Exaggerated Praise (April 12, 1865)

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the official surrender ceremony for the Army of Northern Virginia, with Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in charge of overseeing the event. After George Gordon Meade’s letter from April 12, I will include Chamberlain’s account of the surrender ceremony. Meade doesn’t write about that—he is fuming with indignation over the way Philip Sheridan is being lionized, while his own role in recent events is being ignored.

Your indignation at the exaggerated praise given to certain officers, and the ignoring of others, is quite natural. Still, I do not see how this evil is to be remedied, so long as our people and press are constituted as they are now. I have the consciousness that I have fully performed my duty, and have done my full share of the brilliant work just completed; but if the press is determined to ignore this, and the people are determined, after four years’ experience of press lying, to believe what the newspapers say, I don’t see there is anything for us but to submit and be resigned. Grant I do not consider so criminal; it is partly ignorance and partly selfishness which prevents his being aware of the effects of his acts. With Sheridan it is not so. His determination to absorb the credit of everything done is so manifest as to have attracted the attention of the whole army, and the truth will in time be made known. His conduct towards me has been beneath contempt, and will most assuredly react against him in the minds of all just and fair-minded persons.

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Grant has left us on a visit to Richmond and Washington. My army is being assembled around this place, where I presume we will await events in North Carolina, and go to Danville, and farther South if it should be deemed necessary. The prevailing belief is that Johnston, on learning the destruction of Lee’s army, will either surrender or disband his. It is hardly probable he will attempt to face Sherman and us.

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. 271. Available via Google Books.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress).

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress).

Here is Chamberlain’s account. It is tinged in a glow of romanticism—I suspect the reality was perhaps a little less steeped with glory and reconciliation—but it is a classic account. This is from the end of Oliver Norton’s Attack and Defense of Little Round Top.

How or why it came about, I do not know, but on the evening of the 10th of April I was summoned to headquarters, and informed that I was to command the parade which was to receive the formal surrender of the arms and colors of the rebel army the next morning. This was an order, and to be received and obeyed without question. One request only I ventured to make of my corps commander. It was that, considering this occasion, I might resume command of my old brigade, the Third, from which I had been transferred in June, 1864, with which I had served up to that time since my entrance into the service. My request was granted, and on that evening I yielded the command of my gallant First brigade, and went back to my veterans.

General Grant was a magnanimous man, great-minded and large-minded. He would have nothing done for show and no vain ceremony. He granted to officers the high privilege of retaining their swords, and all men who owned their horses were made welcome to keep them, as they would need them to plow their land. The rebels had begged to be spared the pain of actually laying down their arms and colors in the presence of our troops, and to be permitted to stack them in front of their own camps and march off, and let us go and pick them up after they had gone. But this would be to err too far on the side of mildness. So it was insisted that, while the surrendering army should be spared all that could humiliate their manhood, yet the insignia of the rebellion and the tokens of the power and will to hurt, lifted against the country’s honor and life, must be laid down in due military form in presence of a designated portion of our army.

This latter office fell to our lot. It gave us, no doubt, a grateful satisfaction and permitted a modest pride, but it was not accepted as a token that we surpassed our comrades in merit of any kind.

We formed our line of battle on the southern margin of the principal street in Appomattox Court House. Massachusetts on the right — her Thirty-second regiment, with all that was left to us of her Ninth, Eighteenth, and Twenty-second; then Maine — her Twentieth regiment, with the delivered remnant of her Second and her First Sharpshooters; Michigan next — her Sixteenth, with interminglings of her First and Fourth. On the left Pennsylvania’— her One Hundred and Fifty-fifth holding also filaments which bound us with the Sixty-second, Eightythird, Ninety-first, and One Hundred and Eighteenth, an immortal band, which held in it the soul of the famous “Light Brigade,” and of the stern old First division, Porter’s, which was nucleus of the Fifth corps, men among them who had fired the first shot at Yorktown, and others that had fired the last at Appomattox, and who thus bore upon their banners all the battles of that army.

By the courtesy of General Bartlett the First brigade, which I had so long commanded, and the Second, which had been with me in this last campaign, were sent to me and held part in the parade, being formed on another line across the street and facing us. These were, with the exception of the One Hundred and Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania, composed of New York regiments,— the One Hundred and Eighty-fifth, One Hundred and Eighty-seventh, One Hundred and Eighty-eighth, and One Hundred and Eighty-ninth,— which in severe service had made themselves veterans worthy the fellowship of those sterling old New York regiments that had fulfilled their time and fame. Names and figures, all of these, dear to every heart that had shared their eventful and glorious history.

As we stood there in the morning mist, straining our eyes toward that camp about to break up for the last march, a feeling came over our hearts which led us to make some appropriate recognition of this great, last meeting.

We could not content ourselves with simply standing in line and witnessing this crowning scene. So instructions were sent to the several commanders that at the given signals, as the head of each division of the surrendering column approached their right, they should in succession bring their men to ” attention ” and arms to the ” carry,” then resuming the “ordered arms ” and the ” parade rest.” And now we see the little shelter tents on the opposite slope melting away and carefully folded, being things which were needed by men as men and not as tokens of rebellion. Soon the gray masses are in motion — once more toward us — as in the days that were gone. A thrilling sight. First, Gordon, with the “Stonewall Corps “; then their First corps,— Longstreet’s,— no less familiar to us and to fame; then Anderson, with his new Fourth corps; and lastly, A. P. Hill’s corps, commanded now by Heth, since Hill had fallen at one of the river fights a few days before. On they come with careless, swinging route step, the column thick with battle Hags, disproportionate to their depleted numbers. As they come opposite our right our bugle sounds the signal, repeated along our line. Each organization comes to “Attention,” and thereupon takes up successively the “Carry.” The gallant General Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes, and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped, and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the “Carry.” All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor word nor motion of man, but awful stillness, as if it were the passing of the dead. Now and then a gust of wind would spring up from the south with strange greeting; our starry ensigns stiffen and fly out as if to welcome back the returning brothers. The ensigns of rebellion seem to shrink back and strain away from the fated farewell.

