’s bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the general, dodged to the ground. The general touched him gently with his foot, and said, “Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,” and repeated the remark, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” The man rose and saluted, and said good-naturedly, “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.” The general laughed and replied, “All right, my man; go to your place.”

For a third time the same shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk, when, as I was about to resume, the general’s face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction; I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I fell with him.

Colonel Charles H. Tompkins, chief of the artillery, standing a few feet away, heard my exclamation as the general fell, and, turning, shouted to his brigade-surgeon, Dr. Ohlenschlager. Major Charles A. Whittier, Major T. W. Hyde, and Lieutenant-Colonel Kent, who had been grouped near by, surrounded the general as he lay. A smile remained upon his lips but he did not speak. The doctor poured water from a canteen over the general’s face. The blood still poured upward in a little fountain. The men in the long line of rifle-pits, retaining their places from force of discipline, were all kneeling with heads raised and faces turned toward the scene; for the news had already passed along the line.

I was recalled to a sense of duty by General Ricketts, next in command, who had arrived on the spot, and informed me, as chief-of-staff, that he declined to assume command of the corps, inasmuch as he knew that it was General Sedgwick’s desire, if anything should happen to him, that General Horatio G. Wright, of the Third Division, should succeed him. General Ricketts, therefore, suggested that I communicate at once with General Meade, in order that the necessary order should bo issued. When I found General Meade he had already heard the sad intelligence, and had issued the order placing General Wright in command. Returning I met the ambulance bringing the dead general’s body, followed by his sorrowing staff. The body was taken back to General Meade’s headquarters, and not into any house. A bower was built for it of evergreens, where, upon a rustic bier, it lay until nightfall, mourned over by officers and soldiers. The interment was at Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut.

Now let’s see what Lyman had to say on May 20, 1864.

To-day has been entirely quiet, our pickets deliberately exchanging papers, despite orders to the contrary. These men are incomprehensible— now standing from daylight to dark killing and wounding each other by thousands, and now making jokes and exchanging newspapers! You see them lying side by side in the hospitals, talking together in that serious prosaic way that characterizes Americans. The great staples of conversation are the size and quality of rations, the marches they have made, and the regiments they have fought against. All sense of personal spite is sunk in the immensity of the contest.

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

In my letter of yesterday I got you as far as the evening of Sunday the 8th. On Monday, the 9th, early, Burnside was to come down the Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg road to the “Gate,” thus approaching on the extreme left; Sedgwick and Warren respectively occupied the left and right centre, while Hancock, in the neighborhood of Todd’s Tavern, covered the right flank; for you will remember that the Rebel columns were still moving down the Parker’s Store road to Spotsylvania, and we could not be sure they would not come in on our right flank and rear. Betimes in the morning General Meade, with three aides, rode back to General Hancock, and had a consultation with him. The day was again hot and the dust thicker and thicker. As we stood there under a big cherry tree, a strange figure approached; he looked like a highly independent mounted newsboy; he was attired in a flannel checked shirt; a threadbare pair of trousers, and an old blue kepi; from his waist hung a big cavalry sabre; his features wore a familiar sarcastic smile. It was General Barlow, commanding the 1st division of the 2d Corps, a division that for fine fighting cannot be exceeded in the army. There, too, was General Birney, also in checked flannel, but much more tippy than Barlow, and stout General Hancock, who always wears a clean white shirt (where he gets them nobody knows); and thither came steel-cold General Gibbon, the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up-and-down manner of telling the truth, no matter whom it hurts. . . .

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John" (Library of Congress).

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John” (Library of Congress).

It was about ten o’clock, and I was trotting down the Piney Branch road, when I met Colonel McMahon, Adjutant-General of the 6th Corps; I was seriously alarmed at the expression of his face, as he hurriedly asked where General Meade was. I said, “What is the matter?” He seemed entirely unnerved as he replied: “They have hit General Sedgwick just here under the eye, and, my God, I am afraid he is killed!” It was even so: General Sedgwick, with a carelessness of consequences for which he was well known, had put his Headquarters close on the line of battle and in range of the sharpshooters. As he sat there, he noticed a soldier dodging the bullets as they came over. Rising from the grass, he went up to the man, and, laying his hand on his shoulder, said, “Why, what are you dodging for? They could not hit an elephant at that distance.” As he spoke the last word, he fell, shot through the brain by a ball from a telescopic rifle. . . . The dismay of General Sedgwick’s Staff was a personal feeling; he was like a kind father to them, and they loved him really like sons. So fell “good Uncle John,” a pure and great-hearted man, a brave and skilful soldier. From the commander to the lowest private he had no enemy in this army. . . .

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I found General Meade with Generals Wright, Warren, and Humphreys consulting together in the same spot where Grant sat yesterday among the bullets, for no apparent reason. You never saw such an old bird as General Humphreys! I do like to see a brave man; but when a man goes out for the express purpose of getting shot at, he seems to me in the way of a maniac. … In the afternoon there was some fighting on the right centre, without result; Burnside pushed down on the left, driving the enemy before him; and so the day closed, our army crowding in on Lee and he standing at bay and throwing up breastworks.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 106-108. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Two Heads (May 19, 1864)

Senator John Sherman. His resemblance to his older brother, the general, is striking (via Wikipedia).

Senator John Sherman. His resemblance to his older brother, the general, is striking (via Wikipedia).

Another double-header today, with letters from both Meade and Theodore Lyman. I’m especially taken by the end of Meade’s letter. It’s an interesting analysis of his role under Grant. He does chafe at his subordinate role and will later become increasingly agitated over not receiving the recognition he feels he deserves, but here he accepts the situation for what it is. Of course, by the time the article he mentions appeared, Horatio Wright replaced John Sedgwick at the head of the VI Corps, and Sedgwick had joined the thousands of soldiers who lie moldering in the grave. The Coppée he mentions is Henry Coppée, a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran who went on to become the first president of Leheigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He also wrote biographies of Ulysses Grant and George Thomas. The magazine Meade cites is the United States Service Magazine.

Senator John Sherman was William T. Sherman’s younger brother. Senator William Sprague was also a former governor of Rhode Island.

All goes on well up to this time. We did not have the big battle which I expected yesterday, as, on advancing, we found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall, and directed a suspension of the attack. We shall now try to manoeuvre again, so as to draw the enemy out of his stronghold, and hope to have a fight with him before he can dig himself into an impregnable position.

We have recent Richmond papers containing Lee’s congratulatory address to his army, so you see both sides claim having gained the advantage. Lee, however, seems to think they have gained their point when they check us.

Yesterday I had a visit from Senators Sherman, of Ohio, and Sprague, of Rhode Island; both were very complimentary to me, and wished me to know that in Washington it was well understood these were my battles. I told them such was not the case; that at first I had manceuvered the army, but that gradually, and from the very nature of things, Grant had taken the control; and that it would be injurious to the army to have two heads. I see one of the newspaper men is puzzled to know what share we each have in the work, and settles it by saying Grant does the grand strategy, and I the grand tactics. Coppée in his Army Magazine says, “the Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant, commanded by Meade, and led by Hancock, Sedgwick and Warren,” which is a quite good distinction, and about hits the nail on the head.

In his letter from May 19, Theodore Lyman continues his account of the campaign so far. A journal entry added as a footnote to the letter mentions the altercation that occurred between Meade and Philip Sheridan at Todd’s Tavern.

To continue my history a little—I had struggled with much paper to the morning of the 8th. It proved a really hot day, dusty in the extreme and with a severe sun. We staid till the morning was well along, and then started for Piney Branch Church. On the way passed a cavalry hospital, I stopped and saw Major Starr, who had been shot directly through both cheeks in a cavalry fight the day before. He was in college with me, and when I first came to the army commanded the Headquarter escort, the same place [Charles Francis] Adams now has. . . .

Near Piney Branch Church we halted, pitched tents and had something cooked. Meanwhile there was firing towards Spotsylvania, an ill omen for us. The Rebels were there first and stood across the way. Warren attacked them, but his were troops that had marched and fought almost night and day for four days and they had not the full nerve for a vigorous attack. General Robinson’s division behaved badly. Robinson rode in among them, calling them to attack with the bayonet, when he was badly shot in the knee and carried from the field. They failed to carry the position and lost a golden opportunity, for Wilson’s cavalry had occupied Spotsylvania, but of course could not keep there unless the enemy were driven from our front. . . .

