The Return of Lyman (March 30, 1864)

Theodore Lyman, George G. Meade’s observant aide, has been on leave in Boston, depriving us of his accounts of life in the Army of the Potomac for much of March 1864. He returns to find a transformed army, with several of its top generals transferred elsewhere.

The heavy artillery regiments he mentions will receive a baptism in blood soon enough.

General George Sykes (Library of Congress photo).

General George Sykes (Library of Congress photo).

I am pretty well, I thank you, and not so blue as when I came back the other time, perhaps because the generals are here and it is not so utterly triste. However, I am fain to say I draw invidious comparisons between it and home, mais that helps nothing. There have been marvellous changes within these three weeks. Generals Sykes, Newton, French, and Pleasonton are ordered off. I do feel sorry for Sykes, an excellent soldier, always sure to do his duty, and with this army for a long time. I fear they displaced him at Washington because they disliked his rough manners. General Pleasonton was always very civil to me and I am sorry therefore to see him go. I have not yet got it clearly in my head how the corps have been shifted about, but I suppose I shall in a few days. . . .

The latest joke is the heavy sell that has been practised on some regiments of “Heavy Artillery,” which had reenlisted and had been sent home to recruit. Now these gentry, having always been in fortifications, took it for granted they should there continue; consequently the patriotic rush of recruits (getting a big bounty) was most gratifying; one regiment swelled to 1900; another to 2200, etc., etc. Bon! Then they returned to the forts round Washington, with the slight difference that the cars kept on, till they got to Brandy Station; and now these mammoth legions are enjoying the best of air under shelter tents! A favorite salutation now is, “How are you, Heavy Artillery?” For Chief of Cavalry we are to have a General Sheridan, from the West. He is, I believe, on his way. If he is an able officer, he will find no difficulty in pushing along this arm, several degrees. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 80-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Advertisements

Father and Son (March 29, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the Union signal position that Meade and his son saw on Pony Mountain (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the Union signal position that Meade and his son saw on Pony Mountain (Library of Congress).

George Meade continues to enjoy his time with son Spencer.

Of the officers he mentions in this letter, George Sykes will head west to take command of the Department of Kansas. John Newton, whom Meade had assigned to command of the I Corps over Abner Doubleday at Gettysburg, will command a division in William Sherman’s army. William French’s days of combat are over; he will serve as an administrator for the rest of the war. Why Meade fought to retain him after French’s failures at Mine Run is a bit of a mystery. Alfred Pleasonton will also head west to command cavalry in the Department of the Missouri.

In Washington, Daniel Buttefield spreads the story that Meade planned to retreat from Gettysburg.

Spencer and the Whipple boys continue to enjoy themselves. Yesterday was a fine day, and they rode over with me to Hancock’s, some five miles. We then rode to Culpeper Court House, five miles, where I met General Grant, just from Washington. After which we returned to headquarters, a distance of six miles, making in all sixteen miles for the day’s riding. En route the boys ascended Pony Mountain, a hill of some five hundred feet elevation, near Culpeper, on which we have a signal station and a fine telescope, and from whence you have a good view of the country, the rebel lines, camps, etc. At night Pennie was pretty well fatigued. But this morning he was up bright and early, and started with me, before eight o’clock, to go to Culpeper, where General Grant reviewed two divisions of infantry, and one of cavalry. It commenced to rain, however, during the review, which curtailed the ceremonies, and after spending an hour with Grant, we returned home in the rain. I borrowed an India rubber poncho for Pennie, so that he came back dry, but on the way his horse, and Willie Whipple’s, became excited and started off with them at full speed. The boys, however, kept their seats beautifully till George and an orderly headed off the horses and stopped them.

Grant continues very affable and quite confidential. He laughs at the statement in the papers of his remarks about balls, etc., and says he will be happy to attend any innocent amusement we may get up, he including among these horse races, of which he is very fond.

I join with you in the regret expressed at the relief of Sykes. I tried very hard to retain Sykes, Newton, and even French, as division commanders, but without avail. I had very hard work to retain Sedgwick. As to Pleasanton, his being relieved was entirely the work of Grant and Stanton.

I hear Butterfield has been swearing terribly against me. I shall go up day after to-morrow to meet his charges.

It is storming now violently.

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. 185. Available via Google Books.

Reorganizing (March 24, 1865)

Taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, this image shows Meade with his corps commanders. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in command of the II Corps, William French (III Corps), Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and George Skyes (V Corps).

Taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, this image shows Meade with his corps commanders. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in command of the II Corps, William French (III Corps), Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and George Skyes (V Corps). Now French and Sykes are out and Warren has command of the V Corps (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

I have been very busy to-day. The much-talked-of order for reorganizing the Army of the Potomac has at last appeared. Sykes, French and Newton are relieved. Sedgwick, Hancock and Warren command the three corps. This evening an order has arrived relieving General Pleasanton, which, although I did not originate it, yet was, I presume, brought about by my telling the Secretary that the opposition I had hitherto made to his removal I no longer should make. As the Secretary has been desirous of relieving him ever since I have had command, and I have been objecting, he has taken the first chance to remove him as soon as my objections were withdrawn.

Grant arrived to-day. I met him at the depot near my headquarters and accompanied him to Culpeper, where I spent several hours and returned. He was as affable as ever, and seems not at all disposed to interfere with my army in any details.

I hear Butterfield is in Washington, and is going to swear that I told him to prepare an order to retreat, and from what Gibbon writes me, it is evident he did prepare such an order; but I trust by the concurrent testimony of every other officer on the field, the documentary evidence in the shape of orders at different periods of the day, and my own sworn statement, to prove that the preparation of this order was not authorized by me, and that it was due to Butterfield’s own fears. I understand the Secretary is very indignant at his coming to Washington, and has ordered him back to his post.

Get the last number of the Spirit of the Times, in which there is a scathing article on Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Schofield and myself, and lauding, as usual, Joe Hooker.

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. 182-3. Available via Google Books.

A Violent Attack (March 9, 1864)

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

Meade’s travails with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War continue. He has learned that Generals David Bell Birney and Alfred Pleasonton have testified against him. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

As the head of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps, Pleasonton had embarrassed Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station just before Lee’s push north into Pennsylvania, but he had a less-than-sterling reputation. One cavalry officer said Pleasonton owed his position to “systematic lying,” and another called him “the greatest humbug of the war.” According to Pleasonton’s testimony he was with Meade following the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3 and “urged him to order a general advance of his whole army in pursuit of the enemy.” Instead, Meade sent him to determine whether the enemy was retreating. A year later Pleasonton will remember even more about his dealings with Meade. This time he recollects that on the afternoon of July 2, Meade had ordered him to prepare his cavalry to cover the army’s retreat, and he had spent the entire remainder of July 2, until around midnight, doing just that. Apparently this had all slipped his memory when he first testified.

David Birney testified the same day as Pleasonton. He had his own ax to grind with Meade following their unpleasant encounter at Fredericksburg. “Meade is a fraud,” he had written to a friend in March. To help speed Meade’s departure from the army, Birney decided to cast his lot with Hooker and Sickles. “We must have Hooker back to this army and I believe he will be sent to us!” he wrote. He also had great hopes for the future of Dan Sickles. “Sickles will I think command this army and in time will be President,” he had predicted back in October. So when Birney testified before the committee, he claimed that on July 5 he had wanted to attack the retreating Confederates but received an order not to do so. That was just the kind of example of timidity the congressmen were seeking. No matter that such an order never appeared in any official record, nor had Birney mentioned this incident in his official report.

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

I have answered Mr. Harding’s note, likewise one from Cortlandt Parker, and numerous others I have received from sympathizing friends. To prepare a statement and furnish it to all my friends who are desirous of defending me would take too much time. Besides, I intend to await the action of the committee, give them a chance to do me justice, failing which I will publish a pamphlet giving my side of the question. Yesterday’s Tribune has a most violent attack on me, full of the basest and most malicious slanders, in which, not satisfied with attacking my military reputation, they impugn my loyalty and attribute expressions to me I never dreamed of using. [For the article, see below.]

Birney and Pleasanton have appeared in the hostile ranks. The latter’s course is the meanest and blackest ingratitude; for I can prove, but for my intercession he would have been relieved long since.

