Political Imbroglio (November 11, 1864)

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Meade continues to worry about his oldest son, who is slowly dying in Philadelphia. He also follows up on the ballot controversy he wrote about on the previous day. Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman goes into greater—and more comic—detail about the election scandal and other incidents of camp life.

I note all you write of dear Sergeant, and of his condition. It is hard for me to know that he continues so sick, and that I cannot be with you to assist in taking care of him and in trying to keep up his courage and spirits. I never doubted Sergeant’s firmness of purpose and moral courage. He had too often exhibited these qualities in the highest degree. I fully sympathize with you in your anxiety, but can only urge you to watch him closely. I am glad Mr. Keith goes to see him; the intercourse of good and liberal men and women cannot but be beneficial, and I consider Mr. Keith one of the best of men.

The Secretary of War relieved me of my political imbroglio by ordering me to send the persons arrested to Washington. From all I could understand of the matter, these people are innocent of any wrong intended; it is known no wrong was actually perpetrated. Still, when they were charged by others with intent to commit fraud, I was compelled, under the orders of the Department and my own sense of duty, to hold them in arrest until the matter could be investigated.

Mr. Johnny Reb has been moving about to-day, as if he had taken it into his head to do something. I am sure I would be very grateful to Lee if he would try his hand at the offensive for awhile.

To-day’s papers say Sherman has burned Atlanta and moved on Charleston. This is a bold move, the success of which will depend on Thomas’s ability to keep Hood out of Kentucky and Ohio.

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

In his letter, Lyman waxes philosophical, puts a comic spin on the ballot incident, and describes a contretemps in the headquarters kitchen.

The McClellan procession might have spared their tapers, as he has gone up, poor Mac, a victim to his friends! His has been a career manque, and a hard time he has had, and low he has fallen. The men who stood, as green soldiers, with him in front of Yorktown, where are they? Many thousands lie in the barren land of the Peninsula and the valley of Virginia; thousands more in the highlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania and in the valley of the Shenandoah. Many are mustered out—their time expired—or sick, or crippled. The small remnant are sifted, like fine gold, through this army, non-commissioned officers, or even full officers. What an experience it is for an infantry soldier! To have carried a musket, blanket, and haversack to the Peninsula, and to the gates of Richmond, then back again to the second Bull Run; up to Antietam in Maryland; down again to Fredericksburg; after the enemy again to the Rappahannock; and at last, the great campaign, like all others concentrated in six months, from the Rapid Ann to Petersburg! All this alone on foot, in three long years, at all seasons and all hours, in every kind of weather, carrying always a heavy load, and expecting to fight at any moment; seeing so many men shot in each fight—the great regiment dwindling to a battalion—the battalion to a company—the company to a platoon. Then the new men coming down; they shot off also. Till at last the infantry-man, who left Boston thinking he was going straight to Richmond, via Washington, sits down before Petersburg and patiently makes his daily pot of coffee, a callous old soldier, who has seen too many horrors to mind either good or bad. It is a limited view of a great war, but, for that very reason, full of detail and interest.

Of course we might have known that this pack of political “commissioners” could not get down here without a shindy of some sort. The point they brought up was fraudulent votes. A long-haired personage, fat and vulgar-looking, one of that class that invariably have objectionable finger-nails, came puffing over to General Meade’s tent, with all the air of a boy who had discovered a mare’s nest. He introduced himself as a Mr. Somebody from Philadelphia, and proceeded to gasp out that a gentleman had been told by an officer, that he had heard from somebody else that a Democratic Commissioner had been distributing votes, professedly Republican, but with names misspelled so as to be worthless. “I don’t see any proof,” said the laconic Meade. “Give me proof, and I’ll arrest him.” And off puffed Mr. Somebody to get proof, evidently thinking the Commanding General must be a Copperhead not to jump at the chance of arresting a Democrat. The result was that a Staff officer was sent, and investigation held, and telegraphs dispatched here and there, while the Somebody puffed about, like a porpoise in shallow water! Finally, four or five people were arrested to answer charges. This seemed to please Stanton mightily, who telegraphed to put ‘em in close arrest; and, next morning, lo! a lieutenant-colonel sent, with a guard of infantry, by a special boat from Washington, to conduct these malefactors to the capital—very much like personages, convicted of high treason, being conveyed to the Tower. Were I a lieutenant-colonel, I should feel cheap to be ordered to convey a parcel of scrubby politicians under arrest! But that is the work that Washington soldiers may expect to spend their lives in. General Meade, I fancy, looked with high contempt on the two factions. “That Somebody only does it,” he said, “to appear efficient and get an office. As to X____, he said he thought it a trying thing for a gentleman to be under close arrest; and I wanted to tell him it wasn’t so disgraceful as to have been drunk every night, which was his case!” That’s the last I have heard of the culprits, who, with their accusers, have all cleared out, like a flock of crows, and we are once again left to our well-loved ragamuffins, in dirty blouses and spotted sky-blue trousers.

