Petty Tyranny (October 17, 1864)

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman grumbles about what he sees as political favoritism and retribution within the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Collis was Charles Collis, who had commanded the 114th Pennsylvania, the zouave regiment that served as Meade’s headquarters guard. McMahon is Martin T. McMahon, whose brother James had, indeed, fallen at Cold Harbor (which Lyman insists on calling Cool Arbor). His other brother, John, died of wounds he received while in command of the 164th New York. The problem with Lyman’s story about Martin being dismissed from the army for his pro-McClellan talk, though, is that McMahon was not mustered out until February 1866. There’s an interesting article about the McMahon brothers here.

In his next letter Meade will mention the dignitaries who graced the army with their presence, but the general will not be nearly as amusing in his descriptions as Lyman. I particularly like Lyman’s remark that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton “looks like his photographs, only more so.” The Fessenden with the “Palmer leg” (an artificial limb that included a knee joint) was Francis,  the son of Maine senator William P. Fessenden, who had replaced Salmon Chase as Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. Young Fessenden had lost the leg while commanding a brigade under Nathaniel Banks during the Red River Campaign. Once again Lyman provides an anecdote about hapless aide James C. Biddle.

It is indeed not difficult to get material for a grumble, if one will but look about in this world. You see I can’t be enthusiastic about such a government as Lincoln’s, when I see, under my nose, the petty tyranny and persecution they practise against subordinate officers. Now there is Colonel Collis, a petty, scheming political officer; he sends letters to newspapers and despatches to Mr. Stanton about the enthusiasm for Lincoln in the army, etc., etc. Nothing is said to him; that is all right; he has an opinion, as he ought to have. But there is Lieutenant-Colonel McMahon, lately Adjutant-General of the 6th Corps, an excellent soldier, whose brother fell at the head of a charge at Cool Arbor, and who himself had been in all the battles: he is a McClellan man, as was natural in one of General Sedgwick’s Staff. He talks very openly and strongly about his side, as he has a right to do. What is the consequence? He is, without any warning, mustered out of the service! That is to say, a soldier who don’t agree with the Administration must be got rid of; it is nothing in his favor that he has exposed his life in twenty different actions. You would scarcely credit the number of such cases as this, cases of petty spite, fitting rather to a bad-tempered child than to a great and dignified cabinet minister. They suffer chances of victory to pass, rather than take voters from states. They send down three brevets of brigadiers, only one of which has been recommended by General Meade; and all three are men from the much dreaded and uncertain state of Pennsylvania. Don’t think I am a grumbler; all this wickedness and smallness and selfishness is a part of humanity, and to be expected; but don’t ask me to be enthusiastic for such people. There were a parcel of them down here to-day; bah! the sight of them is enough!

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Francis Fessenden (Library of Congress).

Francis Fessenden (Library of Congress).

