A Severe Skirmish (December 9, 1864)

Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles commanded a division of the II Corps (Lilbrary of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles commanded a division of the II Corps (Lilbrary of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the Army of the Potomac’s movement across Hatcher’s Run toward the Boydton Plank Road. Nelson Miles, only 24 and already wounded four times, had replaced the ailing Francis Barlow as commander of the 1st Division of the II Corps. Nelson will remain in the army following the war, retiring as general in chief in 1903.

Miles’s division of the 2d Corps was sent to aid the cavalry in forcing Hatcher’s Run. They marched out early and found several regiments holding the crossing; a severe skirmish followed; our poor men went into the icy water up to their armpits and drove off the Rebels, though not without some loss to us. I know the cavalry Lieutenant, whom I saw bringing in all those stragglers last night, was killed there. Then Miles built a bridge and sent over the cavalry, which went as far as within sight of the Boydton plank, where they found the enemy in their works. They captured a Rebel mail-carrier and from him learned that A. P. Hill was yesterday at Dinwiddie. General Meade had to read all the letters, of course, and said there was one poor lover who promised to marry his sweetheart when the war was over, but “how could he support her now, on $12 a month?” We sent out another body of infantry and our own “red-legs” and the engineers, to support Miles, who we thought would be attacked. They all spent the night midst a wretched snow, sleet and rain, and raw wind.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 292-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Drown all Englishmen (December 8, 1864)

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Lyman must entertain yet another foreign visitor to the Army of the Potomac. The editors of his letters disguised his name in the published version but David W. Lowe, in Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, has no such compunctions: it is Satterthwaite. In his notebook Lyman compares him to a barrel of apples, not potatoes. You can add Englishman to the list of people (Irish, German, and African-Americans among them) for whom Lyman has little patience. I guess you can add stragglers to the list as well.

In the meantime, Gouverneur K. Warren leads an expedition to destroy more of the Weldon Railroad.

There came down an elephant of a young Englishman, who, if there be brains in his skull, they are so well concealed that nobody has found them hereabout. To entertain him is like rolling a barrel of potatoes up a steep hill. Nevertheless, he is a Lieutenant of Engineers. I should think he might construct an earthwork in, say, a century. I fancy he has played out all his intellect in trying to spell and pronounce his own name which is the euphonious one of S-tt-rthw__t; you will find it gives you a cramp in your tongue to pronounce it. Query—would it not be for the best interests of the human race to drown all Englishmen? Gibbon’s division of the 2d Corps got in a towering passion, because, having erected log huts just a little way outside the line of parapet, they were ordered to pull them all down and come inside, for of course these huts would give cover to an attacking enemy. This was what I call a stupid thing all round. Stupid in the infantry commanders to allow it; stupid in the inspectors not to see it; stupid in the artillerists and engineers not to stop it—in fact, stupid all round. Gibbon came over and pitched into [Chief Engineer James C.] Duane, who received the attack with stolidity; so Gibbon thought he would get good-natured. At evening I had the greatest sight at a lot of stragglers that ever I did. It is always customary, when possible, to sweep the path of a column and gather up all stragglers, but I never before had a chance to see the leavings of a large force, marching by a single road. When Warren got to the Nottaway, he took up his pontoons behind him, so that the laggards, who were toddling leisurely behind, as well as those who really had no intention of catching up till their rations were out, were all caught on the north side. General Warren sent back about 100 cavalry to sweep the whole road and bring the men back to the lines: and after dark, they arrived, looking, in the dusk, like a large brigade. Schuyler, the Provost-Marshal, put them in ranks, had them sorted and counted, and there proved to be 856! Their way was not made soft to them. They were marched three miles more, making twenty in all, and were then put out on picket in a right frosty night. This seems a large number, and it is more than it ought to be, a great deal; but, in reality it only made four and a half men out of every 100 in Warren’s force. That they were able to go on is proved by the fact that they were able to come back, though some did limp merrily, and others were so stiff that, when once down, they could scarcely get up. A force of a few hundred cavalry was sent in the afternoon down the Vaughan road to reconnoitre, and see if they could see that any troops were moving against our rear, or against Warren. They got at dusk to Hatcher’s Run, where the opposite bank was held by the enemy in a breastwork; and, after losing half a dozen men, our cavalry came back.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 291-2. 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.

