Recalled (January 10, 1865)

One of the wharves at City Point, in a photograph taken during January 1865 (Library of Congress).

One of the wharves at City Point, in a photograph taken sometime in January 1865 (Library of Congress).

General Meade has returned to camp. He left the army for Philadelphia on December 30 and stayed there until he received a message recalling him on January. The visit home was tinged with sadness because of the failing health of his oldest son, John Sergeant. The return trip was not uneventful, as Meade describes in his letter of January 10. He also mentions the dismissal of Benjamin Butler. Grant had long longed to rid himself of the cockeyed political general, and Butler finally gave him the opportunity the general-in-chief sought by bungling an attack on Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Grant sent him packing.

I reached City Point at 6 p.m. to-day. I found the cause of my recall to be as I expected. General Grant had received information of Lee’s sending off two divisions of troops, and was, and is, under the impression that it is the commencement of the evacuation of Richmond. Should this prove to be the case, or should Lee materially weaken his force, we will take the initiative, and for this contingency I was required. I explained to General Grant Sergeant’s condition and my earnest desire to remain with him. He expressed regret he had not known all I told him, and promised to let me return to Philadelphia as soon as this affair was settled. As I do not believe Lee is going to give us any chance, I am in hopes it will not be long before I return. I telegraphed you this morning from Fortress Monroe, because we had last night an accident on the bay, which I feared might be exaggerated in the papers, and you alarmed. The night was dark and foggy, and we were run into by a schooner. Fortunately the damage was confined to the upper works, and although four lives were lost, and several bruised, we received no material injury, and our boat continued on. For a time, however, before the extent of the injury was known, there was much alarm and excitement on board our boat, which was unusually crowded, owing to the ice on the Potomac.

The great subject of discussion in the army is the recent relieving of General Butler. He was relieved by the President, on Grant’s request. The particular cause had not been made public.

It is hardly necessary I should tell you how much I have suffered since I left you. All I can do is earnestly to pray God to have mercy on dear Sergeant and yourself, and to give you strength to bear up under the affliction you are visited with. My heart is too full to write more.

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. 255. Available via Google Books.

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Sabotage! (August 9, 1864)

Alfred Waud depicted the explosion at City Point. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted the explosion at City Point. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In their letters of August 9, both Meade and Theodore Lyman mention the explosion at the docks of City Point, not far from Grant’s headquarters. The war had completely transformed this formerly sleepy town at the confluence of the Appomattox and the James Rivers, about seven miles from Petersburg. Swarms of laborers began building docks, wharves, and warehouses, plus a hospital that could handle 6,000 patients. On August 9, 1864, a Confederate agent snuck an explosive aboard one of the ammunition barges at City Point. The resulting explosion killed 43 and injured 126 but did no major damage to the Union war effort.

It’s possible that Stanton’s opinion of Meade dated back to a letter Grant had written from Spotsylvania in May. “General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations,” he had written to Stanton. “He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with.”

I am delighted to see your letter is written in such good spirits, and am truly rejoiced to hear I have so many and such warm friends. The attempt to implicate me in the recent fiasco was truly ridiculous; still, the public must in time be influenced by these repeated and constant attacks, however untrue and unjustifiable they may be. Have you ever thought that since the first week after Gettysburg, now more than a year, I have never been alluded to in public journals except to abuse and villify me? And why this is I have never been able to imagine.

I had a letter to-night from Cortlandt Parker, who has recently seen George Harding. He says Harding told him he had recently seen Stanton, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Grant, and that Stanton observed that Grant had a most exalted opinion of me, and told him, Stanton, that when he first came East he thought Sherman was the first soldier in the country, but now he believed I was his equal, if not superior. I send you this for what it is worth. I certainly think Grant has a queer way of showing his appreciation. Grant has not until recently seen Stanton, since we crossed the Rapidan, so could not have told him this; but Dana may have conveyed this information.

There was an awful explosion to-day at City Point of a powder and ammunition vessel. It is said sixty were killed and one hundred and fifty wounded.

