Five Forks (April 1, 1865)

A print depicts Sheridan's attack at Five Forks. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

A print depicts Sheridan’s attack at Five Forks. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

George Meade writes a short note to his wife on April 1. He mentions that her brother, Willie, had been injured in the fighting for the White Oak Road, but underestimates the severity of the wound. Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman provides a more detailed account of the fighting, including the battle of Five Forks, where Philip Sheridan relieved the V Corps’ Gouverneur Warren of command. Here’s how I describe the events of April 1 in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren (Library of Congress).

Grant had ordered a movement to get around Lee’s right, with Sheridan’s cavalry moving to Dinwiddie Court House, south of Five Forks, and operating in conjunction with the V Corps. Sheridan and Warren didn’t get along, apparently ever since Warren had complained about Sheridan’s cavalry blocking his way en route to Spotsylvania Court House the previous spring. The relationship did not improve after one of Warren’s divisions had to extricate Little Phil from difficulties with George Pickett’s Confederates at Dinwiddie Court House on March 31. Sheridan did not like to admit he needed help from anyone, much less a cautious Army of the Potomac engineer like Warren.

Admittedly, Warren possessed a natural talent for irritating generals. Meade had reached the end of his patience with his onetime protégé. Grant, too, had tired of Warren’s quirks and, like Meade, had discovered a “defect” in Warren’s character: “He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.” Grant told Sheridan he was free to relieve Warren and replace him if he felt it was necessary, thus sowing the seeds for Warren’s downfall.

PortraitSheridan wanted to attack the Confederate lines around Five Forks at noon on April 1. He fumed and fretted when Warren wasn’t ready until 4:00. . . . Warren finally put his three divisions into motion, heading north toward the White Oak Road, but Sheridan had misinformed him about the enemy’s position. Two divisions veered left to correct their advance, but Samuel Crawford’s men kept marching straight ahead and missed the Confederate lines altogether. Warren rode off to find Crawford and get him back on track.

A soldier in the 20th Maine recalled the excitement as the other two divisions swept over the enemy’s lines at the Angle, a spot where the rebel defenses bent back on themselves. “Sheridan went dashing past us, wild with the excitement of victory, shouting, as he swung his clenched hand through the air, ‘Smash ’em! Smash ’em! We have a record to make before the sun goes down; we must have the Southside road.’”

In the meantime Warren found Crawford’s men and got them heading the right way. In what turned out to be a great stroke of luck, their errant march had put them in a perfect position to attack the rebel flank and rear. Warren led the soldiers over the barricades and had his horse shot out from under him. “General Warren caught the corps flag from the hand of the man who carried it, and dashed across this field, leading on a column of soldiers he had hastily formed for the charge,” the same soldier recalled. “It was the most gallant deed of the whole day’s battle, and the whole rebel line was now in our possession.”

The Battle of Five Forks marked the beginning of the end for Lee’s army—it was “the Waterloo of the Confederacy.” The rebels had suffered a severe blow. Now that the Union army could move forward and sever the South Side Railroad, Petersburg and Richmond were doomed. Warren and the V Corps had delivered the blow that ensured the victory. Yet Sheridan, still livid over what he perceived as Warren’s inexcusable slowness–and probably unwilling to share any credit for the victory—decided that Warren had not participated in the fighting at all. He ordered Charles Griffin to take over the V Corps and sent a note to Warren relieving him of command.

Warren was stunned. He rode to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider. “I don’t reconsider my decisions!” Sheridan barked. “Obey the order!”

Meade received word of the victory at Five Forks by telegram–but nothing about Warren. He sent a message to Grant. “I am truly delighted with the news from Sheridan,” he said. “What part did Warren take? I take it for granted he was engaged.”

“The Fifth Corps was in and did splendidly,” Grant replied, “but Sheridan had to relieve Warren on the field after the fight began.”

The word of Warren’s relief hit his subordinates like a thunderbolt. “I was astonished at this news and could not imagine what the trouble was,” said Charles Wainwright. “The only thing that occurred to me was that Warren might have got into one of his ugly fits and said what he ought not to.” Wainwright used his journal to vent about Warren’s ill temper, but he didn’t agree with Sheridan’s decision. “To me his removal at this time, and after the victory had been won, appears wrong and very cruel,” he wrote.

We have been moving and fighting the last three days, and I have not gone to bed till after one and two in the morning, and then up at five. We have had considerable fighting with the enemy out of his works, into which we have invariably driven him; but when there he is too strong for us, and the farther we go round to our left, we still find a formidable entrenched line. I think, however, we will this time reach the Southside Railroad, and if we do so, I should not be surprised if Lee evacuated his Petersburg lines and withdrew north of the Appomattox. Should he remain in them, he will have to stretch out so far that we may find a chance to pierce him.

Your brother Willie was wounded yesterday, not dangerously, as I telegraphed you. He left this morning, and I sent George to accompany him to City Point, and if necessary to Philadelphia. Jim Biddle arrived yesterday.

