Father and Son (March 29, 1864)

Alfred Waud sketched the Union signal position that Meade and his son saw on Pony Mountain (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud sketched the Union signal position that Meade and his son saw on Pony Mountain (Library of Congress).

George Meade continues to enjoy his time with son Spencer.

Of the officers he mentions in this letter, George Sykes will head west to take command of the Department of Kansas. John Newton, whom Meade had assigned to command of the I Corps over Abner Doubleday at Gettysburg, will command a division in William Sherman’s army. William French’s days of combat are over; he will serve as an administrator for the rest of the war. Why Meade fought to retain him after French’s failures at Mine Run is a bit of a mystery. Alfred Pleasonton will also head west to command cavalry in the Department of the Missouri.

In Washington, Daniel Buttefield spreads the story that Meade planned to retreat from Gettysburg.

Spencer and the Whipple boys continue to enjoy themselves. Yesterday was a fine day, and they rode over with me to Hancock’s, some five miles. We then rode to Culpeper Court House, five miles, where I met General Grant, just from Washington. After which we returned to headquarters, a distance of six miles, making in all sixteen miles for the day’s riding. En route the boys ascended Pony Mountain, a hill of some five hundred feet elevation, near Culpeper, on which we have a signal station and a fine telescope, and from whence you have a good view of the country, the rebel lines, camps, etc. At night Pennie was pretty well fatigued. But this morning he was up bright and early, and started with me, before eight o’clock, to go to Culpeper, where General Grant reviewed two divisions of infantry, and one of cavalry. It commenced to rain, however, during the review, which curtailed the ceremonies, and after spending an hour with Grant, we returned home in the rain. I borrowed an India rubber poncho for Pennie, so that he came back dry, but on the way his horse, and Willie Whipple’s, became excited and started off with them at full speed. The boys, however, kept their seats beautifully till George and an orderly headed off the horses and stopped them.

Grant continues very affable and quite confidential. He laughs at the statement in the papers of his remarks about balls, etc., and says he will be happy to attend any innocent amusement we may get up, he including among these horse races, of which he is very fond.

I join with you in the regret expressed at the relief of Sykes. I tried very hard to retain Sykes, Newton, and even French, as division commanders, but without avail. I had very hard work to retain Sedgwick. As to Pleasanton, his being relieved was entirely the work of Grant and Stanton.

I hear Butterfield has been swearing terribly against me. I shall go up day after to-morrow to meet his charges.

It is storming now violently.

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. 185. Available via Google Books.

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Reorganizing (March 24, 1865)

Taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, this image shows Meade with his corps commanders. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in command of the II Corps, William French (III Corps), Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and George Skyes (V Corps).

Taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, this image shows Meade with his corps commanders. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in command of the II Corps, William French (III Corps), Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and George Skyes (V Corps). Now French and Sykes are out and Warren has command of the V Corps (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

I have been very busy to-day. The much-talked-of order for reorganizing the Army of the Potomac has at last appeared. Sykes, French and Newton are relieved. Sedgwick, Hancock and Warren command the three corps. This evening an order has arrived relieving General Pleasanton, which, although I did not originate it, yet was, I presume, brought about by my telling the Secretary that the opposition I had hitherto made to his removal I no longer should make. As the Secretary has been desirous of relieving him ever since I have had command, and I have been objecting, he has taken the first chance to remove him as soon as my objections were withdrawn.

Grant arrived to-day. I met him at the depot near my headquarters and accompanied him to Culpeper, where I spent several hours and returned. He was as affable as ever, and seems not at all disposed to interfere with my army in any details.

I hear Butterfield is in Washington, and is going to swear that I told him to prepare an order to retreat, and from what Gibbon writes me, it is evident he did prepare such an order; but I trust by the concurrent testimony of every other officer on the field, the documentary evidence in the shape of orders at different periods of the day, and my own sworn statement, to prove that the preparation of this order was not authorized by me, and that it was due to Butterfield’s own fears. I understand the Secretary is very indignant at his coming to Washington, and has ordered him back to his post.

Get the last number of the Spirit of the Times, in which there is a scathing article on Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Schofield and myself, and lauding, as usual, Joe Hooker.

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. 182-3. Available via Google Books.

Moral Courage (November 30, 1863)

Alfred Waud titled this sketch "Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run--opposite Warrens last position." Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee's entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud titled this sketch “Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run–opposite Warrens last position.” Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee’s entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

We continue with an account by Theodore Lyman as he details the climax—the anti-climax actually—of George Meade’s Mine Run campaign. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, Gouverneur Warren had planned to launch his offensive the next morning, with an artillery barrage signaling the start of the attack. Warren would go in at 8:00, and then John Sedgwick, on the opposite end of Robert E. Lee’s line, would begin his movement. The guns began roaring on time at 8:00, but at 8:50 Capt. Washington Roebling (of later Brooklyn Bridge fame) came galloping up to Meade’s headquarters with a message from Warren. Meade read it. “My God!” he exclaimed. “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!”

