Election Season (October 7, 1864)

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions the upcoming presidential election, which pitted President Abraham Lincoln against George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac.

I was afraid you would be uneasy at not hearing from me during our recent operations, but my headquarters were some five or six miles from the scene of action, and it was always at midnight when I got back, tired out with the day’s work, and had to start early in the morning, so that I really did not have time to write.

I see the papers announce my narrow escape. It was a pretty close shave, as I have written you. You need not worry yourself; I am not going to commit the folly of foolish and unnecessary exposure. But there are times when it is my duty and it is proper I should take my chances. Let us hope Providence will always be as merciful and protecting as in this instance; for I take it, it was only God’s will that saved my leg and perhaps my life.

The enemy have allowed us to retain the ground acquired by our recent movement, and seem to be busy fortifying against another advance. We have been reinforced, but not to the extent imagined by the sanguine public; neither is Richmond so near its fall as you tell me people believe. However, these absurd alternations of exaggerated anticipations of successes and reverses seem to be chronic with our people, and no amount of experience will ever cure them of the folly.

I note all you say of politics, but in the army we take but little interest except earnestly to wish the election was over, as we see, until it is, nothing else will be thought of and no proper thought given to the war. It is generally believed here that McClellan has very little chance. I think he is very unfortunate in his friends and backers.

I see the Chronicle announces me as a supporter of Mr. Lincoln, and is pleased to class me among the ill-treated generals who have been driven into the opposition. Well, the one has as much authority for his assertion as the other, neither having anything on which to base his remarks.

Grant has gone to Washington, leaving Butler in command. To-day the enemy made a demonstration on Butler, and I thought we were going to have a grand time, but it passed off.

Theodore Lyman also wrote home on October 7. We have encountered Brig. Gen. Henry Washington Benham before. Channing Clapp was a classmate of Lyman’s at Harvard. Samuel Crawford, in temporary command of the V Corps in Gouverneur Warren’s absence, had been a surgeon at Fort Sumter. The Pennsylvania-born Crawford took command of Meade’s old division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, just before Gettysburg. Today he and Meade are neighbors in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

There is a certain General Benham, who commands the engineers at City Point, and was up about laying out some works. Channing Clapp is on his Staff. You ought to see this “Ginral.” He has the face and figure of Mr. Briggs and wears continually the expression of Mr. B. when his horse sat down at the band of music. When he had got through all the explanations, which were sufficient to have laid out a permanent work of the first class, the Meade rose with weariness, and eased his spirit by riding out and looking at my new camp-ground, and inspecting those everlasting redoubts. Now that the camp is arranged, the Meade is dubious about moving: that’s like him! When we got to the extreme left, he thought he would go out and take a peek at the picket line. First there was a little bunch of cavalry. They were of a jocose turn; they had found an old pair of wheels whereon they had mounted a keg, making a very good cannon, which pointed, in a threatening manner, down the road. Its ensemble was completed by a figure, closely resembling those that defend cornfields, and which was keeping steady guard with a small pole. A hundred yards beyond was the picket reserve, behind a barricade. Then, beyond, a couple of hundred yards more, the sentries, each standing and looking sharply to the front. The one in the road was a half-breed Indian, though he looked more like a Neapolitan. He had that taciturnity that clings to the last drop of blood. “Are you a picket here?” asked the General. “Yes.” “Is there anyone on your right and left?” “No.” “You are an Indian, are you not?” “Part.” All of which the red warrior delivered, without turning his gaze from the vista before him. Beyond this gentleman was a post of two cavalry videttes. From this place we could get a very good view of one of the Rebel lines of earthworks; but there seemed very few men behind it. I could only notice one or two. And so we rode back again past the perils of the keg cannon. General Warren has a short leave, and General Crawford commands the Corps, to the indignation, I presume, of old cocks like Griffin and Ayres; for C. was doctor in Fort Sumter, and thus got a star, and thus is an old brigadier, and thus ranks the regulars G. and A. General Grant was on a flying visit to Washington to-day. I like to have him down here: first, he gives a general balance and steadiness; then, what is most important, he can order—just order what groceries he pleases, and no questions asked behind the counter!

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. 232-3. 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. 241-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Anxiety (September 30, 1863)

Sir Henry Holland, travel writer and Royal physician (via Wikipedia).

Sir Henry Holland, travel writer and Royal physician (via Wikipedia).

