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.

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