A Medal Ceremony (March 11, 1865)

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

There will be time for fighting before the month is up, but for now the Army of the Potomac is functioning more like a social club—at least at the headquarters level. In today’s letter, Theodore Lyman details another such occasion, this time to give General Grant a medal for his capture of Vicksburg in 1863.  (David W. Lowe reports that the medal is now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.) “Daddy” Washburn[e] is Grant’s political patron, Illinois congressman Eli Washburne. He had been with Grant at the start of the Overland Campaign—and Meade suspected that it had been Washburne who told reporter Edward Crapsey that Meade had wanted to retreat after the first day in the Wilderness. Lyman’s Harvard friend, Henry Abbott, had been mortally wounded in the Wildnerness while in command of the 20th Massachusetts.

From Grant we got a despatch that he would come up, with some ladies and gentlemen, to see our left and to review a few troops. The General rode down to the terminus of the railroad (which is not very far from Hatcher’s Run), and soon after came the train, with Grant and his party. Among them was our old friend Daddy Washburn, the same who came to the Rapid Ann, last May, to behold Grant swallow Lee at a mouthful, and—didn’t see it! Two divisions of the 2d Corps were turned out under the eye of the redoubtable Humphreys. They made a fine appearance, marching past; but I could have cried to see the Massachusetts 20th with only a hundred muskets or so, and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis, whom I used to see at Culpeper with a lieutenant’s shoulderstraps. How changed from last spring, when they passed in review with full ranks, and led by Abbot! . . .

That evening we were invited to City Point, to see a medal given to General Grant. This medal had been voted by Congress in honor of him and his soldiers, after the battle and capture of Vicksburg. And you now see the rationale of the Hon. Washburn’s presence. He was to present it. The Corps commanders with a few aides, and some division commanders, were all the General took with him in the special train. We arrived about 8.30 p.m. and at 9 the ceremony began, in the upper saloon of the steamer Martyn, lying at the wharf. The solemnities were these: General Grant stood on one side of a small table, with an expression as if about to courageously have a large tooth out. On the other stood Washburn, with what seemed an ornamental cigar-box. Whereupon W., with few words, remarked that the Congress of the United States of Amerikay had resolved to present him a medal, and a copy of their resolutions engrossed on parchment. “General” (unrolling a scroll), “this is the copy of the resolutions, and I now hand it to you.” (Grant looked at the parchment, as much as to say, “That seems all right,” rolled it up, in a practical manner, and put it on the table.) “This, General” (opening the ornamental cigar-box, taking out a wooden bonbonniere and opening that), “is the medal, which I also hand to you, together with an autograph letter from President Lincoln.” The “all-right” expression repeated itself on Grant’s face, as he put down the bonbonniere beside the scroll. Then he looked very fixedly at Mr. Washburn and slowly drew a sheet of paper from his pocket. Everyone was hushed, and there then burst forth the following florid eloquence: “Sir! I accept the medal. I shall take an early opportunity of writing a proper reply to the President. I shall publish an order, containing these resolutions, to the troops that were under my command before Vicksburg.” As he stopped, Major Pell drew a long breath and said: “I thought we were sure of a speech this time, but now we never shall get one out of him.” The medal was of gold, three pounds in weight; on one side a bad likeness of Grant; on the reverse a goddess, in an impossible position, who, as General Meade remarked, “seemed to keep a general furnishing shop of guns and sabres.” “What is the meaning of the allegory?” he enquired of the Lieutenant-General. “I don’t know,” replied Grant, with entire simplicity, “I don’t know, but I am going to learn, so as to be able to explain it to people!” Then the distinguished militaries crowded round to gaze. Major-General Ord, who can’t get over his Irish blood, said: “I believe, sir, you are the first man who medalled with his battalion.” To which Grant, not taking the point in the faintest degree, replied gravely: “I don’t know but I was.” There was a heavy crowd of Hectors, I can tell you. Generals Meade, Warren, Wright, Parke, Humphreys, Ord, Gibbon, Ayres, Griffin, Rawlins, Ingalls, etc., etc. Very few ladies. After this a moderate collation, and so home to bed.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 318-20. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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Visitors (September 25, 1864)

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Secretary of State William Seward and Congressman Elihu Washburne drop in on the Army of the Potomac. I would like to hear more about Meade’s reactions to Washburne. The Illinois congressman was Ulysses S. Grant’s political patron and Meade suspected that Washburne had been responsible for spreading the rumor—reported by Edward Crapsey (or Cropsey)—that the commander of the Army of the Potomac had wanted to retreat after the Battle of the Wilderness but Grant had overruled him. When he saw Crapsey’s article, Meade had thrown the reporter out of the army and vowed to his wife that he would show Washburne “no quarter” if the rumor of his involvement turned out to be true.

