Quite a Serious Disaster (June 30, 1864)

"Destruction of Genl. Lees lines of Communication in Virginia by Genl. Wilson" by Alfred Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Destruction of Genl. Lees lines of Communication in Virginia by Genl. Wilson” by Alfred Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In his letter of June 30, Meade refers to the cavalry raid undertaken by James H. Wilson, August v. Kautz, and their 3,000 men against the railroad lines leading into Petersburg. The cavalry set out on June 22 and managed to tear up some track before being caught far behind enemy lines by cavalry under Wade Hampton and infantry commanded by William Mahone. The Union cavalry had to fight its way back to its own lines and suffered serious casualties.

James H. Wilson (Library of Congress).

James H. Wilson (Library of Congress).

I am sorry to tell you we have had quite a serious disaster. A whole division of cavalry, which was sent about a week ago to destroy the roads out of Petersburg, after accomplishing their work, were met on their return by three divisions of the enemy’s cavalry, supported by infantry, and after an honorable struggle were overpowered and dispersed. A large number have gotten in, but the greater portion are as yet missing, and I fear are in the hands of the enemy. I feel justified in telling you, though it is in the strictest confidence, that the sending this command was against my judgment, as I anticipated just this result, and I desired to wait till we could concentrate our cavalry before making an attempt to cut the enemy’s communications, but I was overruled. Now the result is, that our cavalry is no longer superior in numbers to the enemy, and, what is worse, has lost its prestige.

These ups and downs in war are to be expected, and perhaps are intended to prevent over-exultation and its consequences.

I cannot imagine where the report originated that this army was to be withdrawn, or on what grounds it was predicted. Such an act would be suicidal and could only result in the triumph of the enemy. No one here has ever dreamed of such a thing, though there may be different opinions as to the precise period when Richmond will fall.

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. 209-10. Available via Google Books.

A “Pleasant Task” (June 27, 1864)

Letterhead from Philadelphia's Great Central Sanitary Fair (Library of Congress).

Letterhead from Philadelphia’s Great Central Sanitary Fair (Library of Congress).

General Meade writes a letter to his oldest son, John Sergeant, whose health fills him with trepidation. “Sargie” suffers from tuberculosis and his fate increasingly weighs on his parents’ minds. Once again Meade mentions the sword competition at the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia. (Spoiler alert: Meade wins it. The sword is now in the collections of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent and is on temporary display at the Union League in Philadelphia.) It appears that Meade shares Theodore Lyman’s taste for irony, at least to a certain extent, as evidenced by his reference to “the pleasant task of sending people to eternity.”

Should I get the Philadelphia Fair sword, and the one from the City Councils, I think I shall be well off for weapons to wield in my country’s cause.

Hancock and myself are anxiously awaiting the decision in the great sword case, he having hopes some one will come down at the last moment in a sealed envelope with a clincher.

The weather has been so intensely hot, dry and dusty, that both sides were compelled to cease for awhile the pleasant task of sending people to eternity, which for the last fifty days we have been so successfully pursuing. The rest was much needed by both armies, and has been particularly enjoyed by myself.

I have now as guests two French officers sent by the Emperor, to see all they can; one of them, Colonel de Chenal, married a relative of the Hopkinsons. They are both intelligent gentlemen, and their visit has been very pleasant and agreeable.

I can hardly tell you what we are going to do next, whether to lay siege to Petersburg or something else; a few days I suppose will tell.

George continues quite well; Jim Biddle, Cadwalader and all the rest are in fine health and spirits.

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. 209. Available via Google Books.


Too Darned Hot (June 25, 1864)

Both Meade and Lyman mention the hot, dry weather that made the Petersburg front miserable for both armies. In addition, Meade mentions the Crapsey or Cropsey affair and how it has helped erase his presence in the newspapers. The wound of Hancock’s he mentions is the one the general received on the third day at Gettysburg. David Bell Birney has been in command of the II Corps while Hancock recovers. Gibbon is John Gibbon, one of Hancock’s division commanders.

Francis Markoe Bache, Meade's nephew (Library of Congress).

Francis Markoe Bache, Meade’s nephew (Library of Congress).

Francis Markoe Bache was Meade’s nephew and had joined his uncle’s staff from the 16th U.S. Infantry. When Lyman first met him, he called Bache “a remarkably empty-headed and ill-bred young man.” The two aides did not speak to each other for several months, until Bache finally apologized for his rudeness. General Meade had served under Bache’s father—who had married one of his sister’s—building lighthouses before the war.

We have had for ten days past most intensely hot weather, and in consequence have desisted from carrying on any more active operations than were absolutely necessary. Grant being at City Point, some eight miles distant, I see but little of him. He paid me a visit of an hour or two day before yesterday.

I received a few days ago a very kind letter from Cortlandt Parker, expressing much consideration for me in my present position, and saying it was well known how much of the work I was doing, and how little of the credit I was getting. Among other matters he alluded to the Cropsey affair, and said he was at George Harding’s when his brother came in with the news. Both the Hardings, he said, were quite excited, George the less so of the two; and Cortlandt thought he convinced him I was right, and advised me to write to him to endeavor to smooth it over. This I do not see how I can very well do, because I got Markoe Bache to write to him when the affair occurred, and to send him Cropsey’s confession, which he made, hoping by its publication in the Inquirer to get off. I asked Markoe to tell Mr. Harding that, as I could not let Cropsey off, he was at liberty to do as he pleased about the letter, though in my judgment the cause of truth and justice demanded its publication. The letter was never published, and the public are to this day ignorant of the real character of Cropsey’s offense.

Hancock’s wound discharged a big piece of bone the other day, and since then he has rapidly improved, and expects in a day or two to return to duty. In the meantime Birney has done very well.

Gibbon, whom I suppose you know I have finally succeeded in getting promoted, has been under the weather, but was about to-day.

And now Lyman, who remains busy serving as tour guide for the army’s two French guests.

