To the James (June 13, 1864)

A Timothy O'Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A footnote in the book of Theodore Lyman’s letters points out that this one and some others were actually written after the fact. Nonetheless, they give an immediate and lively account of the move to the James River, a great triumph by Grant, Meade and the Army of the Potomac over Robert E. Lee. This letter includes one of my favorite anecdotes from Lyman, when he encounters General Francis Barlow reclining in a tree and eating cherries. (I feel compelled to note that Lyman’s discussion of African Americans may grate on twenty-first century sensitivities, as can often be the case with communications from the nineteenth.)

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Last night, at dark, the whole army was in motion for “Charles City” on the James River (there is no “city” there, but I believe a house and a barn). . . . This morning we were on our way by 5.30 and, making a cut across the woods, we soon came on Barlow’s division of the 2d Corps going rapidly toward the river, close to which we found Hancock, sitting on the grass and waiting for his Corps. At this point the Chickahominy is nothing of a stream, but, as it is bordered by considerable flats, it suddenly widens, during heavy floods, to perhaps half a mile, the water being just deep enough to stop waggons. This was a great trouble McClellan had: we have met with no such obstacle. This river is characteristic; a good drawing of this very scene at Long’s Bridge might pass as the incarnation of malaria and swamp fever. Fancy a wide ditch, partly choked with rotten logs, and full of brown, tepid, sickly-looking water, whose slow current would scarcely carry a straw along. From the banks of dark mould rises a black and luxuriant vegetation: cypresses of immense size, willow oaks, and swamp magnolias, remind you that you are within the limits of a sub-tropical climate, and so does the unhealthy and peculiar smell of decaying leaves and stagnant water. A great contrast to this landscape, so suggestive of silence and loneliness, was the rumbling and clatter of Barlow’s batteries, as they passed over the resounding pontoon bridge. We clattered over too, as soon as the last of the regiments had passed (which was about 10.30), designing to follow in rear of this division. . . . We kept on, on the flank of the column, admiring its excellent marching, a result partly due to the good spirits of the men, partly to the terror in which stragglers stand of Barlow. His provost guard is a study. They follow the column, with their bayonets fixed, and drive up the loiterers, with small ceremony. Of course their tempers do not improve with heat and hard marching. There was one thin, hard-featured fellow who was a perfect scourge. “Blank you!—you—” (here insert any profane and extremely abusive expression, varied to suit the peculiar case) “get up, will you? By blank, I’ll kill you if you don’t go on, double-quick!” And he looked so much like carrying out his threat that the hitherto utterly prostrate party would skip like the young lamb. Occasionally you would see a fellow awaiting the charge with an air of calm superiority, and, when the guard approached, pull out the aegis of a “surgeon’s pass.” The column marched so fast that I was sent forward to tell General Barlow to go more gently. I found that eccentric officer divested of his coat and seated in a cherry tree. “By Jove!” said a voice from the branches, “I knew I should not be here long before Meade’s Staff would be up. How do you do, Theodore, won’t you come up and take a few cherries?” However, I could not stay, and so kept on till we came, somewhat suddenly, on well-cultivated fields with good crops of wheat, oats, and clover. I was speculating on the reason of this when somebody said we were within a mile of James River! and just after, General Meade ordered me to ride down and see what sort of a position there was and how the land lay.

The pontoon bridge across the James River. In a paper he delivered to the Massachusetts Historical Society long after the war, Lyman wrote, “Meantime the laying of the great pontoon bridge across the narrows opposite Douthart’s house was going on with extraordinary energy. The approach to it lay along the river border under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for it had been covered a day or two previous with great cypresses, some of them three feet and a half in diameter; and these had to be cut close to the ground and the de’bris carefully cleared away. In a portion of the road, too, was a muddy swamp, which required a causeway of laborious construction. The bridge itself, composed of ninety-two boats, was thirteen feet wide and over two thousand feet long. It was braced by three schooners anchored in eighty-five feet of water, near the centre. The whole was laid in ten hours, and was finished at midnight. What added to the strangeness of the scene was the ci-devant Rebel iron-clad Atlanta, lying there like a big mud-turtle with only its back exposed. The group was completed by two or three gunboats and several steamers anchored hard by. The construction of this bridge and its approaches was, without question, one of the engineering feats of the war, the chief credit of which belongs to General Weitzel. Over it passed more than half the infantry of the army, 4000 cavalry, a train of wagons and artillery, thirty-five miles long, and 3500 beef cattle; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours. (Library of Congress)

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon that I caught the first sight of the water, as I cantered round the corner of a little grove. To appreciate such a sight you must pass five weeks in an almost unbroken wilderness, with no sights but weary, dusty troops, endless waggon-trains, convoys of poor wounded men, and hot, uncomfortable camps. Here was a noble river, a mile wide, with high green banks, studded with large plantation houses. In the distance, opposite, was Fort Powhatan, below which lay two steamers; and, what seemed strangest of all, not a Rebel soldier to be seen anywhere! . . . There was a signal-man waving away with his flag to attract the attention of the steamers, to notify all concerned that the head of the Army of the Potomac had struck the James. We went to a field by the Tyler house for our camp—the birthplace of John Tyler, he of the big nose and small political principles—once Vice President, with Tippy-canoe and Tyler too. Nobody was there, save a lot of nigs, that were too funny; for there suddenly appeared among them one of our black servants, who had left that very place in McClellan’s time. Such a “Lord a-a massy! is dat a-ar you? Wha-ar d’ge come from?” as never was heard, and great rejoicings over the distinguished traveller! What was more to the purpose, I got some green peas, a great coup; likewise milk, though “them a-ar infants” (meaning infantry) got the most of it. . . . A pontoon bridge, 2000 feet long, was made in ten hours, and over this passed a train of waggons and artillery thirty-five miles long; more than half the infantry in the army and 3500 beef cattle; besides 4000 cavalry; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours ! In civil life, if a bridge of this length were to be built over a river with a swift current and having a maximum depth of eighty-five feet, they would allow two or three months for the making of plans and collecting of materials. Then not less than a year to build it. This was a busy night on the river, messages going to City Point and Fort Monroe, and ferryboats and gunboats coming up as fast as possible to the neighborhood of Charles City. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 156-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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