Fussell’s Mill (August 16, 1864)

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon (Library of Congress).

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon (Library of Congress).

In their letters of August 16, both Meade and Lyman mention the fighting being done by Winfield Scott Hancock and the II and X Corps on the north bank of the James River. These references are to the second campaign of Deep Bottom and the battle known as Fussell’s Mill. Despite initial successes, the campaign was a failure. According to Francis Walker’s 1886 history of the II Corps, “Although it is freely confessed that the attack of the Second Corps near Fussell’s Mill was not made with the vigor fairly to be expected, nothing better could have resulted had the troops there displayed their pristine enterprise and resolution. The fact is, the expedition across the James had been undertaken upon erroneous information. General Grant believed that three divisions had been sent to reinforce Early. Only one, however (Kershaw’s), had actually gone. Field’s division of Longstreet’s corps had remained in the Deep Bottom and Bailey’s Creek intrenchments; Wilcox’s division of Hill’s corps was at Chapin’s Bluff, near at hand, ready to move down and reinforce Field; while Mahone’s division, also of Hill’s corps, with Hampton’s and W. H. F. Lee’s cavalry divisions, were, on the first intimation of Hancock’s movement, sent across the James to meet the impending attack.”

Walker continued, “General Grant had now ascertained that his information regarding the strength of the enemy had been erroneous; and he had therefore no thought of further pursuing the enterprise on the north bank of the James. Inasmuch, however, as he was now preparing a movement, with Warren’s corps, against the Weldon Railroad, on the extreme left, below Petersburg, he determined to retain Hancock’s troops in their position, threatening Richmond, a few days longer, to hold the enemy’s attention and occupy their forces.”

I am right glad the dear children are enjoying themselves. I wish I could be with you and them; but this is out of the question, and there is no use thinking about it. I have made up my mind to stick it out here, regardless of every consideration, except that of doing my duty at all hazards. They shall not say that any personal considerations caused me to turn my back upon the enemy.

Hancock has been fighting for two days across the James, and though he has met with success, yet he has not been able to break through the enemy’s lines, he finding them everywhere in strong force. His demonstration, however, has undoubtedly prevented the sending of reinforcements to Early, as we had reason to believe they designed doing. Hancock, with his usual luck, has captured some guns and colors.

Now for Lyman’s account of the events of the day. The assault he mentions is the Battle of the Crater. Lyman the Boston Brahmin looked down on those he considered to be below him, and that included Germans, Irish (“bog-trotters”) and blacks.

I have been well content to get your letter this afternoon. In regard to what you say for the troops for the assault, it is true that General Meade should have ordered in the best—and so he did. Express orders were given to put in the best troops and have the division generals lead them if necessary. General Meade made examinations in person of the enemy’s lines, and the orders drawn up by General Humphreys were more than usually elaborated. People have a vulgar belief that a General commanding a great army can, and ought to arrange in person every detail. This is not possible, nor is it desirable; the corps and division commanders would at once say: “Very well, if you have not enough confidence in me to let me carry on the ordinary business of my command, I ought to be relieved.” I see great discussion in the papers as to the conduct of the negroes. I say, as I always have, that you never, in the long run, can make negroes fight with success against white men. When the whole weight of history is on one side, you may be sure that side is the correct one. I told General Meade I had expressed myself strongly, at home, against the imported Dutchmen, to which he replied: “Yes, if they want to see us licked, they had better send along such fellers as those!” As I said before, the Pats will do: not so good as pure Yanks, but they will rush in and fight. There was a report at first that Colonel Macy of the 20th Massachusetts was mortally wounded, but I have since heard that it is not so. On Sunday, he had command of a brigade, and had his horse killed: he then came back, got another horse from Barlow and returned to the front. This horse either was shot or reared over with him, frightened by the firing, and crushed him badly. Let me see, I told you this before; never mind, you will be sure now to know it. Sometimes I get rather mixed because I write often a few words about a day, on the eve of the same, and then detail it more at length afterwards. The Rebels got well alarmed about Hancock and sent reinforcements, recalling troops that had started to help Early in the valley; an important point gained. Hancock had some hard fighting to-day, with considerable success, taking several hundred prisoners and driving the enemy. The Rebel General Chambliss was killed, and we found on him a valuable map containing the fortifications of Richmond. They also are said to have killed a General Gherrard; but I have an idea there is no such General in their service.* Perhaps he was a new appointment, or a colonel commanding a brigade. As to giving you an account of the engagement, it would be out of the question; as it is a perfect muddle to me. I only know that Gregg, with a cavalry division, went out on the Richmond road, to within six and one half miles of the city, and encountered a big crowd of infantry and had to come back. Barlow had to leave his division, sick, and go to friend Dalton, at City Point.

*It was Brig. Gen. Victor J. B. Girardey.

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. 222. 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. 214-16. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


Generals in Conversation (July 12, 1864)

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Francis Barlow leans against the tree to Hancock’s right. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Things remain quiet before Petersburg but, as Meade writes on July 12, things are getting a little interesting up north, as Jubal Early threatens Washington. It was on either July 11 or 12 that President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Fort Stevens on the outskirts of Washington and came under fire in the Union defenses. (One soldier, supposedly Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., yelled at the president, “Get down, you damned fool!”) Within the Army of the Potomac other conflicts are brewing. As detailed below, Winfield Scott Hancock had heard that Meade was to be relieved as commander. This is the start of a series of rumors that would leave Meade feeling increasingly angered and disrespected and ultimately result in Philip Sheridan getting his own command in the Shenandoah Valley, a command Meade believed Grant had promised to him. (It was also a command intended to unify the competing army elements that Meade writes about here.)

Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Senators Zachariah Chandler and Morton Wilkinson were persistent Meade critics in Washington. Chandler, of Michigan, nursed a grudge that dated back to 1861 when Meade was still a captain in Detroit. The citizens of Detroit, in a burst of early patriotic fervor, had asked Meade and his men to publicly take an oath of loyalty to the United States. Meade refused out of principle but said he would be happy to if the war department requested it. This angered Chandler.

Theodore Lyman also writes about Winfield Scott Hancock in a letter that captures the Union generals at their most human.

I received to-night your letter of the 10th, and am glad to see you are not excited about the rebel invasion. This is a bold stroke of Lee’s to endeavor to procure the withdrawal of this army from its menacing attitude, and to prevent the sending of reinforcements to Grant. The manoeuvre thus far has been successful, as not only has the Sixth Corps been sent away, but the Nineteenth Corps (twenty thousand strong), which was to reinforce us, has been diverted to Washington. This loss of strength will practically prevent our doing anything in the way of offensive movements until the campaign in Maryland is settled and the rebels so crippled as to quiet all apprehensions of their return. I understand Ord has been sent to Baltimore to command, in place of Wallace, defeated, and that Howe has been sent to supersede Sigel. Augur is in Washington, and Hunter coming from Cumberland. The danger is that with so many commanders, independent of each other (I ought to have mentioned Couch also), and their forces so scattered, that the rebs will have it all their own way to commit depredations and collect supplies, and when our troops leave the places they are now guarding, and attempt the offensive, that before they can concentrate, the rebs will fall upon some portion and whip them in detail. I consider the situation as critical; not that I believe the enemy can effect anything permanent, but I fear they will so embarrass and check our operations as to paralyze our efforts and prolong the period when we can collect enough troops here to do the work before us.

Hancock told me to-day he had been confidentially informed it was intended to remove me from command, and that he was to be my successor. He would not give me his authority, but said it was reliable. He did not know the grounds on which this action was to be based. This seemed to me so preposterous that I could not help laughing, but Hancock assured me it was undoubtedly in agitation, and thought I ought to be warned. He said, from what he could gather, he thought that Grant opposed it, but that he would be overruled. Hancock thought I would not be relieved entirely, but would be ordered somewhere, perhaps to Pennsylvania. Now, as my conscience is clear that I have done my duty to the best of my ability since this campaign commenced, and as I feel I have been unjustly treated, and have not had the credit I was and am entitled to, I shall not worry myself about any such outrage as being relieved without cause. I mention all this confidentially to you, simply as a preparation for the coming event, should it take place.

There have been recently with the army several Senators and Representatives; among others, Chandler and Wilkinson of Minnesota. The latter individual was at General Crawford’s. He was very severe on me, showing he still retained the animus that dictated his attack on me in the Senate last winter.

Theodore Lyman, too, writes about Winfield Scott Hancock. I wonder if the conversation he witnesses was the same one that Meade describes?

I sent off a detail of fifty men at daylight to prepare the ground for the new camp, and at eight o’clock, the waggons moved off with all our worldly effects, and the Staff remained under the shade of the abandoned gourbis [An Algerine word for a bower over a tent].We live very much after the way of Arabs, when you think of it — nomadic, staying sometimes a day, sometimes a month in a place, and then leaving it, with all the bowers and wells that cost so much pains. Afterwards most of the officers went to the new camp, while the General, with two or three of us, went down the road, towards the Williams house. There was an odd group at Hancock’s temporary Headquarters, by a little half-torn-to-pieces house, on whose walls some fellow had inscribed “the Straggler’s Rest.” Hancock lay, at full length, in a covered waggon, which had been placed under a weeping willow, one of the few green objects midst the desert of dust. He was attired in a white shirt and blue flannel pantaloons, quite enough for the intensely hot day. He lies down as much as he can, to give his wounded leg rest. General Meade mounted on the front seat, put his feet on the foot-board and lighted a cigar; and we all knew he was fixed for an hour at least. When he gets down with Hancock they talk, and talk, and talk, being great friends. Hancock is a very great and vehement talker but always says something worth hearing. Under the ruined porch was [Francis] Barlow, in his costume d ‘ete — checked shirt and old blue trousers, with a huge sabre, which he says he likes, because when he hits a straggler he wants to hurt him. He immediately began to pump the Captain Guzman, for he never neglects a chance to get information. After we had been well fried and dusted, General Meade rose to go, but I budged not, for I knew he would sit down again. He always rises twice or three times before he finally leaves Hancock. By the time we got to camp, it was all ready and looked quite neat.

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. 211-12. 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. 189-90. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Old Brute (July 7, 1864)

Old Baldy, in a photo taken after the war. The horse survived his master and marched, riderless, in Meade's funeral procession (Library of Congress).

Old Baldy, in a photo taken after the war. The horse survived his master and marched, riderless, in Meade’s funeral procession (Library of Congress).

Mrs. Meade sends a good report about Old Baldy, Meade’s horse. Meade sent Baldy back to Philadelphia back in April. “Mr. Ewell” is Gen. Richard Ewell (coincidentally, known to his men as “Old  Bald Head”). Jubal Early, who had marched north to attack Washington’s outer defenses, had belonged to Ewell’s corps.

I am glad to hear the good news about Baldy, as I am very much attached to the old brute.

Matters seem to be at a standstill for the present, and will continue so until the arrival of expected reinforcements. I see a tendency to despondency in some of the public journals. This arises from the folly of expecting one man to perform miracles, and then being depressed because unreasonable anticipations are not realized. Things have occurred very much as I expected. I had hoped for better success at the beginning, but after we failed to defeat Lee at the Wilderness, I took it for granted we should have to manoeuvre him into the fortifications of Richmond, and then lay siege to that place. I knew this, with the men we had, would be a formidable undertaking, requiring time and patience, and the final result depending very much upon the support we obtained from the Government and people in the way of reinforcements. I always knew the enemy would fight desperately, and would be skillfully handled. I still think, if the men are furnished promptly, that we shall eventually succeed in overcoming Lee’s army, and when that is done the Rebellion is over.

