Greek Fire (November 28, 1864)

Black soldiers from the Army of the James labor on Benjamin Butler's canal at Dutch Gap (Library of Congress).

Black soldiers from the Army of the James labor on Benjamin Butler’s canal at Dutch Gap (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the visit to Benjamin Butler’s headquarters. One amazing thing about this post is that Lyman describes the test of what can only be called a flamethrower. In Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, editor David Lowe says the “Greek fire” was probably “a combustible solution of phosphorus in bisulfide of carbon.” Lyman writes more about Butler and his inventions in tomorrow’s letter.

Let me see, I had got to Fort Harrison, had I not? Really I got so sleepy last night over the second sheet that I should not be surprised if it contains numerous absurdities. From the Fort you have an excellent view of the Rebs in their line opposite, their main fort being only 800 yards distant. I was surprised they did not fire upon us, as there was a great crowd and evidently several generals among us. But I believe they never shoot. The pickets, on either side, are within close musket-range but have no appearance of hostility. There was one very innocent “Turkey,” who said to me: “Who are those men just over there?” When I told him they were Rebs, he exclaimed: “God bless me!” and popped down behind the parapet. . . . Thence we all went to view the great canal. You will notice on the map, that the river at Dutch Gap makes a wide loop and comes back to nearly the same spot, and the canal is going through there. This cuts off five or six miles of river and avoids that much of navigation exposed to fire; and it may have strategic advantages if we can get iron-clads through and silence the Rebel batteries on the other bank. The canny Butler sent an aide to see if they were shelling the canal, who reported they were not; so we dismounted a little way off and walked to the place. It was very worth seeing. Fancy a narrow ridge of land, only 135 yards wide, separating the river, which flows on either side; a high ridge, making a bluff fifty feet high where it overhangs the water. Through this a great chasm has been cut, only leaving a narrow wall on the side next the enemy, which wall is to be blown out with several thousand pounds of gunpowder. We stood on the brink and looked down, some seventy feet, at the men and the carts and the horses at work on the bottom. Where we stood, and indeed all over the ridge, was strewed thickly with pieces of shell, while here and there lay a whole one, which had failed to explode. Had the Rebs known that a Lieutenant-General and two Major-Generals were there, they would hardly have left us so quiet. . . .

Though we got off very nicely (I thought as I stood there: “Now that line is the shortest one to our horses, and you must walk it with dignity—not too fast when they begin to shell”), there was a fat “Turkey” who came after us and was treated to a huge projectile, which burst over his head; he ran and picked up a piece and cried out: “Oh! it’s warm. Oh!! it smells of sulphur. Oh!!! let us go now.” He was delighted with this and all other adventures, and was quite elated when his horse tumbled in a ditch and muddied him greatly. After dark we were treated to an exhibition of a “Greek fire.” They burst a shell in a bunch of bush and immediately the whole was in a roaring blaze. “They’ve got the fuses to work well now,” said Grant calmly. “They tried the shells on three houses, the other side of the river, and burnt them all without difficulty.” Good thing for the owners! Then they spirted the stuff through a little hose and set the stream on fire. It was a beautiful sight and like the hell of the poets, with an unquenchable fire and columns of black smoke rolling up. Owing to these pyrotechnics, we only got home at midnight. In my next I will tell more of the genius of Butler. General Meade, you will be glad to learn, has been informed officially, that he will be appointed a Major-General in the Regular Army, to rank General Sheridan!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 282-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Butlerdom (November 27, 1864)

Artist William Waud sketched the activity at "Ben Butler's canal at Dutch Gap." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist William Waud sketched the activity at “Ben Butler’s canal at Dutch Gap.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Both George Meade and Theodore Lyman write home about a visit to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the Army of the James. Lyman, of course, provides the most detail. The Dutch Gap Canal was Butler’s ambitious scheme to foil the Confederate defense at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River by digging a canal across a neck of land and bypass them altogether. It was perfectly feasible on paper but a very difficult feat to accomplish. The canal was eventually completed, but not until after the war ended. Grant, who had attempted something similar against Vicksburg, seemed happy to let Butler occupy himself with canal digging.

Yesterday I accompanied General Grant on a visit to General Butler’s lines and the famous Dutch Gap Canal, which I had never seen. We had a very pleasant day, remaining with Butler till after dark to witness some experiments with the Greek fire, and getting home about 11 p.m.

I send you an extract from the Washington Chronicle, received to-day. It confirms what General Grant told me, and is designed to make people believe that I was already appointed when Sheridan was made. As Forney is closely allied with the powers that be, I take it for granted the above supposition is correct, and that he speaks by authority and for a purpose. I have no objection to this being arranged, so long as the essential point, justice to me, is conceded.

