Protracted and Severe Fighting (June 5, 1864)

George Meade at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

George Meade at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

In which George Meade defends his record. Even the attack on Spotsylvania, which he cites as a success, led to 22 hours of slaughter and resulted in Lee moving back to a new and better line. 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.”

Since our last battle on the 3d inst. we have been comparatively quiet. The enemy has tried his hand once or twice at the offensive, and in each case has been repulsed and severely punished. This evening, after dark, he made a furious attack, but was everywhere repulsed. The sound of the artillery and musketry has just died away. Indeed, we are pretty much engaged all the time, from early in the morning till late at night. I don’t believe the military history of the world can afford a parallel to the protracted and severe fighting which this army has sustained for the last thirty days. You would suppose, with all this severe fighting, our severe losses, constant marches, many in the night, that the physical powers of the men would be exhausted. I have no doubt in time it will tell on them, but as yet they show no evidences of it.

I feel a satisfaction in knowing that my record is clear, and that the results of this campaign are the clearest indications I could wish of my sound judgment, both at Williamsport and Mine Run. In every instance that we have attacked the enemy in an entrenched position we have failed, except in the case of Hancock’s attack at Spottsylvania, which was a surprise discreditable to the enemy. So, likewise, whenever the enemy has attacked us in position, he has been repulsed. I think Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee’s army is not Tennessee and Bragg’s army. Whether the people will ever realize this fact remains to be seen.

After the failed assault of June 3,  hundreds of wounded soldiers lay between the lines while Grant and Lee dickered over the terms that would allow their recovery. Anyone venturing outside the trenches faced almost certain death from sharpshooters. Grant balked at the idea of requesting a truce, which would make it look as if he had lost the contest (which he had). He suggested that Meade should make the request. Meade replied that the Confederates would not recognize him as commander while Grant was present with the army. For his part, Lee had few wounded outside his lines to recover and was hardly prepared to accommodate Grant. While the delicate dance took place between the two commanders, the wounded lay suffering between the lines. Theodore Lyman received the assignment to start the truce proceedings.

