Slowness and Want of Detail (December 1, 1863)

"Scene at Germanna Ford--6th Corps returning from Mine Run" by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

“Scene at Germanna Ford–6th Corps returning from Mine Run” by Alfred Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

And so ends Meade’s Mine Run campaign. Theodore Lyman details the Army of the Potomac’s return to camp.

As I put my head out of my tent this morning, I beheld the heavy guns going to the rear, and I thought, well, we shall follow to-night. And so we did. The 1st Corps marched, in the afternoon, to Germanna Ford and halted, to hold the crossing. At dark the 5th marched, by the turnpike, followed by the 6th; and the 3d, followed by the 2d, took the plank road to Culpeper Ford. There was a piercing cold wind, the roads were frozen, and ice was on the pools; but the night was beautiful, with a lovely moon, that rose over the pine trees, and really seemed to me to be laughing derisively at our poor doughboys, tramping slowly along the road. Just at sunset I rode to the front and took a last look at the Rebels. Through my glass they looked almost near enough to speak to, as they stood, in groups of a dozen, and twenty, on the parapet of their breastworks. Some were on the glacis, seeking, I suppose, for firewood for their camps, whose smoke rose in a thin line, as far as the eye could reach, on either side. The Headquarters waited for some time at Robertson’s Tavern, till the 5th Corps had passed, and then followed on. The road was horribly rough, full of great holes and big stones. We crawled, at a snail’s pace, till we got clear of the troops, and then the General slammed ahead at a rate that threatened the legs of all our horses; and which gave two or three officers most awful falls on the frozen ground. At 2 oclock this morning {December 2) we crossed the Rapid Ann, and were glad to roll ourselves in our blankets in the same camp we had the night of the 26th. And so ends what I think I shall call the Great Seven-days’ Flank. If you ask what were the causes of failure, they lie in a nutshell — Slowness and want of Detail. We have fought for two years and a half, but it takes no wiseacre to see that we yet have much to learn. Were it not for the remarkable intelligence of the men, we could not do even as well as we do. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 58-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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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.

Preparing for the Assault (November 29, 1863)

Once again Theodore Lyman provides our narrative. Gouverneur Warren,  with his own II Corps and a portion of the VI, prepares to outflank Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren. Library of Congress photo.During the Mine Run campaign he commanded the II Corps while Winfield Scott Hancock recovered from his Gettysburg wound.

I rode to and along our front to see the enemy’s position, which is a fearfully strong one. Within about a mile of our position, there runs a high, gradually sloping ridge, which trends in a northerly and southerly direction, and crosses the turnpike at right angles, where it is naked, though to the right and left it is wooded in some parts. Between this and a parallel high ground, occupied by us, is a shallow ravine, in which was a small stream, Mine Run. Along their ridge the Rebels have thrown up a heavy and continuous breastwork, supported by entrenched batteries; and, in some places at least, they probably have a second line. Any troops, advancing to the assault, would be exposed to a heavy artillery fire from the very outset, over the space of a mile, besides having to encounter the still worse musketry at the end. At daylight this morning, General Warren, with his own corps and a division of the 6th, marched towards our extreme left, where, it was understood, the right of the enemy could be turned. His attack was to be a signal for attacking in other places on the line. However, despite that the rain had ceased, the bad roads delayed a good deal, and a false report of entrenchments delayed more; so that, when he got there, after driving in an outlying force, the day was too far advanced for an attack. Major Ludlow, however, came back with a fine account from General Warren of the prospects, and all things were made ready for an assault, next day. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 55-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Eve of Battle (November 25, 1863)

Newspaper vendors with the Army of the Potomac in November 1863 in a photography by Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress).

Newspaper vendors with the Army of the Potomac in November 1863 in a photography by Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress).

Both Meade and Theodore Lyman took the time to write letters home on November 25. For the Army of the Potomac it was the eve of battle—the start of the ill-fated Mine Run campaign. Meade felt he had one last chance to strike a major blow before winter put an end to campaigning for the season. Weather was on the mind of both men on November 25, which underscores how much of an impact it had on the performances of Civil War armies. The year had begun with Ambrose Burnsides’ disastrous “Mud March,” and obviously Meade preferred not to repeat that episode.

Yesterday it stormed, which required a postponement of the contemplated movement. I was going to advance to-morrow, and may yet do so, although at present the sky is overcast and threatening. It is of the utmost importance to the success of any movement to have good weather, particularly at this season of the year, when the roads, after a day’s rain, become impassable. I think if I advance we shall have a great and decisive battle, with what result, He who reigns above alone can tell in advance. My army is in excellent condition and in high spirits, and confident of success, if they can get anything of a fair chance, and so far as mortals can anticipate such doubtful matters as battles, I have a right to be hopeful. Let us trust it may please God to crown our efforts with victory, and to extend to me, as He has hitherto so signally done, His mercy and protection.

George is quite well; he has been occupied, taking care of the English Guardsmen, who are so pleased with their visit they are remaining to see the fight.

 Here’s Lyman’s view of events from the same day.

I write a line, merely to say that the entire army is under marching orders, for daylight to-morrow; the men in high spirits. As to the officers, you would suppose they were all going on a merrymaking, to hear them when the order was issued. Our object is to fight the enemy, which I pray we may do, and with success, but Dieu dispose.

Our stopper has been the weather, which to-night promises to be set fair, and the roads are passable, though not good. I wish some critics, who complain of our inactivity, could be compelled to take a soldier’s load and march twenty miles through this mud. Their next article would, I think, clearly set forth the necessity of doing nothing till the driest of weather.

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. 156. 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. 50-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.