I presume you will all be excited again in Philadelphia at the appearance of the rebel army in Maryland and Pennsylvania. If it stirs the people up to turning out and volunteering, I shall thank Mr. Ewell very much, even if he does rob and steal some. The apathy of our people is our stumbling block. This move of Lee’s is an ingenious effort to get Grant to send troops from here, but I think he will be disappointed.

In the meantime, Theodore Lyman pays a visit to “that eccentric general,” Francis Barlow.

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

I paid a visit to Brigadier-General Barlow, who, as the day was hot, was lying in his tent, neatly attired in his shirt and drawers, and listening to his band, that was playing without. With a quaint hospitality he besought me to “take off my trousers and make myself at home”; which I did avail of no further than to sit down. He said his men were rested and he was ready for another assault! — which, if of real importance, he meant to lead himself; as he “wanted no more trifling.” His ideas of “trifling,” one may say, are peculiar. It would be ludicrous to hear a man talk so, who, as De Chanal says, “a la figure d’un gamin de Paris,” did I not know that he is one of the most daring men in the army. It would be hard to find a general officer to equal him and Joe Hayes—both my classmates and both Massachusetts men. Hayes now commands the Regulars. He could not have a higher compliment.

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. 210-11. 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, p. 186. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

To the James (June 13, 1864)

A Timothy O'Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A footnote in the book of Theodore Lyman’s letters points out that this one and some others were actually written after the fact. Nonetheless, they give an immediate and lively account of the move to the James River, a great triumph by Grant, Meade and the Army of the Potomac over Robert E. Lee. This letter includes one of my favorite anecdotes from Lyman, when he encounters General Francis Barlow reclining in a tree and eating cherries. (I feel compelled to note that Lyman’s discussion of African Americans may grate on twenty-first century sensitivities, as can often be the case with communications from the nineteenth.)

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Last night, at dark, the whole army was in motion for “Charles City” on the James River (there is no “city” there, but I believe a house and a barn). . . . This morning we were on our way by 5.30 and, making a cut across the woods, we soon came on Barlow’s division of the 2d Corps going rapidly toward the river, close to which we found Hancock, sitting on the grass and waiting for his Corps. At this point the Chickahominy is nothing of a stream, but, as it is bordered by considerable flats, it suddenly widens, during heavy floods, to perhaps half a mile, the water being just deep enough to stop waggons. This was a great trouble McClellan had: we have met with no such obstacle. This river is characteristic; a good drawing of this very scene at Long’s Bridge might pass as the incarnation of malaria and swamp fever. Fancy a wide ditch, partly choked with rotten logs, and full of brown, tepid, sickly-looking water, whose slow current would scarcely carry a straw along. From the banks of dark mould rises a black and luxuriant vegetation: cypresses of immense size, willow oaks, and swamp magnolias, remind you that you are within the limits of a sub-tropical climate, and so does the unhealthy and peculiar smell of decaying leaves and stagnant water. A great contrast to this landscape, so suggestive of silence and loneliness, was the rumbling and clatter of Barlow’s batteries, as they passed over the resounding pontoon bridge. We clattered over too, as soon as the last of the regiments had passed (which was about 10.30), designing to follow in rear of this division. . . . We kept on, on the flank of the column, admiring its excellent marching, a result partly due to the good spirits of the men, partly to the terror in which stragglers stand of Barlow. His provost guard is a study. They follow the column, with their bayonets fixed, and drive up the loiterers, with small ceremony. Of course their tempers do not improve with heat and hard marching. There was one thin, hard-featured fellow who was a perfect scourge. “Blank you!—you—” (here insert any profane and extremely abusive expression, varied to suit the peculiar case) “get up, will you? By blank, I’ll kill you if you don’t go on, double-quick!” And he looked so much like carrying out his threat that the hitherto utterly prostrate party would skip like the young lamb. Occasionally you would see a fellow awaiting the charge with an air of calm superiority, and, when the guard approached, pull out the aegis of a “surgeon’s pass.” The column marched so fast that I was sent forward to tell General Barlow to go more gently. I found that eccentric officer divested of his coat and seated in a cherry tree. “By Jove!” said a voice from the branches, “I knew I should not be here long before Meade’s Staff would be up. How do you do, Theodore, won’t you come up and take a few cherries?” However, I could not stay, and so kept on till we came, somewhat suddenly, on well-cultivated fields with good crops of wheat, oats, and clover. I was speculating on the reason of this when somebody said we were within a mile of James River! and just after, General Meade ordered me to ride down and see what sort of a position there was and how the land lay.

The pontoon bridge across the James River. In a paper he delivered to the Massachusetts Historical Society long after the war, Lyman wrote, “Meantime the laying of the great pontoon bridge across the narrows opposite Douthart’s house was going on with extraordinary energy. The approach to it lay along the river border under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for it had been covered a day or two previous with great cypresses, some of them three feet and a half in diameter; and these had to be cut close to the ground and the de’bris carefully cleared away. In a portion of the road, too, was a muddy swamp, which required a causeway of laborious construction. The bridge itself, composed of ninety-two boats, was thirteen feet wide and over two thousand feet long. It was braced by three schooners anchored in eighty-five feet of water, near the centre. The whole was laid in ten hours, and was finished at midnight. What added to the strangeness of the scene was the ci-devant Rebel iron-clad Atlanta, lying there like a big mud-turtle with only its back exposed. The group was completed by two or three gunboats and several steamers anchored hard by. The construction of this bridge and its approaches was, without question, one of the engineering feats of the war, the chief credit of which belongs to General Weitzel. Over it passed more than half the infantry of the army, 4000 cavalry, a train of wagons and artillery, thirty-five miles long, and 3500 beef cattle; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours. (Library of Congress)

