A Review (April 13, 1864)

The home of John Minor Botts, site of the II Corps review that Theodore Lyman writes about (Library of Congress).

The home of John Minor Botts, site of the II Corps review that Theodore Lyman writes about (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman writes home on April 13, 1864, and describes his first impressions of Winfield Scott Hancock and Philip Sheridan. We have encountered John Minor Botts before. David Birney now commands a division in Hancock’s II Corps. The brigade commanders are Hobart Ward and Alexander Hays.

Philip Sheridan was the army’s new head of cavalry. He and Meade will develop a rancorous relationship. “Little Phil” had commanded cavalry for a grand total of only about three months during his military career, but he had served under Grant in the West and the new general in chief liked his aggressive nature. “He was brusque, demanding, profane, and unforgiving,” wrote biographer Roy Morris Jr. “He was also hardworking, patriotic, uncomplaining, and brave.” He was a hard fighter on the battlefield and was equally aggressive at furthering his own reputation.

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

We went to a review of Birney’s Division near J. M. Bott’s house. The two brigades are under H. Ward and Alex. Hays. About 5000 men were actually on the ground. Here saw General Hancock for the first time. He is a tall, soldierly man, with light-brown hair and a military heavy jaw; and has the massive features and the heavy folds round the eye that often mark a man of ability. Then the officers were asked to take a little whiskey chez Botts. Talked there with his niece, a dwarfish little woman of middle age, who seems a great invalid. She was all of a tremor, poor woman, by the mere display of troops, being but nervous and associating them with the fighting she had seen round the very house. Then there was a refreshment at Birney’s Headquarters, where met Captain Briscoe (said to be the son of an Irish nobleman, etc., etc.); also Major Mitchell on General Hancock’s Staff. The Russ was delighted with the politeness and pleased with the troops. Introduced to General Sheridan, the new Chief of Cavalry — a small, broad-shouldered, squat man, with black hair and a square head. He is of Irish parents, but looks very like a Piedmontese. General Wilson, who is probably to have a division, is a slight person of a light complexion and with rather a pinched face. Sheridan makes everywhere a favorable impression.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 80-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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“Tough and Unterrified” (November 13, 1863)

There are no letters from Meade for a while, but on November 13 Theodore Lyman weighs in with his observations on the Army of the Potomac after the victory at Rappahannock Station. He also runs into an old friend, whose experiences demonstrate how tough life could be for a Union man in Virginia.

John Minor Botts (Library of Congress).

John Minor Botts (Library of Congress).

Here we continue to dwell in our pine wood, in grave content, consuming herds of cattle and car-loads of bread with much regularity. Yesterday, who should turn up but John Minor Botts, the tough and unterrified. [We met Botts here.] The Rebs treated him pretty badly this time, because he invited General Meade to dine; burnt his fences, shot his cattle and took all his corn and provisions, and finally arrested him and took him as far as Culpeper, but there concluded he was a hot potato and set him free. He was inclined to pitch into us, for not following sharper after the Rebs on Sunday morning, that is, the day after we forced the river. He said the first of their waggons did not pass his house till two at night and the rear of the column not till ten next morning; that the roads were choked with footmen, guns, cavalry and ambulances, all hurrying for the Rapid Ann. In good sooth I suppose that a shade more mercury in the feet of some of our officers might do no harm; but, on the other hand, it is to be noticed that we had excellent reason to expect, and believe, that they would not run, but only retire to the ridges near Brandy Station and there offer battle. In this case, the premature hurrying forward of a portion of the troops might well have ruined the day. All of which reminds me of Colonel Locke’s remark: “If we were omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, we might, with care, get a very pretty fight out of the Rebs!” As it was, what we did do was done as scientifically as any army in the world could have done it, and with a minimum loss of life. I do assure you that Rappahannock station was a position where thousands of men might have been destroyed, with no gain whatsoever, if managed by unskilful officers; and even Kelly’s Ford was not without serious difficulties. I don’t recollect whether I told you that the enemy had made preparations for nice winter quarters, and were hutting themselves and had made some capital corduroy roads against the mud season. In one hut was found a half-finished letter, from an officer to his wife, in which he said that the Yanks had gone into winter quarters, and that they were doing the same, so that he expected a nice quiet time for some months. Poor man! The Yanks made themselves very comfortable that same evening in his new cabin. Our future movements, or standing still, lie between the General and the weather. Meantime we have to pause a little, for there isn’t a thing to eat in this broad land, and every pound of meat and quart of oats for tens of thousands of men and animals must come by a broken railroad from Alexandria. . . . The Palatinate, during the wars of Louis XIV, could scarcely have looked so desolate as this country. The houses that have not been actually burnt usually look almost worse than those that have: so dreary are they with their windows without sashes, and their open doors, and their walls half stripped of boards. Hundreds of acres of stumps show where once good timber stood, and the arable fields are covered with weeds and blackberry vines, or with the desolate marks of old camps — the burnt spots, where the fires were, the trenches cut round the tents, and the poles, and old bones and tin pots that invariably lie about. . . .

