This Dreadful War (April 13, 1865)

Earlier, George Meade had written home to his wife about her brother William “Willie” Sergeant, the colonel of the 210th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He had been wounded in the fighting at on March 31. In his History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, Samuel Bates wrote, “On the 27th of March, the movement upon Gravelly Run commended, the Two Hundred and Tenth taking the advance, and during the fierce actions of the three days which succeeded, it was at the fore front, displaying a stubborn bravery, which was unsurpassed, and sustaining losses which unmistakably show the fiery struggle through which it was called to pass. Colonel Sergeant was mortally wounded while gallantly leading his command.” Meade had reported the wounding to his wife, but it appeared that young Sergeant was improving, but today Meade writes to his wife with the tragic news. Willie Sergeant is buried with the Meades and Sergeants at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Yesterday, as soon as I reached here, where there is a telegraph, I telegraphed to City Point to enquire about Willie, and received a reply from the medical officer in charge of the hospital that Willie had left the day before for Washington, doing well, the ball having been extracted. You can therefore imagine how shocked I was about midnight to get a despatch from Sandy Dallas, at Washington, stating Willie had died on the passage. I presume he must have died of hemorrhage, or some of those secondary causes that suddenly occur in gun-shot wounds. What a dreadful shock for his poor wife and your mother, and how it will mar the exultation of our recent victories!

Willie had established a high character for himself, and was doing so well that it seems hard he should be thus suddenly taken off. My God, what misery this dreadful war has produced, and how it comes home to the doors of almost every one!

I have written you fully, urging on you patience and resignation. Popular fame is at best but ephemeral, and so long as one has a clear conscience that he has done his duty, he can look, or at least should look, with indifference on the clamor of the vulgar.

I have received a very kind letter from Cortlandt Parker, and I enclose you one received to-day from Mr. Jay, of New York, so that I am not entirely without friends, though the few I have render them the more valuable. But, with or without friends, we ought to be happy so long as God spares our lives and blesses us with health, and our consciences are clear that we have done all we could. I trust we will soon have peace, and then I may be permitted to return to you and the children. This will compensate me for all I have gone through.

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. 272. Available via Google Books.

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Poor Young Parker (October 9, 1864)

It’s been over a year since young Lt. Cortlandt Parker, a member of Meade’s staff and the nephew of a family friend, vanished. (See here.) Now word has arrived that Parker had been captured by Confederate guerillas who killed him when he attempted to escape. There’s more about Parker here. His story is just one small tragedy in a nation engulfed by them.

We have at last heard of the fate of poor young Parker, who was on my staff. An officer recently returned from Richmond says he was captured by guerrillas near Bristol Station, a few days after Parker’s disappearance; that when they were taking him off they cautioned him not to attempt to escape, for if he did they would be obliged to serve him as they had done General Meade’s aide a few days before, who in spite of their cautions tried to get away, and they were forced to shoot him. I have no doubt this is a true statement of the poor fellow’s fate. I have sent it to Cortlandt Parker.

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. 233. Available via Google Books.

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.

Too Darned Hot (June 25, 1864)

Both Meade and Lyman mention the hot, dry weather that made the Petersburg front miserable for both armies. In addition, Meade mentions the Crapsey or Cropsey affair and how it has helped erase his presence in the newspapers. The wound of Hancock’s he mentions is the one the general received on the third day at Gettysburg. David Bell Birney has been in command of the II Corps while Hancock recovers. Gibbon is John Gibbon, one of Hancock’s division commanders.

Francis Markoe Bache, Meade's nephew (Library of Congress).

Francis Markoe Bache, Meade’s nephew (Library of Congress).

Francis Markoe Bache was Meade’s nephew and had joined his uncle’s staff from the 16th U.S. Infantry. When Lyman first met him, he called Bache “a remarkably empty-headed and ill-bred young man.” The two aides did not speak to each other for several months, until Bache finally apologized for his rudeness. General Meade had served under Bache’s father—who had married one of his sister’s—building lighthouses before the war.

We have had for ten days past most intensely hot weather, and in consequence have desisted from carrying on any more active operations than were absolutely necessary. Grant being at City Point, some eight miles distant, I see but little of him. He paid me a visit of an hour or two day before yesterday.

I received a few days ago a very kind letter from Cortlandt Parker, expressing much consideration for me in my present position, and saying it was well known how much of the work I was doing, and how little of the credit I was getting. Among other matters he alluded to the Cropsey affair, and said he was at George Harding’s when his brother came in with the news. Both the Hardings, he said, were quite excited, George the less so of the two; and Cortlandt thought he convinced him I was right, and advised me to write to him to endeavor to smooth it over. This I do not see how I can very well do, because I got Markoe Bache to write to him when the affair occurred, and to send him Cropsey’s confession, which he made, hoping by its publication in the Inquirer to get off. I asked Markoe to tell Mr. Harding that, as I could not let Cropsey off, he was at liberty to do as he pleased about the letter, though in my judgment the cause of truth and justice demanded its publication. The letter was never published, and the public are to this day ignorant of the real character of Cropsey’s offense.

Hancock’s wound discharged a big piece of bone the other day, and since then he has rapidly improved, and expects in a day or two to return to duty. In the meantime Birney has done very well.

Gibbon, whom I suppose you know I have finally succeeded in getting promoted, has been under the weather, but was about to-day.

And now Lyman, who remains busy serving as tour guide for the army’s two French guests.

I can only say that I have “sweltered” to-day—that is the word; not only has it been remarkably broiling, but this region is so beclouded with dust and smoke of burning forests, and so unrelieved by any green grass, or water, that the heat is doubled. We have had no drop of rain for twenty days, and but a stray shower for over a month. It is hardly necessary to say that neither army is what it was: the loss of a large proportion of the best officers, the nervous prostration of the men, the immense destruction of life, all tend to injure the morale and discipline and skill of both parties. As to the next step, I do not know; Grant is as calm and as apparently sure as ever. I have got from the region of fighting now, to the realm of lying idle, and it will not be so easy to fill a daily sheet. General Meade asked me to show the Gauls somewhat about; so I clapped them on their two horses, which they had from General Grant, and took them by easy stages to General Wright near by. The good General was comfortably in the woods. I say comfortably, because everything is relative. I mean he had his tents pitched and had iced water, two important elements. He speaks no French—De Chanal no English—so they smiled sweetly at each other. Old D. C. ought to be ashamed of himself. He married an American wife, but, like a true Gaul, utterly refused to learn a word of English. It is ever a part of a Frenchman’s religion to speak no language but his own. Little grasshopper Guzman chirped away and made up for two. Then Colonel Kent rode out with us, as a matter of politeness (for I knew that part of the line as well as he), and we showed them how our men made breastworks of rails, logs, and earth; how they lived and cooked; and all sorts of things. After which I took them out towards the picket line and showed them the country, and a tract of dense, young pines, through which our men advanced in double lines—a feat which I can never understand, but which is performed nevertheless. By this time, both distinguished foreigners being powdered a la marquise, I took them home, only showing them, before coming in, one more thing, only too characteristic of our war—the peculiar graves of our soldiers, marked each by a piece of cracker-box, with the man’s name in pencil, or hastily cut with a knife. I recollect sitting on the high bank of the Rapid Ann, at Germanna Ford, and watching the 5th and 6th Corps as they marched up from the pontoon bridges; and I remember thinking how strange it would be if each man who was destined to fall in the campaign had some large badge on! There would have been Generals Sedgwick, Wadsworth, and Rice, and what crowds of subordinate officers and of privates, all marching gaily along, unconscious, happily, of their fate.

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. 208-9. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 178-80. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.