A little before two we moved Headquarters down the Piney Branch Church road, south, to near its junction with the Todd’s Tavern road. Meantime the 6th Corps had come up and formed on the left of Warren, the lines running in a general easterly and westerly direction, a mile and a half north of Spotsylvania. There was a high and curving ridge on which was placed our second line and batteries, then was a steep hollow, and, again, a very irregular ridge, or broken series of ridges, much of them heavily wooded, with cleared spaces here and there; along these latter crests ran the Rebel lines in irregular curves. Preparations were pushed to get the corps in position to attack, but it was plain that many of the men were jaded and I thought some of the generals were in a like case. About half-past four what should Generals Grant and Meade take it into their heads to do but, with their whole Staffs, ride into a piece of woods close to the front while heavy skirmishing was going on. We could not see a thing except our own men lying down; but there we sat on horseback while the bullets here and there came clicking among trunks and branches and an occasional shell added its discordant tone. I almost fancy Grant felt mad that things did not move faster, and so thought he would go and sit in an uncomfortable place. General Meade, not to be bluffed, stayed longer than Grant, but he told me to show the General the way to the new Headquarters. Oh! with what intense politeness did I show the shortest road! for I had picked out the camp and knew the way.

Hobart Ward (Library of Congress).

J. Hobart Ward. After the Wilderness, Winfield Scott Hancock had him relieved for being intoxicated in the face of the enemy (Library of Congress).

Well, they could not get their attack ready; but there was heavy skirmishing.* … I think there was more nervous prostration to-day among officers and men than on any day before or since, the result of extreme fatigue and excitement. General Ward was relieved from his command, for misbehavior and intoxication in presence of the enemy during the Battle of the Wilderness. I had always supposed him to be a brave but rough man. . . .

*”Sheridan now came to Headquarters—we were at dinner. Meade told him sharply that his cavalry was in the way, though he had sent him orders to leave the road clear. S. replied that he never got the order. Meade then apologized, but Sheridan was plainly full of suppressed anger, and Meade too was in ill temper. S. went on to say that he could see nothing to oppose the advance of the 5th Corps; that the behavior of the infantry was disgraceful, etc., etc. Maybe this was the beginning of his dislike of Warren and ill-feeling against Meade.”—Lyman’s Journal.

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), pp. 197-8. 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 104-106. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

USCT (May 18, 1864)

You can suffer from chronological whiplash when reading Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox. For instance, the opening of the letter he wrote on May 18 (150 years ago today), opens with interesting observations about the recent fighting in general he noted during a lull at Spotsylvania. It includes some especially interesting observations about the use of breastworks. He then jumps back to May 7 to continue his narrative of the Overland Campaign.

"Make Way for Liberty!" by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

“Make Way for Liberty!” by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

Lyman’s comments on the use of African-American soldiers are also interesting, if less insightful. Lyman was certainly not alone in wondering if black soldiers could fight. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln also opened the door for black men to fight for the Union, but many white soldiers did not accept the new arrivals with open arms. Lyman either was unaware of the irony in his words or refused to acknowledge that Lincoln had transformed the war into more than a crusade to restore the Union. It was now a war to end slavery as well. By the end of the war Lyman had gained a grudging respect for the African-American soldiers, but he never abandoned his conservative views on race.

When I was researching Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg I spent a day exploring Spotsylvania with historian John Cummings. He had recently started a reenactment group to commemorate the 23rd United States Colored Troops, a regiment from Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division that fought here on May 15. These were some of the black soldiers that so distressed Lyman. “By 2014 I think it’s vitally important to do something to commemorate the first time that black troops actually fired on the Army of Northern Virginia,” Cummings told me then. I’m pleased to say he helped make that happen, as you can read here.

I have no right to complain: I have less hardship, more ease, and less exposure than most officers, and, if I must be with the army in the field, I have as good a place as one can well expect. I did hope (though there was no proper ground for it) that we might have the great blessing of an overwhelming victory. Such things you read of in books, but they do not happen often, particularly with such armies to oppose as those of the Rebels. . . .

The great feature of this campaign is the extraordinary use made of earthworks. When we arrive on the ground, it takes of course a considerable time to put troops in position for attack, in a wooded country; then skirmishers must be thrown forward and an examination made for the point of attack, and to see if there be any impassable obstacles, such as streams or swamps. Meantime what does the enemy? Hastily forming a line of battle, they then collect rails from fences, stones, logs and all other materials, and pile them along the line; bayonets with a few picks and shovels, in the hands of men who work for their lives, soon suffice to cover this frame with earth and sods; and within one hour, there is a shelter against bullets, high enough to cover a man kneeling, and extending often for a mile or two. When our line advances, there is the line of the enemy, nothing showing but the bayonets, and the battle-flags stuck on the top of the work. It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good rifle-pit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first twenty-four hours. Our men can, and do, do the same; but remember, our object is offense—to advance. You would be amazed to see how this country is intersected with field-works, extending for miles and miles in different directions and marking the different strategic lines taken up by the two armies, as they warily move about each other.

The newspapers would be comic in their comments, were not the whole thing so tragic. More absurd statements could not be. Lee is not retreating: he is a brave and skilful soldier and he will fight while he has a division or a day’s rations left. These Rebels are not half-starved and ready to give up — a more sinewy, tawny, formidable-looking set of men could not be. In education they are certainly inferior to our native-born people; but they are usually very quick-witted within their own sphere of comprehension; and they know enough to handle weapons with terrible effect. Their great characteristic is their stoical manliness; they never beg, or whimper, or complain; but look you straight in the face, with as little animosity as if they had never heard a gun.

Now I will continue the history a little. But first I will remark that I had taken part in two great battles, and heard the bullets whistle both days, and yet I had scarcely seen a Rebel save killed, wounded, or prisoners! I remember how even line officers, who were at the battle of Chancellorsville, said: “Why, we never saw any Rebels where we were; only smoke and bushes, and lots of our men tumbling about”; and now I appreciate this most fully. The great art is to conceal men; for the moment they show, bang, bang, go a dozen cannon, the artillerists only too pleased to get a fair mark. Your typical “great white plain,” with long lines advancing and manoeuvring, led on by generals in cocked hats and by bands of music, exist not for us. Here it is, as I said: “Left face—prime—forward!”—and then wrang, wr-r-rang, for three or four hours, or for all day, and the poor, bleeding wounded streaming to the rear. That is a great battle in America. Well! to our next day.

Saturday, May 7

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African American soldiers (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African-American soldiers (Library of Congress).

At daylight it would be hard to say what opinion was most held in regard to the enemy, whether they would attack, or stand still; whether they were on our flanks, or trying to get in our rear, or simply in our front. However, it was not long before they were reported as fallen back — a good deal back from the left and right and somewhat from our centre on the pike. Reconnaissances were at once thrown out; and the General sent me to the front, on the pike, to learn how matters stood; where I found, on the most undoubted evidence, that we were throwing solid shot and shell at the rebels, and they were throwing solid shot and shells at us. . . . There was heavy skirmishing, with some artillery, all that morning, until we determined that the enemy had swung back both wings; and shortened and straightened his line. There lay both armies, each behind its breastworks, panting and exhausted, and scowling at each other. At five this morning a novel sight was presented to the Potomac Army. A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them! . . .

As General Grant sat under a pine tree, stoically smoking his briarwood pipe, I heard him say: “To-night Lee will be retreating south.”* Ah! General, Robert Lee is not Pemberton; he will retreat south, but only far enough to get across your path, and then he will retreat no more, if he can help it. In fact, orders were out for the whole army to move at dark on Spotsylvania Court House. But Lee knew it all: he could see the waggons moving, and had scouts besides. As night fell, his troops left their works and were crowding down the Parker’s Store road, towards Spotsylvania—each moment worth untold gold to them! Grant had no longer a Pemberton! “His best friend,” as he calls him. And we marched also. . . .

