A Look at the Field (August 1, 1864)

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a "covered way" used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a “covered way” used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides an interesting description of Union fortifications at Petersburg and takes advantage of a truce to examine the aftermath of the mine explosion. He spares his wife a description of what he saw, but he included one in his journal (edited by David W. Lowe and published in 2007 as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt.Col. Theodore Lyman). “In the moderate space between us and the enemy—some 110 yards—lay perhaps 200 bodies,” he wrote. “The heat and intense sun of 48 hours had so swollen and blackened them that negroes were not to be told from whites, save by the hair! The faces and hands of many were actually white with a moving layer of maggots!”

I waked at about six in the morning and heard the General say, “Very well, then, let the truce be from five to nine.” Whereby I knew that Beauregard had agreed to a cessation of hostilities for the burial of the dead and relief of the wounded. After struggling awhile with my indolence, I tumbled out of bed, waked Rosencrantz and ordered my horse. We speedily got ready and sallied forth to look at the field. We rode into a piece of pine woods, at the corner of which I was during the assault of the 18th of June. Some of the advanced camps were here, the danger of their position being plainly marked by the banks of earth put up by each tent. Getting out of the wood, we came on an open tract, a good deal elevated. Here, on the left, and by the ruins of a house was a heavy battery, known as the Taylor house battery. And here too begins the “covered way.” Before I saw real operations I never could understand the management of cannon. On the principle of your battle on “the great white plain,” I had an idea that all the guns were put in the front line: else how could they hit anybody? But really there are often no cannon at all there, all being placed in a second or a third line, or in isolated batteries in these relative positions. One of our heavy siege guns would sometimes have to fire as many as 1700 yards to hit the enemy’s breastwork. You see that cannon-shot must rise high in the air to go any distance; so they fire over each other’s heads. In practice this system is not without its dangers, owing to the imperfections of shells. In spite of the great advances, much remains to be done in the fuses of shells; as it is, not a battle is fought that some of our men are not killed by shells exploding short and hitting our troops instead of the enemy’s, beyond. Sometimes it is the fuse that is imperfect, sometimes the artillerists lose their heads and make wrong estimates of distance. From these blunders very valuable officers have lost their lives. Prudent commanders, when there is any doubt, fire only solid shot,which do not explode, and do excellent service in bounding over the ground.

We got off our horses at the edge of the wood and took to the covered way (we might better have ridden). A covered way is singularly named, as it is open on top. It is simply a trench, about four feet wide, with the dirt thrown up on the side towards the enemy. It should be deep enough to cover a man standing upright. The great thing is, so to run it that the enemy cannot get a sight of it lengthwise, as they could then enfilade it. To this end the way is run zig-zag, and advantage is taken of every hollow, or knoll, that may afford shelter. I was not impressed with the first part of our covered way, as it could be shot into in many places, and was so shallow that it covered me no higher than the shoulders. Probably it was dug by a small officer who was spiteful against men of great inches. . . . We scrambled up the opposite steep bank and stood at the high breastwork of Burnside’s advanced salient. The parapet was crowded with troops, looking silently at the scene of the late struggle. We got also on the parapet and at once saw everything. Opposite, and a little above us, distant about 350 feet, was the rough edge of the crater, made by the mine. There were piles of gravel and of sand, and shapeless masses of hard clay, all tumbled on top of each other. Upon the ridge thus formed, and upon the remains of the breastwork, stood crowds of Rebel soldiers in their slouched hats and ghostly grey uniforms. Really they looked like malevolent spirits, towering to an unnatural height against the sky. Each party had a line of sentries close to his works, and, in the midst, stood an officer with a white flag, where the burial parties were at work.* I jumped down and passed towards the enemy’s line, where only officers were allowed to go, with the details for work. I do not make a practice of describing disagreeable spectacles, and will only say that I can never again see anything more horrible than this glacis before the mine. It did not take long to satisfy our curiosity, and we returned to camp, getting in just as the General was at breakfast. He takes his disappointments before Petersburg in an excellent spirit; and, when the “Herald” this morning said he was to be relieved and not to have another command, he laughed and said: “Oh, that’s bad; that’s very bad! I should have to go and live in that house in Philadelphia; ha! ha! ha!” The papers will tell you that Grant has gone to Washington. As I don’t know what for, I can make Yankee guesses. I presume our father Abraham looks on his election prospects as waning, and wants to know of Ulysses, the warrior, if some man or some plan can’t be got to do some thing. In one word he wants to know—WHY THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC DON’T MOVE. A month since there was a talk of putting Hancock at the head: that is, losing the most brilliant of corps commanders and risking (there is always a risk) the making of a mediocre army commander!

*“The Rebels were meanly employing their negro prisoners in this work.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 201-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


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