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon that I caught the first sight of the water, as I cantered round the corner of a little grove. To appreciate such a sight you must pass five weeks in an almost unbroken wilderness, with no sights but weary, dusty troops, endless waggon-trains, convoys of poor wounded men, and hot, uncomfortable camps. Here was a noble river, a mile wide, with high green banks, studded with large plantation houses. In the distance, opposite, was Fort Powhatan, below which lay two steamers; and, what seemed strangest of all, not a Rebel soldier to be seen anywhere! . . . There was a signal-man waving away with his flag to attract the attention of the steamers, to notify all concerned that the head of the Army of the Potomac had struck the James. We went to a field by the Tyler house for our camp—the birthplace of John Tyler, he of the big nose and small political principles—once Vice President, with Tippy-canoe and Tyler too. Nobody was there, save a lot of nigs, that were too funny; for there suddenly appeared among them one of our black servants, who had left that very place in McClellan’s time. Such a “Lord a-a massy! is dat a-ar you? Wha-ar d’ge come from?” as never was heard, and great rejoicings over the distinguished traveller! What was more to the purpose, I got some green peas, a great coup; likewise milk, though “them a-ar infants” (meaning infantry) got the most of it. . . . A pontoon bridge, 2000 feet long, was made in ten hours, and over this passed a train of waggons and artillery thirty-five miles long; more than half the infantry in the army and 3500 beef cattle; besides 4000 cavalry; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours ! In civil life, if a bridge of this length were to be built over a river with a swift current and having a maximum depth of eighty-five feet, they would allow two or three months for the making of plans and collecting of materials. Then not less than a year to build it. This was a busy night on the river, messages going to City Point and Fort Monroe, and ferryboats and gunboats coming up as fast as possible to the neighborhood of Charles City. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 156-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Protracted and Severe Fighting (June 5, 1864)

George Meade at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

George Meade at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

In which George Meade defends his record. Even the attack on Spotsylvania, which he cites as a success, led to 22 hours of slaughter and resulted in Lee moving back to a new and better line. Early in the war, when Lee had resorted to defensive measures, people had derided him as the “King of Spades.” No more. By the time of Mine Run, the Army of the Potomac had come to understand the futility of attacking a well-dug-in position. “With the formidable rifles now in use, a single line of veteran soldiers, behind a three-foot breastwork of earth and rails or a stone fence, can drive back and almost destroy three similar lines approaching to attack them,” noted one Union captain. “Give either our army or the rebels twenty-four hours’ notice of an approaching attack, and they will select a good position, and throw up intrenchments, which it is folly for any but overwhelmingly superior numbers to attempt to carry.”

Since our last battle on the 3d inst. we have been comparatively quiet. The enemy has tried his hand once or twice at the offensive, and in each case has been repulsed and severely punished. This evening, after dark, he made a furious attack, but was everywhere repulsed. The sound of the artillery and musketry has just died away. Indeed, we are pretty much engaged all the time, from early in the morning till late at night. I don’t believe the military history of the world can afford a parallel to the protracted and severe fighting which this army has sustained for the last thirty days. You would suppose, with all this severe fighting, our severe losses, constant marches, many in the night, that the physical powers of the men would be exhausted. I have no doubt in time it will tell on them, but as yet they show no evidences of it.

I feel a satisfaction in knowing that my record is clear, and that the results of this campaign are the clearest indications I could wish of my sound judgment, both at Williamsport and Mine Run. In every instance that we have attacked the enemy in an entrenched position we have failed, except in the case of Hancock’s attack at Spottsylvania, which was a surprise discreditable to the enemy. So, likewise, whenever the enemy has attacked us in position, he has been repulsed. I think Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee’s army is not Tennessee and Bragg’s army. Whether the people will ever realize this fact remains to be seen.

After the failed assault of June 3,  hundreds of wounded soldiers lay between the lines while Grant and Lee dickered over the terms that would allow their recovery. Anyone venturing outside the trenches faced almost certain death from sharpshooters. Grant balked at the idea of requesting a truce, which would make it look as if he had lost the contest (which he had). He suggested that Meade should make the request. Meade replied that the Confederates would not recognize him as commander while Grant was present with the army. For his part, Lee had few wounded outside his lines to recover and was hardly prepared to accommodate Grant. While the delicate dance took place between the two commanders, the wounded lay suffering between the lines. Theodore Lyman received the assignment to start the truce proceedings.