I had a visit this evening from Dr. McEuen who is here to take away his son Charles, who is major of the One Hundred and Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania, and who is now quite sick with fever. The doctor seems in good spirits and not much changed, except being considerable greyer than I used to see him years ago.

Lyman provides a characteristically entertaining account of the visit to “Butlerdom.” He also discusses a major change in the Army of the Potomac—the departure of Winfield Scott Hancock and his replacement at the head of the II Corps by Andrew Humphreys. The latter general, who had served as Meade’s chief of staff since just after Gettysburg, had long hungered for his own corps command—within limits. Back in July, Grant had suggested him for command of the X Corps in the Army of the James, which included African-American soldiers. Humphreys declined the offer because he did not want to command blacks, telling Grant, “I confess that while I have the kindliest feelings for the negro race and gladly see anything done that promises to ameliorate their condition, yet as they are not my own people, nor my own race, I could not feel towards negro troops as I have always felt towards the troops I have commanded, that their character, their reputation, their honor was a part of mine, that the two were so intimately connected that they could not be separated.”

Lyman provides an alternate account of the visit in his journal entry, which you can read in Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (edited by David W. Lowe, it is recommended reading). Lowe identifies “Pet” as Oliver Spencer Halsted, a New Jersey politician. He also describes Maj. Gen. John Gibbon’s reaction to Humphreys’ promotion to corps command. “Gibbon is mad, considering the appointment of Humphreys, to temporary command of the corps, a slight. He’s a fool! Gen. Meade has done everything for him, and now he sulks and asks to be relieved.”

Lyman’s almost Dickensian account of the visit will continue tomorrow.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I think I will occupy the remainder of this letter with an account of our picnic yesterday to Butlerdom. The day was further remarkable for the departure of my dear General Humphreys to take command of the 2d Army Corps. For Hancock has got a leave of absence, and will doubtless be put to recruiting fresh troops, while it is hoped that the President will permanently assign Humphreys to this Corps. He is in high glee at going, and will be in despair if a big fight is not got up for his special benefit. He was a great favorite and was escorted by some fifteen mounted officers of the Staff to his new quarters, at which compliment I think he was gratified. I regretted not to be with him, but had to go with the General, who started by the mail train, at 8 a.m., to be early at Grant’s Headquarters, whence they were to start. We took our horses on a freight car. In the train we found Generals [Gouverneur] Warren and [Samuel] Crawford, who were invited to be of the party. Arrived at City Point, we discovered that the Lieutenant-General was still in bed, whereat Meade did laugh, but the three stars soon appeared and went to breakfast. After which meal, our horses were put on the boat and we put ourselves on, and off we started. The party was a big one. There were Generals Grant, Meade, Warren, Crawford and [Rufus] Ingalls, and several Staff officers. There were then the bourgeois: to wit, a great many “Turkeys” (gentlemen who had come down to distribute those Thanksgiving fowls); two men who wanted to sell a steamer; one Senator, viz., [James] Nesmith of Oregon, and one political blackguard named H____, whose special business was to praise a certain Greek fire, of which more anon. This fellow’s name is usually prefixed by “Pet.” He has wild hair and beard and a face showing a certain ability; his distinguishing mark, I am told, is the absence of any sort of morality or principle. With him was his son, a small and old boy, of whom they said that, if papa could not get the best at a game of poker, son would come in and assist. Senator Nesmith is a child of the people, and was prepared for his congressional duties by a residence of twenty-five years among the Indians. When he first got to Washington, he had never before seen a railroad, a telegraph, or a gas-light. “Senator Fessenden asked me what I thought of things. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘when I first came along I was full of the dignity of the position to which I had been elected; but now all I want to know is, who in thunder ever sent you fellers here!’“ He has plenty of brains, this same, but is a very coarse man. The “Turkeys” were of various sorts: several of them were Club men, e.g., Mr. Benson, a gentleman who seemed a middle-aged beau, with much politeness and no particular brains. He kept bowing and smiling and backing into persons, and offering his chair to everyone, from orderlies up to General Grant. He requested to know whether in my opinion he could be properly considered as having been “under fire; because,” said he, “I stood on the Avery house and could see the shells explode in the air, you know!” All this motley crowd started at once for Deep Bottom; nor should I omit to say that we had also on board a Secesh bishop—Leigh of Georgia—who was going by flag of truce to Richmond. He had remained in Atlanta, and Sherman had told him if he wished to get back, he must go via Richmond. From him they got a good deal of entertaining conversation. His opinion of Sherman was very high and complimentary. “The old Book tells us,” he said, “that the race may not be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and we feel that Providence will not desert our righteous cause.” “Yes,” said General Meade, “but then we feel that Providence will not desert our cause; now how are you going to settle that question?” Whereat they both laughed. The bishop was a scholastic, quiet-looking man, and no great fire-eater, I fancy. The boat made fast at Aiken’s landing, halfway between Deep Bottom and Dutch Gap. A Staff officer was there to receive us and conduct us, two miles, to General Butler’s Headquarters. Some rode and some were in ambulances. The James Army people always take pretty good care of themselves, and here I found log houses, with board roofs, and high chimneys, for the accommodation of the gentlemen of the Staff. You might know it was Butler’s Headquarters by the fact that, instead of the common ensign, he had a captured Reb battle-flag stuck up! This chieftain asked in the general officers and we were left to the care of the Staff, who were not behindhand in their civility. . . . Presently Butler climbed on his horse and led the way to see Fort Harrison, which was captured in the movements at the end of September. It was well worth seeing, for on our side of the river we have no hills: it is pretty much one plain with gullies. But here was a regular hill, of some size, dominating the whole country about. How they took the place, I hardly see, for the land is often for a mile in front of it, and the Rebs had artillery in position and a regular infantry running quite to the river. . . .

