White Oak Road (March 31, 1865)

Theodore Lyman describes the fighting along the White Oak Road on March 31. The little battlefield today is another of the Civil War Trust’s success stories and includes some trails that wind through the woods on both sides of the road, with markers among the trees that explain the action. Lee rode out here to supervise the fighting, knowing that the White Oak Road was an important supply line for his army. The rebels smashed into the Federal flank, forcing back the divisions of Romeyn Ayres and Samuel Crawford, but the Union soldiers counterattacked and pushed the rebels back to their earthworks. With the White Oak Road in Union hands, the Confederates off to the west around an intersection called Five Forks were now separated from the rest of the army. Charlie Mills had served with the 56th Massachusetts and on the staffs of several generals. The Abbott to whom Lyman refers is Henry Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts, killed in the Wilderness.

076The rain held up about ten a.m. and the sun once more shone. By this time our lines, running east and west, had been moved due north, till they rested their right on Hatcher’s Run, north of the Crow house, and their left on the Boydton plank, near the entrance of the Quaker road. For this purpose Ayres’s and Crawford’s divisions were pushed forward and Griffin held in reserve. We rode out, towards the left (our Headquarters were near the Vaughan road close to Gravelly Run), stopping some time to consult with Grant. About 10.30 we heard a brief fusillade on the right of our line (a demonstration to divert our attention), followed by heavy musketry towards the White Oak road. As we came to Warren’s old Headquarters, high up on the Quaker road, I could see something had gone wrong. A cavalry officer galloped up and said: “I must have more men to stop these stragglers! the road is full of them.” And indeed there were those infernal drummers, and pack-mules, and not a few armed men, training sulkily to the rear. I required no one to tell me what that meant. The enemy had tried on Griffin, two days since, without success, but this time they had repeated the game on Ayres and Crawford, with a different result. As these two divisions were moving through the thick woods, they were suddenly charged, broken, and driven back towards the Boydton plank road; but some batteries being brought to their aid, the men were rallied behind a branch of Gravelly Run. Griffin took up a rear line, to ensure the position. General Meade at once ordered Miles to go in, to the right of the 5th Corps, and Griffin to advance likewise. The General rode out in person to give Humphreys the necessary orders about Miles’s division, and found him at Mrs. Rainie’s, at the junction of the Quaker road and the plank. There was a wide open in front, and I could see, not far off, the great tree where we got such an awful shelling, at the first Hatcher’s Run fight. Miles was in the open, forming his troops for the attack. Just then the enemy opened a battery on us, with solid shot, several of which came ricocheting round us. I recollect I turned just then and saw Charlie Mills sitting on horseback, near General Humphreys. He nodded and smiled at me. Immediately after, General Meade rode to a rising ground a couple of hundred yards from the house, while General Humphreys went a short distance to the front, in the field. Almost at that instant a round shot passed through Humphreys’ Staff and struck Mills in the side, and he fell dead from his horse. He was indeed an excellent and spirited young man and beloved by us all. . . . When I rode that evening to the hospital, and saw the poor boy lying there on the ground, it made me think of Abbot, a year ago. It is the same thing over and over again. And strange too, this seeing a young man in full flush of robust health, and the next moment nothing that we can make out but the broken machine that the soul once put in motion. Yet this is better than that end in which the faculties, once brilliant, gradually fade, month after month.

About noon, Miles and Griffin went in, with sharp firing, drove the enemy back, and made a lodgment on the White Oak road. Meantime, Sheridan, after all sorts of mud toils, got north of Dinwiddie, where he was attacked by a heavy force of infantry and cavalry and forced back nearly to that place. Not to forgo our advantage on the northwest, we immediately sent the whole 5th Corps by night to Dinwiddie to report to General Sheridan and attack the enemy next morning — a hard march after the two days’-fighting in the storm!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 330-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A High Festival (December 10, 1864)

"Destruction of Water Ta[nk]s & Engines & engine houses for pumping water into them at Jarrets Station" by Alfred Waud depicts action from December 8 on the Weldon Railroad. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Destruction of Water Ta[nk]s & Engines & engine houses for pumping water into them at Jarrets Station” by Alfred Waud depicts action from December 8 on the Weldon Railroad. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the expedition across Hatcher’s Run to threaten the Boydton Plank Road. And he discusses other things as well. Duane is James C. Duane, the army’s chief engineer; William Riddle is another member of Meade’s staff. Riddle, a Philadelphian, had once served as an aide to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds and had been with that ill-fated general when a bullet struck him down during the first day at Gettysburg. In his letter Lyman leaves out one thing about Riddle’s going away party that he mentions in his notebooks, namely that aide Frederick Rosenkrantz got so disgracefully drunk “it brought the matter next morning to a crisis.” Rosenkrantz promised to mend his ways.

Lyman also writes about Gouverneur Warren’s expedition to destroy the Weldon Railroad. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in command of a brigade in the V Corps, wrote home to his sister about the same expedition and the mutual retaliation it sparked. “Our stragglers fared hard when caught by the enemy’s scouts & guerrillas,” he wrote. “In fact they were murdered—their throats cut from ear to ear. . . . In retaliation our men on the return burnt almost every house on the road. This was a hard night.” Concluded Chamberlain, “It was a sad business.”

