USCT (May 18, 1864)

You can suffer from chronological whiplash when reading Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox. For instance, the opening of the letter he wrote on May 18 (150 years ago today), opens with interesting observations about the recent fighting in general he noted during a lull at Spotsylvania. It includes some especially interesting observations about the use of breastworks. He then jumps back to May 7 to continue his narrative of the Overland Campaign.

"Make Way for Liberty!" by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

“Make Way for Liberty!” by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

Lyman’s comments on the use of African-American soldiers are also interesting, if less insightful. Lyman was certainly not alone in wondering if black soldiers could fight. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln also opened the door for black men to fight for the Union, but many white soldiers did not accept the new arrivals with open arms. Lyman either was unaware of the irony in his words or refused to acknowledge that Lincoln had transformed the war into more than a crusade to restore the Union. It was now a war to end slavery as well. By the end of the war Lyman had gained a grudging respect for the African-American soldiers, but he never abandoned his conservative views on race.

When I was researching Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg I spent a day exploring Spotsylvania with historian John Cummings. He had recently started a reenactment group to commemorate the 23rd United States Colored Troops, a regiment from Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division that fought here on May 15. These were some of the black soldiers that so distressed Lyman. “By 2014 I think it’s vitally important to do something to commemorate the first time that black troops actually fired on the Army of Northern Virginia,” Cummings told me then. I’m pleased to say he helped make that happen, as you can read here.

I have no right to complain: I have less hardship, more ease, and less exposure than most officers, and, if I must be with the army in the field, I have as good a place as one can well expect. I did hope (though there was no proper ground for it) that we might have the great blessing of an overwhelming victory. Such things you read of in books, but they do not happen often, particularly with such armies to oppose as those of the Rebels. . . .

The great feature of this campaign is the extraordinary use made of earthworks. When we arrive on the ground, it takes of course a considerable time to put troops in position for attack, in a wooded country; then skirmishers must be thrown forward and an examination made for the point of attack, and to see if there be any impassable obstacles, such as streams or swamps. Meantime what does the enemy? Hastily forming a line of battle, they then collect rails from fences, stones, logs and all other materials, and pile them along the line; bayonets with a few picks and shovels, in the hands of men who work for their lives, soon suffice to cover this frame with earth and sods; and within one hour, there is a shelter against bullets, high enough to cover a man kneeling, and extending often for a mile or two. When our line advances, there is the line of the enemy, nothing showing but the bayonets, and the battle-flags stuck on the top of the work. It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good rifle-pit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first twenty-four hours. Our men can, and do, do the same; but remember, our object is offense—to advance. You would be amazed to see how this country is intersected with field-works, extending for miles and miles in different directions and marking the different strategic lines taken up by the two armies, as they warily move about each other.

The newspapers would be comic in their comments, were not the whole thing so tragic. More absurd statements could not be. Lee is not retreating: he is a brave and skilful soldier and he will fight while he has a division or a day’s rations left. These Rebels are not half-starved and ready to give up — a more sinewy, tawny, formidable-looking set of men could not be. In education they are certainly inferior to our native-born people; but they are usually very quick-witted within their own sphere of comprehension; and they know enough to handle weapons with terrible effect. Their great characteristic is their stoical manliness; they never beg, or whimper, or complain; but look you straight in the face, with as little animosity as if they had never heard a gun.

Now I will continue the history a little. But first I will remark that I had taken part in two great battles, and heard the bullets whistle both days, and yet I had scarcely seen a Rebel save killed, wounded, or prisoners! I remember how even line officers, who were at the battle of Chancellorsville, said: “Why, we never saw any Rebels where we were; only smoke and bushes, and lots of our men tumbling about”; and now I appreciate this most fully. The great art is to conceal men; for the moment they show, bang, bang, go a dozen cannon, the artillerists only too pleased to get a fair mark. Your typical “great white plain,” with long lines advancing and manoeuvring, led on by generals in cocked hats and by bands of music, exist not for us. Here it is, as I said: “Left face—prime—forward!”—and then wrang, wr-r-rang, for three or four hours, or for all day, and the poor, bleeding wounded streaming to the rear. That is a great battle in America. Well! to our next day.

Saturday, May 7

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African American soldiers (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African-American soldiers (Library of Congress).

