The Death of Birney (October 19, 1864)

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

George Meade and David Bell Birney had never been friendly. It was a mutual dislike that dated back at least to Fredericksburg, when Meade sent messages asking Birney to send men to support his division, which had pierced Stonewall Jackson’s line. Birney refused, and in a face-to-face meeting on the battlefield, Meade’s language had been strong enough to “almost make the stones creep,” in the words on one bystander. Birney didn’t care for Meade., either. In a letter he wrote on October 28, 1863, Birney said that Meade, when commanding a brigade and a division, “was always badly beaten, troops flying in disorder and has no confidence in Soldiers of the volunteers.” Birney had castigated a number of his fellow generals in the same letter. George Sykes, he said, “was a disagreeable conceited selfish unpopular fellow”; John Newton was “a captain engineer with but little executive capacity, fond of whiskey, and will never distinguish himself although a pet of Meade.” William French, he said, “is drunk every afternoon, lately screeching drunk, jealous of every one in his command” and “hated by the corps.” Andrew Humphreys “is what we call an old granny, a charming, clever gentleman, fussy and [unclear] to troops.” Meade was perfectly aware that Birney had tried to get him replaced with either Joe Hooker or Daniel Sickles, as detailed here. So is it any wonder that when Birney died of typhoid on October 18 that Meade had said in a letter home to his wife that he had not liked Birney personally? (That remark, however, was edited out of the letter when it was printed in Meade’s Life and Letters.)

I am very glad you went to see Mrs. Birney. The telegraph to-day announces her husband’s decease. This has shocked every one here, for no one had any idea he was so ill. General Birney is undoubtedly a loss to the army. He was a very good soldier, and very energetic in the performance of his duties. During the last campaign he had quite distinguished himself. I feel greatly for his poor wife, who is thus so suddenly deprived of her husband and protector. When he left here he was said to be threatened with a serious attack, but it was hoped change of air and being at home would keep it off. He must have been much more sick than persons generally, or he himself, were aware of, because he was very reluctant to leave.

To-day I had a visit from the Rev. Dr. Pyne, of Washington, who has come to the army to visit a poor creature, a Frenchman, who deserted the service and then re-enlisted to get the large bounties. He was sentenced to be shot, but at the earnest solicitation of Dr. Pyne, and of his representations, I remitted the sentence to imprisonment at the Dry Tortugas.

I saw General Grant to-day, and we had a laugh over the ridiculous canard of my being relieved. He then told me he was asked in Washington if it was true, it being reported at the same time that he had resigned. These foolish reports were doubtless gotten up for political purposes and to affect the elections.

To-day Robert Meade [Meade’s nephew] went down the river in the flag-of-truce boat, having been exchanged. I saw a young navy officer who was captured at the same time and exchanged with Robert. He said Robert was well, but thin, as he had felt his captivity a good deal. His mother will be delighted to have him once more at home.

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. 235. Available via Google Books.

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Reflection (July 10, 1864)

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

July 10 finds Theodore Lyman in a philosophical mood as he wonders at the determination of the fighting men in the Army of Northern Virginia. He reflects the war-weariness that infected both armies by this point.

The Major Wooten to whom Lyman refers was the Confederate officer he met at Cold Harbor when delivering the flag of truce. Governor William Sprague (actually, former governor and at this point senator) is from Rhode Island. Lyman has mentioned him before. General Birney is David Bell Birney, who had provided damaging testimony against Meade for the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He had commanded the II Corps while Winfield Scott Hancock was incapacitated by his Gettysburg wound.