This afternoon I carried a flag of truce—quite an episode in my military experiences. At three in the afternoon General Meade sent for me and said, as if asking for a piece of bread and butter: “Lyman, I want you to take this letter from General Grant and take it by a flag of truce, to the enemy’s lines. General Hancock will tell you where you can carry it out.” I recollect he was lying on his cot at the time, with his riding boots cocked up on the footboard. My ideas on flags of truce were chiefly mediaeval and were associated with a herald wearing a tabard. However, I received the order as if my employment had been that from early youth, and proceeded at once to array myself in “store” clothes, sash, white gloves and all other possible finery. After searching in vain for a bugler who could blow a “parley,” I set forth with only a personable and well-dressed cavalry sergeant, and found the gallant Hancock reposing on his cot. “Well, Colonel,” says H., “now you can’t carry it out on my front, it’s too hot there. Your best way is to go to the left, where there are only pickets, and the officers there will get it out.” So the ever-laborious Major Mitchell was summoned and told to provide some whiskey for the Rebs and a flag. The last was a great point: there seemed nothing white about, except the General’s shirt, but at last he found a pillowcase which was ripped up and put on a staff, and you would have admired it when it was completed! Then we made our way towards the left and found General Birney’s men moving that way, who furnished us information about the road, and a guide, Colonel Hapgood of the 5th New Hampshire, corps officer of the day. He was a live Yankee, a thorough New Hampshire man—tall, sinewy, with a keen black eye, and a driving way about him. He was ornamented with a bullet-hole through his hat, another through the trousers, and a third on his sword scabbard. We rode forward till we struck the breastwork at Miles’s Headquarters. It was a curious sight! Something like an Indian family camped half underground. Here was the breastwork, behind which were dug a number of little cellars, about two feet deep, and, over these, were pitched some small tents. And there you could see the officers sitting, with only their heads above ground, writing or perhaps reading; for it was a quiet time and there were no bullets or shells. We followed the line to its end, near by, and then rode through the pine woods a little way. Here Colonel Hamyl remarked in a ghostly voice: “Do you know where you are going? There have been two field officers killed just here.” To whom Colonel Hapgood (with injured pride): ‘‘Yes sir! I do know where I am going. There’s some bullets comes through here; but none to hurt.” Without definitely settling what precise minimum of balls was “none to hurt,” we continued on. Presently the cautious Hapgood pulled up and peered round; and I could see an open field through the trees and another taller wood behind. “Now,” said the New Hampshire patriot, “those tallest trees are full of their sharpshooters; if we strike into the field fifty yards above here, they will fire; but, just below, they can’t see.” So we followed on, and, as soon as we were in the open ground, started at a gallop and got into another wood, close to where I have put my flag on the map. There was here a road, leading past a mill-pond, which however was some quarter of a mile away. Our pickets held this road for some hundred or two yards from us, and then came the enemy’s pickets. The Colonel said he knew a good place to approach, and went forward to call to some of them. After a great deal of delay, the lieutenant on our side got one of them to send for an officer, and then word was sent down each line to cease firing in that command, as a flag of truce was going in. Then we left our horses and went forward, the sergeant carrying the flag. As we turned a corner, close by, we came almost upon their party, standing some paces off. It looked exactly like a scene in an opera; there was never anything that so resembled something got up for stage effect. The sun was near setting, and, in the heavy oak woods, the light already began to fade. On the road stood a couple of Rebel officers, each in his grey overcoat, and, just behind, were grouped some twenty soldiers—the most gipsy-looking fellows imaginable; in their blue-grey jackets and slouched hats; each with his rusty musket and well-filled cartridge-box. I walked up in all stateliness (fully aware, however, that white cotton gloves injured the ensemble), and was introduced to Major Wooten of the 14th North Carolina sharpshooters, belonging to A. P. Hill’s Corps. He was a well-looking man, with quiet and pleasing manners; and, to see us all together, you would suppose we had met to go out shooting, or something of that kind. I am free to confess that the bearing of the few Rebel officers I have met is superior to the average of our own. They have a slight reserve and an absence of all flippancy, on the whole an earnestness of manner, which is very becoming to them. They get this I think partly from the great hardships they suffer, or, still more, the hardships of those at home, and from a sense of their ruin if their cause fails. We attack, and our people live in plenty, with no one to make them afraid; it makes a great difference. . . .

Major Wooten said he would enquire if the despatch could be received, and soon got notice that it could, if in a proper form. So it was sent in, an answer promised in a couple of hours, and we all sat down on the grass to wait—or rather on the leaves, for this sandy soil produces no grass to speak of. As I had time to look about and, still more to sniff about, I became aware that the spot was not so charming as it looked. There had been a heavy cavalry skirmish in the woods and they were full of dead horses, which, as the evening closed, became, as Agassiz would say, “highly offensive.” It was positively frightful! and there I waited till eleven at night! Not even the novelty of the position was enough to distract one’s attention. As to the pickets, they were determined to have also a truce, for, when a Reb officer went down the line to give some order, he returned quite aghast, and said the two lines were together, amiably conversing. He ordered both to their posts, but I doubt if they staid. At half-past eight we had quite a disagreeable experience. There suddenly was heard a shot or two towards our left centre, then quite a volley, and then, whir-r-r-r, the musketry came running down right towards us, as one regiment after another took it up! The next thing I expected was that both sides just near us would take a panic and begin blazing away. The officers sprung to their feet and ran down the lines, to again caution the men; so nobody fired; and there we sat and listened to the volleys and the cannonading, that opened very heavily. . . .

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis C. Barlow (Library of Congress).

As it got to be after ten, Major Wooten said he would go back and see what was the delay. There came back a lieutenant soon, that is about eleven, with a note from a superior officer, saying that “General Grant’s aide-decamp need not be delayed further,” but that an answer would be sent in at the same point, which could be received by the picket officer. So we shook hands with the Rebs and retreated from the unsavory position. . . . We stopped at Barlow’s Headquarters, and then I kept on to camp, where the General greeted me with: “Hullo, Lyman, I thought perhaps the Rebs had gobbled you during that attack.” . . .

In his journal entry, Lyman includes more about “that eccentric officer,” Francis Barlow. “He was in a merry state; for he had put some hundreds of stragglers in an open field & left them there while the shells were flying, and one got hit!” Barlow hated stragglers.

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. 201. 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.149-53. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864)

Alfred Waud identified this drawing from June 3 as "7th N.Y. Heavy Arty. in Barlows charge nr. Cold Harbor Friday June 3rd 1864." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud identified this drawing from June 3 as “7th N.Y. Heavy Arty. in Barlows charge nr. Cold Harbor Friday June 3rd 1864.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“I always regret the last assault on Cold Harbor was ever made.” So wrote Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs. He had much cause for regret. One hundred and fifty years ago Union soldiers made a doomed attack on entrenched rebel lines. In about a half hour some 7,000 of them fell as casualties. In his letter of June 3, Theodore Lyman presents a clear-eyed account of what he say during the battle, without sugar-coating the final result.