At daylight it would be hard to say what opinion was most held in regard to the enemy, whether they would attack, or stand still; whether they were on our flanks, or trying to get in our rear, or simply in our front. However, it was not long before they were reported as fallen back — a good deal back from the left and right and somewhat from our centre on the pike. Reconnaissances were at once thrown out; and the General sent me to the front, on the pike, to learn how matters stood; where I found, on the most undoubted evidence, that we were throwing solid shot and shell at the rebels, and they were throwing solid shot and shells at us. . . . There was heavy skirmishing, with some artillery, all that morning, until we determined that the enemy had swung back both wings; and shortened and straightened his line. There lay both armies, each behind its breastworks, panting and exhausted, and scowling at each other. At five this morning a novel sight was presented to the Potomac Army. A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them! . . .

As General Grant sat under a pine tree, stoically smoking his briarwood pipe, I heard him say: “To-night Lee will be retreating south.”* Ah! General, Robert Lee is not Pemberton; he will retreat south, but only far enough to get across your path, and then he will retreat no more, if he can help it. In fact, orders were out for the whole army to move at dark on Spotsylvania Court House. But Lee knew it all: he could see the waggons moving, and had scouts besides. As night fell, his troops left their works and were crowding down the Parker’s Store road, towards Spotsylvania—each moment worth untold gold to them! Grant had no longer a Pemberton! “His best friend,” as he calls him. And we marched also. . . .

We [Headquarters] did not start till nearly nine o’clock. … It was a sultry night—no rain for many days; the horses’ hoofs raised intolerable clouds of dust, which, in this sandy region, is fine almost like flour. I never saw—nobody could well see—a more striking spectacle than that road as we passed slowly along. All the way was a continuous low breastwork behind which lay crowded the sleeping infantry. They were so close as almost to be on top of each other; every man with his loaded musket in his hand, or lying at his side. A few yards outside stood a line of sentries, their muskets cocked, and others sat on top of the breastwork. Few of the officers allowed themselves any rest, but paced up and down, in their great coats and slouched hats, looking sharply after the sentries. That looked like war, I do assure you. By the roadside was Gibbon, and a tower of strength he is, cool as a steel knife, always, and unmoved by anything and everything. There we lay down, literally in the dust, after a drink of iced water (for all the farms have ice-houses in this region, which our men are not slow to hunt out), and then we waited for General Meade, who had waited behind to speak with Hancock. By and by he came, with more clouds of dust, and then on again, past more sleeping men, and batteries in position, losing the road, finding it again, tearing our clothes among trees and bushes, then coming to cavalry pickets and finally to Todd’s Tavern, where General Gregg had his Headquarters, with his division of cavalry camped about there. . . . There was a porch in front with a dirt floor, and there I lay down, with my head on a timber, and got some sleep. On Sunday morning, May 8th,—it was not much like a Sabbath,—we were all staring sleepily about us, forlorn with dust and dirt. The road was full of the infantry, passing at a rapid rate; in light order they were, many without knapsacks, or coats: most had thrown away all baggage but a blanket and haversack. Then came batteries, then more infantry, all of the 5th Corps; the Second had not yet begun to pass. An old nigger made us some coffee and hoe-cake — very acceptable. . . .

*In a footnote taken from his journal entry of May 6, Lyman noted that on the day before, “Grant told Meade that Joe Johnston would have retreated after two such days’ punishment. He recognized the difference of the Western Rebel fighting.”

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 99-104 . Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.


More Reviews (April 16, 1864)

The headquarters of Joseph B. Carr in Culpeper, Virginia. Carr commanded the 3rd division of the III Corps but was transferred to the Army of the James just before the Overland Campaign began (Library of Congress).

The headquarters of Joseph B. Carr in Culpeper, Virginia. Carr commanded the 3rd division of the III Corps but was transferred to the Army of the James just before the Overland Campaign began. You can read more about this building and its fate here (Library of Congress).

General Grant returned yesterday. The papers will tell you I was present the other day when [Winfield Scott] Hancock reviewed Birney’s division, and the next day, when he reviewed [Joseph B.] Carr’s and [John] Gibbon’s divisions. These troops all looked splendidly, and seemed, officers and men, in fine spirits.

The reorganization, now that it is over, meets with universal approbation, and I believe I have gained great credit for the manner in which so disagreeable an operation was made acceptable to those concerned. Even General [David] Birney, of the smashed up Third Corps, is, I believe, reconciled.

How much I should like to see you all. At times I feel very despondent about the termination of this war and the prospect of my return, but I try to keep up my spirits and hope for the best.

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. 190. Available via Google Books.

