Peebles’ Farm (September 30, 1864)

Theodore Lyman provides a good description of the battle known as Peeble’s Farm. It was part of Grant’s strategy to force Lee to stretch his lines until they broke. While the Army of the James was attacking Lee’s left north of the James River, Meade’s Army of the Potomac hit the right. Fighting will continue on October 1.

If the General will ride out at 8.30 A.m., and get back at 10.30 P.m., and fight a good part of the day, how am I to feel wakeful and lively to write to you? I am very well and getting stronger; was in part of the battle beyond the railroad; but only had a few bullets and one solitary cannonball in my neighborhood. This going from Beverly to battle is quite a sharp contrast. Our advantage was signal and important if we have good luck in holding on, which I think we shall. There may be fighting to-morrow, but I incline to think not.

Globe Tavern, a landmark near the Weldon Railroad. The information for this image at the Library of Congress identifies the tavern as having been Meade's headquarters at Malvern Hill, which is not true. Meade was sent home wounded before that battle (Library of Congress).

Globe Tavern, a landmark near the Weldon Railroad. The information for this image at the Library of Congress identifies the tavern as having been Meade’s headquarters at Malvern Hill, which is not true. Meade was sent home wounded before that battle (Library of Congress).

On October 4, Lyman wrote out a more complete account of the events of September 30. I include it here for the sake of chronological consistency. Gouverneur Warren commands the V Corps. John Parke had replaced Ambrose Burnside at the head of the IX Corps. Samuel Crawford and Charles Griffin command V Corps divisions. Griffin is the profane general whom Grant wanted Meade to arrest for insubordination at the Wilderness; Meade had assured him that Griffin’s intemperate speech was only “his way.”

General John G. Parke (Library of Congress).

General John G. Parke (Library of Congress).

At 8.30 in the morning, the General, with the combative [Andrew] Humphreys and all the Staff, rode towards the left, stopping of course at the irresistible Hancock’s. At noon we got to Globe Tavern, which is some six miles from our old Headquarters. [Samuel] Crawford’s division still held the works on the Weldon road, while Warren, with two divisions, followed by [John] Parke, with two divisions of the 9th Corps, had moved out to the west, and already we could hear the Rebel artillery shelling our advance. . . . . At the Poplar Grove Church the Rebels began to throw shells, with a good deal of accuracy, into the road; for they had the range, though they could not see for the woods. Near here was a swampy run, where our skirmishers drove those of the enemy across, and the division then got over and kept ahead. General Meade, meantime, staid at the Globe Tavern, waiting for the movement to develop. He sent out an aide or two, to tell Warren he was there and to bring news of the progress. Warren sent in word that; having got across the run, he would soon see what could be done. At 12.45 we could hear pretty brisk musketry, which continued a short time and then ceased. Some time after, an aide came in from General Warren, with news that Griffin had captured a strong line and a redoubt, in handsome style. Not long after, the General rode to the front, where we arrived at 2.45. Most of the road was through a pleasant wood, chiefly oak. Passing the “church” (a little, old, wooden building that might seat forty persons), we turned to the right and came out on a large, open farm. On a roll of land, just ahead, was the Peeble house (pretty well riddled with bullets), and hence you looked over more open land ending in a fringe of wood. Perhaps 400 yards in front was the captured line and the redoubt: the former very strongly and handsomely made; the latter not quite finished inside, wanting still the platforms for the guns; otherwise it was done, with a ditch outside and an abattis. So far as I can learn, the occupying force was about equal to the attacking; but they did not make as good a fight as usual. The two assaulting brigades advanced very handsomely and rushed over the works. The enemy began at once to draw off their cannon, but the horses of one piece were shot, and it fell into our hands. The loss was very small in the assault, not over 100, which shows how much safer it is to run boldly on: the enemy get excited and fire high. I went into the redoubt. A Rebel artillery-man lay dead on the parapet, killed so instantly, by a shot through the head, that the expression of his face was unchanged. In front they were burying two or three of our men and a corporal was marking their names on a headboard, copying from letters found in their pockets. Parke was now ordered to form on the left of Warren ([Romeyn] Ayres being on the right of Griffin), and it was understood that the whole line would then advance from its present position, near the Pegram house, and see if it were practicable to carry the second line, which lay perhaps three fourths of a mile beyond. As I understand it, General Meade’s orders were not properly carried out; for Griffin did not form, so as to make an extension of Parke’s line. At 5.30 we were sitting in the Peeble house, waiting for the development of the attack, when we heard very heavy musketry beyond the narrow belt of the woods that separated us from the Pegram farm; there was was cheering, too, and then more musketry, and naturally we supposed that Parke was assaulting. But presently there came from the woods a considerable number of stragglers, making their way to the rear; then came even a piece of a regiment, with its colors, and this halted inside the captured works. The musketry now drew plainly nearer, and things began to look ticklish. I watched anxiously a brigade of the 5th Corps that stood massed in the edge of the wood, beyond the redoubt. Suddenly it filed to the left, at a double-quick, the brigade colors trotting gaily at the head, then formed line and stood still. In another moment the men leveled their muskets, fired a heavy volley and charged into the wood. The musketry receded again; a battery went forward and added itself to the general crash, which was kept up till darkness had well set in; while we sat and watched and listened, in comparative safety, just beside the captured redoubt. [Robert] Potter had been taken in the flank by the Rebels charging, and had been driven back in confusion. Griffin had advanced and restored the retired line. And who rides hither so placidly? It is General Humphreys: he has stolen off and, bless his old soul, has been having a real nice time, right in the line of battle! “A pretty little fight,” said he gingerly, “a pretty little fight. He! he! he!” Poor Potter! it wasn’t his fault. Our extreme advance was driven back, but the day was a great success, with important strategic bearing.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 231 and 234-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Superior Men (August 20, 1864)