Here’s the Tribune article that so incensed Meade:

GEN. MEADE AND THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG

The points made before the War Investigating Committee against Gen. Meade, who is substantially on trial before this congressional Commission, by the testimony of Gens. Sickles and Doubleday, are, that he gave and promulgated an order to his army to retreat from Gettysburg at the close of the first day’s fight, when his superior strength, his advantage of position, and the honor and interests of the country, required him to give battle; that, in the forenoon of the second day’s fight—Thursday—he gave another order to retreat, but which was not promulgated in writing; that he had made no dispositions for battle that day, had no plan for fighting, and seemingly no purpose to fight, but that the battle was precipitated by Gen. Sickles, and forced on Meade in part by the enemy, but principally by General Sickles, that Meade did not know on Friday night that our men had whipped Lee, or distrusted the fact that night, and was so uncertain of it on Saturday that he dared not pursue the beaten enemy, and weakly and ignorantly threw away the certainty of capture or destroying the entire Rebel army; that for a few moments he yielded to persuasions to let the 3d Corps pursue, but countermanded the order to do so in ten minutes after it was given, saying, alluding to the Rebels, “Oh, let them go;” that Meade’s subsequent representation that he was not in condition to pursue was not true; that his army was abundantly able and in condition to make immediate pursuit, and, if necessary, to fight and crush Lee’s disordered columns; that the 6th Corps was fresh and substantially intact; it had lost only 100 men, the 12th Corps had lost only 700 and had about 12,000 left, the 3d Corps had 6,000 men left and prayed to be permitted to pursue; the whole of the cavalry, 10,000 was intact and fresh. Gen. French had at Frederick 10,000 veterans in perfect condition, and Couch’s great force was also at Meade’s call. That, in a word, he had over 40,000 effective and ardent troops with which to pursue and destroy Lee’s flying and demoralized army, but refused to use them and suffered the enemy to escape. It is upon the question of the issuance of the second order to retreat that Gen. Butterfield has been summoned.

In the committee room it is understood that the origin of the effort made by Gen. Meade to break up the Third Corps to the waste of its esprit, and the discontent of every man and officer in it, and dissatisfaction with the service, was the refusal of the corps to subscribe to the McClellan testimonial.

It is stated that testimony can be added to convict Gen. Meade of expressing the opinion that we cannot subdue the Rebels. Gens. Birney and Pleasonton, examined before the War Committee to-day, told the remarkable story of the war councils called during and after the battle of Gettysburg, and exhibited the strength and efficiency of the army the morning after the last day’s fight. The testimony of both these Generals was very damaging.

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. 176. The Tribune article appears on pp. 320-1. Available via Google Books.

Humphreys (March 5, 1864)

Gen. Andrew Humphreys, in a photo taken during the 1862 Peninsula campaign (Library of Congress).

Gen. Andrew Humphreys, in a photo taken during the 1862 Peninsula campaign (Library of Congress).

While George Meade is in Washington, dealing with some unpleasant matters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere (more about that in tomorrow’s post), Theodore Lyman writes a letter from the Army of the Potomac’s winter quarters. One thing he notes is the failure of the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid, and he touches on the political winds blowing the army’s way from Washington (including the movement up there to replace Meade with Joe Hooker).

He also writes about Andrew Humphreys, who became Meade’s chief of staff shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. Here’s what I wrote about him in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg: “Humphreys was from Philadelphia. An engineer like Meade, he had graduated from West Point four years before him. He had served on McClellan’s staff and later commanded a division at Antietam and during the bloody battle for Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. As a division commander in the III Corps at Gettysburg he had held the right of Sickles’s advanced position. ‘He was a small, bow-legged man, with chopped-off, iron gray moustache; and when he lifted his army hat you saw a rather low forehead, and a shock of iron-gray hair,’ a staff member recalled. ‘His blue-gray dauntless eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel.’ Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who would get to know Humphreys during the Virginia Campaign of 1864, considered him to be ‘the great soldier of the Army of the Potomac.’ ‘He was a very interesting figure,’ Dana wrote. ‘He used to ride about in a black felt hat, the brim of which was turned down all around, making him look like a Quaker. He was very pleasant to deal with, unless you were fighting against him, and then he was not so pleasant. He was one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.’ Although Humphreys desired a corps command, he consented to become Meade’s chief of staff, Dana believed, out of pure patriotism.”

