Quite a Stampede (October 2, 1864)

Lyman’s letters jump back and forth in time a bit. In this letter from October 2 he writes some more about his journey back to the army. The U.S. Christian Commission had been established in 1861 and continued its efforts until the end of the war. Lyman wrote down his impressions of the events from October 2 four days later, but I have included that account with today’s letter. General Meade will tell his wife about his narrow escape from the shell in his letter tomorrow.

. . . The Washington boat was much in the style of the other — rather worse and more crowded, people and freight similar. There were more Christian Commissioners, who were joined by those who had come with me. The funniest people you ever saw! Their great and overshadowing anxiety was dinner; that was the thing. Accordingly they had deputed the youngest—a divinity student, and supposed to be a terribly sharp fellow—to lie in wait at sundry times and secure tickets for the meal. “I have arranged it all with the steward; we shall sit together,” said this foxy one. Long before the hour, they all went down and stood against the door, like the queue at a French theatre. One of them came up, a little after, wiping his mouth; and asked me with surprising suddenness, if I “was on the side of the Lord.” They were mostly Methodists, and of course very pious. One of the soldiers on the lower deck, suddenly cried out: “Oh, H____!” upon which a Christian Commissioner said: “Mr. Smith, did you think to bring a bundle of the tracts on swearing?” I told him I hoped he had brought a good many, and of several kinds, as there was a wide field in the army. All of which reminds me of an anecdote. A group of these gentlemen, going on foot and with their carpet-bags towards the front, were addressed by a veteran with “Hullo! got any lemons to sell?” “No, my friend, we belong to the army of the Lord.” Veteran, with deep scorn: “Oh, ye—es; stragglers! stragglers!” I respect these Christian Commissioners, though they are somewhat silly often. Some of them had come all the way from Wisconsin. I arrived in camp somewhat after dark and was tenderly welcomed by all, from the General down. Barstow and Humphreys were highly pleased with their gifts. To-day a curious thing occurred. While I was away, looking for a place for the new camp, General Meade rode out with the Staff. There came a conical shell, which shaved a patch of hair off the tail of General Humphrey’s horse, scraped the leg of General Meade’s boot, passed between General Ricketts and Griffin who were standing within a foot of each other, and buried itself in the ground, covering several officers with sand and dirt. Four Generals just escaping by a turn of the head, so to speak! I got this shell and shall send it home as a great curiosity.

Lyman wrote this description of the events of October 2 on October 6. In his journal entry he describes a bit more about the scare the confederates gave “Abou Ben Butler.” “Butler has a stampede on–he sent one of his theatrical despatches saying he had a rebel deserter, an officer whom he had ‘put on his life,’ to give a correct account, and who made out pretty much all Lee’s people were over there, sworn to crush Gen. B ‘if it took every man they had!'”

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).

Abou Ben Butler had quite a stampede last night. Having got so far away from home, he conceived that the whole southern host was massed to crush him, and communicated the same with much eloquence, by the instrumentality of the magnetic telegraph; whereat Major-General Humphreys, Chief-of-Staff, had the brutality to laugh! We made our usual peregrination to Globe Tavern, where we got about 10 o’clock. Here General Meade sent me to look for a new camp, first enquiring if I felt well enough for that arduous service, as he looks on me as a tender convalescent! It was a tedious business getting a spot; for the whole country was either occupied, or was very dirty from old camps. At quarter to eleven, as I was poking about, I heard firing to the left, pretty sharp for a few minutes, and supposed there might be quite a fight; but it died away, shortly, except the cannon, which were not frequent. I got to the front about one, and met General Meade at the Peeble house. He had been to the Pegram house and it was near there he had such a narrow escape from a shell. I told them that, had I been there, I should have been the odd man that would have been hit; for they all said that the Staff could not well have been arranged again so that there would have been room for a three-inch shot to pass without hitting somebody. The cause of the firing was, that the whole line advanced, except the right division, and established a front position at the Pegram house. . . .

