Hail, Columbia (July 4, 1864)

"Headquarters of Genl. Warren at Col. Avery's house-near Petersburg" by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

“Headquarters of Genl. Warren at Col. Avery’s house-near Petersburg” by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Happy 4th of July! Most likely you are having a much better holiday than the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia enjoyed in their works outside Petersburg. It must have been interesting to celebrate the birth of your country even  as you were fighting to preserve it (or, in the case of the Confederates, break up that country and start a new one). Here Theodore Lyman provided an account of the day and the general conditions on the front.

Samuel Crawford, the former army surgeon who became indignant when soldiers called him "Old Pills" (Library of Congress).

Samuel Crawford, the former army surgeon who became indignant when soldiers called him “Old Pills” (Library of Congress).

Lyman also mentions some incidents involving Samuel Crawford, who commanded a division in the V Corps. Crawford had begun his Civil War career as a surgeon at Fort Sumter. Horace Porter told a story about Meade and an officer who must have been Crawford, although Porter merely identified him as “an officer serving in the Army of the Potomac who had formerly been a surgeon.” One day the officer arrived at Meade’s headquarters “in a high state of indignation.” As he had been riding over, some of the men had called him “Old Pills,” and he thought that was a great affront to his dignity. “I would like to have it stopped,” he said.

Meade put on his eyeglasses and glared through them at the complainer. “Well, what of that?” he demanded. “How can I prevent it? Why, I hear that, when I rode out the other day, some of the men called me a ‘damned old goggle-eyed snapping-turtle,’ and I can’t even stop that!” Now “Old Pills” and the “old goggle-eyed snapping-turtle” lie in the ground near each other at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, neighbors for eternity.

What shall I say of the Fourth? Our celebration could not well amount to much; the men have to stay too close in camp to do such things. The band came in the morning and serenaded, and there was saluting enough in the form of cannon and mortars from our right. This siege—if you choose to call it a siege—is a curious illustration of the customs of old soldiers. On the right—say from the Appomattox to a point opposite the Avery house—the lines are very close and more or less of siege operations are going on; so every finger, or cap, or point of a gun that shows above the works, is instantly shot at, in addition to which batteries and mortars are firing intermittently. Nothing could be more hostile! But pass to the division a little to the left of this, where our lines swing off from the enemy’s, and you have a quite reversed state of things. There is not a shot! Behold the picket men, no longer crouching closely in their holes, but standing up and walking about, with the enemy’s men, in like fashion, as near to them, in some places, as the length of the Brookline house. At one part, there was a brook between, and our pickets, or theirs, when they want water, hold up a canteen, and then coolly walk down to the neutral stream. All this truce is unofficial, but sacred, and is honorably observed. Also it is a matter of the rank and file. If an officer comes down, they get uneasy and often shout to him to go back, or they will shoot. The other day General Crawford calmly went down, took out an opera-glass and began staring. Very quickly a Reb was seen to write on a scrap of paper, roll it round a pebble and throw it over to our line. Thereon was writ this pithy bit of advice: “Tell the fellow with the spy-glass to clear out, or we shall have to shoot him.” Near this same spot occurred a ludicrous thing, which is true, though one would not believe it if seen in a paper. A Reb, either from greenness or by accident, fired his musket, whereupon our people dropped in their holes and were on the point of opening along the whole line, when the Rebs waved their hands and cried: “Don’t shoot; you’ll see how we’ll fix him!” Then they took the musket from the unfortunate grey-back, put a rail on his shoulder, and made him walk up and down for a great while in front of their rifle-pits! If they get orders to open, they call out, “Get into your holes, Yanks, we are ordered to fire”; and their first shots are aimed high, as a sort of warning. Their liberties go too far sometimes, as when two deliberately walked up to our breastwork to exchange papers; whereat General Crawford refused to allow them to return, saying very properly that the truce was not official, and that they had chosen to leave their own works and come over to ours, and that now they could carry back information of our position. They expected an attack on the 4th of July—I suppose as a grand melodramatic stroke on Grant’s part; but, instead thereof, the Maryland brigade brought up their band to the trenches and played “Hail Columbia”; upon which, to the surprise of everyone, a North Carolina regiment, lying opposite, rose as a man and gave three cheers! The news is not precisely cheery from Maryland. With the preparations on foot, we ought to bag a large part of the Rebels; but I have a sublime confidence that the movements of our troops will, as usual, be a day too late. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 181-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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