This afternoon I carried a flag of truce—quite an episode in my military experiences. At three in the afternoon General Meade sent for me and said, as if asking for a piece of bread and butter: “Lyman, I want you to take this letter from General Grant and take it by a flag of truce, to the enemy’s lines. General Hancock will tell you where you can carry it out.” I recollect he was lying on his cot at the time, with his riding boots cocked up on the footboard. My ideas on flags of truce were chiefly mediaeval and were associated with a herald wearing a tabard. However, I received the order as if my employment had been that from early youth, and proceeded at once to array myself in “store” clothes, sash, white gloves and all other possible finery. After searching in vain for a bugler who could blow a “parley,” I set forth with only a personable and well-dressed cavalry sergeant, and found the gallant Hancock reposing on his cot. “Well, Colonel,” says H., “now you can’t carry it out on my front, it’s too hot there. Your best way is to go to the left, where there are only pickets, and the officers there will get it out.” So the ever-laborious Major Mitchell was summoned and told to provide some whiskey for the Rebs and a flag. The last was a great point: there seemed nothing white about, except the General’s shirt, but at last he found a pillowcase which was ripped up and put on a staff, and you would have admired it when it was completed! Then we made our way towards the left and found General Birney’s men moving that way, who furnished us information about the road, and a guide, Colonel Hapgood of the 5th New Hampshire, corps officer of the day. He was a live Yankee, a thorough New Hampshire man—tall, sinewy, with a keen black eye, and a driving way about him. He was ornamented with a bullet-hole through his hat, another through the trousers, and a third on his sword scabbard. We rode forward till we struck the breastwork at Miles’s Headquarters. It was a curious sight! Something like an Indian family camped half underground. Here was the breastwork, behind which were dug a number of little cellars, about two feet deep, and, over these, were pitched some small tents. And there you could see the officers sitting, with only their heads above ground, writing or perhaps reading; for it was a quiet time and there were no bullets or shells. We followed the line to its end, near by, and then rode through the pine woods a little way. Here Colonel Hamyl remarked in a ghostly voice: “Do you know where you are going? There have been two field officers killed just here.” To whom Colonel Hapgood (with injured pride): ‘‘Yes sir! I do know where I am going. There’s some bullets comes through here; but none to hurt.” Without definitely settling what precise minimum of balls was “none to hurt,” we continued on. Presently the cautious Hapgood pulled up and peered round; and I could see an open field through the trees and another taller wood behind. “Now,” said the New Hampshire patriot, “those tallest trees are full of their sharpshooters; if we strike into the field fifty yards above here, they will fire; but, just below, they can’t see.” So we followed on, and, as soon as we were in the open ground, started at a gallop and got into another wood, close to where I have put my flag on the map. There was here a road, leading past a mill-pond, which however was some quarter of a mile away. Our pickets held this road for some hundred or two yards from us, and then came the enemy’s pickets. The Colonel said he knew a good place to approach, and went forward to call to some of them. After a great deal of delay, the lieutenant on our side got one of them to send for an officer, and then word was sent down each line to cease firing in that command, as a flag of truce was going in. Then we left our horses and went forward, the sergeant carrying the flag. As we turned a corner, close by, we came almost upon their party, standing some paces off. It looked exactly like a scene in an opera; there was never anything that so resembled something got up for stage effect. The sun was near setting, and, in the heavy oak woods, the light already began to fade. On the road stood a couple of Rebel officers, each in his grey overcoat, and, just behind, were grouped some twenty soldiers—the most gipsy-looking fellows imaginable; in their blue-grey jackets and slouched hats; each with his rusty musket and well-filled cartridge-box. I walked up in all stateliness (fully aware, however, that white cotton gloves injured the ensemble), and was introduced to Major Wooten of the 14th North Carolina sharpshooters, belonging to A. P. Hill’s Corps. He was a well-looking man, with quiet and pleasing manners; and, to see us all together, you would suppose we had met to go out shooting, or something of that kind. I am free to confess that the bearing of the few Rebel officers I have met is superior to the average of our own. They have a slight reserve and an absence of all flippancy, on the whole an earnestness of manner, which is very becoming to them. They get this I think partly from the great hardships they suffer, or, still more, the hardships of those at home, and from a sense of their ruin if their cause fails. We attack, and our people live in plenty, with no one to make them afraid; it makes a great difference. . . .

Major Wooten said he would enquire if the despatch could be received, and soon got notice that it could, if in a proper form. So it was sent in, an answer promised in a couple of hours, and we all sat down on the grass to wait—or rather on the leaves, for this sandy soil produces no grass to speak of. As I had time to look about and, still more to sniff about, I became aware that the spot was not so charming as it looked. There had been a heavy cavalry skirmish in the woods and they were full of dead horses, which, as the evening closed, became, as Agassiz would say, “highly offensive.” It was positively frightful! and there I waited till eleven at night! Not even the novelty of the position was enough to distract one’s attention. As to the pickets, they were determined to have also a truce, for, when a Reb officer went down the line to give some order, he returned quite aghast, and said the two lines were together, amiably conversing. He ordered both to their posts, but I doubt if they staid. At half-past eight we had quite a disagreeable experience. There suddenly was heard a shot or two towards our left centre, then quite a volley, and then, whir-r-r-r, the musketry came running down right towards us, as one regiment after another took it up! The next thing I expected was that both sides just near us would take a panic and begin blazing away. The officers sprung to their feet and ran down the lines, to again caution the men; so nobody fired; and there we sat and listened to the volleys and the cannonading, that opened very heavily. . . .

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

As it got to be after ten, Major Wooten said he would go back and see what was the delay. There came back a lieutenant soon, that is about eleven, with a note from a superior officer, saying that “General Grant’s aide-decamp need not be delayed further,” but that an answer would be sent in at the same point, which could be received by the picket officer. So we shook hands with the Rebs and retreated from the unsavory position. . . . We stopped at Barlow’s Headquarters, and then I kept on to camp, where the General greeted me with: “Hullo, Lyman, I thought perhaps the Rebs had gobbled you during that attack.” . . .

In his journal entry, Lyman includes more about “that eccentric officer,” Francis Barlow. “He was in a merry state; for he had put some hundreds of stragglers in an open field & left them there while the shells were flying, and one got hit!” Barlow hated stragglers.

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. 201. 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.149-53. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


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