Birney and Sleeper (November 12, 1864)

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Pictured (left to right)  are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan, Capt. J. Henry Sleeper, Capt. O'Neil W. Robinson, and artist  Alfred R. Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Capt. J. Henry Sleeper is second from left and artist/correspondent Alfred Waud is on the right. The other two men are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan (left) and Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman offers one of his finely observed letters today. We get his impressions of the late David Bell Birney and his account of a visit with Capt. Jacob Henry Sleeper of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. Sleeper was from Boston, where his father had been a founder of Boston University. His battery was attached to the II Corps. Sleeper had only recently returned to his unit after recovering from a wound he received at Reams Station, a battle in which his battery lost four guns.

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

We have the usual play of rumor about cabinets — everybody seems inclined to heave out Stanton: some to heave him up to the Supreme Court — some to heave him down to unknown depths of nothingness. Many would fain fancy Ben Butler in the chair of War, where he would be certain to make things spin either for good or for bad. How he will get on, across the James, I know not. He lost a strong man in Ord, wounded; and in Birney, dead, also: Birney was one who had many enemies, but, in my belief, we had few officers who could command 10,000 men as well as he. He was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair. As a General he took very good care of his Staff and saw they got due promotion. He was a man, too, who looked out for his own interests sharply and knew the mainsprings of military advancement. His unpopularity among some persons arose partly from his promotion, which, however, he deserved; and partly from his cold covert manner. I always felt safe when he had the division; it was always well put in and safely handled. The longer I am in the army, the more I see that great bodies of men take their whole tone from a few leaders, or even from one. I climbed on a horse and took a ride to visit Captain Sleeper, whose camp I easily recognized by its neat appearance. He always has things in a trig state about him. His own domicile was a small log cabin, with a neat brick chimney, very smooth-looking, but made in truth of only odd bits of brick, picked up at random and carefully fitted by a skilful Yank. The chimney-piece was of black walnut, made indeed from the leaf of an old table, discovered in the neighborhood. As to his tongs, a private, of prospective views, picked them up sometime last summer, and had carried them, ever since, in waggon! For arras he had artillery horse-blankets. The Sleeper is now more content, having his battery full, new sergeants appointed, and a prospect of officers. His only grief is that with three years’ service and many battles he is only a captain. You see Massachusetts has not her batteries in a regiment and can’t have field officers. So Sleeper’s only hope is a brevet.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 266-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Look at the Field (August 1, 1864)

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a "covered way" used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a “covered way” used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides an interesting description of Union fortifications at Petersburg and takes advantage of a truce to examine the aftermath of the mine explosion. He spares his wife a description of what he saw, but he included one in his journal (edited by David W. Lowe and published in 2007 as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt.Col. Theodore Lyman). “In the moderate space between us and the enemy—some 110 yards—lay perhaps 200 bodies,” he wrote. “The heat and intense sun of 48 hours had so swollen and blackened them that negroes were not to be told from whites, save by the hair! The faces and hands of many were actually white with a moving layer of maggots!”

I waked at about six in the morning and heard the General say, “Very well, then, let the truce be from five to nine.” Whereby I knew that Beauregard had agreed to a cessation of hostilities for the burial of the dead and relief of the wounded. After struggling awhile with my indolence, I tumbled out of bed, waked Rosencrantz and ordered my horse. We speedily got ready and sallied forth to look at the field. We rode into a piece of pine woods, at the corner of which I was during the assault of the 18th of June. Some of the advanced camps were here, the danger of their position being plainly marked by the banks of earth put up by each tent. Getting out of the wood, we came on an open tract, a good deal elevated. Here, on the left, and by the ruins of a house was a heavy battery, known as the Taylor house battery. And here too begins the “covered way.” Before I saw real operations I never could understand the management of cannon. On the principle of your battle on “the great white plain,” I had an idea that all the guns were put in the front line: else how could they hit anybody? But really there are often no cannon at all there, all being placed in a second or a third line, or in isolated batteries in these relative positions. One of our heavy siege guns would sometimes have to fire as many as 1700 yards to hit the enemy’s breastwork. You see that cannon-shot must rise high in the air to go any distance; so they fire over each other’s heads. In practice this system is not without its dangers, owing to the imperfections of shells. In spite of the great advances, much remains to be done in the fuses of shells; as it is, not a battle is fought that some of our men are not killed by shells exploding short and hitting our troops instead of the enemy’s, beyond. Sometimes it is the fuse that is imperfect, sometimes the artillerists lose their heads and make wrong estimates of distance. From these blunders very valuable officers have lost their lives. Prudent commanders, when there is any doubt, fire only solid shot,which do not explode, and do excellent service in bounding over the ground.