I have been engaged for two days giving my testimony before the court of inquiry that is investigating the Petersburg disaster. It will take them a long time to get through, and I fancy active operations will interrupt their proceedings till such time that the witnesses will be scattered. Grant has not yet acted on my application to have Burnside relieved. The weather continues awfully hot, but the army is in good health.

Aftermath of the explosion (Library of Congress).

Aftermath of the explosion (Library of Congress).

Lyman’s entry is, a usual, much more descriptive and adds a fine note about Ulysses S. Grant.

In the forenoon, as we were sitting in camp, we heard a noise, like a quick, distant clap of thunder, but sharper. We concluded it must be an explosion, from the sound, and in a few minutes came a telegraph from Grant, at City Point, saying that an ordnance barge had blown up, with considerable loss of life. I think the number of killed will not exceed thirty-five; and, of the wounded, perhaps eighty; at first they thought there were many more. The greater part of the injured were negroes employed as wharf-laborers. To return to the explosion: Rosy, Worth, Cavada, and Cadwalader were at Grant’s Headquarters, and they said it perfectly rained shells, shot, bullets, pieces of timber, and saddles (of these latter there was a barge load near by). Two dragoons were killed, close to them, and a twelve-pounder solid shot went smash into a mess-chest in the tent. The only man who, at the first shock, ran towards the scene of terror was Lieutenant-General Grant, which shows his kind of character very well. We dined very pleasantly with Dalton. You should see his town of tents, with regular streets—accommodation easy for 8000 patients. Everything as neat as a pin. Steam-engine to pump water from the river; every patient of the 4000 on a cot; the best of food for all; and the most entire cleanliness. When Dalton heard the explosion, he jumped on his feet, and, true to his instincts, cried out: “Harness the ambulances!”

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. 220. 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. 209-10. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Very Bad Spirits (July 29, 1864)

Ulysses S. Grant and his staff at City Point (Library of Congress).

Ulysses S. Grant and his staff at City Point (Library of Congress).

Intrigue and rumors continue to plague the Army of the Potomac. The Franklin that Grant wanted to command the new department is William Franklin, whose career had never really recovered after his maneuverings against Ambrose Burnside following Fredericksburg. The other refugees from the Army Meade mentions are Oliver O. Howard and Joe Hooker.

The upcoming attack that Meade mentions is the debacle we remember as the Battle of the Crater.

Your letters of the 24th and 27th arrived this evening. They are written in very bad spirits, and I am tempted to scold you for indulging in such. I want you to recover your original elasticity of spirits which characterized you in the early days of our married life, when you were always sure something was going to turn up. You must now try to look on the bright side and hope for the best. I think we have a great deal to be thankful for, and things might be much worse.

I had a visit yesterday from our old friend the Rev. Mr. Neill. He was very complimentary to me, and promised to call and see you on his return to Philadelphia. He was here as agent of the Christian Commission.

Yesterday I went to see General Grant at City Point. He said he wanted an officer to go to Washington to take command of the Department of West Virginia, Susquehanna, Baltimore and Washington. That not wishing to take any one from the field, he had suggested Franklin, but they had declined to have Franklin. He then suggested my name, to which he had received no reply, but a message from the President asking him to meet him at Fortress Monroe. I made no reply to Grant, except to say I was ready to obey any order that might be given me. So far as having an independent command, which the Army of the Potomac is not, I would like this change very well; but in other respects, to have to manage Couch, Hunter, Wallace and Augur, and to be managed by the President, Secretary and Halleck, will be a pretty trying position that no man in his senses could desire. I am quite indifferent how it turns out. I think the President will urge the appointment of Halleck; but Grant will not agree to this if he can help it.

Grant told me Sherman has assigned Howard to McPherson’s command. This had disgusted Joe Hooker, who had asked to be and had been relieved. To-morrow we make an attack on Petersburg. I am not sanguine of success, but hope for the best.

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. 216-17 Available via Google Books.