I can only say that I have “sweltered” to-day—that is the word; not only has it been remarkably broiling, but this region is so beclouded with dust and smoke of burning forests, and so unrelieved by any green grass, or water, that the heat is doubled. We have had no drop of rain for twenty days, and but a stray shower for over a month. It is hardly necessary to say that neither army is what it was: the loss of a large proportion of the best officers, the nervous prostration of the men, the immense destruction of life, all tend to injure the morale and discipline and skill of both parties. As to the next step, I do not know; Grant is as calm and as apparently sure as ever. I have got from the region of fighting now, to the realm of lying idle, and it will not be so easy to fill a daily sheet. General Meade asked me to show the Gauls somewhat about; so I clapped them on their two horses, which they had from General Grant, and took them by easy stages to General Wright near by. The good General was comfortably in the woods. I say comfortably, because everything is relative. I mean he had his tents pitched and had iced water, two important elements. He speaks no French—De Chanal no English—so they smiled sweetly at each other. Old D. C. ought to be ashamed of himself. He married an American wife, but, like a true Gaul, utterly refused to learn a word of English. It is ever a part of a Frenchman’s religion to speak no language but his own. Little grasshopper Guzman chirped away and made up for two. Then Colonel Kent rode out with us, as a matter of politeness (for I knew that part of the line as well as he), and we showed them how our men made breastworks of rails, logs, and earth; how they lived and cooked; and all sorts of things. After which I took them out towards the picket line and showed them the country, and a tract of dense, young pines, through which our men advanced in double lines—a feat which I can never understand, but which is performed nevertheless. By this time, both distinguished foreigners being powdered a la marquise, I took them home, only showing them, before coming in, one more thing, only too characteristic of our war—the peculiar graves of our soldiers, marked each by a piece of cracker-box, with the man’s name in pencil, or hastily cut with a knife. I recollect sitting on the high bank of the Rapid Ann, at Germanna Ford, and watching the 5th and 6th Corps as they marched up from the pontoon bridges; and I remember thinking how strange it would be if each man who was destined to fall in the campaign had some large badge on! There would have been Generals Sedgwick, Wadsworth, and Rice, and what crowds of subordinate officers and of privates, all marching gaily along, unconscious, happily, of their fate.

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. 208-9. 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, p. 178-80. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Great Peppery (June 24, 1864)

We begin our accounts of June 24, 1864, with General Meade’s report home to his wife. It is a very clear-eyed letter, explaining the pressures the army has been operating under and what the commanding general feels will be necessary for the Union to obtain victory. And victory is Meade’s goal here.

Following the general’s letter is one from Theodore Lyman as he examines the behavior of “the Great Peppery.” Lyman, for the most part, maintains a positive view of Both men write about the army’s need for more men.his boss but he is not unwilling to write about his various personal shortcomings, especially the legendary temper.

Both men write about the army’s need for more men.

In his book of Lyman’s journals, David W. Lowe identifies the two Frenchmen as Lt. Col. François De Chanal and Capt. Pierre Guzman, sent by Napoleon III as observers.

Our operations here for the last few days, though not so heavy as prior to the 18th, have still been very active. We have been extending our lines around Petersburg, and have encountered considerable opposition from the enemy, which has somewhat checked the rapidity of our progress.

I am sorry to see the feeling you report as existing with certain persons. Despondency is never going to get us through this war, and although this army has not accomplished all that ignorant people anticipated, it has really done more than could reasonably have been counted on. Our losses, it is true, have been large, but not larger than is incidental to operations of the character of ours, being offensive, and conducted on so grand a scale, with such numbers. Fifty days’ constant marching and fighting has undoubtedly had its influence on the army, and its condition is not what it was when we first crossed the Rapidan.

On the 18th I assaulted several times the enemy’s positions, deliberately, and with the expectation of carrying them, because I had positive information the enemy had not occupied them more than twelve hours, and that no digging had been done on the lines prior to their occupation. Nevertheless, I failed, and met with serious loss, principally owing to the moral condition of the army; for I am satisfied, had these assaults been made on the 5th and 6th of May, we should have succeeded with half the loss we met.

Another inconvenience we suffer from is in the loss of superior and other officers. Hancock’s Corps has lost twenty brigade commanders, and the rest of the army is similarly situated. We cannot replace the officers lost with experienced men, and there is no time for reorganization or careful selection. At the same time you must remember the enemy labors under like disadvantages. I conversed with some prisoners yesterday, who said they were completely exhausted, having had no rest or sleep for days, and being compelled to be all the time marching. I said to one of them, “Well, we will treat you well,” and he replied, “Oh, sir, you cannot treat us worse than we are treated on the other side.” In flags of truce, and on all occasions that we meet the rebel officers, they always begin conversation by asking when the war is going to be over, and expressing themselves as most heartily tired and anxious for peace. I believe these two armies would fraternize and make peace in an hour, if the matter rested with them; not on terms to suit politicians on either side, but such as the world at large would acknowledge as honorable, and which would be satisfactory to the mass of people on both sides. But while I ardently desire peace, and think a settlement not impracticable, I am opposed to any cessation of our efforts so long as the war has to be continued, and I regret to see symptoms of a discontent which, if persisted in, must paralyze our cause. Again, it is impossible for me personally to avoid my share of the odium, if any is to be cast on this army. I complain, and I think justly, that the press and the Government despatches fail to acknowledge my services, but I cannot reasonably do this, and expect to be shielded from complaints, if any are made of the operations.

You know I have never shut my eyes to the obstacles we have to encounter, and have always appreciated the difficulties to be overcome. The campaign, thus far, has been pretty much what I expected; if anything, rather greater obstacles than I anticipated. I still believe, with the liberal supply of men and means which our superior resources ought to furnish, we will win in the long run; but it is a question of tenacity and nerve, and it won’t do to look behind, or to calculate the cost in blood and treasure; if we do we are lost and our enemies succeed. You may remember I told the good people of Philadelphia, that what we wanted was men, fighting men; that the war could only be closed by desperate and bloody fighting; and the sooner the people realize this, and give evidence of their appreciation by coming forward to fight, the better.

I am well and seem to improve on hard work. I have had only three hours’ sleep for several nights past.

Here’s Lyman’s report, also from June 24. It provides some more close up views of “the Great Peppery” in action:

James C. Biddle, one of Meade's aides. He came from a good Philadelphia family but, as David W. Lowe notes in his book of Lyman's journals, "He could be something of a buffoon and was the target of much good-natured camp humor" (Library of Congress).

James C. Biddle, one of Meade’s aides. He came from a good Philadelphia family but, as David W. Lowe notes in his book of Lyman’s journals, “He could be something of a buffoon and was the target of much good-natured camp humor” (Library of Congress).

