Birney and Sleeper (November 12, 1864)

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Pictured (left to right)  are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan, Capt. J. Henry Sleeper, Capt. O'Neil W. Robinson, and artist  Alfred R. Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Personnel of the 10th MA Battery (and a guest), taken in December 1863 at Brandy Station. Capt. J. Henry Sleeper is second from left and artist/correspondent Alfred Waud is on the right. The other two men are Capt. Samuel A. McClellan (left) and Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman offers one of his finely observed letters today. We get his impressions of the late David Bell Birney and his account of a visit with Capt. Jacob Henry Sleeper of the 10th Massachusetts Battery. Sleeper was from Boston, where his father had been a founder of Boston University. His battery was attached to the II Corps. Sleeper had only recently returned to his unit after recovering from a wound he received at Reams Station, a battle in which his battery lost four guns.

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

We have the usual play of rumor about cabinets — everybody seems inclined to heave out Stanton: some to heave him up to the Supreme Court — some to heave him down to unknown depths of nothingness. Many would fain fancy Ben Butler in the chair of War, where he would be certain to make things spin either for good or for bad. How he will get on, across the James, I know not. He lost a strong man in Ord, wounded; and in Birney, dead, also: Birney was one who had many enemies, but, in my belief, we had few officers who could command 10,000 men as well as he. He was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair. As a General he took very good care of his Staff and saw they got due promotion. He was a man, too, who looked out for his own interests sharply and knew the mainsprings of military advancement. His unpopularity among some persons arose partly from his promotion, which, however, he deserved; and partly from his cold covert manner. I always felt safe when he had the division; it was always well put in and safely handled. The longer I am in the army, the more I see that great bodies of men take their whole tone from a few leaders, or even from one. I climbed on a horse and took a ride to visit Captain Sleeper, whose camp I easily recognized by its neat appearance. He always has things in a trig state about him. His own domicile was a small log cabin, with a neat brick chimney, very smooth-looking, but made in truth of only odd bits of brick, picked up at random and carefully fitted by a skilful Yank. The chimney-piece was of black walnut, made indeed from the leaf of an old table, discovered in the neighborhood. As to his tongs, a private, of prospective views, picked them up sometime last summer, and had carried them, ever since, in waggon! For arras he had artillery horse-blankets. The Sleeper is now more content, having his battery full, new sergeants appointed, and a prospect of officers. His only grief is that with three years’ service and many battles he is only a captain. You see Massachusetts has not her batteries in a regiment and can’t have field officers. So Sleeper’s only hope is a brevet.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 266-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Every Satisfaction (August 26, 1864)

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

As mentioned yesterday, the Battle of Reams Station was an embarrassment for Winfield Scott Hancock and the II Corps. In his history of the II Corps, Francis A. Walker quoted Charles Morgan, Hancock’s chief of staff, as saying, “It is not surprising that General Hancock was deeply stirred by the situation, for it was the first time he had felt the bitterness of defeat during the war. He had seen his troops fail in their attempts to carry the intrenched positions of the enemy; but he had never before had the mortification of seeing them driven, and his lines and guns taken, as on this occasion. . . . Never before had he seen his men fail to respond to the utmost when he had called upon them personally for a supreme effort; nor had he ever before ridden toward the enemy followed by a beggarly array of a few hundred stragglers who had been gathered together and again pushed toward the enemy. He could no longer conceal from himself that his once mighty corps retained but the shadow of its former strength and vigor.” Walker, who was taken prisoner during the battle, blamed Meade, in part, for not reinforcing Hancock.

After the defeat, Meade sent a note to Hancock. “No one sympathizes with you more than I do in the misfortunes of this evening,” he wrote. “I am satisfied you and your command have done all in your power, and though you have met with a reverse, the honor and escutcheon of the old Second is as bright as ever, and will, on some future occasion, prove it is only when enormous odds are brought against them that they can be moved.

Don’t let this matter worry you, because you have given me every satisfaction.”