We got off our horses at the edge of the wood and took to the covered way (we might better have ridden). A covered way is singularly named, as it is open on top. It is simply a trench, about four feet wide, with the dirt thrown up on the side towards the enemy. It should be deep enough to cover a man standing upright. The great thing is, so to run it that the enemy cannot get a sight of it lengthwise, as they could then enfilade it. To this end the way is run zig-zag, and advantage is taken of every hollow, or knoll, that may afford shelter. I was not impressed with the first part of our covered way, as it could be shot into in many places, and was so shallow that it covered me no higher than the shoulders. Probably it was dug by a small officer who was spiteful against men of great inches. . . . We scrambled up the opposite steep bank and stood at the high breastwork of Burnside’s advanced salient. The parapet was crowded with troops, looking silently at the scene of the late struggle. We got also on the parapet and at once saw everything. Opposite, and a little above us, distant about 350 feet, was the rough edge of the crater, made by the mine. There were piles of gravel and of sand, and shapeless masses of hard clay, all tumbled on top of each other. Upon the ridge thus formed, and upon the remains of the breastwork, stood crowds of Rebel soldiers in their slouched hats and ghostly grey uniforms. Really they looked like malevolent spirits, towering to an unnatural height against the sky. Each party had a line of sentries close to his works, and, in the midst, stood an officer with a white flag, where the burial parties were at work.* I jumped down and passed towards the enemy’s line, where only officers were allowed to go, with the details for work. I do not make a practice of describing disagreeable spectacles, and will only say that I can never again see anything more horrible than this glacis before the mine. It did not take long to satisfy our curiosity, and we returned to camp, getting in just as the General was at breakfast. He takes his disappointments before Petersburg in an excellent spirit; and, when the “Herald” this morning said he was to be relieved and not to have another command, he laughed and said: “Oh, that’s bad; that’s very bad! I should have to go and live in that house in Philadelphia; ha! ha! ha!” The papers will tell you that Grant has gone to Washington. As I don’t know what for, I can make Yankee guesses. I presume our father Abraham looks on his election prospects as waning, and wants to know of Ulysses, the warrior, if some man or some plan can’t be got to do some thing. In one word he wants to know—WHY THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC DON’T MOVE. A month since there was a talk of putting Hancock at the head: that is, losing the most brilliant of corps commanders and risking (there is always a risk) the making of a mediocre army commander!

*“The Rebels were meanly employing their negro prisoners in this work.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 201-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

A Flank March (June 12, 1864)

"Bridge Through the Chickahominy Swamp" by Alfred Waud depicts the landscape the Army of the Potomac would have to cross on its flanking movement (Library of Congress).

“Bridge Through the Chickahominy Swamp” by Alfred Waud depicts the landscape the Army of the Potomac would have to cross during its flanking movement (Library of Congress).

We have encountered Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana before, most notably when he insisted on reading a telegram from William Sherman out loud in front of Meade. The telegram said that the Union would certainly win if Grant could make the Army of the Potomac do its part. Meade was not amused. The big news in his letter from June 12 is that the Army of the Potomac is about to disengage from Cold Harbor and make its great flanking movement around Lee and down to the James River.

I assume the “great women’s movement about dress” to which Meade refers has something to do with the Victorian Dress Reform movement, in which concerned people sought changes in women’s constrictive garments.

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana (Library of Congress).

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana (Library of Congress).

In my last letter I gave you an account of a wicked and malicious falsehood which I found had been extensively circulated all through the North, and the first intimation of which was a reference to it in the Inquirer of the 2d inst. Since writing, I have received the enclosed message from the Secretary of War, to which I sent the accompanying note. I do not remember whether I ever told you that we were honored with the presence of Mr. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, who accompanies this army, as a kind of staff officer of the Secretary, and who keeps the Secretary advised by daily telegrams of the progress and condition of affairs. It is from Mr. Dana’s telegrams that Mr. Stanton’s despatches to General Dix are made up. This I learned accidentally, yesterday, in a conversation with Grant, in which I commented on some of Mr. Stanton’s despatches. Grant agreed fully with me in my views, and then told me he had never sent a despatch to Mr. Stanton since crossing the Rapidan, the few despatches he had sent being directed to General Halleck. I was glad to hear this, because it removed from my mind a prejudice I had imbibed, on the supposition that Mr. Stanton was quoting Grant, and arising from the fact I have mentioned, that in all Mr. Stanton’s despatches from Grant’s headquarters my name was never alluded to; for which I had held Grant responsible, without cause.