It is praise not to be pitched into by the Great Peppery: and he is very kind to me. To be sure, I watch him, as one would a big trout on a small hook, and those who don’t, catch volleys at all hours! Poor [James] Biddle, for instance, an excellent, bettyish sort of man, with no fragment of tact, when the General is full of anxiety for something that is not going right, is sure to come in, in his stuttering way, with “Ah, aw, hem, aw, General, they are going to pitch camp in a very sandy, bad place, sir; you will not be at all comfortable, and there is a nice grassy—” “Major Biddle!!!”—and then follows the volley. Sometimes it is very effective to contradict the General, provided you stick to it and are successful. I came in last night, feeling cross and not at all caring for commanders of armies or other great ones of this earth. “Well, Lyman, you’re back, are you?” “Yes, sir: I reported that the enemy were moving along our rear, but they got no further than—” “Rear! not at all! they were moving along the front.” “No, sir, they were not, they were moving along our rear.” “What do you mean by that? There is Russell, and there is Ricketts, and here is Wheaton; now of course that’s your front.” “Russell isn’t in such a position, sir, nor Wheaton either. They face so (dabs with a pencil), so that is our rear and can’t be anything else.” Whereupon the good chief graciously said no more. I do not know that he ever said anything pleasant about me except the day after the Wilderness battles, when I heard Hancock say that “Colonel Lyman had been useful to him, the day before.” To which the General replied: “Yes, Lyman is a clear-headed man.” I have heard him volunteer several favorable things about Captain Sanders; also he has remarked that Old Rosey (my tent-mate) [Frederick Rosenkrantz] was good at finding roads; and that is pretty much all of his praises, whereof no man is more sparing. By the way, old Rosey has his commission as captain. One thing I do not like—it is serious—and that is, that three years of bitter experience have failed to show our home people that, to an army on active campaign (or rather furious campaign), there must be supplied a constant stream of fresh men—by thousands. What do we see? Everyone trying to persuade himself that his town has furnished its “quota.” But where are they? We have large armies, but nothing compared with the paper statements. No! The few produced by drafts in good part run away; so too many of the “volunteers”—miserable fellows bought with money. None are shot—that is unmerciful—but the Powers that Be will let brave, high-toned men, who scorn to shirk their duty, be torn with canister and swept away with musketry, and that is inevitable.

This morning appeared General Grant with two French officers, who since have taken up their quarters with us and mess with us. They are two artillery officers, the elder a Colonel de Chanal, the other a Captain Guzman, both sent as a commission to observe the progress of the campaign. The Colonel is a perfect specimen of an old Frenchman, who has spent most of his life in provincial garrisons, in the study of all sorts of things, from antiquities down to rifled projectiles. He has those extraordinary, nervous legs, which only middle-aged Frenchmen can get, and is full of various anecdotes. Many years he has lived in Toulouse. The other is young and little and looks like a black-eyed and much astonished grasshopper. He is very bright, speaks several languages, and was on the Chinese expedition. General Grant staid some time in council, and took dinner with us. I was amused at him, for, the day being warm, he began taking off his coat before he got to the tent; and by the time he had said, “How are you, Meade?” he was in his shirt-sleeves, in which state he remained till dinner-time. He attempted no foreign conversation with the Gauls, simply observing; “If I could have turned the class the other end to, I should have graduated at West Point, very high in French”!

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. 206-8. 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, p. 176-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Chronic Troubles (June 23, 1864)

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

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

Theodore Lyman spends some time with Horatio Wright and the VI Corps, and is not impressed.

All were up at an early hour and ready for an advance, which had been ordered. On the right, towards the Gregory house, we were already against them, and I suppose my friend there, Major Crow, had seen us under more hostile circumstances. . . . By 4.30 General Meade started for General Wright’s Headquarters at the Williams house, where he ordered me to stay, when he left at seven. . . . I rode about with General Wright, who visited his line, which was not straight or facing properly. That’s a chronic trouble in lines in the woods. Indeed there are several chronic troubles. The divisions have lost connection; they cannot cover the ground designated, their wing is in the air, their skirmish line has lost its direction, etc., etc. Then General Meade gets mad with the delay. The commanders say they do as well as they can, etc. Well, Ricketts ran one way and Russell another; and then the 2d Corps—how did that run? and were the skirmishers so placed as to face ours? and what would General Birney do about it? How long was the line? could it advance in a given direction, and, if so, how? All of which is natural with a good many thousand men in position in a dense wood, which nobody knows much about. All this while the men went to sleep or made coffee; profoundly indifferent to the perplexities of their generals; that was what generals were paid for. When General Wright had looked a great deal at his line, and a great deal more at his pocket compass, he rode forth on the left to look at the pickets, who were taking life easy like other privates. They had put up sun-shades with shelter-tents and branches, and were taking the heat coolly. …

James B. Ricketts. The former artilleryman commanded a division in the VI Corps. His sister had married Meade's brother (Library of Congress).

James B. Ricketts. The former artilleryman commanded a division in the VI Corps. His sister had married Meade’s brother (Library of Congress).

About this time a Vermont captain (bless his soul!) went and actually did something saucy and audacious. With eighty sharpshooters he pushed out boldly, drove in a lot of cavalry, and went a mile and a quarter to the railroad, which he held, and came back in person to report, bringing a piece of the telegraph wire. . . . Some time in the morning, I don’t exactly know when, the signal officers reported a large force, say two divisions, marching out from the town, along the railroad, whereof we heard more anon. At noon there still had been no advance, and General Wright went to General Birney to arrange one. There was General Meade, not much content with the whole affair. They all pow-wowed a while, and so we rode back again, through the dreary woods, through which fires had run. It was after two when we returned. Now then—at last—all together—skirmishers forward! And away they go, steadily. Oh, yes! but Rebs are not people who let you sit about all the day and do just as you like; remember that always, if nothing else. There are shots away out by the railroad—so faint that you can scarce hear them. In comes a warm sharpshooter: “They are advancing rapidly and have driven the working party from the railroad.” Here come the two divisions, therefore, or whatever they are. “Stop the advance,” orders General Wright. “General Wheaton, strengthen that skirmish line and tell them to hold on.” The remainder of Wheaton’s division is formed on the flank, and begins making a breastwork; more troops are sent for. The fire of the skirmishers now draws nearer and gets distinct; but, when the reinforcement arrives, they make a stout stand, and hold them. . . . All the while the telegraph is going: “Don’t let ’em dance round you, pitch into them!” suggests General Meade (not in those exact words). “Don’t know about that—very easy to say—will see about it,” replies the cautious W.; etc., etc. Pretty soon the cavalry comes piling in across the Aiken oat-field; they don’t hold too long, you may be certain. This exposes the flank of the picket line, which continues to shoot valiantly. In a little while more, a division officer of the day gallops in and says they have broken his skirmishers and are advancing in line of battle. But the Rebels did not try an approach through the open oat-field: bullets would be too thick there; so they pushed through the woods in our rear. I could hear them whooping and ki-yi-ing, in their peculiar way. I felt uncomfortable, I assure you. It was now towards sunset. Our position was right in the end of the loop, where we should get every bullet from two sides, in event of an attack. General [Lewis] Grant, of the Vermont Brigade, walked up and said, in his quiet way: “Do you propose to keep your Headquarters here?” “Why not?” says Ricketts. “Because, when the volleys begin, nothing can live here.” To which Ricketts replied, “Ah?” as if someone had remarked it was a charming evening, or the like. I felt very like addressing similar arguments to General Wright, but pride stood in the way, and I would have let a good many volleys come before I would have given my valuable advice. A column of attack was now formed by us, during which the enemy pushed in their skirmishers and the bullets began to slash among the trees most spitefully; for they were close to; whereat Wright (sensible man!) vouchsafed to move on one side some seventy yards, where we only got accidental shots. And what do you think? It was too dark now for us to attack, and the Rebs did not—and so, domino, after all my tremendous description! Worse than a newspaper isn’t it? I was quite enraged to be so scared for no grand result.*

