“A Judicious Helping Hand” (November 6, 1864)

African-American soldiers make coffee in the Petersburg entrenchments (Library of Congress).

African-American soldiers make coffee in the Petersburg entrenchments (Library of Congress).

In his letter today, Theodore Lyman makes some interesting remarks about Meade’s attitude towards African-American soldiers (although Lyman, nineteenth-century white man that he is, does not use that term). Lyman’s older sister had married into the Shaw family, which included “the best Bob,” a.k.a. Robert Gould Shaw. “The best Bob” had died while leading the first black regiment raised in the northern states, the 54th Massachusetts, in South Carolina.

Brevet promotions are honorary raises in rank. As an unpaid volunteer, Lyman was not eligible. “Cool Arbor” is what Lyman, somewhat perversely, insisted on calling Cold Harbor, “because it is so hideously inappropriate.”

I was remarking in my last, a week ago to-day, that General Meade spoke of being obliged to write his report. Yes! as you say, it is a pity he can’t have some signal success. The Shaws need not be against him on the negro-soldier question, for if he has a bias, it is towards and not against them, and indeed it would go to the heart of the best Bob to see the punctilious way in which he returns their salutes. I can say with certainty that there is not a General in this army from whom the nigs might expect a judicious helping hand more than from Meade. As to his being slow, it may be so; but I can’t see that Grant, on whom rests this entire campaign, is any faster; yet he is a man of unquestioned military talent. If you knew, as I do, the number of men killed and wounded in this campaign from the Potomac Army alone, you would think that a strong opposition from the enemy had as much as anything to do with the want of crowning success thus far. To show what sort of work we have been through: at the assault of June 3d, at Cool Arbor, we lost, in four or five hours, 6000 men, in killed and wounded only. That is a specimen. Even in our move to the left, the other day, which some would call a reconnaissance, and others heavy skirmishing, we had a list of killed and wounded of not less than 1200. In fact, we cannot stir without losing more men than would make a big battle in the West, and the Rebels, if we have any chance at them, lose as many.

Last Sunday, which I was just speaking of, was marked by the arrival of one Alden, a rather dull Captain of the Adjutant-General’s Department, who was however a welcome bird to the army, as he brought a large number of brevets for many deserving officers. … To my surprise there did appear, or reappear, Major Duane, who has taken to visiting me as usual. He is better, but not well. To celebrate his arrival, and to retaliate for our rush into the Mine, the Rebs made a dash on our picket line, gobbled up some fifty stupids, who (being recruits) thought it was the relief coming round, and were then driven back; upon which, of course, every man fired off his musket a few times, to show how alert he was, the artillery threw all the shells whose fuses happened to be ready cut, and then all went to sleep again.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 256-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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To the James (June 13, 1864)

A Timothy O'Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A footnote in the book of Theodore Lyman’s letters points out that this one and some others were actually written after the fact. Nonetheless, they give an immediate and lively account of the move to the James River, a great triumph by Grant, Meade and the Army of the Potomac over Robert E. Lee. This letter includes one of my favorite anecdotes from Lyman, when he encounters General Francis Barlow reclining in a tree and eating cherries. (I feel compelled to note that Lyman’s discussion of African Americans may grate on twenty-first century sensitivities, as can often be the case with communications from the nineteenth.)

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Last night, at dark, the whole army was in motion for “Charles City” on the James River (there is no “city” there, but I believe a house and a barn). . . . This morning we were on our way by 5.30 and, making a cut across the woods, we soon came on Barlow’s division of the 2d Corps going rapidly toward the river, close to which we found Hancock, sitting on the grass and waiting for his Corps. At this point the Chickahominy is nothing of a stream, but, as it is bordered by considerable flats, it suddenly widens, during heavy floods, to perhaps half a mile, the water being just deep enough to stop waggons. This was a great trouble McClellan had: we have met with no such obstacle. This river is characteristic; a good drawing of this very scene at Long’s Bridge might pass as the incarnation of malaria and swamp fever. Fancy a wide ditch, partly choked with rotten logs, and full of brown, tepid, sickly-looking water, whose slow current would scarcely carry a straw along. From the banks of dark mould rises a black and luxuriant vegetation: cypresses of immense size, willow oaks, and swamp magnolias, remind you that you are within the limits of a sub-tropical climate, and so does the unhealthy and peculiar smell of decaying leaves and stagnant water. A great contrast to this landscape, so suggestive of silence and loneliness, was the rumbling and clatter of Barlow’s batteries, as they passed over the resounding pontoon bridge. We clattered over too, as soon as the last of the regiments had passed (which was about 10.30), designing to follow in rear of this division. . . . We kept on, on the flank of the column, admiring its excellent marching, a result partly due to the good spirits of the men, partly to the terror in which stragglers stand of Barlow. His provost guard is a study. They follow the column, with their bayonets fixed, and drive up the loiterers, with small ceremony. Of course their tempers do not improve with heat and hard marching. There was one thin, hard-featured fellow who was a perfect scourge. “Blank you!—you—” (here insert any profane and extremely abusive expression, varied to suit the peculiar case) “get up, will you? By blank, I’ll kill you if you don’t go on, double-quick!” And he looked so much like carrying out his threat that the hitherto utterly prostrate party would skip like the young lamb. Occasionally you would see a fellow awaiting the charge with an air of calm superiority, and, when the guard approached, pull out the aegis of a “surgeon’s pass.” The column marched so fast that I was sent forward to tell General Barlow to go more gently. I found that eccentric officer divested of his coat and seated in a cherry tree. “By Jove!” said a voice from the branches, “I knew I should not be here long before Meade’s Staff would be up. How do you do, Theodore, won’t you come up and take a few cherries?” However, I could not stay, and so kept on till we came, somewhat suddenly, on well-cultivated fields with good crops of wheat, oats, and clover. I was speculating on the reason of this when somebody said we were within a mile of James River! and just after, General Meade ordered me to ride down and see what sort of a position there was and how the land lay.