I believe I have saved you some annoyance by informing an officer, who applied to me in the name of Mrs. Judge Daly, of New York, to know if you would not unite in the great woman’s movement about dress, that, practically, you had been engaged in that movement ever since your marriage, and that at present your domestic duties were, from your large family, so absorbing, you really had no time to devote to public matters, even as important as the great woman’s movement.

To-day we commence a flank march, to unite with Butler on the James. If it is successful, as I think it will be, it will bring us to the last act of the Richmond drama, which I trust will have but few scenes in it, and will end fortunately and victoriously for us.

Both George and myself are quite well, though the heat, hard service, bad water, and swampy regions are beginning to tell on the health of the army.

I send you an excellent picture of Sedgwick.

And now a report from Theodore Lyman:

Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

General Grant has appeared with his moustache and beard trimmed close, giving him a very mild air—and indeed he is a mild man really. He is an odd combination; there is one good thing, at any rate—he is the concentration of all that is American. He talks bad grammar, but he talks it naturally, as much as to say, “I was so brought up and, if I try fine phrases, I shall only appear silly.” Then his writing, though very terse and well expressed, is full of horrible spelling. In fact, he has such an easy and straightforward way that you almost think that he must be right and you wrong, in these little matters of elegance. … At 3 p.m. tents were struck and we all rode to Despatch Station, where we turned up to the left and went as far as Moody’s house. . . . We halted in a field hard by and waited for the train, an operation that required much patience: for the waggons undertook to go over a sort of mill-dam, and tumbled down a bank and had many mishaps, so that they arrived only at ten. General Grant, however, had made a big fire, got a piece of board, lain down on it, with a bag under his head, and was fast asleep. At eleven, before getting to bed, we had news that Wilson’s cavalry had forced the passage of the Chickahominy at Long’s Bridge (the bridge was long since burnt) and that the pontoon was going down for the passage of the 5th Corps. Fain would I write more, but I am so stupid and sleepy that I am not equal to it.

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. 203-4. 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, p. 156. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864)

Alfred Waud identified this drawing from June 3 as "7th N.Y. Heavy Arty. in Barlows charge nr. Cold Harbor Friday June 3rd 1864." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud identified this drawing from June 3 as “7th N.Y. Heavy Arty. in Barlows charge nr. Cold Harbor Friday June 3rd 1864.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“I always regret the last assault on Cold Harbor was ever made.” So wrote Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs. He had much cause for regret. One hundred and fifty years ago Union soldiers made a doomed attack on entrenched rebel lines. In about a half hour some 7,000 of them fell as casualties. In his letter of June 3, Theodore Lyman presents a clear-eyed account of what he say during the battle, without sugar-coating the final result.

