An Army in Motion (October 19, 1863)

Brig. Gen. John Buford (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. John Buford (Library of Congress).

There’s no letter from Meade for October 19, but once again Theodore Lyman steps into the breach to provide a detailed account of the Army of the Potomac during what became known as the Bristoe Campaign. The “Rebel regiment of horse” he mentions was none other than Jeb Stuart, who had found himself trapped between two sections of Meade’s army late on October 13. He spent the night hidden in some woods a mere 400 yards from a division of the II Corps, opened up with his horse artillery in the morning, and then escaped.

Lyman also mentions one of the Union’s best cavalrymen, John Buford. When he first encountered Buford, Lyman described him as “a compactly built man of middle height, with a tawny moustache and a little, triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to say sinister. His ancient corduroys are tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots, and his blue blouse is ornamented with holes; from one pocket thereof peeps a huge pipe, while the other is fat with a tobacco pouch. Notwithstanding this get-up he is a very soldierly looking man. He is of a good-natured disposition, but not to be trifled with.”

The attack on Warren’s rear that Lyman mentions is the Battle of Bristoe Station. “Poor Paul Revere” was the grandson of the famed midnight rider. He had been killed at Gettysburg. The 20th Massachusetts was also known as “the Harvard Regiment.”

Lyman also provides a good look at Meade and the general’s gunpowder disposition. Nothing ticked him off more than wagon trains blocking the army’s progress, as Lyman describes here.

The bracketed portion of the text is how it appears in Meade’s Headquarters.

It seems to me I had got to Sunday morning, the 11th, when we began to march back. We started from Headquarters and passed through Brandy Station, forded the Rappahannock, close to the railroad, and took up our camp near the railroad and about two miles from the river. . . . This move, though in the wrong direction, was, without question, a good one, as it bothered the enemy and caused them to hesitate. … In the morning we got off about ten (for the General does not mount till he has heard that the army is properly under way) and rode along the north side of the railroad, past the camp I first came to (H.Q. near Warrenton Junction), and so to Catlett’s Station, where we found the 1st Corps taking their noon rest; also their chief, General Newton, and General (Professor) Eustis, partaking from a big basket. A spy came in also, who gave such information as showed that the Rebels had made less rapid progress than we supposed. Going a mile or two on, we saw a spectacle such as few even of the old officers had ever beheld; namely, 2500 waggons, all parked on a great, open, prairie-like piece of ground, hundreds of acres in extent. I can compare it to nothing but the camp of Attila, where he retreated after the “Hun Schlacht,” which we saw at the Berlin Museum. They were here got together, to be sent off to the right, by Brentsville, to Fairfax Station, under escort of General Buford’s division. How these huge trains are moved over roads not fit for a light buggy, is a mystery known only to General Rufus Ingalls, who treats them as if they were so many perambulators on a smooth sidewalk! We turned off to a house, two miles from Catlett’s, and again pitched our movable houses, on a rocky bit of a field. . . .

At daylight next morning, every corps was in motion, tramping diligently in the direction of the heights of Centreville, via Manassas Junction. We of the Staff had hardly dressed, when there was a great cracking of carbines in the woods, not a mile off, and we discovered that a Rebel regiment of horse had coolly camped there during the night, and were now engaged with our cavalry, who soon drove them away. Pretty soon the sound of cannon, in the direction of Auburn, announced that the Rebels, marching down from Warrenton, had attacked General Warren’s rear. He, however, held them in check easily with one division, while the other two marched along, passing our Headquarters at 9.30 A.m. As they went on, I recognized the Massachusetts 20th, poor Paul Revere’s regiment. And so we jogged, General Meade (who has many a little streak of gunpowder in his disposition) continually bursting out against his great bugbear, the waggons; and sending me, at full gallop, after General Sykes, who was a hundred miles, or so, ahead, to tell him that the rear of his ambulance train was quite unprotected. . . . The 15th was employed in feeling the intentions of the enemy and resting the exhausted men. On the 16th came on a deluge of rain which spoiled our contemplated move next day. On the 18th, yesterday, we got some information of reliable character for the first time, viz: that they had torn up the railroad and were falling back on Warrenton. Before that there was every kind of report: that they were going up the Shenandoah Valley; marching on Washington, and falling back on Richmond; and they keep so covered by cavalry, that it is most difficult to probe them. Thus far in the move they have picked up about as many prisoners as we, say 700; but we have the five guns and two colors, they having none. To-day we all marched out at daylight, and are now hard after them, the General praying for a battle. Our cavalry has been heavily engaged this afternoon, and they may make a stand, or indeed, they may not. I think I was never so well and strong in my life. General Buford came in to-day, cold and tired and wet; “Oh!” said he to me, “do you know what I would do if I were a volunteer aide? I would just run home as fast as I could, and never come back again!” The General takes his hardships good-naturedly.

