Minstrel Show (March 5, 1865)

A Timothy Gardiner photograph of the Poplar Grove Church (Library of Congress).

A Timothy Gardiner photograph of the Poplar Grove Church (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman is a great source for details about the day-to-day life in the Army of the Potomac. His letter of March 5, 1865, is a prime example. He describes a ride along the lines and he attends a minstrel show at the Poplar Grove Church, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers under the command of Ira Spaulding.

Lyman mentions two resignations. One is Jacob Henry Sleeper, a fellow Bostonian who had commanded the 10th Massachusetts Battery. He had been wounded in the army at Reams’ Station. The other resignation was Maj. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg, who led a division of the cavalry. Greg, cousin to Pennsylvania’s governor, was a capable commander who had stopped Jeb Stuart on July 3 at Gettysburg. The reasons for his resignation still remain something of a mystery, although he may have resented the way Philip Sheridan had been promoted over him.

David McMurtrie Gregg (Library of Congress).

David McMurtrie Gregg (Library of Congress).

. . . Well, the rain held up and some blue sky began to show, and I mounted on what I shall have to call my Anne of Cleves—for, in the choice words of that first of gentlemen, Henry VIII, she is “a great Flanders mare”—and rode forth for a little exercise. Verily I conceived we should rester en route, sich was the mud in one or two places! She would keep going deeper and deeper, and I would strive to pick out a harder path and would by no means succeed. Nevertheless, I made out to find some terra firma, at last, and, by holding to the ridges got a very fair ride after all. I found not much new out there, towards the Jerusalem plank: some cavalry camped about, as usual, and a new railroad branch going to supply them, and called Gregg’s branch. Gregg, by the way, has resigned. He is a loss to the service, and has commanded a cavalry division very successfully for a long time. I don’t know why he went out, since he is a regular officer. Some say it is a pretty wife, which is likely, seeing the same had worked in that style with others. Then there is Major Sleeper, resigned too. He has served long and well, and been wounded; so I say, what a pity that he should not stick to the end. It is human nature to expect a full performance of duty, when once a man has done decidedly well. These branch railroads are like mushrooms, and go shooting out at the shortest notice. The distinguished Botiano was entirely taken down by the performances of this sort. Just at the time of our new extension to the left, he went for a few days to Washington. When he got back, he was whisked over five miles of new railroad, including a number of bridges! This upset him wholly, and it was hard to make him believe that there hadn’t been an old line there before. Now where do you suppose I went last night? Why, to the theatre! Certainly, in my private carriage to the theatre; that is to say, on horseback, for may high powers forfend me from an ambulance over corduroys and these mud-holes! Rather would I die a rather swifter death. To explain, you must understand that good Colonel Spaulding commands a regiment of engineers, a fine command of some 1800 men. As they are nearly all mechanics, they are very handy at building and have erected, among other things, a large building, which is a church on Sundays, and a theatre on secular occasions. Thither the goodly Flint rode with me. On the outside was about half the regiment, each man armed with a three-legged stool, and all waiting to march into the theatre. We found the edifice quite a rustic gem. Everything, except the nails, is furnished by the surrounding woods and made by the men themselves. The building has the form of a short cross and is all of rustic work; the walls and floors of hewn slabs and the roof covered with shingles nailed on beams, made with the bark on. What corresponds to the left-side aisle was railed off for officers only, while the rest was cram-full of men. The illumination of the hall was furnished by a rustic chandelier, that of the stage by army lanterns, and by candles, whose rays were elegantly reflected by tin plates bought from the sutler. The entertainment was to be “minstrels”; and, to be sure, in walked an excellent counterpart of Morris, Pell, and Trowbridge, who immediately began an excellent overture, in which the tambourine gentleman, in particular, was most brilliant and quite convulsed the assembled engineers. The performances were, indeed, most creditable, and there was not a word of any sort of coarseness throughout. A grand speech on the state of the country, by a brother in a pair of gunny-bag trousers, was quite a gem. He had an umbrella, of extraordinary pattern, with which he emphasized his periods by huge whacks on the table. I think the jokes were as ingeniously ridiculous as could be got up, and that, you know, is the great thing in minstrels. Brudder Bones came a little of the professional by asking his friend: “What can yer play on dat banjo?” “Anyting,” says the unwary friend. “Well, den, play a game o’ billiards!” “Can’t play no billiards! kin play a tune,” cries the indignant friend. “Well den, if yer kin play a tune, jis play a pon-toon!” All to the inextinguishable delight of the engineers. After the play the good Colonel, who is one of the salt of the earth, insisted on my taking pigs’ feet as a supper.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 310-12. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Cavalry Raid (December 1, 1864)

GreggDavid McMurtrie Gregg was one of the Army of the Potomac’s best cavalry commanders. He was the cousin of Pennsylvania governor Andrew Gregg Curtin and had received his promotion of major general of volunteers in August. A couple of months after Theodore Lyman writes this letter, Gregg will abruptly resign from the army, for reasons that remain mysterious.

