Two Heads (May 19, 1864)

Senator John Sherman. His resemblance to his older brother, the general, is striking (via Wikipedia).

Senator John Sherman. His resemblance to his older brother, the general, is striking (via Wikipedia).

Another double-header today, with letters from both Meade and Theodore Lyman. I’m especially taken by the end of Meade’s letter. It’s an interesting analysis of his role under Grant. He does chafe at his subordinate role and will later become increasingly agitated over not receiving the recognition he feels he deserves, but here he accepts the situation for what it is. Of course, by the time the article he mentions appeared, Horatio Wright replaced John Sedgwick at the head of the VI Corps, and Sedgwick had joined the thousands of soldiers who lie moldering in the grave. The Coppée he mentions is Henry Coppée, a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran who went on to become the first president of Leheigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He also wrote biographies of Ulysses Grant and George Thomas. The magazine Meade cites is the United States Service Magazine.

Senator John Sherman was William T. Sherman’s younger brother. Senator William Sprague was also a former governor of Rhode Island.

All goes on well up to this time. We did not have the big battle which I expected yesterday, as, on advancing, we found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall, and directed a suspension of the attack. We shall now try to manoeuvre again, so as to draw the enemy out of his stronghold, and hope to have a fight with him before he can dig himself into an impregnable position.

We have recent Richmond papers containing Lee’s congratulatory address to his army, so you see both sides claim having gained the advantage. Lee, however, seems to think they have gained their point when they check us.

Yesterday I had a visit from Senators Sherman, of Ohio, and Sprague, of Rhode Island; both were very complimentary to me, and wished me to know that in Washington it was well understood these were my battles. I told them such was not the case; that at first I had manceuvered the army, but that gradually, and from the very nature of things, Grant had taken the control; and that it would be injurious to the army to have two heads. I see one of the newspaper men is puzzled to know what share we each have in the work, and settles it by saying Grant does the grand strategy, and I the grand tactics. Coppée in his Army Magazine says, “the Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant, commanded by Meade, and led by Hancock, Sedgwick and Warren,” which is a quite good distinction, and about hits the nail on the head.

In his letter from May 19, Theodore Lyman continues his account of the campaign so far. A journal entry added as a footnote to the letter mentions the altercation that occurred between Meade and Philip Sheridan at Todd’s Tavern.

To continue my history a little—I had struggled with much paper to the morning of the 8th. It proved a really hot day, dusty in the extreme and with a severe sun. We staid till the morning was well along, and then started for Piney Branch Church. On the way passed a cavalry hospital, I stopped and saw Major Starr, who had been shot directly through both cheeks in a cavalry fight the day before. He was in college with me, and when I first came to the army commanded the Headquarter escort, the same place [Charles Francis] Adams now has. . . .

Near Piney Branch Church we halted, pitched tents and had something cooked. Meanwhile there was firing towards Spotsylvania, an ill omen for us. The Rebels were there first and stood across the way. Warren attacked them, but his were troops that had marched and fought almost night and day for four days and they had not the full nerve for a vigorous attack. General Robinson’s division behaved badly. Robinson rode in among them, calling them to attack with the bayonet, when he was badly shot in the knee and carried from the field. They failed to carry the position and lost a golden opportunity, for Wilson’s cavalry had occupied Spotsylvania, but of course could not keep there unless the enemy were driven from our front. . . .

A little before two we moved Headquarters down the Piney Branch Church road, south, to near its junction with the Todd’s Tavern road. Meantime the 6th Corps had come up and formed on the left of Warren, the lines running in a general easterly and westerly direction, a mile and a half north of Spotsylvania. There was a high and curving ridge on which was placed our second line and batteries, then was a steep hollow, and, again, a very irregular ridge, or broken series of ridges, much of them heavily wooded, with cleared spaces here and there; along these latter crests ran the Rebel lines in irregular curves. Preparations were pushed to get the corps in position to attack, but it was plain that many of the men were jaded and I thought some of the generals were in a like case. About half-past four what should Generals Grant and Meade take it into their heads to do but, with their whole Staffs, ride into a piece of woods close to the front while heavy skirmishing was going on. We could not see a thing except our own men lying down; but there we sat on horseback while the bullets here and there came clicking among trunks and branches and an occasional shell added its discordant tone. I almost fancy Grant felt mad that things did not move faster, and so thought he would go and sit in an uncomfortable place. General Meade, not to be bluffed, stayed longer than Grant, but he told me to show the General the way to the new Headquarters. Oh! with what intense politeness did I show the shortest road! for I had picked out the camp and knew the way.