Warren had carefully surveyed the enemy position opposite his and decided, on his own authority, that the Confederates had strengthened it so much during the night that it was now much too strong to attack.

The Mine Run defenses did appear strong indeed. Chaplain Alexander Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania felt certain an attack on them would lead to a great loss of life. The men in his regiment agreed, and as the day passed they came to him and filled his pockets with all the mementos of the lives they expected would soon end—money, photographs, rings, watches. Some soldiers began pinning their names to their coats so their bodies could be identified. What impressed Stewart, though, was that despite the terrible odds, these soldiers were still willing to go into battle.

Lt. Col. Charles H. Morgan of the II Corps staff suspected that many officers shared their soldiers’ misgivings but kept their doubts to themselves. One picket from the 1st Minnesota, not realizing that Morgan was an officer, didn’t hide anything. He told Morgan the enemy position was “a damned sight worse than Fredericksburg” and added, “I am going as far as I can travel; but we can’t get more than two-thirds of the way up the hill.”

Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, at the other end of the Union line with Sedgwick’s VI Corps, studied the Confederate defenses with great interest because there seemed a pretty fair chance that he would soon be testing them personally. “There was a deep creek between us and the enemy, and the rebels had been busy digging rifle-pits and strengthening their position ever since we came up to them,” he wrote. “Both banks were abrupt and steep and difficult to get over, while on the rebel side they had added to these disadvantages by placing every conceivable obstacle in the way of our advance. Trees were felled, abattis made, breastworks were thrown up until they occupied a position that if we had occupied we should have considered impregnable against all the rebels in the universe.”

After consulting with Warren and examining the defenses for himself, Meade reluctantly agreed with his subordinate’s opinion—attacking Lee’s position here would be nothing more than a useless slaughter, another Fredericksburg. Meade suspected someone else would have to take the responsibility for renewing the war against the Army of Northern Virginia, because he expected to be removed from command for canceling his attack.

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, and chief of staff Andrew Humphreys (Library of Congress).

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and the V Corps’ George Sykes (Library of Congress).

Almost before daylight our waggons were loaded and away, for the Headquarters are only a few hundred yards in the rear of our heavy guns and directly on the road, so that we expected a nice lot of shells, say at 8.10 A.m. A little before that the General mounted and rode towards General [John] Newton’s quarters, and, while near there, bang! went a cannon on the right; then boom! boom! from the 32 pounders, and then, bang, boom, bang, pretty generally. In all the woods the troops were massed for the attack, waiting orders. We rode back to Headquarters, and, a moment after, Captain [Augustus] Roebling from General Warren’s Staff, galloped up. He is the most immovable of men, but had, at that moment, rather a troubled air. He handed a scrap of paper. General Meade opened it and his face changed. “My God!” he said, “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!” Roebling shrugged his shoulders. The note was to the effect that General Warren had made a careful examination of the enemy’s works, had altered his opinion of last evening, and considered an assault hopeless!!! Orders were at once issued to cease firing. We tried to take it all philosophically, but it was hard, very hard. Most of all to General Meade and General [Andrew] Humphreys, who really took it admirably, for both of them have excellent tempers of their own, which, on occasions, burst forth, like twelve-pounder spherical case. In a little while the General again rode away; this time to see General Warren, some four miles off. Two aides, besides myself, went with him. We rode along the rear of our batteries, which were still, from time to time, exchanging shots with those opposite; though not when I chanced to be passing, I am happy to say. General Warren had a sad face, as well he might. He drew aside, with the two other generals, and there they stood, in long consultation, over a fire which had been made for them, for the air was sharp. Then we started back again, stopping half-way at General [William] French’s, whom we found in a fuming passion, partly because two of his divisions had been, in some way, put under guidance of General Warren, and partly because he was all ready for the assault and had pushed his skirmish line to within 300 yards of the Rebel works, while the storming parties were in a great rage at not being led on. Alas! it was of no use; General Humphreys, with a heavy sigh, pronounced the opportunity (if it had ever existed) now past; and, when he cries no fight, you may be sure there is not much chance. At a meeting that evening, the other generals concurred. It was physically impossible to flank any more on either side, and the only thing that remained was:

The King of France with forty thousand men,
Marched up a hill; and then marched down again.