We had very severe fighting this morning, all along the lines. If you look on the map you may follow our lines. The line of battle faced westerly, towards Gaines’s Mill and Mechanicsville, with a corps covering the right flank, and the left refused (a wing is “refused” when it is swung back from the direction of the main line). In some sort this was the battle of Gaines’s Mill reversed. . . . The Rebel lines were about parallel with ours and they were throwing up dirt as hard as they could. No country could be more favorable for such work. The soldiers easily throw up the dirt so dry and sandy with their tin plates, their hands, bits of board, or canteens split in two, when shovels are scarce; while a few axes, in experienced hands, soon serve to fell plenty of straight pines, that are all ready to be set up, as the inner face of the breastwork. I can’t say I heard with any great hope the order, given last night, for a general assault at 4.30 the next morning! You see Wright and Smith took their front line and drove them back Wednesday afternoon. Thursday afternoon was twenty-four, and Friday morning would be thirty-six hours, for them to bring up and entrench their whole army. If we could smash them up, the Chickahominy lay behind them; but I had no more hope of it, after Spotsylvania, than I had of taking Richmond in two days. Half-past four found us at Kelly’s, the Headquarters of General Wright; the brave General himself, however, had gone to the front. At that moment the cannon opened, in various directions, and the Rebels replied vigorously. There has been no fight of which I have seen so little as this. The woods were so placed that the sound, even, of the musketry was much kept away, and the fighting, though near us, was completely shut from view. All the warfare for us was an occasional roundshot, or shell, that would come about us from the Rebel batteries. In the direction of the 18th Corps the crash of the musketry was very loud, but elsewhere, scarcely to be noticed. . . . About five we had a gleam of hope for our success. News came that Barlow had carried their works and taken seventeen guns; and so he did; but it is one thing to get in, another to stay in. His men advanced heroically and went over the breastworks with a rush; but the enemy had reserves massed behind, well knowing that his extreme right was seriously threatened. Before our supports could get up, their forces were down on our men, while a heavy enfilade of canister was kept up from flanking batteries. Barlow was driven out with heavy loss, and succeeded in getting off only about 300 of the prisoners he took. Like good soldiers, however, his men stopped and turned about, close to the works, and there entrenched themselves. At six we got notice that Russell’s division could not carry the line in their front. Ricketts, however, on the right of the 6th Corps, got their first line, and so did the 18th Corps on his right; but the 18th people were forced back, and this left Ricketts a good deal exposed to enfilade; but he held on. A singular thing about the whole attack, and one that demonstrated the staunchness of the troops, was, that our men, when the fire was too hot for them to advance and the works too strong, did not retreat as soldiers often do, but lay down where some small ridge offered a little cover, and there staid, at a distance from the enemy varying from forty to perhaps 250 yards. When it was found that the lines could not be carried, General Meade issued orders to hold the advanced position, all along, and to trench. The main fight lasted, I suppose, some three hours, but there was sharp skirmishing and artillery firing the whole day. The Rebels threw canister in large quantities, doing much damage. . . .

"Barlow and Gibbons charge between the Mechanicsville road and swamp, June 3rd, 1864." By Alfred Waud. Inscribed on the back: This was a prominent position at the battle of Gaines Mill 1862. Our line was then at right angles to the present advance and faced to the right. Barlow charged to the left of the house, and Gibbon on the right." Inscribed vertically: "Gains [sic] Mills or Cold Harbor/Gen Barlows & Gibbons June 3rd 1864." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Barlow and Gibbons charge between the Mechanicsville road and swamp, June 3rd, 1864.” By Alfred Waud. Inscribed on the back: “This was a prominent position at the battle of Gaines Mill 1862. Our line was then at right angles to the present advance and faced to the right. Barlow charged to the left of the house, and Gibbon on the right.” Inscribed vertically: “Gains [sic] Mills or Cold Harbor/Gen Barlows & Gibbons June 3rd 1864.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

David Bell Birney.

David Bell Birney.

In the afternoon came Wright and Hancock, with their Staff officers, to consult with General Meade. They looked as pleasant as if they had been out to dine, instead of standing all day with shells, bullets and canister coming about them; for we now have a set of corps commanders who, in action, go, as they say, where they “can see”; which means sitting calmly in places where many people would be so scared they wouldn’t know the left wing from the right. Which reminds me of a ludicrous circumstance—there always is something of the ludicrous mixed in every tragedy. Three or four vulgar and very able-bodied civilians had got down to the army, in some way or other, and were at our standpoint for a little while. Having come from the White House and hearing little musketry, they concluded it would be quite safe to go further to the front. “Come,” said one, in a flippant way, “let’s go forward and see the fun.” So off they trotted down the Gaines’s Mill road. One of Wright’s aides said they came pretty soon, as far as where they were standing. All was quiet, but these braves had hardly dismounted when the Rebel guns again opened and the shells came with fearful precision over the spot! One gentleman, a fat man, rushed wildly to his horse, convulsively clutched the mane and tumbled on the saddle, galloping hotly off. But it so happened that two successive shells, passing with their hideous scream, burst just behind his horse, giving him the wings of panic! The other cit, quite paralyzed, lay down flat behind a ridge; in a few minutes he looked up at a Staff officer and, with the cold sweat rolling off him, exclaimed: “Oh! I wish they would stop! Don’t you think, sir, they will stop pretty soon?” What became of the third I know not; but they all “saw the fun.” Not a thing did I have to do till six in the evening, when General Meade told me to go to General Birney, ascertain his position and what he thought of the force in his front; then keep on to Warren and ask him if he could so close in his Corps to the left as to set Birney free to return to the Second Corps. I found General Birney, with his usual thin, Puritanic face, very calmly eating tapioca pudding as a finish to his frugal dinner. He remarked drily that his man had selected that hollow as particularly safe; but, as half a dozen shells had already plumped in there, he did not exactly believe the theory a good one. I had a great mess finding General Warren.* First I went, by the road leading through the woods, to Bethesda Church. There were his aides and his flag: but the General had “ridden out along the lines”—confound that expression! That is the luck of a Headquarters aide. You say: “Is the General here?” “No, sir, he has gone, I believe, along the line.” “Do you know where?” “Well, Colonel, he did not say exactly; but, if you will follow down the breastworks, I think you will find him.” (Delightful vision of a line of two miles or so of breastworks with the infantry safely crouched behind, and you perched on a horse, riding down, taking the chance of stray shot, canister, and minie balls, looking for a general who probably is not there.) The greatest piece of coolness is when you are advised to make a short cut by the picket line! . . .

