The Great Soldier of the Army of the Potomac (October 10, 1864)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

Andrew Humphreys has been serving as Gen. Meade’s chief of staff since shortly after Gettysburg. Here’s a quote from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg: “Humphreys was from Philadelphia. An engineer like Meade, he had graduated from West Point four years before him. He had served on McClellan’s staff and later commanded a division at Antietam and during the bloody battle for Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. As a division commander in the III Corps at Gettysburg he had held the right of Sickles’s advanced position. ‘He was a small, bow-legged man, with chopped-off, iron gray moustache; and when he lifted his army hat you saw a rather low forehead, and a shock of iron-gray hair,’ a staff member recalled. ‘His blue-gray dauntless eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel.’ Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who would get to know Humphreys during the Virginia Campaign of 1864, considered him to be ‘the great soldier of the Army of the Potomac.’ ‘He was a very interesting figure,” Dana wrote. ‘He used to ride about in a black felt hat, the brim of which was turned down all around, making him look like a Quaker. He was very pleasant to deal with, unless you were fighting against him, and then he was not so pleasant. He was one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.’ Although Humphreys desired a corps command, he consented to become Meade’s chief of staff, Dana believed, out of pure patriotism. Later in the war he would get the corps command he wanted so badly.” In his letter of October 10, Theodore Lyman writes a bit about Humphreys.

General Humphreys deserted us to-night, for a brief leave—no, of course I mean he went early this morning, having taken his breakfast before us. The good General is fond of sitting awhile and talking after meals. He discourses sometimes on the art military and said it was “a godlike occupation”! “Ah,” he said, “war is a very bad thing in the sequel, but before and during a battle it is a fine thing!” (Note by T.L. — l don’t see it.) The Commander has been death on riding round lately on his jog-trotter, to inspect and mouse over works. He is mighty smart at such things, and if a line is run fifty feet out of position, he sees it like a flash. It is very creditable to our engineers, that, though a part of our works were laid out after dark, no corrections have been made in the general position. I had the honor to follow George about, as he rode round the country. In the camps, one sees the modes of punishment adopted. One ingenious Colonel had erected a horizontal bar, about a dozen feet from the ground, and supported at each end by a post. On this elevated perch he causes malefactors to sit all the day long, to their great discomfort and repentance. In the 9th Corps, they had put some barrels on the breastworks, and, on these high pedestals, made the men stand. They had run away in the fight and had great placards of “Coward” on them. A pretty severe punishment if they had any shame left. This is a grubby little letter, for my tent has been invaded by various silly, chattering, idle officers.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 243. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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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.

Eyes like a Rattlesnake’s (May 24, 1864)

Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan described this image as "Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank (Library of Congress).

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan described this image as “Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank.” Grant and Meade booth crossed here  (Library of Congress).

Meade writes on May 24, 1864, from Mt. Carmel Church, where he and Grant established headquarters while deciding what to do with Lee, who had established a strong position across the North Anna River. He does not mention that on this day Grant issued orders placing Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps under Meade’s command. Until now Burnside had answered directly to Grant. Grant’s Special Orders, No 25, read, “To secure the greatest attainable unanimity in co-operative movements, and greater efficiency in the administration of the army, the Ninth Army Corps, Maj. Gen. A.E. Burnside commanding, is assigned to the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. G.G. Meade commanding, and will report accordingly.”

We have maneuvered the enemy away from their strong position on the Po, near Spottsylvania Court House, and now have compelled them to fall back from the North Anna River, which they tried to hold. Yesterday Warren and Hancock both had engagements with them, and were successful. We undoubtedly have the morale over them, and will eventually, I think, compel them to go into Richmond; after that, nous verrons.

I am writing this letter in the House of God, used for general headquarters. What a scene and commentary on the times!

Another one of O'Sullivan's images from May 24. Of this one he said, "Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge" (Library of Congress).

