Eyes like a Rattlesnake’s (May 24, 1864)

Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan described this image as "Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank (Library of Congress).

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan described this image as “Jericho Mills, Va. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from the north bank.” Grant and Meade booth crossed here  (Library of Congress).

Meade writes on May 24, 1864, from Mt. Carmel Church, where he and Grant established headquarters while deciding what to do with Lee, who had established a strong position across the North Anna River. He does not mention that on this day Grant issued orders placing Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps under Meade’s command. Until now Burnside had answered directly to Grant. Grant’s Special Orders, No 25, read, “To secure the greatest attainable unanimity in co-operative movements, and greater efficiency in the administration of the army, the Ninth Army Corps, Maj. Gen. A.E. Burnside commanding, is assigned to the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. G.G. Meade commanding, and will report accordingly.”

We have maneuvered the enemy away from their strong position on the Po, near Spottsylvania Court House, and now have compelled them to fall back from the North Anna River, which they tried to hold. Yesterday Warren and Hancock both had engagements with them, and were successful. We undoubtedly have the morale over them, and will eventually, I think, compel them to go into Richmond; after that, nous verrons.

I am writing this letter in the House of God, used for general headquarters. What a scene and commentary on the times!

Another one of O'Sullivan's images from May 24. Of this one he said, "Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge" (Library of Congress).

Another one of O’Sullivan’s images from May 24. Of this one he said, “Jericho Mills, Va. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge” (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman’s letter fills in much of the detail, including much about General Meade’s gunpowder disposition and an incident at Mt. Carmel Church concerning a message from General Sherman. Lyman also noted this incident in his journal, where he said Meade’s “grey eyes grew like a rattlesnake’s.” Meade had reason for anger at Sherman’s effrontery–as David W. Lowe points out in his excellent book of Lyman’s journals, “If one compares casualties along, Sherman’s men were having an easy time of it.”

We started quite early—a little before six—to go towards the North Anna; and halted at Mt. Carmel Church, where this road from Moncure’s strikes the “telegraph road” (so called, because the telegraph from Fredericksburg ran along it). If you want a horrible hole for a halt, just pick out a Virginia church, at a Virginia cross-roads, after the bulk of an army has passed, on a hot, dusty Virginia day! There was something rather funny, too. For in the broad aisle they had laid across some boards and made a table, round which sat Meade, Grant, General Williams, etc., writing on little slips of paper. It looked precisely like a town-hall, where people are coming to vote, only the people had unaccountably put on very dusty uniforms. General Meade is of a perverse nature; when he gets in a disagreeable place, he is apt to stay there. I think he likes to have officers who are prone to comfort feel decidedly uncomfortable. That reminds me of an anecdote. The day before yesterday, when we had our bloody attack along the whole line, General Meade had ordered his whole Staff ready at four in the morning. Now, such people as the Judge-Advocate-General are Staff officers and at Headquarters, but not aides. Ours is an old army officer, with many characteristics of a part of his class, that is, rather lazy and quite self-sufficient. He came to the front with us and staid some time; but, as dinner-time approached, late in the afternoon, he thought it would be bright to go to the camp and arrange a snug dinner. Pretty soon the suspicious and not very kindly gray eyes of the chief began to roll about curiously. “General Williams! did you give orders that all my Staff should accompany me?” “Yes, sir; certainly, sir.” (Seth is rather scared at his superior, as are many more.) “Where is Major Platt?” “I think he must have gone to camp for a moment, sir.” “Send at once for him!” In no great time the Major arrived at a gallop. “Major Platt,” said the General slowly and solemnly, “I wish you to ride along our whole lines (possibly about eight miles) and ascertain as accurately as possible the amount of our casualties during the day!” Somewhere about nine o’clock that night Platt returned with his statement, having missed a nice, six o’clock dinner, and happily been missed by stray balls and shells. . . .

I am glad to hear that you take once more an interest in the furniture coverings; an excellent sign! Keep a-going; that’s the way! That is the way I do: heart in my mouth for half a day; then come home and eat a good supper; there is no use in “borrowing trouble”—you do learn that here. You know I am not sanguine in my military hopes; but I have the strongest hopes of ultimate success, taking into consideration the uncertainty of war. You must go by the general features; and these are: 1st: Watchfulness, caution, and military conduct of our generals. 2d: The defensive attitude of the enemy; an attitude which Lee never assumes unless driven to it. 3d: The obstinacy and general reliability of our troops. 4th: The fact, that we have worked them, from one position to another, to within nine miles of Richmond across a highly defensible country. 5th: That their counter-attacks on us have been few and comparatively weak, and of no great moment, showing that they have no large force with a “free foot”; but have to put all their men on their lines. Nevertheless, I look on the future as still long and full of the common hazards of war. If the Rebels are forced to abandon Richmond, I believe the effect would be very heavy on them. This I judge not only on general grounds but also from the stupendous efforts, the general concentration, they are using to defend it. Do not, for a moment, look for the “annihilation,” the “hiving,” or the “total rout” of Lee. Such things exist only in the New York Herald.