Now Lyman describes the Battle of Five Forks.

You will see the April Fool was on the Rebels; for they did not know that, the night before, we had sent down an entire corps of infantry (the 5th) to aid the worsted Sheridan. Their infantry had contented itself with retiring from Sheridan’s front, half-way to the White Oak road, and going into camp with a precautionary breastwork in their front. As they lay there, resting, Warren struck them in the flank and swung round, even into their rear, while the cavalry charged their front. After a brief but determined resistance, the enemy broke and fled in wild confusion; 4000 and over were captured and a large part of the rest hopelessly scattered in the woods. Thus our movement, which had begun in simple advantage, now grew to brilliant success, and was destined to culminate, within twenty-four hours, in complete victory.

We were up pretty early, as usual, and at 6.30 A.m. were already at Grant’s Headquarters. These were close to Dabney’s Mill, now marked only by a huge pile of sawdust — a veteran battle-ground, marked by two considerable actions and many minor skirmishes. Indeed that whole tract is a network of picket-pits and hasty breastworks. After visiting Humphreys, on the Quaker road, we returned to the Lieutenant-General’s, and here it was that a note from Sheridan told that he was driving the enemy. Grant folded the slip of paper, and, looking at Meade, said, very quietly: “Very well, then I want Wright and Parke to assault to-morrow morning at four o’clock.” These dozen words settled the fate of Petersburg and of Richmond! It was midnight when General Warren suddenly came into our camp, followed by only one Staff officer. I got him something to eat, but was surprised to see no look of gratification at his victory to-day. Poor man! he had been relieved from command of his Corps. I don’t know the details, but I have told you of the difficulties he has had with the General, from his tendency to substitute his own judgment for that of his commanding officer. It seems that Grant was much moved against him by this. The General had nothing to do with it. I am sorry, for I like Warren.

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. 268-9. 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. 332-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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The Deeds of Yesterday (March 30, 1865)

Charles Griffin. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Charles Griffin commanded a division in the V Corps. Like Meade, he had an explosive temper (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman recounts the events of March 29 in more detail.

I take advantage of a rainy morning to draw you a map and start a letter, to explain and recount the deeds of yesterday. . . . The day before, a part of the Army of the James had crossed to us, from Bermuda Hundred, and, under the sure conduct of Rosie, had relieved the 2d Corps in their part of the line. At daylight the 5th Corps moved from our extreme left, crossed the stream at the Perkins house and marched along the stage road. Somewhat later the 2d Corps crossed directly by the Vaughan road and marched down it as far as Gravelly Run, then faced to the right and formed from east to west. It was like to the ruins of Carthage to behold those chimneys, which, since October last, have been our comfort at Headquarters, now left lonely and desolate, deprived of their tents, which seemed to weep, as they were ruthlessly torn down and thrown into waggons. At 7.30 A.m. we all got on the chargers and wended toward the left. The fancy huts of the 2d Corps were all roofless, and their Headquarters were occupied by General Gibbon, of the other side of the river. The 1st division was crossing the Hatcher’s Run bridge, as we got to it, the two others being already over. Near Gravelly Run we came on the sturdy Humphreys, who was gleaming through his spectacles with a fun-ahead sort of expression and presently rode away to get his men “straightened out,” as Pleasonton used to say. Bye-and-bye he came jogging back, to say his Corps was now in position, running from near Hatcher’s Run, on the right, to near Quaker Road Church on the left. Whereupon we rode off to see General Warren, who had arrived at the Junction of the Vaughan and Quaker roads. As soon as we got there, Griffin’s division was sent up the Quaker road, to join the left of Humphreys’, and to be followed by most of the rest of the Corps. … At 1.30 P.m. we went up the Quaker road to see General Griffin, being somewhat delayed by Gravelly Run, a brook too deep for fording and whereof the little bridge had been broken by the Rebs. The country is much more variegated over here. There are some rocks and high ground, and the runs are quite picturesque, with steep banks. One pretty sight was a deserted farmhouse quite surrounded by peach trees, loaded with blossoms. In the distance it seemed covered with pink clouds. After starting Griffin’s line forward, we rode along the line of battle of Miles (who had the left of the 2d Corps), where we found General Humphreys. The right of his line had sent out a party which took possession of Dabney’s Mill, driving out a few Rebels. The whole force from one end to another was ordered to go forward at once, Griffin being, from the nature of the ground, somewhat in advance. All went on without anything more than scattered skirmishing till near five P.m., when Griffin was struck by a part, or the whole, of two Rebel divisions. But G. is a rough man to handle, and, after a sharp fight, drove them back and followed them up, taking a hundred prisoners. Our losses were some 400 altogether in this affair. Of the enemy we buried 126; so that their total loss, including prisoners, must be, say, 800. The Griffin was in great spirits at this affair and vowed he could drive the enemy wherever he found them. Their object in attacking us was to delay our advance, and to get time to man their works. As soon as Warren got up the rest of his Corps, he pushed on the attack, but John had got enough and had fallen back to his parapets, and thus the day ended. Riding back to the Vaughan road, we found General Grant, who had come up with his Staff, and who camped near us last night, 29th. …