We had very severe fighting this morning, all along the lines. If you look on the map you may follow our lines. The line of battle faced westerly, towards Gaines’s Mill and Mechanicsville, with a corps covering the right flank, and the left refused (a wing is “refused” when it is swung back from the direction of the main line). In some sort this was the battle of Gaines’s Mill reversed. . . . The Rebel lines were about parallel with ours and they were throwing up dirt as hard as they could. No country could be more favorable for such work. The soldiers easily throw up the dirt so dry and sandy with their tin plates, their hands, bits of board, or canteens split in two, when shovels are scarce; while a few axes, in experienced hands, soon serve to fell plenty of straight pines, that are all ready to be set up, as the inner face of the breastwork. I can’t say I heard with any great hope the order, given last night, for a general assault at 4.30 the next morning! You see Wright and Smith took their front line and drove them back Wednesday afternoon. Thursday afternoon was twenty-four, and Friday morning would be thirty-six hours, for them to bring up and entrench their whole army. If we could smash them up, the Chickahominy lay behind them; but I had no more hope of it, after Spotsylvania, than I had of taking Richmond in two days. Half-past four found us at Kelly’s, the Headquarters of General Wright; the brave General himself, however, had gone to the front. At that moment the cannon opened, in various directions, and the Rebels replied vigorously. There has been no fight of which I have seen so little as this. The woods were so placed that the sound, even, of the musketry was much kept away, and the fighting, though near us, was completely shut from view. All the warfare for us was an occasional roundshot, or shell, that would come about us from the Rebel batteries. In the direction of the 18th Corps the crash of the musketry was very loud, but elsewhere, scarcely to be noticed. . . . About five we had a gleam of hope for our success. News came that Barlow had carried their works and taken seventeen guns; and so he did; but it is one thing to get in, another to stay in. His men advanced heroically and went over the breastworks with a rush; but the enemy had reserves massed behind, well knowing that his extreme right was seriously threatened. Before our supports could get up, their forces were down on our men, while a heavy enfilade of canister was kept up from flanking batteries. Barlow was driven out with heavy loss, and succeeded in getting off only about 300 of the prisoners he took. Like good soldiers, however, his men stopped and turned about, close to the works, and there entrenched themselves. At six we got notice that Russell’s division could not carry the line in their front. Ricketts, however, on the right of the 6th Corps, got their first line, and so did the 18th Corps on his right; but the 18th people were forced back, and this left Ricketts a good deal exposed to enfilade; but he held on. A singular thing about the whole attack, and one that demonstrated the staunchness of the troops, was, that our men, when the fire was too hot for them to advance and the works too strong, did not retreat as soldiers often do, but lay down where some small ridge offered a little cover, and there staid, at a distance from the enemy varying from forty to perhaps 250 yards. When it was found that the lines could not be carried, General Meade issued orders to hold the advanced position, all along, and to trench. The main fight lasted, I suppose, some three hours, but there was sharp skirmishing and artillery firing the whole day. The Rebels threw canister in large quantities, doing much damage. . . .

"Barlow and Gibbons charge between the Mechanicsville road and swamp, June 3rd, 1864." By Alfred Waud. Inscribed on the back: This was a prominent position at the battle of Gaines Mill 1862. Our line was then at right angles to the present advance and faced to the right. Barlow charged to the left of the house, and Gibbon on the right." Inscribed vertically: "Gains [sic] Mills or Cold Harbor/Gen Barlows & Gibbons June 3rd 1864." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Barlow and Gibbons charge between the Mechanicsville road and swamp, June 3rd, 1864.” By Alfred Waud. Inscribed on the back: “This was a prominent position at the battle of Gaines Mill 1862. Our line was then at right angles to the present advance and faced to the right. Barlow charged to the left of the house, and Gibbon on the right.” Inscribed vertically: “Gains [sic] Mills or Cold Harbor/Gen Barlows & Gibbons June 3rd 1864.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

David Bell Birney.

David Bell Birney.

In the afternoon came Wright and Hancock, with their Staff officers, to consult with General Meade. They looked as pleasant as if they had been out to dine, instead of standing all day with shells, bullets and canister coming about them; for we now have a set of corps commanders who, in action, go, as they say, where they “can see”; which means sitting calmly in places where many people would be so scared they wouldn’t know the left wing from the right. Which reminds me of a ludicrous circumstance—there always is something of the ludicrous mixed in every tragedy. Three or four vulgar and very able-bodied civilians had got down to the army, in some way or other, and were at our standpoint for a little while. Having come from the White House and hearing little musketry, they concluded it would be quite safe to go further to the front. “Come,” said one, in a flippant way, “let’s go forward and see the fun.” So off they trotted down the Gaines’s Mill road. One of Wright’s aides said they came pretty soon, as far as where they were standing. All was quiet, but these braves had hardly dismounted when the Rebel guns again opened and the shells came with fearful precision over the spot! One gentleman, a fat man, rushed wildly to his horse, convulsively clutched the mane and tumbled on the saddle, galloping hotly off. But it so happened that two successive shells, passing with their hideous scream, burst just behind his horse, giving him the wings of panic! The other cit, quite paralyzed, lay down flat behind a ridge; in a few minutes he looked up at a Staff officer and, with the cold sweat rolling off him, exclaimed: “Oh! I wish they would stop! Don’t you think, sir, they will stop pretty soon?” What became of the third I know not; but they all “saw the fun.” Not a thing did I have to do till six in the evening, when General Meade told me to go to General Birney, ascertain his position and what he thought of the force in his front; then keep on to Warren and ask him if he could so close in his Corps to the left as to set Birney free to return to the Second Corps. I found General Birney, with his usual thin, Puritanic face, very calmly eating tapioca pudding as a finish to his frugal dinner. He remarked drily that his man had selected that hollow as particularly safe; but, as half a dozen shells had already plumped in there, he did not exactly believe the theory a good one. I had a great mess finding General Warren.* First I went, by the road leading through the woods, to Bethesda Church. There were his aides and his flag: but the General had “ridden out along the lines”—confound that expression! That is the luck of a Headquarters aide. You say: “Is the General here?” “No, sir, he has gone, I believe, along the line.” “Do you know where?” “Well, Colonel, he did not say exactly; but, if you will follow down the breastworks, I think you will find him.” (Delightful vision of a line of two miles or so of breastworks with the infantry safely crouched behind, and you perched on a horse, riding down, taking the chance of stray shot, canister, and minie balls, looking for a general who probably is not there.) The greatest piece of coolness is when you are advised to make a short cut by the picket line! . . .

