Family Ties (May 3, 1865)

Ruins in Richmond, photographed in May 1865 (Library of Congress).

Ruins in Richmond, photographed in May 1865 (Library of Congress).

On May 3, 1865, George Meade wrote home from Richmond with news about some of his wife’s relatives. As previously mentioned, one of Mrs. Meade’s sisters had married Henry Wise, later governor of Virginia and then a Confederate general. The “Mrs. Dr. Garnett” mentioned in this letter is Mary, one of Henry Wise’s daughters. Another of Mrs. Meade’s sisters, Mariamne, had married Thomas Huger, who had served in the Confederate navy and died in 1862. Alfred Huger was postmaster of Charleston; he and Meade will both die in 1872.

I arrived here about 11 a. m. to-day, in advance of the army, to make arrangements for its passing through this city. It is to have a triumphal march through, and be received by all the troops now in the city.

As soon after getting here as I could arrange business matters, I went to see Nene Wise, whom I found living with Mrs. Dr. Garnett.

At Mrs. Garnett’s I saw Mrs. Tully Wise, who was all last summer in Columbia, South Carolina, and there met Mrs. Alfred Huger with Mariamne’s children. She says the children are all sweet, and that Mr. and Mrs. Huger are devoted to them, but that Mr. Huger has lost everything, and is now very poor, that he is old and infirm, and will not probably live long. She says Mr. Huger’s house in Charleston was burned in the great fire of 1862, and everything in it destroyed, all the old pictures, and all the clothes, jewels and everything belonging to Mariamne’s children. Mr. Huger at this time was Postmaster of Charleston, and used to come up and spend Sundays at Columbia. Mrs. Wise had not heard from them since Sherman’s occupation.

I have already written you that I expect to be in Washington by the 18th inst. It is generally believed that after the army is assembled in Washington it will be disbanded. In that case I shall undoubtedly be allowed some relaxation before again being assigned to duty, and will then have an opportunity of being home for awhile.

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. 277-8. Available via Google Books.

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A Great Contempt for History (April 10, 1865)

Robert E. Lee, photographed in Richmond in April 1865 (Library of Congress).

Robert E. Lee, photographed in Richmond in April 1865 (Library of Congress).

Robert E. Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at a meeting with Grant in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House. George Meade, who had been with his army in the field, was not present at the meeting. On the next day, though, Meade comes face-to-face with Lee, with whom he had been tangling, in one way or another, since the Seven Days on the Peninsula in June and July 1862. (Grant, by comparison, had been fighting Lee only since May 1864). In this letter, Meade also mentions an encounter with Henry A. Wise, the former governor of Virginia and Meade’s brother-in-law (Wise had married a sister of Meade’s wife). Throughout the war, Meade had written to his wife with whatever news he was able to pick up about Wise and his family. There is a strong streak of bitterness in this letter, mainly over the way Meade has been shunted to the sidelines in the press accounts. The “certain individuals” he mentions are, no doubt, Sheridan and his followers.

Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman includes a great deal more detail about Meade’s encounters with Lee and Wise.

The telegram will have announced to you the surrender of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. This I consider virtually ends the war. I have been to-day in the rebel camp; saw Lee, Longstreet, and many others, among them Mr. Wise. They were all affable and cordial, and uniformly said that, if any conciliatory policy was extended to the South, peace would be at once made. Mr. Wise looked old and feeble, said he was very sick, and had not a mouthful to eat. I secured him the privilege of an ambulance to go home in, and on my return to camp immediately despatched George with an ambulance load of provisions to him. He enquired very affectionately after yourself, your mother and all the family.

The officers and men are to be paroled and allowed to go to their homes, where they all say they mean to stay. Lee’s army was reduced to a force of less than ten thousand effective armed men. We had at least fifty thousand around him, so that nothing but madness would have justified further resistance.

