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.

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  1. Ignored (June 21, 1864) | Searching for GEORGE GORDON MEADE

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