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.