As we sat at breakfast there came a despatch saying that Hon. Secretary Stanton, with a long tail, might be looked for, per rail, very presently. It is an historical fact that General Meade expressed his gratification at this deep honor, in the following terms: “The devil! I shan’t have time to smoke my cigar.” Immediately I got on my double-barreled coat, with a sash withal, and a pair of white cotton gloves; but there was plenty of time to smoke a cigar, for they didn’t get along for an hour or two, and then the greatest posse of large bugs! First, on horseback, Generals Grant, Meigs (Quartermaster-General), Barnard, Eaton (Commissary-General), Barnes (Surgeon-General), Fessenden (with a Palmer leg). Then, in ambulances, Fessenden’s papa, the Secretary of the Treasury, a sharp, keen, quiet-looking man; Hon. Secretary Stanton, who looks like his photographs, only more so; Hon. Sim. Draper and Mr. Barney, twin New York politicians. The former had a very large, long nose, and a very round and abrupt waistcoat, so that he resembled a good-natured pelican, just after a surfeit of sprats. General Meade received them with his usual high ceremony. He walked out of his tent, with his hands in his pockets, said, “Hullo, how are you?” and removed one hand, for the purpose of extending it to Grant, who lighted down from his horse, put his hands in his pockets, and sat down on a camp chair. The pelican came up and bobbed at the Meade, as did his friend. We carted them all to see Fort Wadsworth, where Rosencrantz swears that Mr. Stanton, on being informed that there was only a picket line between him and the enemy, pulled out his watch and said they really must be going back! which indeed they did. When the train started with its precious freight of military and diplomatic jewels, General Meade accompanied it, with Biddle, Mason and Rosencrantz. It would appear that they encountered, at City Point, Admiral Porter with Mrs. P. and another lady, who came, on their return, as far as Hancock’s Headquarters. The hospitable H. did thereat cause supper to be set forth, for it was now dark, and the General, with much talk and good humor, took root there; for he is death to hold on, when he gets talking and in company he likes. At nine o’clock came the galliant Generale, with his aides, whereof Rosencrantz and Mason were bursting to tell something good; whereas Biddle had a foolish and deprecatory air. It immediately was related, midst loud shouts, how, at City Point Grant had given General Meade a bunch of cigars to beguile the way of himself, Admiral Porter, and some other guests going to the front. The Chief handed them to Biddle, asking him to take charge of them for the present. Now B. has few equals in the power of turning things end for end; and so he at once and clearly understood that he [was] made a sort of almoner of tobacco, and proceeded to distribute the cigars in the most liberal manner, to everybody who would either smoke or pocket them! The Staff and bystanders asked no questions, but puffed away at Grant’s prime Havanas. Arrived at Hancock’s and supper done, the General said to Porter: “I think now is the moment to enjoy those good cigars!” Out comes “Shaw,” the faithful servitor. “Oh, if you please, Major, the Gen’ral sends his compliments, sir: and would like that bunch of cigars, sir.” Biddle immediately assumed the attitude indicated in the accompanying drawing! and the curtain dropped. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 247-50. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


A Ride Along the Works (October 14, 1864)

Meade and John Parke appear together in a photo taken in June 1865. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Meade and John Parke appear together in a photo taken in June 1865. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In his letter of October 14, Theodore Lyman paints a picture of General Meade in generally good humor. We also get a sense of Meade the engineer. John Parke, who accompanied Meade on his ride along the lines, is the commander of the IX Corps. In his journal Lyman mentioned that they rode down to Fort Stevenson and that “the country is hardly to be recognized, so much timber has been felled and slashed.”

Although George McClellan, President Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the upcoming election, was the much beloved former commander of the Army of the Potomac, his old soldiers did not favor him. The main reason for that was the Democratic Party’s peace plank, which implied the war had been a failure. McClellan disagreed with the plank but it damaged his candidacy nonetheless. . “Yes, it was cruel in General McClellan to ask us to vote that our campaigns had all been failures, and that our comrades had all died in vain,” wrote Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. “And yet there were those who supposed that our love for him would cause us to do it.”

How shall I vote? I don’t know that I shall be given the chance; but, if I am, I shall vote for the blue-blooded Abraham. It was with a feeling of depression that I heard the first rumors that the Dems had carried Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana; and when the truth came out, I felt glad. This proves to me that I look on the Mac party with misgiving. The soldiers’ vote is an unexpected one; they are said to show five to one for the Administration, which tells me that they identify it with the support of the war; for the troops in their private thoughts make the thrashing of the Rebs a matter of pride, as well as of patriotism.

