Boating with the Beast (August 4, 1864)

Benjamin Butler, photographed at Bermuda Landing in late July or early August, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler, photographed at Bermuda Landing in late July or early August, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman accompanies General Meade, staff members, and the French observers on a boat trip with General Butler. Butler was one of the war’s great characters. An influential Democratic politician from Massachusetts, he had voted 57 consecutive times to nominate Jefferson Davis for president at the Democratic convention in 1860. As one of Lincoln’s “political generals,” he had helped keep Baltimore pacified at the beginning of the war and later established a reputation as the (perhaps) corrupt and (certainly) hated administrator of New Orleans. Southerners called him “Beast” or “Spoons,” the latter nickname for his supposed tendency to steal everything he could, including silverware. Perhaps his greatest impact on the war took place when he was in command of Fort Monroe in Virginia and allowed escaped slaves to enter his lines as so-called “contrabands of war,” an early step towards Union policies to end slavery. He proved fairly inept as commander of the Army of the James but, as we saw earlier, Grant failed in his attempt to replace him with William F. “Baldy” Smith as field commander.

Detail of a sketch Alfred Waud made of Benjamin Butler (Library of Congress).

Detail of a sketch Alfred Waud made of Benjamin Butler. Perhaps this defensive posture could be considered “an attitude of fence” (Library of Congress).

This was quite a festal day for us. The General, accompanied by the Frenchies, Rosencrantz, Bache, Biddle and myself, paid a grand visit to Butler. Butler was in high feather. He is as proud of all his “fixin’s” as a farmer over a prime potato patch. We first got on the Greyhound, an elegant steamer (Butler believes in making himself comfortable), and proceeded down the Appomattox, past City Point, and then bore up the James, passing Bermuda Hundred, with its flotilla of schooners and steamers. . . . We had got a good bit above Bermuda Hundred and were paddling along bravely when we came in sight of two gunboats; that is, common steamers with some heavy guns on board. There are many in the river and they go up and down to keep it clear. As we drew near, I saw the men were at quarters and the guns run out. We passed between the first boat and the high wooded bank, when I beheld the gunboat captain dancing up and down on the paddle-box and roaring to us: “The left bank is lined with sh-a-a-rpshooters!” It would have edified you to have seen the swift dignity with which General Meade and his gallant Staff stepped from the open, upper deck to the shady seclusion of the cabin! Our skipper jingled “Stop her,” with his engine-room bell, and stop she did. Here was a chance for war-god Butler. “Hey? What? Sharpshooters? Pshaw! Fiddledeedee! Stop her! Who said stop her? Mr. DeRay, tell the Captain to go on, instantly!” And Butler danced out on the open deck and stood, like George II at Dettingen, in “an attitude of fence.” I, who looked for a brisk volley of musketry, fully expected to see him get a bullet in his extensive stomach. Meanwhile the Captain went on, and, as soon as we were clear, the naval party in the rear (or “astern,” we ought to say) let go one big gun, with a tremendous whang! and sent a projectile about the size of a flour barrel on shore, severely wounding a great many bushes and trees. The other gunboat went ahead of us and kept up a little marine combat, all on her own hook. Whether there really were sharpshooters, I know not: I only think, if there were, it would be difficult to say which party was the more scared. . . .

Finally we went on shore where our horses were waiting, for this is not over three and a half miles from the Appomattox, though it is fifteen or sixteen miles round by the river. From the top of the cliff we had a splendid view of the cultivated country towards Richmond. And so, after inspecting more of Benjamin’s apple-pie batteries, we went home.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 204-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Visit to Butler (July 22, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler's headquarters (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler’s headquarters (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman, French observer Francois De Chanal and Meade aide Frederick “Rosie” Rosenkrantz pay a visit to Benjamin Butler. The general gives them a hint about one of his great schemes of the war, his idea of reducing Confederate fortifications by exploding barges stuffed with gunpowder next to them. Butler will try this out in December against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and, as De Chanal predicts, it will prove a miserable failure. But while it does no damage to the Confederates, the barge will blow up Butler’s military career. By the time of the Fort Fisher fiasco, the presidential election will be over and Grant will have a free hand to remove this politically connected general from the Army of the James.