Butterfield (March 20, 1864)

Daniel Buttefield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he "has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade's reputation under the fifth rib" (Library of Congress).

Daniel Butterfield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he “has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade’s reputation under the fifth rib” (Library of Congress).

No one can deny that George Meade had a knack for making enemies. One of them was Daniel Butterfield. Back in 1862 Ambrose Burnside appointed Butterfield to command the V Corps. Meade pointed out that he outranked Butterfield and the position should have been his. Burnside agreed, and Meade took over from Butterfield. He thought he and Butterfield smoothed things over afterwards, but apparently not. Joe Hooker later appointed Butterfield his chief of staff. “I believe Hooker is a good soldier,” Meade wrote to his wife back then; “the danger he runs is of subjecting himself to bad influences, such as Dan Butterfield and Dan Sickles, who, being intellectually more clever than Hooker, and leading him to believe they are very influential, will obtain an injurious ascendancy over him and insensibly affect his conduct.” Once Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac he tried to find someone to replace Butterfield as chief of staff, but he could not find anyone willing to take the job. When John Sedgwick heard that Butterfield would keep his position, the VI Corps commander “looked solemn and said he regretted it, that he knew Butterfield well, that he was a bold bad man and that Meade would live to regret it.” Sedgwick was right. When the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War began investigating Meade and Gettysburg, Butterfield, who had been sent west, traveled to Washington without leave to provide damaging testimony. He said that on July 2 Meade had told him to prepare an order directing the Army of the Potomac to retreat from the battlefield, a charge Meade vehemently denied.

I have received a letter from [John] Gibbon which has worried me a great deal. It is now evident that Butterfield, either intentionally or otherwise, misconstrued something that I said to him on the 2d of July into instructions to prepare an order to withdraw the army. To-be-sure, this order was never issued; it is also certain I never intended it to be prepared, much less issued. Nevertheless, the fact that he did prepare it, and, as he will swear, was ordered to do so, notwithstanding it was never issued, will operate against me, as people disposed to find fault will say I was all the time anticipating defeat, and hampered accordingly. God knows my conscience is clear that I never for a moment thought of retreating, although I presume I held in view the contingency that the enemy might compel me so to do, and I may have told Butterfield to familiarize himself with the roads, etc., so that if it became necessary we would be prepared to do it promptly and in good order. Out of this he has manufactured the lie that I intended at the time to do so. The falsehoods that have been uttered against me, and the evidence of a regular conspiracy which has been organizing almost since the date of the battle, make me heartsick. I believe now that Butterfield commenced deliberately, from the time I assumed command, to treasure up incidents, remarks and papers to pervert and distort in the future to my injury. How otherwise to account for his having a copy of this pretended order? Not only is no such order or paper found among the records of the Adjutant General’s Office, but the clerks and others have no recollection of any order.

It is hard that I am to suffer from the malice of such men as Sickles and Butterfield.

Grant is expected here next Wednesday. He spoke very fairly when here last, and from all I can hear of what he has said of me to others, I ought to be satisfied, as I understand he expressed every confidence in me, and said no change would be made in the command, as far as he was concerned. Still, he undoubtedly will have the power, and will exercise it, of bringing here such a force as will effect results that hitherto I have been unable to effect, and this will by the ignorant public be set down to his superior merit and quoted against me. However, I shall do my duty to the best of my ability, and trust to Providence.

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. 181-2. Available via Google Books.*

Continuing Silence (December 11, 1863)

In this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Prior to Ulysses S. Grant's promotion to general-in-chief, Birney had supported efforts to get Joe Hooker returned to command of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Two officers Meade mentions in his December 11 letter appear in this image taken at Cold Harbor in 1864. Winfield Scott Hancock (seated) poses with (left to right) Francis Barlow, David Birney, and John Gibbon. Prior to Ulysses S. Grant’s promotion to general-in-chief, Birney had supported efforts to get Joe Hooker returned to command of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Time passes and still Meade hears nothing from Washington after his failed Mine Run Campaign. As he frets, Meade speculates about potential successors. Joe Hooker, of course, was his predecessor as commander of the Army of the Potomac and there was a movement afoot to have Fighting Joe return to command. Thomas is George Thomas, who had received the nickname of “The Rock of Chickamauga” after his stand at that September battle helped prevent the complete rout of William Rosecrans’ army. Gibbon is John Gibbon, who commanded a division of the II Corps (and at times the entire II Corps) at Gettysburg. Winfield Scott Hancock had been the II Corps commander when not in charge of other corps as well as his own. Like Gibbon, he had been wounded on the third day at Gettysburg.