To return to our Mt. Carmel. About seven came a negro who reported the whole Rebel army retreating on Richmond—a vague expression which left them room to halt anywhere this side of it. Soon after “Tick” Wadsworth—son of the late General—came in from General Sheridan and reported the cavalry corps at Dunkirk. This was welcome news to us. Sheridan had been sent on a raid towards Richmond and had destroyed railroads and depots of stores to a considerable extent. Also recaptured some hundreds of our prisoners on their way to the capital. He was delayed on his return by the rise of the Pamunkey, but got pontoons from Fortress Monroe and crossed it. On his way down, Stuart’s cavalry tried to stop him, but he pitched into them, took two guns and a number of prisoners, and killed Stuart, driving off his command completely. It is curious that the southern cavalry cannot now cope with ours. We have beaten them every time this campaign; whereas their infantry are a full match for us. Sheridan was a great help on his return, to watch our flanks and threaten the enemy’s rear. . . . About ten there came in a very entertaining nigger, who had been servant of Colonel Baldwin, Rebel Chief of Ordnance. He gave a funny description of Lee’s Headquarters. From him and from other sources I judge that the reports of Lee’s humble mode of living are true. He has only corn bread and bacon for the “chief of his diet,” and this sets an example to all his men. There can be no doubt that Lee is a man of very high character (which you may reconcile as you may with his treacherous abandonment of the flag). He carries on war in a merciful and civilized way, his correspondence is dignified and courteous, and his despatches are commonly (not always) frank and not exaggerated. General Meade got awfully mad, while waiting at the church. There came a cipher despatch from Sherman, in the West. Mr. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, hastened—with considerable want of tact—to read it to the General. Sherman therein told Grant that the Army of the West, having fought, could now afford to manoeuvre, and that, if his (Grant’s) inspiration could make the Army of the Potomac do its share, success would crown our efforts. The eyes of Major-General George Gordon Meade stood out about one inch as he said, in a voice like cutting an iron bar with a handsaw: “Sir! I consider that despatch an insult to the army I command and to me personally. The Army of the Potomac does not require General Grant’s inspiration or anybody’s else inspiration to make it fight!” He did not get over it all day, and, at dinner, spoke of the western army as “an armed rabble.” General Grant, who is one of the most candid men I ever saw, has repeatedly said that this fighting throws in the shade everything he ever saw, and that he looked for no such resistance. Colonel Comstock and others, who have fought with both armies, say distinctly that our troops are fifty per cent better than the western, and that the good Rebel soldiers have always been kept near Richmond except when Longstreet went temporarily to the West. At dusk we rode down to cross the North Anna, midst a fearful thunderstorm; some of the lightning fell so near that it really hissed, which was disagreeable, as there was an ammunition train close by. The North Anna is a pretty stream, running between high banks, so steep that they form almost a ravine, and, for the most part, heavily wooded with oak and tulip trees, very luxuriant. It is perhaps 125 feet wide and runs with a tolerably swift and deep stream, in most places over one’s head. The approaches are by steep roads cut down the banks, and how our waggons and artillery got across, I don’t know! Indeed I never do know how the trains get up, seeing that you are not over well off, sometimes, on a horse. . . .

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. 198. 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 122-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Turning Operation (May 23, 1864)

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 "The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico Ford." Click to enlarge  (Library of Congress).

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 “The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico [sic] Ford.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Lee entrenches south of the North Anna River and the Army of the Potomac prepares to attack. Meade’s prediction in his letter of May 23 is correct in general, but the turning operations will continue until Lee is in Petersburg, south of Richmond.

Apparently Mrs. Meade does not think too highly of General Grant.

We expected yesterday to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.

I am sorry you will not change your opinion of Grant. I think you expect too much of him. I don’t think he is a very magnanimous man, but I believe he is above any littleness, and whatever injustice is done me, and it is idle to deny that my position is a very unjust one, I believe is not intentional on his part, but arises from the force of circumstances, and from that weakness inherent in human nature which compels a man to look to his own interests.

Theodore Lyman picks up his account of the Overland Campaign where he left off. Here he resumes his account of May 12 and the terrible fighting at the Mule Shoe salient of Lee’s line at Spotsylvania. Meade has sent him to find Horatio Wright, the commander of the VI Corps.