We [Headquarters] did not start till nearly nine o’clock. … It was a sultry night—no rain for many days; the horses’ hoofs raised intolerable clouds of dust, which, in this sandy region, is fine almost like flour. I never saw—nobody could well see—a more striking spectacle than that road as we passed slowly along. All the way was a continuous low breastwork behind which lay crowded the sleeping infantry. They were so close as almost to be on top of each other; every man with his loaded musket in his hand, or lying at his side. A few yards outside stood a line of sentries, their muskets cocked, and others sat on top of the breastwork. Few of the officers allowed themselves any rest, but paced up and down, in their great coats and slouched hats, looking sharply after the sentries. That looked like war, I do assure you. By the roadside was Gibbon, and a tower of strength he is, cool as a steel knife, always, and unmoved by anything and everything. There we lay down, literally in the dust, after a drink of iced water (for all the farms have ice-houses in this region, which our men are not slow to hunt out), and then we waited for General Meade, who had waited behind to speak with Hancock. By and by he came, with more clouds of dust, and then on again, past more sleeping men, and batteries in position, losing the road, finding it again, tearing our clothes among trees and bushes, then coming to cavalry pickets and finally to Todd’s Tavern, where General Gregg had his Headquarters, with his division of cavalry camped about there. . . . There was a porch in front with a dirt floor, and there I lay down, with my head on a timber, and got some sleep. On Sunday morning, May 8th,—it was not much like a Sabbath,—we were all staring sleepily about us, forlorn with dust and dirt. The road was full of the infantry, passing at a rapid rate; in light order they were, many without knapsacks, or coats: most had thrown away all baggage but a blanket and haversack. Then came batteries, then more infantry, all of the 5th Corps; the Second had not yet begun to pass. An old nigger made us some coffee and hoe-cake — very acceptable. . . .

*In a footnote taken from his journal entry of May 6, Lyman noted that on the day before, “Grant told Meade that Joe Johnston would have retreated after two such days’ punishment. He recognized the difference of the Western Rebel fighting.”

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 99-104 . Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

A Gift (May 17, 1864)

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

Meade writes on May 17 on the eve of a renewed attack against Lee’s Spotsylvania lines. After the terrible fighting against the Mule Shoe salient, the Confederates had withdrawn to a new position, one the Federals hope will be more susceptible to assault.

The Gerhard Meade mentions is his wife’s brother-in-law. In the end Mrs. Meade will get her way regarding the house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia and the Meades will receive the home as a gift from their friends. The General died in the house in 1872. The building still stands and you can see the word “Meade” carved on one of the lintels.

To-morrow we shall begin fighting again, with, I trust, some decided result, for it is hardly natural to expect men to maintain without limit the exhaustion of such a protracted struggle as we have been carrying on.

The last few days have given our men rest, and the arrival of reinforcements has put them in good spirits. There is a determination on all sides to fight it out, and have an end put to the war; a result which I think will most certainly be accomplished if we can overcome the army before us.

I received to-day a kind letter from Mr. Gerhard, written from his sick room, and informing me of the generosity of kind friends in Philadelphia, who had subscribed to pay for your house in DeLancey Place. I have replied to Mr. Gerhard, and whilst I have tried to express my sense of the generosity of my friends, I have declined the gift, believing that, under existing circumstances, it would not be proper in me to accept. At the same time I have said if it should be God’s will that I should fall in this war, then anything to assist you and my orphans would be most gratefully and thankfully received. I hope you will approve of my course, and that my feelings will be understood. It would not do to lose our independence, and I don’t think we would be comfortable in a house bought with our friends’ money.

I have been riding all day, getting ready for to-morrow’s battle. I shall now retire to rest, earnestly praying God to protect us, and give victory to our side.

On May 17 Theodore Lyman resumes his account of the fighting in the Wilderness. Here he talks about Confederate General John B. Gordon’s flank attack on the Union right late in the day on May 6. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

The attackers were under Brig. Gen. John Gordon, a hard-fighting Georgian. The first troops the screaming rebels hit were brigades under the command of Brigadier Generals Alexander Shaler and Truman Seymour. It was the continuation of a string of bad luck for Seymour, the general Meade had suspected of sucking up to Reynolds back in 1862. Since then Seymour had been disastrously defeated at the Battle of Olustree in Florida and seriously injured leading an attack on Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina. Now his bad luck continued. His troops broke for the rear. The Confederates captured both Seymour and Shaler.

The men of the VI Corps fell back against Warren’s V Corps to their right. “Suddenly there was a wild, fearful yell, a terrific crash, and the tide of battle rolled backward,” remembered Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. “A portion of the Sixth corps had given way, and the enemy followed up the advantage thus gained, until they had completely turned our flank, and the firing was almost in our rear. Some of the regiments in our brigade showed signs of alarm at this situation, but the sons of Maine were determined to hold their position, even if they were surrounded and destroyed in so doing. The enemy’s advance on our right was finally checked, and our line was re-established.”

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

When Meade received reports that another Confederate flank attack had routed a portion of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, he appeared less concerned about it than Grant did. Fixing a cold eye on the panicked courier who had reported the VI Corps’ destruction, he demanded sarcastically, “Do you mean to tell me that the Sixth Corps is to do no more fighting this campaign?” In fact, Sedgwick had ridden to the front to help rally his demoralized men and soon had things under control.

Things did look bad for a time. Horace Porter reported an incident in which a general whom he did not identify reached Grant’s headquarters and expressed his fears that Lee would seek to get between the Union army and the Rapidan, cutting off the line of communications. “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience,” the officer declared with some self-importance. The normally unflappable general in chief reacted with uncharacteristic temper. He stood up and yanked the cigar from his mouth. “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do,” Grant barked. “Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Meade and Grant were right not to worry. Gordon’s flank attack was the last major action of the Battle of the Wilderness. It had been two days of bloody and confused conflict, “a battle fought with the ear, and not with the eye,” according to Horace Porter. “All circumstances seemed to combine to make the scene one of unutterable horror. At times the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moans with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of the artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.”

Here’s how Lyman wrote about it:

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

. . . Just at dark there occurred a most disgraceful stampede in the 6th Corps — a thing that has been much exaggerated in the papers, by scared correspondents. You will remember I told you that we had two dubious divisions in the army: one, the Pennsylvania Reserves, has done finely and proved excellent; but the other, General Ricketts’s division of the 6th Corps, composed of troops from Winchester, known as “Milroy’s weary boys,” never has done well. They ran on the Mine Run campaign, and they have run ever since. Now, just at dark, the Rebels made a sort of sortie, with a rush and a yell, and as ill-luck would have it, they just hit these bad troops, who ran for it, helterskelter. General Seymour rode in among them, had his horse shot, and was taken. General Shaler’s brigade had its flank turned and Shaler also was taken. Well, suddenly up dashed two Staff officers, one after the other, all excited, and said the whole 6th Corps was routed; it was they that were routed, for Wright’s division stood firm, and never budged; but for a time there were all sorts of rumors, including one that Generals Sedgwick and Wright were captured. In a great hurry the Pennsylvania Reserves were sent to the rescue, and just found all the enemy again retired. A good force of them did get round, by a circuit, to the Germanna plank, where they captured several correspondents who were retreating to Washington! Gradually the truth came out, and then we shortened the right by drawing back the 5th and 6th Corps, so as to run along the interior dotted line, one end of which ends on the Germanna plank.

General Meade was in favor of swinging back both wings still more, which should have been done, for then our next move would have been more rapid and easy.

The result of this great Battle of the Wilderness was a drawn fight, but strategically it was a success, because Lee marched out to stop our advance on Richmond, which, at this point, he did not succeed in doing. We lost a couple of guns and took some colors. On the right we made no impression; but, on the left, Hancock punished the enemy so fearfully that they, that night, fell back entirely from his front and shortened their own line, as we shortened ours, leaving their dead unburied and many of their wounded on the ground. The Rebels had a very superior knowledge of the country and had marched shorter distances. Also I consider them more daring and sudden in their movements; and I fancy their discipline on essential points is more severe than our own — that is, I fancy they shoot a man when he ought to be shot, and we do not. As to fighting, when two people fight without cessation for the best part of two days, and then come out about even, it is hard to determine.

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), pp. 196-7. 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 97-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Sheridan (May 16, 1864)

Philip Sheridan and Meade developed a cantankerous relationship (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan and Meade developed a cantankerous relationship (Library of Congress).