[To-day] nothing to note, but that there was a steady and drenching rain the whole livelong day, which reduced these sandy, clayey roads to a pudding or porridge, as the case might be. The chief Quartermaster told me it was the worst day for moving trains he ever had had in all his experience. A train of 600 waggons, with the aid of 1000 engineer troops, was fifty-six hours in going five miles!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 328-30. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Packing (March 28, 1865)

The Army of the Potomac prepares for its spring offensive against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Theodore Lyman reports.

You must let me off with a few lines to-night, because I have some little packing yet to do and would like a good modicum of slumber; for to-morrow we are up and moving betimes in light order. I do not look for any grand action from this (taking the liberty of guessing where I am in the dark). I fancy a heavy infantry force will move to our left and rear, to mask and protect a great movement of cavalry with Sheridan at its head, directed at the South Side R. R. and other communications; all of which the enemy must be fully aware of; but I don’t think he can have one half our force in cavalry. The amount of fighting will depend on the moves of the enemy; but I do not ever expect to see more than one such field-day as we used to have in the ever memorable campaign of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania— perhaps not even one. Meantime I will not recklessly run against bullets. It isn’t my style; not exactly. Yesterday I rode about with the General, who confabbed with Wright, Warren, and the gay Humphreys. The latter is confirmed as the commander of the 2d Corps, at which we are glad, for he was only its commander ad interim before.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 326. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

A High Festival (December 10, 1864)

"Destruction of Water Ta[nk]s & Engines & engine houses for pumping water into them at Jarrets Station" by Alfred Waud depicts action from December 8 on the Weldon Railroad. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Destruction of Water Ta[nk]s & Engines & engine houses for pumping water into them at Jarrets Station” by Alfred Waud depicts action from December 8 on the Weldon Railroad. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the expedition across Hatcher’s Run to threaten the Boydton Plank Road. And he discusses other things as well. Duane is James C. Duane, the army’s chief engineer; William Riddle is another member of Meade’s staff. Riddle, a Philadelphian, had once served as an aide to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds and had been with that ill-fated general when a bullet struck him down during the first day at Gettysburg. In his letter Lyman leaves out one thing about Riddle’s going away party that he mentions in his notebooks, namely that aide Frederick Rosenkrantz got so disgracefully drunk “it brought the matter next morning to a crisis.” Rosenkrantz promised to mend his ways.

Lyman also writes about Gouverneur Warren’s expedition to destroy the Weldon Railroad. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in command of a brigade in the V Corps, wrote home to his sister about the same expedition and the mutual retaliation it sparked. “Our stragglers fared hard when caught by the enemy’s scouts & guerrillas,” he wrote. “In fact they were murdered—their throats cut from ear to ear. . . . In retaliation our men on the return burnt almost every house on the road. This was a hard night.” Concluded Chamberlain, “It was a sad business.”

[Brig. Gen. Nelson] Miles, with the troops which had been sent to reinforce him, maintained a threatening attitude near Hatcher’s Run till afternoon, when he was ordered to withdraw again to our lines. The enemy undertook to follow up a little, but the rear guard faced about and drove them away.—There was I seized with a fearful sleepy fit last night and went to bed; thus missing a letter home to you. However, I have not before missed one in a very long time; and, if I followed Duane’s advice, I should miss much oftener. “Lyman,” says this ancient campaigner, “you are foolish to write so much. Now I write only once a week, so my letters are valued. You write every day, and probably Mrs. Lyman puts them in her pocket and pays no attention to them.” Ah! I was speaking of Miles, and had got him with all his forces, and put him inside the works, all right. We had to pay farewell respects to Riddle, for his resignation has been accepted and he goes to-morrow. For a long time he has been in miserable health and, in warm weather, is seldom well enough for hard duty. He has been twice wounded, at Antietam and on the Peninsula, and was taken prisoner, but got away from Libby and arrived, after many hardships, within our lines. He is a very good officer and quite a superior person, whom we shall miss on our Staff. The kind-hearted Woolsey invited us all to take oysters in his honor (for you must know that there is a log house where one may have a “fancy roast,” “plain stew,” or “one fried,” just across the road). We gathered in the greatest force, for oysters attracted, even if Riddle didn’t, and had a high festival. We had songs, whereof I sang several, with large applause. “You don’t drink,” said Duane, “but it don’t make any difference, because you look as if you had been drinking, and that’s all that is necessary.”