I venture to say that at no time during the war have the Rebel papers talked so desperately; they speak of the next month settling the question, and of arming the negroes. If they do this latter, the slavery candle will burn at both ends. I have no idea that the next month will settle it, though, of course, there is a chance for important movements during the autumn, as at other seasons of good weather. We must keep at them—that is the only way; no let up, no armistice. They perfectly hate what we are doing now, going a couple of miles and fortifying, then going two more and fortifying again; then making a sudden rush, taking a position and a lot of cannon, and again fortifying that. All these moves being a part of what we may call a throttling plan. Their struggles, though often apparently successful, do them thus far no good. They flank us on the Weldon railroad and brush off 2000 prisoners: no use! we hold the road. They flank us again at the Pegram house, and capture 1000 more: no use; we hold the Pegram position and add it to former acquisitions. Then they flank Butler and get eight of his guns; but they have to go back, and Benjamin remains in what General Halleck terms a “threatening attitude.” . . . Yesterday, Loring, whom I saw over at General Parke’s Headquarters, was speaking of the quaint ways of talking among soldiers. Their lines are at peace out there, and the soldiers don’t fire; notwithstanding, some sharpshooters, with telescopic rifles, are posted here and there. As he rode along, he met two of these gentry coming with faces as of men who had labored in a good cause, without profit. “Hullo!” said L., “did you get good places out in front?” “Yes, fust-rate places: but no shooting, no shooting!” General Meade rode to Parke’s on account of a statement from a deserter, that the enemy would attack our left. “If they do” quoth the General, proud of his engineering skill, “if they do, they’ll get into a nice hornet’s nest.” It is funny to see two engineers, like Meade and Parke, ride along works and pleasantly discuss them. In their enthusiasm, they always personify redoubts as far as to give them eyes, and speak of their “looking” in sundry directions, meaning thereby that they can fire there. “Here is a nice swallow-tail lunette,” says Parke as if introducing a pate de foie gras; “these two faces, you see, look down the two roads of approach, and here is a face that looks into that ravine: nothing could live in that ravine, nothing!” This last he emphasizes, as if the presence of life in the ravine aforesaid was a thing in the highest degree sinful, and this redoubt was virtuously bent on preserving the public morality. “Yes,” replies Father Meade, “that seems all right; now you want to slash out, about 300 yards further, and get a good field of fire so that the enemy’s sharpshooters can’t annoy your gunners.” The use of the word “annoy” is another military eccentricity. When half the men are killed or wounded by the enemy’s riflemen, an officer will ride pleasantly in to the chief of artillery, and state that the battery is a good deal “annoyed” by sharpshooters, giving to the novice the impression that the sharpshooters complained of have been using provoking and impertinent language to the battery. To-day I was the sole companion of the General on his exercise ride, on which occasions, instead of riding behind him, I ride beside him, but keep as it were a little back of his horse’s head. When we approach any body of troops, I fall entirely to the rear — strong on etiquette we are! For two or three days he has been in the best of humors and sits in the evening by the camp-fire before my tent, talking familiarly with all the aides; a rare thing with him. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 245-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Reason to be Grateful (October 13, 2014)

The Meade statue at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington photo).

The Meade statue at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington photo).

General George Meade often complained about how other generals received their promotions before he did, or that the press ignored his accomplishments as commander of the Army of the Potomac. In Washington he had had to suffer the humiliating attacks on his record from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. As he once wrote to his wife, “I supposed after awhile it will be discovered I was not at Gettysburg at all.” With all that in mind, his letter of October 13 is remarkably even-handed. Of course, having a child dying back home no doubt helped put things in perspective.

I undoubtedly do not occupy the position I did just after the battle of Gettysburg, and no one will retain any such position in this country, unless he continues to be successful; but when you compare my position with my numerous predecessors, McClellan, Pope, McDowell, Burnside, Hooker, Rosecrans, Banks, Sigel and many others, I think you will admit that my retaining command, and the hold I have at present, is even more creditable than the exaggerated laudation immediately succeeding Gettysburg. Recollect, also, that most persistent efforts have been made by influential men, politicians and generals, to destroy me, without success; and I think you will find reason to be grateful and satisfied, even though you should desire to see more justice done. I don’t mean to say I have not been badly treated, but I do mean to say I might have been much worse treated, and that my present status is not without advantages, and does not justify my being discontented.

I am very much distressed to hear that Sergeant does not seem well enough to bear a sea voyage, and still hope the fine weather of the fall will enable him to gather strength.

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), p. 234. Available via Google Books.