It seems sometimes sort of lonely and hopeless, sitting here in the dust by Petersburg, and hearing nothing except now and then a cannon in the distance. Sometimes I feel like saying to the Rebels: “You’re a brave set of men, as ever were; and honest—the mass of you. Take what territory you have left and your nigs, and go and live with your own delusions.” But then, if I reflect, of course I see that such things won’t do. Instead of being exasperated at the Southerners by fighting against them, I have a great deal more respect for them than ever I had in peace-times. They appear to much more advantage after the discipline of war than when they had no particular idea of law and order. Of course I speak only of a certain body, the army of Northern Virginia; of the rest I know nothing. Also do I not speak of their acts elsewhere; but simply of the manner of warfare of our particular opponents. It is always well, you know, to speak of what you see, and not of what you hear through half a dozen irresponsible persons. There is no shadow of doubt that the body of the Southerners are as honestly, as earnestly and as religiously interested in this war as the body of the Northerners. Of course such sentiments in the North are met with a storm of “Oh! How can they be?”—“That is morally impossible”—“No one could really believe in such a cause!” Nevertheless there is the fact, and I cannot see what possible good can come from throwing a thin veil of mere outcries between ourselves and the sharp truth. I am not so witless as not to be able to tell in five minutes’ conversation with common men whether they are reasonably honest and sincere, or false and deceitful. I was much struck with something that Major Wooten said, when we were waiting together, by night, at Cool Arbor. After listening to the tremendous noise of cannon and musketry that suddenly had burst forth, he said: “There they are, firing away; and it is Sunday night, too.” The great thing that troubles me is, that it is not a gain to kill off these people—now under a delusion that amounts to a national insanity. They are a valuable people, capable of a heroism that is too rare to be lost.

William Sprague of Rhode Island (Library of Congress).

William Sprague of Rhode Island (Library of Congress).

It is a common saying round here that the war could be settled in half an hour if they would leave it to the two armies. But I fear the two armies would settle it rather for their own convenience and in the light of old enemies (who had beaten at each other till they had beaten in mutual respect) than on the high grounds on which alone such a decision could rest. And, on second thoughts, I do not think it might turn out so smoothly. Doubtless the treaty would make excellent progress the first ten minutes; but then would arise questions at which there would be hesitation, and, at the end of the half-hour, it is to be feared both parties would be back in their breastworks. General Meade is fond of saying that the whole could be settled by the exercise of common Christian charity; but (entirely sub rosa) I don’t know any thin old gentleman, with a hooked nose and cold blue eye, who, when he is wrathy, exercises less of Christian charity than my well-beloved Chief! I do not wish to be understood as giving a panegyric on the Secesh, but merely as stating useful facts. Little Governor Sprague appeared again. He was last with us at Spotsylvania. This time he came over with Birney, who, with his thin, pale, Puritanic face, is quite a contrast. Sprague has two rabbit teeth in front that make him look like a small boy. Birney looks rather downcast. You see he was ambitious to do well while he had temporary command of the Corps; but all went wrong. His great charge of nine brigades, on the 18th of June, was repulsed; and on the 22d the Corps had that direful affair in which the whole Corps was flanked, by nobody at all, so to speak. The more I think on that thing, the more extraordinary and disgraceful does it appear. At the same time, it is in the highest degree instructive as showing what a bold and well-informed enemy may do in thick woods, where nobody can see more than a company front. The Rebel official accounts show that Mahone, with some 6000 or 7000 men, marched in the face of two corps in line of battle, took 1600 prisoners, ten flags, and four guns, paralyzed both corps, held his position till nightfall, and retreated with a loss of not over 400 men! I was with the 6th Corps and never heard a musket from the 2d nor dreamed it was doing anything, till an aide came to say the line had been driven in. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 186-9. 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.

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.

Generals (May 20, 1864)

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Lyman mentions all four generals in his letter of May 20, 1864 (Library of Congress).

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Lyman mentions all four generals in his letter of May 20, 1864 (Library of Congress).

There’s no letter from Meade on May 20, but Theodore Lyman contributes another detailed report. One of the people he mentions is Francis Barlow. Like Lyman, Barlow was a Harvard man. He had practiced law before the war and looked more like a newsboy than a general, but Barlow had been wounded at Antietam and left for dead at Gettysburg (after posting his XI Corps division in a too-extended position). He carried an especially large sword—so that when he hit stragglers with it, he would hurt them, he told Lyman. Lyman called him “an eccentric officer.”

