A Daily Dose of Arsenic (August 25, 1864)

reamsThe Battle of Reams Station was a serious embarrassment for Winfield Scott Hancock and the II Corps. Hancock’s men were following up Warren’s capture of the Weldon Railroad by moving south down the line and tearing up the rails, when they received word that elements of A. P. Hill’s corps were heading their way. On August 25 the Federals managed to beat back the first attacks, but then their lines crumbled. The proud Hancock, humiliated by the behavior of his soldiers, told one of his staff officers, “Colonel, I do not care to die, but I pray to God I may never leave this field.” God must not have been listening, for Hancock was forced to retreat. Theodore Lyman wrote about the battle on August 25; we’ll see what Meade has to say tomorrow.

There has been more fighting to-day. Hancock, at Reams’ station, was destroying the railroad (Weldon) and holding a position, also, for defence, having two of his divisions of infantry, besides Gregg’s cavalry. The Rebels sent down a large force to drive him off. They began attacking say about one o’clock and were severely repulsed,. till evening; but the last news is, that they made a desperate attempt on all sides and broke through a part of our right, just at nightfall. Hancock hoped to retake the part of the line lost, with the reinforcements coming up; but we have not yet heard the result. I feel rather anxious, though I don’t fear for Hancock’s safety; but I like to see him fully successful. Oh, bah! Captain Miller is just in (this is eleven o’clock at night). Hancock has lost eight guns—among them, I am told, Sleeper’s battery. Poor Sleeper was here this afternoon, wounded in the arm. It is too much all one way in this business, it really is! I don’t like to complain, because it troubles you, but it must break out occasionally. I get so mad and so bothered. For, when we have no good chance, or almost none, when our best undertakings fall through, I lose confidence in each move, and, when I hear the cannon, I look for nothing but our men coming back and a beggarly report of loss of prisoners. It is not right to feel so, but I can’t help it. When a man gets knocked down every time, he expects to go down the next. Well, well, well, I feel already a little better at this grumbling. I must be a sorry eel if I am not yet used to this sort of skinning. I like to see General Meade. I think these contretemps rather rouse and wind him up; he doesn’t seem to be depressed by that sort of thing; perhaps three years of it have made it necessary to his life, just as some persons enjoy a daily portion of arsenic.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 224-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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