The Rebellion Has Gone Up (April 2, 1865)

A dead Confederate soldier in the trenches before Petersburg (Library of Congress).

A dead Confederate soldier in the trenches before Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman gives an account of the events of April 2, when the Union forces finally broke through the Confederate lines around Petersburg (on ground that is now part of Pamplin Historical Park). A note indicates that Lyman really wrote this very detailed account on April 13. A note by the editor says that the only thing Lyman actually wrote home to his wife on April 2 was this:

Headquarters Army Of The Potomac
Sunday, April 2, 1865 11 P.M.

My Dear Mimi:

THE REBELLION
HAS GONE UP!

Theodore Lyman Lt.-col. & Vol. A.D.C.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderfully detailed recounting of the great events that spelled the doom of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lyman does a great job of communicating the confusion and excitement of the day’s events.

The “old house” where Lyman spotted Grant writing orders amid the scattered papers of the rebels who had been posted there is the Banks House, another part of Pamplin Historical Park.

Last night was a busy one and a noisy. Some battery or other was playing the whole time, and, now and then, they would all wake up at once; while the skirmishers kept rushing at each other and firing, sometimes almost by volleys. All of which did good, because it wore out the enemy and made them uncertain where the main attack might come. At a quarter past four in the morning, Wright, having massed his three divisions in columns of attack, near Fort Fisher, just before daylight charged their works, burst through four lines of abattis, and poured a perfect torrent of men over the parapet. He then swept to the right and left, bearing down all the attempts of the enemy’s reserves to check him; a part also of his force went straight forward, crossed the Boydton plank and tore up the track of the South Side Railroad. The assault was, in reality, the death-blow to Lee’s army. His centre was thus destroyed, his left wing driven into the interior line of Petersburg, and his right taken in flank and left quite isolated. At the same moment Parke attacked the powerful works in his front, somewhat to the right of the Jerusalem plank road, and carried the strong outer line, with three batteries, containing twelve guns; but the fire was so hot from the inner line that his men could get no further, but continued to hold on, with great obstinacy, for the rest of the day, while the Rebels made desperate sorties to dislodge them. In this attack General Potter received a wound which still keeps him in an extremely critical condition. You may well believe that the musketry, which had spattered pretty well during the night, now broke out with redoubled noise in all directions.

Under the excitement of getting at my valise and having some fresh paper, I am moved to write you some more about the great Sunday, which I so irreverently broke off I was saying that the musketry broke out pretty freely from all quarters. Do you understand the position of the troops? Here is a rough diagram. On the right Parke, from the river to west of the Jerusalem road; then Wright and Ord, stretching to Hatcher’s Run; then Humphreys, forming the left wing. To the left and rear were Sheridan and Griffin, making a detached left wing. Humphreys’ left rested somewhat west of the Boydton plank. Ord and Humphreys were now crowding in their skirmishers, trying for openings in the slashings to put in a column. Ord tried to carry the line, but could not get through; but the 2d division of the 2d Corps got a chance for a rush, and, about 7.30 in the morning, stormed a Rebel fort, taking four guns and several hundred Rebels; in this attack the 19th and 20th Massachusetts were very prominent. About nine o’clock the General rode off towards the left, from our Headquarters near the crossing of the Vaughan road, over Hatcher’s Run. He overtook and consulted a moment with Grant, and then continued along our old line of battle, with no “intelligent orderly” except myself. So that is the way I came to be Chief-of-Staff, Aide-de-camp, Adjutant-General, and all else; for presently the Chief took to giving orders at a great rate, and I had to get out my “manifold writer” and go at it. I ordered Benham to rush up from City Point and reinforce Parke, and I managed to send something to pretty much everybody, so as to keep them brisk and lively. In fact, I completely went ahead of the fly that helped the coach up the hill by bearing down on the spokes of the wheels!

The Banks house as it appears today.

The Banks House as it appears today.