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

The “Florida Reverse” Lyman mentions was the Battle of Olustree, a defeat for Union general Truman Seymour. Meade served with but did not like Seymour. In letters to his wife he had complained about the way Seymour used to suck up to John Reynolds, their Pennsylvania reserves division commander. Back in August 1862 Meade had written, “I am sad to say that Reynolds appears to be greatly under Seymour’s influence and I fear my position in the Reserves will not be as agreeable as it has been.” He reports a conversation in which Reynolds told Seymour that he, Seymour, would probably not be with the division long because he would certainly be made a major general. At that Reynolds caught Meade’s eye and hastily added, “Meade too for that matter.” No doubt Meade experienced a bit of schadenfreude over Seymour’s reverse.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I found myself late and galloped four miles in about twenty minutes, only to find I had heated the mare for nothing, insomuch that the venerable Humphreys had put off dinner to six p.m. That young man of fifty has gone in his ambulance to see, I presume, some ladies, and I will here and now wager that we don’t dine till eight p.m. Sich is his nature. Really he should be dismissed the service for conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. Au reste, there never was a nicer old gentleman, and so boyish and peppery that I continually want to laugh in his face. I am in fear he won’t be confirmed as major-general. There are some persons, the very dregs of politicians, whom he tried by court-martial, when under him, that now do all they can against his promotion. I find that politicians, like [Charles] Sumner and company, have a way of saying of officers who have had their very clothes shot off their back and have everywhere displayed the utmost skill and courage, that “their hearts are not in the cause,” or “they are not fully with us”; meaning that these officers do not happen to fully agree with every political dogma the party may choose to enunciate. I am of the opinion that the question is: Does such and such an officer fight bravely and with skill? Anyone who has been under fire will be ready to acknowledge that it is a pretty good place to test principles; and if a man goes into the thick of it time and again, I do not ask any better proof of his earnestness. However, it would appear that Washington people often think the best test of faithfulness is to stay away from the fighting and make a good many speeches to people who entirely agree with your sentiments. To my certain knowledge, great exertions are now making to put a man at the head of this army who has made one of the most bloody failures of the War, and who is utterly incompetent to the post. Why is he pushed? Because he professes to be an ultra-Republican, ah, voila! . . .

Pa Meade is at Washington but I hope to have him back to-morrow. Behold my prophecy in regard to Killcavalry’s raid fulfilled. I have heard many persons very indignant with him. They said he went to the President and pressed his plan; told Pleasonton he would not come back alive if he didn’t succeed; that he is a frothy braggart, without brains and not over-stocked with desire to fall on the field; and that he gets all his reputation by newspapers and political influence. These charges are not new and I fancy Kill has rather dished himself. It is painful to think of those poor prisoners hearing the sound of his guns and hoping a rescue was at hand! Now all that cavalry must be carried back in steamers, like a parcel of old women going to market! Bah! Pour moi, I say nothing, as I never criticize superior officers; but I have mine own opinions, quite strong. However, these raids and the like do not much affect the War one way or the other. Nor does such a thing as the Florida reverse. Things have narrowed down now to two or three great centres, and upon large operations there depends the result. It is a favorite remark of General Meade, that “there is but one way to put down this rebellion, namely, to destroy the military power of the Rebels.” Their great armies must be overwhelmed, and there will end their hopes. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 78-80. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Winter Leaves (December 10, 1863)

General Meade and General Sedgwick visit the Horse Artillery headquarters at Brandy Station. The Army of the Potomac established its winter quarters at Brandy Station in 1863 and remained there until the start of the Overland Campaign the next May.

General Meade and General Sedgwick visit the Horse Artillery headquarters at Brandy Station. The Army of the Potomac established its winter quarters at Brandy Station in 1863 and remained there until the start of the Overland Campaign the next May.

It appears that campaigning is over for the winter and attention turns to more mundane things: leaves and winter quarters. Theodore Lyman takes the pulse of the army and reports on the speculation about Meade’s replacement. Major Biddle is James C. Biddle of Meade’s staff. In Meade’s Army: the Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, editor David Lowe reports that Biddle “came from a distinguished military family but did not always meet expectations. He could be something of a buffoon and was the target of much good-natured camp humor.”