*“I look on June 22d and 23d as the two most discreditable days to this army that I ever saw! There was everywhere, high and low, feebleness, confusion, poor judgment. The only person who kept his plans and judgment clear was General Meade, himself. On this particular occasion Wright showed himself totally unfit to command a corps.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 173-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Ignored (June 21, 1864)

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

George Meade’s letter of June 21, 1864, includes one of his persistent complaints about being ignored, this time in the dispatches of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Meade craved affirmation, a need that seemed motivated by some basic insecurity. Of course, commander of the Army of the Potomac was a position that naturally bred a sense of insecurity—just ask George McClellan, Joe Hooker, or Ambrose Burnside. But Meade seemed to need some kind of official “vindication” and validation that he had performed well. Despite his repeated claims to his wife that he was “indifferent” to such things, he wanted an official seal of approval that always seemed to evade him. Perhaps Meade would have had more success in advancing his cause if he had more nakedly lusted for glory and aggressively sought fame. He was more than willing to carp about the situation in his letters to his wife, but his son and grandson edited most of those complaints out of the letters for publication. Publicly, though, Meade had an almost naïve–or perhaps idealistic is a better word–belief that true honors would come to those who deserved them. Of course, it didn’t help that the correspondents traveling with the army had agreed to leave Meade out of their reports in revenge for the Crapsey incident.

Meade mentions in passing President Lincoln’s visit to the army. Horace Porter, Grant’s aide, included a long account of the visit in his book, Campaigning with Grant. Lincoln was especially eager to see the black soldiers of the XVIII Corps who had taken a portion of the Petersburg defenses. “When we wanted every able-bodied man who could be spared to go to the front, and my opposers kept objecting to the negroes, I used to tell them that at such times it was just as well to be a little color-blind,” the president said. The black soldiers gave the president a rapturous reception, which affected him deeply. “The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode,” wrote Porter.

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In the evening the president relaxed with Grant and his staff and indulged himself in one of his favorite pastimes, telling humerous stories. “He did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or to clench a fact,” Porter noted. “So far as our experience went, his anecdotes possessed the true geometric requisite of excellence: they were neither too broad nor too long. He seemed to recollect every incident in his experience and to weave it into material for his stories. One evening a sentinel whose post was near enough to enable him to catch most of the President’s remarks was heard to say, ‘Well, that man’s got a powerful memory and a mighty poor forgettery.’

“He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat on a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures. An officer once made the remark that he would rather have a single photograph of one of Mr. Lincoln’s jokes than own the negative of any other man’s.

My last letter was written on the 17th, during the battle of Petersburg, which lasted off and on from 4 o’clock on the afternoon of the 16th to dark of the 18th, day and night, during which time we drove the enemy more than a mile and a half, taking from them two strong lines of works, capturing over twenty guns, four colors and nearly seven hundred prisoners. In all this fighting and these operations I had exclusive command, Grant being all the time at City Point, and coming on the field for only half an hour on the 17th, and yet in Mr. Stanton’s official despatch he quotes General Grant’s account, and my name is not even mentioned. I cannot imagine why I am thus ignored.

I think I wrote you on the 17th that I was fighting Mr. Wise. Since then I have seen a Petersburg paper, announcing the wounding severely of George D. Wise, his nephew and aide, also of Peyton Wise, another nephew and aide-de-camp.

On the 18th we found the enemy had retired to an inner line, which I had reason to believe was not strongly fortified. I followed them and immediately attacked them with my whole force, but could not break through their lines. Our losses in the three-days’ fight under my command amount to nine thousand five hundred, killed, wounded and missing. As I did not have over sixty thousand men, this loss is severe, and shows how hard the fighting was.

Your accounts of the fair are quite amusing. Hancock and myself have much fun over the sword contest, and are both quite sorry to see we stand no chance for the five thousand dollar vase.

Mr. Lincoln honored the army with his presence this afternoon, and was so gracious as to say he had seen you in Philadelphia, etc., etc.

We have been very quiet for two days, having given up the idea of taking Petersburg by assault. Indeed, the army is exhausted with forty-nine days of continued marching and fighting, and absolutely requires rest to prevent its morale being impaired.

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. 205-6. Available via Google Books.

A Message for Beauregard (June 19, 1864)

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (National  Archives).

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (National

Once again General Meade sends Theodore Lyman on a mission to request a truce so they army could collect its dead and wounded, as he had done at Cold Harbor. This mission is slightly less nerve-wracking although ultimately much more frustrating. The Confederate commander who spurned the request was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. The Louisiana Creole had been in the thick of things since Fort Sumter, where he commanded the Confederate bombardment against his former West Point artillery instructor, Robert Anderson. Beauregard—a name that almost demands to be spoken in a Southern drawl—had been second in command under Joseph Johnston at First Bull Run, but his combustible personality and strained relations with President Jefferson Davis, as well as doubts about his actual ability on the battlefield, got him sent out west. When he returned east he took command of Charleston’s defenses. Back in Virginia he thwarted Benjamin Butler’s attempts to take Richmond, and then bottled up the Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred. He was in command of Petersburg’s defenses when the Army of the Potomac suddenly appeared after its surprise crossing of the James River.

