Petersburg at Last (April 3, 1865)

A view of Petersburg, taken shortly after the Confederates abandoned it (Library of Congress).

A view of Petersburg, taken shortly after the Confederates abandoned it (Library of Congress).

George Meade and Theodore Lyman write letters home about the great events following the breakthrough of Lee’s lines and the Confederate abandonment of Petersburg and Richmond. The end of the war is in sight. In his letter, Lyman writes a wonderful account of the visit he and the general made to Petersburg, so long denied to them. The Wallace house he mentions still stands. Shortly after he and Meade left there, President Lincoln arrived and met Grant. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “Abraham Lincoln arrived, accompanied by his young son Tad, Adm. David Porter, and a few others. His escort through the lines was his son Robert, who served on Grant’s staff, and he was riding Grant’s favorite horse, Cincinnati. The president dismounted and greeted the general in chief with joy. ‘I doubt whether Mr. Lincoln ever experienced a happier moment in his life,’ wrote Horace Porter. Wallace, who had known Lincoln before the war, invited Grant and the president inside but they preferred to sit on the porch where Grant could smoke a cigar. Lincoln sat on a rocking chair Wallace brought out for him, his long legs dangling over the edge of the porch. The two men stayed there for about ninety minutes, hoping to receive word about the fall of Richmond.”

The Wallace House in Petersburg, where Grant and Lincoln met on April 2, 1865.

The Wallace House in Petersburg, where Grant and Lincoln met on April 2, 1865.

“Lincoln said he suspected Grant might have been planning to order Sherman up from the south to pitch in against Lee. Grant said he had considered that but ‘had a feeling that it would be better to let Lee’s old antagonists give his army the final blow, and finish up the job.’ Grant added, ‘I have always felt confident that our troops here were amply able to handle Lee.’ He and Lincoln then talked a little about postwar concerns. Finally, Grant could wait no longer. He mounted up and rode off to rejoin the army. Lincoln looked around Petersburg a little before returning to City Point.”

The telegraph will have conveyed to you, long before this reaches you, the joyful intelligence that Petersburg and Richmond have fallen, and that Lee, broken and dispirited, has retreated towards Lynchburg and Danville. We have had three glorious days, the fighting not so severe as much we have done before, but in the results. We are now moving after Lee, and if we are successful in striking him another blow before he can rally his troops, I think the Confederacy will be at an end.

George is quite well, having left his uncle at City Point, where it was deemed advisable he should stop for awhile. Willie was doing very well, and is not considered in any danger.

Markoe Bache arrived this morning just in time to march into Petersburg with us.

The strong demonstration we made on Lee’s right caused him so to attenuate his lines that, notwithstanding their strength, we broke through his left, and poured in such a force that he had to fly to save himself. He was fortunate in keeping us out of the town till dark, which enabled him to get over the Appomattox what remained of his army. The last estimate of our prisoners amounted to fifteen thousand, and deserters and stragglers are being picked up by the thousands. Let us hope the war will soon be over.

Lyman, of course, provides a much more detailed account, including a lively description of Petersburg. He also mentions the death of Confederate General A.P. Hill, who was, as Lyman says, shot by some Yankee stragglers. A small stone monument near Pamplin Historical Park outside Petersburg commemorates the event.

We began our day early, for, about light, I heard Duane say, outside my tent: “They have evacuated Petersburg.” Sure enough, they were gone, across the river, and, at that very moment, their troops at Richmond, and all along the river, with their artillery and trains, were marching in all haste, hoping to join each other and get to Burkeville Junction, en route for Danville. How they succeeded will be seen in the sequel. General Meade, to my great satisfaction, said he would ride in and take a look at the place we so long had seen the steeples of. Passing a series of heavy entrenchments and redoubts, we entered the place about eight in the morning. The outskirts are very poor, consisting chiefly of the houses of negroes, who collected, with broad grins, to gaze on the triumphant Yanks; while here and there a squalid family of poor whites would lower at us from broken windows, with an air of lazy dislike. The main part of the town resembles Salem, very much, plus the southern shiftlessness and minus the Yankee thrift. Even in this we may except Market Street, where dwell the haute noblesse, and where there are just square brick houses and gardens about them, as you see in Salem, all very well kept and with nice trees. Near the river, here large enough to carry large steamers, the same closely built business streets, the lower parts of which had suffered severely from our shells; here and there an entire building had been burnt, and everywhere you saw corners knocked off, and shops with all the glass shattered by a shell exploding within.

A Timothy O'Sullivan photograph of Blandford Church, in the cemetery that Meade and Lyman visited on April 2 (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan photograph of Blandford Church, in the cemetery that Meade and Lyman visited on April 2 (Library of Congress).