All the officers are inclined to be petulant and touchy, for they think that winter quarters are coming and are all stretching out for “leaves,” which they know only a part can get. Major Biddle becomes quite irate over the subject. “Now there is General Webb has a ten-day leave,” says B. petulantly; “every corps is to give one general a ten-day leave. I don’t want any little ten-day leave; I want a decent leave; a sixty-day leave. I have been two years and a half in this army, and never had but seven days’ leave, except once when I was sick; and it isn’t any fun to be sick. If we are going into winter quarters, one third of this army can do what is necessary, just as well as the whole; and they might as well be liberal to us. It is too bad! really too bad!” Such discoveries of patriotic services as the officers now make, to back up their applications, are miraculous. They have all been in service since the First Bull Run (the Genesis of the Potomac Army); they have all been wounded six times; they have never been absent a single day; their wives are very sick; their mothers are not expected to live; and they can easily bring back fifty volunteers with them, to fill up their regiment! All of which General [Seth] Williams receives with the blandest smile, as if he had never before heard of so strong a case, and promises to refer it to General Meade, which indeed he does. Meanwhile the rattling of axes is heard on all sides, and villages of little log huts, with canvas roofs, spring into existence in a single night. General [Rufus] Ingalls asked if the troops could have permission to build huts: to which the Major-General commanding replied, with charming non-committal. “Build huts; certainly; why not? They can move from huts as well as from tents, can’t they?” I observe the papers continue to discuss the succession of the General. He himself thinks he will be relieved, but I doubt it. If for no other reason, because it is hard to find anyone for the post. General Sedgwick would, I think, refuse; General Warren is very young, and is, besides, under a cloud about his movement on our left. General Sickles, people would say, is too much of a Bowery boy. Generals French, Newton, and Sykes are out of the question. General Humphreys has no influence strong enough to put him up. Any subordinate general would have to be of great note to be lifted thus high; there is no such one. I think they would not try a western general, after Pope’s experience. The only one I can think of is Hancock, for a long while laid up by his Gettysburg wound, and not yet in the field. He belongs in this army, is popular, and has an excellent name. The New York Herald insists on General Pleasonton, which is an original idea. I heard of an officer who asserted that he had seen the order putting him in command; a rather unlikely assertion.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p 61. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google
Books
.

Cavalry Operations (September 13, 1863)

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton led the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

On September 13 Meade wrote home about sending cavalry head Alfred Pleasonton on an expedition to determine if Robert E. Lee’s army was on the move. He attached Theodore Lyman to Pleasonton’s staff so Lyman could get some experience in the field. Lyman wrote about his adventures on September 17 but I thought I would include that letter here. It demonstrates Lyman’s great value as an observer. He provides a wonderful perspective of a cavalry operation and a particularly vivid portrait of George Armstrong Custer.

A few days ago some scouts I had sent across the river returned and reported that Lee’s army was moving back to Richmond. They asserted positively that that portion near Fredericksburg had actually gone. I did not and do not much rely on their story, though I could not doubt but that a portion of his force had been sent away for some purpose either to re-inforce Beauregard at Charleston or Bragg in the South West.

It was necessary, however, that I should make some effort to ascertain what was going on, so to-day I sent Pleasanton, with all the cavalry, supported by Warren’s Corps (Second), to see what they could find out. Pleasanton crossed the river early, and immediately was engaged with the enemy’s cavalry, and has been fighting them all day. The result is that we have driven them from Culpeper Court House, and three miles beyond, have captured three guns and over fifty prisoners, and Warren is now in Culpeper, some nine miles in front of the Rappahannock. Still the great question as to whether Lee is withdrawing is unsettled, though Pleasanton sends word that all the information that he is able to pick up goes to support the rumor that he is falling back. Should it prove true, I suppose some movement on my part will be necessary; but what, I can’t say, as with my limited force I don’t see how I can advance much farther, and there is no probability of their permitting me to go to the James River, as it uncovers Washington.

Here’s Lyman’s take:

Having again got “home,” I find leisure and paper to write you a rather longer letter than you have got of late. Perhaps you would like to hear about our little cavalry performance. Of course there was not hard fighting, and a hundred or so will cover all the killed and wounded; nevertheless, as the whole was new to me and as the operations covered a good deal of country, they were interesting and instructive both. The whole Cavalry Corps (a good many thousand men) had been massed the day before, and had orders to cross the Rappahannock early next morning. I was to ride down in time to join General Pleasonton. The distance to the river is some eight miles, so I was up at 4.30 — rain pitchforks! dark as a box — thunder and lightning — everything but “enter three witches.” However, in my india-rubber coat and much-insulted large boots, much of the water could be kept out, and, by the time we were saddled and had had some tea, behold it stopped raining and away I went, quite thankful, and with a tail of six orderlies and a corporal. The ground was very wet, and we went slipping and sliding, in the red mud, till we drew near the river, when, behold, the whole country alive with train-waggons, columns of infantry, batteries, and ambulances; the latter with the stretchers fastened outside disagreeably suggestive of casualties. The rear of the cavalry had just crossed, when I got there; and General Pleasonton was on the opposite bank, where I presently joined him, crossing by the railroad bridge. He had with him a good many aides, besides orderlies and escort. Just at this point we held the southern, as well as the northern, bank and the pickets were some two miles out. The country is rolling, but not quite hilly; there are very large open fields (now filled mostly with weeds) and again, considerable woods. In these last our cavalry were hidden, so that you would have said there were not 300 of them all together. This I found, presently, was a great point, to conceal men, behind woods and ridges, as much as possible. We all now rode to our extreme picket line and took a view; and there, sure enough, was Mr. Reb with his picket line, about one third of a mile off. We could see a chain of mounted videttes, and, behind these, on a little knoll, a picket reserve, with their horses tied to trees. We waited some time to give a chance to General Gregg who had crossed on our right, and General Kilpatrick on our left, to get into the proper positions. Then General Pleasonton ordered an advance, and, in a few moments, quite as if by magic, the open country was alive with horsemen; first came columns of skirmishers who immediately deployed and went forward, at a brisk trot, or canter, making a connected line, as far as the eye could reach, right and left. Then followed the supports, in close order, and with and behind them came the field batteries, all trooping along as fast as they could scramble. It was now between eight and nine and the sun was bright, so that the whole spectacle was, to a greenhorn like me, one of the most picturesque possible. Not the least remarkable feature was the coolness of Mr. Reb under these trying circumstances. Their videttes stared a few moments, apparently without much curiosity, then turned tail and moved off, first at a walk, then at a trot, and finally disappeared over the ridge at a gallop. We rode on about a mile, keeping a little behind the skirmishers; General Buford and his Staff being just ahead and to the left. To the left we could hear cannon, General Kilpatrick having got into a skirmish there. Presently I saw a puff of smoke, on a ridge in front of us, and then hm-m-why-z-z-z, bang! went the shell, right by General Buford’s Staff, taking the leg off a poor orderly. Much pleased with their good shot, they proceeded to give our Staff a taste; and missiles of various kinds (but all disagreeable) began to skip and buzz round us. It was to me extraordinary to see the precision with which they fired. All the shot flew near us, and, while I had gone forward to the crest of the ridge to get a better view, a shell exploded directly in the midst of the Staff, wounding an orderly and very neatly shaving a patch of hair off the horse of Captain Hutchins. However, two could play at that game, and Captain Graham soon made the obnoxious guns limber up and depart to the next ridge, where they would again open and stay as long as they could. By the time we had got a few miles further, the enemy had brought forward all his cavalry and began firing with rifles, to which our men replied with their carbines.

George Armstrong Custer and Alfred Pleasonton, photographed in Warrenton, VA, in October 1863 (Library of Congress).

George Armstrong Custer and Alfred Pleasonton, photographed in Warrenton, VA, in October 1863 (Library of Congress).

We now entered a wooded tract, interspersed with mudholes and springy ground, and here the enemy made quite a hard stand, for the town of Culpeper lay a couple of miles beyond and they wished to gain time to get off their stores by the railroad. The advanced regiments were therefore dismounted and sent into the woods, while the artillery tried to find some place whence the guns could be used. It was at this place that I first heard the yells, for which the Rebels are noted. They were the other side of a high bank, covered with bushes, and they yelled to keep their spirits up as long as possible. But they were soon driven through the woods and then we came on an open country, in full view of Culpeper. This was a very interesting sight. The hills are, hereabout, quite large, and on the one opposite us stood Culpeper, very prettily situated, the railroad running through the lower part of the town. Just in the outskirts the Rebels had planted two batteries, as a last check, and behind were drawn up their supports of cavalry. Our cavalry were coming out of the woods, on all sides, moving on the town in form of a semi-circle, while the guns were pelting those of the enemy with might and main. Suddenly we were aware of a railroad train slowly leaving the depot, and immediately several guns were turned on it; but it went off, despite the shells that burst over it. Then there suddenly appeared a body of our cavalry, quite on the left of the town, who made a rush, at full speed, on three cannon there stationed, and took the whole of them with their caissons. This was a really handsome charge and was led by General Custer, who had his horse shot under him. This officer is one of the funniest looking beings you ever saw, and looks like a circus rider gone mad! He wears a huzzar jacket and tight trousers, of faded black velvet trimmed with tarnished gold lace. His head is decked with a little, gray felt hat; high boots and gilt spurs complete the costume, which is enhanced by the General’s coiffure, consisting in short, dry, flaxen ringlets! His aspect, though highly amusing, is also pleasing, as he has a very merry blue eye, and a devil-may-care style. His first greeting to General Pleasonton, as he rode up, was: “How are you, fifteen-days’-leave-of-absence? They have spoiled my boots but they didn’t gain much there, for I stole ‘em from a Reb.” And certainly, there was one boot torn by a piece of shell and the leg hurt also, so the warlike ringlets got not only fifteen, but twelve [additional] days’ leave of absence, and have retreated to their native Michigan!