I have been for several days very much occupied, in the saddle all day, superintending the movements culminating in our securing a permanent lodgment on the Weldon Road. I think I wrote you of Warren’s movements and his fights, which, although attended with heavy losses in prisoners, yet resulted in our retaining our hold and eventually inflicting great damage on the enemy. Soon after Warren was in position, Hancock was brought from the north side of the James, and placed on the railroad, with two divisions of infantry and one of cavalry, and commenced the work of destroying the road. He had only destroyed about seven or eight miles, when the enemy, yesterday, attacked him with great vehemence and superior numbers. Hancock was in a good position, and repulsed all their attacks till about dark, when, becoming desperate, they hurled such masses against him, they were enabled to carry a small portion of his lines and a battery of eight guns. As soon as I found how heavily he was attacked, I hurried up reinforcements to him, but the distance was so great they did not arrive till after dark. Hancock’s object, the destruction of the road, being frustrated, he was withdrawn at night. This was the only unfortunate part of the affair, for we this morning ascertained from some of our men who remained on the field that the enemy retired also during the night, leaving their wounded, with their dead unburied. It is said to be one of the severest battles of the war, and the enemy, being the attacking party, suffered terribly, our losses being comparatively light. Still, the loss of guns and our withdrawal will tell against us, though I would do the same thing to-morrow, and willingly lose guns, to make the enemy lose five killed and wounded to our one. Hancock expressed himself as confident of maintaining his position, and did not call for reinforcements, which I nevertheless sent as soon as I found how heavily he was engaged, and he now says he ought to have kept his lines intact, and would have done so but for the bad conduct of a part of his command, giving away when there was no excuse for it. After withdrawing, the enemy retired within his lines at Petersburg, and will, I think, let us alone for some time, and will hardly try for some time the plan of attacking us. These frequent affairs are gradually thinning both armies, and if we can only manage to make the enemy lose more than we do, we will win in the long run, but unfortunately, the offensive being forced on us, causes us to seek battle on the enemy’s terms, and our losses are accordingly the greatest, except when they come out and attack, as recently, when they always get the worst of it.

In his journal entry from August 25, Theodore Lyman wrote that Meade and Hancock had “an almost sharp talk” about Hancock’s support at Reams Station and that Hancock had said, “I would never ask for reinforcements!” Lyman felt this was “a brave but not a soldierly remark.” In his notes for the book of Lyman’s journals (Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman), editor David W. Lowe cites Francis Walker’s criticism of Meade’s handling of Reams Station. “If Meade did not intend to fight, Hancock should have been withdrawn,” Walker had written. “If he did intend to fight, Hancock should have been powerfully reinforced.” Added Lowe, “In hindsight, the criticism holds weight; Meade was lulled by Hancock’s bravado.”

It may be laid down as a general principle, that it is a bad thing, in a musket or a man, to go off at half-cock. In some respects I may be said so to have done in my letter last night. Our information this morning shows that, after dark, while we marched off the ground one way, the enemy marched off the other, leaving their dead unburied and some wounded. Accounts of the field show their loss to have been fearful, much greater than ours, which was not serious either in killed, wounded or prisoners. Thus, all the strategic results lie with us, and we hold the Weldon road. But I would not have you believe I was disposed to turn about and crow. No! I do not so much mind the loss of the guns—a mere matter of prestige—but I do mind the fact that the 2d Corps men did not all fight as they should have fought; had they done so, the Rebels (who I suppose were about as three to two) could never have budged them. As Major Mitchell observed: “The Rebels licked us, but a dozen more such lickings and there will be nothing left of the Rebel army!” My gracious, what a donkey am I to be solemnly sending a telegraph, when I have not been in a single fight. I felt like a donkey at the time, but I thought you would be fussing and imagining, because there had been fighting in various directions. But I will not be so silly in future. And there is your mother, bless her heart! thanking God I am safe out of it, when I have not been in it! Really, I feel it almost my duty to go on the picket line and get shot at by a grey-back, for the sake of doing something! Yes, ma’am, thirty-one is quite an old man, but I am “so as to be about,” can ride a horse and hold up my head; and, as the late T remarked, when he proposed, “I am good for ten years,” which turned out to be true (to the regret of Mrs. T.), for he lived twenty-five years after and begat sons and daughters. You must thank Madre* from me for the present of “Forbes’s Naked-eyed Medusa.” Tell her, also, that, having neglected my natural history for three years, [much] of which has been devoted to becoming semi-idiotic from having nothing to do but listen to cannon and mortars and rifles, and associate with young gentlemen still further advanced in semi-idiocy, I have not a clear idea of what a Medusa is; but am impressed with the notion that it is something flabby that lives in the sea.
*Lyman’s mother-in-law