The pontoon bridge across the James River. In a paper he delivered to the Massachusetts Historical Society long after the war, Lyman wrote, “Meantime the laying of the great pontoon bridge across the narrows opposite Douthart’s house was going on with extraordinary energy. The approach to it lay along the river border under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for it had been covered a day or two previous with great cypresses, some of them three feet and a half in diameter; and these had to be cut close to the ground and the de’bris carefully cleared away. In a portion of the road, too, was a muddy swamp, which required a causeway of laborious construction. The bridge itself, composed of ninety-two boats, was thirteen feet wide and over two thousand feet long. It was braced by three schooners anchored in eighty-five feet of water, near the centre. The whole was laid in ten hours, and was finished at midnight. What added to the strangeness of the scene was the ci-devant Rebel iron-clad Atlanta, lying there like a big mud-turtle with only its back exposed. The group was completed by two or three gunboats and several steamers anchored hard by. The construction of this bridge and its approaches was, without question, one of the engineering feats of the war, the chief credit of which belongs to General Weitzel. Over it passed more than half the infantry of the army, 4000 cavalry, a train of wagons and artillery, thirty-five miles long, and 3500 beef cattle; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours. (Library of Congress)

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon that I caught the first sight of the water, as I cantered round the corner of a little grove. To appreciate such a sight you must pass five weeks in an almost unbroken wilderness, with no sights but weary, dusty troops, endless waggon-trains, convoys of poor wounded men, and hot, uncomfortable camps. Here was a noble river, a mile wide, with high green banks, studded with large plantation houses. In the distance, opposite, was Fort Powhatan, below which lay two steamers; and, what seemed strangest of all, not a Rebel soldier to be seen anywhere! . . . There was a signal-man waving away with his flag to attract the attention of the steamers, to notify all concerned that the head of the Army of the Potomac had struck the James. We went to a field by the Tyler house for our camp—the birthplace of John Tyler, he of the big nose and small political principles—once Vice President, with Tippy-canoe and Tyler too. Nobody was there, save a lot of nigs, that were too funny; for there suddenly appeared among them one of our black servants, who had left that very place in McClellan’s time. Such a “Lord a-a massy! is dat a-ar you? Wha-ar d’ge come from?” as never was heard, and great rejoicings over the distinguished traveller! What was more to the purpose, I got some green peas, a great coup; likewise milk, though “them a-ar infants” (meaning infantry) got the most of it. . . . A pontoon bridge, 2000 feet long, was made in ten hours, and over this passed a train of waggons and artillery thirty-five miles long; more than half the infantry in the army and 3500 beef cattle; besides 4000 cavalry; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours ! In civil life, if a bridge of this length were to be built over a river with a swift current and having a maximum depth of eighty-five feet, they would allow two or three months for the making of plans and collecting of materials. Then not less than a year to build it. This was a busy night on the river, messages going to City Point and Fort Monroe, and ferryboats and gunboats coming up as fast as possible to the neighborhood of Charles City. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 156-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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.

Photo Sessions (June 1864)

Writing in his journal on June 11, Theodore Lyman noted, “In the leisure of these last few days we have had the apparition of Brady, who photographed the General & whole staff.” Photographer Mathew Brady and his men were very busy around June 11 and 12, 1864. Before the Army of the Potomac embarked on its ambitious flanking movement down to the James River, Brady set out to photograph various Union generals, from Ulysses S. Grant on down. He managed to get Grant, Meade, Hancock (II Corps), Wright (VI Corps), Burnside (IX Corps), and “Baldy” Smith (XVIII Corps) but had to wait to arrange a session with Gouverneur Warren (V Corps). Below are the photographs the Brady team took that day. The illustrated papers of the day used photographs as the basis for their engravings, and I’ve posted some examples of those here as well. (All images from the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge any image).

Grant

An iconic image of Ulysses S. Grant in front of his headquarters tent at Cold Harbor.

 

Grant along, with photographer Brady appearing at the edges. This appears to be half of a stereo image.

Grant along, with photographer Brady appearing at the edges.

 

Grant and his staff.

Grant and his staff.

 

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana.

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana.

 

George Meade at Cold Harbor.

George Meade at Cold Harbor.

 

General Meade and his staff. Provost Marshall Marsena Patrick (the man with the white beard seated next to Andrew Humphreys) had grumbled in a letter, "I doubt it will [prove] a good picture," but Meade was delighted, thinking it "the best picture I ever saw; each face being so distinct."

General Meade and his staff. Provost Marshall Marsena Patrick (the man with the white beard seated next to Andrew Humphreys) had grumbled in a letter, “I doubt it will [prove] a good picture,” but Meade was delighted, thinking it “the best picture I ever saw; each face being so distinct.” Quartermaster Rufus Ingalls stands to the right of Meade. Theodore Lyman is in the rear behind Ingalls, looking to the side with his hat at a jaunty angle.

The image of Meade and his staff as translated into a Harper's engraving.

The image of Meade and his staff as translated into a Harper’s engraving.

 

Winfield Scott Hancock and staff.

Winfield Scott Hancock of the II Corps with his staff and division commanders.

 

The above image as it appeared in Harper's.

The above image as it appeared in Harper’s.

 

VIC Corps commander Horatio Wright and staff.

VI Corps commander Horatio Wright and staff.

 

IX Corps commander Ambrose Burnside and staff.

IX Corps commander Ambrose Burnside and staff.

 

The above image in Harper's.

The above image in Harper’s.

 

Ambrose Burnside (reading paper) and staff members at Cold Harbor, 1864. That's photographer Mathew Brady in the straw hat.

Ambrose Burnside (reading paper) and staff members at Cold Harbor, 1864. That’s photographer Mathew Brady in the straw hat.

 

William F. "Baldy" Smith of the XVIII Corps and his staff.

William F. “Baldy” Smith of the XVIII Corps and his staff.

Digging (June 7, 1864)

The situation at Cold Harbor has turned into a stubborn stalemate. As Theodore Lyman notes in his letter of June 7, the soldiers began digging complex entrenchments where they could exist without being killed by shells or snipers. Merely peeking over the breastworks tempted death, with sharpshooters lurking on each side to shoot anything that moved. The land around Cold Harbor became crisscrossed by vast networks of trenches, which reminded one Union soldier of the work of prairie dog colonies.

A marker on the Cold Harbor battlefield today.

A marker on the Cold Harbor battlefield today.

When I visited Cold Harbor I found it eerie to see the earthworks that remain, knowing they had once provided the setting for scenes of bloodshed and horror and the deaths of hundreds of men whose names have been lost to history. At the same time, as I wandered around the battlefield and read the markers, I came across names that were familiar, almost like old friends. Emory Upton’s name popped up time and time again, and on one marker at Cold Harbor I found a quote from Wilbur Fisk, a Vermont soldier whose letters have been collected in a book called Hard Marching Every Day. “The breastworks against which I am leaning is not more than 200 yards from the enemy’s lines, and in front of us are skirmishers and sharpshooters still nearer,” he wrote on June 11. “Our line is just outside the edge of a woods, and theirs is partly in an open field, and partly covered by timber in our immediate front. The field is open between us, but it is a strip of land across which no man dare to pass. An attacking party from either side would be mown down like grass.”