I have been quite sick, but I hope now, with a little rest and quiet, to get well again. I have had a malarious catarrh, which has given me a great deal of trouble. I have seen but few newspapers since this movement commenced, and I don’t want to see any more, for they are full of falsehood and of undue and exaggerated praise of certain individuals who take pains to be on the right side of the reporters. Don’t worry yourself about this; treat it with contempt. It cannot be remedied, and we should be resigned. I don’t believe the truth ever will be known, and I have a great contempt for History. Only let the war be finished, and I returned to you and the dear children, and I will be satisfied.

Our casualties have been quite insignificant in comparison with the results. I don’t believe in all the operations since we commenced on the 29th that we have lost as many men as we did on that unfortunate day, the 31st July, the day of the Petersburg mine.

Federal soldiers and some civilians pose for a photograph in front of the building that gave Appomattox Court House its name. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Federal soldiers and some civilians pose for a photograph in front of the building that gave Appomattox Court House its name. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Although this letter from Theodore Lyman is dated April 23, I think I will post it today because it describes the events of April 10, the day after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. William H.F. “Rooney” Lee, son of Robert, had been Lyman’s classmate at Harvard.

I think I must write you a letter, though it may get to you not much before the winter, to tell of the end of our campaign. Monday April 10 is a day worthy of description, because I saw the remains of our great opponent, the Army of Northern Virginia. The General proposed to ride through the Rebel lines to General Grant, who was at Appomattox Court House; and he took George and myself as aides; a great chance! for the rest were not allowed to go, no communication being permitted between the armies. At 10.30 we rode off, and, passing along the stage road, soon got to the picket line, where a row of our men were talking comfortably with an opposite row of theirs. There the General sent me ahead to see some general of theirs who might give us a guide through the lines. I rode a little beyond a wood, and came on several regiments, camped there. The arms were neatly stacked and the well-known battle-flags were planted by the arms. The men, looking tired and indifferent, were grouped here and there. I judged they had nothing to eat, for there was no cooking going on. A mounted officer was shown me as General Field, and to him I applied. He looked something like Captain Sleeper, but was extremely moody, though he at once said he would ride back himself to General Meade, by whom he was courteously received, which caused him to thaw out considerably. We rode about a mile and then turned off to General Lee’s Headquarters, which consisted in one fly with a camp-fire in front. I believe he had lost most of his baggage in some of the trains, though his establishment is at all times modest. He had ridden out, but, as we turned down the road again, we met him coming up, with three or four Staff officers. As he rode up General Meade took off his cap and said: “Good-morning, General.” Lee, however, did not recognize him, and, when he found who it was, said: “But what are you doing with all that grey in your beard?” To which Meade promptly replied: “You have to answer for most of it!” Lee is, as all agree, a stately-looking man; tall, erect and strongly built, with a full chest. His hair and closely trimmed beard, though thick, are now nearly white. He has a large and well-shaped head, with a brown, clear eye, of unusual depth. His face is sunburnt and rather florid. In manner he is exceedingly grave and dignified—this, I believe, he always has; but there was evidently added an extreme depression, which gave him the air of a man who kept up his pride to the last, but who was entirely overwhelmed. From his speech I judge he was inclined to wander in his thoughts. You would not have recognized a Confederate officer from his dress, which was a blue military overcoat, a high grey hat, and well-brushed riding boots.