Meade mentions cavalry commander Philip Sheridan in his letter to his wife from May 16. In the battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, one of Sheridan’s men mortally wounded Jeb Stuart, a major blow to Lee’s army. Meade does not mention the unpleasant encounter he had had with Sheridan early in the morning on May 8 at a place called Todd’s Tavern. Meade had been angry that Sheridan’s men hadn’t cleared the road all the way to Spotsylvania. Sheridan, already chafing under Meade’s command, was incensed that Meade had felt it necessary to issue some orders directly to his cavalry. According to Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, Meade was in “a towering passion” while Sheridan was “equally fiery.” The two men argued and Sheridan said, “If I am permitted to cut loose from this army I’ll draw Stuart after me and whip him, too.” Meade reported Sheridan’s insubordination to Grant, and repeated what the cavalry commander had said about Stuart. “Did Sheridan say that?” replied Grant. “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.” Meade issued the orders, no doubt irritated that Grant was rewarding Sheridan for his insubordination to a superior officer. Sheridan did kill Stuart, but he also deprived the Army of the Potomac of the eyes and ears of his cavalry during a vital part of the Overland Campaign.

The weather still continues unfavorable for military operations, so, unless the enemy attack us, we shall probably remain quiet to-day. Our cavalry, under Sheridan, have been heard from. He was sent to get in the enemy’s rear, destroy their communications and supplies, fight their cavalry, and when his forage was exhausted, make his way to [Benjamin] Butler, on the James River. He reports having executed his orders, and it is said that J. E. B. Stuart was killed in the battle with Sheridan.

In his letter of May 16, Lyman resumes his account of the fighting in the Wilderness, especially the struggle around the Brock Road and the arrival of James Longstreet’s corps. Fortunately for the Union, Longstreet’s flank attack faltered when its commander was accidentally shot by his own troops. Lyman writes about the death of Henry Abbott, his Harvard friend and the commander of the 20th Massachusetts Earlier Abbot had commented on how Meade and Grant worked together. He thought the combination was “the next best thing to having a man of real genius at the head.” Meade was “a good combiner and maneuverer” and “unquestionably a clever man intellectually,” while Grant had “force” and “character” and wasn’t “afraid to take the responsibility to the utmost.”

I will continue the letter of this morning, describing our first day’s fight. I had got as far as the death of General Hays and the wounding of Carroll. This was between five and six o’clock. Hays commanded one brigade of Birney’s division. He was a strong-built, rough sort of man, with red hair, and a tawny, full beard; a braver man never went into action, and the wonder only is that he was not killed before, as he always rode at the very head of his men, shouting to them and waving his sword. Mott’s division behaved badly (as you observed, it broke and came back). This is a curious instance of a change of morale. It is Hooker’s old fighting division, but has since been under two commanders of little merit or force of character; then there was some discontent about re-enlistments and about the breaking up of the old 3d Corps, to which it had belonged; and the result has been that most of this once crack division has conducted itself most discreditably, this campaign. However, the fresh troops saved the day, and, at dark, we occupied our old line (the dotted one along the Brock road). . . .

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

It was long after dark when I rode back, and, with some difficulty, found our camp, now pitched in a dusty, ploughed field. The fight of this day had been an attack by parts of our three corps against the Corps of Ewell on our right, and of Hill on our left. The fight had swayed back and forth and ended in a drawn battle, both sides holding their lines. General Grant ordered the attack all along the line, the next morning at 4.30; but put it off to 5 o’clock on the representation that Burnside could not get up in time. He was ordered to get in position by daylight and to go in on Hill’s left flank, where you see a dotted line nearly parallel to the Parker’s Store road. We were all up right early on that Friday the 6th of May, you may depend. “Lyman,” said the General, “I want you to take some orderlies and go to General Hancock and report how things go there during the day.” It was after five when I mounted, and already the spattering fire showed that the skirmishers were pushing out; as I rode down the crossroad, two or three crashing volleys rang through the woods, and then the whole front was alive with musketry. I found General Hancock at the crossing of the plank: he was wreathed with smiles. “We are driving them, sir; tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully. Birney has gone in and he is just cleaning them out be-auti-fully!” This was quite apparent from the distance of the receding firing and the absence of those infernal minie balls. “I am ordered to tell you, sir, that only one division of General Burnside is up, but that he will go in as soon as he can be put in position.” Hancock’s face changed. “I knew it!” he said vehemently. “Just what I expected. If he could attack now, we would smash A. P. Hill all to pieces!” And very true were his words. Meantime, some hundreds of prisoners were brought in; all from Hill’s troops. Presently, however, the firing seemed to wake again with renewed fury; and in a little while a soldier came up to me and said: “I was ordered to report that this prisoner here belongs to Longstreet’s Corps.” “Do you belong to Longstreet?” I hastened to ask. “Ya-as, sir,” said grey-back, and was marched to the rear. It was too true! Longstreet, coming in all haste from Orange Court House, had fallen desperately on our advance; but he had uphill work. Birney’s and Getty’s men held fast and fought with fury, a couple of guns were put in the plank road and began to fire solid shot over the heads of our men, adding their roar to the other din. The streams of wounded came faster and faster back; here a field officer, reeling in the saddle; and there another, hastily carried past on a stretcher. I stood at the crossing and assisted in turning back stragglers or those who sought to go back, under pretext of helping the wounded. To some who were in great pain I gave some opium, as they were carried past me.

It was about seven o’clock, I think, that Webb’s brigade marched along the Brock road, and, wheeling into the pike, advanced to the support of Birney. Among them was the 20th Massachusetts. Abbot smiled and waved his sword towards me, as he rode by, and I called out to him wishing him good luck; and so he went on to his death, as gallant a fellow as fell that day; a man who could ride into the fight with a smile on his face. Just before eight o’clock came one brigade of Stevenson’s division (Burnside’s Corps) which had been sent to strengthen Hancock; the other brigade came later and was put on our left, where we were continually paralyzed by reports that the enemy was coming up the Brock road to take us in the flank. This prevented proper mobility of our left, and, after all, they turned out to be a division of Rebel cavalry, who were defeated later in the day by our men. Stevenson’s brigade was now put in to relieve the advanced lines that had long been under fire, and all other fresh troops were marched to the front. But Longstreet knew full well (they know everything, those Rebels) that Burnside was coming up with two divisions, on his flank; and knew too that he was late, very late. If Hancock could first be paralyzed, the day was safe from defeat, which now impended. Gathering all his forces, of both corps, he charged furiously. At a little after eleven Mott’s left gave way. On the right the brigade of Stevenson, consisting of three raw Massachusetts regiments miscalled “Veterans,” broke, on being brought under a tremendous fire. . . .The musketry now drew nearer to us, stragglers began to come back, and, in a little while, a crowd of men emerged from the thicket in full retreat. They were not running, nor pale, nor scared, nor had they thrown away their guns; but were just in the condition described by the Prince de Joinville, after Gaines’s Mill. They had fought all they meant to fight for the present, and there was an end of it! If there is anything that will make your heart sink and take all the backbone out of you, it is to see men in this condition! I drew my sword and rode in among them, trying to stop them at a little rifle-pit that ran along the road. I would get one squad to stop, but, as I turned to another, the first would quietly walk off. There was a German color-bearer, a stupid, scared man (who gave him the colors, the Lord only knows!), who said, “Jeneral Stavenzon, he telled me for to carry ze colors up ze road.” To which I replied I would run him through the body if he didn’t plant them on the rifle-pit. And so he did, but I guess he didn’t stick. Meanwhile there was no danger at all; the enemy did not follow up — not he. He was busy swinging round to oppose Burnside, and was getting his men once more in order. At half-past one I rode to General Meade and reported the state of affairs. The Provost-General went out at once and stopped and organized the stragglers. At two o’clock Burnside, who had been marching and countermarching, did attack. He made some impression, but it was too late, and he had not enough force to follow on. About this time I returned to General Hancock.* His men were rallied along the road; but regiments and brigades were all mixed up; and we were obliged to listen to Burnside’s fighting without any advance on our part. In our front all was quiet; and I got permission to go back to the 2d Corps hospital and look up the body of Major Abbot. Two miles back, in an open farm surrounded by woods, they had pitched the hospital tents. I will not trouble you with what I saw there, as I passed among the dead and dying. Abbot lay on a stretcher, quietly breathing his last — his eyes were fixed and the ashen color of death was on his face. Near by lay his Colonel, Macy, shot in the foot. I raised Macy and helped him to the side of Abbot, and we stood there till he died. It was a pitiful spectacle, but a common one on that day. I left in haste, after arranging for sending the remains home, for the sudden sound of heavy firing told of some new attack. The Rebels (unquenchable fellows they are!), seeing that Burnside had halted, once more swung round and charged furiously on Hancock in his very rifle-pits. I rode at once to General Meade, to ask that Burnside might attack also. This he did, without further orders and with excellent effect. When I got back to the cross-road, I was told the enemy had broken through on the plank and cut us in two; this turned out an exaggeration. They did get into a small part of a rifle-pit but were immediately driven out leaving near sixty dead in the trench at the point.

