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.

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