A Well-Conducted Fizzle (October 28, 1864)

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

In his letter of October 28, Theodore Lyman describes the frustrating experiences of the fighting at Burgess’s Mill and captures the sense of confusion that ruled the battlefield. The fighting had been done by the II, V, and IX Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock, Gouverneur Warren, and Charles Parke, with cavalry commanded by David McMurtrie Gregg. Charles Woolsey, whose escape from capture Lyman describes, served as an aide to Seth Williams, the army’s assistant adjutant-general.

Where do you think I am? Why, right by my dear chimney! All camped just where we were! I called our movement a grand reconnaissance in force; it would be more fair to call it an “attempt,” whose success depended on the enemy not having certain advantages of position. But they were found to have these advantages, and so here we are back again, nobody having fought much but Hancock, who had a most mixed-up and really severe action, on the extreme left, in which the Rebels got rather the worst of it; but Grant ordered Hancock to withdraw during the night, or early in the morning, by which he was compelled to leave some of his wounded in a house on the field. Warren would fain fight it out there, for the name of the thing; but that would have been bad strategy, though I do confess that (albeit not a fire-eater) I would sooner have seen it through the next day, by reinforcing the left. This, however, is a mere matter of sentiment; certainly I don’t set up my wisdom. As the Mine was to be termed an ill-conducted fizzle, so this attempt may be called a well-conducted fizzle. The Rebs are good engineers and had thrown up dirt scientifically, I can tell you. We got a pretty good handful of prisoners; I dare say 800 or so, and lost, including stragglers, I fancy as many, though they say we did not. The killed and wounded about equal; perhaps the enemy lost rather more than we; but the honors of the left lie with the enemy, for we abandoned the field in the night. To-day we marched back scientifically (we are hard to beat on a retreat I can tell you). The 9th and 5th Corps withdrew by successive lines of battle, one behind the other, and alternately marching to the rear, the front line passing through that behind. A very handsome manoeuvre; and the enemy, with relief, said good riddance. I do not feel anywise down in spirits, for we gave blow for blow, and came back when we saw the positions would not admit of the plan proposed. There was no blunder or disaster, but it was soldier-like. The General kept a good temper throughout, so that it was quite pleasant all round.

[In writing some days later, Lyman thus describes the country over which this engagement was fought:] The tract marked “dense wood” on my map beggars description. It is a wood, with a tangled, thick undergrowth that almost stops the passage of a man. The rest of the country is also much wooded, but wherever you see a house, there is a farm of greater or less size. [After a more detailed description of the fighting, he continues:] Mott’s men give way, the Rebels yell and their batteries open a cross-fire, and the enemy the other side of the run make as if to attack the 2d division in front. But the valiant Egan faces his line to the rear and charges the flank of the Rebels rushing from the woods; they are in turn smashed up and run back again, and a grand mixed-up fight takes place, in the midst of which Hampton’s cavalry falls furiously upon Gregg, who falls furiously upon him, and won’t budge an inch. The most singular things happened here; for, as the woods were full of broken bands of both parties, everybody captured everybody else, and was in turn captured! A good many parties of Rebels, carrying our prisoners to the rear, took wrong direction and fell into the open maw of Crawford. Lieutenant Woolsey, General Williams’s aide, in such an affair, showed a valor little to be looked for in so mild a youth. He was going along a wood road and came directly upon twelve Rebel cavalry; all cried “Halt! surrender!” to him, and two fired their carbines at him; Woolsey snapped his pistol at them, when one seized him round the waist; whereat W. hit him a back-handed blow on the bridge of his nose, put in the spurs, and actually broke away from the whole of them! When I asked him why he didn’t give up, he replied in a simple manner: “Why, I thought my mother would be much distressed if I was taken prisoner, so I thought it would perhaps be better not to surrender.” General Williams was in the greatest state of chuckle over his aide’s conduct, and kept asking unwary persons: “Do you know how Mr. Woolsey escaped from guerillas?” and, being answered “No,” would say:”Why, thus!” at the same time giving the unwary one a punch in the stomach, with his elbow. Then Major Roebling rode into a Rebel line of battle and had his orderly killed in his escape; Major Bingham was captured, but scared his guard so by telling him he was within our lines, that the man took to the bushes and left him. Lieutenant Dresser rode into the midst of a Rebel brigade, thinking they were prisoners. “Where is the Provost Guard?” asked D., who luckily had a gray rubber coat on. “Hain’t got none.” “What troops are these?” “Fourth Alabama.” “Oh, all right,” says Dresser, with presence of mind, and rides off, very slow at first, and very fast as soon as out of sight! The best feat was that of Major Mitchell (he always does perform feats). He rode into the woods, saw 200 Rebel infantry who had got lost, and were drawn up in line; came back, got a regiment, went out again and gobbled them all up. . . .

