Every Satisfaction (August 26, 1864)

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

As mentioned yesterday, the Battle of Reams Station was an embarrassment for Winfield Scott Hancock and the II Corps. In his history of the II Corps, Francis A. Walker quoted Charles Morgan, Hancock’s chief of staff, as saying, “It is not surprising that General Hancock was deeply stirred by the situation, for it was the first time he had felt the bitterness of defeat during the war. He had seen his troops fail in their attempts to carry the intrenched positions of the enemy; but he had never before had the mortification of seeing them driven, and his lines and guns taken, as on this occasion. . . . Never before had he seen his men fail to respond to the utmost when he had called upon them personally for a supreme effort; nor had he ever before ridden toward the enemy followed by a beggarly array of a few hundred stragglers who had been gathered together and again pushed toward the enemy. He could no longer conceal from himself that his once mighty corps retained but the shadow of its former strength and vigor.” Walker, who was taken prisoner during the battle, blamed Meade, in part, for not reinforcing Hancock.

After the defeat, Meade sent a note to Hancock. “No one sympathizes with you more than I do in the misfortunes of this evening,” he wrote. “I am satisfied you and your command have done all in your power, and though you have met with a reverse, the honor and escutcheon of the old Second is as bright as ever, and will, on some future occasion, prove it is only when enormous odds are brought against them that they can be moved.

Don’t let this matter worry you, because you have given me every satisfaction.”

I have been for several days very much occupied, in the saddle all day, superintending the movements culminating in our securing a permanent lodgment on the Weldon Road. I think I wrote you of Warren’s movements and his fights, which, although attended with heavy losses in prisoners, yet resulted in our retaining our hold and eventually inflicting great damage on the enemy. Soon after Warren was in position, Hancock was brought from the north side of the James, and placed on the railroad, with two divisions of infantry and one of cavalry, and commenced the work of destroying the road. He had only destroyed about seven or eight miles, when the enemy, yesterday, attacked him with great vehemence and superior numbers. Hancock was in a good position, and repulsed all their attacks till about dark, when, becoming desperate, they hurled such masses against him, they were enabled to carry a small portion of his lines and a battery of eight guns. As soon as I found how heavily he was attacked, I hurried up reinforcements to him, but the distance was so great they did not arrive till after dark. Hancock’s object, the destruction of the road, being frustrated, he was withdrawn at night. This was the only unfortunate part of the affair, for we this morning ascertained from some of our men who remained on the field that the enemy retired also during the night, leaving their wounded, with their dead unburied. It is said to be one of the severest battles of the war, and the enemy, being the attacking party, suffered terribly, our losses being comparatively light. Still, the loss of guns and our withdrawal will tell against us, though I would do the same thing to-morrow, and willingly lose guns, to make the enemy lose five killed and wounded to our one. Hancock expressed himself as confident of maintaining his position, and did not call for reinforcements, which I nevertheless sent as soon as I found how heavily he was engaged, and he now says he ought to have kept his lines intact, and would have done so but for the bad conduct of a part of his command, giving away when there was no excuse for it. After withdrawing, the enemy retired within his lines at Petersburg, and will, I think, let us alone for some time, and will hardly try for some time the plan of attacking us. These frequent affairs are gradually thinning both armies, and if we can only manage to make the enemy lose more than we do, we will win in the long run, but unfortunately, the offensive being forced on us, causes us to seek battle on the enemy’s terms, and our losses are accordingly the greatest, except when they come out and attack, as recently, when they always get the worst of it.

In his journal entry from August 25, Theodore Lyman wrote that Meade and Hancock had “an almost sharp talk” about Hancock’s support at Reams Station and that Hancock had said, “I would never ask for reinforcements!” Lyman felt this was “a brave but not a soldierly remark.” In his notes for the book of Lyman’s journals (Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman), editor David W. Lowe cites Francis Walker’s criticism of Meade’s handling of Reams Station. “If Meade did not intend to fight, Hancock should have been withdrawn,” Walker had written. “If he did intend to fight, Hancock should have been powerfully reinforced.” Added Lowe, “In hindsight, the criticism holds weight; Meade was lulled by Hancock’s bravado.”

It may be laid down as a general principle, that it is a bad thing, in a musket or a man, to go off at half-cock. In some respects I may be said so to have done in my letter last night. Our information this morning shows that, after dark, while we marched off the ground one way, the enemy marched off the other, leaving their dead unburied and some wounded. Accounts of the field show their loss to have been fearful, much greater than ours, which was not serious either in killed, wounded or prisoners. Thus, all the strategic results lie with us, and we hold the Weldon road. But I would not have you believe I was disposed to turn about and crow. No! I do not so much mind the loss of the guns—a mere matter of prestige—but I do mind the fact that the 2d Corps men did not all fight as they should have fought; had they done so, the Rebels (who I suppose were about as three to two) could never have budged them. As Major Mitchell observed: “The Rebels licked us, but a dozen more such lickings and there will be nothing left of the Rebel army!” My gracious, what a donkey am I to be solemnly sending a telegraph, when I have not been in a single fight. I felt like a donkey at the time, but I thought you would be fussing and imagining, because there had been fighting in various directions. But I will not be so silly in future. And there is your mother, bless her heart! thanking God I am safe out of it, when I have not been in it! Really, I feel it almost my duty to go on the picket line and get shot at by a grey-back, for the sake of doing something! Yes, ma’am, thirty-one is quite an old man, but I am “so as to be about,” can ride a horse and hold up my head; and, as the late T remarked, when he proposed, “I am good for ten years,” which turned out to be true (to the regret of Mrs. T.), for he lived twenty-five years after and begat sons and daughters. You must thank Madre* from me for the present of “Forbes’s Naked-eyed Medusa.” Tell her, also, that, having neglected my natural history for three years, [much] of which has been devoted to becoming semi-idiotic from having nothing to do but listen to cannon and mortars and rifles, and associate with young gentlemen still further advanced in semi-idiocy, I have not a clear idea of what a Medusa is; but am impressed with the notion that it is something flabby that lives in the sea.
*Lyman’s mother-in-law

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 224-25. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 225-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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