We then returned a little and took a road up the hill towards the famous cemetery ridge. Petersburg, you must understand, lies in a hollow, at the foot of a sort of bluff. In fact, this country, is a dead, sandy level, but the watercourses have cut trenches in it, more or less deep according to their volume of water. Thus the Appomattox is in a deep trench, while the tributary “runs” that come in are in more shallow trenches; so that the country near the banks looks hilly; when, however, you get on top of these bluffs, you find yourself on a plain, which is more or less worn by water-courses into a succession of rolls. Therefore, from our lines you could only see the spires, because the town was in a gully. The road we took was very steep and was no less than the Jerusalem plank, whose other end I was so familiar with. Turning to the left, on top of the crest, we passed a large cemetery, with an old ruined chapel, and, descending a little, we stood on the famous scene of the “Mine.” It was this cemetery that our infantry should have gained that day. Thence the town is commanded. How changed these entrenchments! Not a soul was there, and the few abandoned tents and cannon gave an additional air of solitude. Upon these parapets, whence the rifle-men have shot at each other, for nine long months, in heat and cold, by day and by night, you might now stand with impunity and overlook miles of deserted breastworks and covered ways! It was a sight only to be appreciated by those who have known the depression of waiting through summer, autumn and winter for so goodly an event! Returning through the town, we stopped at the handsome house of Mr. Wallace, where was Grant and his Staff, and where we learned the death of Lieutenant-General A. P. Hill, who was killed by one of our stragglers whom he tried to capture. Crowds of nigs came about us to sell Confederate money, for which they would take anything we chose to give. At noon we left the town, and, going on the river road, camped that night near Sutherland’s Station.

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. 269. 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. 339-41. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Visitors (September 25, 1864)

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).

Secretary of State William Seward and Congressman Elihu Washburne drop in on the Army of the Potomac. I would like to hear more about Meade’s reactions to Washburne. The Illinois congressman was Ulysses S. Grant’s political patron and Meade suspected that Washburne had been responsible for spreading the rumor—reported by Edward Crapsey (or Cropsey)—that the commander of the Army of the Potomac had wanted to retreat after the Battle of the Wilderness but Grant had overruled him. When he saw Crapsey’s article, Meade had thrown the reporter out of the army and vowed to his wife that he would show Washburne “no quarter” if the rumor of his involvement turned out to be true.

To-day we had a visit from Mr. Secretary Seward and Mr. Congressman Washburn. I had some little talk with Mr. Seward, who told me that at the North and at the South, and everywhere abroad, there was a strong conviction the war would soon terminate, and, said he, when so many people, influenced in such different ways, all unite in one conviction, there must be reason to believe peace is at hand. He did not tell me on what he founded his hopes, nor did I ask.

Sheridan’s defeat of Early will prove a severe blow to the rebs, and will, I think, compel them to do something pretty soon to retrieve their lost prestige. There have been rumors they were going to evacuate Petersburg, and I should not be surprised if they did contract their lines and draw in nearer Richmond. I never did see what was their object in defending Petersburg, except to check us; it had no other influence, because, if we were able to take Richmond, we could take Petersburg; and after taking the one when resisted, the other would be more easily captured.

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. 230. Available via Google Books.

Inside Petersburg (August 12, 1864)

Theodore Lyman writes about a curious incident of the war. War may be hell, but it does have its rules. Colonel Henry G. Thomas of Portland, Maine, commanded a brigade in Edward Ferrero’s IX Corps division. You can read his account of the situation Lyman describes here.

I did not yet mention that I had seen Colonel Thomas, who commands a negro brigade. A singular thing happened to him. He went out during the truce to superintend, and, when the truce was over, he undertook to return to the works, but took a wrong turn, passed inside the Rebel picket line, and was seized. He told them they had no right to take him, but they could not see it and marched him off. But he appealed to the commanding General who, after eighteen hours, ordered him set free. He was in and about Petersburg and told me the flower-patches were nicely cultivated in front of the houses, the canary birds were hung in cages before the doors, and everything looked as if the inhabitants meant to enjoy their property during their lives and hand it quietly down to their children. Little damage seemed to have been done by our shells, which I was glad to hear, for I hate this business of house-burning. Next time, I fancy the warlike Thomas will make no mistakes about turns.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 211. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Hail, Columbia (July 4, 1864)

"Headquarters of Genl. Warren at Col. Avery's house-near Petersburg" by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

“Headquarters of Genl. Warren at Col. Avery’s house-near Petersburg” by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Happy 4th of July! Most likely you are having a much better holiday than the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia enjoyed in their works outside Petersburg. It must have been interesting to celebrate the birth of your country even  as you were fighting to preserve it (or, in the case of the Confederates, break up that country and start a new one). Here Theodore Lyman provided an account of the day and the general conditions on the front.

Samuel Crawford, the former army surgeon who became indignant when soldiers called him "Old Pills" (Library of Congress).

Samuel Crawford, the former army surgeon who became indignant when soldiers called him “Old Pills” (Library of Congress).

Lyman also mentions some incidents involving Samuel Crawford, who commanded a division in the V Corps. Crawford had begun his Civil War career as a surgeon at Fort Sumter. Horace Porter told a story about Meade and an officer who must have been Crawford, although Porter merely identified him as “an officer serving in the Army of the Potomac who had formerly been a surgeon.” One day the officer arrived at Meade’s headquarters “in a high state of indignation.” As he had been riding over, some of the men had called him “Old Pills,” and he thought that was a great affront to his dignity. “I would like to have it stopped,” he said.