Wherever the fault lies, I shall always be astonished at the extraordinary moral courage of General Meade, which enabled him to order a retreat, when his knowledge, as an engineer and a soldier, showed that an attack would be a blunder. The men and guns stood ready: he had only to snap his fingers, and that night would probably have seen ten thousand wretched, mangled creatures, lying on those long slopes, exposed to the bitter cold, and out of reach of all help! Then people would have said: “He was unsuccessful; but then he tried hard, and did not get out.”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 56-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

An Army in Motion (October 19, 1863)

Brig. Gen. John Buford (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. John Buford (Library of Congress).

There’s no letter from Meade for October 19, but once again Theodore Lyman steps into the breach to provide a detailed account of the Army of the Potomac during what became known as the Bristoe Campaign. The “Rebel regiment of horse” he mentions was none other than Jeb Stuart, who had found himself trapped between two sections of Meade’s army late on October 13. He spent the night hidden in some woods a mere 400 yards from a division of the II Corps, opened up with his horse artillery in the morning, and then escaped.

Lyman also mentions one of the Union’s best cavalrymen, John Buford. When he first encountered Buford, Lyman described him as “a compactly built man of middle height, with a tawny moustache and a little, triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to say sinister. His ancient corduroys are tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots, and his blue blouse is ornamented with holes; from one pocket thereof peeps a huge pipe, while the other is fat with a tobacco pouch. Notwithstanding this get-up he is a very soldierly looking man. He is of a good-natured disposition, but not to be trifled with.”

The attack on Warren’s rear that Lyman mentions is the Battle of Bristoe Station. “Poor Paul Revere” was the grandson of the famed midnight rider. He had been killed at Gettysburg. The 20th Massachusetts was also known as “the Harvard Regiment.”

Lyman also provides a good look at Meade and the general’s gunpowder disposition. Nothing ticked him off more than wagon trains blocking the army’s progress, as Lyman describes here.

The bracketed portion of the text is how it appears in Meade’s Headquarters.

It seems to me I had got to Sunday morning, the 11th, when we began to march back. We started from Headquarters and passed through Brandy Station, forded the Rappahannock, close to the railroad, and took up our camp near the railroad and about two miles from the river. . . . This move, though in the wrong direction, was, without question, a good one, as it bothered the enemy and caused them to hesitate. … In the morning we got off about ten (for the General does not mount till he has heard that the army is properly under way) and rode along the north side of the railroad, past the camp I first came to (H.Q. near Warrenton Junction), and so to Catlett’s Station, where we found the 1st Corps taking their noon rest; also their chief, General Newton, and General (Professor) Eustis, partaking from a big basket. A spy came in also, who gave such information as showed that the Rebels had made less rapid progress than we supposed. Going a mile or two on, we saw a spectacle such as few even of the old officers had ever beheld; namely, 2500 waggons, all parked on a great, open, prairie-like piece of ground, hundreds of acres in extent. I can compare it to nothing but the camp of Attila, where he retreated after the “Hun Schlacht,” which we saw at the Berlin Museum. They were here got together, to be sent off to the right, by Brentsville, to Fairfax Station, under escort of General Buford’s division. How these huge trains are moved over roads not fit for a light buggy, is a mystery known only to General Rufus Ingalls, who treats them as if they were so many perambulators on a smooth sidewalk! We turned off to a house, two miles from Catlett’s, and again pitched our movable houses, on a rocky bit of a field. . . .

At daylight next morning, every corps was in motion, tramping diligently in the direction of the heights of Centreville, via Manassas Junction. We of the Staff had hardly dressed, when there was a great cracking of carbines in the woods, not a mile off, and we discovered that a Rebel regiment of horse had coolly camped there during the night, and were now engaged with our cavalry, who soon drove them away. Pretty soon the sound of cannon, in the direction of Auburn, announced that the Rebels, marching down from Warrenton, had attacked General Warren’s rear. He, however, held them in check easily with one division, while the other two marched along, passing our Headquarters at 9.30 A.m. As they went on, I recognized the Massachusetts 20th, poor Paul Revere’s regiment. And so we jogged, General Meade (who has many a little streak of gunpowder in his disposition) continually bursting out against his great bugbear, the waggons; and sending me, at full gallop, after General Sykes, who was a hundred miles, or so, ahead, to tell him that the rear of his ambulance train was quite unprotected. . . . The 15th was employed in feeling the intentions of the enemy and resting the exhausted men. On the 16th came on a deluge of rain which spoiled our contemplated move next day. On the 18th, yesterday, we got some information of reliable character for the first time, viz: that they had torn up the railroad and were falling back on Warrenton. Before that there was every kind of report: that they were going up the Shenandoah Valley; marching on Washington, and falling back on Richmond; and they keep so covered by cavalry, that it is most difficult to probe them. Thus far in the move they have picked up about as many prisoners as we, say 700; but we have the five guns and two colors, they having none. To-day we all marched out at daylight, and are now hard after them, the General praying for a battle. Our cavalry has been heavily engaged this afternoon, and they may make a stand, or indeed, they may not. I think I was never so well and strong in my life. General Buford came in to-day, cold and tired and wet; “Oh!” said he to me, “do you know what I would do if I were a volunteer aide? I would just run home as fast as I could, and never come back again!” The General takes his hardships good-naturedly.

