A Most Striking Sight (June 16, 1864)

Wilcox's landing on the James River. Before the war it had been established as a shipping point for tobacco (Library of Congress).

Wilcox’s landing on the James River. Before the war it had been established as a shipping point for tobacco (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman describes the events of June 16, 1864. His journals, edited by David W. Lowe and published as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, make great companion reading for his letters. In his journals Lyman adds to his account of touring the former Confederate ironclad Atlanta. “This ‘Atlanta’ is just like a great, iron turtle, with an angular back, in which there are narrow ports for three or four big rifled cannon, which are handled with surprising ease by a few ropes and pulleys,” he wrote. “The inside was like a low attic. We saw where a number of bolt-heads were knocked off by one of our 15-inch shot, when we took her. The not nevertheless, did not go through.” Lyman was correct that the Union guns did not penetrate the ironclad’s armor, but several of her crewmen had been wounded by wood fragments and bolts sent flying by the impacts.

The wounded Hal whom Lyman visits was Henry Sturgis Russell, his wife’s brother. He will recover. Russell had joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, an African-American unit. At the time Lyman expressed some outrage. “The Negro cannot change his nature; thus hath God made him,” Lyman wrote in this journal on December 11, 1863. “As a rule he cannot fight against the White. This is leaning on a broken reed. There is no general historical precedence for their being efficient troops.” Lyman was certainly not in the minority here but, as he noted the day before, the black soldiers had acquitted themselves well in the fight for the Dimmock Line outside Petersburg.

Horace Porter (Library of Congress).

Horace Porter (Library of Congress).

Horace Porter of Grant’s staff also described the fighting on June 16 in his book Campaigning with Grant. He wrote, “I found Meade standing near the edge of a piece of woods, surrounded by some of his staff, and actively engaged in superintending the attack, which was then in progress. His usual nervous energy was displayed in the intensity of his manner and the rapid and animated style of his conversation. He assured me that no additional orders could be given which could add to the vigor of the attack. He was acting with great earnestness, and doing his utmost to carry out the instructions which he had received. He had arrived at the front about two o’clock, and his plans had been as well matured as possible for the movement. Three redans, as well as a line of earthworks connecting them, were captured. The enemy felt the loss keenly, and made several desperate attempts during the night to recover the ground, but in this he did not succeed.”

At four in the morning they began to ferry over the 5th Corps; of this, two divisions were loaded from Wilcox’s wharf and two from a wharf near the bridge; the bridge itself being in constant use for the passage of the main train. The 5th Corps would then march on Petersburg and take position on the left of the 9th. . . . Our information was that part of Lee’s army, quitting Malvern Hill, had crossed at Drury’s Bluff and was moving on Petersburg. About nine o’clock the General, with Sanders and myself, went on board the ironclad Atlanta. The Captain sent a boat ashore and took us out in state. How sailor-like the Americans look, with their blue shirts and flat caps! And these poor infantry, artillery, and cavalry of ours, why, the more they serve, the less they look like soldiers and the more they resemble day-laborers who have bought second-hand military clothes. I have so come to associate good troops with dusty, faded suits, that I look with suspicion on anyone who has a stray bit of lace or other martial finery. . . .