After extraordinary delays an armistice was concluded between six and eight p.m. this evening. It was very acceptable for burying the dead; but the wounded were mostly dead too, by this time, having been there since the 3d. I fancy there were not many, for our men make extraordinary exertions in the night to get in their comrades, and those who were not thus reached usually had their sufferings shortened by some stray ball, among the showers that continually passed between the works. We here found the body of Colonel McMahon, brother of Sedgwick’s Adjutant-General. He was wounded and sat down by a tree, where he was soon hit by two or three other bullets. . . . Some extraordinary scenes occurred during the armistice. Round one grave, where ten men were laid, there was a great crowd of both sides. The Rebels were anxious to know who would be next President. “Wall,” said one of our men, “I am in favor of Old Abe.” “He’s a damned Abolitionist!” promptly exclaimed a grey-back. Upon which our man hit his adversary between the eyes, and a general fisticuff ensued, only stopped by the officers rushing in. Our entrenchments were most extraordinary in their extent, with heavy traverses, where exposed to enfilade, and all done by the men, as it were, spontaneously. An officer told a man it was not worth while to go on with a little private bomb-proof he was constructing, as he would only be there two or three days. “I don’t care,” replied he, “if we only stay two or three hours; I ain’t going to have my head knocked off by one of them shells!”…

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 154. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Protracted and Severe Fighting (June 5, 1864)

George Meade at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

George Meade at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

In which George Meade defends his record. Even the attack on Spotsylvania, which he cites as a success, led to 22 hours of slaughter and resulted in Lee moving back to a new and better line. Early in the war, when Lee had resorted to defensive measures, people had derided him as the “King of Spades.” No more. By the time of Mine Run, the Army of the Potomac had come to understand the futility of attacking a well-dug-in position. “With the formidable rifles now in use, a single line of veteran soldiers, behind a three-foot breastwork of earth and rails or a stone fence, can drive back and almost destroy three similar lines approaching to attack them,” noted one Union captain. “Give either our army or the rebels twenty-four hours’ notice of an approaching attack, and they will select a good position, and throw up intrenchments, which it is folly for any but overwhelmingly superior numbers to attempt to carry.”

Since our last battle on the 3d inst. we have been comparatively quiet. The enemy has tried his hand once or twice at the offensive, and in each case has been repulsed and severely punished. This evening, after dark, he made a furious attack, but was everywhere repulsed. The sound of the artillery and musketry has just died away. Indeed, we are pretty much engaged all the time, from early in the morning till late at night. I don’t believe the military history of the world can afford a parallel to the protracted and severe fighting which this army has sustained for the last thirty days. You would suppose, with all this severe fighting, our severe losses, constant marches, many in the night, that the physical powers of the men would be exhausted. I have no doubt in time it will tell on them, but as yet they show no evidences of it.

I feel a satisfaction in knowing that my record is clear, and that the results of this campaign are the clearest indications I could wish of my sound judgment, both at Williamsport and Mine Run. In every instance that we have attacked the enemy in an entrenched position we have failed, except in the case of Hancock’s attack at Spottsylvania, which was a surprise discreditable to the enemy. So, likewise, whenever the enemy has attacked us in position, he has been repulsed. I think Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee’s army is not Tennessee and Bragg’s army. Whether the people will ever realize this fact remains to be seen.

After the failed assault of June 3,  hundreds of wounded soldiers lay between the lines while Grant and Lee dickered over the terms that would allow their recovery. Anyone venturing outside the trenches faced almost certain death from sharpshooters. Grant balked at the idea of requesting a truce, which would make it look as if he had lost the contest (which he had). He suggested that Meade should make the request. Meade replied that the Confederates would not recognize him as commander while Grant was present with the army. For his part, Lee had few wounded outside his lines to recover and was hardly prepared to accommodate Grant. While the delicate dance took place between the two commanders, the wounded lay suffering between the lines. Theodore Lyman received the assignment to start the truce proceedings.