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. 248. 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. 279-82. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Satisfied (November 25, 1864)

In his letter, Meade mentions the Dutch Gap Canal. Benjamin Butler had initiated the digging of the canal on the James River to bypass Confederate forts. It wasn't completed until after the war (Library of Congress).

In his letter, Meade mentions the Dutch Gap Canal. Benjamin Butler had initiated the digging of the canal on the James River to bypass Confederate forts. It wasn’t completed until after the war (Library of Congress).

Meade receives word of his promotion and pronounces himself satisfied. The Mr. Cropsey is the newspaper reporter whom Meade had drummed out of camp at Cold Harbor. It seems he has now irritated Hancock, whose time with the Army of the Potomac is almost over.

On my return from my visit to General Grant, I found your letter of the 23d inst. General Grant told me that, as soon as he spoke to the President, the President acknowledged the justice of his statements, and said he had hesitated when appointing Sheridan on the very ground of its seeming injustice to me, and he at once, at General Grant’s suggestion, ordered the Secretary to make out my appointment, to date from August 19th, the day of the capture of the Weldon Railroad, thus making me rank Sheridan and placing me fourth in rank in the regular army. Grant virtually acknowledged that my theory of Sheridan’s appointment was the correct one, and that without doubt, had the matter been suggested at the time, I would have been appointed a few days in advance.

As justice is thus finally done me, I am satisfied—indeed, I question, if left to me, whether I should have desired my appointment announced in the way Sheridan’s has been. At one tiling I am particularly gratified, and that is at this evidence of Grant’s truthfulness and sincerity. I am willing to admit, as he does himself, that his omissions have resulted unfavorably to me, but I am satisfied he is really and truly friendly to me. I like Grant, and always have done so, notwithstanding I saw certain elements in his character which were operating disadvantageously to me.

To-morrow I am going with General Grant to visit General Butler’s famous canal at Dutch Gap. Grant does not think Mr. Stanton will be removed, or that he desires the Chief-Justiceship.

He says Stanton is as staunch a friend of mine as ever, and that the President spoke most handsomely of me.

You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Mr. Cropsey has again gotten himself into trouble. I received to-day a letter from General Hancock, complaining of Mr. Cropsey’s account of our recent movement. I told General Hancock to put his complaints in the form of charges and I would have Mr. Cropsey tried by a commission, and abide by its decision.

Hancock leaves us to-morrow, he having a leave of absence, after which he will be assigned to recruiting duty. Humphreys takes his place. The change in my position has rendered it unnecessary to have an officer of Humphreys’s rank, as chief-of-staff. I deemed it due to him to suggest his name as Hancock’s successor.

Butler has finally succeeded in getting the colored troops with this army, replacing them with an equal number of white troops. He is going to organize a corps of colored troops, and expects to do very great things with them.

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. 247-8. Available via Google Books.

A Simple Matter of Justice (August 13, 1864)

George Gordon Meade confronts General Grant about the question of who should command the new military division, and remains baffled by his superior officer.