So a division at a time covers our front. They halt, face inward, some ten paces from us; carefully “dress” their lines, each captain as careful of his alignment as if at a dress parade. Then they fix bayonets, stack arms, then wearily remove their cartridge boxes and hang them on the pile; lastly, reluctantly, painfully, they furl their battlestained flags and lay them down; some, unable to restrain themselves, rushing from the ranks, clinging to them, kneeling over them and kissing them with burning tears. And then the Flag of the Union floats alone upon the field.

Then, stripped of every sign of the rebellion and token of its hate and will to hurt, they march off to give their word of honor never to lift arms against the old flag again, and are free to go where they will in the broad Republic.

Thus division after division passes, and it takes the whole day long to complete this deliverance. Twenty-seven thousand men paroled, one hundred and forty cannon and near that number of battle flags surrendered, but only about seventeen thousand stand of small arms. For sometimes a whole brigade, or what was left of it, had scarcely a score of arms to surrender, having thrown them away by roadside and riverside in weariness of flight or hopelessness of heart, or disdaining to carry them longer, only to be taken from them in token of a lost cause. After this it remained only to gather up what was serviceable of this material of war and to destroy the rest. Nothing was left which could be turned to use against the Union armies. The cartridge-boxes were emptied on the ground for the most part, burned, and after the troops had withdrawn, at the first dusk of evening, it was a weird and almost sad sight to see the running flame with frequent bursts of lurid explosion along the lines where the surrendering army had stood; then only bits of leather writhing in the gray ashes.

All was over. With the dawn of morning the hillsides were alive with men, in groups or singly, on foot or horse, making their way as by the instinct of an ant, each with his own little burden, each for his own little harbor or home.

And we were left alone and lonesome! The familiar forms that had long so firmly held our eyes, until they almost demanded the sight of them for their daily satisfaction, had vanished like a dream. The very reason of our existence seemed to have been taken away. And when on the morrow we took up our march again, though homeward, something was lacking in the spring and spice which had enlivened us through even the dreariest times. To be sure, the war was not over yet, but we felt that the distinctive work of the old Third brigade was over. We were soon to be mustered out; but never to be again as if the Third brigade had not become a part of our lives; a part of our souls. There were “thoughts that ran before and after,” memories of things that cannot be told, and new purposes of manly living and hopes of useful service yet, in visions of a broader citizenship and the career of an enfranchised country.

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A Great Contempt for History (April 10, 1865)

Robert E. Lee, photographed in Richmond in April 1865 (Library of Congress).

Robert E. Lee, photographed in Richmond in April 1865 (Library of Congress).

Robert E. Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at a meeting with Grant in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House. George Meade, who had been with his army in the field, was not present at the meeting. On the next day, though, Meade comes face-to-face with Lee, with whom he had been tangling, in one way or another, since the Seven Days on the Peninsula in June and July 1862. (Grant, by comparison, had been fighting Lee only since May 1864). In this letter, Meade also mentions an encounter with Henry A. Wise, the former governor of Virginia and Meade’s brother-in-law (Wise had married a sister of Meade’s wife). Throughout the war, Meade had written to his wife with whatever news he was able to pick up about Wise and his family. There is a strong streak of bitterness in this letter, mainly over the way Meade has been shunted to the sidelines in the press accounts. The “certain individuals” he mentions are, no doubt, Sheridan and his followers.

Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman includes a great deal more detail about Meade’s encounters with Lee and Wise.

The telegram will have announced to you the surrender of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. This I consider virtually ends the war. I have been to-day in the rebel camp; saw Lee, Longstreet, and many others, among them Mr. Wise. They were all affable and cordial, and uniformly said that, if any conciliatory policy was extended to the South, peace would be at once made. Mr. Wise looked old and feeble, said he was very sick, and had not a mouthful to eat. I secured him the privilege of an ambulance to go home in, and on my return to camp immediately despatched George with an ambulance load of provisions to him. He enquired very affectionately after yourself, your mother and all the family.

The officers and men are to be paroled and allowed to go to their homes, where they all say they mean to stay. Lee’s army was reduced to a force of less than ten thousand effective armed men. We had at least fifty thousand around him, so that nothing but madness would have justified further resistance.

I have been quite sick, but I hope now, with a little rest and quiet, to get well again. I have had a malarious catarrh, which has given me a great deal of trouble. I have seen but few newspapers since this movement commenced, and I don’t want to see any more, for they are full of falsehood and of undue and exaggerated praise of certain individuals who take pains to be on the right side of the reporters. Don’t worry yourself about this; treat it with contempt. It cannot be remedied, and we should be resigned. I don’t believe the truth ever will be known, and I have a great contempt for History. Only let the war be finished, and I returned to you and the dear children, and I will be satisfied.

Our casualties have been quite insignificant in comparison with the results. I don’t believe in all the operations since we commenced on the 29th that we have lost as many men as we did on that unfortunate day, the 31st July, the day of the Petersburg mine.

Federal soldiers and some civilians pose for a photograph in front of the building that gave Appomattox Court House its name. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Federal soldiers and some civilians pose for a photograph in front of the building that gave Appomattox Court House its name. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Although this letter from Theodore Lyman is dated April 23, I think I will post it today because it describes the events of April 10, the day after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. William H.F. “Rooney” Lee, son of Robert, had been Lyman’s classmate at Harvard.