This afternoon I carried a flag of truce—quite an episode in my military experiences. At three in the afternoon General Meade sent for me and said, as if asking for a piece of bread and butter: “Lyman, I want you to take this letter from General Grant and take it by a flag of truce, to the enemy’s lines. General Hancock will tell you where you can carry it out.” I recollect he was lying on his cot at the time, with his riding boots cocked up on the footboard. My ideas on flags of truce were chiefly mediaeval and were associated with a herald wearing a tabard. However, I received the order as if my employment had been that from early youth, and proceeded at once to array myself in “store” clothes, sash, white gloves and all other possible finery. After searching in vain for a bugler who could blow a “parley,” I set forth with only a personable and well-dressed cavalry sergeant, and found the gallant Hancock reposing on his cot. “Well, Colonel,” says H., “now you can’t carry it out on my front, it’s too hot there. Your best way is to go to the left, where there are only pickets, and the officers there will get it out.” So the ever-laborious Major Mitchell was summoned and told to provide some whiskey for the Rebs and a flag. The last was a great point: there seemed nothing white about, except the General’s shirt, but at last he found a pillowcase which was ripped up and put on a staff, and you would have admired it when it was completed! Then we made our way towards the left and found General Birney’s men moving that way, who furnished us information about the road, and a guide, Colonel Hapgood of the 5th New Hampshire, corps officer of the day. He was a live Yankee, a thorough New Hampshire man—tall, sinewy, with a keen black eye, and a driving way about him. He was ornamented with a bullet-hole through his hat, another through the trousers, and a third on his sword scabbard. We rode forward till we struck the breastwork at Miles’s Headquarters. It was a curious sight! Something like an Indian family camped half underground. Here was the breastwork, behind which were dug a number of little cellars, about two feet deep, and, over these, were pitched some small tents. And there you could see the officers sitting, with only their heads above ground, writing or perhaps reading; for it was a quiet time and there were no bullets or shells. We followed the line to its end, near by, and then rode through the pine woods a little way. Here Colonel Hamyl remarked in a ghostly voice: “Do you know where you are going? There have been two field officers killed just here.” To whom Colonel Hapgood (with injured pride): ‘‘Yes sir! I do know where I am going. There’s some bullets comes through here; but none to hurt.” Without definitely settling what precise minimum of balls was “none to hurt,” we continued on. Presently the cautious Hapgood pulled up and peered round; and I could see an open field through the trees and another taller wood behind. “Now,” said the New Hampshire patriot, “those tallest trees are full of their sharpshooters; if we strike into the field fifty yards above here, they will fire; but, just below, they can’t see.” So we followed on, and, as soon as we were in the open ground, started at a gallop and got into another wood, close to where I have put my flag on the map. There was here a road, leading past a mill-pond, which however was some quarter of a mile away. Our pickets held this road for some hundred or two yards from us, and then came the enemy’s pickets. The Colonel said he knew a good place to approach, and went forward to call to some of them. After a great deal of delay, the lieutenant on our side got one of them to send for an officer, and then word was sent down each line to cease firing in that command, as a flag of truce was going in. Then we left our horses and went forward, the sergeant carrying the flag. As we turned a corner, close by, we came almost upon their party, standing some paces off. It looked exactly like a scene in an opera; there was never anything that so resembled something got up for stage effect. The sun was near setting, and, in the heavy oak woods, the light already began to fade. On the road stood a couple of Rebel officers, each in his grey overcoat, and, just behind, were grouped some twenty soldiers—the most gipsy-looking fellows imaginable; in their blue-grey jackets and slouched hats; each with his rusty musket and well-filled cartridge-box. I walked up in all stateliness (fully aware, however, that white cotton gloves injured the ensemble), and was introduced to Major Wooten of the 14th North Carolina sharpshooters, belonging to A. P. Hill’s Corps. He was a well-looking man, with quiet and pleasing manners; and, to see us all together, you would suppose we had met to go out shooting, or something of that kind. I am free to confess that the bearing of the few Rebel officers I have met is superior to the average of our own. They have a slight reserve and an absence of all flippancy, on the whole an earnestness of manner, which is very becoming to them. They get this I think partly from the great hardships they suffer, or, still more, the hardships of those at home, and from a sense of their ruin if their cause fails. We attack, and our people live in plenty, with no one to make them afraid; it makes a great difference. . . .

Major Wooten said he would enquire if the despatch could be received, and soon got notice that it could, if in a proper form. So it was sent in, an answer promised in a couple of hours, and we all sat down on the grass to wait—or rather on the leaves, for this sandy soil produces no grass to speak of. As I had time to look about and, still more to sniff about, I became aware that the spot was not so charming as it looked. There had been a heavy cavalry skirmish in the woods and they were full of dead horses, which, as the evening closed, became, as Agassiz would say, “highly offensive.” It was positively frightful! and there I waited till eleven at night! Not even the novelty of the position was enough to distract one’s attention. As to the pickets, they were determined to have also a truce, for, when a Reb officer went down the line to give some order, he returned quite aghast, and said the two lines were together, amiably conversing. He ordered both to their posts, but I doubt if they staid. At half-past eight we had quite a disagreeable experience. There suddenly was heard a shot or two towards our left centre, then quite a volley, and then, whir-r-r-r, the musketry came running down right towards us, as one regiment after another took it up! The next thing I expected was that both sides just near us would take a panic and begin blazing away. The officers sprung to their feet and ran down the lines, to again caution the men; so nobody fired; and there we sat and listened to the volleys and the cannonading, that opened very heavily. . . .

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

As it got to be after ten, Major Wooten said he would go back and see what was the delay. There came back a lieutenant soon, that is about eleven, with a note from a superior officer, saying that “General Grant’s aide-decamp need not be delayed further,” but that an answer would be sent in at the same point, which could be received by the picket officer. So we shook hands with the Rebs and retreated from the unsavory position. . . . We stopped at Barlow’s Headquarters, and then I kept on to camp, where the General greeted me with: “Hullo, Lyman, I thought perhaps the Rebs had gobbled you during that attack.” . . .

In his journal entry, Lyman includes more about “that eccentric officer,” Francis Barlow. “He was in a merry state; for he had put some hundreds of stragglers in an open field & left them there while the shells were flying, and one got hit!” Barlow hated stragglers.

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. 201. 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.149-53. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

Aftermath (June 4, 1864)

The assault at Cold Harbor on June 3 had been a disaster. In Grant’s initial message to Halleck, sent at 2:15 in the afternoon on June 3—when he must have known better—he wrote that the army’s loss was “not severe.” Later, he would come to regret having ordered the attack at Cold Harbor. According to Horace Porter, Grant’s officers soon learned not to bring up the battle in conversation.

Our men have, in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed,” Emory Upton wrote bitterly to his sister. “Thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill; but, as it is, the courage of the poor men is expected to obviate all difficulties.”

There’s no doubt that the Union attack at Cold Harbor was a miserable failure. So was the Confederate attack on the third day at Gettysburg. James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Civil War historian, expressed bewilderment at how differently people remember the two failed attacks. At Cold Harbor, “Fifty thousand Union soldiers suffered seven thousand casualties, most of them in less than half an hour,” wrote McPherson in Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, “For this mistake, which he admitted, Grant has been branded a ‘butcher’ careless of lives of his men, and Cold Harbor has become a symbol of mule-headed futility.” McPherson points out that Lee’s army also suffered around seven thousand casualties on July 3. “Yet this attack is perceived as an example of great courage and honor. This contrast speaks volumes about the comparative image of Grant and Lee, North and South, Union and Confederacy.”

I doubt Meade perceived much glory in either attack. In fact, by this point he believed Grant’s relentless hammering at Lee had not worked and was becoming increasingly irritated by the way the general in chief eclipsed Meade’s role in the campaign. Some of that frustration appears in his letter of June 4.

I have only time to write you that we had a big battle yesterday, on the field of the old Gaines’s Mill battle-ground, with the positions of the contending forces reversed. The battle ended without any decided results, we repulsing all attacks of the enemy and they doing the same; losses estimated about equal on both sides; ours roughly estimated at seven thousand five hundred in all.

I had immediate and entire command on the field all day, the Lieutenant General honoring the field with his presence only about one hour in the middle of the day. The papers will, however, undoubtedly inform you of all his doings, and I will therefore confine myself to mine.

