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.

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To the James (June 13, 1864)

A Timothy O'Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan image of the Charles City Court House (Library of Congress).

A footnote in the book of Theodore Lyman’s letters points out that this one and some others were actually written after the fact. Nonetheless, they give an immediate and lively account of the move to the James River, a great triumph by Grant, Meade and the Army of the Potomac over Robert E. Lee. This letter includes one of my favorite anecdotes from Lyman, when he encounters General Francis Barlow reclining in a tree and eating cherries. (I feel compelled to note that Lyman’s discussion of African Americans may grate on twenty-first century sensitivities, as can often be the case with communications from the nineteenth.)

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Francis Barlow (Library of Congress).

Last night, at dark, the whole army was in motion for “Charles City” on the James River (there is no “city” there, but I believe a house and a barn). . . . This morning we were on our way by 5.30 and, making a cut across the woods, we soon came on Barlow’s division of the 2d Corps going rapidly toward the river, close to which we found Hancock, sitting on the grass and waiting for his Corps. At this point the Chickahominy is nothing of a stream, but, as it is bordered by considerable flats, it suddenly widens, during heavy floods, to perhaps half a mile, the water being just deep enough to stop waggons. This was a great trouble McClellan had: we have met with no such obstacle. This river is characteristic; a good drawing of this very scene at Long’s Bridge might pass as the incarnation of malaria and swamp fever. Fancy a wide ditch, partly choked with rotten logs, and full of brown, tepid, sickly-looking water, whose slow current would scarcely carry a straw along. From the banks of dark mould rises a black and luxuriant vegetation: cypresses of immense size, willow oaks, and swamp magnolias, remind you that you are within the limits of a sub-tropical climate, and so does the unhealthy and peculiar smell of decaying leaves and stagnant water. A great contrast to this landscape, so suggestive of silence and loneliness, was the rumbling and clatter of Barlow’s batteries, as they passed over the resounding pontoon bridge. We clattered over too, as soon as the last of the regiments had passed (which was about 10.30), designing to follow in rear of this division. . . . We kept on, on the flank of the column, admiring its excellent marching, a result partly due to the good spirits of the men, partly to the terror in which stragglers stand of Barlow. His provost guard is a study. They follow the column, with their bayonets fixed, and drive up the loiterers, with small ceremony. Of course their tempers do not improve with heat and hard marching. There was one thin, hard-featured fellow who was a perfect scourge. “Blank you!—you—” (here insert any profane and extremely abusive expression, varied to suit the peculiar case) “get up, will you? By blank, I’ll kill you if you don’t go on, double-quick!” And he looked so much like carrying out his threat that the hitherto utterly prostrate party would skip like the young lamb. Occasionally you would see a fellow awaiting the charge with an air of calm superiority, and, when the guard approached, pull out the aegis of a “surgeon’s pass.” The column marched so fast that I was sent forward to tell General Barlow to go more gently. I found that eccentric officer divested of his coat and seated in a cherry tree. “By Jove!” said a voice from the branches, “I knew I should not be here long before Meade’s Staff would be up. How do you do, Theodore, won’t you come up and take a few cherries?” However, I could not stay, and so kept on till we came, somewhat suddenly, on well-cultivated fields with good crops of wheat, oats, and clover. I was speculating on the reason of this when somebody said we were within a mile of James River! and just after, General Meade ordered me to ride down and see what sort of a position there was and how the land lay.

The pontoon bridge across the James River. In a paper he delivered to the Massachusetts Historical Society long after the war, Lyman wrote, “Meantime the laying of the great pontoon bridge across the narrows opposite Douthart’s house was going on with extraordinary energy. The approach to it lay along the river border under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for it had been covered a day or two previous with great cypresses, some of them three feet and a half in diameter; and these had to be cut close to the ground and the de’bris carefully cleared away. In a portion of the road, too, was a muddy swamp, which required a causeway of laborious construction. The bridge itself, composed of ninety-two boats, was thirteen feet wide and over two thousand feet long. It was braced by three schooners anchored in eighty-five feet of water, near the centre. The whole was laid in ten hours, and was finished at midnight. 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 hard by. The construction of this bridge and its approaches was, without question, one of the engineering feats of the war, the chief credit of which belongs to General Weitzel. Over it passed more than half the infantry of the army, 4000 cavalry, a train of wagons and artillery, thirty-five miles long, and 3500 beef cattle; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours. (Library of Congress)

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon that I caught the first sight of the water, as I cantered round the corner of a little grove. To appreciate such a sight you must pass five weeks in an almost unbroken wilderness, with no sights but weary, dusty troops, endless waggon-trains, convoys of poor wounded men, and hot, uncomfortable camps. Here was a noble river, a mile wide, with high green banks, studded with large plantation houses. In the distance, opposite, was Fort Powhatan, below which lay two steamers; and, what seemed strangest of all, not a Rebel soldier to be seen anywhere! . . . There was a signal-man waving away with his flag to attract the attention of the steamers, to notify all concerned that the head of the Army of the Potomac had struck the James. We went to a field by the Tyler house for our camp—the birthplace of John Tyler, he of the big nose and small political principles—once Vice President, with Tippy-canoe and Tyler too. Nobody was there, save a lot of nigs, that were too funny; for there suddenly appeared among them one of our black servants, who had left that very place in McClellan’s time. Such a “Lord a-a massy! is dat a-ar you? Wha-ar d’ge come from?” as never was heard, and great rejoicings over the distinguished traveller! What was more to the purpose, I got some green peas, a great coup; likewise milk, though “them a-ar infants” (meaning infantry) got the most of it. . . . A pontoon bridge, 2000 feet long, was made in ten hours, and over this passed a train of waggons and artillery thirty-five miles long; more than half the infantry in the army and 3500 beef cattle; besides 4000 cavalry; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours ! In civil life, if a bridge of this length were to be built over a river with a swift current and having a maximum depth of eighty-five feet, they would allow two or three months for the making of plans and collecting of materials. Then not less than a year to build it. This was a busy night on the river, messages going to City Point and Fort Monroe, and ferryboats and gunboats coming up as fast as possible to the neighborhood of Charles City. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 156-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.