Brevets (December 6, 1864)

Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. An engineer like Meade, he was also criticized for being cautious and methodical (Library of Congress).

Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. An engineer like Meade, he was also criticized for being cautious and methodical (Library of Congress).

Today both George Meade and Theodore Lyman write home about brevets, and Lyman provides a full explanation of these honorary promotions. Meade also mentions his anxiety about Maj. Gen. George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. Thomas, a Virginian, had thrown in his lot with the Union at the start of the war and earned the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga” at that 1863 battle. When William T. Sherman left Atlanta on his march to the sea, Thomas headed north to deal with John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. Meade was not the only general to worry if “old Thomas” would come out all right; Grant was prepared to relieve him of command if he did not attack Hood. In the end, the methodical Thomas nearly annihilated Hood’s army at the battles of Franklin and Nashville.

To-night my commission, or rather letter of appointment, as major general in the regular army, to date from August 18th, 1864, has arrived. George has also received the appointment of major, by brevet, for gallantry and meritorious conduct on the campaign. Jim Biddle is also made lieutenant colonel, by brevet, for the same reasons. These appointments do not give them any increase of pay, but are an acknowledgment of the performance of their duty, and as such are much valued. I think I have reason to be proud that all my recommendations, amounting to two hundred, have been approved.

To-morrow I send off an expedition under Warren, which I trust will result in something decisive, as we are all anxious to have matters on a more settled basis than they now are before the winter.

I feel some anxiety about Thomas in Tennessee. I think I wrote you some time ago, when I first heard of Sherman’s movement, that its success would depend on Thomas’s capacity to cope with Hood. I think it was expected Sherman’s movement would draw Hood back to Georgia, but I anticipated just what he appears to be doing—a bold push for Kentucky, which, if he succeeds in, will far outbalance any success Sherman may have in going from Atlanta to the sea coast. Sherman took with him the largest part of his army, when he did not expect to meet any organized opposition, leaving Thomas with the lesser force to confront and oppose Hood, with the whole of his organized forces. I trust old Thomas will come out all right, but the news is calculated to create anxiety.

This letter of Lyman’s contains one of my favorite passages about Meade, when the general, in rare good humor, laughs and jokes with his staff as they receive their brevet promotions.

There arrived Captain Alden, with 253 brevets, of all grades, for the Army of the Potomac. Do you know what a brevet is, and the force thereof? A brevet commission gives the dignity, but not always the pay or the authority, of the rank it confers. If, for example, a colonel is breveted general, he may wear the stars and may rank as general on courts-martial, but, unless he be specially assigned by the President, he has only the command of a colonel, just as before. A colonel brevetted general in the regular army draws the pay of a general when assigned to duty by the President; but a brevet in the volunteers can under no circumstances bring additional pay. Brevets, like other appointments by the President, must be confirmed by the Senate before they become permanent. At any rate, however, they last from the time of appointment to the time of their rejection by the Senate. The object of brevets is to pay compliments to meritorious officers without overburdening the army with officers of high rank.

As aforesaid, there came a grist of these papers in all grades, from 1st lieutenant up to major-general. All the Headquarters’ Staff, with few exceptions, were brevetted one grade, in consequence of which I should not wonder if the Senate rejected the whole bundle! Barstow is Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel; Biddle, ditto; Duane has two brevets, which brings him to a full Colonel, and will give him a colonel’s pay, if he can be assigned, as they are in the regular army. We are all very melancholy over General Williams, who, though one of the most deserving officers in the whole army, could not be brevetted because that would make him rank the Adjutant-General of the whole army, Brigadier-General Thomas. They were not so careful to except Barnard, whom they formerly made a Major-General though his chief, Delafield, was only a Brigadier. It is to be considered, however, that Major-General Barnard had found leisure from his military duties to publish a criticism on the Peninsular Campaign, or, in other words, a campaign document against McClellan, which is a circumstance that alters cases. I should say, that the statement that General Meade was only a Brevet MajorGeneral in the regular service was a mistake naturally arising from the confusion with the other letters of appointment. .. .