“Bless My Soul!” (October 11, 1864)

Maj. Gen. Charles Augustus Doyle (via Wikipedia).

Maj. Gen. Charles Hastings Doyle (via Wikipedia).

Both General Meade and Theodore Lyman mention Maj. Gen. Charles Hastings Doyle in their letters home on October 11. I’m not sure why both of them thought Doyle was Irish. He had been born in London, although no doubt of Irish ancestry. While stationed in Halifax, Doyle had been entangled by the Chesapeake affair, in which Confederate sympathizers had commandeered the American steamer Chesapeake and taken her to Halifax with the goal of turning the vessel into a rebel raider.

I have been occupied all day riding round the lines, showing them to Major General Doyle, of the British Army, Governor of Nova Scotia, who has done this army the honor to visit it. The general is a very clever, intelligent and educated Irish gentleman. He is a brother to the then young Doyle, who, some thirty years since, was in this country attached to the British Legation under Sir Charles Vaughn.

The general expressed himself very much amazed at the length of our lines and the amount of engineering work we had done, and said that in Europe they had no conception of the character of the war we are engaged in, the obstacles we have to encounter, and the completeness of our organization. De Chanal, indeed all our foreign visitors, say the same thing; and say it is impossible for us to realize the ignorance that exists in Europe of America and American affairs. General Doyle is the person who behaved so well recently at Halifax when the steamer Chesapeake was seized and carried in there, he giving up the vessel and crew to a United States vessel of war that was after her. Another visitor whom I had yesterday was a Mr. McGrath, a Commissioner from Pennsylvania, sent down to take the soldiers’ vote to-day. He seemed rather disgusted with the result of his mission; said very few of the soldiers had qualified themselves to vote and altogether appeared quite indifferent. He seemed to think the soldiers’ vote would be very insignificant. I have noticed this fact myself, that is the indifference to politics on the part of officers and men. They don’t seem to have much respect for either party, and are of the opinion that the safety and honor of the country are more dependent on what we do here than on the success of any political party. I don’t say this is a very healthy or proper state of feeling, but I say it exists, and is due, I believe, in a great measure, to a want of confidence in the integrity and patriotism of party leaders.

Theodore Lyman, too, wrote about Doyle’s visit, but in a much livelier fashion.

Did I tell you of the two spies, last night? There is a redoubt on our line which had no garrison except a sergeant and two or three men. Towards sunset appeared two officers, who attracted attention, the one by having three stars on his coat arranged somewhat like those of a Rebel colonel, the other by being much concealed by a high collar and a flap hat. They asked a number of questions about the work, which so increased the suspicion that word was sent to General Meade, who ordered a regiment at once to proceed to the spot, and the sergeant to be arrested for not seizing the persons. Who do you think they were? Why, Captain Craig and Rosencrantz, taking an evening stroll! Craig has no circulation and turns up his collar whenever the mercury falls below 70 degrees. Rosie has a Swedish coat with three stars indicating a captain; hence the alarm! This morning arrived a passing visitor, Major-General Doyle, commanding in Nova Scotia. He is a Pat and is favorable to us, for a wonder; gave up the Chesapeake to us, you know. He looks as funny as Punch; indeed just like Punch—a very red edition of him, with a stiff throttled aspect, caused by an apoplectic stock, five inches high. He was a jolly old buck and much amused by a lot of civilians, who also had come up from City Point. He called them T.G.’s, signifying “travelling gents,” and, whenever we came on a redoubt, with a good abattis, he would say to the T.G’s: “What do you think, hey? How would you like to attack that, hey?” Upon which the T.G’s, whose pantaloons were somewhat up their legs, would look dubious. As he beheld the wonders of the land, he would exclaim: “Oh, bless my soul! why, you know, we have no idea of this at home. Oh, bless my soul!” On the road we met a Rebel deserter, who chanced to be an Irishman, whereat the Doyle was highly delighted and asked him if he got much whiskey the other side. To which Pat replied with regret, that that strengthening beverage cost $30 a quart in Secessia. After trotting him all over creation and giving him a lunch, we put him on top of the Avery house, and let him look at Rebs through a telescope; but I am sure he saw nothing, though he exclaimed, “Bless my soul!” a great deal.

