Birney and Sleeper (November 12, 1864)

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Pictured (left to right)  are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan, Capt. J. Henry Sleeper, Capt. O'Neil W. Robinson, and artist  Alfred R. Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Capt. J. Henry Sleeper is second from left and artist/correspondent Alfred Waud is on the right. The other two men are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan (left) and Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman offers one of his finely observed letters today. We get his impressions of the late David Bell Birney and his account of a visit with Capt. Jacob Henry Sleeper of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. Sleeper was from Boston, where his father had been a founder of Boston University. His battery was attached to the II Corps. Sleeper had only recently returned to his unit after recovering from a wound he received at Reams Station, a battle in which his battery lost four guns.

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

We have the usual play of rumor about cabinets — everybody seems inclined to heave out Stanton: some to heave him up to the Supreme Court — some to heave him down to unknown depths of nothingness. Many would fain fancy Ben Butler in the chair of War, where he would be certain to make things spin either for good or for bad. How he will get on, across the James, I know not. He lost a strong man in Ord, wounded; and in Birney, dead, also: Birney was one who had many enemies, but, in my belief, we had few officers who could command 10,000 men as well as he. He was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair. As a General he took very good care of his Staff and saw they got due promotion. He was a man, too, who looked out for his own interests sharply and knew the mainsprings of military advancement. His unpopularity among some persons arose partly from his promotion, which, however, he deserved; and partly from his cold covert manner. I always felt safe when he had the division; it was always well put in and safely handled. The longer I am in the army, the more I see that great bodies of men take their whole tone from a few leaders, or even from one. I climbed on a horse and took a ride to visit Captain Sleeper, whose camp I easily recognized by its neat appearance. He always has things in a trig state about him. His own domicile was a small log cabin, with a neat brick chimney, very smooth-looking, but made in truth of only odd bits of brick, picked up at random and carefully fitted by a skilful Yank. The chimney-piece was of black walnut, made indeed from the leaf of an old table, discovered in the neighborhood. As to his tongs, a private, of prospective views, picked them up sometime last summer, and had carried them, ever since, in waggon! For arras he had artillery horse-blankets. The Sleeper is now more content, having his battery full, new sergeants appointed, and a prospect of officers. His only grief is that with three years’ service and many battles he is only a captain. You see Massachusetts has not her batteries in a regiment and can’t have field officers. So Sleeper’s only hope is a brevet.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 266-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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