Meade put on his eyeglasses and glared through them at the complainer. “Well, what of that?” he demanded. “How can I prevent it? Why, I hear that, when I rode out the other day, some of the men called me a ‘damned old goggle-eyed snapping-turtle,’ and I can’t even stop that!” Now “Old Pills” and the “old goggle-eyed snapping-turtle” lie in the ground near each other at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, neighbors for eternity.

What shall I say of the Fourth? Our celebration could not well amount to much; the men have to stay too close in camp to do such things. The band came in the morning and serenaded, and there was saluting enough in the form of cannon and mortars from our right. This siege—if you choose to call it a siege—is a curious illustration of the customs of old soldiers. On the right—say from the Appomattox to a point opposite the Avery house—the lines are very close and more or less of siege operations are going on; so every finger, or cap, or point of a gun that shows above the works, is instantly shot at, in addition to which batteries and mortars are firing intermittently. Nothing could be more hostile! But pass to the division a little to the left of this, where our lines swing off from the enemy’s, and you have a quite reversed state of things. There is not a shot! Behold the picket men, no longer crouching closely in their holes, but standing up and walking about, with the enemy’s men, in like fashion, as near to them, in some places, as the length of the Brookline house. At one part, there was a brook between, and our pickets, or theirs, when they want water, hold up a canteen, and then coolly walk down to the neutral stream. All this truce is unofficial, but sacred, and is honorably observed. Also it is a matter of the rank and file. If an officer comes down, they get uneasy and often shout to him to go back, or they will shoot. The other day General Crawford calmly went down, took out an opera-glass and began staring. Very quickly a Reb was seen to write on a scrap of paper, roll it round a pebble and throw it over to our line. Thereon was writ this pithy bit of advice: “Tell the fellow with the spy-glass to clear out, or we shall have to shoot him.” Near this same spot occurred a ludicrous thing, which is true, though one would not believe it if seen in a paper. A Reb, either from greenness or by accident, fired his musket, whereupon our people dropped in their holes and were on the point of opening along the whole line, when the Rebs waved their hands and cried: “Don’t shoot; you’ll see how we’ll fix him!” Then they took the musket from the unfortunate grey-back, put a rail on his shoulder, and made him walk up and down for a great while in front of their rifle-pits! If they get orders to open, they call out, “Get into your holes, Yanks, we are ordered to fire”; and their first shots are aimed high, as a sort of warning. Their liberties go too far sometimes, as when two deliberately walked up to our breastwork to exchange papers; whereat General Crawford refused to allow them to return, saying very properly that the truce was not official, and that they had chosen to leave their own works and come over to ours, and that now they could carry back information of our position. They expected an attack on the 4th of July—I suppose as a grand melodramatic stroke on Grant’s part; but, instead thereof, the Maryland brigade brought up their band to the trenches and played “Hail Columbia”; upon which, to the surprise of everyone, a North Carolina regiment, lying opposite, rose as a man and gave three cheers! The news is not precisely cheery from Maryland. With the preparations on foot, we ought to bag a large part of the Rebels; but I have a sublime confidence that the movements of our troops will, as usual, be a day too late. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 181-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Ignored (June 21, 1864)

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

George Meade’s letter of June 21, 1864, includes one of his persistent complaints about being ignored, this time in the dispatches of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Meade craved affirmation, a need that seemed motivated by some basic insecurity. Of course, commander of the Army of the Potomac was a position that naturally bred a sense of insecurity—just ask George McClellan, Joe Hooker, or Ambrose Burnside. But Meade seemed to need some kind of official “vindication” and validation that he had performed well. Despite his repeated claims to his wife that he was “indifferent” to such things, he wanted an official seal of approval that always seemed to evade him. Perhaps Meade would have had more success in advancing his cause if he had more nakedly lusted for glory and aggressively sought fame. He was more than willing to carp about the situation in his letters to his wife, but his son and grandson edited most of those complaints out of the letters for publication. Publicly, though, Meade had an almost naïve–or perhaps idealistic is a better word–belief that true honors would come to those who deserved them. Of course, it didn’t help that the correspondents traveling with the army had agreed to leave Meade out of their reports in revenge for the Crapsey incident.

Meade mentions in passing President Lincoln’s visit to the army. Horace Porter, Grant’s aide, included a long account of the visit in his book, Campaigning with Grant. Lincoln was especially eager to see the black soldiers of the XVIII Corps who had taken a portion of the Petersburg defenses. “When we wanted every able-bodied man who could be spared to go to the front, and my opposers kept objecting to the negroes, I used to tell them that at such times it was just as well to be a little color-blind,” the president said. The black soldiers gave the president a rapturous reception, which affected him deeply. “The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode,” wrote Porter.

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In the evening the president relaxed with Grant and his staff and indulged himself in one of his favorite pastimes, telling humerous stories. “He did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or to clench a fact,” Porter noted. “So far as our experience went, his anecdotes possessed the true geometric requisite of excellence: they were neither too broad nor too long. He seemed to recollect every incident in his experience and to weave it into material for his stories. One evening a sentinel whose post was near enough to enable him to catch most of the President’s remarks was heard to say, ‘Well, that man’s got a powerful memory and a mighty poor forgettery.’