Of course, even as Lyman visits Butler and the Army of the James, the Army of the Potomac is preparing its own big explosion, one that will also damage some military careers.

I had one of the most amusing excursions that I have had during the campaign—really quite a picnic. Colonel de Chanal, Rosy, and myself made the party. The distance to Butler’s Headquarters, whither we were bound, is about eight miles, and the road all the way was either through the woods or shaded by trees, and the dust had not yet had time to show its head after the rain. It was a new part of the country to me and very interesting. We struck the Appomattox at the Point of Rocks, where the river appears double by reason of a long, swampy island in the middle. The width, between the two steep, high, gravelly banks, cannot be less than 350 yards. Here is a pontoon bridge, and, near each end of it, on the top of the bank, a fort for its defence. Below it, too, lies a gunboat. Crossing this, we soon came to the Great Ben’s, who received us very hospitably, and exhibited a torpedo and a variety of new projectiles, the virtues of which in the destruction of the human race I explained in pure Gallic to the Colonel. During dinner he said to me: “They spoiled a good mechanic when they made me a lawyer, and a good lawyer when they made me general.” He delivered a long exposition (which I translated) on the virtues of a huge powder-boat, which he would explode between Moultrie and Sumter, by clockwork, and not only flatten both forts, but Charleston into the bargain! De Chanal replied (citing examples) that no such result would follow and that the effect would be limited to a very small radius. “No effect!” cried B., suddenly bursting into French, “mais pourquoi non?” “Ah,” said De C, with his sharp French eye, “mais pourquoi si?” . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 193-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Last of Baldy Smith (July 20, 1864)

William F. "Baldy" Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

William F. “Baldy” Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

On July 20 both George Meade and Theodore Lyman note the departure of William F. “Baldy” Smith from the Army of the James. Smith, who had commanded the XVIII Corps, and Meade had once been friends but became “avowed antagonists” as time passed. Smith was adept at sowing friction. Over at the Army of the James, Smith, Ulysses S. Grant, and Army of the James commander Benjamin Butler became involved in a struggle for power. Grant longed to rid himself of Butler, a general who was much more skilled at politics than war. He contrived to have Smith take control of the Army of the James’s field operations while Butler remained behind the lines in a strictly administrative role. Butler would have none of it. When the dust settled, Butler remained firmly in charge while Grant had sent Smith to New York. Smith later claimed that Butler gained the upper hand by blackmailing Grant over his drinking. The more likely scenario was that with the presidential election looming, the administration realized that this was no time to turn the politically connected General Butler into an enemy.

For Smith’s explanation of the affair, see below. He printed the letter he wrote to Vermont’s Senator Solomon Foote in his book From Chattanooga to Petersburg Under Generals Grant and Butler: A Contribution to the History of the War, and a Personal Vindication (Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1893). It’s quite an interesting account and does a good amount of score settling.

I am a good deal amused at your fear that I will become entangled with politicians. You may make your mind easy on that point, as, with the exception of what you write, I have never heard a word breathed on the subject. I rather fancy I should be considered too independent and too intractable for the purposes of any of these gentlemen.

Much excitement was created to-day by the announcement that General W. F. Smith, who returned last evening from his sick leave, was this morning relieved from his command of the Eighteenth Corps and ordered to New York. It was only the other day he was assigned by the President to this command, and Butler sent to Fortress Monroe. It appears now the tables are turned—Butler remains and Smith goes.

We have had a little rain, which has added greatly to our comfort and allayed somewhat the dust which has been such an annoyance. We are waiting the return of the Sixth Corps, sent to relieve Washington, after which I suppose we shall begin anew.

Here’s Theodore Lyman’s take on things. If anyone was born to serve Lyman as an object for description, it was Ben Butler.