Before I finish this day I must go back to tell of the beginning and progress of the Weldon road expedition. Last Wednesday, General Warren, with his own Corps, Mott’s division of the 2d Corps, and nearly the whole of Gregg’s division of cavalry, started in the morning and marched down the Jerusalem plank road, striking across to the Nottoway River, at Freeman’s Bridge, a distance of from fifteen to seventeen miles. There a pontoon bridge was thrown and the whole command got over before daybreak the next morning, the advance getting that night to Sussex Court House. Meantime the enemy, getting [wind] of the move, sent off A. P. Hill’s Corps, that evening, twelve hours after Warren. Hill went to Dinwiddie Court House, but what became of him thereafter, I have not yet learned. Their place in the lines was taken, I presume, by some of Early’s men, who were nearly all come down from the valley and are helping Lee now. On Thursday Warren continued his march and struck the Weldon road, a little south of the Nottoway, in the afternoon, and immediately went to destroying the track and burning the river bridge. The work went on systematically: the line being halted on the road, the men stacked arms, and went at the track. Sleepers were torn up, and these, with fence-rails, made great bonfires, on which the rails were laid. Soon the iron would wax red-hot, when the weight of the ends would bend the rails. Some of the men, however, were so enthusiastic as to take rails and twist them round trees, which could be done while the ends were cool and the middle hot. As soon as a brigade had finished its work, it marched down to a new piece, passing the other men who were destroying; and so they kept on till midnight, when they had got to Jarrott’s station and there halted. Next day, Friday, the column kept on, as before, the cavalry preceding them, who, when they arrived at Meherrin Bridge, found strong earthworks on the opposite side and some ten guns, which immediately opened on them. . . . This night was a very severe one, with its high wind and snow, sleet and rain; but it was rendered tolerable by the big fires that the soldiers lighted to heat rails with. General Warren did not deem proper to cross the Meherrin, as it would take a day to flank the Rebels’ works, and he started with but six days’ provisions. Next day, Saturday to wit, he began his return march and the head of the column got as far as Sussex C.H. On this march the people of the country had the bad judgment to “bushwhack” our troops: that is, to kill any stragglers or small parties they could catch. This is against the rules of war. I will not say it is surprising, because the stragglers of an army always steal and plunder and exasperate the people. Colonel Sergeant told me he himself saw five of our men shot and stripped nearly naked. The troops were so enraged by such cases, that they fired every house on their march, and, what made them worse, they found a great amount of apple-brandy in the country, a liquor that readily intoxicates. The superior officers destroyed a great deal of it, but the men got some and many were drunk. The people make this brandy on account of its great price. It sells for $1500 a barrel. Colonel Wainwright told me he found two tithing-bills in one house, one a year old, the other recent; in the old one wheat was valued at $10 a bushel, in the recent, at $40, showing that it has quadrupled in price within a year. It was on this day that a cavalry reconnaissance that pushed out on the Vaughan road reported heavy artillery firing in the direction of Jarrott’s station. This made Grant so uneasy that he directed aid to be sent Warren. Accordingly Potter, with 9000 men, marched that night, and arrived next morning at five a.m. at the Nottoway, at Freeman’s Bridge. A wretched march indeed! in slush and mud and a damp cold; but his men followed on very well and arrived with little straggling, which surprised me.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 293-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Grand Movement (September 29, 1864)

"Capture of Fort Harrison on the Chaffins Farm line of Works"by William Waud. Sketched on September 29, 1864 (Library of Congress).

“Capture of Fort Harrison on the Chaffins Farm line of Works”by William Waud. Sketched on September 29, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’ wrote this letter on October 3, but it covers the events of September 29. I thought I’d post it today.

The night of my arrival, curiously enough, was the eve of a grand movement. [ “The move now proposed consisted of an advance both on the right and the left flanks. On the right, towards Richmond, taking the north side of the river; on the left towards the Boydton plank road and southside rail. The strategic object was two-fold: first, to effect threatening lodgments as near as possible to these points, gaining whatever we could by the way; and, secondly, to prevent Lee from reinforcing Early.” — Lyman’s Journal. ] I never miss, you see. Rosey [aide-de-camp Frederick Rosencrantz]drew me aside with an air of mystery and told me that the whole army was ordered to be packed and ready at four the next morning, all prepared to march at a moment’s notice. Headquarters contented itself by getting up about half-past five, which was plenty early enough, as turned out. We rode down to General Hancock’s about 9.30. He was camped not far from us, or had been, for now his tents were struck and packed, and there lay the familiar forms of Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan and Major Mitchell, on some boards, trying to make up for their loss of sleep. The cheery Hancock was awake and lively. We here were near the point of the railroad, which excited General Meade’s indignation by its exposure. Now they have partly sunk it and partly built a bank, on the enemy’s side, so that it is covered from fire. Here we got news that Ord and Birney had crossed the James, the first near Dutch Gap, the other near Deep Bottom, and advanced towards Richmond. Birney went up the Newmarket road, took a line of works, and joined Ord, who took a strong line, with a fort, on Chapin’s farm, which is before Chapin’s bluff, which again is opposite Fort Darling. We got sixteen guns, including three of heavy calibre, also some prisoners. General Ord was shot in the thick of the leg, above the knee. There was another line, on the crest beyond, which I do not think we attacked at all. We went down then to the Jones house, where were Parke’s Headquarters, and talked with him. I saw there Charlie Mills, now on his Staff. Finally, at 1.30 we got to Globe Tavern where was the astute Warren. Everything was “set,” as he would say, for an advance by Griffin’s and Ayres’s divisions, while Willcox’s and Potter’s divisions of the 9th Corps were massed at the Gurley house, ready to support. General Gregg made an advance west of Reams’ station, and was heavily attacked about 5 p.m., but repulsed them. Their artillery blew up one of his caissons and we could see the cloud of smoke suddenly rise above the trees. This was all for that day in the way of fighting.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 232-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Sergeant’s Condition (August 22, 1864)