*“This was Warren’s great way, to go about, looking thus after details and making ingenious plans; but it kept him from generalities, and made it hard to find him, so that he finally came to trouble as much by this as by anything else.”—Lyman’s Journal

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Warren looks care-worn. Some people say he is a selfish man, but he is certainly the most tender-hearted of our commanders. Almost all officers grow soon callous in the service; not unfeeling, only accustomed, and unaffected by the suffering they see. But Warren feels it a great deal, and that and the responsibility, and many things of course not going to suit him, all tend to make him haggard. He said: “For thirty days now, it has been one funeral procession, past me; and it is too much! To-day I saw a man burying a comrade, and, within half an hour, he himself was brought in and buried beside him. The men need some rest.” . . .

At nine at night the enemy made a fierce attack on a part of Gibbon’s division, and, for a time, the volleys of musketry and the booming of the cannon were louder, in the still night, than the battle had been by day. But that sort of thing has not done with the Rebels, since the brilliant attack of Johnson, the second night of the Wilderness. This time they were repulsed completely. It was then that our men called out: “Come on! Come on! Bring up some more Johnnies! You haven’t got enough!” . . .

To-night all the trenching tools were ordered up and the lines were strengthened, and saps run out, so as to bring them still closer to the opposing ones. And there the two armies slept, almost within an easy stone-throw of each other; and the separating space ploughed by cannon-shot and clotted with the dead bodies that neither side dared to bury! I think nothing can give a greater idea of deathless tenacity of purpose, than the picture of these two hosts, after a bloody and nearly continuous struggle of thirty days, thus lying down to sleep, with their heads almost on each other’s throats! Possibly it has no parallel in history. So ended the great attack at Cool Arbor. The losses were far greater for us than for the Rebels. From what I can gather I doubt not we lost four or five to one. We gained nothing save a knowledge of their position and the proof of the unflinching bravery of our soldiers. . . .*

*“I do think there has been too much assaulting, this campaign\ After our lessons of failure and of success at Spotsylvania, we assault here, after the enemy had had thirty-six hours to entrench, and that time will cover them over their heads and give them slashings and traverses besides! The best officers and men are liable, by their greater gallantry, to be first disabled; and, of those that are left, the best become demoralized by the failures, and the loss of good leaders; so that, very soon, the men will no longer charge entrenchments and will only go forward when driven by their officers.”—Lyman’s Journal.

The costs of war. The remains of dead soldiers being collected at Cold Harbor after the war (Library of Congress).

The costs of war. The remains of dead soldiers being collected at Cold Harbor after the war (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.143-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

John Gibbon’s Bible Lesson (May 31, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the firing of a coehorn mortar at Cold Harbor. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the firing of a cohorn mortar at Cold Harbor. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

John Gibbon explains some Biblical history in Theodore Lyman’s letter from May 31. Gibbon had been born in Philadelphia but he grew up in North Carolina. When war broke out he remained loyal to the Union, although three of his brothers joined the other side. Badly wounded at Gettysburg, he commanded a division of the II Corps. There will be more about the arrival of William H. “Baldy” Smith and his XVIII Corps from Butler’s Army of the James in Lyman’s next letter.