I have not heard a word from Washington, but from what I see in the papers, and what I hear from officers returning from Washington, I take it my supersedure is decided upon, and the only question is who is to succeed me. I understand the President and Secretary Chase are very anxious to bring Hooker back; but Halleck and Stanton will undoubtedly oppose this. A compromise may perhaps be made by bringing Thomas here, and giving Hooker Thomas’s army.

I have very kind letters from Gibbon and Hancock, both hoping I will not be relieved, and each saying they had not lost a particle of confidence in me. Many officers in the army have expressed the same feeling, and I really believe the voice of the army will sustain me. This, though, goes for nothing in Washington. I will not go to Washington to be snubbed by these people; they may relieve me, but I will preserve my dignity.

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. 160-1. Available via Google Books.

An Explanation (October 12, 1863)

Here Meade explains the current movements of his army. He also mentions how he wants to get promotions for John Buford, commander of the cavalry division that had slowed the Confederates at Gettysburg on July 1, and John Gibbon, the II Corps division commander who had also performed ably at Gettysburg (and been badly wounded on July 3).

On Saturday I found Lee was turning my right flank and assuming an offensive position. As to have remained where I was would have endangered my communications, I yesterday fell back to the Rappahannock. As I do not hear to-day anything of his movement on my right being continued, I have sent a force back towards Culpeper, to see whether he will give me battle at any point between the two rivers. If he will, I shall fight him at all hazards. At the present moment there is firing heard, but I have not received any report.

Brigadier General John Gibbon. He became a major general in June 1864 (Library of Congress).

Brigadier General John Gibbon. He became a major general in June 1864 (Library of Congress).

I have most earnestly, by special telegram, recommended Gibbon for promotion. Indeed, himself and Buford are the only two that I have urged in this special manner on the attention of the department. The difficulty is that there are no vacancies in the grade of major general, and several appointments have been made in excess of the number authorized by law.

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. 153. Available via Google Books.

Family Ties (February 1, 1863)

A view of Fredericksburg, taken in February 1863. So near, and yet so far.

A view of Fredericksburg, taken in February. So near, and yet so far. (Library of Congress)

The American Civil War is often characterized as being “brother against brother” and that was sometimes literally true. For example, General John Gibbon, whom Meade mentioned in his letter of January 28, had three brothers who fought for the Confederacy. Even under circumstances not quite so extreme, the conflict often divided families. Meade’s family is a case in point. His wife’s sister, Sarah, had married Henry Wise, who became governor of Virginia, signed John Brown’s death warrant, and served in the Army of Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Meade’s own sister, Elizabeth, had married a Virginia planter named Alfred Ingraham and moved to Mississippi with him. She became an ardent rebel. In June 1863 Union forces reached her home, Ashwood, during the Vicksburg campaign and generals John McClernand and James McPherson made their headquarters there. It’s not clear whether she told them that her brother commanded the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps.

On July 23, 1863, Elizabeth wrote to her brother. “My dear George,” she began, “We have been despoiled of everything, our crops ruined, our home literally gutted, but the Federal soldiers under Gen’l Grant & McClernand, Gen’l McPherson being in my parlor during a portion of the time & to whom I applied personally without effect.” Among the possessions she said the soldiers had ruined was their father’s desk. She wanted to a permit to cross the Federal lines with what possessions she still had. “My sons are dead,” she said, “Edward murdered at Farmington [MS] after he had surrendered, he’s buried near Corinth. Frank, killed at Chancellorsville on 3rd May, the very day this house was despoiled, is buried on Mary’s Hite, without even a winding sheet, it being one of the barbarous usages of this cruel & unnatural war to strip the dead—God help me.”

But those tragedies still lay in the future when Meade wrote to his wife on February 1, 1863, to tell her he had received word from his doomed nephew Frank, who was with Lee’s army at Fredericksburg. (Ned was Frank’s brother, who had died in Mississippi and Apolline his sister.)

The Franklin that Meade mentions is Major General William Franklin. A native of York, Pennsylvania, Franklin had commanded the left wing of the Army of the Potomac, to which Meade’s brigade belonged, at the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December. The Committee on the Conduct of the War now had Franklin in its sights.

Yesterday I received by the flag of truce, a note from Frank Ingraham, who says he is a private in the Twenty-first Mississippi Regiment, now at Fredericksburg. He says Ned was killed last spring, and that Apolline has lost her husband, who died from exposure in service; that his mother and the rest are all well, and wish to be remembered to his yankee relatives.