Meade writes home about the sad case of his son John Sergeant. The young man (born in 1841) is fighting a losing battle against tuberculosis (he will die in February) and Meade’s letters are filled with anguished passages about his oldest son’s health. Meade’s son and grandson edited many of that material from the letters they published. Meade, of course, was not alone in fearing the death of a loved one during those terrible Civil War years, but that knowledge certainly did little to lighten his burden.

I have received your letters of the 18th and 19th insts. I have known of Sergeant’s condition for some time, because, when I found he was so sick, I wrote to Dr. Hewson, who at once replied to me. Everything has been done for Sergeant that could be done. He has had the best medical advice, and the most careful nursing. This should be continued, and the result left to that Power who governs and rules all things, and to whose decree we must submit with resignation.

I have been very much occupied for several days past in the operations of my command on the Weldon Railroad, particularly Warren’s Corps, who during this time has had three very pretty little fights, in all of which we have whipped the enemy, though we have suffered a good deal in casualties.

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. 222-23. Available via Google Books.

A Tender-hearted Man (May 27, 1864)

Theodore Lyman shows us two sides of General Meade. One is the hot-tempered snapping turtle, the other a man who would give a southern family his lunch and five dollars.

David A. Russell of the VI Corps, photographed when he was the colonel of the 7th Massachusetts (Library of Congress).

David A. Russell of the VI Corps, photographed when he was the colonel of the 7th Massachusetts (Library of Congress).

Last night Russell’s trusty division of the 6th Corps set out on a very long march, as our advanced guard in a flank movement to the Chickahominy. . . . This necessitated our early “getting out of that,” for we were on the bank of the river, and the Rebel skirmishers would be sure to follow right down with the first daylight to the opposite side. Indeed, a little while after we were gone they did come down and fired into the telegraph waggon, wounding the side of the same. By four we had taken our breakfast and were in the saddle. Wonderful how promptly all the servants pack the things and strike the tents when they expect to be shot at! We rode first to Burnside, into whom the General pitched for cutting the march of General Warren and not sending up the brigades to hold the fords; and B. rather proved that he was right and Warren wrong. I can tell you aquafortis is mild to the Major-General commanding when he gets put out; which is quite not at all unfrequently; but I have seen him in no such fits as in the falling back from Culpeper to Centreville. Here he can lean upon Grant more or less, though he does all the work; so much so that Grant’s Staff really do nothing, with the exception of two or three engineer officers. Then we passed by the gushing Hancock, who explained what he was going to do, in his usual flowing style. At Chesterfield Station we found two divisions of the 6th Corps massed, and just then beginning to march out. They were issuing rations, to each man his bit of beef and his “hard tack.” We got ahead of the infantry and kept on the way, sending some cavalry ahead in case of wandering Rebels. The road was strown with dead horses, worn out and shot by the cavalry, when they came this way from their raid. Really whenever I may see civilized parts again, it will seem strange to see no deceased chargers by the roadside. We made a halt to let the column get up, at a poor house by the way. There were a lot of little children who were crying, and the mother too, for that matter — a thin ill-dressed common-looking woman. They said they had been stripped of nearly everything by the cavalry and expected to starve. So the soft-hearted General, who thought of his own small children, gave them his lunch, and five dollars also; for he is a tender-hearted man. We kept on, through a very poor and sandy country, scantily watered; for this was the ridge and there was no water except springs. At 9.30 we dismounted again at an exceptionally good farm, where dwelt one Jeter, . . . who was of a mild and weak-minded turn. He said he was pleased to see such well-dressed gentlemen, and so well-mannered; for that some others, who had been there two days since, had been quite rude and were very dusty; whereby he referred to the cavalry, who, I fear, had helped themselves. . . . About one o’clock, having ridden some twenty-two miles in all, we stopped at the house of one Thompson and, that afternoon, camped near by, just close to Mangohick Church. . . . I discovered to-day that the Lieutenant-General has sick-headaches periodically — one now, for example, for which he put some chloroform on his head.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.128-30. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Moral Courage (November 30, 1863)