And now came the notice that the enemy were going at the double-quick towards their own right, having abandoned the whole of Ord’s front and some of Humphreys’. We were not quite sure whether they might not contemplate an attack in mass on Humphreys’ left, and so this part of our line was pushed forward with caution while Humphreys’ right was more rapidly advanced. We met sundry squads of prisoners coming across the fields, among them a forlorn band, with their instruments. “Did you not see that band?” said Rosie to me that evening, in great glee. “Ah! I did see them. I did them ask for to play Yan — kay Doodle; but they vould not!” About 9 o’clock we got to General Humphreys on the Boydton plank road, by Mrs. Rainie’s. It was now definitely known that the enemy had given up his whole line in this front and was retreating northwesterly, towards Sutherland’s Station. He was reported, however, as forming line of battle a mile or two beyond us. Immediately Miles’s division marched up the Claiborne road, while Mott, followed by Hays (2d division, 2d Corps), took the Boydton plank. Still more to our left, the cavalry and the 5th Corps were moving also in a northerly direction. Meanwhile, Wright had faced his Corps about and was marching down the Boydton plank, that is to say towards the 2d Corps, which was going up; on his left was the 24th Corps, which had formed there by Grant’s orders; so you will see, by the map, that the jaws of the pincers were coming together, and the enemy hastened to slip from between them! As soon as Wright found that this part of the field was swept, he again faced about, as did the 24th Corps (now forming his right), and marched directly up the Boydton plank to the inner line of Petersburg defences, rested his left on the river, swung the 24th round to join Parke, on the right, and voila the city invested on east, south, and west. I am afraid this double manoeuvre will rather confuse you, so here are two diagrams, with the corps numbered, in their first and second positions. By eleven o’clock the General had got all his troops in motion and properly placed, and the Staff had come from the camp. We all started up the plank road, straight towards the town. It was a strange sensation, to ride briskly past the great oak, near Arnold’s Mill, where we got so awfully cannonaded at the first Hatcher’s Run; then on till we came to the earthwork, on this side of the Run, whence came the shot that killed Charlie Mills; then across the Run itself, passing their line with its abattis and heavy parapet, and so up the road, on the other side, marked by deep ruts of the Rebel supply-trains. As we got to the top of the rise, we struck the open country that surrounds the town, for several miles, and here the road was full of troops, who, catching sight of the General trotting briskly by, began to cheer and wave their caps enthusiastically! This continued all along the column, each regiment taking it up in turn. It was a goodly ride, I can tell you! Presently we spied General Grant, seated on the porch of an old house, by the wayside, and there we too halted. It seemed a deserted building and had been occupied by a Rebel ordnance sergeant, whose papers and returns were lying about in admirable confusion. A moral man was this sergeant, and had left behind a diary, in one page of which he lamented the vice and profanity of his fellow soldiers. He was not, however, cleanly, but quite untidy in his domestic arrangements. From this spot we had an admirable view of our own works, as the Rebels had, for months, been used to look at them. There was that tall signal tower, over against us, and the bastions of Fort Fisher, and here, near at hand, the Rebel line, with its huts and its defenders sorely beleagured over there in the inner lines, against which our batteries were even now playing; and presently Gibbon assaults these two outlying redoubts, and takes them after a fierce fight, losing heavily. In one was a Rebel captain, who told his men to surrender to nobody. He himself fought to the last, and was killed with the butt end of a musket, and most of his command were slain in the work. But we carried the works: neither ditches nor abattis could keep our men out that day! You may be sure Miles had not been idle all this time. Following up the Claiborne road, he came on the enemy at Sutherland’s Station, entrenched and holding on to cover the escape of their train. Though quite without support, he attacked them fiercely, and, at the second or third charge, stormed their breastwork, routed them and took three guns and near 1000 prisoners. With this gallant feat the day ended, gloriously, as it had begun. We went into camp at the Wall house and all preparations were made to cross the river next morning and completely shut in the town.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 334-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Most Important and Brilliant Success (January 17, 1864)