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. 233-4. 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. 244-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Great Soldier of the Army of the Potomac (October 10, 1864)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

Andrew Humphreys has been serving as Gen. Meade’s chief of staff since shortly after Gettysburg. Here’s a quote from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg: “Humphreys was from Philadelphia. An engineer like Meade, he had graduated from West Point four years before him. He had served on McClellan’s staff and later commanded a division at Antietam and during the bloody battle for Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. As a division commander in the III Corps at Gettysburg he had held the right of Sickles’s advanced position. ‘He was a small, bow-legged man, with chopped-off, iron gray moustache; and when he lifted his army hat you saw a rather low forehead, and a shock of iron-gray hair,’ a staff member recalled. ‘His blue-gray dauntless eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel.’ Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who would get to know Humphreys during the Virginia Campaign of 1864, considered him to be ‘the great soldier of the Army of the Potomac.’ ‘He was a very interesting figure,” Dana wrote. ‘He used to ride about in a black felt hat, the brim of which was turned down all around, making him look like a Quaker. He was very pleasant to deal with, unless you were fighting against him, and then he was not so pleasant. He was one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.’ Although Humphreys desired a corps command, he consented to become Meade’s chief of staff, Dana believed, out of pure patriotism. Later in the war he would get the corps command he wanted so badly.” In his letter of October 10, Theodore Lyman writes a bit about Humphreys.

General Humphreys deserted us to-night, for a brief leave—no, of course I mean he went early this morning, having taken his breakfast before us. The good General is fond of sitting awhile and talking after meals. He discourses sometimes on the art military and said it was “a godlike occupation”! “Ah,” he said, “war is a very bad thing in the sequel, but before and during a battle it is a fine thing!” (Note by T.L. — l don’t see it.) The Commander has been death on riding round lately on his jog-trotter, to inspect and mouse over works. He is mighty smart at such things, and if a line is run fifty feet out of position, he sees it like a flash. It is very creditable to our engineers, that, though a part of our works were laid out after dark, no corrections have been made in the general position. I had the honor to follow George about, as he rode round the country. In the camps, one sees the modes of punishment adopted. One ingenious Colonel had erected a horizontal bar, about a dozen feet from the ground, and supported at each end by a post. On this elevated perch he causes malefactors to sit all the day long, to their great discomfort and repentance. In the 9th Corps, they had put some barrels on the breastworks, and, on these high pedestals, made the men stand. They had run away in the fight and had great placards of “Coward” on them. A pretty severe punishment if they had any shame left. This is a grubby little letter, for my tent has been invaded by various silly, chattering, idle officers.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 243. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Poor Young Parker (October 9, 1864)

It’s been over a year since young Lt. Cortlandt Parker, a member of Meade’s staff and the nephew of a family friend, vanished. (See here.) Now word has arrived that Parker had been captured by Confederate guerillas who killed him when he attempted to escape. There’s more about Parker here. His story is just one small tragedy in a nation engulfed by them.

We have at last heard of the fate of poor young Parker, who was on my staff. An officer recently returned from Richmond says he was captured by guerrillas near Bristol Station, a few days after Parker’s disappearance; that when they were taking him off they cautioned him not to attempt to escape, for if he did they would be obliged to serve him as they had done General Meade’s aide a few days before, who in spite of their cautions tried to get away, and they were forced to shoot him. I have no doubt this is a true statement of the poor fellow’s fate. I have sent it to Cortlandt Parker.

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), p. 233. Available via Google Books.

Election Season (October 7, 1864)

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions the upcoming presidential election, which pitted President Abraham Lincoln against George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac.

I was afraid you would be uneasy at not hearing from me during our recent operations, but my headquarters were some five or six miles from the scene of action, and it was always at midnight when I got back, tired out with the day’s work, and had to start early in the morning, so that I really did not have time to write.