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

… I asked on all sides for General Wright. One said he had gone this way; another that he had gone that; so finally I just stood still, getting on the edge of the woods, on a ridge, where I dismounted and wrote a short despatch to General Meade, midst a heavy rain that now began to come down. Just before me was a very large field with several undulations, close to me was a battery firing, and in the wood beyond the field was the fighting. I stood there a short time, while the second line was deployed and advanced in support of the first. The Rebels were firing a great many explosive bullets, which I never saw before. When they strike they explode, like a fire-cracker, and make a bad wound; but I do not suppose, after all, that they are worse than the others. Presently there came along Captain Arthur McClellan (brother of the General and a very nice fellow). He said he would show me where General Wright was, which proved to be not far off, in a little hollow place. There was the stout-hearted General, seated with his aides, on the ground. He had just been hit on the leg by a great piece of shell, but was smiling away, despite his bruises. A sterling soldier he is! I soon found that the hollow did not exclude missiles, which fly in curves, confound them! There came a great selection of bullets about our ears, in the first of it. By-and-by a Rebel battery began to suspect that, from the number of horses, there must be a general about that place, and so, whing! smash, bang! came a shell, striking in the woods just beyond. “My friend,” said calm Colonel Tompkins, addressing the invisible gunner, “if you want to hit us you must cut your fuses shorter” — which indeed he did do, and sent all sorts of explosives everywhere except in our little group, which was only reached by a fragment or two. None of us got hurt, but one horse was wounded and another killed. There I staid for five hours (very long ones), and pelted all the time, but most of the balls flew too high, and, as is well known, shells make a horrid noise, but hurt comparatively few.

All this time the enemy was rolling up his fresh troops and frantically endeavoring to regain that salient. He made as many as five desperate charges with the bayonet, but in vain. At one place called the “Corner” the lines stood within fifty feet of each other, for hours!* The breastwork made a ridge between, and any living thing that showed above that line fell dead. The next day the bodies of friend and foe covered the ground. Some wounded men were then taken out from under three or four dead ones. One body, that lay exposed to the fire, had eighty bullets in it. At 12.30 I rode back to General Meade, to tell him our extreme right was hard pressed; and he sent me back to say that the whole 5th Corps had been moved to the left and that Griffin’s division could go to Wright’s support. I found that Wright had been fairly shelled out of his little hollow, and had retired to the Landron house. We clung to the salient, and that night the Rebels fell back from that part of their lines, leaving twenty-two guns, eighteen colors, and 3500 prisoners in our hands. . . . That night our Headquarters were at the Armstrong house. It was a day of general battle, for Warren attacked on the right and Burnside on the left, which kept the enemy from sending reinforcements. You will notice that the army was gradually shifting to the left, having now given up the Po River and Todd’s Tavern road.

*This footnote was taken from Lyman’s journal: “The great historical fight of this day extended over a front of only 1000 to 1500 yards, along the faces of the salient, or the ‘Death-angle,’ as it was afterwards called. Within that narrow field two corps were piled up to assault and in support. Indeed we had too many troops, as the generals justly said. The lines got mixed and jammed together and were hard to handle. The amount of bullets fired may be known from the fact that a red oak, twenty-three inches in diameter, was reduced, about six feet from the ground, to a fibrous structure and blew down that night! Bodies that lay between the lines were shot to pieces and could only be raised in a blanket! The result was damaging to the enemy—very—but the army of Lee was not cut in two—an issue clearly looked for by Rawlins and some others of Grant’s Staff, but not so confidently assumed by those who knew a little more.”—Lyman’s Journal.

May 16 Mott’s division, that had hitherto behaved so badly, was broken up and put with Birney—a sad record for Hooker’s fighting men! Napoleon said that food, clothing, discipline, and arms were one quarter, and morale the other three quarters. You cannot be long midst hard fighting without having this brought home to you. This day was a marked one, for being fine, nearly the whole of it; we have been having a quantity of rain and a fine bit was quite a wonder. There did appear a singular specimen to behold, at my tent, a J. Bull —a Fusileer—a doctor. Think of an English fusileer surgeon—what a combination! He walked on the tips of his toes, with his knees bent, was dressed in full uniform, and had a smirk on his face as much as to say: “Now I know a good deal; and I am coming to see; and I am not going to be put off.” Poor Medical Director McParlin was horribly bored with him; but finally got him to the 6th Corps hospital, where I afterwards saw him, running round with some large instrument. I hope they didn’t let him do much to the wounded. We were honored at dinner by the company of Governor Sprague and Sherman of the Senate. The Governor is a brisk, sparrowy little man with perky black eyes, which were shaded by an enormous straw hat. He is very courageous, and went riding about in various exposed spots. Sherman is the tallest and flattest of mortals—I mean physically. He is so flat you wonder where his lungs and other vitals may be placed. He seems a very moderate and sensible man.

