A Visit to Ferrero (July 1, 1864)

Edward Ferrero sitting in front of his headquarters tent at Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Edward Ferrero sitting in front of his headquarters tent at Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg. One hundred and fifty years ago John Buford and his cavalry began delaying the advance of Henry Heth and his division of A.P Hill’s corps. Soon John Reynolds and the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps arrived, to the great relief of Buford and his men, but Reynolds soon fell dead with a bullet in the back of his neck. The great battle had begun.

Today at Gettysburg the Civil War Trust will hold a press conference to announce its acquisition of Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. The little stone building stands on the grounds of a Quality Inn and has a small museum inside. The Trust plans to tear down the hotel and the adjoining ABC brewpub, restore the headquarters to its 1863 appearance, and donate the land to the park. That’s big news for the battlefield.

My wife and I visited the battlefield last weekend. We parked at Devil’s Den and then took a long walk over to the Wheatfield, up by the Peach Orchard, down past the Trostle barn (which is undergoing restoration), and then down Sedgwick Avenue and back to Devil’s Den. The coolest thing about the walk happened as we walked down Crawford Avenue back to our car. A little bridge just past Samuel Crawford’s statue crosses Plum Run’s swampy residue there. As I peered down into the murky waters I spotted something I thought was a large boulder. Then I spied a pair of reptilian eyes staring back at me from just above the waterline. This was no boulder! The boulder turned out to be a huge snapping turtle! And, as everyone reading this must know, George Meade was known as “the old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

Now let’s jump back 150 years ago to a letter Theodore Lyman wrote on July 1, 1864. Be warned: It does represent his nineteenth-century views on race but there’s also the sense of a growing, if grudging, respect Lyman is feeling for the fighting abilities of the Union’s African-American soldiers.

Lyman is taking the visiting French officers to see the men of Edward Ferraro’s division. Ferrero had been born in Spain and, like his Italian father, became a dance instructor. He taught West Point cadets how to dance and when war broke out he joined the Union army. At Antietam Ferrero’s men, part of the IX Corps, helped force the passage over Burnside Bridge. In 1864 he was given command of a division of black soldiers. For many Union officers, commanding African-Americans was not something to be held in high esteem. His past as a dancing master also opened Ferrero to ridicule. As Lyman noted in his July 1 journal entry, “people laugh at him rather—perhaps too much.” (The General Carr Lyman mentions is Joseph Carr.)

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Nothing very new to-day. I took advantage of the propinquity of the nigger division (which had come to fill part of the 6th Corps’ line, during its absence) to show the unbleached brethren to my Imperial commissioners. We rode first to General Ferrero’s Headquarters. This officer, as his name hints, is an Italian by birth, his papa being of Milan. He is quite a well-looking man, and, like unto General Carr, was a dancing-master before he took to soldiering. He speaks Italian and some French and sputtered along very successfully with the visitors. There was turned out for them a regiment of darks. The sun was intense and the sable gents looked like millers, being indeed quite obscured except when they stood perfectly still. They did remarkably well, and the French officers, who were inclined to look favorably on them beforehand, were in ecstasies over their performances.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 180. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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