White Oak Road (March 31, 1865)

Theodore Lyman describes the fighting along the White Oak Road on March 31. The little battlefield today is another of the Civil War Trust’s success stories and includes some trails that wind through the woods on both sides of the road, with markers among the trees that explain the action. Lee rode out here to supervise the fighting, knowing that the White Oak Road was an important supply line for his army. The rebels smashed into the Federal flank, forcing back the divisions of Romeyn Ayres and Samuel Crawford, but the Union soldiers counterattacked and pushed the rebels back to their earthworks. With the White Oak Road in Union hands, the Confederates off to the west around an intersection called Five Forks were now separated from the rest of the army. Charlie Mills had served with the 56th Massachusetts and on the staffs of several generals. The Abbott to whom Lyman refers is Henry Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts, killed in the Wilderness.

076The rain held up about ten a.m. and the sun once more shone. By this time our lines, running east and west, had been moved due north, till they rested their right on Hatcher’s Run, north of the Crow house, and their left on the Boydton plank, near the entrance of the Quaker road. For this purpose Ayres’s and Crawford’s divisions were pushed forward and Griffin held in reserve. We rode out, towards the left (our Headquarters were near the Vaughan road close to Gravelly Run), stopping some time to consult with Grant. About 10.30 we heard a brief fusillade on the right of our line (a demonstration to divert our attention), followed by heavy musketry towards the White Oak road. As we came to Warren’s old Headquarters, high up on the Quaker road, I could see something had gone wrong. A cavalry officer galloped up and said: “I must have more men to stop these stragglers! the road is full of them.” And indeed there were those infernal drummers, and pack-mules, and not a few armed men, training sulkily to the rear. I required no one to tell me what that meant. The enemy had tried on Griffin, two days since, without success, but this time they had repeated the game on Ayres and Crawford, with a different result. As these two divisions were moving through the thick woods, they were suddenly charged, broken, and driven back towards the Boydton plank road; but some batteries being brought to their aid, the men were rallied behind a branch of Gravelly Run. Griffin took up a rear line, to ensure the position. General Meade at once ordered Miles to go in, to the right of the 5th Corps, and Griffin to advance likewise. The General rode out in person to give Humphreys the necessary orders about Miles’s division, and found him at Mrs. Rainie’s, at the junction of the Quaker road and the plank. There was a wide open in front, and I could see, not far off, the great tree where we got such an awful shelling, at the first Hatcher’s Run fight. Miles was in the open, forming his troops for the attack. Just then the enemy opened a battery on us, with solid shot, several of which came ricocheting round us. I recollect I turned just then and saw Charlie Mills sitting on horseback, near General Humphreys. He nodded and smiled at me. Immediately after, General Meade rode to a rising ground a couple of hundred yards from the house, while General Humphreys went a short distance to the front, in the field. Almost at that instant a round shot passed through Humphreys’ Staff and struck Mills in the side, and he fell dead from his horse. He was indeed an excellent and spirited young man and beloved by us all. . . . When I rode that evening to the hospital, and saw the poor boy lying there on the ground, it made me think of Abbot, a year ago. It is the same thing over and over again. And strange too, this seeing a young man in full flush of robust health, and the next moment nothing that we can make out but the broken machine that the soul once put in motion. Yet this is better than that end in which the faculties, once brilliant, gradually fade, month after month.

About noon, Miles and Griffin went in, with sharp firing, drove the enemy back, and made a lodgment on the White Oak road. Meantime, Sheridan, after all sorts of mud toils, got north of Dinwiddie, where he was attacked by a heavy force of infantry and cavalry and forced back nearly to that place. Not to forgo our advantage on the northwest, we immediately sent the whole 5th Corps by night to Dinwiddie to report to General Sheridan and attack the enemy next morning — a hard march after the two days’-fighting in the storm!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 330-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Medal Ceremony (March 11, 1865)

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

There will be time for fighting before the month is up, but for now the Army of the Potomac is functioning more like a social club—at least at the headquarters level. In today’s letter, Theodore Lyman details another such occasion, this time to give General Grant a medal for his capture of Vicksburg in 1863.  (David W. Lowe reports that the medal is now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.) “Daddy” Washburn[e] is Grant’s political patron, Illinois congressman Eli Washburne. He had been with Grant at the start of the Overland Campaign—and Meade suspected that it had been Washburne who told reporter Edward Crapsey that Meade had wanted to retreat after the first day in the Wilderness. Lyman’s Harvard friend, Henry Abbott, had been mortally wounded in the Wildnerness while in command of the 20th Massachusetts.