George, myself, and all your friends, are well and unhurt. The enemy, as usual, were strongly fortified, and we have pretty well entrenched ourselves. How long this game is to be played it is impossible to tell; but in the long run, we ought to succeed, because it is in our power more promptly to fill the gaps in men and material which this constant fighting produces.

Baldy Smith’s corps has joined, and he is placed under my orders.

As usual, Lyman has a great deal more to add, whether commenting on the relationships among the generals or discussing the way various pieces of ordnance return to earth.

William F. "Baldy" Smith and his staff at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

William F. “Baldy” Smith and his staff at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

Although there was no battle to-day, both sides were as sensitive as Hotspur when he was “all smarting from my wounds being cold.” The slightest movement would provoke a volley, and any unusual stir would open a battery. This is characteristic of troops in a new position. When they have remained awhile, they begin to be more quiet, the skirmishers fire less and less, and finally cease entirely. The General took three or four of us and went on a sort of tour to his Generals; after a brief visit to General Hancock (who had a battery roaring away close to his Headquarters) and a few words with General Wright, we paid a long visit to “Baldy” Smith, whose tents were pitched between the Woody house and the line of battle. His tent was much better than General Meade’s and he displayed, for his benefit, a lunch with champagne, etc., that quite astonished us. Whether it was the lunch, or Baldy, or “Bully” Brooks (a General of that name), I do not know, but the Commander staid there several hours, talking and smoking.

Let me see, I left the party sitting, as it appeared to me, an unnecessarily long time at Baldy Smith’s. I say “unnecessarily,” first, because it was several hours, and General Meade had nothing to discuss of any moment; and, secondly, because a round-shot would, every now and then, crash through the neighboring trees, or go hoppity-hop along the open field on the edge of which the tents were. You ought to see them skip! It would be odd, if it were not so dangerous. When they have gone some distance and are going slower, you can see them very plainly, provided you are in front of, or behind them. They pass with a great whish, hit the ground, make a great hop, and so go skip, skip, skip, till they get exhausted, and then tumble —flouf— raising a puff of sand. That is the reason round-shot are more dangerous than conical, which strike perhaps once, vault into the air with a noise like a Catherine’s wheel, topple over and over, and drop without further trouble. … At last the General’s confab was broken up by the arrival of Burnside,* who, in Fredericksburg days, had a furious quarrel with Baldy and Brooks—or they with him. So they don’t speak now; and we enjoyed the military icicle in great perfection! All the day there was sharpshooting and cannonading along our front.

*”Burnside has a short, military jacket, and, with his bell-crowned felt hat, the brim turned down, presents an odd figure, the fat man!” —Lyman’s Journal.

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. 200-1. 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.148-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864)

Alfred Waud identified this drawing from June 3 as "7th N.Y. Heavy Arty. in Barlows charge nr. Cold Harbor Friday June 3rd 1864." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud identified this drawing from June 3 as “7th N.Y. Heavy Arty. in Barlows charge nr. Cold Harbor Friday June 3rd 1864.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“I always regret the last assault on Cold Harbor was ever made.” So wrote Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs. He had much cause for regret. One hundred and fifty years ago Union soldiers made a doomed attack on entrenched rebel lines. In about a half hour some 7,000 of them fell as casualties. In his letter of June 3, Theodore Lyman presents a clear-eyed account of what he say during the battle, without sugar-coating the final result.

We had very severe fighting this morning, all along the lines. If you look on the map you may follow our lines. The line of battle faced westerly, towards Gaines’s Mill and Mechanicsville, with a corps covering the right flank, and the left refused (a wing is “refused” when it is swung back from the direction of the main line). In some sort this was the battle of Gaines’s Mill reversed. . . . The Rebel lines were about parallel with ours and they were throwing up dirt as hard as they could. No country could be more favorable for such work. The soldiers easily throw up the dirt so dry and sandy with their tin plates, their hands, bits of board, or canteens split in two, when shovels are scarce; while a few axes, in experienced hands, soon serve to fell plenty of straight pines, that are all ready to be set up, as the inner face of the breastwork. I can’t say I heard with any great hope the order, given last night, for a general assault at 4.30 the next morning! You see Wright and Smith took their front line and drove them back Wednesday afternoon. Thursday afternoon was twenty-four, and Friday morning would be thirty-six hours, for them to bring up and entrench their whole army. If we could smash them up, the Chickahominy lay behind them; but I had no more hope of it, after Spotsylvania, than I had of taking Richmond in two days. Half-past four found us at Kelly’s, the Headquarters of General Wright; the brave General himself, however, had gone to the front. At that moment the cannon opened, in various directions, and the Rebels replied vigorously. There has been no fight of which I have seen so little as this. The woods were so placed that the sound, even, of the musketry was much kept away, and the fighting, though near us, was completely shut from view. All the warfare for us was an occasional roundshot, or shell, that would come about us from the Rebel batteries. In the direction of the 18th Corps the crash of the musketry was very loud, but elsewhere, scarcely to be noticed. . . . About five we had a gleam of hope for our success. News came that Barlow had carried their works and taken seventeen guns; and so he did; but it is one thing to get in, another to stay in. His men advanced heroically and went over the breastworks with a rush; but the enemy had reserves massed behind, well knowing that his extreme right was seriously threatened. Before our supports could get up, their forces were down on our men, while a heavy enfilade of canister was kept up from flanking batteries. Barlow was driven out with heavy loss, and succeeded in getting off only about 300 of the prisoners he took. Like good soldiers, however, his men stopped and turned about, close to the works, and there entrenched themselves. At six we got notice that Russell’s division could not carry the line in their front. Ricketts, however, on the right of the 6th Corps, got their first line, and so did the 18th Corps on his right; but the 18th people were forced back, and this left Ricketts a good deal exposed to enfilade; but he held on. A singular thing about the whole attack, and one that demonstrated the staunchness of the troops, was, that our men, when the fire was too hot for them to advance and the works too strong, did not retreat as soldiers often do, but lay down where some small ridge offered a little cover, and there staid, at a distance from the enemy varying from forty to perhaps 250 yards. When it was found that the lines could not be carried, General Meade issued orders to hold the advanced position, all along, and to trench. The main fight lasted, I suppose, some three hours, but there was sharp skirmishing and artillery firing the whole day. The Rebels threw canister in large quantities, doing much damage. . . .