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Our camp was this morning taken by assault by a cavalcade which turned out to be Major-General Ben F. Butler and a portion of his Staff. He is the strangest sight on a horse you ever saw: it is hard to keep your eyes off him. With his head set immediately on a stout shapeless body, his very squinting eyes, and a set of legs and arms that look as if made for somebody else, and hastily glued to him by mistake, he presents a combination of Victor Emmanuel, Aesop, and Richard III, which is very confusing to the mind. Add to this a horse with a kind of rapid, ambling trot that shakes about the arms, legs, etc., till you don’t feel quite sure whether it is a centaur, or what it is, and you have a picture of this celebrated General. Celebrated he surely is, and a man of untiring industry and activity. Woe to those who stand up against him in the way of diplomacy! Let the history of “Baldy” Smith be a warning to all such. It is an instructive one, and according to camp rumor, runs thus. It was said that Smith, relying on his reputation with Grant, had great ideas of shelving Butler, and Fame even reported that he had ideas also of giving Meade a tilt overboard. So what do we see but an order stating that Major-General Smith was to command the “forces of the field” of the Department, while Major-General Butler would continue to command the Department, with his “Headquarters at Fortress Monroe.” Next day everybody says: “So, Butler has gone.” Not exactly. Butler was still there, precisely as before. “As long as I command the Department, I command its troops; therefore, Headquarters where I please. I please here.” Off goes Smith to Washington, mysteriously. Down pounces Butler on City Point. Long confab with General Grant. Back comes Smith comfortably and is confronted by an order to “proceed at once to New York and await further orders!” Thus did Smith the Bald try the Macchiavelli against Butler the cross-eyed, and got floored at the first round! “Why did he do so?” asked Butler, with the easy air of a strong man. “I had no military ambition; he might have had all that. I have more important things in view!” Speaking of Butler’s visit, he had sent him an aide without consulting him, and Benjamin thought it a good chance to hit Halleck over the aide’s head. “Aide-de-camp, sir! Ordered on my Staff, sir! I’m sure I do not know what you are to do. I have really nothing for you. All the positions are filled. Now there is General Halleck, what has he to do? At a moment when every true man is laboring to his utmost, when the days ought to be forty hours long, General Halleck is translating French books at nine cents a page; and, sir, if you should put those nine cents in a box and shake them up, you would form a clear idea of General Halleck’s soul!”

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. 214-15. 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. 192-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Now it’s time to give William F. “Baldy” Smith time for his defense. He does go down swinging in this letter to Senator Foote. (The correctionto the date was provided by Smith himself in his book).

Ulysses S. Grant. Questions about his drinking are still debated today  (Library of Congress).

Ulysses S. Grant. Questions about his drinking are still debated today (Library of Congress).

I am extremely anxious that my friends in my native state should not think that the reason of General Grant’s relieving me from duty was brought about by any misconduct of mine, and therefore, I write to put you in possession of such facts in the case as I am aware of, and think will throw light upon the subject. About the very last of June, or the first of July, Generals Grant and Butler came to my headquarters, and shortly after their arrival General Grant turned to General Butler, and said: “That drink of whiskey I took has done me good.” And then, directly afterwards, asked me for a drink. My servant opened a bottle for him, and he drank of it, when the bottle was corked and put away.

I was aware at this time that General Grant had within six months pledged himself to drink nothing intoxicating, but did not feel it would better matters to decline to give it upon his request in General Butler’s presence.

