Tree Lover (July 24, 1864)

Soldiers dig wells in front of Petersburg in an illustration by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Soldiers dig wells in front of Petersburg in an illustration by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues in his duty as escort to the French observers with the Army of the Potomac. The Agassiz to whom he refers is his old professor at Harvard, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz. Lyman had studied starfish under him. In fact, it was while on a scientific expedition to Florida in 1856 to study starfish that young Lyman first met Lt. George Gordon Meade, who was building lighthouses there.

All appears quiet on the Petersburg front for now, but that will change dramatically in less than a week.

The appearance of the sky is what the sailors term “greasy,” though whether that betokens rain or not I don’t venture to guess. Mayhap we will have a storm, which indeed would serve to lay the dust, which already begins to return, in force. This drought has been in one respect beneficial: it has kept the soldiers from using surface water and forced them to dig wells, whence healthy water may be got. One well near this was productive of scientific results, as they got from it a quantity of shells which I shall send to Agassiz. All this country is underlain more or less by “marl beds,” which are old sea-bottoms full of a good many different shells. The good Colonel de Chanal took a ride with me. He is so funny, with his sentimental French ways. He, with a true French appreciation of wood, looks with honest horror on the felling of a tree. As we rode along, there was a teamster, cutting down an oak for some trivial purpose. “Ah,” cried De Chanal, “Ah! encore un chene; encore un beau chene!” If you tell him twenty men have been killed in the trenches, he is not interested; but actually he notices each tree that falls. “Ah,” he says, “when I think what labor I have been at, on the little place I have at home, to plant, only for my grandchildren, such trees as you cut down without reason!” As he has always lived in the South of France, where greenery is scarce, he is not offended by the bareness of the soil; but when riding through a dreary pine wood, will suddenly break out: “Oh, que c’est beau, que c’est beau!”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 194-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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