Hobart Ward (Library of Congress).

J. Hobart Ward. After the Wilderness, Winfield Scott Hancock had him relieved for being intoxicated in the face of the enemy (Library of Congress).

Well, they could not get their attack ready; but there was heavy skirmishing.* … I think there was more nervous prostration to-day among officers and men than on any day before or since, the result of extreme fatigue and excitement. General Ward was relieved from his command, for misbehavior and intoxication in presence of the enemy during the Battle of the Wilderness. I had always supposed him to be a brave but rough man. . . .

*”Sheridan now came to Headquarters—we were at dinner. Meade told him sharply that his cavalry was in the way, though he had sent him orders to leave the road clear. S. replied that he never got the order. Meade then apologized, but Sheridan was plainly full of suppressed anger, and Meade too was in ill temper. S. went on to say that he could see nothing to oppose the advance of the 5th Corps; that the behavior of the infantry was disgraceful, etc., etc. Maybe this was the beginning of his dislike of Warren and ill-feeling against Meade.”—Lyman’s Journal.

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. 197-8. 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 104-106. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Letters from the Front (May 11-13, 1864)

Alfred Waud called this sketch "The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient" (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Alfred Waud called this sketch of the fighting for the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania “The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient” (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Since the last time George Meade wrote home to his wife his army had undergone some serious punishment—and did some punishing itself. First came the two bloody days in the Wilderness and then the horrible, terrible fighting at Spotsylvania. The fighting for the bulge—the salient—in Lee’s lines that came to be called the Mule Shoe (and a portion of that was baptized the “Bloody Angle”) had ended with the Confederates pulling back to a second line. Although this appeared to be a victory for the Union forces, it merely moved the fighting to a new position. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “After the rebels retreated, Rufus Dawes and his men from the 6th Wisconsin moved forward to occupy their entrenchments. They found a scene from hell. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere in the mud and filth. Dawes saw one corpse propped up in the corner, the head missing and the neck and shoulders badly burned. Dawes presumed it was the work of a Union mortar.

“Horace Porter surveyed the result of the fighting the next day and found it ‘harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the “angle,” while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.’ Another soldier who witnessed the devastation called it ‘the most horrible sight I had ever witnessed.’

“That same day Grant wrote to Stanton: ‘General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with. If their services can be rewarded by promotion to the ranks of major-generals in the regular army the honor would be worthily bestowed, and I would feel personally gratified. I would not like to see one of these promotions at this time without seeing both.’”

Battle-field, Spottyslvania Court House, May 11—9 a.m.

I have only time to tell you we are all safe—that is, George and myself—and as far as I know, all your friends, except General Wadsworth, who fell into the hands of the enemy, mortally wounded, without hopes of life.

We have been fighting continuously for six days, and have gotten, I think, decidedly the better of the enemy, though their resistance is most stubborn.

Return thanks to the Almighty for the gracious protection extended to us, and let us try to deserve its continuance.

I am quite well and in good spirits, and hope we shall continue to be successful and bring this unhappy war to an honorable close.

May 12, 1864—2 o’clock, p.m.

A severe battle is raging, with the advantages thus far on our side. We have captured to-day over thirty guns, four thousand prisoners, including three generals. The enemy are strongly posted and entrenched, which, with their desperation, makes the struggle stubborn.

8 a.m., May 13, 1864.