After the lapse of an hour or less, the general asked for another drink, which he took. Shortly after, his voice showed plainly that the liquor had affected him, and after a little time he left. I went to see him upon his horse, and as soon as I returned to my tent I said to a staff officer of mine who had witnessed his departure, “General Grant has gone away drunk. General Butler has seen it, and will never fail to use the weapon which has been put into his hands.” Two or three days after that I applied for a leave of absence for the benefit of my health, and General Grant sent word to me not to go, if it were possible to stay, and I replied in a private note warranted by our former relations, a copy of which note I will send you in a few days. The next day, the Assistant Secretary of War, Mr. Dana, came to tell me that he had been sent by General Grant to say what it becomes necessary to repeat in view of subsequent events, to wit: That he, General G., had written a letter the day before, to ask that General Butler might be relieved from that department, July 2, and I placed in command of it, giving as a reason that he could not trust General Butler with the command of troops in the movements about to be made, and saying also, that, next to General Sherman, he had more confidence in my ability than in that of any general in the field. The order from Washington, dated July 7, sent General Butler to Fortress Monroe, and placed me in command of the troops then under him; and General Grant said he would make the changes necessary to give me the troops in the field belonging to that department. I had only asked that I should not be commanded in battle by a man that could not give an order on the field, and I had recommended General Franklin or General Wright for the command of the department. I was at the headquarters of General Grant on Sunday, July 10 [actually, July 9] and there saw General B., but had no conversation with him. After General B. had left, I had a confidential conversation with General Grant about changes he was going to make. In this connection it is proper to state that our personal relations were of the most friendly character. He had listened to and acted upon suggestions made by me upon more than one important occasion. I then thought, and still think (whatever General Butler’s letter writers may say to the contrary), that he knew that any suggestion I might make for his consideration would be dictated solely by an intense desire to put down this rebellion, and not from any considerations personal to myself, and that no personal friendships had stood in the way of what I considered my duty with regard to military management, a course not likely to be pursued by a man ambitious of advancement. In this confidential conversation with General Grant, I tried to show him the blunders of the late campaign of the Army of the Potomac and the terrible waste of life that had resulted from what I had considered a want of generalship in its present commander. Among other instances, I referred to the fearful slaughter at Cold Harbor, on the 3d of June. General Grant went into the discussion, defending General Meade stoutly, but finally acknowledged, to use his own words, “that there had been a butchery at Cold Harbor, but that he had said nothing about it because it could do no good.” Not a word was said as to my right to criticise General Meade then, and I left without a suspicion that General Grant had taken it in any other way than it was meant, and I do not think he did misunderstand me.

On my return from a short leave of absence on the 19th of July, General Grant sent for me to report to him, and then told me that he “ could not relieve General Butler,” and that as I had so severely criticised General Meade, he had determined to relieve me from the command of the 18th Corps and order me to New York City to await orders. The next morning the general gave some other reasons, such as an article in the “Tribune” reflecting on General Hancock, which I had nothing in the world to do with, and two letters, which I had written before the campaign began, to two of General Grant’s most devoted friends, urging upon them to try and prevent him from making the campaign he had just made. These letters, sent to General Grant’s nearest friends and intended for his eye, necessarily sprang from an earnest desire to serve the man upon whom the country had been depending, and these warnings ought to have been my highest justification in his opinion, and indeed would have been, but that it had become necessary to make out a case against me. All these matters, moreover, were known to the general before he asked that I might be put in command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and therefore they formed no excuse for relieving me from the command I held.

I also submit to you that if it had been proven to him that I was unfitted for the command I then held, that that in nowise changed the case with reference to General Butler and his incompetency, and did not furnish a reason why he should not go where the President had ordered him at the request of General Grant; and that as General Grant did, immediately after an interview with General Butler, suspend the order and announce his intention of relieving me from duty there, other reasons must be sought, different from any assigned, for this sudden change of views and action. Since I have been in New York, I have heard from two different sources (one being from General Grant’s headquarters and one a staff officer of a general on intimate official relations with General Butler), that General Butler went to General Grant and threatened to expose his intoxication, if the order was not revoked. I also learned that General Butler had threatened to make public something that would prevent the President’s re-election. General Grant told me (when I asked him about General Butler’s threat of crushing me), that he had heard that General Butler had made some threat with reference to the Chicago convention, which he (Butler) said, he “had in his breeches pocket,” but General Grant was not clear in expressing what the threat was. I refer to this simply because I feel convinced that the change was not made for any of the reasons that have been assigned; and whether General Butler has threatened General Grant with his opposition to Mr. Lincoln at the coming election, or has appealed to any political aspirations which General Grant may entertain, I do not know; but one thing is certain, I was not guilty of any acts of insubordination between my appointment and my suspension, for I was absent all those days on leave of absence from General Grant. I only hope that this long story will not tire you, and that it will convince you that I have done nothing to deserve a loss of the confidence which was reposed in me.

Yours very truly, Wm. F. Smith, Major-General.

