White Oak Road (March 31, 1865)

Theodore Lyman describes the fighting along the White Oak Road on March 31. The little battlefield today is another of the Civil War Trust’s success stories and includes some trails that wind through the woods on both sides of the road, with markers among the trees that explain the action. Lee rode out here to supervise the fighting, knowing that the White Oak Road was an important supply line for his army. The rebels smashed into the Federal flank, forcing back the divisions of Romeyn Ayres and Samuel Crawford, but the Union soldiers counterattacked and pushed the rebels back to their earthworks. With the White Oak Road in Union hands, the Confederates off to the west around an intersection called Five Forks were now separated from the rest of the army. Charlie Mills had served with the 56th Massachusetts and on the staffs of several generals. The Abbott to whom Lyman refers is Henry Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts, killed in the Wilderness.

076The rain held up about ten a.m. and the sun once more shone. By this time our lines, running east and west, had been moved due north, till they rested their right on Hatcher’s Run, north of the Crow house, and their left on the Boydton plank, near the entrance of the Quaker road. For this purpose Ayres’s and Crawford’s divisions were pushed forward and Griffin held in reserve. We rode out, towards the left (our Headquarters were near the Vaughan road close to Gravelly Run), stopping some time to consult with Grant. About 10.30 we heard a brief fusillade on the right of our line (a demonstration to divert our attention), followed by heavy musketry towards the White Oak road. As we came to Warren’s old Headquarters, high up on the Quaker road, I could see something had gone wrong. A cavalry officer galloped up and said: “I must have more men to stop these stragglers! the road is full of them.” And indeed there were those infernal drummers, and pack-mules, and not a few armed men, training sulkily to the rear. I required no one to tell me what that meant. The enemy had tried on Griffin, two days since, without success, but this time they had repeated the game on Ayres and Crawford, with a different result. As these two divisions were moving through the thick woods, they were suddenly charged, broken, and driven back towards the Boydton plank road; but some batteries being brought to their aid, the men were rallied behind a branch of Gravelly Run. Griffin took up a rear line, to ensure the position. General Meade at once ordered Miles to go in, to the right of the 5th Corps, and Griffin to advance likewise. The General rode out in person to give Humphreys the necessary orders about Miles’s division, and found him at Mrs. Rainie’s, at the junction of the Quaker road and the plank. There was a wide open in front, and I could see, not far off, the great tree where we got such an awful shelling, at the first Hatcher’s Run fight. Miles was in the open, forming his troops for the attack. Just then the enemy opened a battery on us, with solid shot, several of which came ricocheting round us. I recollect I turned just then and saw Charlie Mills sitting on horseback, near General Humphreys. He nodded and smiled at me. Immediately after, General Meade rode to a rising ground a couple of hundred yards from the house, while General Humphreys went a short distance to the front, in the field. Almost at that instant a round shot passed through Humphreys’ Staff and struck Mills in the side, and he fell dead from his horse. He was indeed an excellent and spirited young man and beloved by us all. . . . When I rode that evening to the hospital, and saw the poor boy lying there on the ground, it made me think of Abbot, a year ago. It is the same thing over and over again. And strange too, this seeing a young man in full flush of robust health, and the next moment nothing that we can make out but the broken machine that the soul once put in motion. Yet this is better than that end in which the faculties, once brilliant, gradually fade, month after month.

About noon, Miles and Griffin went in, with sharp firing, drove the enemy back, and made a lodgment on the White Oak road. Meantime, Sheridan, after all sorts of mud toils, got north of Dinwiddie, where he was attacked by a heavy force of infantry and cavalry and forced back nearly to that place. Not to forgo our advantage on the northwest, we immediately sent the whole 5th Corps by night to Dinwiddie to report to General Sheridan and attack the enemy next morning — a hard march after the two days’-fighting in the storm!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 330-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


The Deeds of Yesterday (March 30, 1865)

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Charles Griffin commanded a division in the V Corps. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman recounts the events of March 29 in more detail.

I take advantage of a rainy morning to draw you a map and start a letter, to explain and recount the deeds of yesterday. . . . The day before, a part of the Army of the James had crossed to us, from Bermuda Hundred, and, under the sure conduct of Rosie, had relieved the 2d Corps in their part of the line. At daylight the 5th Corps moved from our extreme left, crossed the stream at the Perkins house and marched along the stage road. Somewhat later the 2d Corps crossed directly by the Vaughan road and marched down it as far as Gravelly Run, then faced to the right and formed from east to west. It was like to the ruins of Carthage to behold those chimneys, which, since October last, have been our comfort at Headquarters, now left lonely and desolate, deprived of their tents, which seemed to weep, as they were ruthlessly torn down and thrown into waggons. At 7.30 A.m. we all got on the chargers and wended toward the left. The fancy huts of the 2d Corps were all roofless, and their Headquarters were occupied by General Gibbon, of the other side of the river. The 1st division was crossing the Hatcher’s Run bridge, as we got to it, the two others being already over. Near Gravelly Run we came on the sturdy Humphreys, who was gleaming through his spectacles with a fun-ahead sort of expression and presently rode away to get his men “straightened out,” as Pleasonton used to say. Bye-and-bye he came jogging back, to say his Corps was now in position, running from near Hatcher’s Run, on the right, to near Quaker Road Church on the left. Whereupon we rode off to see General Warren, who had arrived at the Junction of the Vaughan and Quaker roads. As soon as we got there, Griffin’s division was sent up the Quaker road, to join the left of Humphreys’, and to be followed by most of the rest of the Corps. … At 1.30 P.m. we went up the Quaker road to see General Griffin, being somewhat delayed by Gravelly Run, a brook too deep for fording and whereof the little bridge had been broken by the Rebs. The country is much more variegated over here. There are some rocks and high ground, and the runs are quite picturesque, with steep banks. One pretty sight was a deserted farmhouse quite surrounded by peach trees, loaded with blossoms. In the distance it seemed covered with pink clouds. After starting Griffin’s line forward, we rode along the line of battle of Miles (who had the left of the 2d Corps), where we found General Humphreys. The right of his line had sent out a party which took possession of Dabney’s Mill, driving out a few Rebels. The whole force from one end to another was ordered to go forward at once, Griffin being, from the nature of the ground, somewhat in advance. All went on without anything more than scattered skirmishing till near five P.m., when Griffin was struck by a part, or the whole, of two Rebel divisions. But G. is a rough man to handle, and, after a sharp fight, drove them back and followed them up, taking a hundred prisoners. Our losses were some 400 altogether in this affair. Of the enemy we buried 126; so that their total loss, including prisoners, must be, say, 800. The Griffin was in great spirits at this affair and vowed he could drive the enemy wherever he found them. Their object in attacking us was to delay our advance, and to get time to man their works. As soon as Warren got up the rest of his Corps, he pushed on the attack, but John had got enough and had fallen back to his parapets, and thus the day ended. Riding back to the Vaughan road, we found General Grant, who had come up with his Staff, and who camped near us last night, 29th. …