From Grant we got a despatch that he would come up, with some ladies and gentlemen, to see our left and to review a few troops. The General rode down to the terminus of the railroad (which is not very far from Hatcher’s Run), and soon after came the train, with Grant and his party. Among them was our old friend Daddy Washburn, the same who came to the Rapid Ann, last May, to behold Grant swallow Lee at a mouthful, and—didn’t see it! Two divisions of the 2d Corps were turned out under the eye of the redoubtable Humphreys. They made a fine appearance, marching past; but I could have cried to see the Massachusetts 20th with only a hundred muskets or so, and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis, whom I used to see at Culpeper with a lieutenant’s shoulderstraps. How changed from last spring, when they passed in review with full ranks, and led by Abbot! . . .

That evening we were invited to City Point, to see a medal given to General Grant. This medal had been voted by Congress in honor of him and his soldiers, after the battle and capture of Vicksburg. And you now see the rationale of the Hon. Washburn’s presence. He was to present it. The Corps commanders with a few aides, and some division commanders, were all the General took with him in the special train. We arrived about 8.30 p.m. and at 9 the ceremony began, in the upper saloon of the steamer Martyn, lying at the wharf. The solemnities were these: General Grant stood on one side of a small table, with an expression as if about to courageously have a large tooth out. On the other stood Washburn, with what seemed an ornamental cigar-box. Whereupon W., with few words, remarked that the Congress of the United States of Amerikay had resolved to present him a medal, and a copy of their resolutions engrossed on parchment. “General” (unrolling a scroll), “this is the copy of the resolutions, and I now hand it to you.” (Grant looked at the parchment, as much as to say, “That seems all right,” rolled it up, in a practical manner, and put it on the table.) “This, General” (opening the ornamental cigar-box, taking out a wooden bonbonniere and opening that), “is the medal, which I also hand to you, together with an autograph letter from President Lincoln.” The “all-right” expression repeated itself on Grant’s face, as he put down the bonbonniere beside the scroll. Then he looked very fixedly at Mr. Washburn and slowly drew a sheet of paper from his pocket. Everyone was hushed, and there then burst forth the following florid eloquence: “Sir! I accept the medal. I shall take an early opportunity of writing a proper reply to the President. I shall publish an order, containing these resolutions, to the troops that were under my command before Vicksburg.” As he stopped, Major Pell drew a long breath and said: “I thought we were sure of a speech this time, but now we never shall get one out of him.” The medal was of gold, three pounds in weight; on one side a bad likeness of Grant; on the reverse a goddess, in an impossible position, who, as General Meade remarked, “seemed to keep a general furnishing shop of guns and sabres.” “What is the meaning of the allegory?” he enquired of the Lieutenant-General. “I don’t know,” replied Grant, with entire simplicity, “I don’t know, but I am going to learn, so as to be able to explain it to people!” Then the distinguished militaries crowded round to gaze. Major-General Ord, who can’t get over his Irish blood, said: “I believe, sir, you are the first man who medalled with his battalion.” To which Grant, not taking the point in the faintest degree, replied gravely: “I don’t know but I was.” There was a heavy crowd of Hectors, I can tell you. Generals Meade, Warren, Wright, Parke, Humphreys, Ord, Gibbon, Ayres, Griffin, Rawlins, Ingalls, etc., etc. Very few ladies. After this a moderate collation, and so home to bed.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 318-20. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Ball and a Review (February 24, 1864)