I think I must write you a letter, though it may get to you not much before the winter, to tell of the end of our campaign. Monday April 10 is a day worthy of description, because I saw the remains of our great opponent, the Army of Northern Virginia. The General proposed to ride through the Rebel lines to General Grant, who was at Appomattox Court House; and he took George and myself as aides; a great chance! for the rest were not allowed to go, no communication being permitted between the armies. At 10.30 we rode off, and, passing along the stage road, soon got to the picket line, where a row of our men were talking comfortably with an opposite row of theirs. There the General sent me ahead to see some general of theirs who might give us a guide through the lines. I rode a little beyond a wood, and came on several regiments, camped there. The arms were neatly stacked and the well-known battle-flags were planted by the arms. The men, looking tired and indifferent, were grouped here and there. I judged they had nothing to eat, for there was no cooking going on. A mounted officer was shown me as General Field, and to him I applied. He looked something like Captain Sleeper, but was extremely moody, though he at once said he would ride back himself to General Meade, by whom he was courteously received, which caused him to thaw out considerably. We rode about a mile and then turned off to General Lee’s Headquarters, which consisted in one fly with a camp-fire in front. I believe he had lost most of his baggage in some of the trains, though his establishment is at all times modest. He had ridden out, but, as we turned down the road again, we met him coming up, with three or four Staff officers. As he rode up General Meade took off his cap and said: “Good-morning, General.” Lee, however, did not recognize him, and, when he found who it was, said: “But what are you doing with all that grey in your beard?” To which Meade promptly replied: “You have to answer for most of it!” Lee is, as all agree, a stately-looking man; tall, erect and strongly built, with a full chest. His hair and closely trimmed beard, though thick, are now nearly white. He has a large and well-shaped head, with a brown, clear eye, of unusual depth. His face is sunburnt and rather florid. In manner he is exceedingly grave and dignified—this, I believe, he always has; but there was evidently added an extreme depression, which gave him the air of a man who kept up his pride to the last, but who was entirely overwhelmed. From his speech I judge he was inclined to wander in his thoughts. You would not have recognized a Confederate officer from his dress, which was a blue military overcoat, a high grey hat, and well-brushed riding boots.

As General Meade introduced his two aides, Lee put out his hand and saluted us with all the air of the oldest blood in the world. I did not think, when I left, in ’63, for Germantown, that I should ever shake the hand of Robert E. Lee, prisoner of war! He held a long conference with General Meade, while I stood over a fire, with his officers, in the rain. Colonel Marshall, one of his aides, was a very sensible and gentlemanly man, and seemed in good spirits. He told me that, at one time during the retreat, he got no sleep for seventy-two hours, the consequence of which was that his brain did not work at all, or worked all wrong. A quartermaster came up to him and asked by what route he should move his train: to which Marshall replied, in a lucid manner: “Tell the Captain that I should have sent that cane as a present to his baby; but I could not, because the baby turned out to be a girl instead of a boy!” We were talking there together, when there appeared a great oddity—an old man, with an angular, much-wrinkled face, and long, thick white hair, brushed a la Calhoun; a pair of silver spectacles and a high felt hat further set off the countenance, while the legs kept up their claim of eccentricity by encasing themselves in grey blankets, tied somewhat in a bandit fashion. The whole made up no less a person than Henry A. Wise, once Governor of the loyal state of Virginia, now Brigadier-General and prisoner of war. By his first wife he is Meade’s brother-in-law, and had been sent for to see him. I think he is punished already enough: old, sick, impoverished, a prisoner, with nothing to live for, not even his son, who was killed at Roanoke Island, he stood there in his old, wet, grey blanket, glad to accept at our hands a pittance of biscuit and coffee, to save him and his Staff from starvation! While they too talked, I asked General Lee after his son “Roonie,” who was about there somewhere. It was the “Last Ditch” indeed! He too is punished enough: living at this moment [April 23, when Lyman wrote this letter] at Richmond, on the food doled out to him by our government, he gets his ration just like the poorest negro in the place! We left Lee, and kept on through the sad remnants of an army that has its place in history. It would have looked a mighty host, if the ghosts of all its soldiers that now sleep between Gettysburg and Lynchburg could have stood there in the lines, beside the living.

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. 270-1. 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. 359-62. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

“The Army of Northern Virginia Has Surrendered!” (April 9, 1865)

Robert E. Lee surrendered in Wilmer McLean's parlor. Afterwards, souvenir-seeking Union soldiers nearly stripped McLean's house of furnishings. In an attempt to recoup his losses, McLean commissioned this fanciful print of the surrender. George Meade is one of the people who appear here, but were not present at the actual surrender. Click to enlarge (via Wikipedia).

Robert E. Lee surrendered in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House. Afterwards, souvenir-seeking Union soldiers nearly stripped McLean’s house of furnishings. In an attempt to recoup his losses, McLean commissioned this fanciful print of the event. Goerge Meade is one of the people who appear here, but were not present at the actual surrender. Click to enlarge (via Wikipedia).

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virgina. While this did not end the American Civil War, it certainly indicated that the end of was near. Lee’s army was the most prominent one of the Confederacy, and once it left the field, the others were sure to follow.

Here’s how I wrote about the surrender, which took place at Wilmer McLean’s home in the village of Appomattox Court House, in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

“Lee, immaculately attired in his clean dress uniform, arrived first and waited in McLean’s parlor with Charles Marshall. Grant rode up later, wearing a private’s coat with his insignia pinned on. After some small talk about the Mexican War (Lee somewhat passive-aggressively told Grant that, try as he might, he hadn’t been able to remember a single feature of his), the two men got down to business. With a number of Union officers watching, including Sheridan, Ord, Custer, Porter, and Seth Williams, Grant wrote out a letter offering generous terms of surrender: parole for the soldiers upon their promise not to raise arms against the U.S. government until properly exchanged, with the officers keeping their sidearms, horses, and baggage. Lee pointed out that many of the men owned their own horses as well, so Grant said he would tell his men to allow any soldier who claimed ownership of a horse or mule to keep it. ‘This will have the best possible effect upon the men,’ said Lee. ‘It will be very gratifying, and will do much toward conciliating our people.’

Wilmer McLean's house, as it appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

Wilmer McLean’s house, as it appeared in 1865 (Library of Congress).

The reconstructed McLean house, as it appears today.

The reconstructed McLean house, as it appears today.

Alfred Waud depicted Lee as he rode away from the surrender meeting (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted Lee as he rode away from the surrender meeting (Library of Congress).

“Col. Ely Parker of Grant’s staff, a full-blooded Seneca Indian, wrote out a clean copy of Grant’s letter, and Lee had a formal letter of acceptance drafted. Lee told Grant his men lacked rations; Grant said he would make arrangements to have some delivered. Sheridan provided the only note of discord when he stepped forward and asked Lee to give him back some letters he had sent that morning complaining of truce violations. Lee handed them over. Then Grant and Lee signed their letters of agreement. Lee requested that Grant send a messenger to Meade with word of the surrender.