"Barlow and Gibbons charge between the Mechanicsville road and swamp, June 3rd, 1864." By Alfred Waud. Inscribed on the back: This was a prominent position at the battle of Gaines Mill 1862. Our line was then at right angles to the present advance and faced to the right. Barlow charged to the left of the house, and Gibbon on the right." Inscribed vertically: "Gains [sic] Mills or Cold Harbor/Gen Barlows & Gibbons June 3rd 1864." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Barlow and Gibbons charge between the Mechanicsville road and swamp, June 3rd, 1864.” By Alfred Waud. Inscribed on the back: “This was a prominent position at the battle of Gaines Mill 1862. Our line was then at right angles to the present advance and faced to the right. Barlow charged to the left of the house, and Gibbon on the right.” Inscribed vertically: “Gains [sic] Mills or Cold Harbor/Gen Barlows & Gibbons June 3rd 1864.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

David Bell Birney.

David Bell Birney.

In the afternoon came Wright and Hancock, with their Staff officers, to consult with General Meade. They looked as pleasant as if they had been out to dine, instead of standing all day with shells, bullets and canister coming about them; for we now have a set of corps commanders who, in action, go, as they say, where they “can see”; which means sitting calmly in places where many people would be so scared they wouldn’t know the left wing from the right. Which reminds me of a ludicrous circumstance—there always is something of the ludicrous mixed in every tragedy. Three or four vulgar and very able-bodied civilians had got down to the army, in some way or other, and were at our standpoint for a little while. Having come from the White House and hearing little musketry, they concluded it would be quite safe to go further to the front. “Come,” said one, in a flippant way, “let’s go forward and see the fun.” So off they trotted down the Gaines’s Mill road. One of Wright’s aides said they came pretty soon, as far as where they were standing. All was quiet, but these braves had hardly dismounted when the Rebel guns again opened and the shells came with fearful precision over the spot! One gentleman, a fat man, rushed wildly to his horse, convulsively clutched the mane and tumbled on the saddle, galloping hotly off. But it so happened that two successive shells, passing with their hideous scream, burst just behind his horse, giving him the wings of panic! The other cit, quite paralyzed, lay down flat behind a ridge; in a few minutes he looked up at a Staff officer and, with the cold sweat rolling off him, exclaimed: “Oh! I wish they would stop! Don’t you think, sir, they will stop pretty soon?” What became of the third I know not; but they all “saw the fun.” Not a thing did I have to do till six in the evening, when General Meade told me to go to General Birney, ascertain his position and what he thought of the force in his front; then keep on to Warren and ask him if he could so close in his Corps to the left as to set Birney free to return to the Second Corps. I found General Birney, with his usual thin, Puritanic face, very calmly eating tapioca pudding as a finish to his frugal dinner. He remarked drily that his man had selected that hollow as particularly safe; but, as half a dozen shells had already plumped in there, he did not exactly believe the theory a good one. I had a great mess finding General Warren.* First I went, by the road leading through the woods, to Bethesda Church. There were his aides and his flag: but the General had “ridden out along the lines”—confound that expression! That is the luck of a Headquarters aide. You say: “Is the General here?” “No, sir, he has gone, I believe, along the line.” “Do you know where?” “Well, Colonel, he did not say exactly; but, if you will follow down the breastworks, I think you will find him.” (Delightful vision of a line of two miles or so of breastworks with the infantry safely crouched behind, and you perched on a horse, riding down, taking the chance of stray shot, canister, and minie balls, looking for a general who probably is not there.) The greatest piece of coolness is when you are advised to make a short cut by the picket line! . . .

*“This was Warren’s great way, to go about, looking thus after details and making ingenious plans; but it kept him from generalities, and made it hard to find him, so that he finally came to trouble as much by this as by anything else.”—Lyman’s Journal

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Warren looks care-worn. Some people say he is a selfish man, but he is certainly the most tender-hearted of our commanders. Almost all officers grow soon callous in the service; not unfeeling, only accustomed, and unaffected by the suffering they see. But Warren feels it a great deal, and that and the responsibility, and many things of course not going to suit him, all tend to make him haggard. He said: “For thirty days now, it has been one funeral procession, past me; and it is too much! To-day I saw a man burying a comrade, and, within half an hour, he himself was brought in and buried beside him. The men need some rest.” . . .

At nine at night the enemy made a fierce attack on a part of Gibbon’s division, and, for a time, the volleys of musketry and the booming of the cannon were louder, in the still night, than the battle had been by day. But that sort of thing has not done with the Rebels, since the brilliant attack of Johnson, the second night of the Wilderness. This time they were repulsed completely. It was then that our men called out: “Come on! Come on! Bring up some more Johnnies! You haven’t got enough!” . . .

To-night all the trenching tools were ordered up and the lines were strengthened, and saps run out, so as to bring them still closer to the opposing ones. And there the two armies slept, almost within an easy stone-throw of each other; and the separating space ploughed by cannon-shot and clotted with the dead bodies that neither side dared to bury! I think nothing can give a greater idea of deathless tenacity of purpose, than the picture of these two hosts, after a bloody and nearly continuous struggle of thirty days, thus lying down to sleep, with their heads almost on each other’s throats! Possibly it has no parallel in history. So ended the great attack at Cool Arbor. The losses were far greater for us than for the Rebels. From what I can gather I doubt not we lost four or five to one. We gained nothing save a knowledge of their position and the proof of the unflinching bravery of our soldiers. . . .*

*“I do think there has been too much assaulting, this campaign\ After our lessons of failure and of success at Spotsylvania, we assault here, after the enemy had had thirty-six hours to entrench, and that time will cover them over their heads and give them slashings and traverses besides! The best officers and men are liable, by their greater gallantry, to be first disabled; and, of those that are left, the best become demoralized by the failures, and the loss of good leaders; so that, very soon, the men will no longer charge entrenchments and will only go forward when driven by their officers.”—Lyman’s Journal.

The costs of war. The remains of dead soldiers being collected at Cold Harbor after the war (Library of Congress).

The costs of war. The remains of dead soldiers being collected at Cold Harbor after the war (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.143-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Eve of Battle (June 2, 1864)

Alfred Waud labled this drawing "June 2nd Position nr. Cold Harbor--rifle pits in the front." On the back he wrote, "A union battery held this hill at the battle of Gaines Mill tenaciously from a position near the buildings looking to the right of the picture, at right angles to the present line of battle." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud labeled this drawing “June 2nd Position nr. Cold Harbor–rifle pits in the front.” On the back he wrote, “A union battery held this hill at the battle of Gaines Mill tenaciously from a position near the buildings looking to the right of the picture, at right angles to the present line of battle.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

On June 2 Grant and Meade position the Army of the Potomac in preparation for an attack on the Rebel lines. In his letter Theodore Lyman continues to call the battleground Cool Arbor although today we remember it by another name: Cold Harbor.