At 10.30 General Humphreys and General Meade, taking only Sanders and myself, embarked on a boat with General Ingalls, for City Point. The boat started up the river with us, and we found it an hour’s trip to City Point. The river is very pretty, or rather fine, with banks that remind one of Narragansett Bay, going to Newport, only they are, I think, higher. . . . City Point is a jut of land at the junction of the Appomattox and the James. It must once have been a quite pretty place, and consisted of a large number of scattered private houses, several of them very good ones; especially that near which General Grant had his camp, which is just on the river. . . . Grant had gone to the front, some seven miles away, and we presently rode out on the Petersburg road, and met Grant returning,1 a couple of miles from the Point. It was on going out of the place that it occurred to me that someone had said that Hal’s regiment was there; so, as I passed a shipshape-looking camp, I asked, “What regiment is that?” “Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry,” said the darkie. “Is Colonel Russell there?” “No, sa-ar. He’s in der hospital. He was wounded yesterday!” I felt a quite cold perspiration, as I asked if he were badly hurt. The man thought not, but said he was hit in two places. It was tough to ride right past him so, but the General had but two aides; we were expecting a fight, and I had no business to stop in a road where I could not again find him. Meeting Colonel Rowley, however, I asked him to see that Hal had everything and to say that I would be in that night to see him. We rode on along an almost deserted road, till we crossed the rail, when we came on Burnside’s column, moving wearily along. The men had done awful marching in a dry country, with a hot sun and midst a stifling dust. I hate to see troops so used up. Passing through some woods, we again got to an open country, then went a little way more in woods, and came full on an open space in front of the captured line of works. . . . Just here Hancock had his flag and General Meade was soon busy consulting about an assault, which finally was ordered for six p.m. … From the place we then stood I could see two or three spires of the town. Of this attack I saw more than of most previous fights, or rather of the cannonade. The line of our batteries was in plain sight, a little in front of where General Meade took his stand, because the Rebels had long since cut down a wide zone of timber in their front, to get a good field of fire. It was a most striking sight! The air, hazy with dust, gave a copper-red color to the declining sun, which was soon heightened by the powder-smoke that rose from the batteries. The firing was very heavy and there was the continual whiz of our shells or those of the enemy. It is curious, but the scene reminded me of one of those stiff but faithful engravings of Napoleon’s battles that one sees in European collections; especially the artillerists loading and discharging their pieces. The musketry was pretty heavy too. Birney and part of the others carried the first line, but the assault was not a success such as we wanted; however, General Meade ordered a column of 5000 men to be prepared for a moonlight attack, which, as you will learn, took place at daylight next morning. The General had a quite narrow escape, as we stood watching; for a round shot came bounding over the country and hopped right in front of him and General Humphreys. The attack over, I asked leave to go in and see Harry, and the General told me I could have stopped when we came through had I asked then. So I got a fresh horse and two men and started. It was an elegant night, with a fine moon—quite perfect indeed. You could never have supposed yourself near a great army, after getting past the railroad. There was scarcely a soul on the route. As I got near the village there were some waggons going out to Butler, but these were pretty much all. Nobody halted me, though I rode past a picket guard and through the breastworks. It was not till I drew near Hal’s camp that his sentry roared out in a military voice, indicating much study of phonetics: “Halt! Who goes there?” Then came a corporal of the guard in due style. … I ascended the stairs of what had been a private house. It was about ten at night when I got in. There were a number of cots arranged in a large upper room, each occupied by a wounded officer. On the mantelpiece were medicine bottles, a pitcher of lemonade and a candle; and this was a ward. Master Hal lay fast asleep on one of the cots, quite unconscious of dusty brothers-in-law. . . . He was mightily glad to see me, and we talked some time, in a low voice, not to disturb others. I remember there was a wounded lieutenant next us, a good deal under morphine, who had a great fancy that Lee had captured our whole supply train. Finally I departed with a humble gift of two oranges and some tea, which I had brought in my holsters. . . .

Some of the works in front of Petersburg captured by the XVIII Corps Library of Congress).

Some of the works in front of Petersburg captured by the XVIII Corps Library of Congress).