[Brig. Gen. Nelson] Miles, with the troops which had been sent to reinforce him, maintained a threatening attitude near Hatcher’s Run till afternoon, when he was ordered to withdraw again to our lines. The enemy undertook to follow up a little, but the rear guard faced about and drove them away.—There was I seized with a fearful sleepy fit last night and went to bed; thus missing a letter home to you. However, I have not before missed one in a very long time; and, if I followed Duane’s advice, I should miss much oftener. “Lyman,” says this ancient campaigner, “you are foolish to write so much. Now I write only once a week, so my letters are valued. You write every day, and probably Mrs. Lyman puts them in her pocket and pays no attention to them.” Ah! I was speaking of Miles, and had got him with all his forces, and put him inside the works, all right. We had to pay farewell respects to Riddle, for his resignation has been accepted and he goes to-morrow. For a long time he has been in miserable health and, in warm weather, is seldom well enough for hard duty. He has been twice wounded, at Antietam and on the Peninsula, and was taken prisoner, but got away from Libby and arrived, after many hardships, within our lines. He is a very good officer and quite a superior person, whom we shall miss on our Staff. The kind-hearted Woolsey invited us all to take oysters in his honor (for you must know that there is a log house where one may have a “fancy roast,” “plain stew,” or “one fried,” just across the road). We gathered in the greatest force, for oysters attracted, even if Riddle didn’t, and had a high festival. We had songs, whereof I sang several, with large applause. “You don’t drink,” said Duane, “but it don’t make any difference, because you look as if you had been drinking, and that’s all that is necessary.”

Before I finish this day I must go back to tell of the beginning and progress of the Weldon road expedition. Last Wednesday, General Warren, with his own Corps, Mott’s division of the 2d Corps, and nearly the whole of Gregg’s division of cavalry, started in the morning and marched down the Jerusalem plank road, striking across to the Nottoway River, at Freeman’s Bridge, a distance of from fifteen to seventeen miles. There a pontoon bridge was thrown and the whole command got over before daybreak the next morning, the advance getting that night to Sussex Court House. Meantime the enemy, getting [wind] of the move, sent off A. P. Hill’s Corps, that evening, twelve hours after Warren. Hill went to Dinwiddie Court House, but what became of him thereafter, I have not yet learned. Their place in the lines was taken, I presume, by some of Early’s men, who were nearly all come down from the valley and are helping Lee now. On Thursday Warren continued his march and struck the Weldon road, a little south of the Nottoway, in the afternoon, and immediately went to destroying the track and burning the river bridge. The work went on systematically: the line being halted on the road, the men stacked arms, and went at the track. Sleepers were torn up, and these, with fence-rails, made great bonfires, on which the rails were laid. Soon the iron would wax red-hot, when the weight of the ends would bend the rails. Some of the men, however, were so enthusiastic as to take rails and twist them round trees, which could be done while the ends were cool and the middle hot. As soon as a brigade had finished its work, it marched down to a new piece, passing the other men who were destroying; and so they kept on till midnight, when they had got to Jarrott’s station and there halted. Next day, Friday, the column kept on, as before, the cavalry preceding them, who, when they arrived at Meherrin Bridge, found strong earthworks on the opposite side and some ten guns, which immediately opened on them. . . . This night was a very severe one, with its high wind and snow, sleet and rain; but it was rendered tolerable by the big fires that the soldiers lighted to heat rails with. General Warren did not deem proper to cross the Meherrin, as it would take a day to flank the Rebels’ works, and he started with but six days’ provisions. Next day, Saturday to wit, he began his return march and the head of the column got as far as Sussex C.H. On this march the people of the country had the bad judgment to “bushwhack” our troops: that is, to kill any stragglers or small parties they could catch. This is against the rules of war. I will not say it is surprising, because the stragglers of an army always steal and plunder and exasperate the people. Colonel Sergeant told me he himself saw five of our men shot and stripped nearly naked. The troops were so enraged by such cases, that they fired every house on their march, and, what made them worse, they found a great amount of apple-brandy in the country, a liquor that readily intoxicates. The superior officers destroyed a great deal of it, but the men got some and many were drunk. The people make this brandy on account of its great price. It sells for $1500 a barrel. Colonel Wainwright told me he found two tithing-bills in one house, one a year old, the other recent; in the old one wheat was valued at $10 a bushel, in the recent, at $40, showing that it has quadrupled in price within a year. It was on this day that a cavalry reconnaissance that pushed out on the Vaughan road reported heavy artillery firing in the direction of Jarrott’s station. This made Grant so uneasy that he directed aid to be sent Warren. Accordingly Potter, with 9000 men, marched that night, and arrived next morning at five a.m. at the Nottoway, at Freeman’s Bridge. A wretched march indeed! in slush and mud and a damp cold; but his men followed on very well and arrived with little straggling, which surprised me.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 293-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Severe Skirmish (December 9, 1864)

Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles commanded a division of the II Corps (Lilbrary of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles commanded a division of the II Corps (Lilbrary of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the Army of the Potomac’s movement across Hatcher’s Run toward the Boydton Plank Road. Nelson Miles, only 24 and already wounded four times, had replaced the ailing Francis Barlow as commander of the 1st Division of the II Corps. Nelson will remain in the army following the war, retiring as general in chief in 1903.

Miles’s division of the 2d Corps was sent to aid the cavalry in forcing Hatcher’s Run. They marched out early and found several regiments holding the crossing; a severe skirmish followed; our poor men went into the icy water up to their armpits and drove off the Rebels, though not without some loss to us. I know the cavalry Lieutenant, whom I saw bringing in all those stragglers last night, was killed there. Then Miles built a bridge and sent over the cavalry, which went as far as within sight of the Boydton plank, where they found the enemy in their works. They captured a Rebel mail-carrier and from him learned that A. P. Hill was yesterday at Dinwiddie. General Meade had to read all the letters, of course, and said there was one poor lover who promised to marry his sweetheart when the war was over, but “how could he support her now, on $12 a month?” We sent out another body of infantry and our own “red-legs” and the engineers, to support Miles, who we thought would be attacked. They all spent the night midst a wretched snow, sleet and rain, and raw wind.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 292-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.