[To-day] nothing to note, but that there was a steady and drenching rain the whole livelong day, which reduced these sandy, clayey roads to a pudding or porridge, as the case might be. The chief Quartermaster told me it was the worst day for moving trains he ever had had in all his experience. A train of 600 waggons, with the aid of 1000 engineer troops, was fifty-six hours in going five miles!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 328-30. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Sherman (March 29, 1865)

And so it begins. The V Corps moved out early in the morning of March 29, heading west to stretch Lee’s already thin line to the breaking point. Fighting broke out when the men of Joshua Chamberlain’s 3rd Brigade men encountered Confederates entrenched along the Quaker Road. Among the defenders were the command of Henry Wise—former Virginia governor and Meade’s brother-in-law.. Splashing through the cold waters of Gravelly Run, the two regiments of Chamberlain’s brigade assaulted the enemy defenses. “The attack was impetuous; the musketry hot,” Chamberlain recalled.

Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman writes home about an encounter with William T. Sherman, who had come north to meet with Grant.

To-day we have made a movement to our left, and I am to-night in new headquarters, having abandoned the pleasant quarters you were in.

The enemy attacked Griffin’s Division about 5 p.m., but were handsomely repulsed. I regret, however, to announce the death of Dr. McEwen’s son, who fell in this affair. I have telegraphed Jim Biddle to announce this event to the doctor, for whom I feel deeply.

Theodore Lyman takes a break from the campaign to write home and includes an account from the day before, when he had seen a herd of generals at City Point.

William T. Sherman (Library of Congress).

William T. Sherman (Library of Congress).

This has been a day of manoeuvre and not much fighting. To-morrow may see something more serious. It seems like old times to be once more writing on my knee and sitting in a tent without a board floor. I prefer it; there is novelty in seeing a new bit of country. Yesterday we had an interesting trip to City Point. General Meade said to me, to my great surprise: “I am going down to-morrow to see Sherman!” Which, as I supposed Sherman to be at that moment somewhere near Goldsboro’, seemed a rather preposterous idea! At an early hour we got to Grant’s Headquarters and found le monde not yet up. Soon, however, they began to peer out of their log houses and General Meade marched in to visit the great Mogul. As I was looking in that direction, there suddenly issued from the house a tall figure who jerked himself forward, pulled suddenly up, and regarded the landscape with an inquisitive and very wrinkled expression. This was the redoubtable Sherman himself. He is a very remarkable-looking man, such as could not be grown out of America—the concentrated quintessence of Yankeedom. He is tall, spare, and sinewy, with a very long neck, and a big head at the end of the same. The said big head is a most unusual combination. I mean that, when a man is spare, with a high forehead, he usually has a contracted back to his head; but Sherman has a swelling “fighting” back to his head, and all his features express determination, particularly the mouth, which is wide and straight, with lips that shut tightly together. He is a very homely man, with a regular nest of wrinkles in his face, which play and twist as he eagerly talks on each subject; but his expression is pleasant and kindly. But he believes in hard war. I heard him say: “Columbia! — pretty much all burned; and burned good!” There too was “little Phil Sheridan,” scarce five feet high, with his sun-browned face and sailor air. I saw Sherman, Grant, Meade, and Sheridan, all together. A thing to speak of in after years!

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. 268. 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. 326-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Wonderful Escape (October 3, 1864)

Joseph Bartlett (Library of Congress).

Joseph Bartlett (Library of Congress).

George Meade tells his wife about his narrow escape from an artillery shell. Theodore Lyman mentioned this incident in his letter from yesterday. The generals who shared Meade’s brush with death are Andrew Humphreys, Charles Griffin, and Joseph Bartlett. I would like to know what happened to the shell. Perhaps it’s in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

I have not been able to write you for several days, as I have been so absorbed in our recent movements, which I believe are now successful. These consisted in a movement by Butler on the north side of the James, in the hope of surprising the enemy, and possibly getting into Richmond. The enemy was surprised, and part of his third line of defenses taken from him and is still held by us. As Lee was obliged to detach heavily to meet Butler’s movement, it was thought probable I might, by extending to the left, get into Petersburg. I did extend my lines some two and a half miles, had quite a brisk affair with the enemy, but did not succeed in taking Petersburg. Of course, extending both flanks in this way, we had to weaken our centre, and this is the danger of this kind of movement; but Lee appears so determined to be prudent and cautious. He confines himself strictly to the defensive, and lets slip the chances for a coup we offer him.