*The book includes this footnote, taken from Lyman’s journal: “1.15 (about). Back to Hancock. He alone, in rear of Brock road; and there he asked me to sit down under the trees, as he was very tired indeed. All his Staff were away to set in order the troops. They had now constructed a tolerable rifle-pit extending along the Brock and to the head of the cross-road. He said that his troops were rallied but very tired and mixed up, and not in a condition to advance. He had given orders to have the utmost exertions put forth in putting regiments in order, but many of the field officers were killed and wounded, and it was hard. At 2 P.m. Burnside, after going almost to Parker’s Store and again back, made a short attack with loud musketry. Ventured to urge Hancock (who was very pleasant and talkative) to try and attack too; but he said with much regret that it would be to hazard too much, though there was nothing in his immediate front, which had been swept by Stevenson’s other brigade, which marched from left to right.”

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), pp. 195-6. 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 92-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Few Lines (May 15, 1864)

On the night of May 15, 1864, both George Meade and Theodore Lyman sat down to put pen to paper and write letters home. Meade’s is short. As he often is, the general is concerned with how others think of his work. He has reason to feel good about it. The letter from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton read in part, “This department congratulates you and your heroic Army and returns its cordial thanks for their gallant achievements during the last seven days, and hopes that the valor and skill thus far manifested will be crowned with the fruits of ultimate and decisive victory.” The dispatch from Grant is quoted here.

One thing Meade does not mention is how close he came to being captured on the previous day, May 14. Here’s what I wrote in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Artist Alfred Waud made a sketch of Meade's near capture by the Confederates on May 14 (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud made a sketch of Meade’s near capture by the Confederates on May 14 (Library of Congress).

On May 14 Meade almost fell into enemy hands when he rode forward to observe the Union position on Myer’s Hill . . . . Upton’s brigade was holding this forward position when Meade and Horatio Wright rode forward to examine the ground. The generals were conferring inside the house when the rattle of muskets and the thud of bullets striking the building delivered unwelcome news: the Confederates were attacking. Meade had to move fast. He jumped on his horse and, guided by Capt. Nathaniel Michler, a topographical engineer with some knowledge of the terrain, hastily made his way back toward the Ni River. A Confederate major galloped over to intercept him and even grabbed Meade’s bridle before his headquarters guard intervened and captured the rebel. The only thing Meade lost, other than his dignity, was his glasses.

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s account of the fighting is much more detailed, the start of a fascinating and detailed account of the Overland Campaign. His letter of May 15 covers only the first day of fighting in the Wilderness. In it he mentions how General Charles Griffin rode up to headquarters and complained that Horatio Wright and the VI Corps had not protected the right of Griffin’s V Corps division. A footnote in the collection of Lyman’s letters includes a further description from Lyman’s journal. He wrote, “2.45. Griffin comes in, followed by his mustering officer, Geo. Barnard. He is stern and angry. Says in a loud voice that he drove back the enemy, Ewell, ¾ of a mile, but got no support on the flanks, and had to retreat—the regulars much cut up. Implies censure on Wright, and apparently also on his corps commander, Warren. Wadsworth also driven back. Rawlins got very angry, considered the language mutinous, and wished him put in arrest. Grant seemed of the same mind and asked Meade: ‘Who is this General Gregg? You ought to arrest him!’ Meade said: ‘It’s Griffin, not Gregg; and it’s only his way of talking.’” 

I have often read a little coda to that incident and I tracked it down to The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere, a book my publisher, Stackpole Books (then the Stackpole Company), issued way back in 1960. In Steere’s account, Grant stood up and began fastening the buttons of his blouse and as Meade spoke, “seeking as it were to placate an angry child with soothing words,” he helped Grant with his buttons. “Grant fastened the middle button without further comment,” Steere continued. “Resuming his seat, he lit a fresh cigar and lapsed into meditation.”

I always found this odd and out of character. I couldn’t imagine George Meade helping Grant button his shirt, picturesque as that image may be. Surely Lyman would have mentioned something so unusual. Then I read Steere’s footnote. “The author admits to a slight embellishment of Lyman’s account,” he wrote. “Lyman abruptly concludes with Meade’s remark: ‘And it’s only his way of talking.’ While a reasonable presumption, there is no documentary evidence that Grant lit a fresh cigar.” Or that Meade helped him with his clothing. While I’m glad Steere pointed out his fabrication, I wonder why he made that stuff up in the first place. It may be okay for historical fiction, but it’s not good history.

Spottsylvania Court House Battle-field, May 15, 9 p.m.

A lull in the roar of battle enables me to write you a few lines. It has been raining hard, both yesterday and to-day, putting the roads in such condition as to compel both armies to keep still—a rest that the men on both sides were glad to have. I do not see the papers, and therefore cannot tell how true their accounts are, and I have not time to give you any details. I think we have gained decided advantages over the enemy; nevertheless, he confronts us still, and, owing to the strong position he occupies, and the works he is all the time throwing up, the task of overcoming him is a very difficult one, taxing all our energies. I send you a letter received from the Secretary of War, for safe keeping, as it shows I am not utterly ignored by the Department. General Grant showed me a despatch he had written to the War Department, speaking in complimentary terms of my services, and asking I be made a major general in the regular army. I told him I was obliged to him for his good opinion, but that I asked and expected nothing from the Government, and that I did not myself attach any importance to being in the regular army, so long as I held an equal rank in the volunteer service. What the result will be I cannot tell.

Here is Lyman’s account of the first day’s fight in the Wilderness:

Well, to be more or less under fire, for six days out of seven, is not very good for the nerves, or very pleasant. But now that there is a quiet day, I thought I would make a beginning of describing to you the sad, bloody work we have been at. I will write enough to make a letter and so go on in future letters, only writing what can now be of no importance to the enemy. The morning of Wednesday the 4th of May (or rather the night, for we were up by starlight) was clear and warm. By daylight we had our breakfast, and all was in a hurry with breaking up our winter camp. To think of it to-night makes it seem a half-year ago; but it is only eleven days. About 5.30 A.m. we turned our backs on what had been our little village for six months.

Already the whole army had been some hours in motion. The 5th Corps, followed by the 6th, was to cross at Germanna Ford, and march towards the Orange pike. The 2d Corps to march on Chancellorsville, crossing at Ely’s Ford; each corps was preceded by a division of cavalry, to picket the roads and scour the country. The main wagon train rested on the north side at Richardsville. So you see the first steps were much like the Mine Run campaign. I have drawn a little map to help you in understanding; not very exact in proportions, but still enough so.

Lyman mapThe roads were hard and excellent, full of waggons and black with troops; as we got past Stevensburg and went through a more wooded country, there were the little green leaves just opening, and purple violets, in great plenty, by the wayside. As the sun got fairly up, it grew much warmer, as one could see by the extra blankets and overcoats that our men threw away, whenever they halted. By 8 a.m. we drew near the Ford, and halted at a familiar spot, where we had our camp on the Mine Run campaign. How bitterly cold it was then! And now there was green grass all about, and wild flowers. Griffin’s division was already over, and the others were following steadily on. At 9.30 we went over ourselves, and, for a long time, I sat on the high bank, some seventy feet above the river, watching the steady stream of men and cannon and trains pouring over the pontoons. It was towards six in the evening before the last were across; and then one bridge was left for Burnside to cross by; for he was marching in all haste, from Rappahannock station. Meantime the head of the 5th Corps had reached the Orange pike, and that of the 2d, Chancellorsville. The Headquarters pitched their now reduced tents on the bank of the river that night, and I went down and took a slight bath in the stream, by way of celebrating our advance. General Grant came up betimes in the morning and had his tents near ours. He has several very sensible officers on his Staff, and several very foolish ones, who talked and laughed flippantly about Lee and his army. But they have changed their note now, and you hear no more of their facetiousness. The more experienced officers were sober, like men who knew what work was ahead. Our first grief was a ludicrous one. Our cook, a small Gaul, had mysteriously disappeared, and all we had left to cook for us was a waiter lad, who however rose with the occasion and was very conspicuous for activity. It turned out after, that the cook was arrested as a suspicious person, despite his violent protestations. . . .