It having been represented to General Meade that there were some wounded and a good many dead between the lines, he determined to send a flag to get a short armistice, as at Cool Arbor. I was again selected, as the man having good clothes, to undertake the mission. This time I determined to have a bugler, and so I did, and very spruce he was, with a German-silver key-bugle. Likewise was there a tall sergeant, in Sunday best, with General Seth Williams’s new damask tablecloth, on an appropriate staff! Thus equipped, and furnished with a large letter, I rode forth. . . . We crossed the rail near Colonel Avery’s, rode into the woods and immediately came on the picket reserves of cavalry, where we got a man to guide us to the extreme left of the infantry picket line. We floundered through a little swampy run, brushed through some brush, and came on a little clearing, at the other side of which was a gentleman, with a cocked musket, eyeing us suspiciously, but who withdrew on seeing our color. There we came on what is always a pretty sight, a picket line in a wood. The men are dotted along, ten or fifteen feet apart, with stronger parties on the roads; and you see them indistinctly, as they stand, half-hidden among trees and bushes. I found there Captain Thatcher in command of the picket line. There was some delay here, in sending word to the division commander, and to a battery that was firing. As soon as they were notified, Captain T. and myself, with the flag about five paces ahead, and the bugler behind, walked along the wood-road. Thatcher is a brisk, black-eyed little man, and kept peeping about, through the dense pines, and saying: “We are getting somewhere pretty near them. Wave your flag, Sergeant!” As for myself, I looked with some confidence for a salutation of two or three bullets; but made no observation, as being superfluous under the circumstances. Presently the flag-bearer, who, you may be sure, kept an extremely bright look-out, said: “There’s one of’ ’em!” and immediately waved the emblem of peace in a truly conscientious manner. I looked and saw the main road, and, in an open field beyond, stood a single grey-back, looking dubiously at us, with his rifle ready for any emergency. I told the bugler to blow a parley, which he did in very good style, while I advanced to call to the solitary sentry; but the effect of the bugle was most marvellous—quite as when “he whistled shrill and he was answered from the hill.” In an instant, a line of some seventy-five men rose, as if out of the ground. It was their pickets, who had been concealed in little holes, dug in the slope of the gentle hill. One of them laid down his musket and came forward, when I asked for an officer; whereat, he touched his hat (probably awestruck by my cotton gloves) and returned to fetch one. Then came a red-faced captain, who received my despatch, and a bundle of letters from Rebel prisoners, and promised a speedy answer. So the flag was stuck up on a fence and we waited. In a few minutes the commander of the pickets hastened out to do me honor—Major Crow, of Alabama, a remarkably bright, nice-looking man. We exchanged compliments and newspapers, and he entertained me with an amusing account, how he had gone on a “leave” to north Alabama, and how our cavalry suddenly rushed into the town, whereupon he ascended briskly into the belfry of the court-house, through the slats of which he beheld a large number of his friends gobbled up and marched off, while he himself nearly froze to death with the extreme cold! By this time we had the variety of a visitor on horseback, Colonel Ring, a handsome man, who was curious about the negro troops and said, with an honesty unmistakable, that he would not be a bit afraid to fight them, one against two. They, however, said nothing at all unpleasant or rude. The next comer was apparently a Staff officer, a young man of rather a sour countenance, with a large pair of spurs. He brought a message that we should immediately retire from the lines, and hostilities would then recommence, till the answer was ready, when they would put a white flag on their rifle-pit. This amused me, for I had already seen all that could be seen and knew just where their position was just at that point! I returned whence I came, and waited at a wretched, deserted house. … At seven in the evening I got the reply and carried it in. The sum of it was: “Have the honor to acknowledge your favor. As to your proposition—Ah, don’t see it!”* And so there was no armistice. Our poor wounded fellows, I believe, we got off that night, all of them, or all but a very few. And thus ended my second diplomatic mission. Since then, General Williams has caused a regular white flag to be made, ready for use in future.

*”It was signed by Beauregard, and was a specimen of his mean Creole blood. ‘He did not know there had been any fight of consequence and should therefore refuse. After any engagement of real moment, he should be glad to extend the courtesies of war!’ He lied; for he knew full well that there had been heavy fighting and that we at least had lost some thousands. But he wished to show his dirty spite. Lee does not do such things.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 170-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Wounded Hand (June 18, 1864)

V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren and staff, photographed by Mathew Brady outside Petersburg on June 21. Warren had escaped Brady's attentions at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren and staff, photographed by Mathew Brady outside Petersburg on June 21. Warren had escaped Brady’s attentions at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

More from Theodore Lyman, in which he describes the Army of the Potomac’s ineffectual attacks before Petersburg on June 18 and provides some examples of General Meade in his “great peppery” mode. At this point, after more than a month of hard marching and even harder fighting, the army was almost a spent weapon. As Lyman writes, “You cannot strike a full blow with a wounded hand.” On June 18 Grant decided that headlong assaults against Petersburg’s defenses would result only in useless bloodshed. He prepared to lay siege. “I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained,” he wrote in a message to Meade. “Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”

The Major Roebling whom Lyman mentions is Washington Augustus Roebling. After the war his father, John, designed the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington took over the project after the death of his father. Roebling married Gouverneur Warren’s sister, Emily, in January 1865.

Following Lyman’s account I include a portion of Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant in which he describes the attacks of June 18 and Meade’s actions.

A general attack was planned for an early hour, so Headquarters, which had lain down late, had scarce a chance to turn over once before it was routed out again, just at daylight. The General was in a tearing humor. (I don’t think anybody felt any too pleasant.) “Lyman, you are behind time!” I had the satisfaction of stepping out, all dressed, and saying shortly: “No, sir, I am ready.” Presently: “Colonel Lyman, take two or three orderlies and go to General Warren and report to me by telegraph promptly and frequently.” I did not admire this duty, as there was to be an assault; but everybody must do his share, and I started immediately. The General started with me. “Do you know the way to General Hancock’s?” “Yes, sir!” In a few moments: “This is not the short cut to Hancock’s.” “I did not say I knew the short cut, General.” “Well, but I wanted the short cut! What’s the use of the road; of course I knew the road!” Whereupon I suggested I would gallop ahead, not to lose time; which I did and left my chief to attack Biddle, who was late and was coming up very red in the face!

