God’s Will (June 6, 1864)

Timothy O'Sulivan took this image, which he identified as "Cold Harbor, Virginia. Camp in the woods," on June 6, 1864. The landscape looks much like this today  (Library of Congress).

Timothy O’Sullivan took this image, which he identified as “Cold Harbor, Virginia. Camp in the woods,” on June 6, 1864. The landscape looks much like this today (Library of Congress).

Even as he commands the Army of the Potomac during its relentless campaign against Robert E. Lee, George Meade is a husband and his father. Here he attempts to discharge some of his responsibilities in those fields. He soothes his wife, collects items she can contribute to the Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia, and he worries about his son, John Sergeant. The Meades’ oldest child, “Sargie” suffered from tuberculosis. His failing health will be a continual theme in his father’s letters, although his son and grandson cut much of that personal agony from the letters when editing them for publication.

Do not be deceived about the situation of affairs by the foolish despatches in the papers. Be not over-elated by reported successes, nor over-depressed by exaggerated rumors of failures. Up to this time our success has consisted only in compelling the enemy to draw in towards Richmond; our failure has been that we have not been able to overcome, destroy or bag his army.

His success has been in preventing us from doing the above, and in heading us off every time we have tried to get around him. In the meantime, both sides have suffered great losses, probably proportionate to our original relative strength, and it is highly probable that both sides have repaired their losses by reinforcements, so that we stand now in the same relative proportion, three to two, with original numbers. The great struggle has yet to come off in the vicinity of Richmond. The enemy have the advantages of position, fortifications, and being concentrated at their centre. We shall have to move slowly and cautiously, but I am in hopes, with reasonable luck, we will be able to succeed.

I am sorry, very sorry, to hear what you write of Sergeant, but God’s will must be done, and we must be resigned.

I am trying to collect some trophies from our recent battle-fields to send you for your fair.

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. 201-2. Available via Google Books.

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May 4, 1864

Elements of the Army of the Potomac cross the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 4, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Elements of the Army of the Potomac cross the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford on May 4, 1864 (Library of Congress).

We will not hear from George Meade for a little while. He has much to command his attention at this point. Same with Theodore Lyman. In the meantime, here’s a short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg explaining the events of May 4, 1864. (If you do not have the book already, shame on you! It is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and quality bookstores.)

The army began moving at midnight. “There is a kind of weird excitement in this starting at midnight,” noted Col. Charles Wainwright, now handling artillery for the V Corps. “The senses seemed doubly awake to every impression–the batteries gathering around my quarters in the darkness; the moving of lanterns, and the hailing of the men; then the distant sound of the hoofs of the aid’s horse who brings the final order to start. Sleepy as I always am at such times, I have a certain amount of enjoyment in it all.”

The plan for the campaign had the II Corps crossing the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford and the V and VI Corps farther upstream at Germanna Ford. Meade and his staff left their winter camp at 5:25 a.m. on their way to Germanna Ford. The sun rose at the start of a beautiful spring day and illuminated a mighty host on the move. “As far as the eye could reach the troops were wending their way to the front,” wrote Horace Porter. “Their war banners, bullet-riddled and battle-stained, floated proudly in the morning breeze. The roads resounded to the measured tread of the advancing columns, and the deep forests were lighted by the glitter of their steel.”

Meade soon found an occasion for an outburst of temper. At 7:00 he encountered a cavalry wagon train blocking the road, one of his pet peeves. The general gave the quartermaster a tongue-lashing and ordered him to move his wagons out of the way. An hour later he reached the ford, the same spot where his men had camped during the withdrawal from Mine Run. It had been bitter cold then and the army had been disheartened; now spring was bursting out in all its glory and the Union soldiers felt confident. “The troops were very light-hearted, almost as joyous as schoolboys; and over and over again as we rode by them, it was observed by members of the staff that they had never seen them so happy and buoyant,” recalled a staff member.

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Meade and his staff crossed the river at 9:30. Grant and his staff, accompanied by Congressman Eli Washburne, joined them shortly afterward. Lyman noted that some of Grant’s staff talked “flippantly” about Lee and his army and regarded the war as nearly won. Grant established his headquarters at an old farmhouse overlooking the Rapidan. Meade dropped by that evening and took a camp chair by a blazing fire of fence rails. Grant offered him a cigar and helped him light it. The two generals sat by the cheery fire, smoking their cigars and talking over their plans for the next day. The move across the Rapidan had gone off without a hitch. “This I regarded as a great success,” said Grant, “and it removed from my mind the most serious apprehensions I had entertained: that of crossing the river in the face of an active, large, well-appointed, and ably commanded army, and how so large a train was to be carried through a hostile country and protected.”