General Grant was at the Headquarters for about an hour. He brought with him Captain de Marivault, a French naval officer and a very gentlemanly man. I took him as far as Fort Wadsworth, and showed him it and the neighboring line. He has had great chances of seeing this war, as he was at New Orleans, and, later, Admiral Dahlgren allowed him to go into Charleston, where he even went about in the city. Oh! I forgot to mention, in particular, that Rosencrantz is brevetted a Major, at which he is much pleased. There followed much merriment in the camp over shoulder-straps, those who had been promoted giving theirs to the next grade below. Majors’ straps were scarcest and were in great demand. The General was in high spirits (as he might well be, with a letter of appointment in his pocket) and stood in front of his tent, joking with his aides, a very rare performance with him. “Now here’s Lyman,” said he, looking like Mephistopheles in good humor, “he has no brevet, but I am going to write to the Governor of Massachusetts to make him a Field Marshal.” Whereat he rubbed the side of his long nose, as he always does when he laughs.

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. 249-50. 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. 289-91. 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.

My Old School

DSC_6979“I’m never going back to my old school.”
–Steely Dan

Well, recently I did go back to my old school, a place called Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. I’ve been working on a magazine article that involves Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and I figured it was time I paid my respects to the old soldier. As most Civil War aficionados know, Chamberlain was a Bowdoin graduate who was teaching at the college when the Civil War began. He joined the army, received an appointment as the lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry, and was serving as the regiment’s commander at the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians argue about the overall importance of the 20th Maine’s defense of Little Round Top on July 2, but I don’t think anyone can deny it was a heroic and courageous stand. He was later badly wounded during the initial attacks on Petersburg, but returned to the army and presided over the official surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. (I’ve written a bit more about Chamberlain’s reputation here.)

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress photo).

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress photo).

Like Chamberlain, I am a Maine native. I grew up in Augusta, where Chamberlain, who served four terms as the state’s governor, once made another heroic stand to face down militia preparing to mount a coup against the state government over disputed election returns. I attended Bowdoin for my first two years of college, before decamping to experience a completely different way of life at a university in Los Angeles. I can’t recall if I knew much of anything about Chamberlain at the time. Only later did I learn that he and I belonged to the same fraternity, and that the fraternity house (where I lived after my freshman year) stood just across Potter Street from the building that Chamberlain once called home. It was student housing when I was there; it now houses a small Chamberlain museum.

My wife and I reached Bowdoin on a bright but very cold afternoon in November and headed over to Pine Grove Cemetery to see the general’s grave. After a little bit of searching, we found it at one edge of the cemetery. It’s a modest stone, with just his name and birth and death years, with another marker behind it flush with the ground. Some people had placed pennies on the gravestone, so I followed suit, making sure I put the Lincoln side up.

DSC_6977Chamberlain was an interesting person, not just a plaster saint or a one-dimensional hero. “Chamberlain was much more complex and complicated than historians would have us believe,” noted biographer Edward G. Longacre. “Among other qualities, he was abstruse and direct, caring and insensitive, modest and pretentious, selfless and self-consumed, tolerant and narrow-minded.

“He was, in other words, a human being.”

And now he’s dust, dead a century ago as of last February. All things, including brevet major generals, must pass.

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.

Poor Ba-ba (December 5, 1864)

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock has gone from the Army of the Potomac, but he is not forgotten. Here Theodore Lyman relates a story about Hancock, who had a legendary mastery of profanity.

The weather continues very fine and really warm of days, though the nights are provocative of blankets—weather, law! that isn’t very interesting, is it? My head has indeed been singularly empty for letter-writing; when a man talks about weather to his own wife he must be pretty hard up. I heard a characteristic anecdote of Hancock which made me laugh, as I knew his ways. It appears that he had issued stringent orders against plundering, despite which the troops had fallen on a large flock of sheep and were making short work of them. Away went Hancock, followed by the inevitable Morgan, Mitchell, and Parker. Very soon all these three were sent spinning off at tangents, after distant delinquents, and the General went frothing along alone. Presently he catches sight of four men pursuing a poor sheep, bayonet in hand, and off he goes, full tilt, to arrest them; but, before he can get in, poor ba-ba is down and still. “You blank blank all-sortsof-bad-things,” roars Hancock, “how dare you? How dare you kill that sheep?” “Please, General, we didn’t kill it,” cried the terrified soldiers. “What! Didn’t kill it! You liars! You infernal, desperate liars! I saw you kill it, with my own eyes; and there it lies dead!”—when—the sheep hopped up and ran away.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 288-9. 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.