We were off betimes the next morning (Thursday, May 5th), and about 7 o’clock got to the junction of the plank and pike, the troops meantime marching past us, as we stood waiting news from the front. Presently Griffin (5th Corps), who was two miles out on the pike (going west), reported the enemy in his front; while the cavalry, thrown out on the plank road, towards Parker’s Store, sent to say that the Rebel infantry were marching down in force, driving them in. General Wright’s division of the 6th Corps was turned off the Germanna plank to the right and ordered to march down the cross-road you see on the map, leading to the pike; and he and Griffin were directed to press the enemy and try to make a junction by their wings. At 10.40 A.m. General Getty’s division (6th Corps) was sent to hold the Orange plank road. It marched down the Germanna plank and took the little cross-road where the dotted line is, and got to the Orange plank just in time to stop the advance of A. P. Hill’s Corps. Meantime the rest of the 5th Corps was ordered into position on the left of, or in support of, General Griffin, about parallel to the most westerly dotted line, crossing the pike. Word was sent to 2d Corps, near Chancellorsville, that the Rebels were moving on us, and ordering Hancock to at once bring his men across to the Brock road and so take position on the left in support of General Getty. At noon, I was sent to General Getty, to tell him the disposition of the various troops and to direct him to feel along to his right, and find roads to communicate with the left of the 5th Corps, where, you will see, there was a considerable gap. Our Headquarters were on a piney knoll near the join of the Germanna plank and the pike. I rode down the dotted cross-road and came immediately on General Eustis, just putting his brigade into the woods, on Getty’s right. I stopped and directed him to throw out well to the right and to try to find Crawford, or a road to him.

Here it is proper to say something of the nature of this country, whereof I have already spoken somewhat during Mine Run times. A very large part of this region, extending east and west along the plank and pike, and the south, nearly to Spotsylvania, is called “The Wilderness,” a most appropriate term—a land of an exhausted, sandy soil, supporting a more or less dense growth of pine or of oak. There are some cleared spaces, especially near Germanna plank, where our Headquarters are marked. The very worst of it is parallel with Orange plank and upper part of the Brock road. Here it is mostly a low, continuous, thick growth of small saplings, fifteen to thirty feet high and seldom larger than one’s arm. The half-grown leaves added to the natural obscurity, and there were many places where a line of troops could with difficulty be seen at fifty yards. This was the terrain on which we were called to manoeuvre a great army. I found General Getty at the plank road (a spot I shall remember for some years) and gave him instructions. He told me the whole of Hill’s Corps was in his front and the skirmishers only 300 yards from us. For all I could see they might have been in Florida, but the occasional wounded men who limped by, and the sorry spectacle of two or three dead, wrapped in their blankets, showed that some fighting had already taken place. I got back and reported a little before one o’clock, and had scarcely got there when B-r-r-r-r wrong went the musketry, in front of Griffin and of Wright, which for the next hour and a half was continuous—not by volley, for that is impossible in such woods; but a continuous crackle, now swelling and now abating, and interspersed with occasional cannon. Very soon the ambulances began to go forward for their mournful freight. A little before two, I was sent with an order to a cavalry regiment, close by. The pike was a sad spectacle indeed; it was really obstructed with trains of ambulances and with the wounded on foot; all had the same question, over and over again; “How far to the 5th Corps’ hospital?” As I returned, I saw, coming towards me, a mounted officer—his face was covered with blood and he was kept in the saddle only by an officer who rode beside him and his servant who walked on the other side. “Hullo, Lyman!” he cried, in a wild way that showed he was wandering; “here I am; hurt a little; not much; I am going to lie down a few minutes, and then I am going back again! Oh, you ought to have seen how we drove ’em—I had the first line!” It was my classmate, Colonel Hayes, of the 18th Massachusetts; as fearless a soldier as ever went into action. There we were, three of us together, for the officer who supported him was Dr. Dalton. Three classmates together, down in the Virginia Wilderness, and a great fight going on in front. I was afraid Hayes was mortally hurt, but I am told since, he will recover. I trust so.

Alexander Hays was killed in the Wilderness (Library of Congress).

Alexander Hays was killed in the Wilderness (Library of Congress).

Gradually the musketry died away; and, at a quarter before three, General Griffin rode up —his face was stern and flushed, as it well might be. He said he had attacked and driven Ewell’s troops three quarters of a mile, but that Wright had made no join on his right and Wadsworth had been forced back on his left, so that with both flanks exposed he had been obliged to fall back to his former position. Meantime we got word that the head of Hancock’s column had moved up the Brock road and made a junction with Getty. At 3.15 I was sent with an order to General Getty to attack at once, and to explain to him that Hancock would join also. He is a cool man, is Getty, quite a wonder; as I saw then and after. “Go to General Eustis and General Wheaton,” he said to his aides, “and tell them to prepare to advance at once.” And so we were getting into it! And everybody had been ordered up, including Burnside, who had crossed that very morning at Germanna Ford. General Grant had his station with us (or we with him); there he took his seat on the grass, and smoked his briarwood pipe, looking sleepy and stern and indifferent. His face, however, may wear a most pleasing smile, and I believe he is a thoroughly amiable man. That he believes in his star and takes a bright view of things is evident. At 4.15 P.m. General Meade ordered me to take some orderlies, go to General Hancock (whose musketry we could now hear on the left) and send him back reports, staying there till dark. Delightful! At the crossing of the dotted cross-road with the plank sat Hancock, on his fine horse—the preux chevalier of this campaign—a glorious soldier, indeed! The musketry was crashing in the woods in our front, and stray balls—too many to be pleasant—were coming about. It’s all very well for novels, but I don’t like such places and go there only when ordered. “Report to General Meade,” said Hancock, “that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only a part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Up rides an officer: “Sir! General Getty is hard pressed and nearly out of ammunition!” “Tell him to hold on and General Gibbon will be up to help him.” Another officer: “General Mott’s division has broken, sir, and is coming back.” “Tell him to stop them, sir!!” roared Hancock in a voice of a trumpet. As he spoke, a crowd of troops came from the woods and fell back into the Brock road. Hancock dashed among them. “Halt here! halt here! Form behind this rifle-pit. Major Mitchell, go to Gibbon and tell him to come up on the double-quick!” It was a welcome sight to see Carroll’s brigade coming along that Brock road, he riding at their head as calm as a May morning. “Left face—prime—forward,” and the line disappeared in the woods to waken the musketry with double violence. Carroll was brought back wounded. Up came Hays’s brigade, disappeared in the woods, and, in a few minutes, General Hays was carried past me, covered with blood, shot through the head.

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. 195. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s correspondence is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 85-92. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Letters from the Front (May 11-13, 1864)

Alfred Waud called this sketch "The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient" (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Alfred Waud called this sketch of the fighting for the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania “The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient” (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Since the last time George Meade wrote home to his wife his army had undergone some serious punishment—and did some punishing itself. First came the two bloody days in the Wilderness and then the horrible, terrible fighting at Spotsylvania. The fighting for the bulge—the salient—in Lee’s lines that came to be called the Mule Shoe (and a portion of that was baptized the “Bloody Angle”) had ended with the Confederates pulling back to a second line. Although this appeared to be a victory for the Union forces, it merely moved the fighting to a new position. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “After the rebels retreated, Rufus Dawes and his men from the 6th Wisconsin moved forward to occupy their entrenchments. They found a scene from hell. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere in the mud and filth. Dawes saw one corpse propped up in the corner, the head missing and the neck and shoulders badly burned. Dawes presumed it was the work of a Union mortar.

“Horace Porter surveyed the result of the fighting the next day and found it ‘harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the “angle,” while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.’ Another soldier who witnessed the devastation called it ‘the most horrible sight I had ever witnessed.’