On the second day, whilst I was on horseback on the field, talking to Generals Griffin and Bartlett, surrounded by my staff and escort, a shell fell in our midst, grazing Humphreys’s horse, grazing and striking my left leg, just below the knee, passing between Griffin and Bartlett, and embedding itself in the ground in the centre of a group of officers, covering them all with earth, but without exploding or injuring a soul. A more wonderful escape I never saw. At first I thought my leg was gone, as I felt and heard the blow plainly, but it only rubbed the leather of my riding-boot, without even bruising the skin. Afterwards Colonel Lyman had the shell dug up, and is going to preserve it. How would you like to have me back minus a leg and on crutches?

I have seen your brother Willie several times. He seems in good spirits and quite pleased at being assigned to the Army of the Potomac instead of Butler’s army. I had no place on my staff for your friend Captain Wister, but General Humphreys will take him for the present, as two of his aides have just left him, their times being out, though they intend trying to get new commissions to rejoin him. George is quite well. He was in the crowd when the shell dropped among us.

The two officers Lyman describes in this letter—Lt. Col. Charles G. Loring and Maj. Philip M. Lydig—had both been aides to General Burnside but had been sent on leave after the crater debacle. Here Lyman offers some more insights into Meade’s style of command, especially the way he liked to keep his officers on edge. Poor James C. Biddle often served as the butt of the staff’s humor.

Yesterday afternoon arrived Lieutenant-Colonel Loring and Major L_____ . The former looks in better health and immediately set to work on the duties of his office, as Inspector-General, under the easy rule of General Parke, who succeeds the rule of Burnside the Fat. L_____, always fancy, comes in much store clothes, a new shell jacket, double-breasted, and a pair of cerulean riding tights with a broad gold band, into which, according to report, he must be assisted by two strong men. Also his sabre newly burnished, and the names of the battles engraved on it, with other new and elegant touches. He was the young gentleman, you know, of whom the Reb paper said it was unworthy an honest officer to clasp the hand dipped in the gore of their brethren, even though cased in a glove of delicate kid! This was a quiet day, wherein we lay still and made ourselves comfortable. The “comfortable” meant, with many of the officers, lying abed till the classic hour of Richard and Robin; for the General, these last days, has been getting up and riding out at fitful and uncertain hours. I think, when he feels anxious and responsible himself, that he likes to keep others a little on the stretch also. So he would give no orders overnight, but suddenly hop up in the morning and begin to call for breakfast, orderlies, aides, horses, etc. I am sharp, and, at the first sound he makes, I am up and speedily dressed; whereas the others get caught and have to leave suddenly. Biddle is the funniest. There he was, trotting along, the other morning, talking away, like a spinster who had lost her lap dog. “Well, I do think it is too bad! The General never tells anyone when he is going out, and here I am with no breakfast—no breakfast at all!” And here B. opened his fingers and disclosed one boiled egg! To think of a Major on the General Staff riding after his General, with the reins in one hand and a boiled egg in the other!

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. 231-2. 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. 239-40. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Peebles’ Farm (September 30, 1864)

Theodore Lyman provides a good description of the battle known as Peeble’s Farm. It was part of Grant’s strategy to force Lee to stretch his lines until they broke. While the Army of the James was attacking Lee’s left north of the James River, Meade’s Army of the Potomac hit the right. Fighting will continue on October 1.

If the General will ride out at 8.30 A.m., and get back at 10.30 P.m., and fight a good part of the day, how am I to feel wakeful and lively to write to you? I am very well and getting stronger; was in part of the battle beyond the railroad; but only had a few bullets and one solitary cannonball in my neighborhood. This going from Beverly to battle is quite a sharp contrast. Our advantage was signal and important if we have good luck in holding on, which I think we shall. There may be fighting to-morrow, but I incline to think not.

Globe Tavern, a landmark near the Weldon Railroad. The information for this image at the Library of Congress identifies the tavern as having been Meade's headquarters at Malvern Hill, which is not true. Meade was sent home wounded before that battle (Library of Congress).

Globe Tavern, a landmark near the Weldon Railroad. The information for this image at the Library of Congress identifies the tavern as having been Meade’s headquarters at Malvern Hill, which is not true. Meade was sent home wounded before that battle (Library of Congress).

On October 4, Lyman wrote out a more complete account of the events of September 30. I include it here for the sake of chronological consistency. Gouverneur Warren commands the V Corps. John Parke had replaced Ambrose Burnside at the head of the IX Corps. Samuel Crawford and Charles Griffin command V Corps divisions. Griffin is the profane general whom Grant wanted Meade to arrest for insubordination at the Wilderness; Meade had assured him that Griffin’s intemperate speech was only “his way.”

General John G. Parke (Library of Congress).

General John G. Parke (Library of Congress).