The struggle for control of the Weldon Railroad continues, as Gouverneur Warren retains his hold on that vital line. Theodore Lyman reports.

Dr. Thomas Andrew McParlin, the Army of the Potomac's medical director, in a sketch by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Dr. Thomas Andrew McParlin, the Army of the Potomac’s medical director, in a sketch by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

A brigade of cavalry passed last night, coming from Deep Bottom, and reported this morning to General Warren, to cover his flank and rear, and help destroy the railroad. A Lieutenant McKibbin, who once went out with me on a flag of truce, was badly hit in the shoulder yesterday. He is a curious young man and belongs to a very fighting family. Being the son of a hotel-keeper, he joined the army as a sutler; but, at the battle of Gaines’s Mill, as soon as the musketry began, he deliberately anointed his tent with butter, set the whole shop on fire, took a gun and went into the fight, where he presently got a bullet, that entered on one side of his nose and came out under his ear! Thereupon he received a commission in the regulars, where he still remains. . . . There was rain still to-day, making the ground so bad that orders were finally issued that no waggons should go west of the plank road, all stores being sent thence on pack mules. In the morning came a couple of hundred Rebel prisoners, taken yesterday. Among them were a number of their Maryland brigade, quite well dressed and superior men, many of them. They were very civil, but evidently more touchy than the extreme Southerners, who exhibit no feeling at all. These Marylanders, however, were very anxious to say they were fighting hard when taken, which I don’t doubt they were. They had the remains of fancy clothes on, including little kepis, half grey and half sky-blue. There was one officer who was next-door neighbor of Dr. McParlin, our Medical Director, and the Doctor went to see him. General [Seth] Williams has just been in. His great delight is to rub the fuzz on top of my head with his finger, and exclaim: “Wonder what color the baby’s hair is going to be!”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 220-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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.

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.

A Wounded Hand (June 18, 1864)

V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren and staff, photographed by Mathew Brady outside Petersburg on June 21. Warren had escaped Brady's attentions at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren and staff, photographed by Mathew Brady outside Petersburg on June 21. Warren had escaped Brady’s attentions at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

More from Theodore Lyman, in which he describes the Army of the Potomac’s ineffectual attacks before Petersburg on June 18 and provides some examples of General Meade in his “great peppery” mode. At this point, after more than a month of hard marching and even harder fighting, the army was almost a spent weapon. As Lyman writes, “You cannot strike a full blow with a wounded hand.” On June 18 Grant decided that headlong assaults against Petersburg’s defenses would result only in useless bloodshed. He prepared to lay siege. “I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained,” he wrote in a message to Meade. “Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”

The Major Roebling whom Lyman mentions is Washington Augustus Roebling. After the war his father, John, designed the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington took over the project after the death of his father. Roebling married Gouverneur Warren’s sister, Emily, in January 1865.