Tuesday, May 17

Our Headquarters were moved to the left, and back of the Anderson house. We rode, in the morning, over, and staid some time at the house, one of the best I have seen in Virginia. It was a quite large place, built with a nest of out-houses in the southern style. They have a queer way of building on one thing after another, the great point being to have a separate shed or out-house for every purpose, and then a lot more sheds and outhouses for the negroes. You will find a carpenter’s shop, tool-room, coach-shed, pig-house, stable, out-kitchen, two or three barns, and half-a-dozen negro huts, besides the main house, where the family lives. Of the larger houses, perhaps a quarter are of brick, the rest of wood. They are plain, rarely with any ornament; in fact, these “mansions” are only farmhouses of a better class. Anderson was reputed a rich man, but he had carpets on very few rooms; most were floored with hard pine. Round these houses are usually handsome trees, often locusts, with oaks and, perhaps, some flowering shrubs. Often there is a small corner with a glass front, to serve as a greenhouse in winter. It is hard to judge what this country once was; but I can see that each house of the better class had some sort of a flower-garden; also, there are a great number of orchards in this part of the country and plenty of peach trees. Nothing gives such an air of desolation as a neglected flower-patch! There are the perennial plants that start each spring, all in disorder and struggling with weeds; and you are brought to think how some woman once took an interest in the flowers, and saw that they were properly kept. These little things appeal more pointedly to you than great ones, because they are so easily understood. In the few days’ fighting I have seen, I have come to be entirely unmoved by the appearance of the horrible forms of wounds or death; but to-day I had quite a romantic twinge at finding in a garden a queer leaf, with scallops on it, just like one I found in Bologna and put in your scrapbook. . . .

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

At Anderson’s I saw quite a galaxy of generals, among others the successor of General Stevenson, Major-General Crittenden. He is the queerest-looking party you ever saw, with a thin, staring face, and hair hanging to his coat collar — a very wild-appearing major-general, but quite a kindly man in conversation, despite his terrible looks. . . . The waggoners and train rabble and stragglers have committed great outrages in the rear of this army. Some of the generals, particularly Birney and Barlow, have punished pillagers in a way they will not forget; and they will be shot if they do not stop outrages on the inhabitants. The proper way to stop the grosser acts is to hang the perpetrators by the road where the troops pass, and put a placard on their breasts. I think I would do it myself, if I caught any of them. All this proceeds from one thing—the uncertainty of the death penalty through the false merciful policy of the President. It came to be a notorious thing that no one could be executed but poor friendless wretches, who had none to intercede for them; so that the blood of deserters that was shed was all in vain—there was no certainty in punishment, and certainty is the essence of all punishment. Now we reap the disadvantage in a new form. People must learn that war is a thing of life or death: if a man won’t go to the front he must be shot; but our people can’t make up their minds to it; it is repulsive to the forms of thought, even of most of the officers, who willingly expose their own lives, but will shrink from shooting down a skulker.

And now here’s a letter from Lyman from May 23, which picks up his narrative from the day before.

It was with regret that early this morning we left the fine clover field of Dame Tyler, and wended our way towards the North Anna. We crossed the Mat (or what is called South River, I am not sure which, at any rate a mere brook), and kept straight on for Garrett’s Tavern. Grant, mounted on the purloined black pony, ambled along at a great pace, but General Meade, who got his pride up at Grant’s rapidity, set off at a rate that soon raised a cloud of dust and left the Lieutenant-General far behind; whereat George G. was much pleased, and his aides much the contrary, as they had to scramble after. About ten we got to a side road, leading to the right, and here we turned off the 9th Corps, so as to keep the telegraph road open for the passage of the 5th. Then we took a bend to the left again and came out by the Moncure house, crossing the Polecat Creek by the way — a pleasant stream running over stones, and with the trees quite growing into it. There, I knew, Biddle and Mason “straggled” and took a bath. We passed also a house where dwelt four women, all alone; we left them a guard, to stay till next morning. A hazardous position for these people, with all the stragglers and camp scoundrels about! Old Ma’am Moncure was a perfect old railer, and said: “They should soon see us coming back on the double-quick.” However, they (the family) were amazing sharp and eager in selling us sheep, and took our greenbacks with avidity. A gold dollar now is worth about $30 in Confederate money! This afternoon Warren crossed the North Anna at Jericho Bridge, and was fiercely attacked on the other side by Longstreet; but he repulsed him with heavy loss, after a sharp fight. Hancock coming along more to the left, stormed the rifle-pits near Chesterfield station and seized the bridge, ready to cross. I have been lately up at three and four in the morning and I am so sleepy I must stop.

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. 198. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 112-117 and 121-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.