Another one of O’Sullivan’s images from May 24. Of this one he said, “Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge” (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s letter fills in much of the detail, including much about General Meade’s gunpowder disposition and an incident at Mt. Carmel Church concerning a message from General Sherman. Lyman also noted this incident in his journal, where he said Meade’s “grey eyes grew like a rattlesnake’s.” Meade had reason for anger at Sherman’s effrontery–as David W. Lowe points out in his excellent book of Lyman’s journals, “If one compares casualties along, Sherman’s men were having an easy time of it.”

We started quite early—a little before six—to go towards the North Anna; and halted at Mt. Carmel Church, where this road from Moncure’s strikes the “telegraph road” (so called, because the telegraph from Fredericksburg ran along it). If you want a horrible hole for a halt, just pick out a Virginia church, at a Virginia cross-roads, after the bulk of an army has passed, on a hot, dusty Virginia day! There was something rather funny, too. For in the broad aisle they had laid across some boards and made a table, round which sat Meade, Grant, General Williams, etc., writing on little slips of paper. It looked precisely like a town-hall, where people are coming to vote, only the people had unaccountably put on very dusty uniforms. General Meade is of a perverse nature; when he gets in a disagreeable place, he is apt to stay there. I think he likes to have officers who are prone to comfort feel decidedly uncomfortable. That reminds me of an anecdote. The day before yesterday, when we had our bloody attack along the whole line, General Meade had ordered his whole Staff ready at four in the morning. Now, such people as the Judge-Advocate-General are Staff officers and at Headquarters, but not aides. Ours is an old army officer, with many characteristics of a part of his class, that is, rather lazy and quite self-sufficient. He came to the front with us and staid some time; but, as dinner-time approached, late in the afternoon, he thought it would be bright to go to the camp and arrange a snug dinner. Pretty soon the suspicious and not very kindly gray eyes of the chief began to roll about curiously. “General Williams! did you give orders that all my Staff should accompany me?” “Yes, sir; certainly, sir.” (Seth is rather scared at his superior, as are many more.) “Where is Major Platt?” “I think he must have gone to camp for a moment, sir.” “Send at once for him!” In no great time the Major arrived at a gallop. “Major Platt,” said the General slowly and solemnly, “I wish you to ride along our whole lines (possibly about eight miles) and ascertain as accurately as possible the amount of our casualties during the day!” Somewhere about nine o’clock that night Platt returned with his statement, having missed a nice, six o’clock dinner, and happily been missed by stray balls and shells. . . .

I am glad to hear that you take once more an interest in the furniture coverings; an excellent sign! Keep a-going; that’s the way! That is the way I do: heart in my mouth for half a day; then come home and eat a good supper; there is no use in “borrowing trouble”—you do learn that here. You know I am not sanguine in my military hopes; but I have the strongest hopes of ultimate success, taking into consideration the uncertainty of war. You must go by the general features; and these are: 1st: Watchfulness, caution, and military conduct of our generals. 2d: The defensive attitude of the enemy; an attitude which Lee never assumes unless driven to it. 3d: The obstinacy and general reliability of our troops. 4th: The fact, that we have worked them, from one position to another, to within nine miles of Richmond across a highly defensible country. 5th: That their counter-attacks on us have been few and comparatively weak, and of no great moment, showing that they have no large force with a “free foot”; but have to put all their men on their lines. Nevertheless, I look on the future as still long and full of the common hazards of war. If the Rebels are forced to abandon Richmond, I believe the effect would be very heavy on them. This I judge not only on general grounds but also from the stupendous efforts, the general concentration, they are using to defend it. Do not, for a moment, look for the “annihilation,” the “hiving,” or the “total rout” of Lee. Such things exist only in the New York Herald.