“It was all over sometime around 4:00, and Lee bowed to the Union officers and left the house with Marshall. As Lee waited for his orderly to bring his horse, he stood on the steps and gazed sadly into the distance. ‘He thrice smote the palm of his left hand slowly with his right fist in an absent sort of way, seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard, who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unaware of everything about him,’ wrote Horace Porter. ‘All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, moving toward him, and saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present. Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off at a slow trot to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.’”

Here’s Theodore Lyman’s account of the events he witnessed on this momentous day.

We all were up, according to habit, about daylight, with horses saddled, having staid near Stute’s house for the night. In reply to a summons from Grant, Lee has sent in a note to say that he would meet Grant at ten a.m. to confer on measures for peace. The Lieutenant-General answered that he had no authority in the premises and refused the interview; but repeated his offer to accept the army’s surrender on parole. Indeed, we suspected his affairs were from bad to worse, for last night we could hear, just at sunset, the distant cannon of Sheridan. He, with his cavalry, had made a forced march on Appomattox Station, where he encountered the head of the Rebel column (consisting, apparently, for the most part of artillery), charged furiously on it, and took twenty cannon and 1000 prisoners; and checked its progress for that night, during which time the 24th and 5th Corps, by strenuous marching, came up and formed line of battle quite across the Lynchburg road, west of Appomattox C.H. Betimes this morning, the enemy, thinking that nothing but cavalry was in their front, advanced to cut their way through, and were met by the artillery and musketry of two corps in position—(Ah! there goes a band playing “Dixie” in mockery. It is a real carnival!) This seems to have struck them with despair. Their only road blocked in front, and Humphreys’s skirmishers dogging their footsteps! Well, we laid the General in his ambulance (he has been sick during the whole week, though now much better) and at 6.30 a.m. the whole Staff was off, at a round trot—(90 miles have I trotted and galloped after that Lee, and worn holes in my pantaloons, before I could get him to surrender!). An hour after, we came on the 6th Corps streaming into the main road from the upper one. A little ahead of this we halted to talk with General Wright. At 10.30 came, one after the other, two negroes, who said that some of our troops entered Lynchburg yesterday; and that Lee was now cut off near Appomattox Court House. This gave us new wings! An aide-de-camp galloped on, to urge Humphreys to press the pursuit, and all waggons were ordered out of the road, that the 6th Corps might close in immediately on his rear. Away went the General again, full tilt, along the road crowded by the infantry, every man of whom was footing it, as if a lottery prize lay just ahead! A bugler trotted ahead, blowing to call the attention of the troops, while General Webb followed, crying, “Give way to the right! Give way to the right!” Thus we ingeniously worked our way, amid much pleasantry. “Fish for sale!” roared one doughboy. “Yes,” joined in a pithy comrade, “and a tarnation big one, too!” The comments on the General were endless. “That’s Meade.” “Yes, that’s him.” “Is he sick?” “I expect he is; he looks kinder wild!” “Guess the old man hain’t had much sleep lately.” The heavy artillery firing we had earlier heard, now had suddenly ceased, and there was a perfect stillness—a suspicious circumstance that gave us new hope. Somewhat before noon we got to General Humphreys, some five miles east of the Court House and at the very head of his men. He reported that he had just struck the enemy’s skirmish line, and was preparing to drive them back. At that moment an officer rode up and said the enemy were out with a white flag. “They shan’t stop me!” retorted the fiery H.; “receive the message but push on the skirmishers!” Back came the officer speedily, with a note. General Lee stated that General Ord had agreed to a suspension of hostilities, and he should ask for the same on this end of the line. “Hey! what!” cried General Meade, in his harsh, suspicious voice, “I have no sort of authority to grant such suspension. General Lee has already refused the terms of General Grant. Advance your skirmishers, Humphreys, and bring up your troops. We will pitch into them at once!” But lo! here comes now General Forsyth, who had ridden through the Rebel army, from General Sheridan (under a flag), and who now urged a brief suspension. “Well,” said the General, “in order that you may get back to Sheridan, I will wait till two o’clock, and then, if I get no communication from General Lee, I shall attack!” So back went Forsyth, with a variety of notes and despatches. We waited, not without excitement, for the appointed hour. Meantime, negroes came in and said the Rebel pickets had thrown down their muskets and gone leisurely to their main body; also that the Rebels were “done gone give up.” Presently, the General pulled out his watch and said: “Two o’clock—no answer—go forward.” But they had not advanced far, before we saw a Rebel and a Union officer coming in. They bore an order from General Grant to halt the troops. Major Wingate, of General Lee’s Staff, was a military-looking man, dressed in a handsome grey suit with gold lace, and a gold star upon the collar. He was courageous, but plainly mortified to the heart. “We had done better to have burnt our whole train three days ago”; he said bitterly. “In trying to save a train, we have lost an army!” And there he struck the pith of the thing. And so we continued to wait till about five, during which time General Humphreys amused us with presents of Confederate notes, of which we found a barrel full (!) in the Rebel waggons. It was a strange spectacle, to see the officers laughing and giving each other $500 notes of a government that has been considered as firmly established by our English friends!

About five came Major Pease. Headed by General Webb, we gave three cheers, and three more for General Meade. Then he mounted and rode through the 2d and 6th Corps. Such a scene followed as I can never see again. The soldiers rushed, perfectly crazy, to the roadside, and there crowding in dense masses, shouted, screamed, yelled, threw up their hats and hopped madly up and down! The batteries were run out and began firing, the bands played, the flags waved. The noise of the cheering was such that my very ears rang. And there was General Meade galloping about and waving his cap with the best of them! Poor old Robert Lee! His punishment is too heavy—to hear those cheers, and to remember what he once was! My little share of this work is done. God willing, before many weeks, or even days, I shall be at home, to campaign no more.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 355-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Visit to the Monitor

A depiction of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862.

A depiction of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862 (Library of Congress).

The first aspect of the Civil War that interested me as a kid was duel of the ironclads. I knew them as the Monitor and the Merrimac, although, like the Brontosaurus, the Merrimac turned out to have some nomenclature difficulties. The vessel from which the Confederates constructed their ironclad had been the Merrimack (which some people, including my younger self and George Gordon Meade, spelled as Merrimac). Its new incarnation—the Robocop version—bore the name CSS Virginia. That’s the correct nomenclature, but something embedded in my DNA that always makes me think of the Monitor and the Merrimac. (And I just read an article that said there may have been a Brontosaurus after all, and it wasn’t just a misidentified Apatosaurus. So there’s that.)