As General Meade introduced his two aides, Lee put out his hand and saluted us with all the air of the oldest blood in the world. I did not think, when I left, in ’63, for Germantown, that I should ever shake the hand of Robert E. Lee, prisoner of war! He held a long conference with General Meade, while I stood over a fire, with his officers, in the rain. Colonel Marshall, one of his aides, was a very sensible and gentlemanly man, and seemed in good spirits. He told me that, at one time during the retreat, he got no sleep for seventy-two hours, the consequence of which was that his brain did not work at all, or worked all wrong. A quartermaster came up to him and asked by what route he should move his train: to which Marshall replied, in a lucid manner: “Tell the Captain that I should have sent that cane as a present to his baby; but I could not, because the baby turned out to be a girl instead of a boy!” We were talking there together, when there appeared a great oddity—an old man, with an angular, much-wrinkled face, and long, thick white hair, brushed a la Calhoun; a pair of silver spectacles and a high felt hat further set off the countenance, while the legs kept up their claim of eccentricity by encasing themselves in grey blankets, tied somewhat in a bandit fashion. The whole made up no less a person than Henry A. Wise, once Governor of the loyal state of Virginia, now Brigadier-General and prisoner of war. By his first wife he is Meade’s brother-in-law, and had been sent for to see him. I think he is punished already enough: old, sick, impoverished, a prisoner, with nothing to live for, not even his son, who was killed at Roanoke Island, he stood there in his old, wet, grey blanket, glad to accept at our hands a pittance of biscuit and coffee, to save him and his Staff from starvation! While they too talked, I asked General Lee after his son “Roonie,” who was about there somewhere. It was the “Last Ditch” indeed! He too is punished enough: living at this moment [April 23, when Lyman wrote this letter] at Richmond, on the food doled out to him by our government, he gets his ration just like the poorest negro in the place! We left Lee, and kept on through the sad remnants of an army that has its place in history. It would have looked a mighty host, if the ghosts of all its soldiers that now sleep between Gettysburg and Lynchburg could have stood there in the lines, beside the living.

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. 270-1. 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. 359-62. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Reassurances (October 31, 1864)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Read Meade’s letters to his wife and you’ll get the impression that Mrs. Meade did not have a very good opinion of Ulysses S. Grant. While Meade himself had doubts about Grant’s opinion of his generalship, he often felt the need to reassure his wife of Grant’s good will. Part of the problem, as he points out in today’s letter, is Grant did not worry about public opinion the way Meade did.

Today Meade once again mentions his connection with the Wise family. Henry A. Wise, the former governor of Virginia, had married Margaretta Meade’s sister Sarah. (Sarah died in 1850.) Tully Wise was Henry Wise’s cousin; Peyton was Tully’s son. Meade often forwarded t his wife information he learned about the Wise family.

I have reason to believe you are in error in imputing any sympathy on the part of Grant with my detractors. It is true he has not exerted himself to silence or contradict them, but this arises from a very different cause. Grant is very phlegmatic, and holds in great contempt newspaper criticism, and thinks, as long as a man is sustained by his own conscience, his superiors, and the Government, that it is not worth his while to trouble himself about the newspapers. At the same time, he has always expressed himself in the manner in which he did in the telegram I sent you. Differently constituted, with more sensitiveness in his nature, I don’t doubt he would before now have taken some action, either in his official despatches, or in some other way given publicity to such opinions of my services as would set at rest these idle stories.

In our recent move we captured Peyton Wise, Lieutenant Colonel Forty-sixth Virginia Infantry. You may remember him as Mrs. Tully Wise’s bright boy, when we were first married. I did not see him, as he was taken to City Point before I knew of his capture, but I sent word to General Patrick, the Provost Marshal, to treat him as well as possible and furnish him with a little money. He wrote me a letter full of thanks, and expressing a great deal of very proper feeling. I understood if our men had gotten a little further into the enemy’s works, they would have captured General Wise, as he was not far from the place where Peyton was taken.

Grant has required me to make some kind of a report of the campaign, and I shall be very busy for some time.

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. 238-9. Available via Google Books.

Ignored (June 21, 1864)

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

George Meade’s letter of June 21, 1864, includes one of his persistent complaints about being ignored, this time in the dispatches of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Meade craved affirmation, a need that seemed motivated by some basic insecurity. Of course, commander of the Army of the Potomac was a position that naturally bred a sense of insecurity—just ask George McClellan, Joe Hooker, or Ambrose Burnside. But Meade seemed to need some kind of official “vindication” and validation that he had performed well. Despite his repeated claims to his wife that he was “indifferent” to such things, he wanted an official seal of approval that always seemed to evade him. Perhaps Meade would have had more success in advancing his cause if he had more nakedly lusted for glory and aggressively sought fame. He was more than willing to carp about the situation in his letters to his wife, but his son and grandson edited most of those complaints out of the letters for publication. Publicly, though, Meade had an almost naïve–or perhaps idealistic is a better word–belief that true honors would come to those who deserved them. Of course, it didn’t help that the correspondents traveling with the army had agreed to leave Meade out of their reports in revenge for the Crapsey incident.