P. S. I have not referred to the state of things existing at headquarters when I left, and to the fact that General Grant was then in the habit of getting liquor in a surreptitious manner, because it was not relevant to my case; but if you think, at any time, the matter may be of importance to the country, I will give it to you. Should you wish to write to me, please address, care of S. E. Lyon, Jauncy Court, 39 Wall Street, New York.

 

Pegging Away (June 1, 1864)

Artist William Waud sketched the arrival of "Baldy" Smith and the XVIII Corps at White House landing on the Pamunkey on May 18. On the front Waud wrote, "Ruins of the White House; the scene of Washington's courtship & marriage; the tent by Pilchard." This White House belonged to Rooney Lee, son of Robert E. George Washington had indeed courted Martha here. On the back Waud wrote, "This is only a small portion of the force shown here as there were many large vessels employed such as the John Brooks, the George Leary, the Escort, the Metamone[sic]-all similar to the Hudson river & sound boats but which I have not the opportunity of sketching if Mr Parsons has drawings of these vessels if the view is thought interesting enough they might be introduced covered with troops hanging on like bees. For description see the letters of Mr. Winser in the Times. W.W." Harpers published an engraving on June 18. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist William Waud sketched the arrival of “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps at White House landing on the Pamunkey on May 18. On the front Waud wrote, “Ruins of the White House; the scene of Washington’s courtship & marriage; the tent by Pilchard.” This White House belonged to Rooney Lee, son of Robert E. George Washington had indeed courted Martha here. On the back Waud wrote, “This is only a small portion of the force shown here as there were many large vessels employed such as the John Brooks, the George Leary, the Escort, the Metamone[sic]-all similar to the Hudson river & sound boats but which I have not the opportunity of sketching if Mr Parsons has drawings of these vessels if the view is thought interesting enough they might be introduced covered with troops hanging on like bees. For description see the letters of Mr. Winser in the Times. W.W.” Harpers published an engraving on June 18. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

On June 1 Meade, in a throw-away line at the end of his letter, mentions two things that will irritate him more and more throughout the campaign: the press and the way that Grant was receiving credit for the Army of the Potomac’s successes. His resentments against the press will explode in a few days, with serious repercussions for his reputation. His resentment against Grant will continue to fester, although Meade, a good soldier, discharges his duties to the best of his ability.

We are pegging away here, and gradually getting nearer and nearer to Richmond, although its capture is yet far off. Our advance is within two miles of Mechanicsville, which, if you remember, is the place where the fighting commenced in the Seven Days. The rebs keep taking up strong positions and entrenching themselves. This compels us to move around their flank, after trying to find some weak point to attack. This operation has now occurred four times, namely, crossing the Rapidan, at Old Wilderness, at Spottsylvania Court House, and recently at North Anna. We shall have to do it once more before we get them into their defenses at Richmond, and then will begin the tedious process of a quasi-siege, like that at Sebastopol; which will last as long, unless we can get hold of their railroads and cut off their supplies, when they must come out and fight.

Whilst I am writing the cannon and musketry are rattling all along our lines, over five miles in extent, but we have become so accustomed to these sounds that we hardly notice them.

The weather is beginning to be hot, but I keep in the saddle during the day, and sleep soundly at night.

The papers are giving Grant all the credit of what they call successes; I hope they will remember this if anything goes wrong.

William F. "Baldy" Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

William F. “Baldy” Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

Theodore Lyman’s letter from July 1 goes into more detail about the arrival of William F. “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps, sent from Ben Butler’s Army of the James to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. Meade and Smith went back a ways. When Meade received command of the V Corps back in December 1862 after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Smith was one of the generals who shared his celebratory champagne. Smith, who possessed “unusual powers of caustic criticism” and quarreled incessantly with his superior officers, led the VI Corps at Fredericksburg but became so disillusioned by army commander Ambrose Burnside he went to the White House with William Franklin to express his misgivings to President Lincoln. Burnside was dismissed from command but Smith was sent out west. He had redeemed himself, in Grant’s eyes, at least, by performing capably in the campaign to break the siege of Chattanooga. He then accompanied Grant back east, amid rumors that Smith would replace Meade at the head of the Army of the Potomac. However, Grant assigned him to the Army of the James under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the most political of political generals. The cockeyed Butler and his army were supposed to form one of the prongs in Grant’s multipronged campaign against the Confederacy. Instead, Butler had gotten his army bottled up at Bermuda Hundred with his back against the James River, where they remained, impotent and useless.