A gun from the CSS Virginia at the Mariners Museum. The damage at the muzzle was inflicted by the Monitor during the famous battle of the ironclads.

A gun from the CSS Virginia at the Mariners’ Museum. The damage at the muzzle was inflicted by the Monitor during the famous battle of the ironclads.

Duel of the Ironclads, with great illustrations by Fred Freeman.

My well-worn copy of Duel of the Ironclads, with its great illustrations by Fred Freeman.

There was something about this pivotal naval battle that captivated me. Along with my drawings of the starship Enterprise, the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the robot from Lost in Space, when I was bored in class I often drew pictures of the battling ironclads . One of my inspirations was certainly Duel of the Ironclads, a Time-Life book with superb illustrations by Fred Freeman. I can’t remember when I got the book, but I spent many hours studying his paintings. I remember being awestruck back in the 1970s when I heard the news that the Monitor had been discovered on the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras, and I was excited a little later when a National Geographic arrived, with a photo-mosaic showing the vessel’s wreckage on the sea bed, where it had lain since sinking in a terrible storm on December 30, 1862.

But I had never had the chance to visit the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The museum has relics of the Monitor that have been raised from the sea, including the ship’s revolutionary turret and its big Dahlgren guns. I finally got the chance to stop by this past weekend, and it was worth the wait. It’s a cool museum—and I’m not just saying that because it was founded by a guy named Archer M. Huntington.

My wife and I pose on the deck of the life-size Monitor mockup.

My wife and I pose on the deck of the life-size Monitor mockup.

One of the Monitor's two guns, recovered from the ocean floor.

One of the Monitor’s two guns, recovered from the ocean floor.

I found it fascinating to actually see bits of the ship up close and personal. I saw the turret, the guns, and the ship’s engine and steam compressor in their tanks inside the conservation lab. The museum has all kinds of other artifacts recovered from the wreck, including the signal lantern the crew used on the night the Monitor sank, and all kinds of little items such as silverware and mustard bottles. In addition, there’s a life-size mockup of the turret as it looked on the seabed (complete with maritime encrustations), a cutaway turret showing its design, and a full-size mockup of the entire vessel that sits outside. There were also recreations of sections of the Monitor’s interior (it was much roomier than I would have though) and one of the forward portion of the Virginia.

It was a thrill to stand on the deck of the life-size Monitor mockup and imagine what it would have been like to stand on the real thing. Not in battle, of course. That would not have been fun at all.

What does this have to do with George Gordon Meade? Not much. But Meade did mention the Confederate ironclad in his letters to his wife (using the variant spelling of Merrimac). On March 11, 1862, after the Virginia had cut a swathe through the Union blockade fleet at Hampton roads, sinking the Cumberland and setting the Congress afire after she had run aground, Meade wrote, “We hear to-day of the disastrous naval conflict at Newport News. This is a very bad business, and shows the superior enterprise of our enemies. There is no reason we should not have had the Cumberland iron-clad, as the Merrimac has been prepared by them. The loss of two such vessels as the Cumberland and the Congress, two of our finest frigates, is a very serious blow, not only to our material interests, but to our pride and naval forces.”

The museum's mockup of the bow of the CSS Virginia.

The museum’s mockup of the bow of the CSS Virginia.

On April 13, more than a month after the epic battle between the two ironclads had ended in a draw, and the Virginia still lurked as a potential threat to the vessels supporting McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Meade wrote, “As I understand, the difficulty is that, owing to the fear of the Merrimac, the gunboats cannot leave Fortress Monroe to ascend the York River and take their batteries in the rear. It is said, however, the Navy have a plan, by which they are confident they will sink the Merrimac, if she gives them a fair chance, in which I trust they may succeed.” Three days later he wrote, “It is evident we cannot advance on Richmond from the Rappahannock, because at that point the direct route leaves the railroad, and the roads across are impassable for artillery and wagons. It has been surmised that we are kept here because they are fearful the Merrimac may run the gauntlet at Fortress Monroe, in which case they could pen McClellan in on the peninsula, between the York and James Rivers, and then they could detach a force to threaten Washington.”

I'm standing inside the recreation of the Monitor turret as it would have appeared on the seabed, when it was upside down and encrusted with marine life.

I’m standing inside the recreation of the Monitor turret as it would have appeared on the seabed, when it was upside down and encrusted with marine life.

Finally, on April 25, Meade noted, “The papers say the Merrimac is ready to come out again; which I think is the best thing that can happen, as until the question of her supremacy is settled, we will be hampered at Yorktown. Let her be captured or sunk; when our gunboats will be free to operate on the James and York Rivers, taking the enemy’s works in flank and rear, which now we cannot do for fear of the Merrimac.”

In the end, the Confederates destroyed the Virginia in May rather than have her fall into Union hands. The Monitor went down before the year was over. These pioneering ironclads had short lives, but long-lasting effects on naval warfare.

The life-size cutaway of the turret, showing the bracing designer John Ericsson added after construction, and the revolving machinery.

The life-size cutaway of the turret, showing the bracing designer John Ericsson added after construction, and the revolving machinery.

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.

A Severe Bilous Catarrh (April 7, 1865)

The High Bridge outside Farmville. It was quite an engineering marvel indeed. Some of the original brick columns still stand (Library of Congress).

The High Bridge outside Farmville. It was quite an engineering marvel indeed. Some of the original brick columns still stand (Library of Congress).

A “bilous catarrah.” That’s what Meade tells his wife he’s been suffering from. But what exactly is that? Flue? An outbreak of malaria? Whatever it was, Meade was seriously ill during the pursuit of Lee. The “Mr. Wise” to whom he refers is his brother-in-law (because he had married a sister of Mrs. Meade) and former governor of Virginia, Henry Wise.