*“This was Warren’s great way, to go about, looking thus after details and making ingenious plans; but it kept him from generalities, and made it hard to find him, so that he finally came to trouble as much by this as by anything else.”—Lyman’s Journal

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Warren looks care-worn. Some people say he is a selfish man, but he is certainly the most tender-hearted of our commanders. Almost all officers grow soon callous in the service; not unfeeling, only accustomed, and unaffected by the suffering they see. But Warren feels it a great deal, and that and the responsibility, and many things of course not going to suit him, all tend to make him haggard. He said: “For thirty days now, it has been one funeral procession, past me; and it is too much! To-day I saw a man burying a comrade, and, within half an hour, he himself was brought in and buried beside him. The men need some rest.” . . .

At nine at night the enemy made a fierce attack on a part of Gibbon’s division, and, for a time, the volleys of musketry and the booming of the cannon were louder, in the still night, than the battle had been by day. But that sort of thing has not done with the Rebels, since the brilliant attack of Johnson, the second night of the Wilderness. This time they were repulsed completely. It was then that our men called out: “Come on! Come on! Bring up some more Johnnies! You haven’t got enough!” . . .

To-night all the trenching tools were ordered up and the lines were strengthened, and saps run out, so as to bring them still closer to the opposing ones. And there the two armies slept, almost within an easy stone-throw of each other; and the separating space ploughed by cannon-shot and clotted with the dead bodies that neither side dared to bury! I think nothing can give a greater idea of deathless tenacity of purpose, than the picture of these two hosts, after a bloody and nearly continuous struggle of thirty days, thus lying down to sleep, with their heads almost on each other’s throats! Possibly it has no parallel in history. So ended the great attack at Cool Arbor. The losses were far greater for us than for the Rebels. From what I can gather I doubt not we lost four or five to one. We gained nothing save a knowledge of their position and the proof of the unflinching bravery of our soldiers. . . .*

*“I do think there has been too much assaulting, this campaign\ After our lessons of failure and of success at Spotsylvania, we assault here, after the enemy had had thirty-six hours to entrench, and that time will cover them over their heads and give them slashings and traverses besides! The best officers and men are liable, by their greater gallantry, to be first disabled; and, of those that are left, the best become demoralized by the failures, and the loss of good leaders; so that, very soon, the men will no longer charge entrenchments and will only go forward when driven by their officers.”—Lyman’s Journal.

The costs of war. The remains of dead soldiers being collected at Cold Harbor after the war (Library of Congress).

The costs of war. The remains of dead soldiers being collected at Cold Harbor after the war (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.143-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Letters from the Front (May 11-13, 1864)

Alfred Waud called this sketch "The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient" (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Alfred Waud called this sketch of the fighting for the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania “The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient” (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Since the last time George Meade wrote home to his wife his army had undergone some serious punishment—and did some punishing itself. First came the two bloody days in the Wilderness and then the horrible, terrible fighting at Spotsylvania. The fighting for the bulge—the salient—in Lee’s lines that came to be called the Mule Shoe (and a portion of that was baptized the “Bloody Angle”) had ended with the Confederates pulling back to a second line. Although this appeared to be a victory for the Union forces, it merely moved the fighting to a new position. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “After the rebels retreated, Rufus Dawes and his men from the 6th Wisconsin moved forward to occupy their entrenchments. They found a scene from hell. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere in the mud and filth. Dawes saw one corpse propped up in the corner, the head missing and the neck and shoulders badly burned. Dawes presumed it was the work of a Union mortar.

“Horace Porter surveyed the result of the fighting the next day and found it ‘harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the “angle,” while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.’ Another soldier who witnessed the devastation called it ‘the most horrible sight I had ever witnessed.’

“That same day Grant wrote to Stanton: ‘General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with. If their services can be rewarded by promotion to the ranks of major-generals in the regular army the honor would be worthily bestowed, and I would feel personally gratified. I would not like to see one of these promotions at this time without seeing both.’”

Battle-field, Spottyslvania Court House, May 11—9 a.m.

I have only time to tell you we are all safe—that is, George and myself—and as far as I know, all your friends, except General Wadsworth, who fell into the hands of the enemy, mortally wounded, without hopes of life.

We have been fighting continuously for six days, and have gotten, I think, decidedly the better of the enemy, though their resistance is most stubborn.

Return thanks to the Almighty for the gracious protection extended to us, and let us try to deserve its continuance.

I am quite well and in good spirits, and hope we shall continue to be successful and bring this unhappy war to an honorable close.

May 12, 1864—2 o’clock, p.m.

A severe battle is raging, with the advantages thus far on our side. We have captured to-day over thirty guns, four thousand prisoners, including three generals. The enemy are strongly posted and entrenched, which, with their desperation, makes the struggle stubborn.