[The result of the manoeuvres brought the army toward Washington, which caused uneasiness and dissatisfaction at the Capitol. “At Centreville,” writes Lyman, “we had a set-to between Meade and Halleck. Meade had asked, by telegraph, for some advice, and stated that he was not sufficiently assured of the enemy’s position to risk an advance; so conflicting were the reports. Halleck, apparently after dinner, replied in substance, ‘Lee is plainly bullying you. If you can’t find him, I can’t. If you go and fight him, you will probably find him!’ General Meade, much offended, prepared a reply in some such words as these: ‘If you have any orders, I am ready to obey them; but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in guise of opinions as I have recently been favored with. If my course is not satisfactory, I ought to be and I desire to be relieved.’ He had written ‘bunsby opinions,’ and consulted me as to whether it would do; to which I replied that the joke was capital, but not in accordance with the etiquette of a commander-in-chief; so he substituted the other. Poor General Meade! Said he, ‘I used to think how nice it would be to be Commander-inChief; now, at this moment, I would sooner go, with a division, under the heaviest musketry fire, than hold my place!’“ Lee, finding that he could not outflank Meade, fell back, and Halleck apologized.]

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 33-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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From Centreville (October 17, 1863)

Alfred Ward titled this drawing "General Warren fighting at Bristoe Station." Warren and the II Corps gave the Confederates a bloody nose during the battle on October 14, 1863 (Library of Congress).

Alfred Ward titled this drawing “General Warren fighting at Bristoe Station.” Warren and the II Corps gave the Confederates a bloody nose during the battle on October 14, 1863 (Library of Congress).

On October 17 Meade wrote to his wife from Centreville, Virginia. He had pulled the Army of the Potomac back to his position in reaction to Robert E. Lee’s attempt to flank him. Here’s a little of what I wrote about the campaign in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

[General in chief Henry] Halleck wasn’t happy about Meade’s “retrograde” movements or his complaints about his inability to obtain accurate information about the enemy’s whereabouts. “Lee is unquestionably bullying you,” he telegraphed Meade on October 18. “If you cannot ascertain his movements, I certainly cannot. If you pursue and fight him, I think you will find out where he is. I know of no other way.”

“If you have any orders to give me, I am prepared to receive and obey them,” Meade snapped back, “but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in the guise of opinions as you have recently honored me with, particularly as they were not asked for.” When drafting this message Meade had initially used the words “bunsby opinions,” a reference to a character in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son who was noted for his baffling advice. Before sending it he asked Lyman if he thought that was the best choice of words. [Theodore] Lyman didn’t. He advised “that the joke was capital, but not in accordance with the etiquette of a commander-in-chief.” They decided to use “truisms” instead.

During all the movements to and fro, it was Lee’s army that suffered the only serious punishment. The encounter took place near Bristoe Station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. It happened on October 14 when Gen. A. P. Hill’s forces made a rash attack on what they thought was the Army of the Potomac’s rear guard as the Union army moved north. Had Hill taken the time to adequately reconnoiter, he would have discovered that Warren’s II Corps was still nearby.

Lee made a desperate effort to get in my rear, but I succeeded in out-manoeuvring him, and got into position at this place, Centreville, with my back to Washington, and ready for his attack if he had chosen to make it. This is the third day we have been here and he has not come forward; I am trying to find out where he now is. If he is near me I shall attack him, but I fear that, failing in his manoeuvre, he is either going back, or going up into the Valley of the Shenandoah, where I shall have to follow 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), pp. 153-4. Available via Google Books.

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