It was half-past four when I got to Headquarters of the 5th Corps, which consisted of a couple of tents, pitched by a solitary tree. Warren, with all his clothes on, was catching a little sleep on a camp bed. Burnside* was there also, sitting under the tree, and there was a telegraph operator with his little portable instrument. Our lines were advancing, and there was an inexplicable silence along the skirmish line. … At 6.50 came an order for all the line to advance and to attack the enemy if found. … A little later, after seven, Major Roebling came in and reported he had discovered the enemy’s new line of works, that ran along a high ground beyond the railroad, and that they were all there, with batteries in position. Soon after General Warren mounted, and we all rode to the front, over a wide oat-field past the works captured last evening, from which we were afterwards driven. In these there was one part where we seemed to have had an enfilade fire, for the Rebel dead lay there, one on top of the other. . . . We stopped under a hollow oak, just at a point of woods and at the juncture of two country roads. Some movement of our troops attracted the enemy, who immediately sent two or three round shot to enfilade the road, and which of course came about our ears in a most uncomfortable way. Ill luck would have it that the fire of two or three batteries just crossed at that point. So not a gun could open but that we got a reminder. To which may be added that stray bullets from Crawford’s front came zip! tzizl to add their small voices. We had it intermittently all day long from eight o’clock till dark. New batteries soon came up, under charge of Captain Phillips (Appleton’s commander). “I want you to go in there with your guns,” said General [Charles] Griffin, “but you will be under fire there.” “Well,” said Phillips, “I have been in those places before”; and rode on, followed by his pieces. Later, his First Lieutenant, Blake, was carried by me, dead, shot with a minie ball through the forehead. . . .

After much difficulty in advancing the different divisions, we at last drove the enemy from the railroad cut and a gully beyond, and got in, to about 200 yards of their works. At 3.30 in the afternoon the first assault took place. We rode out on an open field to watch it. In front was a broad expanse, quite flat; then the railroad cut with a fringe of bushes, and then a gradual rise crowned by the Rebel rifle-pits and batteries, which were distant perhaps half a mile. Close to us, on each side, were our batteries, firing as fast as they could, and the rebels were sending back shot, shell, and shrapnel as hard as possible. Half a mile is no good with minie rifles; and, as soon as we attacked, the balls came tolerably numerous, cutting up little puffs of sand on the dry field. I sat up straight on my horse, comme les avires, but I can’t say it was pleasant, though it is a help to have others cool and brave. It was as I expected—forty-five days of constant marching, assaulting and trenching are a poor preparation for a rush! The men went in, but not with spirit; received by a withering fire, they sullenly fell back a few paces to a slight crest and lay down, as much as to say, “We can’t assault but we won’t run.” The slopes covered with dead and wounded bore testimony that they were willing to give proof of courage even in circumstances that they deemed desperate. Another attack at six resulted no better, save that the lines were at all points pressed close in on those of the enemy. Birney, during the day, made a grand attack with no better success, on the right. I returned after dark, feeling pretty sad. General Meade was much disappointed, but took it cheerfully as he does every matter which affects him personally. The whole thing resulted just as I expected. You cannot strike a full blow with a wounded hand.

*”Everyone was near the breaking-point. He, Burnside, complained of the heavy artillery detailed to his corps. ‘They are worthless,’ said he; ‘they didn’t enlist to fight and it is unreasonable to expect it from them. In the attack last night I couldn’t find thirty of them!’ He afterwards said of Meade (to one of his Staff): ‘He is irascible; but he is a magnanimous man.’ Presently up comes Griffin, in one of his peculiar blusters! and all about a commissary who, he maintains, didn’t follow orders. Griffin stormed and swore. ‘Now! now!’said Warren (who can be very judicious when he chooses), ‘let us all try to keep our tempers more, and not swear so much. I know I give way myself; but it is unworthy.’” —Lyman’s Journal.

Here’s Horace Porter’s account. This is from Campaigning with Grant, pages 208-10. Like Lyman, Porter comments on Meade’s notorious temper but notes how it served a purpose in combat.

At daylight on the 18th Meade’s troops advanced to the assault which had been ordered, but made the discovery that the enemy’s line of the day before had been abandoned. By the time new formations could be made Lee’s army had arrived in large force, great activity had been displayed in strengthening the fortifications, and the difficulties of the attacking party had been greatly increased. The Second Corps was temporarily commanded by D. B. Birney, as Hancock’s Gettysburg wound had broken out afresh the day before, entirely disabling him. Gallant assaults were repeatedly made by Burnside, Warren, and Birney; and while they did not succeed in the object of carrying the enemy’s main line of fortifications, positions were gained closer to his works, and these were held and strongly intrenched. Both of the opposing lines on this part of the ground were now strengthened, and remained substantially the same in position from that time until the capture of Petersburg.

General Grant realized the nature of the ground and the circumstances that prevented the troops from accomplishing more than had been done, and he complimented Meade upon the promptness and vigor with which he had handled his army on this day of active operations. Indeed, Meade had shown brilliant qualities as commander of a large army, and under the general directions given him had made all the dispositions and issued all the detailed orders. Grant felt it necessary to remain at City Point in order to be in communication with both Meade and Butler, as Lee’s troops were that day moving rapidly south past Butler’s front.

My duties kept me on Meade’s front a large part of the day. He showed himself the personification of earnest, vigorous action in rousing his subordinate commanders to superior exertions. Even his fits of anger and his resort to intemperate language stood him at times in good stead in spurring on every one upon that active field. He sent ringing despatches to all points of the line, and paced up and down upon the field in his nervous, restless manner, as he watched the progress of the operations and made running comments on the actions of his subordinates. His aquiline nose and piercing eyes gave him something of the eagle’s look, and added to the interest of his personality. He had much to try him upon this occasion, and if he was severe in his reprimands and showed faults of temper, he certainly displayed no faults as a commander. When the battle was over no one was more ready to make amends for the instances in which he felt that he might have done injustice to his subordinates. He said to them: “Sorry to hear you cannot carry the works. Get the best line you can and be prepared to hold it. I suppose you cannot make any more attacks, and I feel satisfied all has been done that can be done.” Lee himself did not arrive at Petersburg until noon that day.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 167-70. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

War of Brothers-in-Law (June 17, 1864)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions Wise’s Legion. He had a reason to be particularly interested in this unit, for its commander, Henry Wise, was his brother-in-law. Wise’s second wife had been Sarah Sergeant, Mrs. Meade’s sister. (Sarah had died in childbirth in 1850.) Wise was the former governor of Virginia—in fact, it was Wise who signed John Brown’s death warrant after the radical abolitionists failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry. He was a fiery secessionist who waved his pistol when he took the podium at Virginia’s secessionist convention in April 1861 and demanded that his state leave the Union. He joined the Confederate army and, as a brigadier general, led his troops to a successful defense of Petersburg when his brother-in-law attempted to capture it.

According to one story, Robert E. Lee once took Wise aside to gently chastise him about his strong language. Wise claimed he cut Lee off and said, “General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole army of Northern Virginia; but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.”