I see the papers announce my narrow escape. It was a pretty close shave, as I have written you. You need not worry yourself; I am not going to commit the folly of foolish and unnecessary exposure. But there are times when it is my duty and it is proper I should take my chances. Let us hope Providence will always be as merciful and protecting as in this instance; for I take it, it was only God’s will that saved my leg and perhaps my life.

The enemy have allowed us to retain the ground acquired by our recent movement, and seem to be busy fortifying against another advance. We have been reinforced, but not to the extent imagined by the sanguine public; neither is Richmond so near its fall as you tell me people believe. However, these absurd alternations of exaggerated anticipations of successes and reverses seem to be chronic with our people, and no amount of experience will ever cure them of the folly.

I note all you say of politics, but in the army we take but little interest except earnestly to wish the election was over, as we see, until it is, nothing else will be thought of and no proper thought given to the war. It is generally believed here that McClellan has very little chance. I think he is very unfortunate in his friends and backers.

I see the Chronicle announces me as a supporter of Mr. Lincoln, and is pleased to class me among the ill-treated generals who have been driven into the opposition. Well, the one has as much authority for his assertion as the other, neither having anything on which to base his remarks.

Grant has gone to Washington, leaving Butler in command. To-day the enemy made a demonstration on Butler, and I thought we were going to have a grand time, but it passed off.

Theodore Lyman also wrote home on October 7. We have encountered Brig. Gen. Henry Washington Benham before. Channing Clapp was a classmate of Lyman’s at Harvard. Samuel Crawford, in temporary command of the V Corps in Gouverneur Warren’s absence, had been a surgeon at Fort Sumter. The Pennsylvania-born Crawford took command of Meade’s old division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, just before Gettysburg. Today he and Meade are neighbors in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

There is a certain General Benham, who commands the engineers at City Point, and was up about laying out some works. Channing Clapp is on his Staff. You ought to see this “Ginral.” He has the face and figure of Mr. Briggs and wears continually the expression of Mr. B. when his horse sat down at the band of music. When he had got through all the explanations, which were sufficient to have laid out a permanent work of the first class, the Meade rose with weariness, and eased his spirit by riding out and looking at my new camp-ground, and inspecting those everlasting redoubts. Now that the camp is arranged, the Meade is dubious about moving: that’s like him! When we got to the extreme left, he thought he would go out and take a peek at the picket line. First there was a little bunch of cavalry. They were of a jocose turn; they had found an old pair of wheels whereon they had mounted a keg, making a very good cannon, which pointed, in a threatening manner, down the road. Its ensemble was completed by a figure, closely resembling those that defend cornfields, and which was keeping steady guard with a small pole. A hundred yards beyond was the picket reserve, behind a barricade. Then, beyond, a couple of hundred yards more, the sentries, each standing and looking sharply to the front. The one in the road was a half-breed Indian, though he looked more like a Neapolitan. He had that taciturnity that clings to the last drop of blood. “Are you a picket here?” asked the General. “Yes.” “Is there anyone on your right and left?” “No.” “You are an Indian, are you not?” “Part.” All of which the red warrior delivered, without turning his gaze from the vista before him. Beyond this gentleman was a post of two cavalry videttes. From this place we could get a very good view of one of the Rebel lines of earthworks; but there seemed very few men behind it. I could only notice one or two. And so we rode back again past the perils of the keg cannon. General Warren has a short leave, and General Crawford commands the Corps, to the indignation, I presume, of old cocks like Griffin and Ayres; for C. was doctor in Fort Sumter, and thus got a star, and thus is an old brigadier, and thus ranks the regulars G. and A. General Grant was on a flying visit to Washington to-day. I like to have him down here: first, he gives a general balance and steadiness; then, what is most important, he can order—just order what groceries he pleases, and no questions asked behind the counter!