Last night, what with writing to you and working over some maps of my own, I got to bed very late, and was up tolerably early this morning, so to-day I have passed a good deal of time on my back fast asleep; for the General has not ridden out and has sent out very few officers. As I implied, to-day has been an occasion of Sybarite luxury. What do you think we mustered for dinner? Why, green peas, salad, potatoes, and fresh milk for the coffee! Am I not a good forager? Yes, and iced water! The woman (a fearful Secesh) asked two dollars for half a bushel of ice; upon which I, in a rage, sent a sergeant and told him to pay only a reasonable price and to take what we needed. But, in future, I will not pay for ice; it costs these Rebels nothing, and they can’t eat it. For food I will always pay the scoundrels. They have usually plenty of ice for the hospitals, and the bands are kept there to play for the wounded, which pleases them. The Sanitary are doing, I believe, a great deal of good at the rear, between this and Washington. There is room for any such people to do good, when there are such multitudes of wounded. I was amused to read a letter from one of the Sanitaries at Fredericksburg, who, after describing his good works, said that, for eight days, his ears were “bruised by the sound of cannon.” To me, Fredericksburg and Montreal seem about equally far away!

Brigadier General John Gibbon. He became a major general in June 1864 (Library of Congress).

Brigadier General John Gibbon. He became a major general in June 1864 (Library of Congress).

The armies lay still, but there was unusually heavy fighting on the skirmish line the whole time; indeed there was quite an action, when Birney, Barlow, and Wright advanced and took the front line of the enemy. We used, too, a good deal of artillery, so that there was the noise of battle from morning to night. We took in some cohorn [coehorn] mortars, as they are called. These are light, small mortars, that may be carried by two or three men, and are fired with a light charge of powder. They throw a 24-lb. shell a maximum distance of about 1000 yards. As these shells go up in the air and then come down almost straight, they are very good against rifle-pits. General Gibbon says there has been a great mistake about the armies of Israel marching seven times round Jericho blowing on horns, thereby causing the walls to fall down. He says the marching round was a “flank movement,” and that the walls were then blown down with cohorns. Some of the heavy artillerists of the German regiment were first sent to fire these mortars; but it was found that they could give no definite account of where the projectiles went, the reason of which was that, every time they fired, the officer and his gunners tumbled down flat in great fear of Rebel sharpshooters!

“Baldy” Smith arrived, by steamer, at Whitehouse, from Bermuda Hundreds, with heavy reinforcements for this army. The Rebels, on their side, have been also bringing up everything—Breckinridge from the valley of the Shenandoah, Hoke from North Carolina, and everything from the South generally. . . . General Wilson’s division of cavalry was sent out towards our rear and right, to cover that quarter and to continue the destruction of the railroads below Hanover Junction. General Sheridan, with the remaining cavalry, swung round our left flank and pressed down towards Shady Grove and Cool Arbor (this name is called Coal Harbor, Cold Harbor, and Cool Arbor, I can’t find which is correct, but choose “Arbor” because it is prettiest, and because it is so hideously inappropriate). In vain I try to correct myself by the engineer maps; they all disagree. The topographical work of the engineers is rather uphill in this country. Before we opened the campaign the engineers prepared a series of large maps, carefully got up from every source that they could come upon, such as state, county, and town maps, also the information given by residents and refugees, etc., etc. In spite of all this the result has been almost ludicrous! Some places (e.g. Spotsylvania) are from one to two miles out of position, and the roads run everywhere except where laid down. I suppose the fact is that there was no material whatever wherewith to make a map on a scale so large as one inch to a mile. It is interesting to see now how the engineers work up the country, as they go along. Topographers are sent out as far as possible in the front and round the flanks. By taking the directions of different points, and by calculating distances by the pacing of their horses, and in other ways, they make little local maps, and these they bring in in the evening, and during the night they are compiled and thus a map of the neighborhood is made. If the next day is sunny, photographic copies are taken of this sketch and sent to the principal commanders, whose engineers add to, or correct it, if need be, and these corrections are put on a new sketch. Much information is gotten also by the engineers sent with the cavalry. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.134-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Very British Visit (November 15, 1863)

Captain Henry J. Sleeper, whom Lyman mentions in his November 15 letter, sits at the right in this photograph showing members of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. This was taken in December 1863. The man on the left is not a battery member--he is artist Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Captain Henry J. Sleeper, whom Lyman mentions in his November 15 letter, sits at the right in this photograph showing members of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. This was taken in December 1863. The man on the left is not a battery member–he is artist Alfred Waud, who just a few weeks earlier had sketched the battery in action (Library of Congress).

Foreigners loved to visit the Army of the Potomac, and Theodore Lyman’s letters and journal entries are filled with accounts of people from overseas popping in for a look-see. The Sir Robert Peel he mentions is Britain’s former prime minister. The McClellan saddle is a saddle that George McClellan had designed. Sleeper, the artillery man Lyman mentions, is Captain Henry Sleeper, who served with the 10th Massachusetts Battery, not the 9th.