The day was further marked by an emeute in the culinary department. I would have you to know that we have had a nigger boy, to wait on table, an extraordinary youth, of muscular proportions and of an aspect between a drill sergeant, an undertaker and a clergyman—solemn, military and mildly religious. It would, however, appear, that beneath this serious and very black exterior worked a turbulent soul. The diminutive Monsieur Mercier, our chef, had repeatedly informed me that “le petit” (the unbleached brother is about a head taller than Mercier) was extremely indolent and had a marked antipathy to washing dishes—an observation which interested me little, as my observation went to show that the washing of dishes by camp-followers tended rather to dirty than to cleanse the platter, and that the manifest destiny of the plate military was to grow dirtier and dirtier, till it at last got broken. However, Anderson was reproved for not washing his crockery, and replied with rude words. On being reproved again, he proposed to smite Mercier, remarking, he “would as soon knock down a white man as a nigger.”

At this juncture the majestic Biddle interfered and endeavored to awe the crowd; but the crowd would not be awed, so Biddle put Anderson at the pleasant occupation of walking post with a log on his shoulder. Upon being liberated from this penalty, he charged upon Mercier, giving him the dire alternative of “Pay me mer wages, or I’ll smash yer crockery!” This being disorderly, I allowed him to cool his passions till next morning in the guardhouse, when he was paid off.

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. 240-1. 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. 262-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Lincoln Wins! (November 9, 1864)

President Abraham LIncoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham LIncoln (Library of Congress).

Meade comments on the election, in which Abraham Lincoln handily beat George McClellan. The Army of the Potomac voted solidly for Lincoln. In the case of suspected voter fraud he describes, Meade had one Jeremiah McKibbin arrested for supposedly distributing incorrect ballots in the hopes of disqualifying Republican votes. This is what Meade reported to Edwin Stanton (as it appears in the Official Records):Yesterday I was informed by Mr. Bonham, Republican agent of the State of Pennsylvania, that altered poll-books had distributed in this army by Mr. Jeremiah McKibbin, Democratic agent of the State of Pennsylvania. I immediately directed the commanding officers of Pennsylvania regiments to put the soldiers and others on their guard, and ordered the provost-marshal to detain Mr. McKibbin for examination. During the day two individuals, named Miles and Carrigan, Democratic agents, were arrested in the Second Corps, charged with circulating these altered poll-books. The alterations consist in the improper spelling of names, and in the tally lists the omission of a name. I have placed the whole matter in the hands of the judge-advocate of this army, with directions to investigate the affair and report whether any fraud has been committed or was intended, and whether the evidence justified the detention and trial of the person above named. There is, however, great difficulty in settling these important questions from the ignorance in this army, particularly on my part, not only of the machinery of elections, but of the laws of Pennsylvania and their bearing on the case in point. In this point of view I desire the instruction of the department, and would respectfully suggest whether justice to all parties would not best be subserved by turning these persons, with all the evidence, over to the authorities of the State of Pennsylvania to have tried by the courts of that State the questions that may arise, or whether I shall send these individuals to the Department at Washington, to be third by the military commission now sitting in Washington and trying analogous cases relating to New York soldiers. This proposition in not made with a view to avoid any duty which properly devolves on me, but with an earnest desire to have a proper and through investigation made, which, under the circumstances, I fear cannot be made by a commission organized in this army.”

A McClellan campaign pin (Library of Congress).

A McClellan campaign pin (Library of Congress).

The election passed off very quietly yesterday. About nineteen thousand votes, of which thirteen thousand five hundred were for Lincoln, and five thousand five hundred for McClellan, giving Lincoln a majority in this army of about eight thousand votes. Of these, three thousand five hundred were the majority of the Pennsylvania soldiers. During the day, much to my horror, one of the Republican agents reported the distribution of spurious or altered poll books, and charged certain Democratic agents as the parties guilty of the act. I had no other course to pursue than to arrest the parties complained against, until an investigation could be had. To-day we have been examining the matter, and there appears to be no doubt that poll books were brought here and distributed, having names of Republican electors misspelled and some omitted. The Democrats declare it is only a typographical error, and does not vitiate the use of the books, whereas the Republicans charge that it is a grave and studied effort to cheat the soldiers of their vote. In this dilemma I have applied to the Secretary of War, and asked for authority to send the parties either to Pennsylvania, to be tried by the courts there, or to Washington, to be disposed of by the Department and Doubleday’s Commission, now trying the New York agent. This affair has bothered me very much. All these people are citizens of Philadelphia, and are said to be respectable. I had, however, but one course to pursue, and was compelled to notice the complaints presented to me. We have no news from the elections outside of the army, except that they passed off quietly with you and in New York; in the latter place, doubtless, owing to the presence and order of Major General Butler. Well, the election is over, with the result I expected, and now I hope no time will be lost in regulating the army.