Lyman also writes about the death of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. Col. Martin McMahon, the officer who informed Lyman of General John Sedgwick’s death, wrote an account of the incident that appeared in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (Vol IV, p. 175). Here’s what he wrote:

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

I gave the necessary order to move the troops to the right, and as they rose to execute the movement the enemy opened a sprinkling fire, partly from sharp-shooters. As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged. The general said laughingly, “What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the general, and at the same moment a sharp-shooter’s bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the general, dodged to the ground. The general touched him gently with his foot, and said, “Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,” and repeated the remark, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” The man rose and saluted, and said good-naturedly, “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.” The general laughed and replied, “All right, my man; go to your place.”

For a third time the same shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk, when, as I was about to resume, the general’s face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction; I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I fell with him.

Colonel Charles H. Tompkins, chief of the artillery, standing a few feet away, heard my exclamation as the general fell, and, turning, shouted to his brigade-surgeon, Dr. Ohlenschlager. Major Charles A. Whittier, Major T. W. Hyde, and Lieutenant-Colonel Kent, who had been grouped near by, surrounded the general as he lay. A smile remained upon his lips but he did not speak. The doctor poured water from a canteen over the general’s face. The blood still poured upward in a little fountain. The men in the long line of rifle-pits, retaining their places from force of discipline, were all kneeling with heads raised and faces turned toward the scene; for the news had already passed along the line.

I was recalled to a sense of duty by General Ricketts, next in command, who had arrived on the spot, and informed me, as chief-of-staff, that he declined to assume command of the corps, inasmuch as he knew that it was General Sedgwick’s desire, if anything should happen to him, that General Horatio G. Wright, of the Third Division, should succeed him. General Ricketts, therefore, suggested that I communicate at once with General Meade, in order that the necessary order should bo issued. When I found General Meade he had already heard the sad intelligence, and had issued the order placing General Wright in command. Returning I met the ambulance bringing the dead general’s body, followed by his sorrowing staff. The body was taken back to General Meade’s headquarters, and not into any house. A bower was built for it of evergreens, where, upon a rustic bier, it lay until nightfall, mourned over by officers and soldiers. The interment was at Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut.

Now let’s see what Lyman had to say on May 20, 1864.

To-day has been entirely quiet, our pickets deliberately exchanging papers, despite orders to the contrary. These men are incomprehensible— now standing from daylight to dark killing and wounding each other by thousands, and now making jokes and exchanging newspapers! You see them lying side by side in the hospitals, talking together in that serious prosaic way that characterizes Americans. The great staples of conversation are the size and quality of rations, the marches they have made, and the regiments they have fought against. All sense of personal spite is sunk in the immensity of the contest.

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

In my letter of yesterday I got you as far as the evening of Sunday the 8th. On Monday, the 9th, early, Burnside was to come down the Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg road to the “Gate,” thus approaching on the extreme left; Sedgwick and Warren respectively occupied the left and right centre, while Hancock, in the neighborhood of Todd’s Tavern, covered the right flank; for you will remember that the Rebel columns were still moving down the Parker’s Store road to Spotsylvania, and we could not be sure they would not come in on our right flank and rear. Betimes in the morning General Meade, with three aides, rode back to General Hancock, and had a consultation with him. The day was again hot and the dust thicker and thicker. As we stood there under a big cherry tree, a strange figure approached; he looked like a highly independent mounted newsboy; he was attired in a flannel checked shirt; a threadbare pair of trousers, and an old blue kepi; from his waist hung a big cavalry sabre; his features wore a familiar sarcastic smile. It was General Barlow, commanding the 1st division of the 2d Corps, a division that for fine fighting cannot be exceeded in the army. There, too, was General Birney, also in checked flannel, but much more tippy than Barlow, and stout General Hancock, who always wears a clean white shirt (where he gets them nobody knows); and thither came steel-cold General Gibbon, the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up-and-down manner of telling the truth, no matter whom it hurts. . . .

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John" (Library of Congress).

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John” (Library of Congress).