A Real, Live Slave (July 5, 1864)

A group of ex-slaves freed by the advance of the Union armies. Such freed slaves became known as "contrabands of war" (Library of Congress).

A group of ex-slaves freed by the advance of the Union army. Such freed slaves became known as “contrabands of war” (Library of Congress).

As I have pointed out before, Theodore Lyman’s views on race and slavery were very much those of a nineteenth-century man. He was, it seems, gaining a grudging respect for the black fighting men but he appears little concerned about how the Civil War was ending the institution of slavery. For Lyman, African-Americans were strange and exotic creatures, the objects of amused and detached observation. A case in point is his letter of July 5, in which he encounters an elderly ex-slave. Lyman finds her entertaining without seeming to consider that being liberated from a long lifetime of working in bondage to a man who owned you might be cause for a good deal of chuckling. (“The two Frenchies” are the French observers who are visiting the Army of the Potomac.)

City Point was at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers. Ulysses S. Grant had established his headquarters here, on a bluff high above the Appomattox. The arrival of the Union Army’s transformed the once quiet spot into a scene of great bustling activity.

A photograph of City Point, taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

A photograph of City Point, taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

In his journal entry for July 5, Lyman mentions hearing a messenger enter Meade’s tent with a dispatch that night. “Very well, tell Wright to send a good division,” he heard Meade say. “I supposed it will be Ricketts.” Then Meade went back to sleep. The occasion was an emergency to the north. While still at Cold Harbor, Lee had dispatched Jubal Early, his “bad old man,” on a mission to redirect the Union’s attention toward its own backyard. Early had marched north down the Shenandoah Valley, brushing aside Union resistance, and entered Maryland, where he battled outnumbered Federal defenders outside Frederick near the Monocacy River. He continued on until he reached Washington’s outer defenses. This was precisely the scenario that Lincoln had long feared—that the Army of the Potomac would move so far south that it would leave the nation’s capital wide open to a Confederate attack.

Another view of City Point, also taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Another view of City Point, also taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

I forgot to tell you that yesterday there appeared a waggon of the Sanitary Commission bearing a gift for the comfort of Headquarters. With it came the agent, Mr. Johnson, a dried-up Philadelphian, of a serious countenance. He brought some ice, mutton, canned fruit, etc., for the behoof of the suffering hossifers, and was received with sweet smiles. This morning we made up a quartette, the two Frenchies, Rosencrantz and myself, and made a journey to City Point, distant some twelve or thirteen miles. It was not unpleasant, though the sun was extremely hot; for we took back roads in the woods and escaped a good share of dust. Before getting to the City Point road, near Bailey’s, we stopped at one Epps’s house. Epps himself with family had been called on sudden business to Petersburg, about the time Smith moved up; but some of his nigs remained. Among others a venerable “Aunty,” of whom I asked her age. “Dunno,” replied the Venerable, “but I know I’se mighty old: got double gran’ children.” She then began to chuckle much, and said: “Massa allers made me work, ‘cause he was ugly; but since you uns is come, I don’t have to do nuphun. Oh! I’se powerful glad you uns is come. I didn’t know thar was so many folks in the whole world as I seen round here.” I told the old lady to use up everything she could find, and left her chuckling continuously and plainly impressed with the idea that I was a very pleasant gentleman. Guzman, meantime, looked on with irrepressible astonishment, having never before seen a real, live slave. At City Point I delivered some despatches at General Grant’s, and after went down and saw the Sanitary boats. They have three of them, large ones, moored permanently side by side, and full of all sorts of things, and especially a host of boxes, no two alike. The upper deck, to render it attractive, was ornamented with a pile of two or three hundred pairs of crutches. For myself I got some iced lemonade on board, and retired much refreshed and highly patriotic. One of the great sights down there is the huge army hospital, a whole plain, white with large tents. These are capable of receiving 7000 patients and have at present about 3000. All are under charge of my excellent classmate, Dr. Ned Dalton.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 182-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.