The Vexed Question (December 4, 1864)

In this print, titled "Grant and his Generals," George Meade does make an appearance off to Grant's right (Library of Congress).

In this print, titled “Grant and his Generals,” George Meade does make an appearance off to Grant’s right (Library of Congress).

The “vexed question” of Meade’s promotion has been settled (although he will have to wait until February before the Senate gives its official seal of approval). In his notebook entry December 4, 1864, Theodore Lyman noted, “A telegraph came from [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton announcing to the General that he had been made a Major General in the regular army, to rank next to Sherman. Whereat he was right content.” Meade is now the country’s ’s fourth highest ranked officer, with only Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Halleck, and William T. Sherman ahead of him.

I send you a telegram from the Secretary and my reply, which will show you the vexed question is at last settled. Much of the gratification that ought justly to accompany such a reward has been destroyed by the manner of doing it; so that what might have been a graceful compliment became reduced to a simple act of justice. Well, let us be satisfied with this, and believe it was more a want of knowledge how to do such things than any unfriendly feeling which caused it.

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. 249. 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.

“The Most Impartial Account” (December 3, 1864)

This Currier & Ives print from 1863 depicts a very heroic version of the victor of Gettysburg (Library of Congress).

This Currier & Ives print from 1863 depicts a very heroic version of the victor of Gettysburg (Library of Congress).

George Meade likes an article on Gettysburg by Captain Charles Cornwallis Chesney that appeared in British Army and Navy Review. “The grand address of Mr. Everett” that he mentions is the talk that Edward Everett gave at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Everett prepared his epic oration with background material that Meade had asked Theodore Lyman to gather. (“Prepared, by order, a sort of résumé of Gen. Meade’s official report of the battle of Gettysburg, to be sent to Mr. Everett, who is to deliver an oration at the cemetery, to be made at that place,” Lyman had noted in his notebook entry for October 5, 1863.) Everett’s two-hour talk was overshadowed by the brief remarks of the speaker who followed him, President Abraham Lincoln.

I received the two volumes of the Army and Navy Review (British) and have read with great interest Captain Chesney’s critique of the battle of Gettysburg. It is decidedly the most impartial account of this battle that I have read, and I think does more justice to my acts and motives than any account by my countrymen, including the grand address of Mr. Everett. What has struck me with surprise is the intimate knowledge of many facts not made very public at the time, such as [Henry] Slocum’s hesitation about reinforcing [Oliver O.] Howard, [Daniel] Butterfield’s drawing up an order to withdraw, and other circumstances of a like nature. This familiarity with details evidences access to some source of information on our side, other than official reports or newspaper accounts. Captain Chesney’s facts are singularly accurate, though he has fallen into one or two errors. I was never alarmed about my small arm ammunition, and after Hancock’s repulsing the enemy on the 3d, I rode to the left, gave orders for an immediate advance, and used every exertion to have an attack made; but before the troops could be got ready, it became dark. There is no doubt the fatigue and other results of the three days’ fighting had produced its effect on the troops and their movements were not as prompt as they would otherwise have been. I have no doubt all his statements about Lee, and his having been overruled, are true. Lee never before or since has exhibited such audacity. I am glad this impartial account by a foreign military critic has been written.

One of the enjoyable things about Theodore Lyman’s letters is the way he casts light on day-to-day life in the Army of the Potomac. Here we learn a little bit about General Meade on pay-day. Lyman also writes about “contrabands,” escaped slaves who seek freedom with the Union army.