Following Lyman’s account I include a portion of Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant in which he describes the attacks of June 18 and Meade’s actions.

A general attack was planned for an early hour, so Headquarters, which had lain down late, had scarce a chance to turn over once before it was routed out again, just at daylight. The General was in a tearing humor. (I don’t think anybody felt any too pleasant.) “Lyman, you are behind time!” I had the satisfaction of stepping out, all dressed, and saying shortly: “No, sir, I am ready.” Presently: “Colonel Lyman, take two or three orderlies and go to General Warren and report to me by telegraph promptly and frequently.” I did not admire this duty, as there was to be an assault; but everybody must do his share, and I started immediately. The General started with me. “Do you know the way to General Hancock’s?” “Yes, sir!” In a few moments: “This is not the short cut to Hancock’s.” “I did not say I knew the short cut, General.” “Well, but I wanted the short cut! What’s the use of the road; of course I knew the road!” Whereupon I suggested I would gallop ahead, not to lose time; which I did and left my chief to attack Biddle, who was late and was coming up very red in the face!

It was half-past four when I got to Headquarters of the 5th Corps, which consisted of a couple of tents, pitched by a solitary tree. Warren, with all his clothes on, was catching a little sleep on a camp bed. Burnside* was there also, sitting under the tree, and there was a telegraph operator with his little portable instrument. Our lines were advancing, and there was an inexplicable silence along the skirmish line. … At 6.50 came an order for all the line to advance and to attack the enemy if found. … A little later, after seven, Major Roebling came in and reported he had discovered the enemy’s new line of works, that ran along a high ground beyond the railroad, and that they were all there, with batteries in position. Soon after General Warren mounted, and we all rode to the front, over a wide oat-field past the works captured last evening, from which we were afterwards driven. In these there was one part where we seemed to have had an enfilade fire, for the Rebel dead lay there, one on top of the other. . . . We stopped under a hollow oak, just at a point of woods and at the juncture of two country roads. Some movement of our troops attracted the enemy, who immediately sent two or three round shot to enfilade the road, and which of course came about our ears in a most uncomfortable way. Ill luck would have it that the fire of two or three batteries just crossed at that point. So not a gun could open but that we got a reminder. To which may be added that stray bullets from Crawford’s front came zip! tzizl to add their small voices. We had it intermittently all day long from eight o’clock till dark. New batteries soon came up, under charge of Captain Phillips (Appleton’s commander). “I want you to go in there with your guns,” said General [Charles] Griffin, “but you will be under fire there.” “Well,” said Phillips, “I have been in those places before”; and rode on, followed by his pieces. Later, his First Lieutenant, Blake, was carried by me, dead, shot with a minie ball through the forehead. . . .

After much difficulty in advancing the different divisions, we at last drove the enemy from the railroad cut and a gully beyond, and got in, to about 200 yards of their works. At 3.30 in the afternoon the first assault took place. We rode out on an open field to watch it. In front was a broad expanse, quite flat; then the railroad cut with a fringe of bushes, and then a gradual rise crowned by the Rebel rifle-pits and batteries, which were distant perhaps half a mile. Close to us, on each side, were our batteries, firing as fast as they could, and the rebels were sending back shot, shell, and shrapnel as hard as possible. Half a mile is no good with minie rifles; and, as soon as we attacked, the balls came tolerably numerous, cutting up little puffs of sand on the dry field. I sat up straight on my horse, comme les avires, but I can’t say it was pleasant, though it is a help to have others cool and brave. It was as I expected—forty-five days of constant marching, assaulting and trenching are a poor preparation for a rush! The men went in, but not with spirit; received by a withering fire, they sullenly fell back a few paces to a slight crest and lay down, as much as to say, “We can’t assault but we won’t run.” The slopes covered with dead and wounded bore testimony that they were willing to give proof of courage even in circumstances that they deemed desperate. Another attack at six resulted no better, save that the lines were at all points pressed close in on those of the enemy. Birney, during the day, made a grand attack with no better success, on the right. I returned after dark, feeling pretty sad. General Meade was much disappointed, but took it cheerfully as he does every matter which affects him personally. The whole thing resulted just as I expected. You cannot strike a full blow with a wounded hand.

