A Wonderful Escape (October 3, 1864)

Joseph Bartlett (Library of Congress).

Joseph Bartlett (Library of Congress).

George Meade tells his wife about his narrow escape from an artillery shell. Theodore Lyman mentioned this incident in his letter from yesterday. The generals who shared Meade’s brush with death are Andrew Humphreys, Charles Griffin, and Joseph Bartlett. I would like to know what happened to the shell. Perhaps it’s in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

I have not been able to write you for several days, as I have been so absorbed in our recent movements, which I believe are now successful. These consisted in a movement by Butler on the north side of the James, in the hope of surprising the enemy, and possibly getting into Richmond. The enemy was surprised, and part of his third line of defenses taken from him and is still held by us. As Lee was obliged to detach heavily to meet Butler’s movement, it was thought probable I might, by extending to the left, get into Petersburg. I did extend my lines some two and a half miles, had quite a brisk affair with the enemy, but did not succeed in taking Petersburg. Of course, extending both flanks in this way, we had to weaken our centre, and this is the danger of this kind of movement; but Lee appears so determined to be prudent and cautious. He confines himself strictly to the defensive, and lets slip the chances for a coup we offer him.

On the second day, whilst I was on horseback on the field, talking to Generals Griffin and Bartlett, surrounded by my staff and escort, a shell fell in our midst, grazing Humphreys’s horse, grazing and striking my left leg, just below the knee, passing between Griffin and Bartlett, and embedding itself in the ground in the centre of a group of officers, covering them all with earth, but without exploding or injuring a soul. A more wonderful escape I never saw. At first I thought my leg was gone, as I felt and heard the blow plainly, but it only rubbed the leather of my riding-boot, without even bruising the skin. Afterwards Colonel Lyman had the shell dug up, and is going to preserve it. How would you like to have me back minus a leg and on crutches?

I have seen your brother Willie several times. He seems in good spirits and quite pleased at being assigned to the Army of the Potomac instead of Butler’s army. I had no place on my staff for your friend Captain Wister, but General Humphreys will take him for the present, as two of his aides have just left him, their times being out, though they intend trying to get new commissions to rejoin him. George is quite well. He was in the crowd when the shell dropped among us.

The two officers Lyman describes in this letter—Lt. Col. Charles G. Loring and Maj. Philip M. Lydig—had both been aides to General Burnside but had been sent on leave after the crater debacle. Here Lyman offers some more insights into Meade’s style of command, especially the way he liked to keep his officers on edge. Poor James C. Biddle often served as the butt of the staff’s humor.

Yesterday afternoon arrived Lieutenant-Colonel Loring and Major L_____ . The former looks in better health and immediately set to work on the duties of his office, as Inspector-General, under the easy rule of General Parke, who succeeds the rule of Burnside the Fat. L_____, always fancy, comes in much store clothes, a new shell jacket, double-breasted, and a pair of cerulean riding tights with a broad gold band, into which, according to report, he must be assisted by two strong men. Also his sabre newly burnished, and the names of the battles engraved on it, with other new and elegant touches. He was the young gentleman, you know, of whom the Reb paper said it was unworthy an honest officer to clasp the hand dipped in the gore of their brethren, even though cased in a glove of delicate kid! This was a quiet day, wherein we lay still and made ourselves comfortable. The “comfortable” meant, with many of the officers, lying abed till the classic hour of Richard and Robin; for the General, these last days, has been getting up and riding out at fitful and uncertain hours. I think, when he feels anxious and responsible himself, that he likes to keep others a little on the stretch also. So he would give no orders overnight, but suddenly hop up in the morning and begin to call for breakfast, orderlies, aides, horses, etc. I am sharp, and, at the first sound he makes, I am up and speedily dressed; whereas the others get caught and have to leave suddenly. Biddle is the funniest. There he was, trotting along, the other morning, talking away, like a spinster who had lost her lap dog. “Well, I do think it is too bad! The General never tells anyone when he is going out, and here I am with no breakfast—no breakfast at all!” And here B. opened his fingers and disclosed one boiled egg! To think of a Major on the General Staff riding after his General, with the reins in one hand and a boiled egg in the other!

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. 231-2. 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. 239-40. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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