Those Cavalry Bucks (April 5, 1865)

Philip Sheridan with (left to right) Col. James Forsyth, Wesley Merritt, Thomas C. Devin and George Custer (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan with (left to right) Col. James Forsyth, Wesley Merritt, Thomas C. Devin and George Custer (Library of Congress).

Meade did not like Philip Sheridan—a feeling shared by Theodore Lyman, as this letter of Lyman’s about the events of April 5 demonstrates. A year earlier Meade and Sheridan had clashed over the cavalry’s failure to clear the Brock Road south of the Wilderness to Spotsylvania. Now Meade felt that Sheridan was too eager to grab after all the military glory he could get—even if it came at the expense of the Army of the Potomac. Here Lyman portrays Sheridan and his cavalry in a very critical light as the army continues its pursuit of Lee’s army.

Last night, at 9.30, came a note from Sheridan, dated at Jetersville, saying that he was there, entrenched, with the 5th Corps and a part of the cavalry; that the whole Rebel army was in his front trying to get off its trains; that he expected to be attacked, but, if the remaining infantry could be hurried up, there was a chance of taking the whole of the enemy. Although the 2d Corps had only gone into bivouac at eight in the morning, and had no rations at that moment, General Meade issued orders for them to move at one at night and push on for Jetersville, followed by the 6th Corps, which lay just behind. The distance was fifteen or sixteen miles. I was sleeping on the floor, in the same room with the General, to look out for him in case he needed anything; for he had a distressing cough and a high fever, but would not give in, for he has a tremendous nervous system that holds him up through everything. General Webb was worn out with want of sleep, so I was up most of the night, writing and copying and receiving the despatches. The General talked a great deal and was very excited in his thoughts, though his head was perfectly clear. General Humphreys had slept, I don’t know when—but there he was, as sturdy as ever, issuing orders for the advance, with his eyes wide open, as much as to say; “Sleep—don’t mention it!” At one in the morning, sure enough, he moved; but had not got a mile, when, behold the whole of Merritt’s division of cavalry, filing in from a side road, and completely closing the way! That’s the way with those cavalry bucks: they bother and howl about infantry not being up to support them, and they are precisely the people who always are blocking up the way; it was so at Todd’s Tavern, and here again, a year after. They are arrant boasters, and, to hear Sheridan’s Staff talk, you would suppose his ten thousand mounted carbineers had crushed the entire Rebellion. Whereas they are immediately cleaned out, the moment they strike a good force of foot-men, and then they cry wolf merrily. The plain truth is, they are useful and energetic fellows, but commit the error of thinking they can do everything and that no one else does do anything. Well, Humphreys could not stir a step till seven next morning, but, meantime, his men got rest by the roadside and his rations were, with incredible exertions, gotten up to him, over fearful roads. At about nine o’clock we put the General in his four-horse waggon, wherein he can lie down, and followed the column, first along the main Namozine road, and then, striking off to the right, across the fields to Jetersville. At ten, we got word that the enemy were still near Amelia Court House, and the infantry were continually ordered to press on, the General stirring up the halting brigades, as he rode past. Some four miles this side of Childer’s house (where Sheridan was) we came upon General Humphreys, at a large house of one Perkinson. Near by were several hundred Rebel prisoners, looking pretty gaunt, for we had nothing to give, and but little food for our own troops. I think that we have been obliged to give mule meat to some of our prisoners, during this campaign, to keep them alive till they could get to supplies; and some of our own men have gone very hungry, because, in the haste of pursuit, they marched straight away from the waggons. … At 1.30 we found General Sheridan at the house, which was perhaps a mile south of Jetersville. Along the front was the 5th Corps, strongly entrenched, while the cavalry covered the flanks. A little before three, Sheridan rode off to the left, to help in Davies whom the enemy’s infantry was trying to cut off. Before this, at two, the head of the 2d Corps was up and the troops went rapidly into position; for, a couple of hours later, Mr. Sheridan (and still more his officers) had a stampede that Lee was coming on top of us. For once in my life I will say I knew better than that, and laughed the cavalry Staff to scorn; for I was dead certain it was only a demonstration, to protect their trains and find our strength. In truth they never came even in sight of our infantry pickets. Though he was not fit for the saddle, General Meade insisted on riding out beyond the lines to talk with Sheridan. He treated him very handsomely and did not avail of his rank to take command over his cavalry, but merely resumed the 5th Corps—a generosity that General Sheridan has hardly reciprocated!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 345-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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