A Currier & Ives print depicts the capture of Fort Fisher. The caption read: "Both the Army and Navy were engaged in this great exploit, the most terrific of its kind on record. The Iron clads and Frigates under command of Rear Admiral Porter poured in a most destructive fire of shot and shell; while the gallant Soldiers under Genl. A.H. Terry rushed to the assault, and after a bloody contest of several hours, drove the Rebels out of their strong hold, capturing over 2000 prisoners, the rebel Genl. Whiting, and 75 Guns of large calibre; many of them of 'celebrated English make'. Three cheers for the Army and Navy!" Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

A Currier & Ives print depicts the capture of Fort Fisher. The caption read: “Both the Army and Navy were engaged in this great exploit, the most terrific of its kind on record. The Iron clads and Frigates under command of Rear Admiral Porter poured in a most destructive fire of shot and shell; while the gallant Soldiers under Genl. A.H. Terry rushed to the assault, and after a bloody contest of several hours, drove the Rebels out of their strong hold, capturing over 2000 prisoners, the rebel Genl. Whiting, and 75 Guns of large calibre; many of them of ‘celebrated English make’. Three cheers for the Army and Navy!” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

The reason Meade believes the fall of Fort Fisher will be bad news for Benjamin Butler is because Butler lost his command of the Army of the James because of his failure to take the fort back in December. The fort, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, controlled access to Wilmington, North Carolina, the last open port for the Confederacy. Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel’s XXV Corps (African-American troops led by white officers) had made the unsuccessful land attack. When the attack stalled, Butler had pulled out rather than follow Grant’s orders to place the fort under siege. A second attack, led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry (with support, once again, by a naval force under Adm. David Porter) captured the fort on January 15.

The interior of Fort Fisher (Library of Congress).

The interior of Fort Fisher (Library of Congress).

To-day we have the news that the second expedition has succeeded in taking Fort Fisher, which is a most important and brilliant success. It will, however, have a most damaging effect on Butler’s case, and will also materially injure Weitzel’s reputation. I must confess I thought Butler’s report cleared him in every particular except two. First, he should not have wasted three days, waiting for the enemy, when he knew the fort was weakly garrisoned. Secondly, he should not have left there because an assault was impracticable; and his statement that a siege was not within his instructions, is contradicted by Grant’s written instructions, which say that, if a landing is effected, and the work not carried, he is to entrench and hold on. There will, no doubt, be bitter controversy on these points.

Grant has been away for three days, to parts unknown, though I suppose Wilmington.

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. 256. Available via Google Books.

Good News from Tennessee (December 18, 1864)

George Meade writes a somewhat gossipy letter to his wife on December 18. Among its items are Meade’s impressons of General George Thomas, who had just thrashed John Bell Hood at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. He also reports on new activity by th Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which has started to investigate the debacle of the Crater, and the latest news of Benjamin Butler, who has departed on his ill-fated attack on Fort Fisher.

I am glad you saw Major Smith and liked him. I found him very intelligent and amiable. I gave him a letter to Oliver Hopkinson, as he wanted to see some duck-shooting; but I believe he found some one in Baltimore who put him in the way of having some sport. I knew that Captain Chesney was the instructor of engineering at the Military College of Woolwich, but was not aware that his service had been confined to this duty.

We have all been greatly delighted at the good news from Tennessee. Thomas is very much liked by all who know him, and things at one time looked unfavorable for him, it appearing as if he was giving Hood too much time; but it now turns out Old Thom, as we call him, knew what he was about, and has turned the tables completely. Don’t you remember, when we were at West Point, meeting his wife, who was at the hotel? He was then in Texas, and she was expecting him home. She was a tall good-natured woman, and was quite civil to us.

I don’t believe the bill to cut off the heads of generals will either pass the Senate or be approved by the President. By-the-by, I see the Senate, on motion of Mr. Anthony, of Rhode Island, has directed the Committee on the Conduct of the War to enquire into the Mine fiasco on the 30th of July, and that Burnside has already been summoned to testify. This is a most ill advised step on the part of Burnside and his friends, and can only result in making public the incompetency of that officer. I would, of course, rather not have to appear again before this committee, because they are prejudiced and biased against me, and their examinations are not conducted with fairness. Still, I shall not shrink from the contest.

Grant is still in Washington, though expected back to-morrow. The change of affairs in Tennessee will render his presence there unnecessary.