By the blessing of God I am able to announce not only the safety of George and myself, but a decided victory over the enemy, he having abandoned last night the position he so tenaciously held yesterday. Eight days of continuous fighting have thus resulted with the loss to the enemy of over thirty guns and eight thousand prisoners. Our losses have been frightful; I do not like to estimate them. Those of the enemy fully as great. Our work is not over, but we have the prestige of success, which is everything, and I trust our final success will be assured. I have not time to write much. God’s blessing be with you and the dear children! Pray earnestly for our success.

Here are Theodore Lyman’s accounts of the same period. His regular letters actually resume on May 15, but throughout this time he took up the habit of writing about the events of each day at a later point. I have taken these post-dated accounts and posted them here.

May 10, 1864

General Gersham Mott (Library of Congress).

General Gershom Mott (Library of Congress).

[Tuesday] there was sharp fighting all along the line. General Mott’s division of the 2d Corps was put on the left of the 6th Corps, with the idea of making a connection with Burnside and then swinging our left to take the enemy in flank. I was ordered early to go to General Wright and explain to him, then to General Mott and direct him to demonstrate along his front and feel on the left for Burnside. General Wright had moved his Headquarters and had put them a little back and on one side, being moved thereto by the fact that the first selection was a focus for shells. Then I rode along the lines to General Mott and got his position as well as I could, and gave him the order. Coming back to General Wright, I had a sharp corner to go through. A battery was firing at one of ours and the shells coming over struck right among our infantry. They cut the pine trees about me in a manner I didn’t like, and one burst close by, throwing the pieces round just as you see them in French battle pictures. All day there was firing. About eleven came General Meade and told me to go out at once to Mott and to get a written report from him, which I did; and a sharpshooter shot at me, which I hate — it is so personal. More by token, poor General Rice, a Massachusetts man and very daring, was to-day killed by a sharpshooter. The ball broke his thigh, and, when they amputated his leg, he never rallied. As he lay on the stretcher, he called out to General Meade: “Don’t you give up this fight! I am willing to lose my life, if it is to be; but don’t you give up this fight!” All day we were trying to select places for an assault. Barlow crossed the Po on the right, but was afterwards ordered back, and had a brilliant rear-guard fight in which he punished the enemy. From five to six p.m. there was heavy cannonading, the battalions firing by volley. At 6.30 Upton, with a heavy column of picked men, made a most brilliant assault with the bayonet, at the left of the Sixth Corps. The men rushed on, without firing a shot, carried the breastworks in the face of cannon and musketry, and took 900 prisoners. Some of the men, who faltered, were run through the body by their comrades! But Mott’s men on the left behaved shamefully, and so Upton was obliged again to fall back, bringing his prisoners with him.* . . .

*11 p.m. Grant in consultation with Meade. Wright came up also; he uttered no complaints, but said quietly and firmly to Meade: ‘General, I don’t want Mott’s men on my left; they are not a support; I would rather have no troops there!’ Warren is not up to a corps command. As in the Mine Run move, so here, he cannot spread himself over three divisions. He cannot do it, and the result is partial and ill-concerted and dilatory movements.” — Lyman’s Journal. 

May 12, 1864

This was the date of one of the most fearful combats, which lasted along one limited line, and in one spot, more than fourteen hours, without cessation. I fancy this war has furnished no parallel to the desperation shown here by both parties. It must be called, I suppose, the taking of the Salient.

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as "Allegheny" or "Clubby" (Library of Congress).

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as “Allegheny” or “Clubby” (Library of Congress).

