Return of the Sixth (December 13, 1864)

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman writes about the return of the VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, to the Army of the Potomac. It had been fighting in the Shenandoah Valley under Philip Sheridan. Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton commanded one of its divisions; earlier Lyman had noted that he was “excellent for a brigade, but probably hardly up to a division.” Another division commander, Truman Seymour, had been gobbled up by the rebels during John Gordon’s flank attack at the Wilderness and later exchanged. Samuel Crawford commanded the Pennsylvania Reserves, Meade’s old division, in the V Corps.

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

As the Rebels have known the fact for some time, and as the newspapers have hinted at it in unmistakable terms, I conceive there is no impropriety in my saying that we have now with us the 6th Corps once again. A week ago Sunday night the first division came from City Point on the cars, having come straight from the neighborhood of Winchester by car and boat. The next morning we were treated to the sight of the familiar red crosses, and soon General Wheaton rode up, to see the General and report. . . . Very loath were the Sixth Corps bucks to leave the valley (where they had plenty of sheep and chickens and victories, and no fighting except in the regular battles), and come to a place with which they only connected more or less fighting, day and night (rather more than less), much dust, heat, and drought, and no particular victories. However, they find things better now, and will doubtless get contented in time. What must have gratified them was that they relieved Crawford’s division of the 5th Corps, on the line, and took possession of their very nice log huts, which had been carefully constructed uniformly in all the brigades. Crawford’s people by no means saw the thing in the same light. They took down their canvas roofs and rolled them up with dudgeon, and marched off to take a temporary camp, previous to the Weldon road expedition. I rode along the breastworks as the red crosses marched into the deserted camps, and observed the aspect of grim satisfaction with which the new comers went about, looking into the abandoned huts. The luxurious Crawford had his nice log cabin taken down and carted to his new locality. “However,” said Wheaton, “I slept in Crawford’s kitchen, and that was good enough for me.” On Tuesday came the 3d division, also with a new commander, for brave General Ricketts lies at Washington, still suffering from his wound; and General Seymour, he who was taken the second day of the Wilderness, has the command. Seymour is a fiery and irrepressible sort of party, and enraged the inhabitants of Charlottesville beyond measure. When they told him they had had most extraordinary victories over Grant, he made them a speech, in which he said it didn’t make any sort of difference how many victories they had, it wouldn’t do them any sort of good; that in every battle we killed off a good many of them, and that we intended to keep piling up men indefinitely, until they knocked under, or were all shot! This enraged them much, and they invited him to air himself for sixteen miles on foot, after it. . . . It was only last Monday that the 2d division got here, under Getty, and with it came General Wright, commanding the corps. Good General Wright, though always pleasant, is, I think rather in low spirits. He has had poor luck, on numerous occasions, and it culminated at Cedar Creek, where he chanced to have command of the army when it was surprised. He had rallied it, when Sheridan arrived on the field; but of course Sheridan had the credit of the victory, and indeed he deserved it. All the officers say that Wright made prodigious exertions and rode along all parts of the line in the hottest fire.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 298-300. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Last Day at Aldie (June 25, 1863)

Once again Meade writes from Aldie, where his corps waits as Joe Hooker attempts to determine Robert  E. Lee’s plans. The Monroe Estate he mentions is Oak Hill, the former home of President James Monroe. It still stands today but is privately owned.

Little did Meade know it, but in only three days he will receive command of the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln and general-in-chief Henry Halleck were rapidly losing any remaining confidence in Hooker. There were also doubts within the army. General Marsena Patrick, the army’s provost marshal general (and a notoriously cranky observer), wrote on Hooker around this time, “He acts like a man without a plan and is entirely at a loss what to do, or how to match the enemy, or counteract his movements. . . . He knows that Lee is his master & is afraid to meet him in a fair battle.”

This is a lengthy and interesting letter. Shortly after writing it Meade received orders to move his corps north toward Frederick. The men broke camp early the next morning and marched to Edwards Ferry, where it crossed the Potomac.