“That same day Grant wrote to Stanton: ‘General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with. If their services can be rewarded by promotion to the ranks of major-generals in the regular army the honor would be worthily bestowed, and I would feel personally gratified. I would not like to see one of these promotions at this time without seeing both.’”

Battle-field, Spottyslvania Court House, May 11—9 a.m.

I have only time to tell you we are all safe—that is, George and myself—and as far as I know, all your friends, except General Wadsworth, who fell into the hands of the enemy, mortally wounded, without hopes of life.

We have been fighting continuously for six days, and have gotten, I think, decidedly the better of the enemy, though their resistance is most stubborn.

Return thanks to the Almighty for the gracious protection extended to us, and let us try to deserve its continuance.

I am quite well and in good spirits, and hope we shall continue to be successful and bring this unhappy war to an honorable close.

May 12, 1864—2 o’clock, p.m.

A severe battle is raging, with the advantages thus far on our side. We have captured to-day over thirty guns, four thousand prisoners, including three generals. The enemy are strongly posted and entrenched, which, with their desperation, makes the struggle stubborn.

8 a.m., May 13, 1864.

By the blessing of God I am able to announce not only the safety of George and myself, but a decided victory over the enemy, he having abandoned last night the position he so tenaciously held yesterday. Eight days of continuous fighting have thus resulted with the loss to the enemy of over thirty guns and eight thousand prisoners. Our losses have been frightful; I do not like to estimate them. Those of the enemy fully as great. Our work is not over, but we have the prestige of success, which is everything, and I trust our final success will be assured. I have not time to write much. God’s blessing be with you and the dear children! Pray earnestly for our success.

Here are Theodore Lyman’s accounts of the same period. His regular letters actually resume on May 15, but throughout this time he took up the habit of writing about the events of each day at a later point. I have taken these post-dated accounts and posted them here.

May 10, 1864

General Gersham Mott (Library of Congress).

General Gershom Mott (Library of Congress).

[Tuesday] there was sharp fighting all along the line. General Mott’s division of the 2d Corps was put on the left of the 6th Corps, with the idea of making a connection with Burnside and then swinging our left to take the enemy in flank. I was ordered early to go to General Wright and explain to him, then to General Mott and direct him to demonstrate along his front and feel on the left for Burnside. General Wright had moved his Headquarters and had put them a little back and on one side, being moved thereto by the fact that the first selection was a focus for shells. Then I rode along the lines to General Mott and got his position as well as I could, and gave him the order. Coming back to General Wright, I had a sharp corner to go through. A battery was firing at one of ours and the shells coming over struck right among our infantry. They cut the pine trees about me in a manner I didn’t like, and one burst close by, throwing the pieces round just as you see them in French battle pictures. All day there was firing. About eleven came General Meade and told me to go out at once to Mott and to get a written report from him, which I did; and a sharpshooter shot at me, which I hate — it is so personal. More by token, poor General Rice, a Massachusetts man and very daring, was to-day killed by a sharpshooter. The ball broke his thigh, and, when they amputated his leg, he never rallied. As he lay on the stretcher, he called out to General Meade: “Don’t you give up this fight! I am willing to lose my life, if it is to be; but don’t you give up this fight!” All day we were trying to select places for an assault. Barlow crossed the Po on the right, but was afterwards ordered back, and had a brilliant rear-guard fight in which he punished the enemy. From five to six p.m. there was heavy cannonading, the battalions firing by volley. At 6.30 Upton, with a heavy column of picked men, made a most brilliant assault with the bayonet, at the left of the Sixth Corps. The men rushed on, without firing a shot, carried the breastworks in the face of cannon and musketry, and took 900 prisoners. Some of the men, who faltered, were run through the body by their comrades! But Mott’s men on the left behaved shamefully, and so Upton was obliged again to fall back, bringing his prisoners with him.* . . .

*11 p.m. Grant in consultation with Meade. Wright came up also; he uttered no complaints, but said quietly and firmly to Meade: ‘General, I don’t want Mott’s men on my left; they are not a support; I would rather have no troops there!’ Warren is not up to a corps command. As in the Mine Run move, so here, he cannot spread himself over three divisions. He cannot do it, and the result is partial and ill-concerted and dilatory movements.” — Lyman’s Journal. 

May 12, 1864

This was the date of one of the most fearful combats, which lasted along one limited line, and in one spot, more than fourteen hours, without cessation. I fancy this war has furnished no parallel to the desperation shown here by both parties. It must be called, I suppose, the taking of the Salient.

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as "Allegheny" or "Clubby" (Library of Congress).

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as “Allegheny” or “Clubby” (Library of Congress).

Hancock was ordered to attack with his corps as soon after four in the morning as possible and Burnside was to follow the example. A little after daylight we were all gathered round General Grant’s tent, all waiting for news of importance. The field telegraph was laid to all corps Headquarters and there we could hear from all parts. At a little after five o’clock, General Williams approached from the telegraph tent; a smile was on his face: Hancock had carried the first line! Thirty minutes after, another despatch: he had taken the main line with guns, prisoners and two generals! Great rejoicings now burst forth. Some of Grant’s Staff were absurdly confident and were sure Lee was entirely beaten. My own experiences taught me a little more scepticism. Hancock presently sent to ask for a vigorous attack on his right, to cover and support his right flank. General Wright was accordingly ordered to attack with a part of the 6th Corps. As I stood there waiting, I heard someone say, “Sir, this is General Johnson.” I turned round and there was the captured Major-General, walking slowly up. He was a strongly built man of a stern and rather bad face, and was dressed in a double-breasted blue-grey coat, high riding boots and a very bad felt hat. He was most horribly mortified at being taken, and kept coughing to hide his emotion. Generals Meade and Grant shook hands with him, and good General Williams bore him off to breakfast. His demeanor was dignified and proper. Not so a little creature, General Steuart, who insulted everybody who came near him, and was rewarded by being sent on foot to Fredericksburg, where there was plenty of mud and one stream up to his waist. Our attack was a surprise: the assaulting columns rushed over the breastworks without firing a shot, and General Johnson, running out to see the reason of the noise, found himself surrounded by blue blouses. I was now sent by General Meade to see how far General Wright’s column of attack was prepared. I found the columns going into the woods south of the Brown house; the enemy had seen them and the shells were crashing through the thick pines. When I came back and reported, the General said: “Well, now you can take some orderlies and go to General Wright and send me back intelligence from time to time.” There are some duties that are more honorable than pleasant! As I turned into the pines, the musketry began, a good way in front of me. I pressed past the column that was advancing. Presently the bullets began to come through the pine trees. Then came back a Staff officer, yelling: “Bring up that brigade! Bring it up at the double-quick!” “Doublequick,” shouted the officers, and the column started on a run.

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), pp. 194-5. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s correspondence is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 108-11. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Upton’s Attack (May 10, 1864)

Emory Upton (Library of Congress).

Emory Upton (Library of Congress).

On May 10, 1864, Emory Upton led a famous charge against a portion of the Confederate lines outside Spotsylvania. Here’s an adaptation of my account of the fighting, taken from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

Lee’s defensive line here above Spotsylvania had one very distinctive characteristic: there was a large bulge in his line. Because of its shape, this protrusion, or salient, became known as the Mule Shoe. Such salients were usually weak spots in a defensive line because attackers could strike them from different angles. On the west side of the big Mule Shoe salient was a smaller bulge, called Doles’s Salient after the Confederate general whose brigade defended it. This is the spot where Upton intended to make his attack.

The war had entered a new phase. Early in the war, when Lee had resorted to defensive measures, people had derided him as the “King of Spades.” No more. By the time of Mine Run, the Army of the Potomac had come to understand the futility of attacking a well-dug-in position. “With the formidable rifles now in use, a single line of veteran soldiers, behind a three-foot breastwork of earth and rails or a stone fence, can drive back and almost destroy three similar lines approaching to attack them,” noted one Union captain. “Give either our army or the rebels twenty-four hours’ notice of an approaching attack, and they will select a good position, and throw up intrenchments, which it is folly for any but overwhelmingly superior numbers to attempt to carry.”