[The letter finishes with a lively description of some curious visitors to Headquarters.]

I had got safely to the Peeble house and was watching the columns as they marched in. I was still watching when suddenly there appeared a new comico-military procession: to wit, a venerable Brigadier, of a diluted visage, followed by two or three officers, and by two beings calculated to astonish the uninitiated. The first was simply gorgeous, not of dubious character, but evidently an officer of one of those theatrical French indigene regiments. He was tightly done up in a black jacket, all over which five hundred yards of fine black braid had gone into spasmodic convulsions; then black trousers with a wide scarlet stripe, morocco knee-boots, and a light blue kepi. To complete his costume, a row of medals stretched from his central buttonhole to the point of his shoulder! The second stranger was utterly incomprehensible. He had on a pair of red, military trousers, a red fez with a blue tassel, and a black dresscoat! In order to mark this simple costume, he had, with admirable taste, suspended a small stiletto from the lower buttonhole of his waistcoat. The kepi was presented as Chef-de-bataillon de Boissac; the fez as Vicomte de Montbarthe. Upon which, to myself within myself said I: strike out the “de” and Boissac is correct; strike out “Vicomte” and substitute “Corporal” and we shall be pretty near Mr. Fez. He was one of the vulgarest of vulgar Frenchmen, and a fool into the bargain. De Boissac was a type, and I fancy the real thing; a regular, chatty, boastful, conceited, bright little Gaul, who had been in China, the Crimea, Italy, Japan, and Africa, and had worn the hair off his little bullet head with serving in various climes. “I was promoted to be Chef-de-bataillon,” said kepi (just as if I had asked anything about it), “for having planted the flag, alone, on the rampart! My comrades cry to me, ‘Descend! descend!’ I reply, ‘Non! j’y suis!’“ “And I,” chimed in fez, “received the cross for repelling, with forty men, four hundred Austrians: wounded twice in the leg, I lay on the field and the Emperor himself pinned the cross on my breast!” I could not help thinking what a pity it was that the wounds had not been higher up, whereby the Emperor would have been saved the expense of a cross, and I the trouble of listening to his stories. These two brave bucks were travelling on their good looks, having got down, the Lord knows how, with no letters to anybody; yet they dined with General Meade, and passed the night in camp; passed another night at General Davies’, and, the last I heard of them, were pledging General Hancock in the national whiskey! … I omitted to mention a third ornament to military life, a gent with eagles on his shoulders, who, on enquiry, turned out to be a brother militia man, and a great credit to the service, as he perilled his life daily, in the state of New York, as General Sanford’s aide (commanding state militia), and now was visiting the army to see that justice was done to deserving non-commissioned officers in the way of promotion. Et puis?—thought T. L. Yes, that was to electioneer the regiments in favor of the Republican candidate for governor, in case of whose election, he, Colonel D , was to be Quartermaster-General! He had not only cheek enough for this, but enough to spare to come and stay all night at Headquarters, and take his meals there, without the breath of an invitation!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 251-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Advertisements

Burgess’s Mill (October 27, 1864)

Armstrong's mills and rebel works on "Hatcher's Run, captured by the Second Corps, October 27, 1864 / sketched by C.H. Chapin," as it appeared in Harpers Weekly (Library of Congress).