“He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat on a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures. An officer once made the remark that he would rather have a single photograph of one of Mr. Lincoln’s jokes than own the negative of any other man’s.

My last letter was written on the 17th, during the battle of Petersburg, which lasted off and on from 4 o’clock on the afternoon of the 16th to dark of the 18th, day and night, during which time we drove the enemy more than a mile and a half, taking from them two strong lines of works, capturing over twenty guns, four colors and nearly seven hundred prisoners. In all this fighting and these operations I had exclusive command, Grant being all the time at City Point, and coming on the field for only half an hour on the 17th, and yet in Mr. Stanton’s official despatch he quotes General Grant’s account, and my name is not even mentioned. I cannot imagine why I am thus ignored.

I think I wrote you on the 17th that I was fighting Mr. Wise. Since then I have seen a Petersburg paper, announcing the wounding severely of George D. Wise, his nephew and aide, also of Peyton Wise, another nephew and aide-de-camp.

On the 18th we found the enemy had retired to an inner line, which I had reason to believe was not strongly fortified. I followed them and immediately attacked them with my whole force, but could not break through their lines. Our losses in the three-days’ fight under my command amount to nine thousand five hundred, killed, wounded and missing. As I did not have over sixty thousand men, this loss is severe, and shows how hard the fighting was.

Your accounts of the fair are quite amusing. Hancock and myself have much fun over the sword contest, and are both quite sorry to see we stand no chance for the five thousand dollar vase.

Mr. Lincoln honored the army with his presence this afternoon, and was so gracious as to say he had seen you in Philadelphia, etc., etc.

We have been very quiet for two days, having given up the idea of taking Petersburg by assault. Indeed, the army is exhausted with forty-nine days of continued marching and fighting, and absolutely requires rest to prevent its morale being impaired.

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. 205-6. Available via Google Books.

A Message for Beauregard (June 19, 1864)

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (National  Archives).

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (National

Once again General Meade sends Theodore Lyman on a mission to request a truce so they army could collect its dead and wounded, as he had done at Cold Harbor. This mission is slightly less nerve-wracking although ultimately much more frustrating. The Confederate commander who spurned the request was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. The Louisiana Creole had been in the thick of things since Fort Sumter, where he commanded the Confederate bombardment against his former West Point artillery instructor, Robert Anderson. Beauregard—a name that almost demands to be spoken in a Southern drawl—had been second in command under Joseph Johnston at First Bull Run, but his combustible personality and strained relations with President Jefferson Davis, as well as doubts about his actual ability on the battlefield, got him sent out west. When he returned east he took command of Charleston’s defenses. Back in Virginia he thwarted Benjamin Butler’s attempts to take Richmond, and then bottled up the Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred. He was in command of Petersburg’s defenses when the Army of the Potomac suddenly appeared after its surprise crossing of the James River.

It having been represented to General Meade that there were some wounded and a good many dead between the lines, he determined to send a flag to get a short armistice, as at Cool Arbor. I was again selected, as the man having good clothes, to undertake the mission. This time I determined to have a bugler, and so I did, and very spruce he was, with a German-silver key-bugle. Likewise was there a tall sergeant, in Sunday best, with General Seth Williams’s new damask tablecloth, on an appropriate staff! Thus equipped, and furnished with a large letter, I rode forth. . . . We crossed the rail near Colonel Avery’s, rode into the woods and immediately came on the picket reserves of cavalry, where we got a man to guide us to the extreme left of the infantry picket line. We floundered through a little swampy run, brushed through some brush, and came on a little clearing, at the other side of which was a gentleman, with a cocked musket, eyeing us suspiciously, but who withdrew on seeing our color. There we came on what is always a pretty sight, a picket line in a wood. The men are dotted along, ten or fifteen feet apart, with stronger parties on the roads; and you see them indistinctly, as they stand, half-hidden among trees and bushes. I found there Captain Thatcher in command of the picket line. There was some delay here, in sending word to the division commander, and to a battery that was firing. As soon as they were notified, Captain T. and myself, with the flag about five paces ahead, and the bugler behind, walked along the wood-road. Thatcher is a brisk, black-eyed little man, and kept peeping about, through the dense pines, and saying: “We are getting somewhere pretty near them. Wave your flag, Sergeant!” As for myself, I looked with some confidence for a salutation of two or three bullets; but made no observation, as being superfluous under the circumstances. Presently the flag-bearer, who, you may be sure, kept an extremely bright look-out, said: “There’s one of’ ’em!” and immediately waved the emblem of peace in a truly conscientious manner. I looked and saw the main road, and, in an open field beyond, stood a single grey-back, looking dubiously at us, with his rifle ready for any emergency. I told the bugler to blow a parley, which he did in very good style, while I advanced to call to the solitary sentry; but the effect of the bugle was most marvellous—quite as when “he whistled shrill and he was answered from the hill.” In an instant, a line of some seventy-five men rose, as if out of the ground. It was their pickets, who had been concealed in little holes, dug in the slope of the gentle hill. One of them laid down his musket and came forward, when I asked for an officer; whereat, he touched his hat (probably awestruck by my cotton gloves) and returned to fetch one. Then came a red-faced captain, who received my despatch, and a bundle of letters from Rebel prisoners, and promised a speedy answer. So the flag was stuck up on a fence and we waited. In a few minutes the commander of the pickets hastened out to do me honor—Major Crow, of Alabama, a remarkably bright, nice-looking man. We exchanged compliments and newspapers, and he entertained me with an amusing account, how he had gone on a “leave” to north Alabama, and how our cavalry suddenly rushed into the town, whereupon he ascended briskly into the belfry of the court-house, through the slats of which he beheld a large number of his friends gobbled up and marched off, while he himself nearly froze to death with the extreme cold! By this time we had the variety of a visitor on horseback, Colonel Ring, a handsome man, who was curious about the negro troops and said, with an honesty unmistakable, that he would not be a bit afraid to fight them, one against two. They, however, said nothing at all unpleasant or rude. The next comer was apparently a Staff officer, a young man of rather a sour countenance, with a large pair of spurs. He brought a message that we should immediately retire from the lines, and hostilities would then recommence, till the answer was ready, when they would put a white flag on their rifle-pit. This amused me, for I had already seen all that could be seen and knew just where their position was just at that point! I returned whence I came, and waited at a wretched, deserted house. … At seven in the evening I got the reply and carried it in. The sum of it was: “Have the honor to acknowledge your favor. As to your proposition—Ah, don’t see it!”* And so there was no armistice. Our poor wounded fellows, I believe, we got off that night, all of them, or all but a very few. And thus ended my second diplomatic mission. Since then, General Williams has caused a regular white flag to be made, ready for use in future.