*”Everyone was near the breaking-point. He, Burnside, complained of the heavy artillery detailed to his corps. ‘They are worthless,’ said he; ‘they didn’t enlist to fight and it is unreasonable to expect it from them. In the attack last night I couldn’t find thirty of them!’ He afterwards said of Meade (to one of his Staff): ‘He is irascible; but he is a magnanimous man.’ Presently up comes Griffin, in one of his peculiar blusters! and all about a commissary who, he maintains, didn’t follow orders. Griffin stormed and swore. ‘Now! now!’said Warren (who can be very judicious when he chooses), ‘let us all try to keep our tempers more, and not swear so much. I know I give way myself; but it is unworthy.’” —Lyman’s Journal.

Here’s Horace Porter’s account. This is from Campaigning with Grant, pages 208-10. Like Lyman, Porter comments on Meade’s notorious temper but notes how it served a purpose in combat.

At daylight on the 18th Meade’s troops advanced to the assault which had been ordered, but made the discovery that the enemy’s line of the day before had been abandoned. By the time new formations could be made Lee’s army had arrived in large force, great activity had been displayed in strengthening the fortifications, and the difficulties of the attacking party had been greatly increased. The Second Corps was temporarily commanded by D. B. Birney, as Hancock’s Gettysburg wound had broken out afresh the day before, entirely disabling him. Gallant assaults were repeatedly made by Burnside, Warren, and Birney; and while they did not succeed in the object of carrying the enemy’s main line of fortifications, positions were gained closer to his works, and these were held and strongly intrenched. Both of the opposing lines on this part of the ground were now strengthened, and remained substantially the same in position from that time until the capture of Petersburg.

General Grant realized the nature of the ground and the circumstances that prevented the troops from accomplishing more than had been done, and he complimented Meade upon the promptness and vigor with which he had handled his army on this day of active operations. Indeed, Meade had shown brilliant qualities as commander of a large army, and under the general directions given him had made all the dispositions and issued all the detailed orders. Grant felt it necessary to remain at City Point in order to be in communication with both Meade and Butler, as Lee’s troops were that day moving rapidly south past Butler’s front.

My duties kept me on Meade’s front a large part of the day. He showed himself the personification of earnest, vigorous action in rousing his subordinate commanders to superior exertions. Even his fits of anger and his resort to intemperate language stood him at times in good stead in spurring on every one upon that active field. He sent ringing despatches to all points of the line, and paced up and down upon the field in his nervous, restless manner, as he watched the progress of the operations and made running comments on the actions of his subordinates. His aquiline nose and piercing eyes gave him something of the eagle’s look, and added to the interest of his personality. He had much to try him upon this occasion, and if he was severe in his reprimands and showed faults of temper, he certainly displayed no faults as a commander. When the battle was over no one was more ready to make amends for the instances in which he felt that he might have done injustice to his subordinates. He said to them: “Sorry to hear you cannot carry the works. Get the best line you can and be prepared to hold it. I suppose you cannot make any more attacks, and I feel satisfied all has been done that can be done.” Lee himself did not arrive at Petersburg until noon that day.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 167-70. 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.

Surrender (May 25, 1864)

Mrs. Meade (and her mother) do not give up regarding the donation of a house. The General waves the white flag.

Yours of the 21st reached me this morning, also one from your mother to the same effect, that it was too late to refuse the house. Setting aside the injustice to me of placing the affair in such condition that I have no option in the matter, I have written a letter to Mr. Gerhard, which I enclose, and which you can hand to him at such time as may be deemed suitable. My contributing friends must know there was nothing personal in my action, because I do not know the name of a single contributor. I acted on the general principle I have always held, that a public man makes a mistake when he allows his generous friends to reward him with gifts. I wrote Mr. Gerhard it was not a case of necessity, as, by proper economy, we could and should live on our means; that if anything should happen to me, then I would be grateful for the smallest assistance given to you and the children; but until that time, I thought it better for me to preserve my independence, although no one could be more sensible to and grateful for the generous kindness of my friends than I was. My opinions are still unchanged; but if the affair is settled, and it is too late to decline, I have no disposition to be ungenerous, and certainly no design of doing anything that would be offensive to the feelings of those who have been so kind to me. You can therefore take the house, and express to all you know my deep obligation and sincere gratitude.

The enemy, though he has fallen back, still confronts us, and is being reinforced.

Theodore Lyman, in the meantime, pays a visit to Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of the V Corps.