To return to our Mt. Carmel. About seven came a negro who reported the whole Rebel army retreating on Richmond—a vague expression which left them room to halt anywhere this side of it. Soon after “Tick” Wadsworth—son of the late General—came in from General Sheridan and reported the cavalry corps at Dunkirk. This was welcome news to us. Sheridan had been sent on a raid towards Richmond and had destroyed railroads and depots of stores to a considerable extent. Also recaptured some hundreds of our prisoners on their way to the capital. He was delayed on his return by the rise of the Pamunkey, but got pontoons from Fortress Monroe and crossed it. On his way down, Stuart’s cavalry tried to stop him, but he pitched into them, took two guns and a number of prisoners, and killed Stuart, driving off his command completely. It is curious that the southern cavalry cannot now cope with ours. We have beaten them every time this campaign; whereas their infantry are a full match for us. Sheridan was a great help on his return, to watch our flanks and threaten the enemy’s rear. . . . About ten there came in a very entertaining nigger, who had been servant of Colonel Baldwin, Rebel Chief of Ordnance. He gave a funny description of Lee’s Headquarters. From him and from other sources I judge that the reports of Lee’s humble mode of living are true. He has only corn bread and bacon for the “chief of his diet,” and this sets an example to all his men. There can be no doubt that Lee is a man of very high character (which you may reconcile as you may with his treacherous abandonment of the flag). He carries on war in a merciful and civilized way, his correspondence is dignified and courteous, and his despatches are commonly (not always) frank and not exaggerated. General Meade got awfully mad, while waiting at the church. There came a cipher despatch from Sherman, in the West. Mr. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, hastened—with considerable want of tact—to read it to the General. Sherman therein told Grant that the Army of the West, having fought, could now afford to manoeuvre, and that, if his (Grant’s) inspiration could make the Army of the Potomac do its share, success would crown our efforts. The eyes of Major-General George Gordon Meade stood out about one inch as he said, in a voice like cutting an iron bar with a handsaw: “Sir! I consider that despatch an insult to the army I command and to me personally. The Army of the Potomac does not require General Grant’s inspiration or anybody’s else inspiration to make it fight!” He did not get over it all day, and, at dinner, spoke of the western army as “an armed rabble.” General Grant, who is one of the most candid men I ever saw, has repeatedly said that this fighting throws in the shade everything he ever saw, and that he looked for no such resistance. Colonel Comstock and others, who have fought with both armies, say distinctly that our troops are fifty per cent better than the western, and that the good Rebel soldiers have always been kept near Richmond except when Longstreet went temporarily to the West. At dusk we rode down to cross the North Anna, midst a fearful thunderstorm; some of the lightning fell so near that it really hissed, which was disagreeable, as there was an ammunition train close by. The North Anna is a pretty stream, running between high banks, so steep that they form almost a ravine, and, for the most part, heavily wooded with oak and tulip trees, very luxuriant. It is perhaps 125 feet wide and runs with a tolerably swift and deep stream, in most places over one’s head. The approaches are by steep roads cut down the banks, and how our waggons and artillery got across, I don’t know! Indeed I never do know how the trains get up, seeing that you are not over well off, sometimes, on a horse. . . .

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. 198. 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 122-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Humphreys (March 5, 1864)

Gen. Andrew Humphreys, in a photo taken during the 1862 Peninsula campaign (Library of Congress).

Gen. Andrew Humphreys, in a photo taken during the 1862 Peninsula campaign (Library of Congress).

While George Meade is in Washington, dealing with some unpleasant matters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere (more about that in tomorrow’s post), Theodore Lyman writes a letter from the Army of the Potomac’s winter quarters. One thing he notes is the failure of the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid, and he touches on the political winds blowing the army’s way from Washington (including the movement up there to replace Meade with Joe Hooker).