*”It was signed by Beauregard, and was a specimen of his mean Creole blood. ‘He did not know there had been any fight of consequence and should therefore refuse. After any engagement of real moment, he should be glad to extend the courtesies of war!’ He lied; for he knew full well that there had been heavy fighting and that we at least had lost some thousands. But he wished to show his dirty spite. Lee does not do such things.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 170-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

War of Brothers-in-Law (June 17, 1864)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions Wise’s Legion. He had a reason to be particularly interested in this unit, for its commander, Henry Wise, was his brother-in-law. Wise’s second wife had been Sarah Sergeant, Mrs. Meade’s sister. (Sarah had died in childbirth in 1850.) Wise was the former governor of Virginia—in fact, it was Wise who signed John Brown’s death warrant after the radical abolitionists failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry. He was a fiery secessionist who waved his pistol when he took the podium at Virginia’s secessionist convention in April 1861 and demanded that his state leave the Union. He joined the Confederate army and, as a brigadier general, led his troops to a successful defense of Petersburg when his brother-in-law attempted to capture it.

According to one story, Robert E. Lee once took Wise aside to gently chastise him about his strong language. Wise claimed he cut Lee off and said, “General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole army of Northern Virginia; but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.”

Lee laughed. “Wise, you are incorrigible,” he said.

Meade also mentions the Great Central Sanitary Fair, which took place in Philadelphia that month. (President and Mrs. Lincoln  and son Tad visited the fair on June 16.) In his book Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union, historian Anthony Waskie wrote, “The Great Central Fair was probably the greatest purely civic act of voluntary benevolence ever attempted in Philadelphia.” The venue was Logan Square and its fundraising was directed for soldiers’ relief.  Meade comments on the competition between himself and Winfield Scott Hancock over the awarding of a sword. Meade won the sword, but Mrs. Meade was edged out in the voting for the award of an imported bonnet by Mrs. Ambrose Burnside. I assume when Meade refers to “the ‘Shoddy,’” he is referring to so-called Shoddy Millionaires, who supposedly made fortunes by selling poor quality goods to the Union army.

I have not written you for several days, as we have been moving, our mail facilities for the time being interrupted. Our march from Cold Harbor to this place has been most successful, including, as it has done, the crossing of two streams, the Chickahominy and the James, over the former of which a bridge of one thousand seven hundred feet had to be thrown, and over the James one of two thousand feet, in eighty-five feet of water—an exploit in military bridge building that has never been equaled. I reached this field yesterday, having been placed by General Grant in command of all the troops in front of Petersburg, consisting of the Army of the Potomac, and two portions of Butler’s army, Grant being back at City Point. After arriving on the ground, although our men had been marching all the night before and during the day, I at once ordered an attack, which commenced at 6 p.m. and lasted pretty much continuously till 4 a.m. to-day—that is, ten hours—eight of which was by moonlight, another unparalleled feat in the annals of war.

Our attack was quite successful, as we captured several of their works, four guns and five hundred prisoners. The first prisoners brought in replied, on being asked to what command they belonged, Wise’s Legion. I asked where the general was; they said right in my front. I asked how he was, and they replied, the old man seemed quite well. I inquired what members of his family were with him, and they replied, he had two aides, named Wise, one of whom was his son and the other a nephew. This is the latest intelligence I can send you from your Virginia connections.