George Armstrong Custer (Library of Congress).

George Armstrong Custer (Library of Congress).

The Rebels now retreated in all haste, and we rode at once in, and found a good many supplies at the depot with a number of rifles and saddles. As we rode up, the building was beset with grinning dragoons, each munching, with great content, a large apple, whereof they found several barrels which had been intended for the comfort of Mr. Stuart’s dashing knights. I was surprised at the good conduct of the gypsy-looking men. They insulted no one, broke nothing, and only took a few green peaches, which, I fancy, amply revenged themselves. Culpeper is a really decent place, with a brick hotel, and a number of good houses, in front of which were little gardens. I send you a rosebud, which I picked as we rode through the town; there were plenty of them, looking rather out of place there, in the midst of muddy batteries and splattered cavalrymen! A queer thing happened in the taking of the three guns. An officer was made prisoner with them, and, as he was marched to the rear, Lieutenant Counselman of our side cried out, “Hullo, Uncle Harry!” “Hullo!” replied the captain uncle. “Is that you? How are you?” And there these two had been unwittingly shelling each other all the morning!

After resting the horses we pushed on to the south, towards what is called Pong Mountain, for you must know that this region is more hilly, and Pong Mountain is about comparable to the Blue Hills (not quite so high, perhaps). . . . We drove the enemy five miles beyond Culpeper, making fifteen miles, in all, and there a halt was ordered and pickets thrown out. Our Headquarters were a wretched house, of two rooms, inhabited by two old women. We gave them one room and took the other ourselves. And now I loomed out! The Staff had, in the way of creature comforts, nothing but sabres and revolvers. It was dark and raining guns, and the Chief-of-Staff had the stomachache! I took from my saddle-bags a candle and lighted the same, prepared tea from my canteen, and produced a loaf of bread and a Bologna sausage, to the astonishment of the old campaigners, who enquired, “Whether I had a pontoon bridge about me?” Then I rolled myself in my coat and took a good night’s sleep on the floor.

The next morning we started for Raccoon Ford, on the Rapidan, five miles distant. The enemy were mostly across and only opposed us with a few skirmishers. As we got in sight of it, the prospect was not cheering. The opposite bank, partly wooded and partly covered with cultivation, rose in steep, high hills, which completely commanded our side of the river. It was a fine sight to see the column splashing along the wood road, lying between fine oak trees; but the fine sight was presently interrupted by a shell, which exploded about 100 yards ahead of me and right among the horses’ legs, without touching me! The General rode into the open field to reconnoitre the position, and I with him, because he wanted my glass; but Mr. Secesh has a sharp eye for gold cords round hats, and, in a minute, wh-n-n-g, fiwp! wh-z-z-z! a solid shot struck just in front of us, and bounced over our heads. The General ordered us to disperse about the field, so as not to make a mark; but, as I rode off, they sent a shell so near me that a facetious officer called out: “I guess they think you’re somebody pretty distinguished, Kun’l.” However, there may be a good deal of cannon shooting, without many hits; in proof of which I will say that we had a brisk fire of artillery from 10.30 to 2.30, together with a sharp spattering of rifles and carbines, and that our loss was five killed and fifteen wounded! Shells do not sound so badly as I expected; nor did I feel as I expected on the occasion. There is a certain sense of discipline and necessity that bears you up; and the only shell I “ducked” was the first one.

After some difficulty we got some guns in position and drove off those opposed. Then General Kilpatrick’s division went to a better ford below, and tried to get over there; but the Rebels opened on him with fourteen cannon and silenced his guns after a hard fire. So we concluded the fords were not practicable for cavalry, which I think might have been apparent from the outset. Whereupon both parties stopped and stared at each other; and we heroes of the Staff went to a house (much better than that of last night) and partook of mutton which, during the day, we had valiantly made the prey of our bow and our spear. On our right General Gregg had driven the enemy beyond Cedar Mountain and nearly to the river, but was there brought up by a heavy force of artillery in position. All day Tuesday we lay doing nothing. I rode over with the General to Cedar Mountain, passing close to the battlefield, and ascended, thus getting a fine view of the Rapidan valley, which is very beautiful and would, in the hands of good farmers, yield a thousandfold. . . . We have taken on our reconnaissance in force about 150 prisoners, three guns, and five caissons. Yesterday the entire army crossed the Rappahannock, and I got orders to return to Headquarters, which I did.