Alfred Waud titled this sketch "Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run--opposite Warrens last position." Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee's entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud titled this sketch “Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run–opposite Warrens last position.” Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee’s entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

We continue with an account by Theodore Lyman as he details the climax—the anti-climax actually—of George Meade’s Mine Run campaign. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, Gouverneur Warren had planned to launch his offensive the next morning, with an artillery barrage signaling the start of the attack. Warren would go in at 8:00, and then John Sedgwick, on the opposite end of Robert E. Lee’s line, would begin his movement. The guns began roaring on time at 8:00, but at 8:50 Capt. Washington Roebling (of later Brooklyn Bridge fame) came galloping up to Meade’s headquarters with a message from Warren. Meade read it. “My God!” he exclaimed. “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!”

Warren had carefully surveyed the enemy position opposite his and decided, on his own authority, that the Confederates had strengthened it so much during the night that it was now much too strong to attack.

The Mine Run defenses did appear strong indeed. Chaplain Alexander Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania felt certain an attack on them would lead to a great loss of life. The men in his regiment agreed, and as the day passed they came to him and filled his pockets with all the mementos of the lives they expected would soon end—money, photographs, rings, watches. Some soldiers began pinning their names to their coats so their bodies could be identified. What impressed Stewart, though, was that despite the terrible odds, these soldiers were still willing to go into battle.

Lt. Col. Charles H. Morgan of the II Corps staff suspected that many officers shared their soldiers’ misgivings but kept their doubts to themselves. One picket from the 1st Minnesota, not realizing that Morgan was an officer, didn’t hide anything. He told Morgan the enemy position was “a damned sight worse than Fredericksburg” and added, “I am going as far as I can travel; but we can’t get more than two-thirds of the way up the hill.”

Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, at the other end of the Union line with Sedgwick’s VI Corps, studied the Confederate defenses with great interest because there seemed a pretty fair chance that he would soon be testing them personally. “There was a deep creek between us and the enemy, and the rebels had been busy digging rifle-pits and strengthening their position ever since we came up to them,” he wrote. “Both banks were abrupt and steep and difficult to get over, while on the rebel side they had added to these disadvantages by placing every conceivable obstacle in the way of our advance. Trees were felled, abattis made, breastworks were thrown up until they occupied a position that if we had occupied we should have considered impregnable against all the rebels in the universe.”

After consulting with Warren and examining the defenses for himself, Meade reluctantly agreed with his subordinate’s opinion—attacking Lee’s position here would be nothing more than a useless slaughter, another Fredericksburg. Meade suspected someone else would have to take the responsibility for renewing the war against the Army of Northern Virginia, because he expected to be removed from command for canceling his attack.

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, and chief of staff Andrew Humphreys (Library of Congress).

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and the V Corps’ George Sykes (Library of Congress).

Almost before daylight our waggons were loaded and away, for the Headquarters are only a few hundred yards in the rear of our heavy guns and directly on the road, so that we expected a nice lot of shells, say at 8.10 A.m. A little before that the General mounted and rode towards General [John] Newton’s quarters, and, while near there, bang! went a cannon on the right; then boom! boom! from the 32 pounders, and then, bang, boom, bang, pretty generally. In all the woods the troops were massed for the attack, waiting orders. We rode back to Headquarters, and, a moment after, Captain [Augustus] Roebling from General Warren’s Staff, galloped up. He is the most immovable of men, but had, at that moment, rather a troubled air. He handed a scrap of paper. General Meade opened it and his face changed. “My God!” he said, “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!” Roebling shrugged his shoulders. The note was to the effect that General Warren had made a careful examination of the enemy’s works, had altered his opinion of last evening, and considered an assault hopeless!!! Orders were at once issued to cease firing. We tried to take it all philosophically, but it was hard, very hard. Most of all to General Meade and General [Andrew] Humphreys, who really took it admirably, for both of them have excellent tempers of their own, which, on occasions, burst forth, like twelve-pounder spherical case. In a little while the General again rode away; this time to see General Warren, some four miles off. Two aides, besides myself, went with him. We rode along the rear of our batteries, which were still, from time to time, exchanging shots with those opposite; though not when I chanced to be passing, I am happy to say. General Warren had a sad face, as well he might. He drew aside, with the two other generals, and there they stood, in long consultation, over a fire which had been made for them, for the air was sharp. Then we started back again, stopping half-way at General [William] French’s, whom we found in a fuming passion, partly because two of his divisions had been, in some way, put under guidance of General Warren, and partly because he was all ready for the assault and had pushed his skirmish line to within 300 yards of the Rebel works, while the storming parties were in a great rage at not being led on. Alas! it was of no use; General Humphreys, with a heavy sigh, pronounced the opportunity (if it had ever existed) now past; and, when he cries no fight, you may be sure there is not much chance. At a meeting that evening, the other generals concurred. It was physically impossible to flank any more on either side, and the only thing that remained was:

The King of France with forty thousand men,
Marched up a hill; and then marched down again.