[The result of the manoeuvres brought the army toward Washington, which caused uneasiness and dissatisfaction at the Capitol. “At Centreville,” writes Lyman, “we had a set-to between Meade and Halleck. Meade had asked, by telegraph, for some advice, and stated that he was not sufficiently assured of the enemy’s position to risk an advance; so conflicting were the reports. Halleck, apparently after dinner, replied in substance, ‘Lee is plainly bullying you. If you can’t find him, I can’t. If you go and fight him, you will probably find him!’ General Meade, much offended, prepared a reply in some such words as these: ‘If you have any orders, I am ready to obey them; but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in guise of opinions as I have recently been favored with. If my course is not satisfactory, I ought to be and I desire to be relieved.’ He had written ‘bunsby opinions,’ and consulted me as to whether it would do; to which I replied that the joke was capital, but not in accordance with the etiquette of a commander-in-chief; so he substituted the other. Poor General Meade! Said he, ‘I used to think how nice it would be to be Commander-inChief; now, at this moment, I would sooner go, with a division, under the heaviest musketry fire, than hold my place!’“ Lee, finding that he could not outflank Meade, fell back, and Halleck apologized.]

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 33-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Have you read Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg yet? If not, you can buy it here!

Visiting (September 6, 1863)

There is no letter from General Meade on September 6, but Theodore Lyman does write home. He documents a visit to Maj. Gen. George Sykes, who had replaced Meade as the head of the V Corps when Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. Humphreys is Andrew Humphreys, now serving as Meade’s chief of staff.

General George Sykes. (Library of Congress photo.)

General George Sykes. (Library of Congress photo.)

I promised to tell you how I invited General Meade to go with me and see General Sykes. If I didn’t know anything, I looked like a Commander-in-Chief, for I had the best horse and the best accoutrements, and as for clothes, General Meade was nowhere; besides which, he had no sword, while I had. The cavalry escort reminded me exactly of the Guides that go with the little Prince along the rue de Rivoli. No two of them had caps alike, none had their jackets buttoned; all were covered with half an inch of dust, and all eschewed straps to their pantaloons. Nevertheless, had the Rebs appeared, I should have preferred these informal cavaliers to the Guides. Each man had a sabre with a rusty scabbard, and a revolver hung at his belt. They all ride well, and would be handsome horsemen, if “got up.”

General Humphreys, with his usual bland smile, appeared on a small gray, which was of a contrary and rearing disposition; but the General remarked, with the air of an injured man, that he had had three valuable horses killed under him in battle, and now he should only get cheap ones. General Meade, whose saddle-flap was ornamented with a bullet-hole within an inch of his leg, was mounted on a small bay. And so we jingled off; sometimes in the road, sometimes in the open fields, sometimes in the woods and sometimes through creeks and mudholes. The Chief rides in a most aggravating way, neither at a walk nor a gallop, but at a sort of amble, which bumps you and makes you very uncomfortable. … In due season we got to the 5th Corps Headquarters, near the Rappahannock, which is a very narrow affair at this point, and not over four feet deep on the shallowest fords. General Sykes looks a little like the photograph of General Lyon and has a very thick head of hair, which stands up like Traddles’s. He is a mild, steady man, and very polite, like all the officers I have seen down here. Indeed, a more courteous set of men it would be hard to find. I have yet to meet a single gruffy one. They are of all sorts, some well educated, others highly Bowery, but all entirely civil. . . . The astute Sykes talked some time with the Chief, and then we rode to the Headquarters of General [John] Newton, who commands the 1st Corps, hard by. This chieftain had a very gorgeous tent, erected for the express accommodation of Mrs. Newton, who, however, was soon driven forth by the general order excluding all ladies from the lines; and the tent was all that remained to remind one of her presence. General Newton also has a thick head of hair, and is a tall and finely built man and “light complected.” He was in great glee over a tệte-de-pont he had erected, and hoped to decoy some unfortunate Rebels to within range of it. He produced a huge variety of liquids which I had to refuse. The drinks I have refused will be a burden on my conscience in time to come. They come from all sides and in great variety, even champagne! . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 8-9.Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.