This is the last letter in the first volume of Life and Letters. Volume II picks up the story with a narrative of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Reynolds’s honors, commanding the right wing, only lasted two days, for as soon as we got to Manassas, General Hooker informed him he would communicate direct with corps commanders. Reynolds was at first quite indignant, and took it into his head that Hooker expected our withdrawal from the Rappahannock was going to be disputed, and that he had selected him for a scapegoat to bear the brunt of the shock. Everything, however, passed off quietly, as Lee was well on his way up the Valley of the Shenandoah, and A. P. Hill, who was left to guard Fredericksburg, was glad enough to let us go, that he might follow Lee, as he has done and rejoined him, although we could readily have prevented him, and in my judgment should have done so. What Lee’s object is in moving up the valley is not yet clearly developed. He has massed his army between Winchester and Martinsburg. The invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, so far as I can gather, has as yet been a mere foraging expedition, collecting supplies and horses for his army. He does not, at the latest accounts, seem to have crossed any of his good troops; he has perhaps been waiting for Hill, also to see what Hooker and the authorities at Washington were going to do, before he struck a blow. That he has assumed the offensive and is going to strike a blow there can be no doubt, and that it will be a very formidable one is equally certain, unless his forces have been very much exaggerated. He is said to have collected over ninety thousand infantry and fifteen thousand cavalry, with a large amount of artillery. Hooker has at present no such force to oppose him, but I trust the Government will reinforce Hooker with troops that have been scattered at Suffolk, Baltimore, Washington and other places, and that such will be the case seems probable, from a despatch I received from headquarters yesterday, asking me if I would like to have the Pennsylvania Reserves attached to my corps. I replied, promptly: “Yes; they or any other reinforcements that could be obtained.” I understand the Reserves are seven thousand strong, which will be a very decided addition to my present weak corps. I have seen very few papers lately, and therefore know little or nothing of what is going on. I see you are still troubled with visions of my being placed in command. I thought that had all blown over, and I think it has, except in your imagination, and that of some others of my kind friends. I have no doubt great efforts have been made to get McClellan back, and advantage has been taken of the excitement produced by the invasion of Maryland to push his claims; but his friends ought to see that his restoration is out of the question, so long as the present Administration remains in office, and that until they can remove Stanton and Chase, all hope of restoring McClellan is idle. I have no doubt, as you surmise, his friends would look with no favor on my being placed in command. They could not say I was an unprincipled intriguer, who had risen by criticising and defaming my predecessors and superiors. They could not say I was incompetent, because I have not been tried, and so far as I have been tried I have been singularly successful. They could not say I had never been under fire, because it is notorious no general officer, not even Fighting Joe himself, has been in more battles, or more exposed, than my record evidences. The only thing they can say, and I am willing to admit the justice of the argument, is that it remains to be seen whether I have the capacity to handle successfully a large army. I do not stand, however, any chance, because I have no friends, political or others, who press or advance my claims or pretensions, and there are so many others who are pressed by influential politicians that it is folly to think I stand any chance upon mere merit alone. Besides, I have not the vanity to think my capacity so pre-eminent, and I know there are plenty of others equally competent with myself, though their names may not have been so much mentioned. For these reasons I have never indulged in any dreams of ambition, contented to await events, and do my duty in the sphere it pleases God to place me in, and I really think it would be as well for you to take the same philosophical view; but do you know, I think your ambition is being roused and that you are beginning to be bitten with the dazzling prospect of having for a husband a commanding general of an army. How is this?

Oak Hill, the former home of President James Monroe. Meade visited here on June 24, 1863 (Library of Congress).

Oak Hill, the former home of President James Monroe. Meade visited here on June 24, 1863 (Library of Congress).

This is a beautiful country we are now in, and we are reveling in lovely landscapes, with such luxuries as fresh butter, milk, eggs, lamb, chickens and other delicacies, to which we have for a long time been strangers. There are some nice people about here, though strong “secesh.” I went the other day to see a fine view, which is to be had from the Monroe estate. It is at present in the hands of a Major Fairfax, who is on Longstreet’s staff. While on the ground I received a polite message from Mrs. Fairfax, saying she would be glad to see me and show me the house, whereupon I called, and found her very affable and ladylike and very courteous. I apologized for my intrusion, but she said she did not so consider it; that she was always glad to see the officers of our army, knowing they took an interest in the place from its having been the former residence of a President of the United States. She referred to the war in a delicate manner, and said her husband, the Major, was at home when Pleasanton attacked Aldie, and that he had barely time to mount his horse and get off before their people were obliged to retire. I spent a half-hour chatting with her and left. Generally the women, when they find you are a gentleman, and not violent and bloodthirsty in your feelings, are disposed to be civil and affable.

Young Morrow, of George’s company, has returned from Richmond. He told George that he saw a great deal of Beckham when he was first captured, who inquired very particularly after me.

Everything is very quiet here. The enemy have a small cavalry force watching us, but no signs of their army this side of the Blue Ridge. At what moment they may show themselves, or when we will advance, is more than I can tell. I hear nothing whatever from headquarters, and am as much in the dark as to proposed plans here on the ground as you are in Philadelphia. This is what Joe Hooker thinks profound sagacity—keeping his corps commanders, who are to execute his plans, in total ignorance of them until they are developed in the execution of orders.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 387-9. Available via Google Books.

