Theodore Lyman provides another snapshot of the tedious life in front of Petersburg. It’s quite a contrast to the bustle and excitement around Washington, where General Horatio Wright and the VI Corps have gone to repel Jubal Early’s invasion. We can add Mr. Shaw, Winfield Scott Hancock’s English valet, the Lyman’s gallery of great characters.
I hear this evening that General Wright has been put in command of all forces to repel the invasion. But our attempt to bag the raiders may be somewhat like the domestic rural scene of surrounding an escaped pig in the vegetable garden. Don’t you know how half a dozen men will get in a circle about him, and then cautiously advance, with an expression of face between confidence and timidity? The piggie stands still in the midst, with a small and a treacherous eye. Suddenly, picking out the weakest man, he makes an unexpected rush between his legs, upsets him, and canters away midst an impotent shower of sticks! I suppose you think I take a very light view of things, but in reality I do not; only, after seeing so many fine men knocked over, this business of tearing up tracks and eating all the good wife’s fresh butter seems of lesser consequence. Another thing is, I hope it will do us good, sting us to the quick, and frighten us into a wholesome draft. You must remember that this sort of raiding has been a continual and every-day thing in the southern country, though to us it seems to be so awful.
The mail man who came down to-night says they are in a great tremble at Washington, while down here we are pleasantly building bowers against the sun, and telling stories to wile away the time. To these last our French Colonel contributes many, of the Midi, which, with the peculiar accent, are very laughable. To illustrate the egotistical ideas of the Marseillais, he told of a father who was showing to his son a brigade of Zouaves who had just come from Italy and were marching through the streets. “Mon enfant! Vois-tu ces Zouaves? Eh bien, ils sont tous-e des Marseillais. II y avait des Parisiens, mais on les a mis dans la musique!” You remember that long, hot street there they call the Canebiere. A certain citizen, who had just been to see Paris with its present improvements, returned much gratified. “Ah,” said he, “Paris est une bien jolie ville; si, ga avait une Canebiere, ca serait un petit Marseille.” As an offset to which we must have an anecdote of this region. Did I ever tell you of “Shaw,” the valet of Hancock (formerly of General French)? This genius is a regular specimen of the ne’er-do-weel, roving, jack-of-all-trades Englishman. I fancy from his manner that he has once been a head servant or butler in some crack British regiment. He has that intense and impressive manner, only to be got, even by Bulls, in years of drill. He is a perfect character, who no more picks up anything American, than a duck’s feathers soak water. He is full of low-voiced confidence. “Oh, indeed, sir! The General rides about a vast deal in the dust, sir. I do assure you, that to-day, when he got in, his undergarments and his hose were quite soiled, sir!”
“That fellow,” said Hancock, “is the most inquisitive and cool man I ever saw. Now I don’t mind so much his smoking all my cigars and drinking all my liquors—which he does—but I had a bundle of most private papers which I had hidden in the bottom of my trunk, and, the other day, I came into my tent and there was Mr. Shaw reading them! And, when I asked him what the devil he meant, he said: “Oh, General, I took the liberty of looking at them, and now I am so interested, I hope you will let me finish the rest!”
Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 190-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.