To-day we had a visit from Mr. Secretary Seward and Mr. Congressman Washburn. I had some little talk with Mr. Seward, who told me that at the North and at the South, and everywhere abroad, there was a strong conviction the war would soon terminate, and, said he, when so many people, influenced in such different ways, all unite in one conviction, there must be reason to believe peace is at hand. He did not tell me on what he founded his hopes, nor did I ask.

Sheridan’s defeat of Early will prove a severe blow to the rebs, and will, I think, compel them to do something pretty soon to retrieve their lost prestige. There have been rumors they were going to evacuate Petersburg, and I should not be surprised if they did contract their lines and draw in nearer Richmond. I never did see what was their object in defending Petersburg, except to check us; it had no other influence, because, if we were able to take Richmond, we could take Petersburg; and after taking the one when resisted, the other would be more easily captured.

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. 230. Available via Google Books.

May 4, 1864

Elements of the Army of the Potomac cross the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 4, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Elements of the Army of the Potomac cross the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 4, 1864 (Library of Congress).

We will not hear from George Meade for a little while. He has much to command his attention at this point. Same with Theodore Lyman. In the meantime, here’s a short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg explaining the events of May 4, 1864. (If you do not have the book already, shame on you! It is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and quality bookstores.)

The army began moving at midnight. “There is a kind of weird excitement in this starting at midnight,” noted Col. Charles Wainwright, now handling artillery for the V Corps. “The senses seemed doubly awake to every impression–the batteries gathering around my quarters in the darkness; the moving of lanterns, and the hailing of the men; then the distant sound of the hoofs of the aid’s horse who brings the final order to start. Sleepy as I always am at such times, I have a certain amount of enjoyment in it all.”

The plan for the campaign had the II Corps crossing the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford and the V and VI Corps farther upstream at Germanna Ford. Meade and his staff left their winter camp at 5:25 a.m. on their way to Germanna Ford. The sun rose at the start of a beautiful spring day and illuminated a mighty host on the move. “As far as the eye could reach the troops were wending their way to the front,” wrote Horace Porter. “Their war banners, bullet-riddled and battle-stained, floated proudly in the morning breeze. The roads resounded to the measured tread of the advancing columns, and the deep forests were lighted by the glitter of their steel.”

Meade soon found an occasion for an outburst of temper. At 7:00 he encountered a cavalry wagon train blocking the road, one of his pet peeves. The general gave the quartermaster a tongue-lashing and ordered him to move his wagons out of the way. An hour later he reached the ford, the same spot where his men had camped during the withdrawal from Mine Run. It had been bitter cold then and the army had been disheartened; now spring was bursting out in all its glory and the Union soldiers felt confident. “The troops were very light-hearted, almost as joyous as schoolboys; and over and over again as we rode by them, it was observed by members of the staff that they had never seen them so happy and buoyant,” recalled a staff member.

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Meade and his staff crossed the river at 9:30. Grant and his staff, accompanied by Congressman Eli Washburne, joined them shortly afterward. Lyman noted that some of Grant’s staff talked “flippantly” about Lee and his army and regarded the war as nearly won. Grant established his headquarters at an old farmhouse overlooking the Rapidan. Meade dropped by that evening and took a camp chair by a blazing fire of fence rails. Grant offered him a cigar and helped him light it. The two generals sat by the cheery fire, smoking their cigars and talking over their plans for the next day. The move across the Rapidan had gone off without a hitch. “This I regarded as a great success,” said Grant, “and it removed from my mind the most serious apprehensions I had entertained: that of crossing the river in the face of an active, large, well-appointed, and ably commanded army, and how so large a train was to be carried through a hostile country and protected.”

As Grant and Meade talked, messengers brought telegrams informing Grant that the other armies under his command—Ben Butler’s on the James River, Fritz Sigel’s in the Valley, and Sherman’s in Georgia—were advancing according to his plan to apply pressure all over the Confederacy. The Army of the Potomac appeared to be playing its own part in Grant’s grand design. So far, so good. But the army had yet to emerge from the Wilderness.