Lee laughed. “Wise, you are incorrigible,” he said.

Meade also mentions the Great Central Sanitary Fair, which took place in Philadelphia that month. (President and Mrs. Lincoln  and son Tad visited the fair on June 16.) In his book Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union, historian Anthony Waskie wrote, “The Great Central Fair was probably the greatest purely civic act of voluntary benevolence ever attempted in Philadelphia.” The venue was Logan Square and its fundraising was directed for soldiers’ relief.  Meade comments on the competition between himself and Winfield Scott Hancock over the awarding of a sword. Meade won the sword, but Mrs. Meade was edged out in the voting for the award of an imported bonnet by Mrs. Ambrose Burnside. I assume when Meade refers to “the ‘Shoddy,’” he is referring to so-called Shoddy Millionaires, who supposedly made fortunes by selling poor quality goods to the Union army.

I have not written you for several days, as we have been moving, our mail facilities for the time being interrupted. Our march from Cold Harbor to this place has been most successful, including, as it has done, the crossing of two streams, the Chickahominy and the James, over the former of which a bridge of one thousand seven hundred feet had to be thrown, and over the James one of two thousand feet, in eighty-five feet of water—an exploit in military bridge building that has never been equaled. I reached this field yesterday, having been placed by General Grant in command of all the troops in front of Petersburg, consisting of the Army of the Potomac, and two portions of Butler’s army, Grant being back at City Point. After arriving on the ground, although our men had been marching all the night before and during the day, I at once ordered an attack, which commenced at 6 p.m. and lasted pretty much continuously till 4 a.m. to-day—that is, ten hours—eight of which was by moonlight, another unparalleled feat in the annals of war.

Our attack was quite successful, as we captured several of their works, four guns and five hundred prisoners. The first prisoners brought in replied, on being asked to what command they belonged, Wise’s Legion. I asked where the general was; they said right in my front. I asked how he was, and they replied, the old man seemed quite well. I inquired what members of his family were with him, and they replied, he had two aides, named Wise, one of whom was his son and the other a nephew. This is the latest intelligence I can send you from your Virginia connections.

We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond, and that Grant’s words of keeping at it all summer will prove to be quite prophetic. Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.

I have to-day received your letters of the 10th and 12th. Hancock was with me when I read them. Hancock and I have great fun over the sword contest at the fair, I telling him that he made use of his time last winter to make friends with the “Shoddy,” and of course, as they have the money, I can’t expect to compete with him. We laugh and joke a good deal about it, and whenever a paper comes in we look for the state of the vote. The last date we have is the 14th, and that shows me about one hundred and fifty ahead, which, as I have been behind him all the time, is the source of much merriment.

Your account of the fair is very interesting. I should think, from the newspapers, you would be likely to beat the New York fair in receipts, and that your expenses would be much less.

I wish Sargie would get well enough to travel; he might pay me a visit, now the weather is warm. I don’t suppose Sargie cares much about seeing war, but I and George would like hugely to see him. The weather is getting quite warm. I continue in excellent health and spirits.

In his letter of June 17, Theodore Lyman writes about the IX Corps. Brig. Gen. Robert Potter had been with Ambrose Burnside and that corps since its early successes in the Carolinas and had been one of the generals responsible for finally forcing Union troops across “Burnside Bridge” at Antietam. James Ledlie was one of the Union’s worst generals. In his journal, Lyman had written, “Ledlie was a wretched, incapable drunkard, not fit to command a company, and was the ruin of his division.” Potter and Ledlie will both play roles in the episode of the Crater. Major Morton was Major James St. Clair Morton. “He was of a gallant, daring temperament, and, on one or two occasions during the campaign had led in person charges of the troops upon the enemy’s intrenched lines,” read an 1867 history of the XI Corps. “Always in the van, he had narrowly escaped with his life in former battles. On the 17th of June, he headed the advance of General Hartranft’s brigade, and was killed while the troops were retiring from the attack.”

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman's letter (Library of Congress).

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman’s letter (Library of Congress).

At daylight Potter, of the 9th Corps, assaulted the enemy’s works at a point near what was then our left. He took the works very handsomely, with four guns and 350 prisoners, and had his horse shot under him. Potter (a son of the Bishop of Pennsylvania) is a grave, pleasant-looking man, known for his coolness and courage. He is always very neatly dressed in the full uniform of a brigadier-general. His Headquarters are now at the house where he took two of the cannon. You ought to see it! It is riddled with bullets like the cover of a pepper-box. In a great oak by his tent a cannon-ball has just buried itself, so that you can see the surface under the bark. In a few years the wood will grow over it, and there it will perhaps remain to astonish some wood-cutter of the future, when the Great Rebellion shall have passed into history. This was a brave day for Burnside. He fought in the middle of the day, with some gain, and just before evening Ledlie’s division attacked and took a third line, beyond the one taken by Potter. This could have been held, I think, but for the idea that we were to advance still more, so that preparations were made to push on instead of getting reserves in position to support the advanced force. The enemy, however, after dark, concentrated and again drove out our troops, who fell back to the work taken by Potter in the morning; and so ended the anniversary of Bunker Hill. In the attack of that evening, Major Morton, Chief Engineer of the 9th Corps, was killed—a man of an eccentric disposition, but of much ability. He was son of the celebrated ethnologist, whose unrivaled collection of crania is now in the Philadelphia Academy.

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. 204-5. 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, p. 166-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Most Striking Sight (June 16, 1864)

Wilcox's landing on the James River. Before the war it had been established as a shipping point for tobacco (Library of Congress).

Wilcox’s landing on the James River. Before the war it had been established as a shipping point for tobacco (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman describes the events of June 16, 1864. His journals, edited by David W. Lowe and published as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, make great companion reading for his letters. In his journals Lyman adds to his account of touring the former Confederate ironclad Atlanta. “This ‘Atlanta’ is just like a great, iron turtle, with an angular back, in which there are narrow ports for three or four big rifled cannon, which are handled with surprising ease by a few ropes and pulleys,” he wrote. “The inside was like a low attic. We saw where a number of bolt-heads were knocked off by one of our 15-inch shot, when we took her. The not nevertheless, did not go through.” Lyman was correct that the Union guns did not penetrate the ironclad’s armor, but several of her crewmen had been wounded by wood fragments and bolts sent flying by the impacts.