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. 232-3. 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. 241-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Poor Biddle (October 6, 1864)

Once more, Meade’s aide James C. Biddle, provides some laughs at the expense of his dignity. Fortunately the laughs came unaccompanied by wounds. In this letter, Theodore Lyman also notes the arrival of more international visitors. In his journal (edited by David. W. Lowe and published in 2007 as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman), he adds a few more observations of Lord Mahon and Captain Hayter. “The former rather a soft subject, with a feeble aquiline nose. The latter rather dull, apparently, and good natured, with a certain air like Peel–both in the guards.”

Poor Biddle! I always begin his name with “poor.” He was detailed to examine the trenches occupied by the 2d Corps, and see that the pickets were properly arranged. This part of the works is much exposed to fire in many parts, being near the enemy; so that you have to stoop a good deal of the way. What did Biddle do but ride out by a road to the works, on horseback! In consequence of which the whole skirmish line opened on him, and he returned, after his inspection, quite gasping with excitement. As he was not hit, it was very funny. If there is a wrong road, he’s sure to take it. Lord Mahon (son of the Earl of Stanhope, who presided at that literary dinner I went to at London) and Captain Hayter, both of the Guards, were down here — Spoons rather, especially the nobil Lord.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 241. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Roebling (October 4, 1864)

A view of the fortifications at Petersburg. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

A view of the fortifications at Petersburg. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Anyone who has read David McCullough’s The Great Bridge has encountered the man Theodore Lyman writes about here. Washington A. Roebling was the son of engineer John Roebling, who designed and built revolutionary suspension bridges. After the war the senior Roebling took on this greatest task yet, constructing a bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. He died horribly of tetanus (contracted after a boat crushed his foot against a dock on the East River), so his son Washington took over as chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. When Washington’s health failed before he could complete his epic project, his wife Emily–Gouverneur Warren’s younger sister—essentially took over as head engineer in his stead. Roebling had been with Warren on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 and was instrumental in getting Strong Vincent’s brigade and the 140th New York to defend the position. It had also been Roebling, back on November 30, who brought the message to Meade from Warren announcing that Warren would not attack Lee’s forces at Mine Run.

When I visited Petersburg while writing Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, I was pleased to see Lyman’s description of redoubt construction from this letter on one of the markers in Fort Stedman.

Washington Augustus Roebling (via Wikipedia).

Washington Augustus Roebling (via Wikipedia).

The General rode along the whole front of the new line and carefully examined it, accompanied by his Staff and by the taciturn Roebling. R. is a character, a major and aide-de-camp and engineer, and factotum to General Warren. He is a son of the German engineer, Roebling, who built the celebrated suspension bridge over the Niagara River. He is a light-haired, blue-eyed man, with a countenance as if all the world were an empty show. He stoops a good deal, when riding has the stirrups so long that the tips of his toes can just touch them, and, as he wears no boots, the bottoms of his pantaloons are always torn and ragged. He goes poking about in the most dangerous places, looking for the position of the enemy, and always with an air of entire indifference. His conversation is curt and not garnished with polite turnings. “What’s that redoubt doing there?” cries General Meade. “Don’t know; didn’t put it there,” replies the laconic one. The Chief growled a little while at the earthwork, but, as that didn’t move it, he rode onward. We passed at a clever time, for, a few minutes after, the Rebel skirmishers made a rush, and drove ours out of a house, and their bullets came over the corner of a field where we had been. Thereat our skirmishers made a counter-rush and drove theirs again away from the house, and our cannon fired and there was a small row generally. Some of our earthworks were really very workmanlike, handsomely sloped in front, and neatly built up with logs in the rear. It is really a handsome sight to get a view of half a mile of uniform parapet, like this, and see the men’s shelter-tents neatly pitched in the pine woods, just in rear, while in front a broad stretch of timber has been “slashed,” to give a good field of fire and break up any body of troops advancing to attack. It is quite interesting, too, to see a redoubt going up. The men work after the manner of bees, each at the duty assigned. The mass throw up earth; the engineer soldiers do the “revetting,” that is, the interior facing of logs. The engineer sergeants run about with tapes and stakes, measuring busily; and the engineer officers look as wise as possible and superintend. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 240-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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.