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Burnside’s Corps, hitherto a sort of fifth wheel, was today incorporated in the A. of P., and so put under Meade. . . . The enemy, with consummate skill, had run their line like a V, with the point on the river, so that our army would be cut in two, if we attacked, and either wing subject to defeat; while the enemy, all the time, covered Hanover Junction. At 7.30, I was sent to General Warren, to stay during the day, as long as anything of interest was going on, and send orderlies back to report. I found the General among the pines, about halfway up his line. In front a heavy skirmish was going on, we trying to push on our skirmish line and they resisting obstinately. Presently we rode down to where [Charles] Griffin was, near the spot where the common road crosses the Gordonsville rail. Griffin always goes sitting in unpleasant places. There was a sharpshooter or two who, though we were hid by the small trees, would occasionally send a bullet through, as much as to say: “I know you are there — I’ll hit you presently.” Appleton was shot through the arm near here, while placing a battery in position. Then we rode to the extreme right, near to the picket reserve of the 22d Massachusetts. Warren, who is always very kind to me, told all the others to stay behind, but let me come. We rode under the crests, and along woods a little, and were not shot at; and went as far as a log barn, where we stopped carefully on the off side, and talked to the picket officer. When we left, we cantered gracefully and came off all right. Then to General Wright at E. Anderson’s house; a nice safe place, and the family still there; likewise iced water, very pleasant this hot weather. After which, once more for a few minutes to Griffin, passing on the road one of his aides, on a stretcher, exceeding pale, for he had just been hit in the artery of the arm and lost a deal of blood before it could be stopped. Also there came a cheery soldier, shot through the leg, who said: “Never mind, I hit five or six of them first.” Finally we rode the whole length of Warren’s and Crittenden’s lines, seeing Weld on the way. . . .

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. 198-9. 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.127-8. 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.

Reorganizing (March 24, 1865)

Taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, this image shows Meade with his corps commanders. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in command of the II Corps, William French (III Corps), Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and George Skyes (V Corps).

Taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, this image shows Meade with his corps commanders. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in command of the II Corps, William French (III Corps), Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and George Skyes (V Corps). Now French and Sykes are out and Warren has command of the V Corps (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

I have been very busy to-day. The much-talked-of order for reorganizing the Army of the Potomac has at last appeared. Sykes, French and Newton are relieved. Sedgwick, Hancock and Warren command the three corps. This evening an order has arrived relieving General Pleasanton, which, although I did not originate it, yet was, I presume, brought about by my telling the Secretary that the opposition I had hitherto made to his removal I no longer should make. As the Secretary has been desirous of relieving him ever since I have had command, and I have been objecting, he has taken the first chance to remove him as soon as my objections were withdrawn.

Grant arrived to-day. I met him at the depot near my headquarters and accompanied him to Culpeper, where I spent several hours and returned. He was as affable as ever, and seems not at all disposed to interfere with my army in any details.

I hear Butterfield is in Washington, and is going to swear that I told him to prepare an order to retreat, and from what Gibbon writes me, it is evident he did prepare such an order; but I trust by the concurrent testimony of every other officer on the field, the documentary evidence in the shape of orders at different periods of the day, and my own sworn statement, to prove that the preparation of this order was not authorized by me, and that it was due to Butterfield’s own fears. I understand the Secretary is very indignant at his coming to Washington, and has ordered him back to his post.

Get the last number of the Spirit of the Times, in which there is a scathing article on Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Schofield and myself, and lauding, as usual, Joe Hooker.

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. 182-3. Available via Google Books.

A Taste of Combat (February 7, 1864)

Artist Alfred Waud captured in pencil the same scene Lyman sketched in words. He titled this drawing "Scene at the late reconnaisance at Morton Ford -(night). It appeared as an engraving in Harper's Weekly on March 5, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud captured in pencil the same scene Lyman sketched in words. He titled this drawing “Scene at the late reconnaisance at Morton Ford -(night).” It appeared as an engraving in Harper’s Weekly on March 5, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In this descriptive letter from February 7, Theodore Lyman describes an action that took place the previous day. He also included an account of these events in his journals, edited by David W. Lowe and published in 2007 by Kent State University Press as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col.  Theodore Lyman. In that version, Lyman included this detail: “On the other side saw a soldier laid out for burial, as sad a sight as could be; his white hands folded across his breast and the cape of his coat folded up over his face.” Perhaps Lyman kept this from his letter because he wanted to shield his family back home from this glimpse of death. Lowe reports the casualties from this brief encounter as 255 (dead, wounded and missing) for Warren’s II Corps and 15 for the cavalry. With Meade still ill back in Philadelphia, John Sedgwick had temporary command of the Army of the Potomac.