The wounded Hal whom Lyman visits was Henry Sturgis Russell, his wife’s brother. He will recover. Russell had joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, an African-American unit. At the time Lyman expressed some outrage. “The Negro cannot change his nature; thus hath God made him,” Lyman wrote in this journal on December 11, 1863. “As a rule he cannot fight against the White. This is leaning on a broken reed. There is no general historical precedence for their being efficient troops.” Lyman was certainly not in the minority here but, as he noted the day before, the black soldiers had acquitted themselves well in the fight for the Dimmock Line outside Petersburg.

Horace Porter (Library of Congress).

Horace Porter (Library of Congress).

Horace Porter of Grant’s staff also described the fighting on June 16 in his book Campaigning with Grant. He wrote, “I found Meade standing near the edge of a piece of woods, surrounded by some of his staff, and actively engaged in superintending the attack, which was then in progress. His usual nervous energy was displayed in the intensity of his manner and the rapid and animated style of his conversation. He assured me that no additional orders could be given which could add to the vigor of the attack. He was acting with great earnestness, and doing his utmost to carry out the instructions which he had received. He had arrived at the front about two o’clock, and his plans had been as well matured as possible for the movement. Three redans, as well as a line of earthworks connecting them, were captured. The enemy felt the loss keenly, and made several desperate attempts during the night to recover the ground, but in this he did not succeed.”

At four in the morning they began to ferry over the 5th Corps; of this, two divisions were loaded from Wilcox’s wharf and two from a wharf near the bridge; the bridge itself being in constant use for the passage of the main train. The 5th Corps would then march on Petersburg and take position on the left of the 9th. . . . Our information was that part of Lee’s army, quitting Malvern Hill, had crossed at Drury’s Bluff and was moving on Petersburg. About nine o’clock the General, with Sanders and myself, went on board the ironclad Atlanta. The Captain sent a boat ashore and took us out in state. How sailor-like the Americans look, with their blue shirts and flat caps! And these poor infantry, artillery, and cavalry of ours, why, the more they serve, the less they look like soldiers and the more they resemble day-laborers who have bought second-hand military clothes. I have so come to associate good troops with dusty, faded suits, that I look with suspicion on anyone who has a stray bit of lace or other martial finery. . . .

At 10.30 General Humphreys and General Meade, taking only Sanders and myself, embarked on a boat with General Ingalls, for City Point. The boat started up the river with us, and we found it an hour’s trip to City Point. The river is very pretty, or rather fine, with banks that remind one of Narragansett Bay, going to Newport, only they are, I think, higher. . . . City Point is a jut of land at the junction of the Appomattox and the James. It must once have been a quite pretty place, and consisted of a large number of scattered private houses, several of them very good ones; especially that near which General Grant had his camp, which is just on the river. . . . Grant had gone to the front, some seven miles away, and we presently rode out on the Petersburg road, and met Grant returning,1 a couple of miles from the Point. It was on going out of the place that it occurred to me that someone had said that Hal’s regiment was there; so, as I passed a shipshape-looking camp, I asked, “What regiment is that?” “Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry,” said the darkie. “Is Colonel Russell there?” “No, sa-ar. He’s in der hospital. He was wounded yesterday!” I felt a quite cold perspiration, as I asked if he were badly hurt. The man thought not, but said he was hit in two places. It was tough to ride right past him so, but the General had but two aides; we were expecting a fight, and I had no business to stop in a road where I could not again find him. Meeting Colonel Rowley, however, I asked him to see that Hal had everything and to say that I would be in that night to see him. We rode on along an almost deserted road, till we crossed the rail, when we came on Burnside’s column, moving wearily along. The men had done awful marching in a dry country, with a hot sun and midst a stifling dust. I hate to see troops so used up. Passing through some woods, we again got to an open country, then went a little way more in woods, and came full on an open space in front of the captured line of works. . . . Just here Hancock had his flag and General Meade was soon busy consulting about an assault, which finally was ordered for six p.m. … From the place we then stood I could see two or three spires of the town. Of this attack I saw more than of most previous fights, or rather of the cannonade. The line of our batteries was in plain sight, a little in front of where General Meade took his stand, because the Rebels had long since cut down a wide zone of timber in their front, to get a good field of fire. It was a most striking sight! The air, hazy with dust, gave a copper-red color to the declining sun, which was soon heightened by the powder-smoke that rose from the batteries. The firing was very heavy and there was the continual whiz of our shells or those of the enemy. It is curious, but the scene reminded me of one of those stiff but faithful engravings of Napoleon’s battles that one sees in European collections; especially the artillerists loading and discharging their pieces. The musketry was pretty heavy too. Birney and part of the others carried the first line, but the assault was not a success such as we wanted; however, General Meade ordered a column of 5000 men to be prepared for a moonlight attack, which, as you will learn, took place at daylight next morning. The General had a quite narrow escape, as we stood watching; for a round shot came bounding over the country and hopped right in front of him and General Humphreys. The attack over, I asked leave to go in and see Harry, and the General told me I could have stopped when we came through had I asked then. So I got a fresh horse and two men and started. It was an elegant night, with a fine moon—quite perfect indeed. You could never have supposed yourself near a great army, after getting past the railroad. There was scarcely a soul on the route. As I got near the village there were some waggons going out to Butler, but these were pretty much all. Nobody halted me, though I rode past a picket guard and through the breastworks. It was not till I drew near Hal’s camp that his sentry roared out in a military voice, indicating much study of phonetics: “Halt! Who goes there?” Then came a corporal of the guard in due style. … I ascended the stairs of what had been a private house. It was about ten at night when I got in. There were a number of cots arranged in a large upper room, each occupied by a wounded officer. On the mantelpiece were medicine bottles, a pitcher of lemonade and a candle; and this was a ward. Master Hal lay fast asleep on one of the cots, quite unconscious of dusty brothers-in-law. . . . He was mightily glad to see me, and we talked some time, in a low voice, not to disturb others. I remember there was a wounded lieutenant next us, a good deal under morphine, who had a great fancy that Lee had captured our whole supply train. Finally I departed with a humble gift of two oranges and some tea, which I had brought in my holsters. . . .

Some of the works in front of Petersburg captured by the XVIII Corps Library of Congress).

Some of the works in front of Petersburg captured by the XVIII Corps Library of Congress).

Then to Headquarters and found General Grant just going to bed. He sat on the edge of his cot, in shirt and drawers, and listened to my report. I told him the General would put in a column of 5000 men of the 9th Corps, by moonlight. He smiled, like one who had done a clever thing, and said, “I think it is pretty well to get across a great river, and come up here and attack Lee in his rear before he is ready for us!” He prepared a despatch to General Meade, which I took back.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 163-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.