8 a.m., May 13, 1864.

By the blessing of God I am able to announce not only the safety of George and myself, but a decided victory over the enemy, he having abandoned last night the position he so tenaciously held yesterday. Eight days of continuous fighting have thus resulted with the loss to the enemy of over thirty guns and eight thousand prisoners. Our losses have been frightful; I do not like to estimate them. Those of the enemy fully as great. Our work is not over, but we have the prestige of success, which is everything, and I trust our final success will be assured. I have not time to write much. God’s blessing be with you and the dear children! Pray earnestly for our success.

Here are Theodore Lyman’s accounts of the same period. His regular letters actually resume on May 15, but throughout this time he took up the habit of writing about the events of each day at a later point. I have taken these post-dated accounts and posted them here.

May 10, 1864

General Gersham Mott (Library of Congress).

General Gershom Mott (Library of Congress).

[Tuesday] there was sharp fighting all along the line. General Mott’s division of the 2d Corps was put on the left of the 6th Corps, with the idea of making a connection with Burnside and then swinging our left to take the enemy in flank. I was ordered early to go to General Wright and explain to him, then to General Mott and direct him to demonstrate along his front and feel on the left for Burnside. General Wright had moved his Headquarters and had put them a little back and on one side, being moved thereto by the fact that the first selection was a focus for shells. Then I rode along the lines to General Mott and got his position as well as I could, and gave him the order. Coming back to General Wright, I had a sharp corner to go through. A battery was firing at one of ours and the shells coming over struck right among our infantry. They cut the pine trees about me in a manner I didn’t like, and one burst close by, throwing the pieces round just as you see them in French battle pictures. All day there was firing. About eleven came General Meade and told me to go out at once to Mott and to get a written report from him, which I did; and a sharpshooter shot at me, which I hate — it is so personal. More by token, poor General Rice, a Massachusetts man and very daring, was to-day killed by a sharpshooter. The ball broke his thigh, and, when they amputated his leg, he never rallied. As he lay on the stretcher, he called out to General Meade: “Don’t you give up this fight! I am willing to lose my life, if it is to be; but don’t you give up this fight!” All day we were trying to select places for an assault. Barlow crossed the Po on the right, but was afterwards ordered back, and had a brilliant rear-guard fight in which he punished the enemy. From five to six p.m. there was heavy cannonading, the battalions firing by volley. At 6.30 Upton, with a heavy column of picked men, made a most brilliant assault with the bayonet, at the left of the Sixth Corps. The men rushed on, without firing a shot, carried the breastworks in the face of cannon and musketry, and took 900 prisoners. Some of the men, who faltered, were run through the body by their comrades! But Mott’s men on the left behaved shamefully, and so Upton was obliged again to fall back, bringing his prisoners with him.* . . .

*11 p.m. Grant in consultation with Meade. Wright came up also; he uttered no complaints, but said quietly and firmly to Meade: ‘General, I don’t want Mott’s men on my left; they are not a support; I would rather have no troops there!’ Warren is not up to a corps command. As in the Mine Run move, so here, he cannot spread himself over three divisions. He cannot do it, and the result is partial and ill-concerted and dilatory movements.” — Lyman’s Journal. 

May 12, 1864

This was the date of one of the most fearful combats, which lasted along one limited line, and in one spot, more than fourteen hours, without cessation. I fancy this war has furnished no parallel to the desperation shown here by both parties. It must be called, I suppose, the taking of the Salient.

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as "Allegheny" or "Clubby" (Library of Congress).

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as “Allegheny” or “Clubby” (Library of Congress).

Hancock was ordered to attack with his corps as soon after four in the morning as possible and Burnside was to follow the example. A little after daylight we were all gathered round General Grant’s tent, all waiting for news of importance. The field telegraph was laid to all corps Headquarters and there we could hear from all parts. At a little after five o’clock, General Williams approached from the telegraph tent; a smile was on his face: Hancock had carried the first line! Thirty minutes after, another despatch: he had taken the main line with guns, prisoners and two generals! Great rejoicings now burst forth. Some of Grant’s Staff were absurdly confident and were sure Lee was entirely beaten. My own experiences taught me a little more scepticism. Hancock presently sent to ask for a vigorous attack on his right, to cover and support his right flank. General Wright was accordingly ordered to attack with a part of the 6th Corps. As I stood there waiting, I heard someone say, “Sir, this is General Johnson.” I turned round and there was the captured Major-General, walking slowly up. He was a strongly built man of a stern and rather bad face, and was dressed in a double-breasted blue-grey coat, high riding boots and a very bad felt hat. He was most horribly mortified at being taken, and kept coughing to hide his emotion. Generals Meade and Grant shook hands with him, and good General Williams bore him off to breakfast. His demeanor was dignified and proper. Not so a little creature, General Steuart, who insulted everybody who came near him, and was rewarded by being sent on foot to Fredericksburg, where there was plenty of mud and one stream up to his waist. Our attack was a surprise: the assaulting columns rushed over the breastworks without firing a shot, and General Johnson, running out to see the reason of the noise, found himself surrounded by blue blouses. I was now sent by General Meade to see how far General Wright’s column of attack was prepared. I found the columns going into the woods south of the Brown house; the enemy had seen them and the shells were crashing through the thick pines. When I came back and reported, the General said: “Well, now you can take some orderlies and go to General Wright and send me back intelligence from time to time.” There are some duties that are more honorable than pleasant! As I turned into the pines, the musketry began, a good way in front of me. I pressed past the column that was advancing. Presently the bullets began to come through the pine trees. Then came back a Staff officer, yelling: “Bring up that brigade! Bring it up at the double-quick!” “Doublequick,” shouted the officers, and the column started on a run.

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. 194-5. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s correspondence is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 108-11. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.