At 8.30 in the morning, the General, with the combative [Andrew] Humphreys and all the Staff, rode towards the left, stopping of course at the irresistible Hancock’s. At noon we got to Globe Tavern, which is some six miles from our old Headquarters. [Samuel] Crawford’s division still held the works on the Weldon road, while Warren, with two divisions, followed by [John] Parke, with two divisions of the 9th Corps, had moved out to the west, and already we could hear the Rebel artillery shelling our advance. . . . . At the Poplar Grove Church the Rebels began to throw shells, with a good deal of accuracy, into the road; for they had the range, though they could not see for the woods. Near here was a swampy run, where our skirmishers drove those of the enemy across, and the division then got over and kept ahead. General Meade, meantime, staid at the Globe Tavern, waiting for the movement to develop. He sent out an aide or two, to tell Warren he was there and to bring news of the progress. Warren sent in word that; having got across the run, he would soon see what could be done. At 12.45 we could hear pretty brisk musketry, which continued a short time and then ceased. Some time after, an aide came in from General Warren, with news that Griffin had captured a strong line and a redoubt, in handsome style. Not long after, the General rode to the front, where we arrived at 2.45. Most of the road was through a pleasant wood, chiefly oak. Passing the “church” (a little, old, wooden building that might seat forty persons), we turned to the right and came out on a large, open farm. On a roll of land, just ahead, was the Peeble house (pretty well riddled with bullets), and hence you looked over more open land ending in a fringe of wood. Perhaps 400 yards in front was the captured line and the redoubt: the former very strongly and handsomely made; the latter not quite finished inside, wanting still the platforms for the guns; otherwise it was done, with a ditch outside and an abattis. So far as I can learn, the occupying force was about equal to the attacking; but they did not make as good a fight as usual. The two assaulting brigades advanced very handsomely and rushed over the works. The enemy began at once to draw off their cannon, but the horses of one piece were shot, and it fell into our hands. The loss was very small in the assault, not over 100, which shows how much safer it is to run boldly on: the enemy get excited and fire high. I went into the redoubt. A Rebel artillery-man lay dead on the parapet, killed so instantly, by a shot through the head, that the expression of his face was unchanged. In front they were burying two or three of our men and a corporal was marking their names on a headboard, copying from letters found in their pockets. Parke was now ordered to form on the left of Warren ([Romeyn] Ayres being on the right of Griffin), and it was understood that the whole line would then advance from its present position, near the Pegram house, and see if it were practicable to carry the second line, which lay perhaps three fourths of a mile beyond. As I understand it, General Meade’s orders were not properly carried out; for Griffin did not form, so as to make an extension of Parke’s line. At 5.30 we were sitting in the Peeble house, waiting for the development of the attack, when we heard very heavy musketry beyond the narrow belt of the woods that separated us from the Pegram farm; there was was cheering, too, and then more musketry, and naturally we supposed that Parke was assaulting. But presently there came from the woods a considerable number of stragglers, making their way to the rear; then came even a piece of a regiment, with its colors, and this halted inside the captured works. The musketry now drew plainly nearer, and things began to look ticklish. I watched anxiously a brigade of the 5th Corps that stood massed in the edge of the wood, beyond the redoubt. Suddenly it filed to the left, at a double-quick, the brigade colors trotting gaily at the head, then formed line and stood still. In another moment the men leveled their muskets, fired a heavy volley and charged into the wood. The musketry receded again; a battery went forward and added itself to the general crash, which was kept up till darkness had well set in; while we sat and watched and listened, in comparative safety, just beside the captured redoubt. [Robert] Potter had been taken in the flank by the Rebels charging, and had been driven back in confusion. Griffin had advanced and restored the retired line. And who rides hither so placidly? It is General Humphreys: he has stolen off and, bless his old soul, has been having a real nice time, right in the line of battle! “A pretty little fight,” said he gingerly, “a pretty little fight. He! he! he!” Poor Potter! it wasn’t his fault. Our extreme advance was driven back, but the day was a great success, with important strategic bearing.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 231 and 234-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Wounded Hand (June 18, 1864)

V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren and staff, photographed by Mathew Brady outside Petersburg on June 21. Warren had escaped Brady's attentions at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren and staff, photographed by Mathew Brady outside Petersburg on June 21. Warren had escaped Brady’s attentions at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

More from Theodore Lyman, in which he describes the Army of the Potomac’s ineffectual attacks before Petersburg on June 18 and provides some examples of General Meade in his “great peppery” mode. At this point, after more than a month of hard marching and even harder fighting, the army was almost a spent weapon. As Lyman writes, “You cannot strike a full blow with a wounded hand.” On June 18 Grant decided that headlong assaults against Petersburg’s defenses would result only in useless bloodshed. He prepared to lay siege. “I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained,” he wrote in a message to Meade. “Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”

The Major Roebling whom Lyman mentions is Washington Augustus Roebling. After the war his father, John, designed the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington took over the project after the death of his father. Roebling married Gouverneur Warren’s sister, Emily, in January 1865.

Following Lyman’s account I include a portion of Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant in which he describes the attacks of June 18 and Meade’s actions.

A general attack was planned for an early hour, so Headquarters, which had lain down late, had scarce a chance to turn over once before it was routed out again, just at daylight. The General was in a tearing humor. (I don’t think anybody felt any too pleasant.) “Lyman, you are behind time!” I had the satisfaction of stepping out, all dressed, and saying shortly: “No, sir, I am ready.” Presently: “Colonel Lyman, take two or three orderlies and go to General Warren and report to me by telegraph promptly and frequently.” I did not admire this duty, as there was to be an assault; but everybody must do his share, and I started immediately. The General started with me. “Do you know the way to General Hancock’s?” “Yes, sir!” In a few moments: “This is not the short cut to Hancock’s.” “I did not say I knew the short cut, General.” “Well, but I wanted the short cut! What’s the use of the road; of course I knew the road!” Whereupon I suggested I would gallop ahead, not to lose time; which I did and left my chief to attack Biddle, who was late and was coming up very red in the face!