It is one in the morning and I have, so to speak, just taken a midnight dinner, having come in from the front between 11 and 12 oclock. Well, who would have thought of marching out of comfortable winter quarters, to go poking round the Rapidan! . . . Only last night orders were suddenly issued to the 1st and 2d Corps to march at sunrise, the one on Raccoon, the other on Morton’s Ford; where they were to make a strong demonstration and perhaps cross at Morton’s (Raccoon being too strong). Certain cavalry, also, were to go to other points, with special orders. The whole thing was very sudden, all round, and none of our fish. This morning we took an early breakfast, which, with the ready horses, quite reminded one of campaigning times. General Sedgwick was over, being in command, as viceroy. At 10.30 we began to hear the cannon, but General Humphreys would not stir, as he said he must stay to attend to the despatches and telegraph. However, at 3 p.m., he suddenly did start, with his own aides and Biddle, Mason, Cadwalader and myself, de la part de General Meade; also Rosencrantz. To Morton’s Ford is some ten miles, but you might as well call it fifty, such is the state of the roads. Mud, varying from fetlocks to knees, then holes, runs, ditches and rocks — such was the road. With utmost diligence it took fully two hours. . . . Here we had thrown across a division, and General Warren was with them. The enemy had offered a good deal of opposition, with a skirmish fire and with artillery; despite which the whole division had waded the stream, up to their waists (cold work for the 6th of February!), and were now in line, behind some ridges; while a heavy skirmish line covered their front. Enclosing them, almost in a semi-circle, were the Rebel earthworks. It looked a shaky position for us! All was quiet; the men were making coffee, and nothing broke the stillness but an occasional shot from the sharpshooters. “Well,” said General Humphreys, “I must go across and look about, while there is light left. I don’t want many to go. McClellan, you will come; and Major Biddle and Colonel Lyman, if you would like, I shall be glad of your company.” So off we four rode, and met Warren coming back, before we got to the river. But he at once turned horse and kept on with us. The ford was very bad, deep and with steep sides, but we floundered over, and I was once again south of the Rapid Ann. … As we got to the main line, “Now,” said General Warren, “get off here and I will take you as far as you can go, very soon.” We dismounted and remained, while the two Generals went some 150 yards to Morton’s house on the crest of the ridge, where they no sooner got than a sharpshooter fired at them and the ball flew harmless over our heads, though it came close to General Warren. But hang it all! We had not been there five minutes when that infernal old sound came, whing-z-z-z-z, and over went a spherical case! “Fall in, fall in!” shouted the colonels, and the men took their arms. Whing-z-z! Bang! came another, right into the infantry, killing a poor man. “Steady! steady!” roared the colonels. Whing-z-z-z-z! Bang! and one of the pieces struck close to me, while one of the bullets struck the scabbard of the orderly next me, who coolly picked up the missile. We were a little sheltered by the road, but, I don’t care who knows it, I did duck when that spherical case came over. By this time the Generals got back and mounted, the enemy continuing the fire but throwing their shot too high. We had not got far towards the river, when they began with musketry, a very heavy skirmish fire, and seemed about to make a general attack; but it turned out to be a strong attempt to drive back our skirmish line from a favorable fence they had secured; and the artillery was a cover for their advance. When we got back to the high ground by Robinson’s, we could look across and see the fight, though it was growing dark and the air was very foggy. Our artillery opened on them also, and, in course of an hour or so, night set in, and the firing ceased, our line holding its own everywhere. And now the poor wounded fellows began to come in, some alone, some supported, and some in ambulances. The surgeons were numerous and all that could be wished for. Except one or two mortally hurt, there was nothing sad in it, so manly were the men and so cheerful. Not a groan, not a complaint. I asked one man who was staggering along, if he were much hurt. “Very slightly,” he remarked, in a lively tone. I found what he called “very slightly” was a musket-ball directly through the thigh. These men are wonderful, much more so, I think (proportionately), than the officers. There was a whole division wet to the waist, on a rainy February day, exposed each instant to attack, and yet making little pots of coffee, in the open air, as calmly as if at Revere House.

Oh! what a ride had we home! It took us over three hours, with the help of a lantern. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 68-71. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.