An expedition sailed the other day from Fortress Monroe, composed of the fleet and a detachment of troops. Grant took these from Butler’s army, intending Weitzel should command them; but much to every one’s astonishment, Butler insisted on going, and did go, with the expedition.

Mrs. Lyman has sent me a Christmas present of a box of nice cigars.

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. 252-3. Available via Google Books.

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Ingenious Inventions (November 29, 1864)

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

Benjamin Butler. He was a mediocre general but a wily politician (Library of Congress).

In his notebook entry for November 27, Theodore Lyman described how General Benjamin Butler said “when they made him a lawyer they spoiled a good mechanic; when they made him a general they spoiled a good lawyer.” Butler did have a weakness for invention. In fact, it will soon help lead to his downfall, following the failure of his great scheme to destroy Fort Fisher by stuffing a vessel with explosives and blowing it up.

I did not have room to tell you of the ingenious inventions of General Butler for the destruction of the enemy. He never is happy unless he has half a dozen contrivances on hand. One man has brought a fire-engine, wherewith he proposes to squirt on earthworks and wash them all down! An idea that Benjamin considered highly practicable. Then, with his Greek fire, he proposed to hold a redoubt with only five men and a small garden engine. “Certainly,” said General Meade; “only your engine fires thirty feet, and a minie rifle 3000 yards, and I am afraid your five men might be killed, before they had a chance to burn up their adversaries!” Also he is going to get a gun that shoots seven miles and, taking direction by compass, burn the city of Richmond with shells of Greek fire. If that don’t do, he has an auger that bores a tunnel five feet in diameter, and he is going to bore to Richmond, and suddenly pop up in somebody’s basement, while the family are at breakfast! So you see he is ingenious. It is really summer warm today; there are swarms of flies, and I saw a bumble-bee and a grasshopper.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 284. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Visit to Butler (July 22, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler's headquarters (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the activity at Point of Rocks near Benjamin Butler’s headquarters (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman, French observer Francois De Chanal and Meade aide Frederick “Rosie” Rosenkrantz pay a visit to Benjamin Butler. The general gives them a hint about one of his great schemes of the war, his idea of reducing Confederate fortifications by exploding barges stuffed with gunpowder next to them. Butler will try this out in December against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and, as De Chanal predicts, it will prove a miserable failure. But while it does no damage to the Confederates, the barge will blow up Butler’s military career. By the time of the Fort Fisher fiasco, the presidential election will be over and Grant will have a free hand to remove this politically connected general from the Army of the James.

Of course, even as Lyman visits Butler and the Army of the James, the Army of the Potomac is preparing its own big explosion, one that will also damage some military careers.

I had one of the most amusing excursions that I have had during the campaign—really quite a picnic. Colonel de Chanal, Rosy, and myself made the party. The distance to Butler’s Headquarters, whither we were bound, is about eight miles, and the road all the way was either through the woods or shaded by trees, and the dust had not yet had time to show its head after the rain. It was a new part of the country to me and very interesting. We struck the Appomattox at the Point of Rocks, where the river appears double by reason of a long, swampy island in the middle. The width, between the two steep, high, gravelly banks, cannot be less than 350 yards. Here is a pontoon bridge, and, near each end of it, on the top of the bank, a fort for its defence. Below it, too, lies a gunboat. Crossing this, we soon came to the Great Ben’s, who received us very hospitably, and exhibited a torpedo and a variety of new projectiles, the virtues of which in the destruction of the human race I explained in pure Gallic to the Colonel. During dinner he said to me: “They spoiled a good mechanic when they made me a lawyer, and a good lawyer when they made me general.” He delivered a long exposition (which I translated) on the virtues of a huge powder-boat, which he would explode between Moultrie and Sumter, by clockwork, and not only flatten both forts, but Charleston into the bargain! De Chanal replied (citing examples) that no such result would follow and that the effect would be limited to a very small radius. “No effect!” cried B., suddenly bursting into French, “mais pourquoi non?” “Ah,” said De C, with his sharp French eye, “mais pourquoi si?” . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 193-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.