It was about ten o’clock, and I was trotting down the Piney Branch road, when I met Colonel McMahon, Adjutant-General of the 6th Corps; I was seriously alarmed at the expression of his face, as he hurriedly asked where General Meade was. I said, “What is the matter?” He seemed entirely unnerved as he replied: “They have hit General Sedgwick just here under the eye, and, my God, I am afraid he is killed!” It was even so: General Sedgwick, with a carelessness of consequences for which he was well known, had put his Headquarters close on the line of battle and in range of the sharpshooters. As he sat there, he noticed a soldier dodging the bullets as they came over. Rising from the grass, he went up to the man, and, laying his hand on his shoulder, said, “Why, what are you dodging for? They could not hit an elephant at that distance.” As he spoke the last word, he fell, shot through the brain by a ball from a telescopic rifle. . . . The dismay of General Sedgwick’s Staff was a personal feeling; he was like a kind father to them, and they loved him really like sons. So fell “good Uncle John,” a pure and great-hearted man, a brave and skilful soldier. From the commander to the lowest private he had no enemy in this army. . . .

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I found General Meade with Generals Wright, Warren, and Humphreys consulting together in the same spot where Grant sat yesterday among the bullets, for no apparent reason. You never saw such an old bird as General Humphreys! I do like to see a brave man; but when a man goes out for the express purpose of getting shot at, he seems to me in the way of a maniac. … In the afternoon there was some fighting on the right centre, without result; Burnside pushed down on the left, driving the enemy before him; and so the day closed, our army crowding in on Lee and he standing at bay and throwing up breastworks.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 106-108. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Review (April 13, 1864)

The home of John Minor Botts, site of the II Corps review that Theodore Lyman writes about (Library of Congress).

The home of John Minor Botts, site of the II Corps review that Theodore Lyman writes about (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman writes home on April 13, 1864, and describes his first impressions of Winfield Scott Hancock and Philip Sheridan. We have encountered John Minor Botts before. David Birney now commands a division in Hancock’s II Corps. The brigade commanders are Hobart Ward and Alexander Hays.

Philip Sheridan was the army’s new head of cavalry. He and Meade will develop a rancorous relationship. “Little Phil” had commanded cavalry for a grand total of only about three months during his military career, but he had served under Grant in the West and the new general in chief liked his aggressive nature. “He was brusque, demanding, profane, and unforgiving,” wrote biographer Roy Morris Jr. “He was also hardworking, patriotic, uncomplaining, and brave.” He was a hard fighter on the battlefield and was equally aggressive at furthering his own reputation.

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

We went to a review of Birney’s Division near J. M. Bott’s house. The two brigades are under H. Ward and Alex. Hays. About 5000 men were actually on the ground. Here saw General Hancock for the first time. He is a tall, soldierly man, with light-brown hair and a military heavy jaw; and has the massive features and the heavy folds round the eye that often mark a man of ability. Then the officers were asked to take a little whiskey chez Botts. Talked there with his niece, a dwarfish little woman of middle age, who seems a great invalid. She was all of a tremor, poor woman, by the mere display of troops, being but nervous and associating them with the fighting she had seen round the very house. Then there was a refreshment at Birney’s Headquarters, where met Captain Briscoe (said to be the son of an Irish nobleman, etc., etc.); also Major Mitchell on General Hancock’s Staff. The Russ was delighted with the politeness and pleased with the troops. Introduced to General Sheridan, the new Chief of Cavalry — a small, broad-shouldered, squat man, with black hair and a square head. He is of Irish parents, but looks very like a Piedmontese. General Wilson, who is probably to have a division, is a slight person of a light complexion and with rather a pinched face. Sheridan makes everywhere a favorable impression.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 80-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Birney (April 11, 1864)

David Bell Birney.

David Bell Birney.

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had been born in the South, but a hatred of slavery motivated his father to pack up the family and move north. Birney took up the law and was practicing in Philadelphia when war broke out. As Theodore Lyman wrote, Birney “was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair.”

The bad blood between Meade and Birney stretched back to Fredericksburg, at least. When Meade’s brigade broke through the southern lines south of town, Meade sent to Birney for support. Birney replied that he could not move forward until he received word from John Reynolds to do so. This outraged Meade. He sent another officer to Birney with another demand for reinforcements. Birney again refused. Now Meade galloped over himself. He had his recent commission as a major-general in his pocket, and that meant he outranked Birney. “General, I assume the authority of ordering you up to the support of my men,” he said, according to one account. According to another, Meade said much more, in language strong enough to “almost make the stones creep.”