Artist Edwin Forbes sketched the 2nd Corps ball, held in honor of Washington's Birthday, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist Edwin Forbes sketched the 2nd Corps ball, held in honor of Washington’s Birthday, 1864. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Today we have the opportunity to see how General Meade and his aide, Theodore Lyman, wrote about events in the Army of the Potomac in letters composed on the same day. Meade first:

Since writing last we have had quite a gay time. The ball of the Second Corps came off on the 22d, and was quite a success. The room constructed for the purpose was beautifully decorated. There were present about three hundred ladies, many coming from Washington for the occasion, an elegant supper furnished by Gautier, indeed everything in fine style. I rode over in an ambulance a distance of five miles, and got back to my bed by four o’clock in the morning. The next day I reviewed the Second Corps for the benefit of our lady guests. I mounted my horse at 11 o’clock, rode over to the review and got back at six, having been seven hours in the saddle, and I believe I was less fatigued than any of my staff, so you can judge I have quite recovered my strength. George went to the ball and enjoyed himself hugely.

And here’s Lyman’s account, which provides much more detail than Meade’s rather terse description. Governor Sprague is the governor of Rhode Island; the vice president is Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. The “Abbott” Lyman mentions is fellow Harvard graduate Henry Abbott. Within a few months, in the Wilderness, Lyman will sit by Abbott’s hospital bed and watch him die of his wounds.

Judson Kilpatrick. Lyman did not think much of him (Library of Congress)

Judson Kilpatrick. Lyman did not think much of him (Library of Congress)

…I went yesterday to a review of the 2d Corps gotten up in honor of Governor Sprague. It was some seven or eight miles away, near Stevensburg, so that it was quite a ride even to get there. General Meade, though he had been out till three in the morning at the ball, started at eleven, with the whole Staff, including General Pleasonton and his aides, the which made a dusty cavalcade. First we went to the Corps Headquarters, where we were confronted by the apparition of two young ladies in extemporaneous riding habits, mounted on frowsy cavalry horses and prepared to accompany. General Meade greeted them with politeness, for they were some relations of somebody, and we set forth. The review was on a large flat (usually very wet, but now quite dry, yet rather rough for the purpose) and consisted of the Corps and Kilpatrick’s division of cavalry. When they were all ready, we rode down the lines, to my great terror, for I thought the womenkind, of whom there were half a dozen, would break their necks; for there were two or three ditches, and we went at a canter higglety-pigglety. However, by the best of luck they all got along safe and we took our place to see the troops march past. We made a funny crowd: there were the aforesaid ladies, sundry of whom kept chattering like magpies; then the Hon. Senator Wilkinson of Minnesota, in a suit of faded black and a second-hand felt that some officer had lent him. The Honorable rode bravely about, with a seat not laid down in any of the textbooks, and kept up a lively and appropriate conversation at the most serious parts of the ceremony. “Wall, Miss Blunt, how do you git along? Do you think you will stan’ it out?” To which Miss Blunt would reply in shrill tones: “Wall, I feel kinder tired, but I guess I ‘ll hold on, and ride clear round, if I can.” And, to do her justice, she did hold on, and I thought, as aforesaid, she would break her neck. Then there was his Excellency, the Vice-President, certainly one of the most ordinary-looking men that ever obtained the suffrages of his fellow citizens. Also little Governor Sprague, a cleanly party, who looked very well except that there is something rather too sharp about his face. Likewise were there many womenkind in ambulances discreetly looking on. The cavalry came first, headed by the valiant Kilpatrick, whom it is hard to look at without laughing. The gay cavaliers themselves presented their usual combination of Gypsy and Don Cossack. Then followed the artillery and the infantry. Among the latter there was a good deal of difference; some of the regiments being all one could wish, such as the Massachusetts 20th, with Abbot at its head; while others were inferior and marched badly. Thereafter Kill-cavalry (as scoffers call him) gave us a charge of the 500, which was entertaining enough, but rather mobby in style. And so home, where we did arrive quite late; the tough old General none the worse.

Edwin Forbes sketched the stand where the band played at the 2nd Corps' ball. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Edwin Forbes sketched the stand where the band played at the 2nd Corps’ ball. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

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. 167. 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 75-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.