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.