At daylight General Gregg made a start, with nearly his whole cavalry division, for Stony Creek station. For you must know that, since we have held the Weldon road, the enemy have been obliged to waggon much of their supplies from Stony Creek station, by cross roads to the Boydton plank and thus to Petersburg. Lately we have had reports that they were building a cross railroad from Stony Creek to the southside road. Gregg’s object therefore was to go to the station, which is over twenty miles by the road from our lines, find out if this railroad were really in progress or not, and do as much damage as possible. Instead of going straight down he, by advice of General Meade, bore a little to the east and then suddenly swung round, when he got a little below the station. The consequence was he came on them where they didn’t look for him. There were two redoubts, with regular ditch, etc., intended to keep off raiders; there was a thirty-pounder Parrott and a twelve-pounder field-piece mounted in them, and a few infantry as garrison. Their cavalry took to their heels, prudently. The infantry got in the redoubts and fired away with their cannon; but it got taken in a novel fashion. A regiment of cavalry charged to within 100 yards, then tumbled off their horses and made a rush at the parapet, and ran right over the occupants. This gave them possession of the station, and then there followed a scene of general smashing, which, according to witnesses, was highly amusing. The men, feeling like mischievous boys, went at everything tooth and nail. They took several hundred bales of hay and piled them against a stack of short forage, which contained between 3000 and 5000 bags. Then they set the whole on fire, and helped the blaze with a lot of new tents. Next they tied down the safety-valve of a locomotive, built a big fire under the boiler, and blew her up by this scientific process. After distributing the contents of a number of Rebel Thanksgiving boxes on the principle of spolia forti, they ended by a display of fireworks consisting of a shed full of ammunition, which was fired and allowed to go off at its convenience. Then they retreated, in great glee, taking with them 170 prisoners, who were not in such great glee. One was a scamp named Major Fitzhugh, who, when Captain Lazelle, of our cavalry, was made prisoner, put a pistol to his head and made him give him his boots. Captain Freikle told me he had a mind to make the scoundrel march the twenty miles barefooted, but couldn’t bring his mind to anything so mean. I would have made him do it.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 285-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Well-Conducted Fizzle (October 28, 1864)

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

In his letter of October 28, Theodore Lyman describes the frustrating experiences of the fighting at Burgess’s Mill and captures the sense of confusion that ruled the battlefield. The fighting had been done by the II, V, and IX Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock, Gouverneur Warren, and Charles Parke, with cavalry commanded by David McMurtrie Gregg. Charles Woolsey, whose escape from capture Lyman describes, served as an aide to Seth Williams, the army’s assistant adjutant-general.

Where do you think I am? Why, right by my dear chimney! All camped just where we were! I called our movement a grand reconnaissance in force; it would be more fair to call it an “attempt,” whose success depended on the enemy not having certain advantages of position. But they were found to have these advantages, and so here we are back again, nobody having fought much but Hancock, who had a most mixed-up and really severe action, on the extreme left, in which the Rebels got rather the worst of it; but Grant ordered Hancock to withdraw during the night, or early in the morning, by which he was compelled to leave some of his wounded in a house on the field. Warren would fain fight it out there, for the name of the thing; but that would have been bad strategy, though I do confess that (albeit not a fire-eater) I would sooner have seen it through the next day, by reinforcing the left. This, however, is a mere matter of sentiment; certainly I don’t set up my wisdom. As the Mine was to be termed an ill-conducted fizzle, so this attempt may be called a well-conducted fizzle. The Rebs are good engineers and had thrown up dirt scientifically, I can tell you. We got a pretty good handful of prisoners; I dare say 800 or so, and lost, including stragglers, I fancy as many, though they say we did not. The killed and wounded about equal; perhaps the enemy lost rather more than we; but the honors of the left lie with the enemy, for we abandoned the field in the night. To-day we marched back scientifically (we are hard to beat on a retreat I can tell you). The 9th and 5th Corps withdrew by successive lines of battle, one behind the other, and alternately marching to the rear, the front line passing through that behind. A very handsome manoeuvre; and the enemy, with relief, said good riddance. I do not feel anywise down in spirits, for we gave blow for blow, and came back when we saw the positions would not admit of the plan proposed. There was no blunder or disaster, but it was soldier-like. The General kept a good temper throughout, so that it was quite pleasant all round.