Meade mentions in passing President Lincoln’s visit to the army. Horace Porter, Grant’s aide, included a long account of the visit in his book, Campaigning with Grant. Lincoln was especially eager to see the black soldiers of the XVIII Corps who had taken a portion of the Petersburg defenses. “When we wanted every able-bodied man who could be spared to go to the front, and my opposers kept objecting to the negroes, I used to tell them that at such times it was just as well to be a little color-blind,” the president said. The black soldiers gave the president a rapturous reception, which affected him deeply. “The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode,” wrote Porter.

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In the evening the president relaxed with Grant and his staff and indulged himself in one of his favorite pastimes, telling humerous stories. “He did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or to clench a fact,” Porter noted. “So far as our experience went, his anecdotes possessed the true geometric requisite of excellence: they were neither too broad nor too long. He seemed to recollect every incident in his experience and to weave it into material for his stories. One evening a sentinel whose post was near enough to enable him to catch most of the President’s remarks was heard to say, ‘Well, that man’s got a powerful memory and a mighty poor forgettery.’

“He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat on a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures. An officer once made the remark that he would rather have a single photograph of one of Mr. Lincoln’s jokes than own the negative of any other man’s.

My last letter was written on the 17th, during the battle of Petersburg, which lasted off and on from 4 o’clock on the afternoon of the 16th to dark of the 18th, day and night, during which time we drove the enemy more than a mile and a half, taking from them two strong lines of works, capturing over twenty guns, four colors and nearly seven hundred prisoners. In all this fighting and these operations I had exclusive command, Grant being all the time at City Point, and coming on the field for only half an hour on the 17th, and yet in Mr. Stanton’s official despatch he quotes General Grant’s account, and my name is not even mentioned. I cannot imagine why I am thus ignored.

I think I wrote you on the 17th that I was fighting Mr. Wise. Since then I have seen a Petersburg paper, announcing the wounding severely of George D. Wise, his nephew and aide, also of Peyton Wise, another nephew and aide-de-camp.

On the 18th we found the enemy had retired to an inner line, which I had reason to believe was not strongly fortified. I followed them and immediately attacked them with my whole force, but could not break through their lines. Our losses in the three-days’ fight under my command amount to nine thousand five hundred, killed, wounded and missing. As I did not have over sixty thousand men, this loss is severe, and shows how hard the fighting was.

Your accounts of the fair are quite amusing. Hancock and myself have much fun over the sword contest, and are both quite sorry to see we stand no chance for the five thousand dollar vase.

Mr. Lincoln honored the army with his presence this afternoon, and was so gracious as to say he had seen you in Philadelphia, etc., etc.

We have been very quiet for two days, having given up the idea of taking Petersburg by assault. Indeed, the army is exhausted with forty-nine days of continued marching and fighting, and absolutely requires rest to prevent its morale being impaired.

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. 205-6. Available via Google Books.

War of Brothers-in-Law (June 17, 1864)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions Wise’s Legion. He had a reason to be particularly interested in this unit, for its commander, Henry Wise, was his brother-in-law. Wise’s second wife had been Sarah Sergeant, Mrs. Meade’s sister. (Sarah had died in childbirth in 1850.) Wise was the former governor of Virginia—in fact, it was Wise who signed John Brown’s death warrant after the radical abolitionists failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry. He was a fiery secessionist who waved his pistol when he took the podium at Virginia’s secessionist convention in April 1861 and demanded that his state leave the Union. He joined the Confederate army and, as a brigadier general, led his troops to a successful defense of Petersburg when his brother-in-law attempted to capture it.

