Greek Fire (November 28, 1864)

Black soldiers from the Army of the James labor on Benjamin Butler's canal at Dutch Gap (Library of Congress).

Black soldiers from the Army of the James labor on Benjamin Butler’s canal at Dutch Gap (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the visit to Benjamin Butler’s headquarters. One amazing thing about this post is that Lyman describes the test of what can only be called a flamethrower. In Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, editor David Lowe says the “Greek fire” was probably “a combustible solution of phosphorus in bisulfide of carbon.” Lyman writes more about Butler and his inventions in tomorrow’s letter.

Let me see, I had got to Fort Harrison, had I not? Really I got so sleepy last night over the second sheet that I should not be surprised if it contains numerous absurdities. From the Fort you have an excellent view of the Rebs in their line opposite, their main fort being only 800 yards distant. I was surprised they did not fire upon us, as there was a great crowd and evidently several generals among us. But I believe they never shoot. The pickets, on either side, are within close musket-range but have no appearance of hostility. There was one very innocent “Turkey,” who said to me: “Who are those men just over there?” When I told him they were Rebs, he exclaimed: “God bless me!” and popped down behind the parapet. . . . Thence we all went to view the great canal. You will notice on the map, that the river at Dutch Gap makes a wide loop and comes back to nearly the same spot, and the canal is going through there. This cuts off five or six miles of river and avoids that much of navigation exposed to fire; and it may have strategic advantages if we can get iron-clads through and silence the Rebel batteries on the other bank. The canny Butler sent an aide to see if they were shelling the canal, who reported they were not; so we dismounted a little way off and walked to the place. It was very worth seeing. Fancy a narrow ridge of land, only 135 yards wide, separating the river, which flows on either side; a high ridge, making a bluff fifty feet high where it overhangs the water. Through this a great chasm has been cut, only leaving a narrow wall on the side next the enemy, which wall is to be blown out with several thousand pounds of gunpowder. We stood on the brink and looked down, some seventy feet, at the men and the carts and the horses at work on the bottom. Where we stood, and indeed all over the ridge, was strewed thickly with pieces of shell, while here and there lay a whole one, which had failed to explode. Had the Rebs known that a Lieutenant-General and two Major-Generals were there, they would hardly have left us so quiet. . . .

Though we got off very nicely (I thought as I stood there: “Now that line is the shortest one to our horses, and you must walk it with dignity—not too fast when they begin to shell”), there was a fat “Turkey” who came after us and was treated to a huge projectile, which burst over his head; he ran and picked up a piece and cried out: “Oh! it’s warm. Oh!! it smells of sulphur. Oh!!! let us go now.” He was delighted with this and all other adventures, and was quite elated when his horse tumbled in a ditch and muddied him greatly. After dark we were treated to an exhibition of a “Greek fire.” They burst a shell in a bunch of bush and immediately the whole was in a roaring blaze. “They’ve got the fuses to work well now,” said Grant calmly. “They tried the shells on three houses, the other side of the river, and burnt them all without difficulty.” Good thing for the owners! Then they spirted the stuff through a little hose and set the stream on fire. It was a beautiful sight and like the hell of the poets, with an unquenchable fire and columns of black smoke rolling up. Owing to these pyrotechnics, we only got home at midnight. In my next I will tell more of the genius of Butler. General Meade, you will be glad to learn, has been informed officially, that he will be appointed a Major-General in the Regular Army, to rank General Sheridan!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 282-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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