[In writing some days later, Lyman thus describes the country over which this engagement was fought:] The tract marked “dense wood” on my map beggars description. It is a wood, with a tangled, thick undergrowth that almost stops the passage of a man. The rest of the country is also much wooded, but wherever you see a house, there is a farm of greater or less size. [After a more detailed description of the fighting, he continues:] Mott’s men give way, the Rebels yell and their batteries open a cross-fire, and the enemy the other side of the run make as if to attack the 2d division in front. But the valiant Egan faces his line to the rear and charges the flank of the Rebels rushing from the woods; they are in turn smashed up and run back again, and a grand mixed-up fight takes place, in the midst of which Hampton’s cavalry falls furiously upon Gregg, who falls furiously upon him, and won’t budge an inch. The most singular things happened here; for, as the woods were full of broken bands of both parties, everybody captured everybody else, and was in turn captured! A good many parties of Rebels, carrying our prisoners to the rear, took wrong direction and fell into the open maw of Crawford. Lieutenant Woolsey, General Williams’s aide, in such an affair, showed a valor little to be looked for in so mild a youth. He was going along a wood road and came directly upon twelve Rebel cavalry; all cried “Halt! surrender!” to him, and two fired their carbines at him; Woolsey snapped his pistol at them, when one seized him round the waist; whereat W. hit him a back-handed blow on the bridge of his nose, put in the spurs, and actually broke away from the whole of them! When I asked him why he didn’t give up, he replied in a simple manner: “Why, I thought my mother would be much distressed if I was taken prisoner, so I thought it would perhaps be better not to surrender.” General Williams was in the greatest state of chuckle over his aide’s conduct, and kept asking unwary persons: “Do you know how Mr. Woolsey escaped from guerillas?” and, being answered “No,” would say:”Why, thus!” at the same time giving the unwary one a punch in the stomach, with his elbow. Then Major Roebling rode into a Rebel line of battle and had his orderly killed in his escape; Major Bingham was captured, but scared his guard so by telling him he was within our lines, that the man took to the bushes and left him. Lieutenant Dresser rode into the midst of a Rebel brigade, thinking they were prisoners. “Where is the Provost Guard?” asked D., who luckily had a gray rubber coat on. “Hain’t got none.” “What troops are these?” “Fourth Alabama.” “Oh, all right,” says Dresser, with presence of mind, and rides off, very slow at first, and very fast as soon as out of sight! The best feat was that of Major Mitchell (he always does perform feats). He rode into the woods, saw 200 Rebel infantry who had got lost, and were drawn up in line; came back, got a regiment, went out again and gobbled them all up. . . .

[The letter finishes with a lively description of some curious visitors to Headquarters.]

I had got safely to the Peeble house and was watching the columns as they marched in. I was still watching when suddenly there appeared a new comico-military procession: to wit, a venerable Brigadier, of a diluted visage, followed by two or three officers, and by two beings calculated to astonish the uninitiated. The first was simply gorgeous, not of dubious character, but evidently an officer of one of those theatrical French indigene regiments. He was tightly done up in a black jacket, all over which five hundred yards of fine black braid had gone into spasmodic convulsions; then black trousers with a wide scarlet stripe, morocco knee-boots, and a light blue kepi. To complete his costume, a row of medals stretched from his central buttonhole to the point of his shoulder! The second stranger was utterly incomprehensible. He had on a pair of red, military trousers, a red fez with a blue tassel, and a black dresscoat! In order to mark this simple costume, he had, with admirable taste, suspended a small stiletto from the lower buttonhole of his waistcoat. The kepi was presented as Chef-de-bataillon de Boissac; the fez as Vicomte de Montbarthe. Upon which, to myself within myself said I: strike out the “de” and Boissac is correct; strike out “Vicomte” and substitute “Corporal” and we shall be pretty near Mr. Fez. He was one of the vulgarest of vulgar Frenchmen, and a fool into the bargain. De Boissac was a type, and I fancy the real thing; a regular, chatty, boastful, conceited, bright little Gaul, who had been in China, the Crimea, Italy, Japan, and Africa, and had worn the hair off his little bullet head with serving in various climes. “I was promoted to be Chef-de-bataillon,” said kepi (just as if I had asked anything about it), “for having planted the flag, alone, on the rampart! My comrades cry to me, ‘Descend! descend!’ I reply, ‘Non! j’y suis!’“ “And I,” chimed in fez, “received the cross for repelling, with forty men, four hundred Austrians: wounded twice in the leg, I lay on the field and the Emperor himself pinned the cross on my breast!” I could not help thinking what a pity it was that the wounds had not been higher up, whereby the Emperor would have been saved the expense of a cross, and I the trouble of listening to his stories. These two brave bucks were travelling on their good looks, having got down, the Lord knows how, with no letters to anybody; yet they dined with General Meade, and passed the night in camp; passed another night at General Davies’, and, the last I heard of them, were pledging General Hancock in the national whiskey! … I omitted to mention a third ornament to military life, a gent with eagles on his shoulders, who, on enquiry, turned out to be a brother militia man, and a great credit to the service, as he perilled his life daily, in the state of New York, as General Sanford’s aide (commanding state militia), and now was visiting the army to see that justice was done to deserving non-commissioned officers in the way of promotion. Et puis?—thought T. L. Yes, that was to electioneer the regiments in favor of the Republican candidate for governor, in case of whose election, he, Colonel D , was to be Quartermaster-General! He had not only cheek enough for this, but enough to spare to come and stay all night at Headquarters, and take his meals there, without the breath of an invitation!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 251-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.