Here Lyman presents his case for George McClellan as the Union’s best general. He echoes McClellan’s reasoning for the failure of the Peninsula Campaign back in 1862–It was all the fault of President Lincoln, who held back 35,000 men of Irvin McDowell’s corps to defend Washington. Those men included George Meade’s brigade. McClellan, in a typical bit of understatement, had called Lincoln’s act “the most infamous thing that history has recorded.”

To-day has been occupied with strategy; but our strategy is of a bloody kind, and even the mere movements have not passed without the sounds of cannon and musketry for two or three hours. Sharp as steel traps those Rebs! We cannot shift a hundred yards, but presto! skirmishers forward! and they come piling in, pop, pop, pop; with reserves close behind and a brigade or two hard on the reserves, all poking and probing as much as to say: “Hey! What! Going are you! Well, where? How far? Which way? How many of you are there?”—And then they seem to send back word: “There they go—down there; head ’em off! Head ’em off quick!” And very soon General So-and-so, who thinks he has entirely got round the Rebel line, begs to report that he finds them strongly entrenched in his front! Yesterday the 6th Corps drove the enemy from their lines, in their front, and took a good many prisoners. The division of Ricketts, which Hancock called a “weakly child,” suddenly blazed out, and charged with the bayonet; an example I hope it will follow up! The “weary boys” at first broke and ran as usual, but Ricketts, their new commander, a man of great personal courage, pitched into them and kept at them, till finally, on the 1st of June, he got them to storm breastworks, and now I hope and believe they will continue good troops. Such are the effects of good pluck in generals. You hear people say: “Oh, everyone is brave enough; it is the head that is needed.” Doubtless the head is the first necessity, but I can tell you that there are not many officers who of their own choice and impulse will dash in on formidable positions. They will go anywhere they are ordered and anywhere they believe it is their duty to go; but fighting for fun is rare; and unless there is a little of this in a man’s disposition he lacks an element. Such men as Sprigg Carroll, Hays (killed), Custer and some others, attacked wherever they got a chance, and of their own accord. Very few officers would hold back when they get an order; but the ordeal is so awful, that it requires a peculiar disposition to “go in gaily,” as old Kearny used to say.

Last night the 2d Corps marched, to form on the left of the 6th at Cool Arbor; it was badly managed, or rather it was difficult to manage, like all those infernal night marches, and so part of the troops went fifteen miles instead of nine and there was any amount of straggling and exhaustion. I consider fifteen miles by night equal to twenty-five by day, and you will remember our men have no longer the bodily strength they had a month before; indeed, why they are alive, I don’t see; but, after a day’s rest, they look almost as fresh as ever. . . . We set out in the morning by half-past seven and, partly by roads, partly by cross-cuts, arrived at Kelly’s via Woody’s house. Of all the wastes I have seen, this first sight of Cool Arbor was the most dreary! Fancy a baking sun to begin with; then a foreground of breastworks; on the left, Kelly’s wretched house; in the front, an open plain, trampled fetlock deep into fine, white dust and dotted with caissons, regiments of many soldiers, and dead horses killed in the previous cavalry fight. On the sides and in the distance were pine woods, some red with fires which had passed through them, some grey with the clouds of dust that rose high in the air. It was a Sahara intensified, and was called Cool Arbor! Wright’s Headquarters were here, and here, too, I first beheld “Baldy” Smith, a short, quite portly man, with a light-brown imperial and shaggy moustache, a round, military head, and the look of a German officer, altogether. After getting all information, General Meade ordered a general assault at four p.m.. but afterwards countermanded it, by reason of the exhausted state of the 2d Corps. We pitched camp in the place shown on my map by a flag, where we since have remained—ten whole days. Towards evening Warren was to close in to his left and join with the rest of the line, his right resting near Bethesda Church, while Burnside was to mass and cover his movement; but they made a bad fist of it between them. The enemy, the moment the march began, rushed in on the skirmishers. A division, 5th Corps, got so placed that it bore the whole brunt (and a fine division too). Between the two corps—both very willing—the proper support was not put in. The enemy in force swung round by Via’s house and gobbled up several miles of our telegraph wire, besides several hundred prisoners. We ought to have just eaten them up; but as it was, we only drove them back into some rifle-pits we had formerly abandoned, and then the line was formed as originally ordered, with Burnside swung round to cover our right flank from Bethesda Church towards Linney’s house, while the enemy held Via’s house and a line parallel to our own. . . .*

General George McClellan. Lyman believes he was the Union's best general (Library of Congress).

General George McClellan. Lyman believes he was the Union’s best general (Library of Congress).

You know I was never an enthusiast or fanatic for any of our generals. I liked McClellan, but was not “daft” about him; and was indeed somewhat shaken by the great cry and stories against him. But now, after seeing this country and this campaign, I wish to say, in all coolness, that I believe he was, both as a military man and as a manager of a country under military occupation, the greatest general this war has produced. You hear how slow he was; how he hesitated at small natural obstacles. Not so. He hesitated at an obstacle that our ultra people steadily ignore, the Rebel Army of Northern Virginia; and anyone that has seen that army fight and march would, were he wise, proceed there with caution and wariness, well knowing that defeat by such an enemy might mean destruction. When I consider how much better soldiers, as soldiers, our men now are than in his day; how admirably they have been handled in this campaign; and how heroically they have worked, marched, and fought, and yet, how we still see the enemy in our front, weakened and maimed, but undaunted as ever, I am forced to the conclusion that McClellan (who did not have his own way as we have) managed with admirable skill. Mind, I don’t say he was perfect. I say he was our best. Think how well we are off. Do we want the very garrison of Washington? Grant beckons, and nobody is hardy enough to say him nay. McClellan had over 20,000 men taken from him at the very crisis of the campaign. Suppose at the culmination of our work, a telegraph from the President should come: “Send General Wright and 25,000 men at once to Winchester.” How would that do? In all this I praise the present commanders. The handling of this army, in especial, has been a marvel. Through narrow roads (the best of them not better than the “lane” opposite our back avenue), ill known and intricate, over bogs and rivers, we have transported cannon and army waggons in thousands, and a vast army has been moved, without ever getting in confusion, or losing its supporting distance. I don’t believe there is a marshal of France that could do it with his army. I am sure there is not.