Yesterday the General made a start at six A.m. for Washington, taking with him Major Biddle, Captain Meade, and Captain Mitchell, and suppose he will perhaps get back to-morrow. A little before one o’clock came a telegraph that four officers of the “Ghords” were coming in the train, and that we were to send an officer, with ten men, also four led horses, to bring them up. So Major Barstow asked if I would go, whereat, there being nothing to do, I said I would. It is about eight miles to Bealton, the nearest place the railroad runs to, and, by making haste a little, we got there by two o’clock, and the train came a few minutes after. And there, sure enough, were four gents, much braided and striped, who were the parties in question: viz., Lieutenant-Colonel Earle, and Lord Castle Cuff (Grenadier Guards), Captain Peel and Captain Stephenson (Scotch Fusiliers). This was the best lot of Bulls I have seen for a long time. The nobile Lord is, I should say, about sixteen, and, with his cap off, is as perfect a specimen of a Pat as you ever saw; but he is manly, and not so green as many I have seen of double his age. Colonel Earle is extremely quiet and well mannered, and was down here in Burnside’s time. Captain Stephenson is in the beefy style, and Captain Peel (son of Sir Robert) is of the black order; but both have free use of their legs and tongues, a remarkable phenomenon in a Bull. We put them on horses, where they were well at home, except they would persist in trying to rise to the trot in a McClellan saddle, which is next to impossible. We had to cross the river, close to the railroad, where I showed them the work they took last Saturday; at which they remarked: “Oh! Ah! A nasty place, a very nasty place!” Then we rode to Headquarters, just in time to avoid a heavy rain, which continued much of the night. To-day we have lain quiet; but this evening we took them over to see Captain Sleeper, 9th Massachusetts Battery. The Colonel was very inquisitive about artillery, whereupon the enthusiastic Sleeper had a newly contrived shell, which was loaded, suddenly brought into the tent! The great improvement in the shell seemed to be that it was bound to go off, somehow; so that there was a marked nervousness about him of the Guards, as the Captain poked and twisted the projectile, to illustrate its manifold virtues! . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 48-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Alfred Waud drew Sleeper's Battery at work during the November 7 battle at Kelly's Ford, part of William French's diversionary attack during the Battle of Rappahannock Station (Library of Congress; click to enlarge).

Alfred Waud drew Sleeper’s Battery at work during the November 7 battle at Kelly’s Ford, part of William French’s diversionary attack during the Battle of Rappahannock Station (Library of Congress; click to enlarge).

Lee Escapes (July 14, 1863)

 A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, "On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters" (Library of Congress).


A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, “On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters” (Library of Congress).

July 14, 1863, was not a good day for Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. He and his army had had Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Northern Virginia backed up against the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

The council took place in Meade’s small and crowded tent at Devil’s Backbone. Howard and Maj. Gen. James Wadsworth, who had taken over the I Corps from an ill Newton, voted to attack. The rest of the corps commanders voted to hold off until the army could better investigate Lee’s defenses. Perhaps remembering what had happened at Chancellorsville when Hooker overruled his corps commanders, Meade decided to defer to his generals’ advice. He postponed his attack for a day.

Meade wired Halleck the next day. It was a lengthy message with a slightly defensive tone. “In my dispatch of yesterday I stated that it was my intention to attack the enemy to-day, unless something intervened to prevent it,” he said. “Upon calling my corps commanders together and submitting the question to them, five out of six were unqualifiedly opposed to it. Under these circumstances, in view of the momentous consequences attendant upon a failure to succeed, I did not feel myself authorized to attack until after I had made more careful examination of the enemy’s position, strength, and defensive works. These examinations are now being made. So far as completed, they show the enemy to be strongly intrenched on a ridge running from the rear of Hagerstown past Downsville to the Potomac. I shall continue these reconnaissances with the expectation of finding some weak point, upon which, if I succeed, I shall hazard an attack.”

He received a terse message from Halleck in reply. “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing,” said the general in chief. “Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute your orders. Call no council of war. It is proverbial that councils of war never fight. Re-enforcements are pushed on as rapidly as possible. Do not let the enemy escape.”

On the morning of July 13 war correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Journal rode over to Meade’s headquarters at Devil’s Backbone. There he found Seth Williams, the army’s adjutant general, in Meade’s tent. Williams told Coffin that Meade was out reconnoitering the rebel lines.