It was half-past four when I got to Headquarters of the 5th Corps, which consisted of a couple of tents, pitched by a solitary tree. Warren, with all his clothes on, was catching a little sleep on a camp bed. Burnside* was there also, sitting under the tree, and there was a telegraph operator with his little portable instrument. Our lines were advancing, and there was an inexplicable silence along the skirmish line. … At 6.50 came an order for all the line to advance and to attack the enemy if found. … A little later, after seven, Major Roebling came in and reported he had discovered the enemy’s new line of works, that ran along a high ground beyond the railroad, and that they were all there, with batteries in position. Soon after General Warren mounted, and we all rode to the front, over a wide oat-field past the works captured last evening, from which we were afterwards driven. In these there was one part where we seemed to have had an enfilade fire, for the Rebel dead lay there, one on top of the other. . . . We stopped under a hollow oak, just at a point of woods and at the juncture of two country roads. Some movement of our troops attracted the enemy, who immediately sent two or three round shot to enfilade the road, and which of course came about our ears in a most uncomfortable way. Ill luck would have it that the fire of two or three batteries just crossed at that point. So not a gun could open but that we got a reminder. To which may be added that stray bullets from Crawford’s front came zip! tzizl to add their small voices. We had it intermittently all day long from eight o’clock till dark. New batteries soon came up, under charge of Captain Phillips (Appleton’s commander). “I want you to go in there with your guns,” said General [Charles] Griffin, “but you will be under fire there.” “Well,” said Phillips, “I have been in those places before”; and rode on, followed by his pieces. Later, his First Lieutenant, Blake, was carried by me, dead, shot with a minie ball through the forehead. . . .

After much difficulty in advancing the different divisions, we at last drove the enemy from the railroad cut and a gully beyond, and got in, to about 200 yards of their works. At 3.30 in the afternoon the first assault took place. We rode out on an open field to watch it. In front was a broad expanse, quite flat; then the railroad cut with a fringe of bushes, and then a gradual rise crowned by the Rebel rifle-pits and batteries, which were distant perhaps half a mile. Close to us, on each side, were our batteries, firing as fast as they could, and the rebels were sending back shot, shell, and shrapnel as hard as possible. Half a mile is no good with minie rifles; and, as soon as we attacked, the balls came tolerably numerous, cutting up little puffs of sand on the dry field. I sat up straight on my horse, comme les avires, but I can’t say it was pleasant, though it is a help to have others cool and brave. It was as I expected—forty-five days of constant marching, assaulting and trenching are a poor preparation for a rush! The men went in, but not with spirit; received by a withering fire, they sullenly fell back a few paces to a slight crest and lay down, as much as to say, “We can’t assault but we won’t run.” The slopes covered with dead and wounded bore testimony that they were willing to give proof of courage even in circumstances that they deemed desperate. Another attack at six resulted no better, save that the lines were at all points pressed close in on those of the enemy. Birney, during the day, made a grand attack with no better success, on the right. I returned after dark, feeling pretty sad. General Meade was much disappointed, but took it cheerfully as he does every matter which affects him personally. The whole thing resulted just as I expected. You cannot strike a full blow with a wounded hand.

*”Everyone was near the breaking-point. He, Burnside, complained of the heavy artillery detailed to his corps. ‘They are worthless,’ said he; ‘they didn’t enlist to fight and it is unreasonable to expect it from them. In the attack last night I couldn’t find thirty of them!’ He afterwards said of Meade (to one of his Staff): ‘He is irascible; but he is a magnanimous man.’ Presently up comes Griffin, in one of his peculiar blusters! and all about a commissary who, he maintains, didn’t follow orders. Griffin stormed and swore. ‘Now! now!’said Warren (who can be very judicious when he chooses), ‘let us all try to keep our tempers more, and not swear so much. I know I give way myself; but it is unworthy.’” —Lyman’s Journal.

Here’s Horace Porter’s account. This is from Campaigning with Grant, pages 208-10. Like Lyman, Porter comments on Meade’s notorious temper but notes how it served a purpose in combat.

At daylight on the 18th Meade’s troops advanced to the assault which had been ordered, but made the discovery that the enemy’s line of the day before had been abandoned. By the time new formations could be made Lee’s army had arrived in large force, great activity had been displayed in strengthening the fortifications, and the difficulties of the attacking party had been greatly increased. The Second Corps was temporarily commanded by D. B. Birney, as Hancock’s Gettysburg wound had broken out afresh the day before, entirely disabling him. Gallant assaults were repeatedly made by Burnside, Warren, and Birney; and while they did not succeed in the object of carrying the enemy’s main line of fortifications, positions were gained closer to his works, and these were held and strongly intrenched. Both of the opposing lines on this part of the ground were now strengthened, and remained substantially the same in position from that time until the capture of Petersburg.

General Grant realized the nature of the ground and the circumstances that prevented the troops from accomplishing more than had been done, and he complimented Meade upon the promptness and vigor with which he had handled his army on this day of active operations. Indeed, Meade had shown brilliant qualities as commander of a large army, and under the general directions given him had made all the dispositions and issued all the detailed orders. Grant felt it necessary to remain at City Point in order to be in communication with both Meade and Butler, as Lee’s troops were that day moving rapidly south past Butler’s front.

My duties kept me on Meade’s front a large part of the day. He showed himself the personification of earnest, vigorous action in rousing his subordinate commanders to superior exertions. Even his fits of anger and his resort to intemperate language stood him at times in good stead in spurring on every one upon that active field. He sent ringing despatches to all points of the line, and paced up and down upon the field in his nervous, restless manner, as he watched the progress of the operations and made running comments on the actions of his subordinates. His aquiline nose and piercing eyes gave him something of the eagle’s look, and added to the interest of his personality. He had much to try him upon this occasion, and if he was severe in his reprimands and showed faults of temper, he certainly displayed no faults as a commander. When the battle was over no one was more ready to make amends for the instances in which he felt that he might have done injustice to his subordinates. He said to them: “Sorry to hear you cannot carry the works. Get the best line you can and be prepared to hold it. I suppose you cannot make any more attacks, and I feel satisfied all has been done that can be done.” Lee himself did not arrive at Petersburg until noon that day.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 167-70. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Surrender (May 25, 1864)

Mrs. Meade (and her mother) do not give up regarding the donation of a house. The General waves the white flag.