According to one story, Robert E. Lee once took Wise aside to gently chastise him about his strong language. Wise claimed he cut Lee off and said, “General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole army of Northern Virginia; but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.”

Lee laughed. “Wise, you are incorrigible,” he said.

Meade also mentions the Great Central Sanitary Fair, which took place in Philadelphia that month. (President and Mrs. Lincoln  and son Tad visited the fair on June 16.) In his book Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union, historian Anthony Waskie wrote, “The Great Central Fair was probably the greatest purely civic act of voluntary benevolence ever attempted in Philadelphia.” The venue was Logan Square and its fundraising was directed for soldiers’ relief.  Meade comments on the competition between himself and Winfield Scott Hancock over the awarding of a sword. Meade won the sword, but Mrs. Meade was edged out in the voting for the award of an imported bonnet by Mrs. Ambrose Burnside. I assume when Meade refers to “the ‘Shoddy,’” he is referring to so-called Shoddy Millionaires, who supposedly made fortunes by selling poor quality goods to the Union army.

I have not written you for several days, as we have been moving, our mail facilities for the time being interrupted. Our march from Cold Harbor to this place has been most successful, including, as it has done, the crossing of two streams, the Chickahominy and the James, over the former of which a bridge of one thousand seven hundred feet had to be thrown, and over the James one of two thousand feet, in eighty-five feet of water—an exploit in military bridge building that has never been equaled. I reached this field yesterday, having been placed by General Grant in command of all the troops in front of Petersburg, consisting of the Army of the Potomac, and two portions of Butler’s army, Grant being back at City Point. After arriving on the ground, although our men had been marching all the night before and during the day, I at once ordered an attack, which commenced at 6 p.m. and lasted pretty much continuously till 4 a.m. to-day—that is, ten hours—eight of which was by moonlight, another unparalleled feat in the annals of war.

Our attack was quite successful, as we captured several of their works, four guns and five hundred prisoners. The first prisoners brought in replied, on being asked to what command they belonged, Wise’s Legion. I asked where the general was; they said right in my front. I asked how he was, and they replied, the old man seemed quite well. I inquired what members of his family were with him, and they replied, he had two aides, named Wise, one of whom was his son and the other a nephew. This is the latest intelligence I can send you from your Virginia connections.

We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond, and that Grant’s words of keeping at it all summer will prove to be quite prophetic. Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.

I have to-day received your letters of the 10th and 12th. Hancock was with me when I read them. Hancock and I have great fun over the sword contest at the fair, I telling him that he made use of his time last winter to make friends with the “Shoddy,” and of course, as they have the money, I can’t expect to compete with him. We laugh and joke a good deal about it, and whenever a paper comes in we look for the state of the vote. The last date we have is the 14th, and that shows me about one hundred and fifty ahead, which, as I have been behind him all the time, is the source of much merriment.

Your account of the fair is very interesting. I should think, from the newspapers, you would be likely to beat the New York fair in receipts, and that your expenses would be much less.

I wish Sargie would get well enough to travel; he might pay me a visit, now the weather is warm. I don’t suppose Sargie cares much about seeing war, but I and George would like hugely to see him. The weather is getting quite warm. I continue in excellent health and spirits.

In his letter of June 17, Theodore Lyman writes about the IX Corps. Brig. Gen. Robert Potter had been with Ambrose Burnside and that corps since its early successes in the Carolinas and had been one of the generals responsible for finally forcing Union troops across “Burnside Bridge” at Antietam. James Ledlie was one of the Union’s worst generals. In his journal, Lyman had written, “Ledlie was a wretched, incapable drunkard, not fit to command a company, and was the ruin of his division.” Potter and Ledlie will both play roles in the episode of the Crater. Major Morton was Major James St. Clair Morton. “He was of a gallant, daring temperament, and, on one or two occasions during the campaign had led in person charges of the troops upon the enemy’s intrenched lines,” read an 1867 history of the XI Corps. “Always in the van, he had narrowly escaped with his life in former battles. On the 17th of June, he headed the advance of General Hartranft’s brigade, and was killed while the troops were retiring from the attack.”