He also writes about Andrew Humphreys, who became Meade’s chief of staff shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. Here’s what I wrote about him in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg: “Humphreys was from Philadelphia. An engineer like Meade, he had graduated from West Point four years before him. He had served on McClellan’s staff and later commanded a division at Antietam and during the bloody battle for Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. As a division commander in the III Corps at Gettysburg he had held the right of Sickles’s advanced position. ‘He was a small, bow-legged man, with chopped-off, iron gray moustache; and when he lifted his army hat you saw a rather low forehead, and a shock of iron-gray hair,’ a staff member recalled. ‘His blue-gray dauntless eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel.’ Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who would get to know Humphreys during the Virginia Campaign of 1864, considered him to be ‘the great soldier of the Army of the Potomac.’ ‘He was a very interesting figure,’ Dana wrote. ‘He used to ride about in a black felt hat, the brim of which was turned down all around, making him look like a Quaker. He was very pleasant to deal with, unless you were fighting against him, and then he was not so pleasant. He was one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.’ Although Humphreys desired a corps command, he consented to become Meade’s chief of staff, Dana believed, out of pure patriotism.”

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

The “Florida Reverse” Lyman mentions was the Battle of Olustree, a defeat for Union general Truman Seymour. Meade served with but did not like Seymour. In letters to his wife he had complained about the way Seymour used to suck up to John Reynolds, their Pennsylvania reserves division commander. Back in August 1862 Meade had written, “I am sad to say that Reynolds appears to be greatly under Seymour’s influence and I fear my position in the Reserves will not be as agreeable as it has been.” He reports a conversation in which Reynolds told Seymour that he, Seymour, would probably not be with the division long because he would certainly be made a major general. At that Reynolds caught Meade’s eye and hastily added, “Meade too for that matter.” No doubt Meade experienced a bit of schadenfreude over Seymour’s reverse.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I found myself late and galloped four miles in about twenty minutes, only to find I had heated the mare for nothing, insomuch that the venerable Humphreys had put off dinner to six p.m. That young man of fifty has gone in his ambulance to see, I presume, some ladies, and I will here and now wager that we don’t dine till eight p.m. Sich is his nature. Really he should be dismissed the service for conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. Au reste, there never was a nicer old gentleman, and so boyish and peppery that I continually want to laugh in his face. I am in fear he won’t be confirmed as major-general. There are some persons, the very dregs of politicians, whom he tried by court-martial, when under him, that now do all they can against his promotion. I find that politicians, like [Charles] Sumner and company, have a way of saying of officers who have had their very clothes shot off their back and have everywhere displayed the utmost skill and courage, that “their hearts are not in the cause,” or “they are not fully with us”; meaning that these officers do not happen to fully agree with every political dogma the party may choose to enunciate. I am of the opinion that the question is: Does such and such an officer fight bravely and with skill? Anyone who has been under fire will be ready to acknowledge that it is a pretty good place to test principles; and if a man goes into the thick of it time and again, I do not ask any better proof of his earnestness. However, it would appear that Washington people often think the best test of faithfulness is to stay away from the fighting and make a good many speeches to people who entirely agree with your sentiments. To my certain knowledge, great exertions are now making to put a man at the head of this army who has made one of the most bloody failures of the War, and who is utterly incompetent to the post. Why is he pushed? Because he professes to be an ultra-Republican, ah, voila! . . .

Pa Meade is at Washington but I hope to have him back to-morrow. Behold my prophecy in regard to Killcavalry’s raid fulfilled. I have heard many persons very indignant with him. They said he went to the President and pressed his plan; told Pleasonton he would not come back alive if he didn’t succeed; that he is a frothy braggart, without brains and not over-stocked with desire to fall on the field; and that he gets all his reputation by newspapers and political influence. These charges are not new and I fancy Kill has rather dished himself. It is painful to think of those poor prisoners hearing the sound of his guns and hoping a rescue was at hand! Now all that cavalry must be carried back in steamers, like a parcel of old women going to market! Bah! Pour moi, I say nothing, as I never criticize superior officers; but I have mine own opinions, quite strong. However, these raids and the like do not much affect the War one way or the other. Nor does such a thing as the Florida reverse. Things have narrowed down now to two or three great centres, and upon large operations there depends the result. It is a favorite remark of General Meade, that “there is but one way to put down this rebellion, namely, to destroy the military power of the Rebels.” Their great armies must be overwhelmed, and there will end their hopes. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 78-80. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.