Sad Facts (December 11 and 12, 1864)

A marker at Fort Lee outside Petersburg indicates the location of Meade's headquarters during the campaign (Tom Huntington photo).

A marker at Fort Lee outside Petersburg indicates the location of Meade’s headquarters during the campaign (Tom Huntington photo).

I neglected to post this letter yesterday. George Meade wrote it on December 11, 1864, to Henry A. Cram, his wife’s brother in law. Meade often wrote at length to Cram about the greater issues of the war and they cast good insight on his way of thinking. Lyman’s letter from 150 years ago today follows.

I fear you good people confine your efforts to suppress the Rebellion too much to speechifying, voting, and other very safe and easy modes of showing firm determination never to yield; but the essential element to success, namely, turning out to fight, don’t seem to be so popular. You will have to stop filling quotas without adding to your armies before you can expect to finish the war. Do you know that the last loud call for five hundred thousand men has produced just one hundred and twenty thousand? Of these only about sixty thousand were sent to the field, and the share of my army, one of the largest in the field, was not over fifteen thousand; and of this number the greater part were worthless foreigners, who are daily deserting to the enemy. These are sad facts. I remember you were struck last winter with my telling the Councils of Philadelphia that this army, of whose fighting qualities there seemed to be a doubt, had lost, from official records, from April, 1862, to December, 1863, one hundred thousand, killed and wounded. I have now an official document before me in manuscript, being my report of the campaign from the Rapidan to the 1st of November, and it has a list of casualties showing the enormous number of ninety thousand men, killed, wounded and missing. All this is strictly confidential, as I would be condemned for telling the truth; but when people talk to me of ending the war, I must tell them what war is and its requirements; because you can then see how much prospect there is of finishing it, by forming your own judgment of the adaptation of the means to the end. No, my good friend, this war is not going to be ended till we destroy the armies of the Confederation; and in executing this work we shall have to expend yet millions of treasure and vast numbers of lives. Nothing is gained by postponing the exigencies which must be met. The people must make up their minds not only that the war shall be carried on, they must not only subscribe and cheerfully pay money to any extent, but they must themselves turn out, shoulder their muskets and come to the army, determined to fight the thing out. When I see that spirit, the men coming, and doing the fighting, then I will begin to guess when the war will be closed. Undoubtedly, the South is becoming exhausted; its calmly discussing the expediency of freeing and arming the slaves is positive evidence of its exhaustion and desperation; but unless we take advantage of this by increasing our armies and striking telling blows, it can prolong such a contest as we are now carrying on indefinitely.

I thank you for your kind congratulations on my appointment as major general in the regular army. If confirmed by the Senate, it places me fourth in rank in the army—Grant, Halleck and Sherman only being my seniors. Putting me ahead of Sheridan, from the popular position that officer now holds, may create opposition in the Senate; but it is well known my appointment was recommended by the lieutenant general, commanding, approved and determined on by the President, when Sheridan was my subordinate, commanding my cavalry, and before he had an opportunity of distinguishing himself, as he has since done. No injustice, therefore, has been done him, though when his appointment was announced in the theatrical manner it was, and mine not made, I felt called on to ask an explanation, which resulted in a disavowal to do me injustice, and the appointing me with a date which caused me to rank, as it was originally intended I should. So that, what ought to have been an acceptable compliment, became eventually a simple act of justice due to my remonstrance. Still, I ought to be and am satisfied and gratified, because I think it quite probable we are both of us placed far beyond our merits. I am afraid you will tire of so much personality and think I am greatly demoralized.

In his letter of December 12, Theodore Lyman provides an example of the Meade wit, which tended to be on the cutting side. Here his joke masks criticism of Grant. The raid to which Lyman refers is Warren’s expedition to destroy the Weldon Railroad.

Clear and cold we have had it this day, blowy this morning but still in the evening. Last night it blew in a tremendous manner. My tent flapped in a way that reminded one of being at sea, and my chimney, for the first time got mad and actually smoked. My only consolation was that the General’s smoked a great deal worse. He made quite a bon-mot at breakfast, despite the smoke: “Grant says the Confederates, in their endeavors to get men, have robbed the cradle and the grave; if that is the case, I must say their ghosts and babies fight very well!” I did not fail to ride out and see the raiders come in. The head of the column arrived about noon, or an hour before. I was much amused by a battery, the first thing that I met; one of the drivers was deeply intent on getting his pair of horses over a bad bridge, but, midst all his anxiety and pains on this head, he did not fail to keep tight hold of a very old rush-bottomed chair, which he carefully held in one hand! How far he had brought it or what he meant to do with it, I know not, but his face wore an expression which said: “You may take my life but you can’t have this very old rush-bottomed chair which I have been at much pains to steal.” Then came the infantry, with a good deal of weary straggling, and looking pretty cold, poor fellows; then another battery spattered with mud; then a drove of beef cattle, in the midst of which marched cows, calves, and steers that never more will graze on Rebel farms. Finally a posse of stragglers and ambulances and waggons, all putting the best speed on to get to a camping-place. I pitied the poor bucks who, for six days, had endured every fatigue and hardship.

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. 250-2. 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. 297-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Looking for that perfect holiday gift? What could be better than Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg? (You can order the book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.) Or maybe a 2015 George Gordon Meade calendar–the perfect way to commemorate the general’s bicentennial year! You can get the calendar right here.

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