Major General William Franklin. After the Battle of Gettysburg he found himself the focus of Congressional attention. (Library of Congress)

Major General William Franklin. After the Battle of Gettysburg he found himself the focus of Congressional attention. (Library of Congress)

The weather continues most unfavorable, rain and mud are the order of the day, and in my judgment it will be some months before we can undertake operations of any magnitude. I am afraid, from what I see in the papers, that General Franklin is going to have trouble, for which I shall be truly sorry, for I really like Franklin.

Elizabeth’s letter is from Moore, Sue Burns, and Drake, Rebecca Blackwell, editors. Leaves: The Diary of Elizabeth Meade Ingraham, the Rebel Sister of General George Meade. Champion Hill Heritage Foundation, 2010.

Meade’s letter is taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 353. Available via Google Books.

“Fighting Joe” Takes Charge (January 28, 1863)

What follows is a letter that Meade wrote to his wife on January 28, 1863. It’s another fascinating look at the rumor and speculation that swirled among the upper echelons of the Army of the Potomac at this tumultuous time. Major General Joseph Hooker had just replaced Ambrose Burnside as the army’s commander. The Gibbon whom Meade mentions is General John Gibbon; Humphreys is Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, who would serve as Meade’s chief of staff after Gettysburg.

hooker standing

A carte de visite taken of Major General Joseph Hooker sometime in 1862. (Library of Congress)

Your anxiety lest I should be placed in command of the army causes me to smile. Still, I must confess when such men as Gibbon say it is talked about, it really does look serious and alarming; yet, when I look back on the good fortune which has thus far attended my career, I cannot believe so sudden a change for the worse can occur as would happen if I were placed in command. I think, therefore, we may for the present dismiss our fears on that score. General Hooker has been two days in Washington. I am looking anxiously for his return to hear what will be the result. Before he was placed in command he was open-mouthed and constant in his assertions that he did not want to command, and that he would not command unless he was perfectly untrammeled and allowed in every respect to do exactly as he pleased. Now, I am quite confident no such conditions will be acceded to in Washington. Hence, either “Fighting Joe” will have to back down or some one else will be sent to take the command. From my knowledge of friend Hooker, I am inclined to surmise the former will be the case. But even supposing they give him carte-blanche, his position is anything but enviable. This army is in a false position, both as regards the enemy and the public. With respect to the enemy, we can literally do nothing, and our numbers are inadequate to the accomplishment of any result even if we go to the James River. On the other hand, the wise public are under the delusion that we are omnipotent, and that it is only necessary to go ahead to achieve unheard-of success. Of course, under such circumstances, neither Csesar, Napoleon nor any other mighty genius could fail to meet with condemnation, never mind what he did, and Hooker, I fancy, will find in time his fate in the fate of his predecessors, namely, undue and exaggerated praise before he does anything, and a total absence of reason and intelligence in the discussion of his acts when he does attempt anything, and a denial of even ordinary military qualifications unless he achieves impossibilities. Such being the case, he certainly is not to be envied. I think when his head is cut off, the Administration will try a general of their own kidney, either Fremont, Hunter or some other. Of course, so long as Hooker is absent, I continue in command of the Centre Grand Division, but I am more and more inclined to believe that his visit to Washington will result in the abolition of the grand-division system altogether, and the return to corps alone. I hope I shall retain the Fifth Corps, as it is one of the best, including as it does the regulars.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

Humphreys has gone to Washington. I believe I wrote you he behaved with distinguished gallantry at Fredericksburg. It appears that soon after the battle, Burnside told him both the President and Secretary assured him solemnly that Humphreys should be immediately promoted. He now finds a long list sent to the Senate, including such names as Butterfield, Sickles, Berry and others, who have really done nothing, while his name is omitted, and he cannot hear that there is any record in the Department going to show he has ever even been thought of. Under these circumstances he is naturally very indignant. This is all entre nous. Just as I had gotten thus far, I heard Hooker had returned, and notwithstanding it is storming and snowing violently, I rode three miles to his headquarters to see him, and have just returned. He seemed in excellent spirits, said they had treated him “en prince” in Washington, and told him he had only to ask and he should have what he wanted. He did not tell me his plans, but intimated that as soon as the weather and the roads permitted he was prepared to try something.

Meade’s letters 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. 351-353. Available via Google Books.