We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond, and that Grant’s words of keeping at it all summer will prove to be quite prophetic. Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.

I have to-day received your letters of the 10th and 12th. Hancock was with me when I read them. Hancock and I have great fun over the sword contest at the fair, I telling him that he made use of his time last winter to make friends with the “Shoddy,” and of course, as they have the money, I can’t expect to compete with him. We laugh and joke a good deal about it, and whenever a paper comes in we look for the state of the vote. The last date we have is the 14th, and that shows me about one hundred and fifty ahead, which, as I have been behind him all the time, is the source of much merriment.

Your account of the fair is very interesting. I should think, from the newspapers, you would be likely to beat the New York fair in receipts, and that your expenses would be much less.

I wish Sargie would get well enough to travel; he might pay me a visit, now the weather is warm. I don’t suppose Sargie cares much about seeing war, but I and George would like hugely to see him. The weather is getting quite warm. I continue in excellent health and spirits.

In his letter of June 17, Theodore Lyman writes about the IX Corps. Brig. Gen. Robert Potter had been with Ambrose Burnside and that corps since its early successes in the Carolinas and had been one of the generals responsible for finally forcing Union troops across “Burnside Bridge” at Antietam. James Ledlie was one of the Union’s worst generals. In his journal, Lyman had written, “Ledlie was a wretched, incapable drunkard, not fit to command a company, and was the ruin of his division.” Potter and Ledlie will both play roles in the episode of the Crater. Major Morton was Major James St. Clair Morton. “He was of a gallant, daring temperament, and, on one or two occasions during the campaign had led in person charges of the troops upon the enemy’s intrenched lines,” read an 1867 history of the XI Corps. “Always in the van, he had narrowly escaped with his life in former battles. On the 17th of June, he headed the advance of General Hartranft’s brigade, and was killed while the troops were retiring from the attack.”

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman's letter (Library of Congress).

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman’s letter (Library of Congress).

At daylight Potter, of the 9th Corps, assaulted the enemy’s works at a point near what was then our left. He took the works very handsomely, with four guns and 350 prisoners, and had his horse shot under him. Potter (a son of the Bishop of Pennsylvania) is a grave, pleasant-looking man, known for his coolness and courage. He is always very neatly dressed in the full uniform of a brigadier-general. His Headquarters are now at the house where he took two of the cannon. You ought to see it! It is riddled with bullets like the cover of a pepper-box. In a great oak by his tent a cannon-ball has just buried itself, so that you can see the surface under the bark. In a few years the wood will grow over it, and there it will perhaps remain to astonish some wood-cutter of the future, when the Great Rebellion shall have passed into history. This was a brave day for Burnside. He fought in the middle of the day, with some gain, and just before evening Ledlie’s division attacked and took a third line, beyond the one taken by Potter. This could have been held, I think, but for the idea that we were to advance still more, so that preparations were made to push on instead of getting reserves in position to support the advanced force. The enemy, however, after dark, concentrated and again drove out our troops, who fell back to the work taken by Potter in the morning; and so ended the anniversary of Bunker Hill. In the attack of that evening, Major Morton, Chief Engineer of the 9th Corps, was killed—a man of an eccentric disposition, but of much ability. He was son of the celebrated ethnologist, whose unrivaled collection of crania is now in the Philadelphia Academy.

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. 204-5. 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. 166-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Most Striking Sight (June 16, 1864)

Wilcox's landing on the James River. Before the war it had been established as a shipping point for tobacco (Library of Congress).

Wilcox’s landing on the James River. Before the war it had been established as a shipping point for tobacco (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman describes the events of June 16, 1864. His journals, edited by David W. Lowe and published as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, make great companion reading for his letters. In his journals Lyman adds to his account of touring the former Confederate ironclad Atlanta. “This ‘Atlanta’ is just like a great, iron turtle, with an angular back, in which there are narrow ports for three or four big rifled cannon, which are handled with surprising ease by a few ropes and pulleys,” he wrote. “The inside was like a low attic. We saw where a number of bolt-heads were knocked off by one of our 15-inch shot, when we took her. The not nevertheless, did not go through.” Lyman was correct that the Union guns did not penetrate the ironclad’s armor, but several of her crewmen had been wounded by wood fragments and bolts sent flying by the impacts.

The wounded Hal whom Lyman visits was Henry Sturgis Russell, his wife’s brother. He will recover. Russell had joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, an African-American unit. At the time Lyman expressed some outrage. “The Negro cannot change his nature; thus hath God made him,” Lyman wrote in this journal on December 11, 1863. “As a rule he cannot fight against the White. This is leaning on a broken reed. There is no general historical precedence for their being efficient troops.” Lyman was certainly not in the minority here but, as he noted the day before, the black soldiers had acquitted themselves well in the fight for the Dimmock Line outside Petersburg.

Horace Porter (Library of Congress).

Horace Porter (Library of Congress).