Hancock was ordered to attack with his corps as soon after four in the morning as possible and Burnside was to follow the example. A little after daylight we were all gathered round General Grant’s tent, all waiting for news of importance. The field telegraph was laid to all corps Headquarters and there we could hear from all parts. At a little after five o’clock, General Williams approached from the telegraph tent; a smile was on his face: Hancock had carried the first line! Thirty minutes after, another despatch: he had taken the main line with guns, prisoners and two generals! Great rejoicings now burst forth. Some of Grant’s Staff were absurdly confident and were sure Lee was entirely beaten. My own experiences taught me a little more scepticism. Hancock presently sent to ask for a vigorous attack on his right, to cover and support his right flank. General Wright was accordingly ordered to attack with a part of the 6th Corps. As I stood there waiting, I heard someone say, “Sir, this is General Johnson.” I turned round and there was the captured Major-General, walking slowly up. He was a strongly built man of a stern and rather bad face, and was dressed in a double-breasted blue-grey coat, high riding boots and a very bad felt hat. He was most horribly mortified at being taken, and kept coughing to hide his emotion. Generals Meade and Grant shook hands with him, and good General Williams bore him off to breakfast. His demeanor was dignified and proper. Not so a little creature, General Steuart, who insulted everybody who came near him, and was rewarded by being sent on foot to Fredericksburg, where there was plenty of mud and one stream up to his waist. Our attack was a surprise: the assaulting columns rushed over the breastworks without firing a shot, and General Johnson, running out to see the reason of the noise, found himself surrounded by blue blouses. I was now sent by General Meade to see how far General Wright’s column of attack was prepared. I found the columns going into the woods south of the Brown house; the enemy had seen them and the shells were crashing through the thick pines. When I came back and reported, the General said: “Well, now you can take some orderlies and go to General Wright and send me back intelligence from time to time.” There are some duties that are more honorable than pleasant! As I turned into the pines, the musketry began, a good way in front of me. I pressed past the column that was advancing. Presently the bullets began to come through the pine trees. Then came back a Staff officer, yelling: “Bring up that brigade! Bring it up at the double-quick!” “Doublequick,” shouted the officers, and the column started on a run.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 194-5. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s correspondence is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 108-11. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Investigations (March 17, 1863)

General William Franklin (Library of Congress photo).

General William Franklin (Library of Congress photo).

This letter from March 17, 1863, is fascinating. In it Meade discusses the political fallout from the debacle at Fredericksburg. Burnside, of course, is Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the Army of the Potomac. Franklin is William Franklin. Born in York, Pennsylvania, Franklin had come in first in his West Point class of 1843. Like Meade he was an engineer and he had been in charge of constructing the new dome of the Capitol in Washington when war broke out. At Fredericksburg he had been in charge of the army’s left wing, which included Meade’s division. Franklin was angry with Burnside. He had been under the impression that Burnside wanted Franklin’s wing would make the main attack from below Fredericksburg and didn’t learn otherwise until the morning of the attack. Now both men were being investigated by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

The General Parke whom Meade mentions is John Parke. Wright is Horatio Wright, later to succeed John Sedgwick at the head of the VI Corps.

I returned to-day from Washington. I went up day before yesterday, the 15th, arriving in Washington about 7 P. M. I went to Willard’s, where, as usual, I saw a great many people. Finding Burnside was in the house, I sent up my name and was ushered into his room, where I found himself and Mrs. Burnside, the latter a very quiet, lady-like and exceedingly nice personage, quite pretty and rather younger than I expected to see. Burnside was very glad to see me, and we had a long talk. Among other things he read me a correspondence he had had with Franklin. Franklin had called his attention to the letter which appeared in the Times, said this was known to be written by Raymond, the editor, and it was generally believed his information was derived either from Burnside himself or some of his staff. Hence this letter was considered authority, and as it did him, Franklin, great injustice, he appealed to his, Burnside’s, magnanimity to correct the errors and give publicity to his correction. Burnside replied that he had not read the article till Franklin called his attention to it; that he was not responsible for it, nor was he aware that any of his staff had had any part in its production. Still, he was bound to say that in its facts it was true; that as to the inferences drawn from these facts, he had nothing to say about them and must refer him to Raymond, the reputed author. Several letters had passed, Franklin trying to get Burnside to (as he, Burnside, expressed it) whitewash him. This Burnside said he was not going to do; that Franklin must stand on his own merits and the facts of the case; that he had never made any accusation against him, except to say that the crossing of the river, being against his, Franklin’s, judgment, he thought Franklin had been wanting in a zealous and hearty co-operation with his plans. That about the time my attack failed, hearing from one of his, Burnside’s, staff officers, just from the field, that Franklin was not attacking with the force and vigor he ought to, he immediately despatched him an order “directing him to attack with his whole force if necessary,” which order he assumed the responsibility of not executing, and he must now take the consequences, if blame was attached to him for it.