“Armstrong’s mills and rebel works on Hatcher’s Run, captured by the Second Corps, October 27, 1864 / sketched by C.H. Chapin,” as it appeared in Harpers Weekly (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade doesn’t note it in his letter of October 27, but this movement of the Army of the Potomac and the fighting at Burgess’s Mill marked the end of active campaigning for 1864. Here’s how I describe the fighting in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Meade had another narrow escape later that month during the Battle of Burgess’s Mill on October 27. Once again Grant had Butler attack the Confederates north of the James, while Meade moved against the Confederate right in an attempt to capture the South Side Railroad. Hancock and the II Corps were to be the tip of the spear, supported by the V and IX Corps under Warren and Parke. Grant and Meade rode out to the front on the damp and dreary morning of October 27 to observe Hancock’s position. The II Corps faced the Confederate right near Hatcher’s Run at a spot called Burgess’s Mill on the Boydton Plank Road. The fighting here was brisk, and a shell exploded near Meade–so close that Horace Porter thought it must have killed him. But again Meade emerged unscathed. Grant also had a close brush with a bursting shell, and then his horse got one leg tangled in a fallen telegraph line. An aide had to carefully free the horse’s leg while Grant remained exposed to enemy fire.

By then it was apparent that the rebel entrenchments extended much farther to the west than anyone had anticipated, and Grant called off the attack. Hancock prepared to withdraw from his exposed position the next morning. The Confederates, as they often did, had different plans. Finding a weakness, William Mahone’s men made a stealthy passage through swamp and forest toward the Union right. Hancock had thought Samuel Crawford’s division was moving up to connect with him there; instead, the rebel forces swung around his flank and attacked. The Federals managed to recover from their surprise and force the Confederates back, but Hancock decided to withdraw his forces that night despite the rain and the darkness.

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

The Battle at Burgess’s Mill finished the active campaigning for 1864–and it marked the end of Winfield Scott Hancock’s time with the Army of the Potomac. He had been summoned back to Washington to raise a corps of veteran soldiers. The Petersburg Campaign had been one disappointment after another for Hancock, who seemingly had reached his own high-water mark at Gettysburg. One of his last actions was to make an official complaint to Meade about the reporting of Edward Crapsey, whom Meade had allowed to return to the army. Meade advised Hancock to write up charges and said he would have Crapsey tried by a commission.

I moved to-day with the greater portion of the Army of the Potomac, intending, if practicable, to make a lodgment on the Southside Railroad. We, however, found the enemy so strongly entrenched, and the character of the country was such, we were not able to accomplish reaching the road. We have had some quite sharp fighting, principally Hancock’s Corps on our side, in which we successfully resisted the attempts of the enemy to check our advance or dislodge us from positions taken. We shall, however, I think, be under the necessity of returning to our entrenched lines. General Grant has been on the field all day, sanctioning everything that was done. At one time both Grant and myself were under a heavy artillery fire, but luckily none of either of our large corteges were touched.

Theodore Lyman has been strangely quiet since his letter from October 17, but he finally breaks his silence today. Here’s his letter home about the day’s events. His pen will remain busy over the next few days.

I won’t write at length till I get a decent chance. I caught the greatest pelting with all sorts of artillery projectiles to-day, you ever saw, but no hurt therefrom. I could not help being amused, despite the uncomfortable situation, by the distinguished “queue” of gentlemen, behind a big oak! There was a civilian friend of Grant’s, and an aide-de-camp of General Barnard (a safe place to hold), and sundry other personages, all trying to giggle and all wishing themselves at City Point! As to yours truly, he wasn’t going to get behind trees, so long as old George G. stood out in front and took it. “Ah!” said Rosey, with the mild commendation of a master to a pupil: “oh! you did remember what I did say. I have look at you, and you did not doge!” It don’t do to dodge with Hancock’s Staff about; they would never forgive you. At length says the General: “This is pretty hot: it will kill some of our horses.” We came out on a big reconnaissance, which may be turned into a move or not, according to results. I rather fancy the enemy’s line is too long to be turned by what troops we have to dispose.

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. 237. 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. 250-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.