The engineers were trotting round briskly, you may depend, ordering a redoubt here and a battery there, all intent on fencing in our new property. Luckily, the soil is very light and easy to dig, for our earthworks have now to be measured by miles. Not only must the front be protected, but the exposed flank and the rear. With what men we have, we do a great deal. Since we left Culpeper, I have not seen the troops look so healthy. If we could work a little more backbone into that 9th Corps, it would help wonderfully; but they started green and that is no way to ripen men. Many faults there have been also in the command. The men are in good spirits, I think, and well conditioned for the prosecution of the campaign. The evening of Sunday we went to our new camp, having lived nearly three months in the old one. It seemed quite like leaving home; for you get used to your little canvas house, pitched in a particular spot. The new camp is well enough placed, but in a region of evil savors. There is a timber bridge near by, and, every waggon that went over it, the General would jump and say, “By Jove, there is heavy musketry!” Gradually he learned the difference of sound and settled down quietly. The weather has been very warm the last day or two.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 231-2 and 237-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


The Weldon Railroad (August 18, 1864)

An Alfred Waud drawing depicts Gouverneur Warren at the Weldon Railroad, supervising the construction of entrenchments by moonlight Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

An Alfred Waud drawing depicts Gouverneur Warren at the Weldon Railroad, supervising the construction of entrenchments by moonlight. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In his letter of August 18, Meade mentions Winfield Scott Hancock’s battles north of the James as well as the start of a movement by Gouverneur K. Warren, commander of the V Corps. This is the beginning of the attack during which Warren will finally get a toe hold on the Weldon Railroad, one of the lines vital to supplying Petersburg. Here’s what I wrote in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

“Warren and the V Corps attacked here near a local landmark called Globe Tavern early on the morning of August 18, fighting off a Confederate counterattack to keep their grip on the railroad. The rebels counterattacked through a driving rain the next day. It was a close fight for a time, with the rebels overrunning Samuel Crawford’s division of the V Corps, but the Union soldiers, reinforced by a division of the IX Corps, thrust the enemy back. The rebels attacked again on Sunday, August 21, but by then Warren had his men positioned behind entrenchments, and once again they repulsed the Confederate attack. This portion of the Weldon Railroad was now in Union hands, and the construction of Fort Wadsworth–named after the New York politician-turned-general who had fallen in the Wilderness–was built here to make sure the Confederates couldn’t take it back. Now Confederate supplies coming to Petersburg could travel only as far as Stony Creek station, where they had to be unloaded, placed on wagons, and transported to Dinwiddie Court House and then up the Boydton Plank Road to the city.”

Here’s what Meade wrote on August 18:

Hancock’s movement across the James has resulted in bringing on an action with a part of Lee’s army, which at first was in our favor, but from their reinforcing him I judge Hancock has come to a stand still, and will not probably be able to effect more. Warren has gone to-day on a similar mission on our left, to see if he can find a weak spot in the enemy’s line. His guns are now plainly heard. These movements are made by Grant, with a view to keep the enemy on the alert, prevent his detaching any troops to Early, and, if possible, compel his bringing back some of the troops in the Valley, and thus give Sheridan more chance.

Now it’s Theodore Lyman’s turn:

Last night I had got well into the first sound sleep, when images of war began to intrude on my dreams, and these, taking on a more corporeal form, gradually waked me enough to prove to my mind that there was a big racket going on. The noise of a few shells and many muskets I don’t mind, as I am used to it, but, when it comes to firing heavy mortar shells in salvos, one is authorized to sit up in bed, even if it is one in the morning. Once awake, I recognized the fact that the largest kind of a cannonade was going on. The still, damp air was filled with the detonations of all sorts of big guns and projectiles. It was quite as extensive as the firing on the morning of the mine and sounded very much louder, in the night. Our side replied rather moderately, but the enemy kept up one roar of batteries for some two hours, and the air was full of the humming and bursting of the shells. At the end of that time they stopped, rather suddenly. We expended some 1500 rounds of ammunition and they must have fired much more, and all to kill and wound thirty men. . . . The great joke of the matter was, that General Meade (who is a sound sleeper, and was a little deaf from a cold in the head) remained calmly in the arms of Morpheus, till a telegraph from Grant at City Point, came in, asking what all that firing was about! It so happened that the General woke just at a lull in the cannonade; so he didn’t understand the despatch, but called the officer of the night to know if he had heard any more firing than usual! You should have seen the deshabille parade of officers in the camp: such a flitting of figures in a variety of not much clothing! General Humphreys said: “Yes, perhaps it would be well to have the horses saddled; for,” he added with a hopeful smile, “we may have a scrimmage, you know.” But he was disappointed, and we all went to bed again.

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. 216-17. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.