And So It Begins (May 3, 1864)

Alexander Gardner called this photograph "Breaking Camp.: It shows General George H. Sharpe's deserted headquarters at Brandy Station. Sharpe headed the army's Bureau of Military Information. Winter camp is over; the army is on the move (Library of Congress).

Alexander Gardner called this photograph “Breaking Camp.: It shows General George H. Sharpe’s deserted headquarters at Brandy Station. Sharpe headed the army’s Bureau of Military Information. Winter camp is over; the army is on the move (Library of Congress).

We are now on the very eve of the Overland Campaign, a bloody, protracted slugging match between the Army of the Potomac under Meade (accompanied by Grant) and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. At the start of the campaign Grant warned Meade that he did not intend to fight by “maneuvering for position.” Meade must have seen that as a critique of the army’s campaigns from the previous fall. He replied, “General Grant, you are opposed by a general of consummate ability, and you will find that you will have to maneuver for position.” Meade will be right. Throughout the Overland Campaign Grant will attempt to overwhelm the Confederates with direct assaults, and then order Meade’s army on wide, sweeping maneuvers in attempts to outflank Lee.

The letter from Lee that Meade mentions here is the one the Confederate general sent demanding to know the truth about Ulric Dahlgren’s orders for his ill-fated raid on Richmond. Papers found on his body indicated he intended to kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and burn Richmond. Meade had denied that anyone had issued such orders. Pennie is Meade’s son Spencer.

I send herewith original letter recently received from General Lee, which you can give to Pennie, as it has General Lee’s autograph, and on the envelope an original endorsement by Jeb Stuart, the great reb. cavalry general.

I also enclose you a printed copy of an address issued to-day by me to the army. To-morrow we move. I hope and trust we will be successful, and so decidedly successful as to bring about a termination of this war. If hard fighting will do it, I am sure I can rely on my men. They are in fine condition and in most excellent spirits, and will do all that men can do to accomplish the object. The enemy have had time, I expect, to bring up all available reinforcements. This is all the better for us, if we succeed, as it will make the battle and victory more decisive. The telegraph will convey to you the first intelligence, though I shall endeavor to keep you posted. I beg of you to be calm and resigned, to place full trust in the mercy of our heavenly Father, who has up to this time so signally favored us, and the continuance of whose blessing we should earnestly pray for. Do not fret, but be cheerful, and go about and do just as if nothing was going on, and above all things don’t anticipate evil; it will come time enough. Give my love to all the dear children. I shall think a great deal of you and them, notwithstanding the excitement of my duties. I feel quiet and determined, satisfied I have ever striven to do my duty to the best of my ability, and believing that in time posterity will do justice to my career. Good-by! God bless and protect us all!

“Address” mentioned in last letter:

Head-quarters, Army Of The Potomac, May 4, 1864.

Soldiers!

Again you are called upon to advance on the enemies of your country. The time and the occasion are deemed opportune by your Commanding General to address you a few words of confidence and caution.

You have been re-organized, strengthened and fully equipped in every respect. You form a part of the several armies of your country, the whole under the direction of an able and distinguished General, who enjoys the confidence of the government, the people and the army. Your movement being in co-operation with others, it is of the utmost importance that no effort should be left unspared to make it successful.

Soldiers! the eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms.

Remember your homes, your wives and children, and bear in mind that the sooner your enemies are overcome, the sooner you will be returned to enjoy the benefits and blessings of peace. Bear with patience the hardships and sacrifices yon will be called upon to endure. Have confidence in your officers and in each other. Keep your ranks on the march and on the battlefield, and let each man earnestly implore God’s blessing and endeavor by his thoughts and actions to render himself worthy of the favor he seeks. With clear consciences and strong arms, actuated by a high sense of duty, fighting to preserve the Government and the institutions handed down to us by our forefathers—if true to ourselves—victory, under God’s blessing, must and will attend our efforts.

Geo. G. Meade,
Official: Major General Commanding

Here’s what Theodore Lyman wrote home on the same day. Lyman wrote detailed and fascinating letters home about the fighting during the Overland Campaign and I will post them here on the appropriate days.

At last the order of march, for to-morrow at 5 a.m.! Of it more when it is over — if I am here to write. Only spring waggons go for our little mess kits and baggage; other things go with the main train. May God bless the undertaking at last and give an end to this war! I have made all preparations for the campaign.

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. 192-4. 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. 84. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Lyman Returns (January 23, 1864)

An officer of the Army of the Potomac lounges outside his winter quarters. No wonder soldiers sought to go home on leave (Library of Congress).

An officer of the Army of the Potomac lounges outside his winter quarters at Brandy Station. No wonder soldiers sought to go home on leave (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade and his aide, Theodore Lyman, both stopped writing letters when they departed for their respective homes while the Army of the Potomac established winter camp, thus depriving us of their observations on current affairs. But Lyman finally returns to the fold with a letter dated January 23. I include the editorial note included in Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox (1923). General Humphreys is Andrew Humphreys, Meade’s chief of staff.

[Toward the end of December, the army being then well settled in winter quarters, Lyman obtained leave of absence, passed Christmas at home, and returned to the army about the middle of January. He found Headquarters almost deserted, General Meade sick in Philadelphia with an attack of inflammation of the lungs, General Humphreys, and his tent-mate Rosencrantz, away on leave of absence, and Barstow sick and weak, with a cold on the lungs.]

Yesterday came General Humphreys, to my great content. His son, with Worth and myself, rode down to bid him welcome. Such a sea of mud round Brandy Station was enough to engulf the most hardy. There is no platform to get on; nothing but the driest spot in the mud. You should have seen the countenances of the unfortunate officers’ wives, as they surveyed, from the height of the platform, this broad expanse of pap! Then the husband would appear, in great excitement, and encourage them to descend, which they presently would do, and dab across to an ambulance, seeming mutely to say, that this wasn’t quite what they expected. The neat General (who left in hard weather) was entirely aghast, and said, in painful accents, “What! must I get down there? Oh, the deuce!” I do believe that officers will next be trying to bring down grand pianos. You needn’t talk of coming here with “small hoops.” I have too much respect for you to allow the shadow of such an idea. As Frank Palfrey sensibly observed: “I think I should consider some time before I brought my wife to a mud-hill.” . . . The whole country, besides the mud, is now ornamented with stumps, dead horses and mules, deserted camps, and thousands upon thousands of crows. The deserted camps (than which nothing more desolate) come from the fact that several divisions have lately changed position. General Meade has been seriously ill at home; but we have a telegraph that he is much better, and I have forwarded him, for his edification, a variety of letters, opened by me at General Williams’s request.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 64-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. 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.

False Alarm? (June 8, 1863)

The cavalry push that Meade mentions in his letter of June 8 will result the next day in the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle on the North American continent. Although technically a victory for the Confederates, it was also a huge black eye for Rebel cavalry commander Jeb Stuart, who was surprised and embarrassed by the Union attack.

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John." (Library of Congress)

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John.” (Library of Congress)

I think for the present the storm has blown over. Both Lee and Hooker appear to be playing at cross-purposes. Hooker took it into his head that Lee was moving and made preparations accordingly. These preparations were construed by Lee into a movement on our part, etc. Sedgwick is still, I understand, across, below Fredericksburg, but is unmolested by the enemy. Pleasanton, with a large force of cavalry, will cross above to-day, and push his way towards Culpeper and Gordonsville, to see what they are doing in that direction.

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. Available via Google Books