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman's letter (Library of Congress).

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman’s letter (Library of Congress).

At daylight Potter, of the 9th Corps, assaulted the enemy’s works at a point near what was then our left. He took the works very handsomely, with four guns and 350 prisoners, and had his horse shot under him. Potter (a son of the Bishop of Pennsylvania) is a grave, pleasant-looking man, known for his coolness and courage. He is always very neatly dressed in the full uniform of a brigadier-general. His Headquarters are now at the house where he took two of the cannon. You ought to see it! It is riddled with bullets like the cover of a pepper-box. In a great oak by his tent a cannon-ball has just buried itself, so that you can see the surface under the bark. In a few years the wood will grow over it, and there it will perhaps remain to astonish some wood-cutter of the future, when the Great Rebellion shall have passed into history. This was a brave day for Burnside. He fought in the middle of the day, with some gain, and just before evening Ledlie’s division attacked and took a third line, beyond the one taken by Potter. This could have been held, I think, but for the idea that we were to advance still more, so that preparations were made to push on instead of getting reserves in position to support the advanced force. The enemy, however, after dark, concentrated and again drove out our troops, who fell back to the work taken by Potter in the morning; and so ended the anniversary of Bunker Hill. In the attack of that evening, Major Morton, Chief Engineer of the 9th Corps, was killed—a man of an eccentric disposition, but of much ability. He was son of the celebrated ethnologist, whose unrivaled collection of crania is now in the Philadelphia Academy.

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. 204-5. 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, p. 166-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

On to Petersburg . . . Almost (June 15, 1864)

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Yet another of the Civil War’s lost opportunities, as described by Theodore Lyman. William F. “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps attack the Dimmock Line around Petersburg and appear in a position to make their victory complete, but Smith holds back. Instead of having Hancock and the II Corps, newly arrived, press the advantage, Smith has them fill in for his exhausted men. Here Lyman expresses surprise at the fighting qualities of the African-American troops he had disparaged just the month before. Although he still expresses condescending impressions of black soldiers, this is something of a step forward. He also mentions “Wise’s Legion,” which are the troops commanded by Meade’s brother-in-law, Henry Wise. A former governor of Virginia, Wise’s first wife had been Meade’s wife’s sister.

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James Riber (Library of Congress).

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James River (Library of Congress).

Of course, the first thing was to visit the great bridge. The approach to it lay along the river border, under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for, a day or two previous, it had been covered with great cypresses, some of them at least three and a half feet in diameter, and these had to be cut close to the ground, and the debris carefully cleared away; in a portion of the road too there was a muddy swamp, which had to be laboriously spanned by a causeway; but there was the whole thing, finished, and of course a photographer making a “picture” of it. It was very simple: you have only to fancy a bridge of boats, thirteen feet wide and 2000 long, the while looking so light as scarcely to be capable of bearing a man on horseback. In the middle of the river were anchored two schooners, which gave greater stability to the bridge, by being attached to it with ropes. What added to the strangeness of the scene was the ci-devant Rebel iron-clad Atlanta, lying there, like a big mud-turtle, with only its back exposed. The group was completed by two or three gunboats and several steamers anchored near by. It was funny to run against the marine in this inland region, and to see the naval officers, all so smug and well brushed in their clean uniforms. Admiral L[ee] came to visit the General—a pleasant old lady apparently. While we were at dinner came Colonel Babcock, from Grant at City Point, with news that Baldy Smith had marched thence before daylight, engaged the enemy at five a.m., and was driving them towards Petersburg. Orders were immediately given to halt the waggon-train, now passing the bridge, and allow the 9th Corps to pass over and push on towards Petersburg (by the same route that Hancock had been following, during the day), and there form on his left. Smith, meantime, had hit the enemy, some three or four miles from City Point, in a wood, near where the main road crossed the rail. . . . How many there were I do not know, but they made a considerable fight with help of field batteries. Harry [Lyman’s brother-in-law], with 300 of his men, had the extreme left, and was wounded in this wood, early in the engagement..

