Boiling and Fuming (April 17, 1865)

Theodore Lyman

Theodore Lyman

On April 17, 1865, Theodore Lyman pens one more defense of his chief, but not without touching on Meade’s flaws—especially his legendary temper.

Sadly, this marks the end of Lyman’s letters. With Lee’s army defeated, Meade’s loyal aide-de-camp returned to Boston. He had served Meade well, and provided one of the best accounts of life with the Army of the Potomac ever written. He and Meade remained in contact. In July, the Lymans hosted the Meades for an extended stay in Boston. When Meade died in 1872, Lyman helped raise money to support the family he left behind. Elected to Congress in 1883, Lyman served only one term. By this time he was feeling a numbness in his extremities, a gradually worsening condition that eventually left Lyman bedridden. It sounds like a neurodegenerative disease of some sort—perhaps amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known today as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As one biographer wrote, “His brave spirit in this growing isolation, which at last withdrew him from the sight of almost all except his own family, surmounted all barriers. . . . When his hand could no longer hold the pen, he spoke through his tender amanuensis words full of the same high courage and cheerful humor which had been his charm in earlier life.”

He died in September 1897. “Theodore Lyman—man of science—soldier—and man of the world—touched life at many points,” wrote George Agassiz, who edited his letters for publication. “He could draw easily on his varied experience, from a well-trained and well-stored mind. This, added to good looks, charm, and good humor, a ready wit and great tact, made him a striking and telling personality, whether in the camp, a scientific meeting, or social gathering.” Something of Lyman’s personality will always survive as long as people can read his lively and vibrant writing, and I hope everyone who has read these posts has enjoyed Lyman’s company as much as I have.

The Cadwallader Lyman mentions is Sylvanus Cadwallader, who covered the latter portion of the war for the New York Herald. He was the reporter who claimed credit for lifting the press boycott of Meade following the Edward Crapsey/Crospey incident. In an account of his war experiences completed in 1896 but not published until 1955 (as Three Years with Grant), Cadwallader expressed a high opinion of Meade. “Unavoidable circumstances growing out of the emergencies of war, often made him the military ‘football’ of these days,” he wrote: “but sober second thought of the American people ought to have corrected, long before this, much injustice there done him. That he was a great soldier, is scarcely denied by any one. But Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Wilson, and even Logan became for a time popular idols, and made it difficult to give Gen. Meade the place in the list that his services deserved . . . .” Cadwallader even said he had never seen any instances of Meade’s temper.

How wicked we are in this world!—Now, when I should be only overflowing with joy and thankfulness at these great results, I keep finding myself boiling and fuming over the personal neglect of General Meade and the totally undeserved prominence given to Sheridan. Yet Meade is really of no more consequence in this vast question of all time, than a sailor, who pulls a good oar, compared with the Atlantic Ocean. The truth will stand out in sober history, even for him—in the future Motleys and Prescotts. The plain truth about Meade is, first, that he is an abrupt, harsh man, even to his own officers, when in active campaign; and secondly, that he, as a rule, will not even speak to any person connected with the press. They do not dare to address him. With other generals, how different: at Grant’s Headquarters there is a fellow named Cadwalader, a Herald man, and you see the Lieutenant-General’s Staff officers calling, “Oh, Cad; come here a minute!” That is the style! With two or three exceptions, Grant is surrounded by the most ordinary set of plebeians you ever saw. I think he has them on purpose (to avoid advice), for he is a man who does everything with a specific reason; he is eminently a wise man. He knows very well Meade’s precise capacity and strong points. For example, if Meade says a certain movement of troops should be made, Grant makes it, almost as a matter of course, because he is so wise as to know that there is one of Meade’s strong points.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 358-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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