As you walk about the country, you often see fragments of shell scattered around; for all this country has been fought over, back and forth, either in skirmishes or battles; and here and there, you come on a little ridge of earth, marked by a bit of board, on which is scrawled the name of the soldier, who lies where he fell, in this desert region. Our people are very different from the Europeans in their care for the dead, and mark each grave with its name; even in the heat of battle.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 46-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Busy (September 19, 1863)

John Minor Botts and family pose for a photograph on the porch of their house in Culpeper. Meade and his staff were frequent visitors here (Library of Congress).

John Minor Botts and family pose for a photograph on the porch of their house in Culpeper. Meade and his staff were frequent visitors here (Library of Congress).

Meade mentions John Minor Botts in his letter of September 19, 1863. Theodore Lyman talks about Botts in his journal entry from the same day. Lyman said Botts was “a fat man, with a mild blue eye, and his clothing seemed to show the world had gone hard with him.” In fact, the world had gone somewhat hard with Botts, who was an island of Unionism on a sea of secession. A Virginia native, Botts was a Whig politician and former U.S. Congressman and had been briefly jailed by the Confederate authorities because of his staunch pro-Union position.

In his memoir, The Great Rebellion: Its Secret History, Rise, Progress, and Disastrous Failure (1866, and available via Google Books), Botts describes how he bought his house in Culpeper and the tribulations he suffered there. “I purchased in the fall of 1862, and moved to the county on the 8th of January, 1863; but I had hardly gotten comfortably warm in the house before General J. E. B. Stuart came in with his whole cavalry force, took possession of every part of my premises (of 2200 acres), except my house, yard, and garden, turned his horses loose to graze in every field, to the exclusion of my own stock, which was left at the mercy of his highly-incensed command, without any effort or desire on his part to restrain them. They killed my hogs, drove off portions of my cattle with their own whenever they moved, and stole from me $50,000 worth of horses, at Confederate prices, and in Confederate money. Daily and hourly I was subjected to all sorts of vexatious annoyances. I had neither peace nor rest, day nor night, from the time this cavalry force came upon me until the arrival of the Federal army under General Meade in the month of September, except during the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, from both of which they came immediately back to take care of me.

“General Meade moved into Culpepper on the 12th of September, 1863, and General Stuart moved back at double-quick across the Rapidan.”

Meade saw a fair amount of Botts until the army moved out on the Overland Campaign in May 1864. On one occasion Lyman said this about the Virginian: “Botts is a ready witted, clear headed man, and entertaining to hear.”

The Beckham Meade mentions is Robert F. Beckham, who had served under him on the survey of Lake Superior just before the war. Beckham threw in his lot with the Confederacy and commanded a battery of J.E.B. Stuart’s horse artillery. The Pendleton he mentions is probably Nathanael Greene Pendleton of Ohio, formerly a Whig Congressman. Meade’s wife’s father, John Sergeant, had also been a Whig politician. Pendleton’s son was Ohio Congressman George H. Pendleton, an anti-war Democrat who ran as George McClellan’s vice presidential candidate in the election of 1864.

The Botts family in Culpeper. Theodore Lyman described the Botts daughters as "pleasing, somewhat countryfied young ladies" (Library of Congress).

The Botts family in Culpeper. Theodore Lyman described the Botts daughters as “pleasing, somewhat countryfied young ladies” (Library of Congress).

At present I am very busy. I made the advance I did under the belief that Lee had sent away a large portion of his army, and would perhaps, if threatened, retire to Richmond. I find, however, he evinces no disposition to do so, but is, on the contrary, posted in a very strong position behind the Rapidan, where he can hold me in check, and render it very difficult to pierce his line or turn his position. Under these circumstances I have referred the question to Washington.

John Minor Botts (Library of Congress).

John Minor Botts (Library of Congress).

To-day John Minor Botts, who lives in this vicinity, came to see me and told me Beckham had been at his house a few days ago (before we advanced), and spoke in the most enthusiastic terms of me; so that Beckham is not changed. A Mr. Pendleton also, who was in Congress and knew your father, called, and spoke of Mr. Joseph R. Ingersoll, who had been at his house. Both these gentlemen are Union men.

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. 150. Available via Google Books.