Yours of the 21st reached me this morning, also one from your mother to the same effect, that it was too late to refuse the house. Setting aside the injustice to me of placing the affair in such condition that I have no option in the matter, I have written a letter to Mr. Gerhard, which I enclose, and which you can hand to him at such time as may be deemed suitable. My contributing friends must know there was nothing personal in my action, because I do not know the name of a single contributor. I acted on the general principle I have always held, that a public man makes a mistake when he allows his generous friends to reward him with gifts. I wrote Mr. Gerhard it was not a case of necessity, as, by proper economy, we could and should live on our means; that if anything should happen to me, then I would be grateful for the smallest assistance given to you and the children; but until that time, I thought it better for me to preserve my independence, although no one could be more sensible to and grateful for the generous kindness of my friends than I was. My opinions are still unchanged; but if the affair is settled, and it is too late to decline, I have no disposition to be ungenerous, and certainly no design of doing anything that would be offensive to the feelings of those who have been so kind to me. You can therefore take the house, and express to all you know my deep obligation and sincere gratitude.

The enemy, though he has fallen back, still confronts us, and is being reinforced.

Theodore Lyman, in the meantime, pays a visit to Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of the V Corps.

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Burnside’s Corps, hitherto a sort of fifth wheel, was today incorporated in the A. of P., and so put under Meade. . . . The enemy, with consummate skill, had run their line like a V, with the point on the river, so that our army would be cut in two, if we attacked, and either wing subject to defeat; while the enemy, all the time, covered Hanover Junction. At 7.30, I was sent to General Warren, to stay during the day, as long as anything of interest was going on, and send orderlies back to report. I found the General among the pines, about halfway up his line. In front a heavy skirmish was going on, we trying to push on our skirmish line and they resisting obstinately. Presently we rode down to where [Charles] Griffin was, near the spot where the common road crosses the Gordonsville rail. Griffin always goes sitting in unpleasant places. There was a sharpshooter or two who, though we were hid by the small trees, would occasionally send a bullet through, as much as to say: “I know you are there — I’ll hit you presently.” Appleton was shot through the arm near here, while placing a battery in position. Then we rode to the extreme right, near to the picket reserve of the 22d Massachusetts. Warren, who is always very kind to me, told all the others to stay behind, but let me come. We rode under the crests, and along woods a little, and were not shot at; and went as far as a log barn, where we stopped carefully on the off side, and talked to the picket officer. When we left, we cantered gracefully and came off all right. Then to General Wright at E. Anderson’s house; a nice safe place, and the family still there; likewise iced water, very pleasant this hot weather. After which, once more for a few minutes to Griffin, passing on the road one of his aides, on a stretcher, exceeding pale, for he had just been hit in the artery of the arm and lost a deal of blood before it could be stopped. Also there came a cheery soldier, shot through the leg, who said: “Never mind, I hit five or six of them first.” Finally we rode the whole length of Warren’s and Crittenden’s lines, seeing Weld on the way. . . .

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. 198-9. 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.127-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Few Lines (May 15, 1864)

On the night of May 15, 1864, both George Meade and Theodore Lyman sat down to put pen to paper and write letters home. Meade’s is short. As he often is, the general is concerned with how others think of his work. He has reason to feel good about it. The letter from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton read in part, “This department congratulates you and your heroic Army and returns its cordial thanks for their gallant achievements during the last seven days, and hopes that the valor and skill thus far manifested will be crowned with the fruits of ultimate and decisive victory.” The dispatch from Grant is quoted here.

One thing Meade does not mention is how close he came to being captured on the previous day, May 14. Here’s what I wrote in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Artist Alfred Waud made a sketch of Meade's near capture by the Confederates on May 14 (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud made a sketch of Meade’s near capture by the Confederates on May 14 (Library of Congress).

On May 14 Meade almost fell into enemy hands when he rode forward to observe the Union position on Myer’s Hill . . . . Upton’s brigade was holding this forward position when Meade and Horatio Wright rode forward to examine the ground. The generals were conferring inside the house when the rattle of muskets and the thud of bullets striking the building delivered unwelcome news: the Confederates were attacking. Meade had to move fast. He jumped on his horse and, guided by Capt. Nathaniel Michler, a topographical engineer with some knowledge of the terrain, hastily made his way back toward the Ni River. A Confederate major galloped over to intercept him and even grabbed Meade’s bridle before his headquarters guard intervened and captured the rebel. The only thing Meade lost, other than his dignity, was his glasses.

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s account of the fighting is much more detailed, the start of a fascinating and detailed account of the Overland Campaign. His letter of May 15 covers only the first day of fighting in the Wilderness. In it he mentions how General Charles Griffin rode up to headquarters and complained that Horatio Wright and the VI Corps had not protected the right of Griffin’s V Corps division. A footnote in the collection of Lyman’s letters includes a further description from Lyman’s journal. He wrote, “2.45. Griffin comes in, followed by his mustering officer, Geo. Barnard. He is stern and angry. Says in a loud voice that he drove back the enemy, Ewell, ¾ of a mile, but got no support on the flanks, and had to retreat—the regulars much cut up. Implies censure on Wright, and apparently also on his corps commander, Warren. Wadsworth also driven back. Rawlins got very angry, considered the language mutinous, and wished him put in arrest. Grant seemed of the same mind and asked Meade: ‘Who is this General Gregg? You ought to arrest him!’ Meade said: ‘It’s Griffin, not Gregg; and it’s only his way of talking.’” 