Grant was here yesterday to transact some business. I immediately asked him, how, after his promise to me, that if a military division was organized, I should be assigned to the command, he has placed my junior, Sheridan, there. He said Sheridan had not been assigned to the division, that no one was yet assigned to it, and that Sheridan had only been put in command of the troops in the field belonging to the different departments. I referred him to the order constituting the division, and assigning Sheridan temporarily to the command, and observed that temporarily I supposed meant as long as there was anything to do, or any object in holding the position. I further remarked that I regretted it had not been deemed a simple matter of justice to me to place me in this independent command. To which he made no remark. I really am not able to ascertain what are his real views. Sometimes I take the dark side, and think they are intentionally adverse to me, and at others I try to make myself believe that such is not his purpose. In confirmation of the last theory, I am of the opinion that he does not look and has not looked upon the movement in Maryland and the Valley in the important light it deserves, and that he considers it merely a raid which a display of force on our part will soon dissipate, when Sheridan and the troops will soon return here. But in this he is greatly mistaken. Already we have positive news that Lee has sent large reinforcements into the Valley, and there is no doubt it is his purpose to transfer the principal scene of operations there, if it can be accomplished. To-morrow we are going to make a move to test his strength here, and endeavor to make him recall his troops. Should this fail, we will be obliged to go up there and leave Richmond.

The weather continues intensely hot.

The court of inquiry was going on, but this move will stop it, and I fear it will never come to an end. I have given my testimony, which I will send you to preserve as my record in the case. I have insisted on Burnside’s being relieved. Grant has let him go on a leave, but he will never return whilst I am here.

"Dutch Gap Canal, the commencement of the work" (Library of Congress).

“Dutch Gap Canal, the commencement of the work” (Library of Congress).

In his letter of August 13, Theodore Lyman remains bemused by African American soldiers. Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts had been captured during the Battle of the Crater.

… I rode over to make some enquiry about Colonel Weld, of Loring, at Burnside’s Headquarters. As I drew near, I heard the sound as of minstrelsy and playing on the psaltry and upon the harp; to wit, a brass band, tooting away at a great rate. This was an unaccustomed noise, for Burnside is commonly not musical, and I was speculating on the subject when, on entering the circle of tents, I beheld a collection of Generals — not only Burnside, but also Potter, Willcox, and Ferrero. Speaking of this last, did you hear what the negro straggler remarked, when arrested by the Provost-Guard near City Point, on the day of the assault, and asked what he was doing there. “Well, saar, I will displain myself. You see, fus’ I was subjoined to Ginral Burnside; an’ den I was disseminated to Ginral Pharo. We wus advancing up towards der front, an’ I, as it might be, loitered a little. Presently I see some of our boys a-runnin’ back. ‘Ho, ho,’ sez I, ‘run is your word, is it?’ So I jes separates myself from my gun and I re-tires to dis spot.”

Well, there was “Ginral Pharo” taking a drink, and an appearance was about as of packing. Whereat I presently discovered, through the joyous Captain Pell (who asked me tauntingly if he could “do anything for me at Newport”), that Burnside and his Staff were all going on a thirty-day leave, which will extend itself, I fancy, indefinitely, so far as this army goes. On my return I found two fat civilians and a lean one. Fat number one was Mr. Otto, Assistant Secretary of the Interior; Fat number two, a Professor Matile, a Swiss of Neufchatel, and friend of Agassiz (you perhaps remember the delicious wine of that place). The lean was Mr. Falls, what I should call Mr. Otto’s “striker,” that being the name of an officer’s servant or hanger-on. Mr. Falls was very chatty and interrogative, following every sentence by “Is it not?” So that finally I felt obliged always to reply, “No, it isn’t.” I scared him very much by tales of the immense distances that missiles flew, rather implying that he might look for a pretty brisk shower of them, about the time he got fairly asleep. Professor Matile was bright enough to be one of those who engaged in the brilliant scheme of Pourtales Steiger to seize the chateau of Neufchatel on behalf of the King of Prussia. Consequently he since has retired to this country and has now a position as examiner at the Patent Office. Mr. Otto was really encouraging to look at. He did not chew tobacco, or talk politics, or use bad grammar; but was well educated and spake French and German. General Butler, having a luminous idea to get above the Howlett house batteries by cutting a ship canal across Dutch Gap, has called for volunteers, at an increased rate of pay. Whereupon the Rebel rams come down and shell the extra-pay volunteers, with their big guns; and we hear the distant booming very distinctly. I think when Butler gets his canal cleverly through, he will find fresh batteries, ready to rake it, and plenty more above it, on the river. The Richmond papers make merry, and say it will increase their commerce.

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. 221-22. 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. 211-13. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.