Our Usual Little Picnic (April 8, 1865)

A Timothy O'Sullivan photo of the High Bridge (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan photo of the High Bridge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman recounts the penultimate day of the pursuit of Robert E. Lee. The General Williams who brought Grant’s message through the lines was Seth Williams, who had once served as Meade’s assistant adjutant general and is now on Grant’s staff. The much-liked Williams was a native of Augusta, Maine. Stute’s house, where Meade and Grant stayed on the night before Lee’s surrender, is also known as Clifton. It still stands today. Richard Ewell had been captured at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. He told his captors that Lee should surrender. The Washburne Lyman mentions is Col. Francis Washburne of the 4th MA Cavalry. His attempt to burn the High Bridge before the Confederates could cross it was unsuccessful.

Here’s a short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, about what happened while Grant and Meade were sleeping at Clifton:

“Sometime after midnight the occupants of the house heard the soldiers outside on guard duty challenge an approaching rider, followed by the sounds of spurs and the rattling of a saber from someone on the porch. It was a messenger with a reply from Lee. ‘I received at a late hour your note of to-day,’ it read. ‘In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end.’ Lee was saying he would not meet to surrender his army, but he would like to hear Grant’s proposals.

“Grant replied to Lee, keeping the delicate negotiations alive. He said a meeting would do no good, as he had no authority to discuss the general subject of peace. ‘I will state, however, general, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed.'”

We have been making our usual little picnic to-day—say nineteen miles—and have got about half-way between Burkeville Junction and Lynchburg. Did you ever see that Washburn, Colonel in Louis Cabot’s regiment, rather a well-looking young man? He was sent the day before yesterday, by Ord, from Burkeville Junction, with a small infantry and cavalry force, to destroy the Farmville bridges, to keep back the Rebels and head them off; but he found the enemy there before him; they attacked him, got him in the forks of two runs and killed or took most of his command, after a really desperate fight; Washburn getting a bullet through the cheeks and a sabre cut in the head. Then the Rebels crossed from Farmville to the other side and then they burnt the bridges in our faces. Last night was a white frost, as my toes, under the blankets, suggested to me in the morning. We left betimes, before six, to wit; for we had to get all the way back to High Bridge and then begin our march thence. After crossing the river beside the bridge (whereof the last three spans had been burnt by the enemy), we bore to the right, into the pine woods, then kept to the left, through a poor wood road, and emerged on the main road, about a mile east of the Piedmont coal mine, just as Humphreys’s rear guard were marching on. As they had supposed, the enemy had retreated during the night and now we looked forward to a day’s stern chase. At the coal mine we found General Humphreys, wearing much the expression of an irascible pointer, he having been out on several roads, ahead of his column, and getting down on his knees and peering at foot-tracks, through his spectacles, to determine by which the main body had retreated. Here we got a great excitement, on learning that, last night, General Williams had conveyed a note from Grant to Lee, demanding his surrender. That, furthermore, Lee had made a reply, and that now General Williams had just gone forward, with a flag, to send an answer. All this looked favorable and gave a new aspect to the whole question! The original idea of sending a note came from the language used by Ewell and his Staff, captured on the 6th. These officers had stated that their position was hopeless and that Lee might surrender, if summoned. The good Williams’s mission came near being fatal to the messenger of peace; for, as he got in sight of the rear Rebel videttes and was waving away, to attract their attention, they shot at him and wounded his orderly. However, he persevered, and, with a little care, got his note delivered.

We now trotted along what had been, years since, a fine stage road; but the present condition was not exactly favorable to waggons with delicate springs—the road at present being playfully variegated with boulders, three feet high, which had inconvenienced the Rebel trains, as many a burnt waggon testified. Toiling along past the trains in rear of the Second Corps, we were caught by General Grant, who was in high spirits, and addressed General Meade as “Old Fellow.” Both Staffs halted for the night at Stute’s house, and, as Grant’s waggons could not get up, we fed him and his officers and lent them blankets. Grant had one of his sick headaches, which are rare, but cause him fearful pain, such as almost overcomes even his iron stoicism. To show how really amiable he is, he let the officers drum on the family piano a long while before he even would hint he didn’t like it. Towards sundown we could hear rapid artillery from direction of Appomattox Station, which made us anxious; for we knew it was Sheridan, and could not know the result.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 353-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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