At the end of each month, General Meade sends up his pay-rolls, that is, a large printed sheet which each officer fills up, stating what the Government owes him, and saying that he hasn’t cheated Uncle Sam, and don’t owe him anything and is all right generally. The pay department keeps this as a receipt and returns your money for the past month. Lieutenant-Colonel Woodruff gets the General’s pay. One part he sends to Mrs. Meade and the rest he sends to the General, who, the moment that he gets it, sends violently for Mercier and John and everyone else to whom he is indebted, and pays them all, in hot haste, as if his last day were come. He is a thorough old soldier about money and regards greenbacks in a weak and helpless sort of way. “Once,” said he, “Mrs. Meade said it was my plain duty to go to market, as other gentlemen did: it would be so satisfactory and saving. I went the next morning. We had a famous dinner—oysters, terrapin, and lots of good things—the children were delighted; but, when I came to look, I found I had spent the week’s allowance in one day! I wasn’t allowed to go any more to market.” You would have laughed to see yesterday the crowd of contrabands that came in with Gregg. Usually, wherever they can, they cut and run, not showing that devotion to their masters described by the Southrons. It is sometimes rather remarkable the way they run off. Now in this lot (mostly women) there was all the way from a newly born baby to an old woman who, they told me, was over ninety, and who, from her looks, might very likely have been a hundred and fifty. The young women had their mistresses’ things on, if I know myself. There was one Christian Commission kuss who went whining about and saying: “Oh! you are free, free! Oh! thank God for it!” “Look here, my friend,” said I, “if you want to show your Christian feeling, go and tell your commission to get these people something to eat; they have had nothing since yesterday.” The pious party took this with an ill grace, but was fain to walk off “to see our agent,” who, I hope, made some good soup for them.

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. 248-9. 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. 287-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Cavalry Raid (December 1, 1864)

GreggDavid McMurtrie Gregg was one of the Army of the Potomac’s best cavalry commanders. He was the cousin of Pennsylvania governor Andrew Gregg Curtin and had received his promotion of major general of volunteers in August. A couple of months after Theodore Lyman writes this letter, Gregg will abruptly resign from the army, for reasons that remain mysterious.

At daylight General Gregg made a start, with nearly his whole cavalry division, for Stony Creek station. For you must know that, since we have held the Weldon road, the enemy have been obliged to waggon much of their supplies from Stony Creek station, by cross roads to the Boydton plank and thus to Petersburg. Lately we have had reports that they were building a cross railroad from Stony Creek to the southside road. Gregg’s object therefore was to go to the station, which is over twenty miles by the road from our lines, find out if this railroad were really in progress or not, and do as much damage as possible. Instead of going straight down he, by advice of General Meade, bore a little to the east and then suddenly swung round, when he got a little below the station. The consequence was he came on them where they didn’t look for him. There were two redoubts, with regular ditch, etc., intended to keep off raiders; there was a thirty-pounder Parrott and a twelve-pounder field-piece mounted in them, and a few infantry as garrison. Their cavalry took to their heels, prudently. The infantry got in the redoubts and fired away with their cannon; but it got taken in a novel fashion. A regiment of cavalry charged to within 100 yards, then tumbled off their horses and made a rush at the parapet, and ran right over the occupants. This gave them possession of the station, and then there followed a scene of general smashing, which, according to witnesses, was highly amusing. The men, feeling like mischievous boys, went at everything tooth and nail. They took several hundred bales of hay and piled them against a stack of short forage, which contained between 3000 and 5000 bags. Then they set the whole on fire, and helped the blaze with a lot of new tents. Next they tied down the safety-valve of a locomotive, built a big fire under the boiler, and blew her up by this scientific process. After distributing the contents of a number of Rebel Thanksgiving boxes on the principle of spolia forti, they ended by a display of fireworks consisting of a shed full of ammunition, which was fired and allowed to go off at its convenience. Then they retreated, in great glee, taking with them 170 prisoners, who were not in such great glee. One was a scamp named Major Fitzhugh, who, when Captain Lazelle, of our cavalry, was made prisoner, put a pistol to his head and made him give him his boots. Captain Freikle told me he had a mind to make the scoundrel march the twenty miles barefooted, but couldn’t bring his mind to anything so mean. I would have made him do it.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 285-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.