End Volume 1

Still in Aldie (June 23, 1863)

Artist Edwin Forbe titled this drawing, which he dated June 24, 1863, "Cavalry fight near Aldie, Va. During the march to Gettysburg; the Union Cavalry; commanded by Gen. Pleasonton, the Confederate by J.E.B. Stuart." (Library of Congress)

Artist Edwin Forbes titled this drawing, which he dated June 24, 1863, “Cavalry fight near Aldie, Va. During the march to Gettysburg; the Union Cavalry; commanded by Gen. Pleasonton, the Confederate by J.E.B. Stuart.” (Library of Congress)

On June 23 Meade and the V Corps remained at Aldie as Joseph Hooker attempted to determine the intentions of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The cavalry in the corps under Alfred Pleasonton had been tussling with the Confederate cavalry in continued attempts to chart the enemy’s movements. The Charles F. Mercer whom Meade mentions was a local lawyer, politician and U.S. Congressman. (Aldie was also the birthplace of Stonewall Jackson’s mother.) Meade was correct about the contrast between the area around Fredericksburg, picked clean by he contending armies, and the relative abundance to the north. In fact, this was one of the motivating factors behind Lee’s move into Pennsylvania, where he wanted to resupply his army  with the lush pickings north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Yesterday General Pleasanton drove the enemy’s cavalry across what is called the Loudoun Valley, or the valley formed by the South Mountain and Bull Run Mountains. He did not find any infantry in Loudoun Valley, and reports Lee’s army about Winchester, in the Valley of the Shenandoah, and that A. P. Hill, whom we left at Fredericksburg, is coming up the valley to join Lee. When Hill joins Lee, he will have a large army, numerically much superior to ours, and he will then, I presume, develop his plans.

I have seen a paper now and then, and have been greatly amused at the evident fears of the good people of the North, and the utter want of proper spirit in the measures proposed to be taken. I did think at first that the rebels crossing the line would result in benefit to our cause, by arousing the people to a sense of the necessity of raising men to fill their armies to defend the frontier, and that the Government would take advantage of the excitement to insist on the execution of the enrollment bill; but when I see the President calling out six months’ men, and see the troops at Harrisburg refusing to be mustered in for fear they may be kept six months in service, I give up in despair. I hope it will turn out better, and we have been disappointed so many times when we had reason to look for success, it may be, now that we are preparing for a reverse, we may suddenly find ourselves in luck.

This is a beautiful country where I am now encamped. It is right on the Bull Run Mountains, which, though not very high, yet are sufficiently so to give effect to the scenery and purify the air. Charles F. Mercer lived in Aldie; President Monroe’s estate was here, and the mansion of the old Berkeley family, showing that in old times it was the abode of the aristocracy. It is a great contrast to the arid region around Fredericksburg that we left.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 387. Available via Google Books.

Aldie (June 20, 1863)

Judson Kilpatrick. As one of Meade's aides later described him, “His colorless eye, big nose, and narrow forehead, with an indescribable air between a vulgarian & a crack-brain, combine to render him almost laughable. He is pushing & managing in the extreme, but I don’t believe he is worth a fig as a general.” (Library of Congress)

Judson Kilpatrick. As one of Meade’s aides later described him, “His colorless eye, big nose, and narrow forehead, with an indescribable air between a vulgarian & a crack-brain, combine to render him almost laughable. He is pushing & managing in the extreme, but I don’t believe he is worth a fig as a general.” (Library of Congress)

On June 20 Meade wrote from Aldie, Virginia, which three days earlier had been the setting for a spirited cavalry battle. Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry had been screening Robert E. Lee’s army as it advanced north through the Shenandoah Valley. Stuart sought to keep the prying eyes of the Union cavalry away from any of the gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains where they could observe Lee’s activity in the valley. At Aldie a Union brigade under Judson Kilpatrick fought for four hours against Confederate cavalry under Thomas Munford. When Kilpatrick received reinforcements from David McMurtrie Gregg’s division, the Confederates retired. (Gregg, incidentally, was cousin to Pennsylvania’s Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin.)

We came here yesterday afternoon to sustain Pleasanton, who has had several brilliant skirmishes with the enemy’s cavalry in this vicinity, and who thought they were bringing up infantry. To-day we hear Ewell has crossed the Potomac at Williamsport. This indicates an invasion of Maryland, of which I have hitherto been skeptical. If this should prove true, we will have to rush after them. I had almost rather they would come here and save us marches. I am in pretty good spirits—a little disgusted at the smallness of my corps, only ten thousand men, but I believe they will do as much as any equal numbers.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 386. Available via Google Books.