At 1.30 last night, General Wright with the 6th Corps passed round our left flank and marched on Cool Arbor, which already was occupied by our cavalry last night. They would have fallen back, in view of the advance of the enemy’s infantry, but General Meade sent an order to hold it, which they did; and had a very heavy fight early this morning, remarkable from the fact that our cavalry threw up breastworks and fought behind them, repulsing the enemy till Wright could arrive. Baldy Smith too was marching from Whitehouse and came up during the day, forming on the right of the 6th Corps. Meantime, of course, the enemy was marching to his own right, in all haste, and formed so as to cover the roads leading to Mechanicsville and also to continue his line on his right. . . . There was a desperate charge on Smith and Wright at Cool Arbor and the sound of musketry was extremely heavy long after dark, but the Rebels could not do it and had to go back again. Nor did the right of the line escape where they attacked Birney, and were driven back just the same way. . . . Smith had orders to report to General Meade and so became part of the Army of the Potomac. General Meade was in one of his irascible fits to-night, which are always founded in good reason though they spread themselves over a good deal of ground that is not always in the limits of the question. First he blamed Warren for pushing out without orders; then he said each corps ought to act for itself and not always be leaning on him. Then he called Wright slow (a very true proposition as a general one). In the midst of these night-thoughts, comes here from General Smith bright, active, self-sufficient Engineer-Lieutenant Farquhar, who reports that his superior had arrived, fought, etc., etc., but that he had brought little ammunition, no transportation and that “he considered his position precarious.” “Then, why in Hell did he come at all for?” roared the exasperated Meade, with an oath that was rare with him.

Lyman added a footnote to his journal entry. Farquhar reported Meade’s outburst to Smith, Lyman noted. “Smith never forgave him and put that sentence, in large letters, in his report, which appeared many months after and amused Meade, for Smith had dished himself then and was nobody.”

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. 200. 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.137-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

May 4, 1864

Elements of the Army of the Potomac cross the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 4, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Elements of the Army of the Potomac cross the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 4, 1864 (Library of Congress).

We will not hear from George Meade for a little while. He has much to command his attention at this point. Same with Theodore Lyman. In the meantime, here’s a short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg explaining the events of May 4, 1864. (If you do not have the book already, shame on you! It is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and quality bookstores.)

The army began moving at midnight. “There is a kind of weird excitement in this starting at midnight,” noted Col. Charles Wainwright, now handling artillery for the V Corps. “The senses seemed doubly awake to every impression–the batteries gathering around my quarters in the darkness; the moving of lanterns, and the hailing of the men; then the distant sound of the hoofs of the aid’s horse who brings the final order to start. Sleepy as I always am at such times, I have a certain amount of enjoyment in it all.”

The plan for the campaign had the II Corps crossing the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford and the V and VI Corps farther upstream at Germanna Ford. Meade and his staff left their winter camp at 5:25 a.m. on their way to Germanna Ford. The sun rose at the start of a beautiful spring day and illuminated a mighty host on the move. “As far as the eye could reach the troops were wending their way to the front,” wrote Horace Porter. “Their war banners, bullet-riddled and battle-stained, floated proudly in the morning breeze. The roads resounded to the measured tread of the advancing columns, and the deep forests were lighted by the glitter of their steel.”

Meade soon found an occasion for an outburst of temper. At 7:00 he encountered a cavalry wagon train blocking the road, one of his pet peeves. The general gave the quartermaster a tongue-lashing and ordered him to move his wagons out of the way. An hour later he reached the ford, the same spot where his men had camped during the withdrawal from Mine Run. It had been bitter cold then and the army had been disheartened; now spring was bursting out in all its glory and the Union soldiers felt confident. “The troops were very light-hearted, almost as joyous as schoolboys; and over and over again as we rode by them, it was observed by members of the staff that they had never seen them so happy and buoyant,” recalled a staff member.