I trust, now the election is over, measures will be taken to raise men to fill our ranks, and no time should be lost, as I don’t think we can count on more than a month of good weather. To-be-sure, we can and doubtless will stay here all winter; and being so near each other, may manage to keep fighting on. But I don’t think any operations involving any movement can be had after the beginning of December.

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. 239-40. Available via Google Books.

A Ride Along the Works (October 14, 1864)

Meade and John Parke appear together in a photo taken in June 1865. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Meade and John Parke appear together in a photo taken in June 1865. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In his letter of October 14, Theodore Lyman paints a picture of General Meade in generally good humor. We also get a sense of Meade the engineer. John Parke, who accompanied Meade on his ride along the lines, is the commander of the IX Corps. In his journal Lyman mentioned that they rode down to Fort Stevenson and that “the country is hardly to be recognized, so much timber has been felled and slashed.”

Although George McClellan, President Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the upcoming election, was the much beloved former commander of the Army of the Potomac, his old soldiers did not favor him. The main reason for that was the Democratic Party’s peace plank, which implied the war had been a failure. McClellan disagreed with the plank but it damaged his candidacy nonetheless. . “Yes, it was cruel in General McClellan to ask us to vote that our campaigns had all been failures, and that our comrades had all died in vain,” wrote Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. “And yet there were those who supposed that our love for him would cause us to do it.”

How shall I vote? I don’t know that I shall be given the chance; but, if I am, I shall vote for the blue-blooded Abraham. It was with a feeling of depression that I heard the first rumors that the Dems had carried Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana; and when the truth came out, I felt glad. This proves to me that I look on the Mac party with misgiving. The soldiers’ vote is an unexpected one; they are said to show five to one for the Administration, which tells me that they identify it with the support of the war; for the troops in their private thoughts make the thrashing of the Rebs a matter of pride, as well as of patriotism.

I venture to say that at no time during the war have the Rebel papers talked so desperately; they speak of the next month settling the question, and of arming the negroes. If they do this latter, the slavery candle will burn at both ends. I have no idea that the next month will settle it, though, of course, there is a chance for important movements during the autumn, as at other seasons of good weather. We must keep at them—that is the only way; no let up, no armistice. They perfectly hate what we are doing now, going a couple of miles and fortifying, then going two more and fortifying again; then making a sudden rush, taking a position and a lot of cannon, and again fortifying that. All these moves being a part of what we may call a throttling plan. Their struggles, though often apparently successful, do them thus far no good. They flank us on the Weldon railroad and brush off 2000 prisoners: no use! we hold the road. They flank us again at the Pegram house, and capture 1000 more: no use; we hold the Pegram position and add it to former acquisitions. Then they flank Butler and get eight of his guns; but they have to go back, and Benjamin remains in what General Halleck terms a “threatening attitude.” . . . Yesterday, Loring, whom I saw over at General Parke’s Headquarters, was speaking of the quaint ways of talking among soldiers. Their lines are at peace out there, and the soldiers don’t fire; notwithstanding, some sharpshooters, with telescopic rifles, are posted here and there. As he rode along, he met two of these gentry coming with faces as of men who had labored in a good cause, without profit. “Hullo!” said L., “did you get good places out in front?” “Yes, fust-rate places: but no shooting, no shooting!” General Meade rode to Parke’s on account of a statement from a deserter, that the enemy would attack our left. “If they do” quoth the General, proud of his engineering skill, “if they do, they’ll get into a nice hornet’s nest.” It is funny to see two engineers, like Meade and Parke, ride along works and pleasantly discuss them. In their enthusiasm, they always personify redoubts as far as to give them eyes, and speak of their “looking” in sundry directions, meaning thereby that they can fire there. “Here is a nice swallow-tail lunette,” says Parke as if introducing a pate de foie gras; “these two faces, you see, look down the two roads of approach, and here is a face that looks into that ravine: nothing could live in that ravine, nothing!” This last he emphasizes, as if the presence of life in the ravine aforesaid was a thing in the highest degree sinful, and this redoubt was virtuously bent on preserving the public morality. “Yes,” replies Father Meade, “that seems all right; now you want to slash out, about 300 yards further, and get a good field of fire so that the enemy’s sharpshooters can’t annoy your gunners.” The use of the word “annoy” is another military eccentricity. When half the men are killed or wounded by the enemy’s riflemen, an officer will ride pleasantly in to the chief of artillery, and state that the battery is a good deal “annoyed” by sharpshooters, giving to the novice the impression that the sharpshooters complained of have been using provoking and impertinent language to the battery. To-day I was the sole companion of the General on his exercise ride, on which occasions, instead of riding behind him, I ride beside him, but keep as it were a little back of his horse’s head. When we approach any body of troops, I fall entirely to the rear — strong on etiquette we are! For two or three days he has been in the best of humors and sits in the evening by the camp-fire before my tent, talking familiarly with all the aides; a rare thing with him. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 245-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.