Though late at night, I seize the time to send you a few lines. I don’t know when I last heard or wrote to you, for besides the battles and marches of the last ten days, I have been nearly all the time quite under the weather with a severe bilious catarrh, taking an intermittent form. Thanks to my powerful constitution, and the good care of my attending physician, together with the excitement of the scenes I have passed through, I have managed not to give up, but to be on hand each day. It is impossible for me to give you a detailed account of all our operations; suffice it to say, they have been brilliantly successful, beyond the most reasonable expectations. Richmond is ours, and Lee’s army flying before us, shattered and demoralized. Yesterday we took over ten thousand prisoners and five generals, among them Lieutenant General Ewell, and Custis Lee, Charley Turnbull’s friend. I hear these officers virtually admit the contest over, and say they believe Lee is prepared to surrender, or at least to disband his army.

We are now at Farmville, on the Appomattox, Lee having started for Danville; but we cut him off and forced him back towards Lynchburg. I am happy to tell you that I have reliable intelligence from Confederate officers that neither Mr. Wise nor his sons are dead.

George is quite well, and has, with Lyman and Dr. McParlin, taken good care of me. Major Smyth joined us just as we were moving, and has had a grand opportunity to see everything.

Meanwhile, Theodore Lyman takes pen in hand to describe in detail the events during the pursuit of Lee. The Battle of Sailor’s Creek, a disastrous defeat for Lee, had happened the day before. April 7 had seen fighting at the High Bridge outside Farmville. Union soldiers had tried to destroy it to keep the Confederates from crossing, but failed. Then the Confederates tried to destroy it to keep the Union men from following. Although they destroyed some spans of the railroad bridge, the wagon bridge remained intact.

The country about Deatonsville (a cluster of half-adozen brick farmhouses) is a great improvement, full of hills, not high but steep, with a nice brook in every hollow; the air begins too to sniff of the distant mountains, one or two of whose outlying spurs may hence be seen. We started from camp about eight in the morning, and, on the ridge, just beyond Sailor’s Run, we came on the 5th Corps, moving from right to left, in rear of the 2d and 6th Corps, and taking the road towards Prince Edward Court House. Sailor’s Run is a considerable brook in the bottom of a deep, precipitous hollow, where the Rebel train, closely followed by Humphreys, had come to a hopeless deadlock. The road thither, for several miles, showed that their animals were giving out. The way was completely strewed with tents, ammunition, officers’ baggage, and, above all, little Dutch ovens — such a riches of little Dutch ovens never was seen! I suppose they bake hoe-cakes in them. You saw them lying about, with their little legs kicked up in the air, in a piteous manner! But, when we got to the Run, there was a complete mess! Waggons, ambulances, cannon filled the hollow near the bridge! The hillside was white with Adjutant-General’s papers scattered from several waggons of that department; here and there lay a wounded Rebel, while everywhere lay broken boxes, trunks, ammunition-cases and barrels. It was strange to see the marks on the waggons, denoting the various brigades, once so redoubtable! At 10.30 the 2d Corps, after some firing, crossed the Appomattox, at High Bridge, where we too arrived at eleven. Nothing can more surprise one than a sudden view of this great viaduct, in a country like Virginia, where public works are almost unknown. It is a railway bridge, nearly 2500 feet long, over the valley of the Appomattox, and is supported by great brick piers, of which the central ones are about 140 feet high. The river itself is very narrow, perhaps seventy-five feet wide, but it runs in a fertile valley, a mile in width, part of which is subject to overflow. At either end the Rebels had powerful earthworks (on which they were still laboring the day before). In these they abandoned eighteen pieces of artillery, and, in one, they blew up the magazine, which made a sad scene of rubbish. . . .

At four P.m. we heard heavy firing across the river from Humphreys, who had gone towards the Lynchburg stage road and had there struck the whole of Lee’s army, entrenched and covering his trains. Nothing daunted, he crowded close up and attempted to assault one point with a brigade, but was repulsed with heavy loss. A despatch was sent in haste to Wright, to push on to Farmville, cross the river and attack the enemy in rear; but, when he got there, behold the 24th Corps before, the bridges burnt and everything at a standstill. A division of cavalry forded and attacked, but the Rebel infantry sent them to the right-about in short order. And so we got to camp at nine P.m., at Rice’s Station.

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. 269-70. 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. 351-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Visit to Pamplin Historical Park (and Beyond)

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A view from the aptly named High Bridge.

Rather than posting a Meade or Lyman letter from 150 years ago, here’s a dispatch from the present day.

Some time ago I received an email from A. Wilson Greene, the executive director of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier outside Petersburg, Virginia. Pamplin Park is a great facility. It has a wonderful museum but also has acres of land that contain original Civil War entrenchments—and includes the spot where the Union VI Corps finally broke through the Confederate lines on April 2, 1865. I had interviewed Will and explored Pamplin Park when I was working on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, and included an account of the visit in the book.

A view of the Appomattox River from High Bridge.

A view of the Appomattox River from High Bridge.

Will got in touch to ask me if I would participate in a tour and symposium based around the events of April 1865. Of course I said yes, even though the prospect was a little intimidating. I would be part of a program that included top-notch Civil War scholars—Bill Marvel, who has written a bunch of books, including his new biography of Edwin Stanton; J. Tracy Power, author of the acclaimed book Lee’s Miserables; Elizabeth Varon, who is getting raves for her new book on Appomattox; William Cooper, an authority on Jefferson Davis (and, as it turned out, Will Greene’s former professor), and Will himself, who has written extensively about Petersburg and the Civil War. It was even more intimidated when I learned that the symposium had sold out, and I would be speaking to an audience of some 90 people who all knew a thing or two about the Civil War.

Well, it was a great experience. I wasn’t able to arrive until Friday, April 3 (meaning I missed the pre-dawn walk to the breakthrough point on April 2, 150 years ago exactly after the attack occurred), and the bus tour to Sailor’s Creek, but I did tag along for the April 4 tour. It was a long and eventful day, starting with a drive to the High Bridge outside Farmville, the site of fighting on April 7. The Confederates had used the breathtaking railroad bridge (2,400 feet long) to cross the Appomattox River, and then tried to burn the span behind them. They only partially succeeded, and Union troops were able to seize the wagon bridge that ran below the train tracks and continue their pursuit. Today the current bridge is part of a rail trail administered by the Virginia State Park system. The bridge reopened a few years ago as a pedestrian walkway (it was still being worked on when I visited while working on the book, so I had not been able to see it). You can now hike across the bridge and peer down at the brick pilings from the original Civil War structure. People with a fear of heights might think twice about making the crossing. In fact, one woman in our group asked me to walk directly in front of her so she should stare at my back and ignore the precipitous drops on either side of the bridge.