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Meade and his staff crossed the river at 9:30. Grant and his staff, accompanied by Congressman Eli Washburne, joined them shortly afterward. Lyman noted that some of Grant’s staff talked “flippantly” about Lee and his army and regarded the war as nearly won. Grant established his headquarters at an old farmhouse overlooking the Rapidan. Meade dropped by that evening and took a camp chair by a blazing fire of fence rails. Grant offered him a cigar and helped him light it. The two generals sat by the cheery fire, smoking their cigars and talking over their plans for the next day. The move across the Rapidan had gone off without a hitch. “This I regarded as a great success,” said Grant, “and it removed from my mind the most serious apprehensions I had entertained: that of crossing the river in the face of an active, large, well-appointed, and ably commanded army, and how so large a train was to be carried through a hostile country and protected.”

As Grant and Meade talked, messengers brought telegrams informing Grant that the other armies under his command—Ben Butler’s on the James River, Fritz Sigel’s in the Valley, and Sherman’s in Georgia—were advancing according to his plan to apply pressure all over the Confederacy. The Army of the Potomac appeared to be playing its own part in Grant’s grand design. So far, so good. But the army had yet to emerge from the Wilderness.

General-in-Chief (April 13, 1864)

Meade's staff at the general's headquarters at Brandy Station in April 1865. Andrew Humphreys stands facing left in the center (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Meade’s staff at the general’s headquarters at Brandy Station in April 1865. Andrew Humphreys stands facing left in the center (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

When it comes to Meade’s relationship with Ulysses S. Grant, so far, so good. Before getting to Meade’s letter, here is what Grant communicated to Meade regarding his plans, in an order written on April 9:

“For information and as instruction to govern your preparations for the coming campaign, the following is communicated confidentially for your own perusal alone.

“So far as practicable all the armies are to move together, and towards one common centre. Banks has been instructed to turn over the guarding of the Red River to General Steele and the navy, to abandon Texas with the exception of the Rio Grande, and to concentrate all the force he can, not less than 25,000 men, to move on Mobile. This he is to do without reference to other movements. From the scattered condition of his command, however, he cannot possibly get it together to leave New Orleans before the 1st of May, if so soon. Sherman will move at the same time you do, or two or three days in advance, Jo. Johnston’s army being his objective point, and the heart of Georgia his ultimate aim. If successful he will secure the line from Chattanooga to Mobile with the aid of Banks.

“Sigel cannot spare troops from his army to reinforce either of the great armies, but he can aid them by moving directly to his front. This he has been directed to do, and is now making preparations for it. Two columns of his command will make south at the same time with the general move; one from Beverly, from ten to twelve thousand strong, under Major-General Ord; the other from Charleston, Va., principally cavalry, under Brig.-General Crook. The former of these will endeavor to reach the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, about south of Covington, and if found practicable will work eastward to Lynchburg and return to its base by way of the Shenandoah Valley, or join you. The other will strike at Saltville, Va., and come eastward to join Ord. The cavalry from Ord’s command will try to force a passage southward, if they are successful in reaching the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, to cut the main lines of the road connecting Richmond with all the South and South-west.

“Gillmore will join Butler with about 10,000 men from South Carolina. Butler can reduce his garrison so as to take 23,000 men into the field directly to his front. The force will be commanded by Maj.-General W. F. Smith. With Smith and Gillmore, Butler will seize City Point, and operate against Richmond from the south side of the river. His movement will be simultaneous with yours.

“Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also. The only point upon which I am now in doubt is, whether it will be better to cross the Rapidan above or below him. Each plan presents great advantages over the other with corresponding objections. By crossing above, Lee is cut off from all chance of ignoring Richmond and going north on a raid. But if we take this route, all we do must be done whilst the rations we start with hold out. We separate from Butler so that he cannot be directed how to co-operate. By the other route Brandy Station can be used as a base of supplies until another is secured on the York or James rivers.