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. 148-9. 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. 14-20. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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.

Brandy Station (June 11, 1863)

The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry monument at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington).

The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry monument at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington).

In his letter of June 11, Meade provides a brief account of the huge cavalry battle that took place on June 9 at Brandy Station. He was particularly interested in accounts of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, also known as Rush’s Lancers. It had been the unit to which his son, George, had belonged before he was assigned to his father’s staff and it was also a Philadelphia regiment, so the Meades were acquainted with many of its members. The 6th PA Cavalry fought hard at Brandy Station and suffered 108 casualties. John Buford, who commanded the division, declared that the men of the 6th PA “had covered themselves with glory.” Wrote Eric Wittenberg in Rush’s Lancers: the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War, “Brandy Station became the regiment’s defining moment, its greatest accomplishment. After the end of the war, the veterans chose June 9 as the date for their annual reunion in tribute to their valor that day.”

This army is weakened, and its morale not so good as at the last battle, and the enemy are undoubtedly stronger and in better morale. Still, I do not despair, but that if they assume the offensive and force us into a defensive attitude, that our morale will be raised, and with a moderate degree of good luck and good management, we will give them better than they can send. War is very uncertain in its results, and often when affairs look the most desperate they suddenly assume a more hopeful state. See the changes and transitions at Vicksburg, to say nothing of our own experience. This makes me hope that it will be our turn next time. The day before yesterday Pleasanton, with all the cavalry and two brigades of infantry, crossed just above us, and had a very brilliant affair with the enemy’s cavalry, who it appears were just ready and about starting on a grand raid, some say into Pennsylvania. They outnumbered us, but after handling them pretty severely, Pleasanton came back. The Lancers particularly distinguished themselves, though I am sorry to hear with considerable loss. It is said Major [Robert] Morris [Jr.] is missing, supposed to have been thrown from his horse and fallen into the enemy’s hands. Captain [Charles B.] Davis was killed. [Thompson] Lennig is missing, believed to be wounded. [Captain Chalres L.] Leiper is missing. Lieutenant [Rudolph] Ellis is wounded. Lieutenant [Samuel R.] Colladay, missing. Charley Cadwalader was with them, also Captain [Ulric] Dahlgren, of General Hooker’s staff. This latter officer says he was with Morris, and had just jumped a ditch, when his horse was shot. On dismounting, and looking around, he saw Morris’s horse without a rider, and he thinks Morris was thrown in jumping the ditch. Charles Coxe is all right, so also is Willie White, who had two horses shot under him, and broke two sabres. [Frederick D.] Newhall was on Pleasanton’s staff, and was not with the regiment when it made a dashing and gallant charge on a battery, getting in among the guns, which they would have captured had they been promptly supported. Harry Winsor is safe, also [Osgood] Welsh. I am glad the regiment has had a chance and so brilliantly availed themselves of it. George is quite disgusted with his luck, but I tell him a live dog is better than a dead lion.

The backing out of Burnside’s course towards the Chicago Times looks suspicious on the part of the President. If peace can be secured without loss of honor, no one would be more rejoiced than I; but I do not see how this can be brought about, with matters as they stand at present. If we could only thoroughly whip these fellows two or three times, regular out-and-out defeats; but I don’t advocate peace until we have clearly shown them, as we ought to have done long since, our superiority in the field. I can hardly expect you to enter fully into these views, but if you had been humiliated as I have been by seeing your cause and party defeated when they should be victorious, you would be roiled, too, and would not be willing to give up till things assumed an aspect more consistent with your pride and honor.

We are now on the qui vine to know what the enemy are going to do. I am removed from Hooker’s headquarters and know nothing of what is going on, either of plans or surmises. In some respects this is convenient, as I am spared much speculation. In other respects it is not so agreeable, because I like to form my own judgment on what is going on, and to make my preparations accordingly. If Lee is going to assume the offensive, I presume he will not long delay; but whether he will move to our right, trying to get between us and Washington, or whether he will move up the valley as he did last summer, or whether he will attack us here, are questions the future only can solve. All we can do is to be on the lookout and ready. Perhaps Hooker may find a chance to assume the offensive and reverse matters, as the enemy did at Chancellorsville. This I think would be good luck for us.

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. 383-5 Available via Google Books.