Birney later testified before Congress that he received only one message from Meade and in his official report he said he responded “immediately.” However, in a letter to a friend that Birney wrote shortly after the battle, he said that when a reporter from the New York Herald urged him to send some of his artillery to help Meade, “I told him the Reserves might run and be damned, that not a gun should leave my Division.”

Birney led a division of the III Corps at Gettysburg and took corps command after Daniel Sickles was wounded.

To help speed Meade’s departure from the army, Birney decided to cast his lot with Hooker and Sickles. “Meade is a fraud,” he had written to a friend in March. “We must have Hooker back to this army and I believe he will be sent to us!” he wrote. He also had great hopes for the future of Dan Sickles. “Sickles will I think command this army and in time will be President,” he had predicted back in October. So when Birney testified before the committee, he claimed that on July 5 he had wanted to attack the retreating Confederates but received an order not to do so. That was just the kind of example of timidity the congressmen were seeking. No matter that such an order never appeared in any official record, nor had Birney mentioned this incident in his official report.

Following elimination of the III Corps, Birney received a division in the II Corps under Hancock. He realized he had backed the wrong horse. “Grant killed the demonstration for Hooker, that was assuming shape, and would have ended in the decapitation of Meade,” he noted in a letter on April 5.

There is no doubt General Birney is scared at the turn things have taken in the Sickles matter, for I received a note from Hancock, the other day, saying Birney had been to see him, disclaiming being a partisan of Sickles, and saying he would like to come and see me to explain matters, but did not like to do so without some intimation on my part that it would be agreeable. I replied to Hancock that I was not aware of there being any occasion for explanation on the part of General Birney, as I had heard nothing except what I had seen in the papers about his testimony, and that he had denied in writing. At the same time I was always ready to see General Birney whenever he chose to do me the honor to call.

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. 189. Available via Google Books.

Reputation (April 6, 1864)

The Army of the Potomac's head of artillery, Henry Hunt. He said he would have known if Meade had been planning a retreat from Gettysburg (Library of Congress).

The Army of the Potomac’s head of artillery, Henry Hunt. He said he would have known if Meade had been planning a retreat from Gettysburg (Library of Congress).

Henry Hunt, the Army of the Potomac’s head of artillery, was one witness who testified in Meade’s favor for the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Since moving his ammunition trains was an important logistical consideration when moving the army, Hunt said he would certainly have known if Meade was planning a retreat from Gettysburg. Hunt had also met with Daniel Sickles at Gettysburg on July 2 before that III Corps commander moved his men forward. Sickles had told Hunt he wanted to move out of the general depression along the Union line where Cemetery Ridge ceased being a ridge, and take a position on the higher ground alongside the Emmitsburg Road. He had been especially concerned about a peach orchard that would offer Confederate artillery an excellent position to wreak havoc on the Union line. Hunt had agreed that the forward line had some advantages but felt it also had some serious drawbacks. Then Hunt had heard firing from the direction of Cemetery Hill and prepared to ride off and investigate. Sickles had asked him if he should move his troops forward. “Not on my authority; I will report to General Meade for instructions,” replied Hunt. He found Meade and told him that Sickles’s proposed line had favorable offensive possibilities but that he would not recommend it. Sickles had moved forward without permission.

David Birney had been one of Sickles’ division commanders at Gettysburg and took corps command after Sickles was wounded. He had no love for Meade and sought to see him replaced by either Joe Hooker or, even better, Dan Sickles.

General Grant returned yesterday, and I have seen him to-day. Nothing new or important has transpired.