“These advantages and objections I will talk over with you more fully than I can write them.

“Burnside with a force of probably 25,000 men will reinforce you. Immediately upon his arrival, which will be shortly after the 20th inst., I will give him the defence of the road from Bull Run as far south as we wish to hold it. This will enable you to collect all your strength about Brandy Station and to the front.

“There will be naval co-operation on the James River, and transports and ferries will be provided so that should Lee fall back into his intrenchments at Richmond, Butler’s force and yours will be a unit, or at least can be made to act as such. What I would direct then, is that you commence at once reducing baggage to the very lowest possible standard. Two wagons to a regiment of five hundred men is the greatest number that should be allowed, for all baggage, exclusive of subsistence stores and ordnance stores. One wagon to brigade and one to division headquarters is sufficient and about two to corps headquarters.

“Should by Lee’s right flank be our route, you will want to make arrangements for having supplies of all sorts promptly forwarded to White House on the Pamunkey. Your estimates for this contingency should be made at once. If not wanted there, there is every probability they will be wanted on the James River or elsewhere.

“If Lee’s left is turned, large provision will have to be made for ordnance stores. I would say not much short of five hundred rounds of infantry ammunition would do. By the other, half the amount would be sufficient.”

This is what Meade’s aide, Theodore Lyman, wrote about Grant on April 12: “Grant is a man of a good deal of rough dignity; rather taciturn; quick and decided in speech. He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it. I have much confidence in him.”

Grant has not given an order, or in the slightest degree interfered with the administration of this army since he arrived, and I doubt if he knows much more about it now than he did before coming here. It is undoubtedly true he will go with it when it moves, and will in a measure control its movements, and should success attend its operations, that my share of the credit will be less than if he were not present. Moreover, whilst I have no doubt he will give me all the credit I am entitled to, the press, and perhaps the public, will lose sight of me in him. Nevertheless he is so much more active than his predecessor, and agrees so well with me in his views, I cannot but be rejoiced at his arrival, because I believe success to be the more probable from the above facts. My position before, with inadequate means, no power myself to increase them, and no effort made by others to do so, placed me in a false position, causing me to be held responsible, when in fact I could do nothing. My duty is plain, to continue quietly to discharge my duties, heartily co-operating with him and under him.

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. 189. Available via Google Books.

Butler (February 5, 1864)

Another letter from Theodore Lyman, while Meade remains ill in Philadelphia. In this missive Lyman mentions Major General Benjamin Butler, who commanded the Army of the James. Butler was one of the Union’s political generals, promoted not because of military experience but because of his political influence. He had aroused Southern ire for his heavy-handed military rule in New Orleans (where he earned the nickname of “Spoons” for allegedly looting the town. Southerners also called him “Beast” Butler.) During Grant’s spring  campaign, the cockeyed Butler and his army were supposed to form one part of Grant’s multipronged campaign against the Confederacy. Instead, Butler had gotten his army bottled up at Bermuda Hundred with his back against the James River, where it remained, impotent and useless until it was too late for them to do any good. Here Lyman describes a plan by Butler and the opinions about it expressed by the non-political generals of the Army of the Potomac.

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

General [Andrew] Humphreys sent for me and showed me a cipher correspondence between Butler and [Henry] Halleck, and Halleck and [John] Sedgwick. B. telegraphed that large reinforcements had been sent from the Rapid Ann to North Carolina, and that he wished a demonstration to “draw their forces from Richmond.” S. replied that, with the exception of some two or three brigades, nobody had been sent to that place from the army in our front. B. then said he was going to move on Richmond, or something of the sort, and would like a demonstration not later than Saturday (to-morrow). S. said it was too short a time to make any great show and that it would spoil our chances for a surprise on their works, in future. H. then telegraphed to do, at any rate, what we could. So [Judson] Kilpatrick has been sent to their right via Mine Ford, and [Wesley] Merritt is to threaten Barnett’s Ford; and to threaten Raccoon Ford, while the 2d will make a stronger demonstration at Morton’s Ford. Old Sedgwick and General Humphreys are cross at the whole thing, looking on it as childish.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 68. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.