I have often read a little coda to that incident and I tracked it down to The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere, a book my publisher, Stackpole Books (then the Stackpole Company), issued way back in 1960. In Steere’s account, Grant stood up and began fastening the buttons of his blouse and as Meade spoke, “seeking as it were to placate an angry child with soothing words,” he helped Grant with his buttons. “Grant fastened the middle button without further comment,” Steere continued. “Resuming his seat, he lit a fresh cigar and lapsed into meditation.”

I always found this odd and out of character. I couldn’t imagine George Meade helping Grant button his shirt, picturesque as that image may be. Surely Lyman would have mentioned something so unusual. Then I read Steere’s footnote. “The author admits to a slight embellishment of Lyman’s account,” he wrote. “Lyman abruptly concludes with Meade’s remark: ‘And it’s only his way of talking.’ While a reasonable presumption, there is no documentary evidence that Grant lit a fresh cigar.” Or that Meade helped him with his clothing. While I’m glad Steere pointed out his fabrication, I wonder why he made that stuff up in the first place. It may be okay for historical fiction, but it’s not good history.

Spottsylvania Court House Battle-field, May 15, 9 p.m.

A lull in the roar of battle enables me to write you a few lines. It has been raining hard, both yesterday and to-day, putting the roads in such condition as to compel both armies to keep still—a rest that the men on both sides were glad to have. I do not see the papers, and therefore cannot tell how true their accounts are, and I have not time to give you any details. I think we have gained decided advantages over the enemy; nevertheless, he confronts us still, and, owing to the strong position he occupies, and the works he is all the time throwing up, the task of overcoming him is a very difficult one, taxing all our energies. I send you a letter received from the Secretary of War, for safe keeping, as it shows I am not utterly ignored by the Department. General Grant showed me a despatch he had written to the War Department, speaking in complimentary terms of my services, and asking I be made a major general in the regular army. I told him I was obliged to him for his good opinion, but that I asked and expected nothing from the Government, and that I did not myself attach any importance to being in the regular army, so long as I held an equal rank in the volunteer service. What the result will be I cannot tell.

Here is Lyman’s account of the first day’s fight in the Wilderness:

Well, to be more or less under fire, for six days out of seven, is not very good for the nerves, or very pleasant. But now that there is a quiet day, I thought I would make a beginning of describing to you the sad, bloody work we have been at. I will write enough to make a letter and so go on in future letters, only writing what can now be of no importance to the enemy. The morning of Wednesday the 4th of May (or rather the night, for we were up by starlight) was clear and warm. By daylight we had our breakfast, and all was in a hurry with breaking up our winter camp. To think of it to-night makes it seem a half-year ago; but it is only eleven days. About 5.30 A.m. we turned our backs on what had been our little village for six months.

Already the whole army had been some hours in motion. The 5th Corps, followed by the 6th, was to cross at Germanna Ford, and march towards the Orange pike. The 2d Corps to march on Chancellorsville, crossing at Ely’s Ford; each corps was preceded by a division of cavalry, to picket the roads and scour the country. The main wagon train rested on the north side at Richardsville. So you see the first steps were much like the Mine Run campaign. I have drawn a little map to help you in understanding; not very exact in proportions, but still enough so.

Lyman mapThe roads were hard and excellent, full of waggons and black with troops; as we got past Stevensburg and went through a more wooded country, there were the little green leaves just opening, and purple violets, in great plenty, by the wayside. As the sun got fairly up, it grew much warmer, as one could see by the extra blankets and overcoats that our men threw away, whenever they halted. By 8 a.m. we drew near the Ford, and halted at a familiar spot, where we had our camp on the Mine Run campaign. How bitterly cold it was then! And now there was green grass all about, and wild flowers. Griffin’s division was already over, and the others were following steadily on. At 9.30 we went over ourselves, and, for a long time, I sat on the high bank, some seventy feet above the river, watching the steady stream of men and cannon and trains pouring over the pontoons. It was towards six in the evening before the last were across; and then one bridge was left for Burnside to cross by; for he was marching in all haste, from Rappahannock station. Meantime the head of the 5th Corps had reached the Orange pike, and that of the 2d, Chancellorsville. The Headquarters pitched their now reduced tents on the bank of the river that night, and I went down and took a slight bath in the stream, by way of celebrating our advance. General Grant came up betimes in the morning and had his tents near ours. He has several very sensible officers on his Staff, and several very foolish ones, who talked and laughed flippantly about Lee and his army. But they have changed their note now, and you hear no more of their facetiousness. The more experienced officers were sober, like men who knew what work was ahead. Our first grief was a ludicrous one. Our cook, a small Gaul, had mysteriously disappeared, and all we had left to cook for us was a waiter lad, who however rose with the occasion and was very conspicuous for activity. It turned out after, that the cook was arrested as a suspicious person, despite his violent protestations. . . .

We were off betimes the next morning (Thursday, May 5th), and about 7 o’clock got to the junction of the plank and pike, the troops meantime marching past us, as we stood waiting news from the front. Presently Griffin (5th Corps), who was two miles out on the pike (going west), reported the enemy in his front; while the cavalry, thrown out on the plank road, towards Parker’s Store, sent to say that the Rebel infantry were marching down in force, driving them in. General Wright’s division of the 6th Corps was turned off the Germanna plank to the right and ordered to march down the cross-road you see on the map, leading to the pike; and he and Griffin were directed to press the enemy and try to make a junction by their wings. At 10.40 A.m. General Getty’s division (6th Corps) was sent to hold the Orange plank road. It marched down the Germanna plank and took the little cross-road where the dotted line is, and got to the Orange plank just in time to stop the advance of A. P. Hill’s Corps. Meantime the rest of the 5th Corps was ordered into position on the left of, or in support of, General Griffin, about parallel to the most westerly dotted line, crossing the pike. Word was sent to 2d Corps, near Chancellorsville, that the Rebels were moving on us, and ordering Hancock to at once bring his men across to the Brock road and so take position on the left in support of General Getty. At noon, I was sent to General Getty, to tell him the disposition of the various troops and to direct him to feel along to his right, and find roads to communicate with the left of the 5th Corps, where, you will see, there was a considerable gap. Our Headquarters were on a piney knoll near the join of the Germanna plank and the pike. I rode down the dotted cross-road and came immediately on General Eustis, just putting his brigade into the woods, on Getty’s right. I stopped and directed him to throw out well to the right and to try to find Crawford, or a road to him.