General Hunt has been up to Washington and before the committee. He says, after questioning him about the famous order of July 2, and his telling them he never heard of it, and from his position and relations with me would certainly have heard of it, they went to work and in the most pettifogging way, by a cross-examination, tried to get him to admit such an order might have been issued without his knowing anything about it. This, after my testimony, and that of Warren, Hancock, Gibbon and Hunt, evidently proves they are determined to convict me, in spite of testimony, and that Butterfield’s perjury is to outweigh the testimony of all others. I suppose you have seen the last effusion of Historicus. There is no doubt now about the author, as he quotes a private letter from [David Bell] Birney, which could not have been written to any one but Sickles. The best joke is that Barnes, it is said, has a letter from Birney, denying that he ever made any statements of the kind quoted in his letter to Historicus. Is it not too bad that one’s reputation should be in the hands of such men?

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. 187-8. Available via Google Books.

A Violent Attack (March 9, 1864)

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

Meade’s travails with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War continue. He has learned that Generals David Bell Birney and Alfred Pleasonton have testified against him. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

As the head of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps, Pleasonton had embarrassed Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station just before Lee’s push north into Pennsylvania, but he had a less-than-sterling reputation. One cavalry officer said Pleasonton owed his position to “systematic lying,” and another called him “the greatest humbug of the war.” According to Pleasonton’s testimony he was with Meade following the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3 and “urged him to order a general advance of his whole army in pursuit of the enemy.” Instead, Meade sent him to determine whether the enemy was retreating. A year later Pleasonton will remember even more about his dealings with Meade. This time he recollects that on the afternoon of July 2, Meade had ordered him to prepare his cavalry to cover the army’s retreat, and he had spent the entire remainder of July 2, until around midnight, doing just that. Apparently this had all slipped his memory when he first testified.

David Birney testified the same day as Pleasonton. He had his own ax to grind with Meade following their unpleasant encounter at Fredericksburg. “Meade is a fraud,” he had written to a friend in March. To help speed Meade’s departure from the army, Birney decided to cast his lot with Hooker and Sickles. “We must have Hooker back to this army and I believe he will be sent to us!” he wrote. He also had great hopes for the future of Dan Sickles. “Sickles will I think command this army and in time will be President,” he had predicted back in October. So when Birney testified before the committee, he claimed that on July 5 he had wanted to attack the retreating Confederates but received an order not to do so. That was just the kind of example of timidity the congressmen were seeking. No matter that such an order never appeared in any official record, nor had Birney mentioned this incident in his official report.

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

I have answered Mr. Harding’s note, likewise one from Cortlandt Parker, and numerous others I have received from sympathizing friends. To prepare a statement and furnish it to all my friends who are desirous of defending me would take too much time. Besides, I intend to await the action of the committee, give them a chance to do me justice, failing which I will publish a pamphlet giving my side of the question. Yesterday’s Tribune has a most violent attack on me, full of the basest and most malicious slanders, in which, not satisfied with attacking my military reputation, they impugn my loyalty and attribute expressions to me I never dreamed of using. [For the article, see below.]

Birney and Pleasanton have appeared in the hostile ranks. The latter’s course is the meanest and blackest ingratitude; for I can prove, but for my intercession he would have been relieved long since.

Here’s the Tribune article that so incensed Meade:

GEN. MEADE AND THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG

The points made before the War Investigating Committee against Gen. Meade, who is substantially on trial before this congressional Commission, by the testimony of Gens. Sickles and Doubleday, are, that he gave and promulgated an order to his army to retreat from Gettysburg at the close of the first day’s fight, when his superior strength, his advantage of position, and the honor and interests of the country, required him to give battle; that, in the forenoon of the second day’s fight—Thursday—he gave another order to retreat, but which was not promulgated in writing; that he had made no dispositions for battle that day, had no plan for fighting, and seemingly no purpose to fight, but that the battle was precipitated by Gen. Sickles, and forced on Meade in part by the enemy, but principally by General Sickles, that Meade did not know on Friday night that our men had whipped Lee, or distrusted the fact that night, and was so uncertain of it on Saturday that he dared not pursue the beaten enemy, and weakly and ignorantly threw away the certainty of capture or destroying the entire Rebel army; that for a few moments he yielded to persuasions to let the 3d Corps pursue, but countermanded the order to do so in ten minutes after it was given, saying, alluding to the Rebels, “Oh, let them go;” that Meade’s subsequent representation that he was not in condition to pursue was not true; that his army was abundantly able and in condition to make immediate pursuit, and, if necessary, to fight and crush Lee’s disordered columns; that the 6th Corps was fresh and substantially intact; it had lost only 100 men, the 12th Corps had lost only 700 and had about 12,000 left, the 3d Corps had 6,000 men left and prayed to be permitted to pursue; the whole of the cavalry, 10,000 was intact and fresh. Gen. French had at Frederick 10,000 veterans in perfect condition, and Couch’s great force was also at Meade’s call. That, in a word, he had over 40,000 effective and ardent troops with which to pursue and destroy Lee’s flying and demoralized army, but refused to use them and suffered the enemy to escape. It is upon the question of the issuance of the second order to retreat that Gen. Butterfield has been summoned.