Horace Porter of Grant’s staff also described the fighting on June 16 in his book Campaigning with Grant. He wrote, “I found Meade standing near the edge of a piece of woods, surrounded by some of his staff, and actively engaged in superintending the attack, which was then in progress. His usual nervous energy was displayed in the intensity of his manner and the rapid and animated style of his conversation. He assured me that no additional orders could be given which could add to the vigor of the attack. He was acting with great earnestness, and doing his utmost to carry out the instructions which he had received. He had arrived at the front about two o’clock, and his plans had been as well matured as possible for the movement. Three redans, as well as a line of earthworks connecting them, were captured. The enemy felt the loss keenly, and made several desperate attempts during the night to recover the ground, but in this he did not succeed.”

At four in the morning they began to ferry over the 5th Corps; of this, two divisions were loaded from Wilcox’s wharf and two from a wharf near the bridge; the bridge itself being in constant use for the passage of the main train. The 5th Corps would then march on Petersburg and take position on the left of the 9th. . . . Our information was that part of Lee’s army, quitting Malvern Hill, had crossed at Drury’s Bluff and was moving on Petersburg. About nine o’clock the General, with Sanders and myself, went on board the ironclad Atlanta. The Captain sent a boat ashore and took us out in state. How sailor-like the Americans look, with their blue shirts and flat caps! And these poor infantry, artillery, and cavalry of ours, why, the more they serve, the less they look like soldiers and the more they resemble day-laborers who have bought second-hand military clothes. I have so come to associate good troops with dusty, faded suits, that I look with suspicion on anyone who has a stray bit of lace or other martial finery. . . .

At 10.30 General Humphreys and General Meade, taking only Sanders and myself, embarked on a boat with General Ingalls, for City Point. The boat started up the river with us, and we found it an hour’s trip to City Point. The river is very pretty, or rather fine, with banks that remind one of Narragansett Bay, going to Newport, only they are, I think, higher. . . . City Point is a jut of land at the junction of the Appomattox and the James. It must once have been a quite pretty place, and consisted of a large number of scattered private houses, several of them very good ones; especially that near which General Grant had his camp, which is just on the river. . . . Grant had gone to the front, some seven miles away, and we presently rode out on the Petersburg road, and met Grant returning,1 a couple of miles from the Point. It was on going out of the place that it occurred to me that someone had said that Hal’s regiment was there; so, as I passed a shipshape-looking camp, I asked, “What regiment is that?” “Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry,” said the darkie. “Is Colonel Russell there?” “No, sa-ar. He’s in der hospital. He was wounded yesterday!” I felt a quite cold perspiration, as I asked if he were badly hurt. The man thought not, but said he was hit in two places. It was tough to ride right past him so, but the General had but two aides; we were expecting a fight, and I had no business to stop in a road where I could not again find him. Meeting Colonel Rowley, however, I asked him to see that Hal had everything and to say that I would be in that night to see him. We rode on along an almost deserted road, till we crossed the rail, when we came on Burnside’s column, moving wearily along. The men had done awful marching in a dry country, with a hot sun and midst a stifling dust. I hate to see troops so used up. Passing through some woods, we again got to an open country, then went a little way more in woods, and came full on an open space in front of the captured line of works. . . . Just here Hancock had his flag and General Meade was soon busy consulting about an assault, which finally was ordered for six p.m. … From the place we then stood I could see two or three spires of the town. Of this attack I saw more than of most previous fights, or rather of the cannonade. The line of our batteries was in plain sight, a little in front of where General Meade took his stand, because the Rebels had long since cut down a wide zone of timber in their front, to get a good field of fire. It was a most striking sight! The air, hazy with dust, gave a copper-red color to the declining sun, which was soon heightened by the powder-smoke that rose from the batteries. The firing was very heavy and there was the continual whiz of our shells or those of the enemy. It is curious, but the scene reminded me of one of those stiff but faithful engravings of Napoleon’s battles that one sees in European collections; especially the artillerists loading and discharging their pieces. The musketry was pretty heavy too. Birney and part of the others carried the first line, but the assault was not a success such as we wanted; however, General Meade ordered a column of 5000 men to be prepared for a moonlight attack, which, as you will learn, took place at daylight next morning. The General had a quite narrow escape, as we stood watching; for a round shot came bounding over the country and hopped right in front of him and General Humphreys. The attack over, I asked leave to go in and see Harry, and the General told me I could have stopped when we came through had I asked then. So I got a fresh horse and two men and started. It was an elegant night, with a fine moon—quite perfect indeed. You could never have supposed yourself near a great army, after getting past the railroad. There was scarcely a soul on the route. As I got near the village there were some waggons going out to Butler, but these were pretty much all. Nobody halted me, though I rode past a picket guard and through the breastworks. It was not till I drew near Hal’s camp that his sentry roared out in a military voice, indicating much study of phonetics: “Halt! Who goes there?” Then came a corporal of the guard in due style. … I ascended the stairs of what had been a private house. It was about ten at night when I got in. There were a number of cots arranged in a large upper room, each occupied by a wounded officer. On the mantelpiece were medicine bottles, a pitcher of lemonade and a candle; and this was a ward. Master Hal lay fast asleep on one of the cots, quite unconscious of dusty brothers-in-law. . . . He was mightily glad to see me, and we talked some time, in a low voice, not to disturb others. I remember there was a wounded lieutenant next us, a good deal under morphine, who had a great fancy that Lee had captured our whole supply train. Finally I departed with a humble gift of two oranges and some tea, which I had brought in my holsters. . . .