In an earlier letter Theodore Lyman mentioned Sir Henry Holland, the British Royal Physician who was visiting the Army of the Potomac. Besides being a medical man who attended the British royal family, Holland was also a noted travel writer whose books included Travels in the Ionian Isles, Albania, Thessaly, Macedonia, &c. During the Years 1812-1813. He died in 1873. (To see what Holland wrote about his visit, see below.)

Meade obviously had other things than British visitors on his mind, as this letter to his wife indicates.

I am sorry to see you so anxious about me, because it is impossible to keep you constantly advised of what is going on, and your imagination undoubtedly makes matters worse. You must try and be resigned, and not anticipate evil, but wait for its actual arrival. My position is of course liable to misconstruction so long as the public are ignorant of the truth, but the time will come when they will be enlightened, and then I shall be all right. Of course, if people believe that Lee has no army, and that I have an immense one, it is hard to expect them not to inquire why I do not do something; but when they come to know that just as I was about trying to do something, my army was suddenly reduced to a figure a little greater only than Lee’s, and that he occupies a very strong position, where the natural advantages in his favor more than equalize the difference in our forces, they will understand why I cannot do anything. I have remained here to offer Lee battle if he chooses to come out of his stronghold, and to prevent by my threatening attitude his sending any more troops to Bragg. Whether I will get any credit for this is perhaps questionable. The whole matter, however, reverts to what I have always told you, that I intend to act up to the French motto, “Faites bien, laissez dire.”

I don’t think I wrote to you that I had a very pleasant visit from a General Cortez, of the Mexican army, who came here with letters from the Secretaries of State and War. He spent a day with me, and I took him around the camps and showed him different portions of the army, and he went away much gratified. I also had a visit from Sir Henry Holland, physician to the Queen of England. He was a very agreeable, intelligent gentleman, over seventy years of age, who had crossed the Atlantic fourteen times. He seemed greatly interested with everything we showed him.

To-day Gouverneur Paulding and a Dr. Young, of Cold Spring, New York, have been here to present General Warren with a sword. Paulding I have known from a boy, and Dr. Young married a daughter of old Parson Hawley, of Washington. They also have been delighted with their visit.

Here’s Lyman’s letter from September 29. He touches on some of the same topics, but in a much livelier style. He also mentions Seth Williams, the army’s assistant adjutant general. Like me, Williams was born in Augusta, Maine. He was apparently much liked in the army for I never found anyone who had a bad word to say about him. Lyman also mentions General Henry Benham, whom we have encountered on this blog before. From this brief mention it does not appear that Benham had cleaned up his act since his disgraceful appearance during the Chancellorsville campaign. Channing Clapp was one of Lyman’s Harvard classmates.

Seth Williams of Augusta, Maine (National Archives).

Seth Williams of Augusta, Maine (National Archives).

I see such flocks of generals now, that I do not always take the pains to describe them. On Sunday there arrived General Benham, one of the dirtiest and most ramshackle parties I ever saw. Behind him walked his Adjutant General, a great contrast, in all respects, being a trig, broad-shouldered officer, with a fierce moustache and imperial and a big clanking sabre. I gazed at this Adjutant General and he at me, and gradually, through the military fierceness, there peeped forth the formerly pacific expression of Channing Clapp! There never was such a change, Achilles and all other warlike persons; and is much improved withal. That same evening enter another general (distinguished foreigner this time), El General Jose Cortez, chevalier of some sort of red ribbon and possessor of a bad hat. He was accompanied by two eminent Senors, Mexicans and patriotic exiles. We were out riding when they came; but, after our return, and in the midst of dinner, there comes an orderly with a big official envelope, proving to be a recommendation from Mr. Seward. “Oh,” says the General, “another lot, hey? Well, I suppose they will be along to-morrow”; and went on quietly eating dinner. Afterwards I went into the office of General Williams (or “Seth” as they call him here) and there beheld, sitting in a corner, three forlorn figures. Nobody seemed to know who they were, but the opinion prevailed that they were a deputation of sutlers, who were expected about that time! But I, hearing certain tones of melancholy Spanish, did presently infer that they were the parties mentioned in the big, official envelope, and so it proved! They were speedily entered into the General’s presence and, after a few compliments, anxiously asked when the next train left for Washington; for it appears that they had supposed Culpeper was a pleasant jaunt of about fifteen minutes from the Capitol, and was furnished with elegant hotels and other conveniences; consequently they had brought no sac de nuit, and had had nothing to eat since early morning, it being then dark! Their surprise was considerable, after a weary ride of some hours, to be dumped in a third rate village, deserted by its inhabitants and swarming with dusty infantry. John made ready with speed, and, after a meal and a bottle of champagne, it was surprising to see how their barometers rose, especially that of small Sefior, No. 2, who launched forth in a flood of eulogium on the state of civil liberty in the United States. Our next care was to provide them sleeping-accommodations; no easy matter in the presence of the fact that each has barely enough for himself down here. But I succeeded in getting two stretchers from the hospital (such as are used to bring in the wounded from the field) and a cot from Major Biddle; three pillows (two india-rubber and one feather) were then discovered, and these, with blankets, one tin basin, one bucket, and one towel, made them entirely happy. Really, how they looked so fresh next morning was quite a marvel. Then, after a good breakfast, we put them all on horseback (to the great uneasiness of the two Sefiors) and followed by a great crowd of a Staff (who never can be made to ride, except in the higglety-pigglety style in which “Napoleon et ses Marechaux” are always represented in the common engravings), we jogged off, raising clouds of red dust, to take a look at some soldiers. … El General was highly pleased and kept taking off his bad hat and waving it about. Also he expressed an intense desire that we should send 50,000 men and immediately wipe out the French in Mexico.