Wherever the fault lies, I shall always be astonished at the extraordinary moral courage of General Meade, which enabled him to order a retreat, when his knowledge, as an engineer and a soldier, showed that an attack would be a blunder. The men and guns stood ready: he had only to snap his fingers, and that night would probably have seen ten thousand wretched, mangled creatures, lying on those long slopes, exposed to the bitter cold, and out of reach of all help! Then people would have said: “He was unsuccessful; but then he tried hard, and did not get out.”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 56-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Meanwhile, Back in Gettysburg (November 19, 1863)

With Meade remaining silent, we stick with Theodore Lyman’s accounts of live with the Army of the Potomac with his letter from November 19, 1863. On this day in Pennsylvania, Abraham Lincoln was speaking at the dedication of the new National Cemetery in Gettysburg. The president was not the headliner, though. That honor fell to Edward Everett, a former congressman, Massachusetts governor, and president of Harvard. Everett had also run for vice president on the Union platform with John Bell, the ticket for which Meade and Lyman voted in the 1860 election. Everett’s speech at Gettysburg ran for more than two hours—about sixty times longer than the president’s—but who today remembers what he said? The situation reminds me of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones encounters a scimitar-wielding assassin who dazzles him with an elaborate display of swordsmanship. Indy then draws his gun and shoots him dead with a single shot.

Edward Everett, the man who spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg and therefore forever doomed to be a footnote to history (Library of Congress).

Edward Everett, the man who spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg and therefore forever doomed to be a footnote to history (Library of Congress).

Meade was invited to attend the ceremonies at Gettysburg but obviously had other matters demanding his attention. However, he and Lyman were, in a small fashion, involved with Everett’s speech. In his journal entry for October 5 (quoted in Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, edited by David Lowe) Lyman says this: “Prepared, by order, a sort of résumé of Gen. Meade’s official report of the battle of Gettysburg, to be sent to Mr. Everett, who is to deliver an oration at the cemetery, to be made at that place.” On October 26 he noted getting a letter from Everett asking for more information about the battle. Lyman was a Harvard graduate himself and his father and Everett had once traveled through Europe together. Lyman happened to be in Boston in January 1865 when Everett died and attended the funeral, “which took place with the usual solemnities.”

Meade made his own Gettysburg Address in 1869, which you can find here.

The Britons still continue with us. Yesterday we took them, with a small escort, to [John] Buford’s Headquarters beyond Culpeper. By Brandy Station we came across a line of rifle-pits that the Rebs had thrown up, probably on the Saturday night of their retreat, so as to cover the trains falling back on the Rapid Ann. We found the cavalry Chief afflicted with rheumatism, which he bore with his usual philosophy. Hence we made haste, across the country, to General [Gouverneur K.] Warren’s, where he had prepared some manoeuvres of infantry for us. This was one of the finest sights I have seen in the army. There were some 6000 or 7000 men on the plain, and we stood on a little hill to look. The evolutions ended by drawing up the force in two lines, one about 300 yards in rear of the other; and each perhaps a mile long. Then they advanced steadily a short distance, when the order was given to charge, and, as if they were one man, both fines broke into a run and came up the hill, shouting and yelling. I never saw so fine a military spectacle. The sun made the bayonets look like a straight hedge of bright silver, which moved rapidly toward you. But the great fun was when part of the line came to a stone wall, over which they hopped with such agility as to take Colonel Earle prisoner, while Captain Stephenson’s horse, which was rather slow, received an encouraging prod from a bayonet. Which events put us in great good humor, and we rode merrily home.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 50. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

An Army in Motion (October 19, 1863)

Brig. Gen. John Buford (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. John Buford (Library of Congress).

There’s no letter from Meade for October 19, but once again Theodore Lyman steps into the breach to provide a detailed account of the Army of the Potomac during what became known as the Bristoe Campaign. The “Rebel regiment of horse” he mentions was none other than Jeb Stuart, who had found himself trapped between two sections of Meade’s army late on October 13. He spent the night hidden in some woods a mere 400 yards from a division of the II Corps, opened up with his horse artillery in the morning, and then escaped.

Lyman also mentions one of the Union’s best cavalrymen, John Buford. When he first encountered Buford, Lyman described him as “a compactly built man of middle height, with a tawny moustache and a little, triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to say sinister. His ancient corduroys are tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots, and his blue blouse is ornamented with holes; from one pocket thereof peeps a huge pipe, while the other is fat with a tobacco pouch. Notwithstanding this get-up he is a very soldierly looking man. He is of a good-natured disposition, but not to be trifled with.”

The attack on Warren’s rear that Lyman mentions is the Battle of Bristoe Station. “Poor Paul Revere” was the grandson of the famed midnight rider. He had been killed at Gettysburg. The 20th Massachusetts was also known as “the Harvard Regiment.”