Then to Headquarters and found General Grant just going to bed. He sat on the edge of his cot, in shirt and drawers, and listened to my report. I told him the General would put in a column of 5000 men of the 9th Corps, by moonlight. He smiled, like one who had done a clever thing, and said, “I think it is pretty well to get across a great river, and come up here and attack Lee in his rear before he is ready for us!” He prepared a despatch to General Meade, which I took back.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 163-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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On to Petersburg . . . Almost (June 15, 1864)

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Yet another of the Civil War’s lost opportunities, as described by Theodore Lyman. William F. “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps attack the Dimmock Line around Petersburg and appear in a position to make their victory complete, but Smith holds back. Instead of having Hancock and the II Corps, newly arrived, press the advantage, Smith has them fill in for his exhausted men. Here Lyman expresses surprise at the fighting qualities of the African-American troops he had disparaged just the month before. Although he still expresses condescending impressions of black soldiers, this is something of a step forward. He also mentions “Wise’s Legion,” which are the troops commanded by Meade’s brother-in-law, Henry Wise. A former governor of Virginia, Wise’s first wife had been Meade’s wife’s sister.

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James Riber (Library of Congress).

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James River (Library of Congress).

Of course, the first thing was to visit the great bridge. The approach to it lay along the river border, under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for, a day or two previous, it had been covered with great cypresses, some of them at least three and a half feet in diameter, and these had to be cut close to the ground, and the debris carefully cleared away; in a portion of the road too there was a muddy swamp, which had to be laboriously spanned by a causeway; but there was the whole thing, finished, and of course a photographer making a “picture” of it. It was very simple: you have only to fancy a bridge of boats, thirteen feet wide and 2000 long, the while looking so light as scarcely to be capable of bearing a man on horseback. In the middle of the river were anchored two schooners, which gave greater stability to the bridge, by being attached to it with ropes. 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 near by. It was funny to run against the marine in this inland region, and to see the naval officers, all so smug and well brushed in their clean uniforms. Admiral L[ee] came to visit the General—a pleasant old lady apparently. While we were at dinner came Colonel Babcock, from Grant at City Point, with news that Baldy Smith had marched thence before daylight, engaged the enemy at five a.m., and was driving them towards Petersburg. Orders were immediately given to halt the waggon-train, now passing the bridge, and allow the 9th Corps to pass over and push on towards Petersburg (by the same route that Hancock had been following, during the day), and there form on his left. Smith, meantime, had hit the enemy, some three or four miles from City Point, in a wood, near where the main road crossed the rail. . . . How many there were I do not know, but they made a considerable fight with help of field batteries. Harry [Lyman’s brother-in-law], with 300 of his men, had the extreme left, and was wounded in this wood, early in the engagement..

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

A soldier told me he held on for an hour after he was hit; and I was further told his men did remarkably well. Within about two and a half miles of the town, Smith ran on the strong works long since constructed for its defence. These consist of a series of redoubts, with regular ditches and barbettes for guns, and connected in a chain by a heavy infantry parapet. The line was defended by Wise’s men (who look to me just like other Confederate soldiers) and by the local militia. What a difference that makes!! Their batteries opened a well-directed fire as our people advanced; but no sooner did the lines of battle debouch from the woods and push over the open ground, than the militia got shaky behind their works and, when our troops charged, they broke and ran, leaving sixteen guns and 300 or 400 prisoners in our hands. Everyone gives great credit to the negroes for the spirit they showed. I believe there is no question their conduct was entirely to their credit. . . . I shall never forget meeting, on the City Point road, five Confederate soldiers, under guard of nigs! . . . Three of the prisoners looked as if they could have taken off a tenpenny nail, at a snap. The other two seemed to take a ludicrous view of the matter and were smiling sheepishly. As to the negroes, they were all teeth, so to speak, teeth with a black frame. Hancock got up that evening and joined the 18th Corps. Their troops were all exhausted, but, oh! that they had attacked at once. Petersburg would have gone like a rotten branch. In war there is a critical instant—a night—perhaps only a half hour, when everything culminates. He is the military genius who recognizes this instant and acts upon it, neither precipitating nor postponing the critical moment. There is thus good reason why great soldiers should be so rare that generations pass without producing a single one. A great soldier must have, in addition to all usual traits of intellect, a courage unmoved by the greatest danger, and cool under every emergency, and the quickness of lightning, not only in conceiving, but in enforcing an order. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 160-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.