This illustration by Arthur Lumley shows Ambrose Burnside talking with William Franklin about evacuating his position following the debacle at Fredericksburg. At the bottom Lumley wrote, "Franklin corps in the distance and Rebel batteries on the mountains." (Library of Congress.)

This illustration by Arthur Lumley shows Ambrose Burnside talking with William Franklin about evacuating his position following the debacle at Fredericksburg. At the bottom Lumley wrote, “Franklin corps in the distance and Rebel batteries on the mountains.” (Library of Congress.)

The next morning I went up to the Capitol, to the committee room, and found only the clerk present. He said the committee had been awaiting me some days; that Senators Chandler and Wade were the only two members present, and now down town; that he would hunt them up, and have them at the room by three o’clock, if I would return at that hour. At three I again presented myself to the committee, and found old Ben Wade, Senator from Ohio, awaiting me. He said the committee wished to examine me in regard to my attack at Fredericksburg. I told him I presumed such was the object in summoning me, and with this in view I had brought my official report, which I would read to him, and if he wanted any more information, I was prepared to give it. After hearing my report, he said it covered the whole ground, and he would only ask me one or two questions. First, was I aware that General Burnside, about the time of my attack, had ordered General Franklin to attack with his whole force? I answered, “At the time of the battle, No; indeed, I only learned this fact yesterday evening, from General Burnside himself.” Secondly, what, in my judgment, as a military man, would have been the effect if General Franklin had, when my attack was successful, advanced his whole line? I said I believed such a movement would have resulted in the driving back of the enemy’s right wing; though it would, without doubt, have produced a desperate and hard-contested fight; but when I reflected on the success that attended my attack, which was made with less than ten thousand men (supports and all), I could not resist the belief that the attack of fifty thousand men would have been followed by success. This was all he asked, and except the last question, the answer to which was a mere matter of opinion, I don’t think any one can take exception to my testimony. My conversations with Burnside and Wade satisfied me that Franklin was to be made responsible for the failure at Fredericksburg, and the committee is seeking all the testimony they can procure to substantiate this theory of theirs. Now, Franklin has, first, his orders, as received from Burnside, and then the fact that the execution of these orders was entrusted to Reynolds, for his defense. Before the committee, of course, he will not be heard, but after their report comes out, it will be incumbent on him to notice their statements and demand an investigation. I feel very sorry for Franklin, because I like him, and because he has always been consistently friendly to me.

After returning from the Capitol, I dined with General and Mrs. Burnside and Parke. Parke said he was about being left off the list of major generals, when Burnside’s opportune arrival saved him, Halleck giving as a reason that he had exercised no command since his appointment. Burnside, however, had his name sent in, and now he is going to supersede Baldy Smith and take command of the Ninth Corps, which is to accompany Burnside in his new command, to which he, Burnside, expects to be ordered in a few days.

The best piece of news I learned when in Washington was that the President was about issuing his proclamation putting in force the conscription law, and ordering immediately a draft of five hundred thousand men. Only let him do this, and enforce it and get the men, and the North is bound to carry the day.

I sometimes feel very nervous about my position, they are knocking over generals at such a rate. Among others, Wright, who was my beau ideal of a soldier, and whom I had picked out as the most rising man, has had his major-generalcy and his command both taken away from him, because he could not satisfy the extremists of Ohio (anti-slavery) and those of Kentucky (pro-slavery), but tried by a moderate course to steer between them.

Did I tell you the old Reserves had subscribed fifteen hundred dollars to present me with a sword, sash, belt, etc.? It is expected they will be ready about the close of the month, when I am to go, if possible, to their camp near Washington to receive them.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 358-61. Available via Google Books.