As Grant and Meade talked, messengers brought telegrams informing Grant that the other armies under his command—Ben Butler’s on the James River, Fritz Sigel’s in the Valley, and Sherman’s in Georgia—were advancing according to his plan to apply pressure all over the Confederacy. The Army of the Potomac appeared to be playing its own part in Grant’s grand design. So far, so good. But the army had yet to emerge from the Wilderness.

And So It Begins (May 3, 1864)

Alexander Gardner called this photograph "Breaking Camp.: It shows General George H. Sharpe's deserted headquarters at Brandy Station. Sharpe headed the army's Bureau of Military Information. Winter camp is over; the army is on the move (Library of Congress).

Alexander Gardner called this photograph “Breaking Camp.: It shows General George H. Sharpe’s deserted headquarters at Brandy Station. Sharpe headed the army’s Bureau of Military Information. Winter camp is over; the army is on the move (Library of Congress).

We are now on the very eve of the Overland Campaign, a bloody, protracted slugging match between the Army of the Potomac under Meade (accompanied by Grant) and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. At the start of the campaign Grant warned Meade that he did not intend to fight by “maneuvering for position.” Meade must have seen that as a critique of the army’s campaigns from the previous fall. He replied, “General Grant, you are opposed by a general of consummate ability, and you will find that you will have to maneuver for position.” Meade will be right. Throughout the Overland Campaign Grant will attempt to overwhelm the Confederates with direct assaults, and then order Meade’s army on wide, sweeping maneuvers in attempts to outflank Lee.

The letter from Lee that Meade mentions here is the one the Confederate general sent demanding to know the truth about Ulric Dahlgren’s orders for his ill-fated raid on Richmond. Papers found on his body indicated he intended to kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and burn Richmond. Meade had denied that anyone had issued such orders. Pennie is Meade’s son Spencer.

I send herewith original letter recently received from General Lee, which you can give to Pennie, as it has General Lee’s autograph, and on the envelope an original endorsement by Jeb Stuart, the great reb. cavalry general.

I also enclose you a printed copy of an address issued to-day by me to the army. To-morrow we move. I hope and trust we will be successful, and so decidedly successful as to bring about a termination of this war. If hard fighting will do it, I am sure I can rely on my men. They are in fine condition and in most excellent spirits, and will do all that men can do to accomplish the object. The enemy have had time, I expect, to bring up all available reinforcements. This is all the better for us, if we succeed, as it will make the battle and victory more decisive. The telegraph will convey to you the first intelligence, though I shall endeavor to keep you posted. I beg of you to be calm and resigned, to place full trust in the mercy of our heavenly Father, who has up to this time so signally favored us, and the continuance of whose blessing we should earnestly pray for. Do not fret, but be cheerful, and go about and do just as if nothing was going on, and above all things don’t anticipate evil; it will come time enough. Give my love to all the dear children. I shall think a great deal of you and them, notwithstanding the excitement of my duties. I feel quiet and determined, satisfied I have ever striven to do my duty to the best of my ability, and believing that in time posterity will do justice to my career. Good-by! God bless and protect us all!

“Address” mentioned in last letter:

Head-quarters, Army Of The Potomac, May 4, 1864.

Soldiers!

Again you are called upon to advance on the enemies of your country. The time and the occasion are deemed opportune by your Commanding General to address you a few words of confidence and caution.

You have been re-organized, strengthened and fully equipped in every respect. You form a part of the several armies of your country, the whole under the direction of an able and distinguished General, who enjoys the confidence of the government, the people and the army. Your movement being in co-operation with others, it is of the utmost importance that no effort should be left unspared to make it successful.

Soldiers! the eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms.

Remember your homes, your wives and children, and bear in mind that the sooner your enemies are overcome, the sooner you will be returned to enjoy the benefits and blessings of peace. Bear with patience the hardships and sacrifices yon will be called upon to endure. Have confidence in your officers and in each other. Keep your ranks on the march and on the battlefield, and let each man earnestly implore God’s blessing and endeavor by his thoughts and actions to render himself worthy of the favor he seeks. With clear consciences and strong arms, actuated by a high sense of duty, fighting to preserve the Government and the institutions handed down to us by our forefathers—if true to ourselves—victory, under God’s blessing, must and will attend our efforts.

Geo. G. Meade,
Official: Major General Commanding

Here’s what Theodore Lyman wrote home on the same day. Lyman wrote detailed and fascinating letters home about the fighting during the Overland Campaign and I will post them here on the appropriate days.

At last the order of march, for to-morrow at 5 a.m.! Of it more when it is over — if I am here to write. Only spring waggons go for our little mess kits and baggage; other things go with the main train. May God bless the undertaking at last and give an end to this war! I have made all preparations for the campaign.

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. 192-4. 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, p. 84. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.