“Do you think that Lee can get across the Potomac?” Coffin asked.

“Impossible!” replied Williams. “The people resident here say that it cannot be forded at this stage of the water. He has no pontoons. We have got him in a tight place. We shall have reinforcements to-morrow, and a great battle will be fought. Lee is encumbered with his teams, and he is short of ammunition.”

As Coffin talked with Williams, Meade entered the tent, dripping wet from the rain. “His countenance was unusually animated,” Coffin wrote. “He had ever been courteous to me, and while usually very reticent of all his intentions or of what was going on, as an officer should be, yet in this instance he broke over his habitual silence, and said, ‘We shall have a great battle to-morrow. The reinforcements are coming up, and as soon as they come we shall pitch in.’”

But when Meade’s soldiers moved forward on July 13 they found that Lee had, in fact, slipped across the river. The next day Meade wrote to his wife:

I found Lee in a very strong position, intrenched. I hesitated to attack him, without some examination of the mode of approaching him. I called my corps commanders together, and they voted against attacking him. This morning, when I advanced to feel his position and seek for a weak point, I found he had retired in the night and was nearly across the river. I immediately started in pursuit, and my cavalry captured two thousand prisoners, two guns, several flags, and killed General Pettigrew. On reporting these facts to General Halleck, he informed me the President was very much dissatisfied at the escape of Lee. I immediately telegraphed I had done my duty to the best of my ability, and that the expressed dissatisfaction of the President I considered undeserved censure, and asked to be immediately relieved. In reply he said it was not intended to censure me, but only to spur me on to an active pursuit, and that it was not deemed sufficient cause for relieving me. This is exactly what I expected; unless I did impracticable things, fault would be found with me. I have ignored the senseless adulation of the public and press, and I am now just as indifferent to the censure bestowed without just cause.

I start to-morrow to run another race with Lee.

In the letter, Meade mentions these exchanges he had with Henry Halleck:

Halleck to Meade, July 14 (in part):

I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.

Meade to Halleck, July 14:

Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p. M. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.

Halleck to Meade July 14:

My telegram stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.

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. 134-5 and 311-12. Available via Google Books.

Sucking Up (April 11, 1863)

On April 9, 1863, Alfred Waud sketched President Lincoln as he and various Union generals reviewed the Army of the Potomac. Someone has clipped off Joe Hooker's head. Click on the image for a larger version (Library of Congress).

On April 9, 1863, Alfred Waud sketched President Lincoln as he and various Union generals reviewed the Army of the Potomac. Someone has clipped off Joe Hooker’s head. Click on the image for a larger version (Library of Congress).

George Meade was an ambitious man. That’s obvious even in his edited letters, which appeared in print as The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army in 1913. The unedited versions show even more clearly how much Meade aspired to reach a position to which he felt entitled. He often expressed his ambitions in his letters to his wife. In this one he amusingly details some of his efforts to ingratiate himself with Abraham Lincoln when the president visited the Army of the Potomac. (It’s possible that Meade is the only person to refer to Mary Todd Lincoln as “amiable.)

The Lancers are the cavalry regiment to which Meade’s son, George, belonged. Stoneman was George Stoneman, commander of the army’s cavalry corps.

Major General George Stoneman, who commanded the cavalry corps (Library of Congress).

Major General George Stoneman, who commanded the cavalry corps (Library of Congress).

The President has now reviewed the whole army, and expresses himself highly delighted with all he has seen. Since our review, I have attended the other reviews and have been making myself (or at least trying so to do) very agreeable to Mrs. Lincoln, who seems an amiable sort of personage. In view also of the vacant brigadiership in the regular army, I have ventured to tell the President one or two stories, and I think I have made decided progress in his affections. By-the-by, talking of this vacancy, I have been very much gratified at the congratulations I have received from several distinguished general officers on the prominence that has been given my name in connection with this appointment. The other day, Major General Stoneman came up to me and said he was very glad to hear I was so much talked of in connection with this vacancy; that he hoped I would get it, and that he believed the voice of the army would be in my favor. Coming as this does from those who are cognizant of my services, some of whom are themselves candidates, I cannot but regard it as most complimentary and gratifying, and I am sure it will please you. Stoneman also told me that, hearing I had a boy in the Lancers, he had sent for him and introduced him to Mrs. Stoneman. Stoneman also spoke very handsomely of the Lancers, and said he intended they should have full chance to show what they were made of.

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. 364-5. Available via Google Books.