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. 224-25. 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. 225-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Daily Dose of Arsenic (August 25, 1864)

reamsThe Battle of Reams Station was a serious embarrassment for Winfield Scott Hancock and the II Corps. Hancock’s men were following up Warren’s capture of the Weldon Railroad by moving south down the line and tearing up the rails, when they received word that elements of A. P. Hill’s corps were heading their way. On August 25 the Federals managed to beat back the first attacks, but then their lines crumbled. The proud Hancock, humiliated by the behavior of his soldiers, told one of his staff officers, “Colonel, I do not care to die, but I pray to God I may never leave this field.” God must not have been listening, for Hancock was forced to retreat. Theodore Lyman wrote about the battle on August 25; we’ll see what Meade has to say tomorrow.

There has been more fighting to-day. Hancock, at Reams’ station, was destroying the railroad (Weldon) and holding a position, also, for defence, having two of his divisions of infantry, besides Gregg’s cavalry. The Rebels sent down a large force to drive him off. They began attacking say about one o’clock and were severely repulsed,. till evening; but the last news is, that they made a desperate attempt on all sides and broke through a part of our right, just at nightfall. Hancock hoped to retake the part of the line lost, with the reinforcements coming up; but we have not yet heard the result. I feel rather anxious, though I don’t fear for Hancock’s safety; but I like to see him fully successful. Oh, bah! Captain Miller is just in (this is eleven o’clock at night). Hancock has lost eight guns—among them, I am told, Sleeper’s battery. Poor Sleeper was here this afternoon, wounded in the arm. It is too much all one way in this business, it really is! I don’t like to complain, because it troubles you, but it must break out occasionally. I get so mad and so bothered. For, when we have no good chance, or almost none, when our best undertakings fall through, I lose confidence in each move, and, when I hear the cannon, I look for nothing but our men coming back and a beggarly report of loss of prisoners. It is not right to feel so, but I can’t help it. When a man gets knocked down every time, he expects to go down the next. Well, well, well, I feel already a little better at this grumbling. I must be a sorry eel if I am not yet used to this sort of skinning. I like to see General Meade. I think these contretemps rather rouse and wind him up; he doesn’t seem to be depressed by that sort of thing; perhaps three years of it have made it necessary to his life, just as some persons enjoy a daily portion of arsenic.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 224-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Engineers (August 23, 1864)

George Cullum

General George Washington Cullum (Library of Congress).

James C. Duane, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer, took a liking to Theodore Lyman and liked to spend time with him. Here he shares a story with Lyman about another army engineer, General George Cullum. The fort in question is Fort Trumbull, today a Connecticut state park. Cullum, who grew up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, served as the superintendent of the West Point Military Academy from 1864-1866. He later married Henry Halleck’s widow. Lyman also provides a quick glimpse of Meade in full “Great Peppery” mode. In his journal, Lyman wrote that Meade “was in a mood to ‘rake’ people.” He also noted that Butler’s assistant adjutant general, who was supposed to send coffee through enemy lines to prisoners Joseph Hayes and Arthur Sedgwick, never sent it and did not return Lyman’s money! In addition, the journal entry mentioned Winfield Scott Hancock and the II Corps preparing to march to Reams Station, some inadvertently ominous foreshadowing.

Major Duane, who visits me much of evenings, because he can’t use his eyes, told me a story of Captain Cullum (now General Cullum) that I thought eminently Cullumish. Cullum was building a small fort at New London and was visited by a country editor, whom he received with high state and gave a lecture on the principles of fortification, after showing the small work on which he was engaged. He took as an example a large bastioned fort, and showed how it could be breached in forty days; and how the defenders would then make an interior line and drive out the stormers when they got inside the first. The editor, taking all this as applicable to the New London work, went home and published a tremendous leader, in which he said that the talented Captain Cullum was erecting the largest bastion fort in the world; that it would take you forty days to get inside it, and, when you were inside, you were worse off than you were before! The General rode along a new line we had been making, principally the work of the nigs, who are very faithful at making a breastwork and slashing the timber in front. A colonel or two got well pitched into for not having their men with their belts on and ready for action. I do believe our soldiers would sooner run the risk of getting shot twice a day, than take any little precaution. To-day I performed an act of military charity, by sending, per flag-of-truce boat, some coffee and sugar to Joe Hayes and Arthur Sedgwick.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 223-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.