*“When Grant heard of it, he said to Meade: ‘We ought to be able to eat them up; they have placed themselves in such a position. Generally I am not in favor of night attacks; but I think one might be justified in such a case as the present.’ Indeed it was a wretched affair.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.138-42. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Pegging Away (June 1, 1864)

Artist William Waud sketched the arrival of "Baldy" Smith and the XVIII Corps at White House landing on the Pamunkey on May 18. On the front Waud wrote, "Ruins of the White House; the scene of Washington's courtship & marriage; the tent by Pilchard." This White House belonged to Rooney Lee, son of Robert E. George Washington had indeed courted Martha here. On the back Waud wrote, "This is only a small portion of the force shown here as there were many large vessels employed such as the John Brooks, the George Leary, the Escort, the Metamone[sic]-all similar to the Hudson river & sound boats but which I have not the opportunity of sketching if Mr Parsons has drawings of these vessels if the view is thought interesting enough they might be introduced covered with troops hanging on like bees. For description see the letters of Mr. Winser in the Times. W.W." Harpers published an engraving on June 18. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist William Waud sketched the arrival of “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps at White House landing on the Pamunkey on May 18. On the front Waud wrote, “Ruins of the White House; the scene of Washington’s courtship & marriage; the tent by Pilchard.” This White House belonged to Rooney Lee, son of Robert E. George Washington had indeed courted Martha here. On the back Waud wrote, “This is only a small portion of the force shown here as there were many large vessels employed such as the John Brooks, the George Leary, the Escort, the Metamone[sic]-all similar to the Hudson river & sound boats but which I have not the opportunity of sketching if Mr Parsons has drawings of these vessels if the view is thought interesting enough they might be introduced covered with troops hanging on like bees. For description see the letters of Mr. Winser in the Times. W.W.” Harpers published an engraving on June 18. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

On June 1 Meade, in a throw-away line at the end of his letter, mentions two things that will irritate him more and more throughout the campaign: the press and the way that Grant was receiving credit for the Army of the Potomac’s successes. His resentments against the press will explode in a few days, with serious repercussions for his reputation. His resentment against Grant will continue to fester, although Meade, a good soldier, discharges his duties to the best of his ability.

We are pegging away here, and gradually getting nearer and nearer to Richmond, although its capture is yet far off. Our advance is within two miles of Mechanicsville, which, if you remember, is the place where the fighting commenced in the Seven Days. The rebs keep taking up strong positions and entrenching themselves. This compels us to move around their flank, after trying to find some weak point to attack. This operation has now occurred four times, namely, crossing the Rapidan, at Old Wilderness, at Spottsylvania Court House, and recently at North Anna. We shall have to do it once more before we get them into their defenses at Richmond, and then will begin the tedious process of a quasi-siege, like that at Sebastopol; which will last as long, unless we can get hold of their railroads and cut off their supplies, when they must come out and fight.

Whilst I am writing the cannon and musketry are rattling all along our lines, over five miles in extent, but we have become so accustomed to these sounds that we hardly notice them.

The weather is beginning to be hot, but I keep in the saddle during the day, and sleep soundly at night.

The papers are giving Grant all the credit of what they call successes; I hope they will remember this if anything goes wrong.

William F. "Baldy" Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

William F. “Baldy” Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

Theodore Lyman’s letter from July 1 goes into more detail about the arrival of William F. “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps, sent from Ben Butler’s Army of the James to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. Meade and Smith went back a ways. When Meade received command of the V Corps back in December 1862 after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Smith was one of the generals who shared his celebratory champagne. Smith, who possessed “unusual powers of caustic criticism” and quarreled incessantly with his superior officers, led the VI Corps at Fredericksburg but became so disillusioned by army commander Ambrose Burnside he went to the White House with William Franklin to express his misgivings to President Lincoln. Burnside was dismissed from command but Smith was sent out west. He had redeemed himself, in Grant’s eyes, at least, by performing capably in the campaign to break the siege of Chattanooga. He then accompanied Grant back east, amid rumors that Smith would replace Meade at the head of the Army of the Potomac. However, Grant assigned him to the Army of the James under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the most political of political generals. The cockeyed Butler and his army were supposed to form one of the prongs in Grant’s multipronged campaign against the Confederacy. Instead, Butler had gotten his army bottled up at Bermuda Hundred with his back against the James River, where they remained, impotent and useless.

At 1.30 last night, General Wright with the 6th Corps passed round our left flank and marched on Cool Arbor, which already was occupied by our cavalry last night. They would have fallen back, in view of the advance of the enemy’s infantry, but General Meade sent an order to hold it, which they did; and had a very heavy fight early this morning, remarkable from the fact that our cavalry threw up breastworks and fought behind them, repulsing the enemy till Wright could arrive. Baldy Smith too was marching from Whitehouse and came up during the day, forming on the right of the 6th Corps. Meantime, of course, the enemy was marching to his own right, in all haste, and formed so as to cover the roads leading to Mechanicsville and also to continue his line on his right. . . . There was a desperate charge on Smith and Wright at Cool Arbor and the sound of musketry was extremely heavy long after dark, but the Rebels could not do it and had to go back again. Nor did the right of the line escape where they attacked Birney, and were driven back just the same way. . . . Smith had orders to report to General Meade and so became part of the Army of the Potomac. General Meade was in one of his irascible fits to-night, which are always founded in good reason though they spread themselves over a good deal of ground that is not always in the limits of the question. First he blamed Warren for pushing out without orders; then he said each corps ought to act for itself and not always be leaning on him. Then he called Wright slow (a very true proposition as a general one). In the midst of these night-thoughts, comes here from General Smith bright, active, self-sufficient Engineer-Lieutenant Farquhar, who reports that his superior had arrived, fought, etc., etc., but that he had brought little ammunition, no transportation and that “he considered his position precarious.” “Then, why in Hell did he come at all for?” roared the exasperated Meade, with an oath that was rare with him.

Lyman added a footnote to his journal entry. Farquhar reported Meade’s outburst to Smith, Lyman noted. “Smith never forgave him and put that sentence, in large letters, in his report, which appeared many months after and amused Meade, for Smith had dished himself then and was nobody.”

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. 200. 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.137-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.