“A Judicious Helping Hand” (November 6, 1864)

African-American soldiers make coffee in the Petersburg entrenchments (Library of Congress).

African-American soldiers make coffee in the Petersburg entrenchments (Library of Congress).

In his letter today, Theodore Lyman makes some interesting remarks about Meade’s attitude towards African-American soldiers (although Lyman, nineteenth-century white man that he is, does not use that term). Lyman’s older sister had married into the Shaw family, which included “the best Bob,” a.k.a. Robert Gould Shaw. “The best Bob” had died while leading the first black regiment raised in the northern states, the 54th Massachusetts, in South Carolina.

Brevet promotions are honorary raises in rank. As an unpaid volunteer, Lyman was not eligible. “Cool Arbor” is what Lyman, somewhat perversely, insisted on calling Cold Harbor, “because it is so hideously inappropriate.”

I was remarking in my last, a week ago to-day, that General Meade spoke of being obliged to write his report. Yes! as you say, it is a pity he can’t have some signal success. The Shaws need not be against him on the negro-soldier question, for if he has a bias, it is towards and not against them, and indeed it would go to the heart of the best Bob to see the punctilious way in which he returns their salutes. I can say with certainty that there is not a General in this army from whom the nigs might expect a judicious helping hand more than from Meade. As to his being slow, it may be so; but I can’t see that Grant, on whom rests this entire campaign, is any faster; yet he is a man of unquestioned military talent. If you knew, as I do, the number of men killed and wounded in this campaign from the Potomac Army alone, you would think that a strong opposition from the enemy had as much as anything to do with the want of crowning success thus far. To show what sort of work we have been through: at the assault of June 3d, at Cool Arbor, we lost, in four or five hours, 6000 men, in killed and wounded only. That is a specimen. Even in our move to the left, the other day, which some would call a reconnaissance, and others heavy skirmishing, we had a list of killed and wounded of not less than 1200. In fact, we cannot stir without losing more men than would make a big battle in the West, and the Rebels, if we have any chance at them, lose as many.

Last Sunday, which I was just speaking of, was marked by the arrival of one Alden, a rather dull Captain of the Adjutant-General’s Department, who was however a welcome bird to the army, as he brought a large number of brevets for many deserving officers. … To my surprise there did appear, or reappear, Major Duane, who has taken to visiting me as usual. He is better, but not well. To celebrate his arrival, and to retaliate for our rush into the Mine, the Rebs made a dash on our picket line, gobbled up some fifty stupids, who (being recruits) thought it was the relief coming round, and were then driven back; upon which, of course, every man fired off his musket a few times, to show how alert he was, the artillery threw all the shells whose fuses happened to be ready cut, and then all went to sleep again.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 256-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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