Some of the works in front of Petersburg captured by the XVIII Corps Library of Congress).

Some of the works in front of Petersburg captured by the XVIII Corps Library of Congress).

Then to Headquarters and found General Grant just going to bed. He sat on the edge of his cot, in shirt and drawers, and listened to my report. I told him the General would put in a column of 5000 men of the 9th Corps, by moonlight. He smiled, like one who had done a clever thing, and said, “I think it is pretty well to get across a great river, and come up here and attack Lee in his rear before he is ready for us!” He prepared a despatch to General Meade, which I took back.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 163-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

On to Petersburg . . . Almost (June 15, 1864)

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Yet another of the Civil War’s lost opportunities, as described by Theodore Lyman. William F. “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps attack the Dimmock Line around Petersburg and appear in a position to make their victory complete, but Smith holds back. Instead of having Hancock and the II Corps, newly arrived, press the advantage, Smith has them fill in for his exhausted men. Here Lyman expresses surprise at the fighting qualities of the African-American troops he had disparaged just the month before. Although he still expresses condescending impressions of black soldiers, this is something of a step forward. He also mentions “Wise’s Legion,” which are the troops commanded by Meade’s brother-in-law, Henry Wise. A former governor of Virginia, Wise’s first wife had been Meade’s wife’s sister.

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James Riber (Library of Congress).

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James River (Library of Congress).

Of course, the first thing was to visit the great bridge. The approach to it lay along the river border, under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for, a day or two previous, it had been covered with great cypresses, some of them at least three and a half feet in diameter, and these had to be cut close to the ground, and the debris carefully cleared away; in a portion of the road too there was a muddy swamp, which had to be laboriously spanned by a causeway; but there was the whole thing, finished, and of course a photographer making a “picture” of it. It was very simple: you have only to fancy a bridge of boats, thirteen feet wide and 2000 long, the while looking so light as scarcely to be capable of bearing a man on horseback. In the middle of the river were anchored two schooners, which gave greater stability to the bridge, by being attached to it with ropes. What added to the strangeness of the scene was the ci-devant Rebel iron-clad Atlanta, lying there, like a big mud-turtle, with only its back exposed. The group was completed by two or three gunboats and several steamers anchored near by. It was funny to run against the marine in this inland region, and to see the naval officers, all so smug and well brushed in their clean uniforms. Admiral L[ee] came to visit the General—a pleasant old lady apparently. While we were at dinner came Colonel Babcock, from Grant at City Point, with news that Baldy Smith had marched thence before daylight, engaged the enemy at five a.m., and was driving them towards Petersburg. Orders were immediately given to halt the waggon-train, now passing the bridge, and allow the 9th Corps to pass over and push on towards Petersburg (by the same route that Hancock had been following, during the day), and there form on his left. Smith, meantime, had hit the enemy, some three or four miles from City Point, in a wood, near where the main road crossed the rail. . . . How many there were I do not know, but they made a considerable fight with help of field batteries. Harry [Lyman’s brother-in-law], with 300 of his men, had the extreme left, and was wounded in this wood, early in the engagement..

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

A soldier told me he held on for an hour after he was hit; and I was further told his men did remarkably well. Within about two and a half miles of the town, Smith ran on the strong works long since constructed for its defence. These consist of a series of redoubts, with regular ditches and barbettes for guns, and connected in a chain by a heavy infantry parapet. The line was defended by Wise’s men (who look to me just like other Confederate soldiers) and by the local militia. What a difference that makes!! Their batteries opened a well-directed fire as our people advanced; but no sooner did the lines of battle debouch from the woods and push over the open ground, than the militia got shaky behind their works and, when our troops charged, they broke and ran, leaving sixteen guns and 300 or 400 prisoners in our hands. Everyone gives great credit to the negroes for the spirit they showed. I believe there is no question their conduct was entirely to their credit. . . . I shall never forget meeting, on the City Point road, five Confederate soldiers, under guard of nigs! . . . Three of the prisoners looked as if they could have taken off a tenpenny nail, at a snap. The other two seemed to take a ludicrous view of the matter and were smiling sheepishly. As to the negroes, they were all teeth, so to speak, teeth with a black frame. Hancock got up that evening and joined the 18th Corps. Their troops were all exhausted, but, oh! that they had attacked at once. Petersburg would have gone like a rotten branch. In war there is a critical instant—a night—perhaps only a half hour, when everything culminates. He is the military genius who recognizes this instant and acts upon it, neither precipitating nor postponing the critical moment. There is thus good reason why great soldiers should be so rare that generations pass without producing a single one. A great soldier must have, in addition to all usual traits of intellect, a courage unmoved by the greatest danger, and cool under every emergency, and the quickness of lightning, not only in conceiving, but in enforcing an order. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 160-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.