Here it is proper to say something of the nature of this country, whereof I have already spoken somewhat during Mine Run times. A very large part of this region, extending east and west along the plank and pike, and the south, nearly to Spotsylvania, is called “The Wilderness,” a most appropriate term—a land of an exhausted, sandy soil, supporting a more or less dense growth of pine or of oak. There are some cleared spaces, especially near Germanna plank, where our Headquarters are marked. The very worst of it is parallel with Orange plank and upper part of the Brock road. Here it is mostly a low, continuous, thick growth of small saplings, fifteen to thirty feet high and seldom larger than one’s arm. The half-grown leaves added to the natural obscurity, and there were many places where a line of troops could with difficulty be seen at fifty yards. This was the terrain on which we were called to manoeuvre a great army. I found General Getty at the plank road (a spot I shall remember for some years) and gave him instructions. He told me the whole of Hill’s Corps was in his front and the skirmishers only 300 yards from us. For all I could see they might have been in Florida, but the occasional wounded men who limped by, and the sorry spectacle of two or three dead, wrapped in their blankets, showed that some fighting had already taken place. I got back and reported a little before one o’clock, and had scarcely got there when B-r-r-r-r wrong went the musketry, in front of Griffin and of Wright, which for the next hour and a half was continuous—not by volley, for that is impossible in such woods; but a continuous crackle, now swelling and now abating, and interspersed with occasional cannon. Very soon the ambulances began to go forward for their mournful freight. A little before two, I was sent with an order to a cavalry regiment, close by. The pike was a sad spectacle indeed; it was really obstructed with trains of ambulances and with the wounded on foot; all had the same question, over and over again; “How far to the 5th Corps’ hospital?” As I returned, I saw, coming towards me, a mounted officer—his face was covered with blood and he was kept in the saddle only by an officer who rode beside him and his servant who walked on the other side. “Hullo, Lyman!” he cried, in a wild way that showed he was wandering; “here I am; hurt a little; not much; I am going to lie down a few minutes, and then I am going back again! Oh, you ought to have seen how we drove ’em—I had the first line!” It was my classmate, Colonel Hayes, of the 18th Massachusetts; as fearless a soldier as ever went into action. There we were, three of us together, for the officer who supported him was Dr. Dalton. Three classmates together, down in the Virginia Wilderness, and a great fight going on in front. I was afraid Hayes was mortally hurt, but I am told since, he will recover. I trust so.

Alexander Hays was killed in the Wilderness (Library of Congress).

Alexander Hays was killed in the Wilderness (Library of Congress).

Gradually the musketry died away; and, at a quarter before three, General Griffin rode up —his face was stern and flushed, as it well might be. He said he had attacked and driven Ewell’s troops three quarters of a mile, but that Wright had made no join on his right and Wadsworth had been forced back on his left, so that with both flanks exposed he had been obliged to fall back to his former position. Meantime we got word that the head of Hancock’s column had moved up the Brock road and made a junction with Getty. At 3.15 I was sent with an order to General Getty to attack at once, and to explain to him that Hancock would join also. He is a cool man, is Getty, quite a wonder; as I saw then and after. “Go to General Eustis and General Wheaton,” he said to his aides, “and tell them to prepare to advance at once.” And so we were getting into it! And everybody had been ordered up, including Burnside, who had crossed that very morning at Germanna Ford. General Grant had his station with us (or we with him); there he took his seat on the grass, and smoked his briarwood pipe, looking sleepy and stern and indifferent. His face, however, may wear a most pleasing smile, and I believe he is a thoroughly amiable man. That he believes in his star and takes a bright view of things is evident. At 4.15 P.m. General Meade ordered me to take some orderlies, go to General Hancock (whose musketry we could now hear on the left) and send him back reports, staying there till dark. Delightful! At the crossing of the dotted cross-road with the plank sat Hancock, on his fine horse—the preux chevalier of this campaign—a glorious soldier, indeed! The musketry was crashing in the woods in our front, and stray balls—too many to be pleasant—were coming about. It’s all very well for novels, but I don’t like such places and go there only when ordered. “Report to General Meade,” said Hancock, “that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only a part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Up rides an officer: “Sir! General Getty is hard pressed and nearly out of ammunition!” “Tell him to hold on and General Gibbon will be up to help him.” Another officer: “General Mott’s division has broken, sir, and is coming back.” “Tell him to stop them, sir!!” roared Hancock in a voice of a trumpet. As he spoke, a crowd of troops came from the woods and fell back into the Brock road. Hancock dashed among them. “Halt here! halt here! Form behind this rifle-pit. Major Mitchell, go to Gibbon and tell him to come up on the double-quick!” It was a welcome sight to see Carroll’s brigade coming along that Brock road, he riding at their head as calm as a May morning. “Left face—prime—forward,” and the line disappeared in the woods to waken the musketry with double violence. Carroll was brought back wounded. Up came Hays’s brigade, disappeared in the woods, and, in a few minutes, General Hays was carried past me, covered with blood, shot through the head.

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. 195. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s correspondence is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 85-92. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.