Touching a Tiger’s Cubs (August 19, 1864)

The Aiken House on the Weldon Railroad, a photo by Timothy Gardiner (Library of Congress).

The Aiken House on the Weldon Railroad, a photo by Timothy Gardiner (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides some detail about Gouverneur Warren’s capture of the Weldon Railroad. Not for the first (or last time) Lyman demonstrates that he had a good eye for military affairs. In fact, in his journal entry Lyman even criticizes Meade over the days’s action, something he didn’t often do. Regarding the way the Union lines offered the Confederates a perfect opportunity for a flank attack, Lyman wrote, “The position was faulty; Warren should have corrected it, and Meade should have known it.”

General Gersham Mott (Library of Congress).

General Gershom Mott (Library of Congress).

Some notes about the principals mentioned: Gershom Mott commanded a division in the II Corps and had been brought down from Deep Bottom, north of the James River. Robert Potter had a division in the IX Corps. Julius White had replaced James Ledlie as a IX Corps division commander; in his journal Lyman says of White, “He is no soldier but always ready to fight; a trait that goes far in war!” Brig. Gen. Joseph Hayes of the V Corps wax exchanged in April 1865, just in time to participate in the Appomattox campaign.

To-day I have been with the General to General Warren, who with the 5th Corps seized the Weldon railroad yesterday. It is touching a tiger’s cubs to get on that road! They will not stand it. Warren had a severe fight yesterday at midday, but they could not get him off. All was quiet this morning towards the railroad. Mott got in, through the mud, about seven, and began at once to relieve the 9th Corps, which was not an easy matter, for the covered way was, in many places, waist-deep in water, so the troops had to march up as well as they could, keeping behind hills, etc. The enemy opened on them with artillery but it was rather too late, and the columns were already pretty well out of reach. At noon the General started to go out to visit the scene of action. It was raining steadily, and we went slop, slop along. Near the Cheever house was a damp brigade of Potter’s division, halted. The General ordered me to tell it to move on, as it might be needed. General Potter himself was near by at General White’s Headquarters. . . . After which I was fain to gallop briskly to catch up with the Staff, which was jogging along the Williams house road. . . . Cutting through a skirt of wood, we came on a very large, flat, open farm, on which is the Globe Tavern, and through which runs the railroad. . . . General Warren had a narrow escape in the fight of yesterday. His horse was struck directly between the eyes by a minie ball. If his head had been down, there would have been nothing to save the General’s body. The Corps [Warren’s] was then formed in form of two sides of a rectangle, the longer arm lying across the railroad, the shorter parallel to it. It could scarcely fail to strike me that, while his left flank was well protected, his right was “in the air,”having nothing in connection with it but the picket line. However, as I am not a military critic, I thought no more of it. The enemy did think a good deal of it. In front of the position were dense woods, on its left a fine open tract, and, on the right, a wood separated it from the open farm of the Aiken house. We left at 3.30, and returned by the way we came. Both going and coming I quite expected to see the picket line tumbling in on top of us, and was not surprised, as we rode along near the Aiken house, to hear a number of dropping shots to our left. Just after we got to the plank road, we could hear the cannon opening, which continued a short time and then ceased. During the said short time was enacted one of those disgraceful surprises which we have in such perfection. The enemy, making a front attack, at the same moment threw a strong column down a road leading past the Linear house and outside our right flank. They smashed through the picket line, passed down the road, faced to their right, and rushed, yelling and firing, into the open fields, in rear of our right wing. Met here by a fire of artillery and reserve troops, they themselves fell into confusion, and rushing back through our lines, like a great tide, carried out to sea at least 2000 of our men, including most of our gallant little regular brigade with its commander, General [Joseph] Hayes. To be sure we drove them off and held the railroad, but we ought to have taken all that flanking column.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 217-20. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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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.