The defensive works here had proven equally resistant to attack, but Upton thought he could breach them. He was determined to leave the field either “a live brigadier general or a dead colonel.” Upton planned to make a rapid and concentrated assault at a single spot, and Doles’s Salient seemed to offer the perfect opportunity.

Upton, a severe-looking young man with roundish face, high cheekbones, a mustache, and a trim beard, looks fierce and resolute in his photograph. Born in New York, Upton attended Ohio’s Oberlin College before he entered West Point. In 1859 he fought a duel with a fellow cadet Wade Hampton Gibbes, a South Carolinian who had declared that Upton, an ardent abolitionist, had slept with black students at integrated (and co-educational) Oberlin. The two cadets fought with swords one evening in an upstairs room at the barracks. Upton received a cut on the face but emerged with his honor intact. He graduated from West Point in May 1861; just over two months later he fired the first gun at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Upton’s brigade had participated in the successful charge at Rappahannock Station the previous fall, so that may have influenced his thinking here. His plan was to have his men rush the enemy in a narrow column without stopping to fire. Once they broke through the enemy’s works, they would swing left and right to widen the breach and wait for reinforcements. He had twelve hand-picked regiments, about five thousand  men. The regiments are listed on the monument here. They came from Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New York.On hearing the command “Forward,” one man with the 121st Pennsylvania remembered, “I felt my gorge rise, and my stomach and intestines shrink together in a knot, and a thousand things rushed through my mind.” He knew the terrible odds against him. So did all the others. “I looked about in the faces of the boys around me, and they told the tale of expected death.” The men charged across the two hundred yards or so that separated them from the enemy. They saw puffs of smoke appear from behind the log breastworks–each one an announcement of potential death or dismemberment. Men began to fall. The orders, though, prohibited stopping for any reason–not even to fire and certainly not to help a wounded comrade.

Upton’s men dashed through the hail of Confederate lead until they reached the enemy’s line. They tore down the abatis–tangled tree limbs and branches thrown down as a barrier–and clambered over the log breastworks. The rebels on the other side waited, guns cocked, to fire bullets through the first heads that appeared over the works. Union attackers tumbled down dead.“Others seeing the fate of their comrades, held their pieces at arm’s length and fired downwards, while others, poising theirs vertically, hurled them down upon the enemy, pinning them to the ground,” Upton reported. His men poured over the enemy breastworks. “The enemy’s lines were completely broken,” said Upton, “and an opening had been made for the division that was to have supported, but it did not arrive.”

That supporting division belonged to the II Corps’ Gershom Mott, but because of confusing orders and limited manpower (and, rumor had it, because Mott was drunk), his attack proved ineffectual. Down to the right, Warren, eager to show his fighting spirit, had already made his attack. Even farther down the line a brigade of Hancock’s II Corps under Brig. Gen. J. Hobart Ward made another temporary break in the Confederate line before being driven back. On the far Union left Burnside made a feeble advance that accomplished nothing. Upton’s men killed and captured more than a thousand enemy soldiers, but they lost nearly as many. Lacking support, they were finally forced to withdraw, past the spot where monument to them stands today, and into the sheltering woods.

Grant gave Upton his promotion to brigadier general, and Upton’s attack gave Grant an idea. If something like that could almost work with five thousand men, what would happen if he tried it with four times that number? Why not attack the Mule Shoe with the entire II Corps?

Adapted from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 272-4. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.

Famous Last Words

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John" (Library of Congress).

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John” (Library of Congress).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps. He was killed outside Spotsylvania by a sharpshooters bullet. Here’s how I wrote about it in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

From where we’re standing we can see the heavy stone memorial at the park entrance. This marks the spot where John Sedgwick died, killed by a Confederate sharpshooter who fired from someplace around here. If there were a Famous Last Words Hall of Fame, Sedgwick would hold a place of honor. On the morning of May 9 he was near the Union front lines when he noticed some of his artillerymen dodging sharpshooters’ bullets. He chastised them for their fear. “Why, what are you dodging about?” he asked. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.” Just then a bullet struck him below his left eye. His chief of staff, Col. Martin McMahon, was standing next to him when the bullet hit. Sedgwick turned toward him, and McMahon saw blood spurting from the wound like a fountain. Then the general fell, knocking McMahon to the ground, too. Sedgwick died almost instantly, a smile still on his lips.

The Sedgwick monument at Spotsylvania.

The Sedgwick monument at Spotsylvania.

Poor Sedgwick! “We bore him tenderly to an ambulance, and followed it to army headquarters where an evergreen bower had been prepared, and there he lay in simple state with the stars and stripes around him,” remembered Major Hyde, whom the general had been good-naturedly teasing just before he died. “All who came remained to weep; old grizzled generals, his comrades for many years; young staff officers, and private soldiers: all paid this tribute to his modest greatness.”

Meade was bothered by the fact that he had been sharp with Sedgwick at their last meeting the night before. Meade thought Sedgwick had been relying too much on Warren’s judgment, so he snapped at him, saying he wished “he would take command of his own corps.” It was the last time they spoke. “I feel more grieved at his death because we had not parted entirely in good feeling,” he told Lyman. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright took over the VI Corps.

Excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 271-2. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.

The Wilderness, Day Two

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this drawing "Rebel advance through the smoke, and seizure of a part of the breastworks on Brock road. The logs had caught fire." It depicted fighing that took place later in the day on May 6. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this drawing “Rebel advance through the smoke, and seizure of a part of the breastworks on Brock road. The logs had caught fire.” It depicted fighing that took place later in the day on May 6. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Here’s another short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. This one is about the start of the fighting on May 6, 1864, the second day of the bloody struggle in the Wilderness.  The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

Fighting resumed bright and early on May 6. Grant had wanted the army to move at 4:30 a.m., but Meade, thinking that was too early for the exhausted and disorganized men–and perhaps because he suspected Burnside and the IX Corps would be late as usual–suggested 6:00. Grant said he would delay things by half an hour. Near dawn Meade and Lyman rode out to the Germanna Plank Road to find Burnside, who was supposed to move his men into the gap between the forces on the plank road and the turnpike. Burnside was late, however, delayed in part because the roads were clogged with artillery. One of his aides arrived and told Meade that if the general authorized the clearing of the roads, he would go back and hurry Burnside along. “No, Sir, I have no command over General Burnside,” Meade replied. The IX Corps was not under his control–that was Grant’s responsibility.

Back at headquarters the general ordered Lyman to report on Hancock’s progress down by the Brock Road intersection. Lyman mounted his horse at around 5:00 in the morning. Already he could hear musket fire from skirmishers, followed by the loud, crashing volleys that meant major fighting had erupted.

He found Hancock in a good mood. “We are driving them, sir; tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully,” he said. But Hancock’s mood darkened when Lyman informed him of Burnside’s delay. “Just what I expected,” Hancock snapped. “If we could attack now, we would smash A. P. Hill all to pieces!”

The Union forces were doing a pretty good job of it even without Burnside’s help. The situation was looking increasingly desperate for Lee’s army. But then, as a blood red sun rose higher in the sky, its light diffused by the smoke of battle, James Longstreet and the I Corps arrived, moving east down the Orange Plank Road toward the fighting.

A historical marker on the Wilderness battlefield driving tour details an incident that occurred as Longstreet’s men came up and prepared to counterattack. It took place near the Widow Tapp farm, where Lee had his headquarters. As the Texas Brigade, under the command of Brig. Gen. John Gregg began to advance, Lee rode along with it, swept up in the excitement of battle. But Gregg’s men refused to let him risk his life with them. “Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!” they yelled, some of them tugging on his bridle, until the general reluctantly turned back.

“Lee to the rear!” is a stirring story, even to a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee like me. It has entered the treasury of great Civil War tales. But as I read the story on the marker I think about Meade at Gettysburg on day two, sitting atop his horse on Cemetery Ridge, sword unsheathed, aides nervously arrayed behind him, with nothing between him and the advancing enemy. No markers recount that moment. No one after the war sought to add the patina of glory that would elevate the incident into legend. True, Meade lacked Lee’s charisma. He had been in command of his army for mere days at that point. His men hardly knew him. Yet it is also a great story and one that deserves to be told.

But perhaps Union soldiers felt less need to repeat such tales of glory. After all, Meade’s army had won the war. Lee’s veterans had to find solace in something other than victory.

Excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 259-60. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.