“Why doesn’t Meade attack Lee?” Ah, I have already thrown out a hint on the methods of military plans in these regions. But, despite the delays, I should have witnessed a great battle before this; if, If, IF, at the very moment the order had not come to fill up the gap that the poltroonery of two of Rosecrans’ Corps has made in the western armies. I do believe that we should have beaten them (that’s no matter now), for my Chief, though he expressly declares that he is not Napoleon, is a thorough soldier, and a mighty clear-headed man; and one who does not move unless he knows where and how many his men are; where and how many his enemy’s men are; and what sort of country he has to go through. I never saw a man in my life who was so characterized by straightforward truthfulness as he is. He will pitch into himself in a moment, if he thinks he has done wrong; and woe to those, no matter who they are, who do not do right! “Sir, it was your duty and you haven’t done it; now go back and do it at once,” he will suddenly remark to some astonished general, who thinks himself no small beer. Still I do wish he would order the Provost-Marshal to have a few more of the deceased horses buried. The weather here is perfect—could not be finer.

Here’s what Sir Henry Holland wrote about his visit to the United States during the Civil War, which he published in Recollections of Past Life (D. Appleton & Co., 1872, and available via Google Books. This passage is from pp. 64-66.)

In travelling through Holstein and the Danish Isles in 1848, I saw something of the petty war of Germans and Danes then going on, since followed on the same field by events of so much higher import. At a later period (in 1863), when 75 years of age, I was an active spectator—I will not say an actor—in the midst of the great civil war then raging in America. At the headquarters of the Federal army in Virginia, and with the advanced division on the Rapidan in front of General Lee’s army, and still more in the country through which I passed to reach the army, I saw warfare on its largest scale of action and devastation. Twice before I had traversed this part of Virginia, then very different in aspect—a happy and flourishing country, where the evils of slavery were mitigated by various social conditions more or less peculiar to this great State. The contrast of scene, as I saw it in the heat of war, was saddening to the eye and to the mind. But in a region so variously favoured by nature, time and tranquillity will restore what has been lost. The too sudden advance of the Negro to political power may retard this restoration, but cannot prevent it. Eight weeks of absence from my own house in Brook Street comprised this extraordinary spectacle of American warfare, with much besides of political and social interest, to which my several preceding visits to the United States gave me access. Living in the hospitable house of my excellent friend Mr. Seward at Washington, and seeing much of President Lincoln, I enjoyed facilities which few travellers can obtain. Mr. Staunton [sic], then Secretary of War, sent Adjutant-General Townshend with me to the army of the Potomac; an accomplished soldier and admirable companion, to whom the expedition was a luxury, as he had hitherto known the war only through his heavy official duties at Washington. General Meade, the recent victor at Gettysburg, was at this time in command of the army. By him, and the other generals and officers at head-quarters, as well as those at the advanced posts, I was received with a courtesy which I cannot readily forget. Such interludes are not common in the life of a London physician. But I have already confessed to a certain pleasure, whether rational or not, from these sudden contrasts; and in the instance just given, this taste, such as it is, was amply satisfied.

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. 151-2. 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. 23-4.Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.