Ranger Bob Flippen explains the fighting around the High Bridge.

Ranger Bob Flippen explains the fighting around the High Bridge.

Ranger Bob Flippen provided a running commentary about the fighting that took place here, and also an interesting story about local men back in the 1960s who found a huge cache of Civil War ammunition buried in one of the Civil War forts that guarded the approaches.

Will Greene and the president of the Appomattox 1865 Foundation explain the fighting at Appomattox Station.

Will Greene and the president of the Appomattox 1865 Foundation explain the fighting at Appomattox Station.

After lunch in Farmville, the tour continued west. We stopped to visit the site of the fighting that took place at Appomattox Station. The Civil War Trust has saved this land and the Appomattox 1865 Foundation/Friends of Appomattox Court House will open it to the public just in time for the 150th anniversary. We then visited the little village that provided the setting for Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9. We entered Appomattox Court House along the remains of the original road that Confederate General John B. Gordon and his men used when they marched in to formally surrender on April 12. It was an absolutely gorgeous spring afternoon as we followed in Gordon’s footsteps, so it was difficult to share the sense of gloom and despair his men must have felt at the time.

A ceremony at the Confederate cemetery outside Appomattox Court House.

A ceremony at the Confederate cemetery outside Appomattox Court House.

That night I did a talk about George Gordon Meade and Ulysses S. Grant, and the next afternoon I participated in a panel discussion with all the other speakers. In that company, I felt a little outgunned, but I think I acquitted myself honorably.

The memorial arch at Blandford Cemetery.

The memorial arch at Blandford Cemetery.

The Mahone mausoleum at Blandford Cemetery.

The Mahone mausoleum at Blandford Cemetery.

After the symposium ended, my wife and I bolted to see just a few places in Petersburg. I wanted to visit Blandford Cemetery, the spot Meade had designated as the objective point for the troops moving forward after the explosion of the Mine back in July 1864. They never reached here. General William Mahone, whose mausoleum stands in the cemetery today, formed his men in the cemetery to counterattack the Union troops. The cemetery provides the burial places of many other Confederate soldiers, as well as veterans of the War of 1812 and actor and Petersburg native Joseph Cotton (who starred in one of my favorite movies, The Third Man).

The marker at Rives Salient.

The marker at Rives Salient.

Our last stop in Petersburg was at the marker erected to mark the spot where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was nearly killed during attacks on June 18, 1864. It’s nice that Chamberlain has a marker, but it’s a pity that it stands in a parking lot, all traces of the battlefield paved over and turned into commercial space. Time marches on.

It was a tremendous experience and I thank Will Greene and the staff of Pamplin Historical Park for making it happen, and for all the participants in the symposium their interest and enthusiasm, and for helping keep history alive.

Nice to see: Searching for George Gordon Meade is available at Appomattox Court House!

Nice to see: Searching for George Gordon Meade is available at Appomattox Court House!

No Rest for the Wicked (April 6, 1865)

A view of Amelia Courthouse today. Lee was delayed here while he waited for his army to concentrate and for rations that never arrived.

A view of Amelia Court House today. Lee was delayed here while he waited for his army to concentrate and for rations that never arrived.

The Union armies’ struggle with the Army of Northern Virginia has turned into a race. Lee’s exhausted forces trace a westward course across the Virginia countryside, shedding men, equipment, and horses like a comet burning up in the atmosphere. Theodore Lyman continues his observations of what it was like to be among the pursuers, as Sheridan’s cavalry nips at Lee’s heels, and the infantry plunges ahead in attempt to place the killing blow. And, as far as Lyman (and Meade) are concerned, Sheridan is eager to grab for all the glory.

Lyman remained so incensed about Sheridan’s credit grab at Sailor’s Creek that a month later he wrote a letter to the Boston Advertiser about it. It was Wright who attacked, he said, “and he was under the immediate orders of General Meade, and had nothing whatever to do with General Sheridan, whose entire command numbered not over 7000 mounted men, while the Second and Sixth Corps had together not less than 25,000 men actually in the fight.”