In the committee room it is understood that the origin of the effort made by Gen. Meade to break up the Third Corps to the waste of its esprit, and the discontent of every man and officer in it, and dissatisfaction with the service, was the refusal of the corps to subscribe to the McClellan testimonial.

It is stated that testimony can be added to convict Gen. Meade of expressing the opinion that we cannot subdue the Rebels. Gens. Birney and Pleasonton, examined before the War Committee to-day, told the remarkable story of the war councils called during and after the battle of Gettysburg, and exhibited the strength and efficiency of the army the morning after the last day’s fight. The testimony of both these Generals was very damaging.

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. 176. The Tribune article appears on pp. 320-1. Available via Google Books.

The Raid (March 1, 1864)

Judson Kilpatrick, the controversial cavalry commander (Library of Congress).

Judson Kilpatrick, the controversial cavalry commander (Library of Congress).

Here’s Theodore Lyman’s behind-the-scenes look at the start of the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid  on Richmond. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps and Custer’s brigade of cavalry were designed to divert Confederate attention from the raid. After Lyman’s letter I include the report that Meade prepared for Henry Halleck (still the commander-in-chief of the Union armies, but not for long) on March 1 about the raid’s progress to that point. General Andrew Humphreys is Meade’s chief of staff.

. . . For some days General Humphreys has been a mass of mystery, with his mouth pursed up, and doing much writing by himself, all to the great amusement of the bystanders, who had heard, even in Washington, that some expedition or raid was on the tapis, and even pointed out various details thereof. However, their ideas, after all, were vague; but they should not have known anything. Que voulez-vous? A secret expedition with us is got up like a picnic, with everybody blabbing and yelping. One is driven to think that not even the prospect of immediate execution will stop Americans from streaming on in their loose, talking, devil-may-care ways. Kilpatrick is sent for by the President; oh, ah! everybody knows it at once: he is a cavalry officer; it must be a raid. All Willard’s chatters of it. Everybody devotes his entire energies to pumping the President and Kill-cavalry! Some confidential friend finds out a part, tells another confidential friend, swearing him to secrecy, etc., etc. So there was Eleusinian Humphreys writing mysteriously, and speaking to nobody, while the whole camp was sending expeditions to the four corners of the compass! On Saturday, at early morn, Uncle John Sedgwick suddenly picked up his little traps and marched with his Corps through Culpeper and out towards Madison Court House, away on our right flank. The next, the quiet Sabbath, was broken by the whole of Birney’s division, of the 3d Corps, marching also through Culpeper, with the bands playing and much parade. We could only phancy the feeling of J. Reb contemplating this threatening of his left flank from his signal station on Clark’s Mountain. Then the flaxen Custer, at the head of cavalry, passed through, and wended his way in the same direction. All this, you see, was on our right. That night Kilpatrick, at the head of a large body of cavalry, crossed at Ely’s Ford, on our extreme left, and drew a straight bead on Richmond! At two oclock that night he was at Spotsylvania C. H., and this is our last news of him. He sent back word that he would attack Richmond at seven this morning. The idea is to liberate the prisoners, catch all the rebel M. C.’s that are lying round loose, and make tracks to our nearest lines. I conceive the chances are pretty hazardous, although the plan was matured with much detail and the start was all that could be asked. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 76-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 Meade’s report is from the Official Records, ser. 1, Vol. 33, p. 169:

Meade March 1