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

A soldier told me he held on for an hour after he was hit; and I was further told his men did remarkably well. Within about two and a half miles of the town, Smith ran on the strong works long since constructed for its defence. These consist of a series of redoubts, with regular ditches and barbettes for guns, and connected in a chain by a heavy infantry parapet. The line was defended by Wise’s men (who look to me just like other Confederate soldiers) and by the local militia. What a difference that makes!! Their batteries opened a well-directed fire as our people advanced; but no sooner did the lines of battle debouch from the woods and push over the open ground, than the militia got shaky behind their works and, when our troops charged, they broke and ran, leaving sixteen guns and 300 or 400 prisoners in our hands. Everyone gives great credit to the negroes for the spirit they showed. I believe there is no question their conduct was entirely to their credit. . . . I shall never forget meeting, on the City Point road, five Confederate soldiers, under guard of nigs! . . . Three of the prisoners looked as if they could have taken off a tenpenny nail, at a snap. The other two seemed to take a ludicrous view of the matter and were smiling sheepishly. As to the negroes, they were all teeth, so to speak, teeth with a black frame. Hancock got up that evening and joined the 18th Corps. Their troops were all exhausted, but, oh! that they had attacked at once. Petersburg would have gone like a rotten branch. In war there is a critical instant—a night—perhaps only a half hour, when everything culminates. He is the military genius who recognizes this instant and acts upon it, neither precipitating nor postponing the critical moment. There is thus good reason why great soldiers should be so rare that generations pass without producing a single one. A great soldier must have, in addition to all usual traits of intellect, a courage unmoved by the greatest danger, and cool under every emergency, and the quickness of lightning, not only in conceiving, but in enforcing an order. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 160-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Relations (September 27, 1863)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions the Wises. He’s speaking of Henry Wise and his family. Wise was a relative—his first wife (deceased) had been Magaretta Meade’s sister, making Henry Wise Meade’s brother-in-law. He was also the former governor of Virginia—in fact, it was Wise who signed John Brown’s death warrant after the radical abolitionists failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry. He was a fiery secessionist who waved his pistol when he took the podium at Virginia’s secessionist convention in April 1861 and demanded that his state leave the Union. Once war began Wise joined the Confederate army and, as a brigadier general, led his troops to a successful defense of Petersburg when the Union army attempted to capture it in 1864—a battle in which Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was badly wounded.

Chamberlain later wrote of an encounter he had with Wise immediately following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Hearing a Confederate general railing at his own troops, the Union general decided to ride over and offer him some words of solace. He saluted and remarked on how well the men on both sides were responding to the surrender. “This promises well for our coming good-will,” he said. “Brave men may become good friends.”

“You are mistaken, sir, we won’t be forgiven, we hate you, and that is the whole of it,” Wise snapped at Chamberlain. He gestured towards his chest. “There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”

According to another story, Robert E. Lee once took Wise aside to gently chastise him about his strong language. Wise claimed he cut Lee off and said, “General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole army of Northern Virginia; but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.”

Lee laughed. “Wise, you are incorrigible,” he said.

We are having lovely weather at present; our camps are beautifully situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge, with the mountains in view, with pure air and plenty of good water; the best country in Virginia we have yet been in.

I had a visit yesterday from the Rev. Mr. Coles, Episcopal minister at the village, who told me he had seen Mr. Wilmer some few weeks since, and he had talked a great deal of me, and told him I had been his parishioner. He says Mr. Wilmer is not connected with the army, and has no church, but occupies himself in works of charity, and when he saw him he was on his way to visit the sick and wounded of the Confederate army, after its return from Pennsylvania.

I have tried, but unsuccessfully, to get some news of the Wises. Mr. Wise’s command undoubtedly went with Longstreet to Tennessee, but whether he went I am not able to ascertain.

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. 151. Available via Google Books.