Lyman also provides a good look at Meade and the general’s gunpowder disposition. Nothing ticked him off more than wagon trains blocking the army’s progress, as Lyman describes here.

The bracketed portion of the text is how it appears in Meade’s Headquarters.

It seems to me I had got to Sunday morning, the 11th, when we began to march back. We started from Headquarters and passed through Brandy Station, forded the Rappahannock, close to the railroad, and took up our camp near the railroad and about two miles from the river. . . . This move, though in the wrong direction, was, without question, a good one, as it bothered the enemy and caused them to hesitate. … In the morning we got off about ten (for the General does not mount till he has heard that the army is properly under way) and rode along the north side of the railroad, past the camp I first came to (H.Q. near Warrenton Junction), and so to Catlett’s Station, where we found the 1st Corps taking their noon rest; also their chief, General Newton, and General (Professor) Eustis, partaking from a big basket. A spy came in also, who gave such information as showed that the Rebels had made less rapid progress than we supposed. Going a mile or two on, we saw a spectacle such as few even of the old officers had ever beheld; namely, 2500 waggons, all parked on a great, open, prairie-like piece of ground, hundreds of acres in extent. I can compare it to nothing but the camp of Attila, where he retreated after the “Hun Schlacht,” which we saw at the Berlin Museum. They were here got together, to be sent off to the right, by Brentsville, to Fairfax Station, under escort of General Buford’s division. How these huge trains are moved over roads not fit for a light buggy, is a mystery known only to General Rufus Ingalls, who treats them as if they were so many perambulators on a smooth sidewalk! We turned off to a house, two miles from Catlett’s, and again pitched our movable houses, on a rocky bit of a field. . . .

At daylight next morning, every corps was in motion, tramping diligently in the direction of the heights of Centreville, via Manassas Junction. We of the Staff had hardly dressed, when there was a great cracking of carbines in the woods, not a mile off, and we discovered that a Rebel regiment of horse had coolly camped there during the night, and were now engaged with our cavalry, who soon drove them away. Pretty soon the sound of cannon, in the direction of Auburn, announced that the Rebels, marching down from Warrenton, had attacked General Warren’s rear. He, however, held them in check easily with one division, while the other two marched along, passing our Headquarters at 9.30 A.m. As they went on, I recognized the Massachusetts 20th, poor Paul Revere’s regiment. And so we jogged, General Meade (who has many a little streak of gunpowder in his disposition) continually bursting out against his great bugbear, the waggons; and sending me, at full gallop, after General Sykes, who was a hundred miles, or so, ahead, to tell him that the rear of his ambulance train was quite unprotected. . . . The 15th was employed in feeling the intentions of the enemy and resting the exhausted men. On the 16th came on a deluge of rain which spoiled our contemplated move next day. On the 18th, yesterday, we got some information of reliable character for the first time, viz: that they had torn up the railroad and were falling back on Warrenton. Before that there was every kind of report: that they were going up the Shenandoah Valley; marching on Washington, and falling back on Richmond; and they keep so covered by cavalry, that it is most difficult to probe them. Thus far in the move they have picked up about as many prisoners as we, say 700; but we have the five guns and two colors, they having none. To-day we all marched out at daylight, and are now hard after them, the General praying for a battle. Our cavalry has been heavily engaged this afternoon, and they may make a stand, or indeed, they may not. I think I was never so well and strong in my life. General Buford came in to-day, cold and tired and wet; “Oh!” said he to me, “do you know what I would do if I were a volunteer aide? I would just run home as fast as I could, and never come back again!” The General takes his hardships good-naturedly.

[The result of the manoeuvres brought the army toward Washington, which caused uneasiness and dissatisfaction at the Capitol. “At Centreville,” writes Lyman, “we had a set-to between Meade and Halleck. Meade had asked, by telegraph, for some advice, and stated that he was not sufficiently assured of the enemy’s position to risk an advance; so conflicting were the reports. Halleck, apparently after dinner, replied in substance, ‘Lee is plainly bullying you. If you can’t find him, I can’t. If you go and fight him, you will probably find him!’ General Meade, much offended, prepared a reply in some such words as these: ‘If you have any orders, I am ready to obey them; but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in guise of opinions as I have recently been favored with. If my course is not satisfactory, I ought to be and I desire to be relieved.’ He had written ‘bunsby opinions,’ and consulted me as to whether it would do; to which I replied that the joke was capital, but not in accordance with the etiquette of a commander-in-chief; so he substituted the other. Poor General Meade! Said he, ‘I used to think how nice it would be to be Commander-inChief; now, at this moment, I would sooner go, with a division, under the heaviest musketry fire, than hold my place!’“ Lee, finding that he could not outflank Meade, fell back, and Halleck apologized.]

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 33-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Have you read Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg yet? If not, you can buy it here!