We are pelting after Old Lee as hard as the poor doughboys’ legs can go. I estimate our prisoners at 16,000, with lots of guns and colors. At six a.m. the three infantry corps advanced in line of battle, on Amelia Court House; 2d on the left; 5th in the centre; and 6th on the right. Sheridan’s cavalry, meantime, struck off to the left, to head off their waggon-trains in the direction of the Appomattox River. We did not know just then, you perceive, in what precise direction the enemy was moving. Following the railroad directly towards Amelia C.H., General Meade received distinct intelligence, at nine o’clock, that the enemy was moving on Deatonsville, intending probably to cross the Appomattox at High Bridge. Instantly General Meade gave orders for the 6th Corps to face about and move by the left flank and seek roads in the direction of High Bridge, with the idea of supporting the cavalry in their attempt to head off the enemy; the 2d Corps were turned into the left-hand road nearest Jetersville, and directed to push on and strike the enemy wherever they could. At nine we got to the left-hand road lying some way beyond Jetersville, and here the 5th Corps was turned in, with orders to follow the road through Paineville and attack whatever they found. These prompt dispositions ensured the grand success of the day, which the newspapers have gracefully handed over to General Sheridan! Here I may as well say that Lee was trying to escape with his large artillery and waggon trains. At first he thought to move directly along the railroad, through Burkeville, to Danville. Cut off by the 5th Corps and the cavalry, he now was trying to march “cross lots” and get to the Danville road, somewhere below us. . . . At ten, we got back to Jetersville, a collection of half-a-dozen houses with a country church. From the second story of a house I witnessed a most curious spectacle—a fight, four miles off in a straight line! At that point was a bare ridge, a little above Deatonsville, and there, with my good glass, I could see a single man very well. It was just like a play of marionettes! and the surrounding woods made side scenes to this stage. At first, I saw only the Rebel train, moving along the ridge towards Deatonsville, in all haste: there now goes a pigmy ambulance drawn by mouse-like horses, at a trot. Here come more ambulances and many waggons from the woods, and disappear, in a continuous procession, over the ridge. Suddenly—boom! boom! and the distant smoke of Humphreys’ batteries curls above the pine trees. At this stimulus the Lilliputian procession redoubles its speed (I am on the point of crying “bravo!” at this brilliant stroke of the gentleman who is pulling the wires). But now enter from the woods, in some confusion, a good number of Rebel cavalry; they form on the crest—but, boom! boom! go the cannon, and they disappear. Ah! here come the infantry! Now for a fight! Yes, a line of battle in retreat, and covering the rear. There are mounted officers; they gallop about, waving their tiny swords. Halt! The infantry form a good line on the crest; you can’t scare them. What are they carrying? Spears? No, rails; that’s what it is, rails for to revet a breastwork. They scramble about like ants. You had better hurry up, Yanks, if you want to carry that crest! (The stage manager informs me the Yanks are hurrying and the next act will be—Enter Duke Humphrey, in haste.) Hullo! There come six fleet mice dragging something, followed by more: yes, a battery. They unlimber: a pause: Flash!—(count twenty-two seconds by Captain Barrows’s watch) then, bang!—flash! flash! bang! bang! There come in their skirmishers! running for their lives; certainly the Yanks are in those woods. Now they turn their guns more to the left; they are getting flanked. Their officers gallop wildly. You seem to hear them shout, “Change front to the rear!” anyhow they do so, at a double-quick. Then one volley of musketry, and they are gone, guns and all! The next moment our skirmishers go swarming up the hill; up goes a battery, and down goes the curtain.

Alfred Waud titled this sketch "The Last of Ewell's Corps." It depicted an incident at the Battle of Sailor's Creek. On the back, Waud wrote, "This was quite an effective incident in its way. The soldiers silhoutted [sic] against the western sky with their muskets thrown butt upwards in token of surrender, as our troops closed in beyond a wagon train which was captured, and burning debris probably other wagons in the gathering gloom." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud titled this sketch “The Last of Ewell’s Corps.” It depicted an incident at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. On the back, Waud wrote, “This was quite an effective incident in its way. The soldiers silhoutted [sic] against the western sky with their muskets thrown butt upwards in token of surrender, as our troops closed in beyond a wagon train which was captured, and burning debris probably other wagons in the gathering gloom.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

There is no rest for the wicked. All day long the peppery Humphreys, glaring through those spectacles, presses hotly in their rear; the active Sheridan is felling trees across their front; on their right is the Appomattox, impassible; and now, as the afternoon closes, here comes the inevitable Wright, grimly on their left flank, at Sailor’s Creek. The 6th Corps charges; they can’t be stopped—result, five Rebel generals; 8600 prisoners, 14 cannon; the Rebel rear-guard annihilated! As we get to our camp, beyond Deatonsville, there comes a Staff officer with a despatch. “I attacked with two divisions of the 6th Corps. I captured many thousand prisoners, etc., etc. P. H. Sheridan.” “Oh,” said Meade, “so General Wright wasn’t there.” “Oh, yes!” cried the Staff officer, as if speaking of some worthy man who had commanded a battalion, “Oh, yes, General Wright was there.” Meade turned on his heel without a word, and Cavalry Sheridan’s despatch proceeded — to the newspapers!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 348-51. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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.

A Hard March (April 4, 1865)

Theodore Lyman continues his narrative of the last days of the war—or, at least, the war against the Army of Northern Virginia.

We had camped last night round about Sutherland’s Station, as I told you. The fields there were covered with waggons that had parked ready to follow the army. Here too was the scene of Miles’s fight of the 2d, and the Rebel breastworks, with scattered ammunition and dead artillery horses, still marked the spot. Grant had camped there, too, and had confirmed the rumor that Richmond was in our hands; also had stated that Sheridan, in his pursuit towards Amelia Court House, reported much abandoned property by the way, and the capture of prisoners and guns. Everybody was in great spirits, especially the 6th Corps, which cheered Meade vociferously, wherever he showed himself. It would take too much time to tell all the queer remarks that were made; but I was amused at two boys in Petersburg, one of whom was telling the officers, rather officially, that he was not a Rebel at all. “Oh!” said the other sturdily, “you’ve changed your tune since yesterday, and I can lick you, whatever you are!”

This morning the whole army was fairly marching in pursuit. … It was a hard march, for two poor roads are not half enough for a great army and its waggon trains, and yet we took nothing on wheels but the absolute essentials for three or four days. We were up at four o’clock, to be ready for an early start; all the roads were well blocked with waggons toiling slowly towards the front. Riding ahead, we came upon General Wright, halted near a place called Mt. Pleasant Church. The bands were playing and the troops were cheering for the fall of Richmond, which, as the jocose Barnard (Captain on Wheaton’s Staff) said, “Would knock gold, so that it wouldn’t be worth more than seventy-five cents on the dollar!” Suddenly we heard renewed cheers, while the band played “Hail to the Chief.” We looked up the road, and, seeing a body of cavalry, supposed the Lieutenant-General was coming. But lo! as they drew nearer, we recognized the features of Colonel Mike Walsh (erst a sergeant of cavalry), who, with an admirable Irish impudence, was acknowledging the shouts of the crowd that mistook him for Grant!

We continued our ride. This country, from Gravelly Run up, is no longer the flat sand of Petersburg, but like Culpeper, undulating, with quartz and sandstone, and a red soil. About five we halted at Mrs. Jones’s, a little east of Deep Creek, and prepared to go supperless to bed on the floor or on the grass, for our waggons were hopelessly in the rear. General Humphreys was across the Run, whither General Meade went, and came back with him at dusk. The General was very sick; he had been poorly since Friday night, and now was seized with a chill, followed by a violent fever, which excited him greatly, though it did not impair the clearness of his head. Good Humphreys got us something to eat and so we all took to our hoped-for rest.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 341-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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