“A Judicious Helping Hand” (November 6, 1864)

African-American soldiers make coffee in the Petersburg entrenchments (Library of Congress).

African-American soldiers make coffee in the Petersburg entrenchments (Library of Congress).

In his letter today, Theodore Lyman makes some interesting remarks about Meade’s attitude towards African-American soldiers (although Lyman, nineteenth-century white man that he is, does not use that term). Lyman’s older sister had married into the Shaw family, which included “the best Bob,” a.k.a. Robert Gould Shaw. “The best Bob” had died while leading the first black regiment raised in the northern states, the 54th Massachusetts, in South Carolina.

Brevet promotions are honorary raises in rank. As an unpaid volunteer, Lyman was not eligible. “Cool Arbor” is what Lyman, somewhat perversely, insisted on calling Cold Harbor, “because it is so hideously inappropriate.”

I was remarking in my last, a week ago to-day, that General Meade spoke of being obliged to write his report. Yes! as you say, it is a pity he can’t have some signal success. The Shaws need not be against him on the negro-soldier question, for if he has a bias, it is towards and not against them, and indeed it would go to the heart of the best Bob to see the punctilious way in which he returns their salutes. I can say with certainty that there is not a General in this army from whom the nigs might expect a judicious helping hand more than from Meade. As to his being slow, it may be so; but I can’t see that Grant, on whom rests this entire campaign, is any faster; yet he is a man of unquestioned military talent. If you knew, as I do, the number of men killed and wounded in this campaign from the Potomac Army alone, you would think that a strong opposition from the enemy had as much as anything to do with the want of crowning success thus far. To show what sort of work we have been through: at the assault of June 3d, at Cool Arbor, we lost, in four or five hours, 6000 men, in killed and wounded only. That is a specimen. Even in our move to the left, the other day, which some would call a reconnaissance, and others heavy skirmishing, we had a list of killed and wounded of not less than 1200. In fact, we cannot stir without losing more men than would make a big battle in the West, and the Rebels, if we have any chance at them, lose as many.

Last Sunday, which I was just speaking of, was marked by the arrival of one Alden, a rather dull Captain of the Adjutant-General’s Department, who was however a welcome bird to the army, as he brought a large number of brevets for many deserving officers. … To my surprise there did appear, or reappear, Major Duane, who has taken to visiting me as usual. He is better, but not well. To celebrate his arrival, and to retaliate for our rush into the Mine, the Rebs made a dash on our picket line, gobbled up some fifty stupids, who (being recruits) thought it was the relief coming round, and were then driven back; upon which, of course, every man fired off his musket a few times, to show how alert he was, the artillery threw all the shells whose fuses happened to be ready cut, and then all went to sleep again.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 256-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Politics (September 17, 1864)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. People remain baffled by politics and politicians today, even as George Meade was 150 years ago. No doubt he is responding to some comment of his wife’s about the upcoming presidential election, in which Abraham Lincoln is battling Democratic candidate George McClellan.

Robert Gould Shaw, who was related to Theodore Lyman by marriage (Library of Congress).

Robert Gould Shaw, who was related to Theodore Lyman by marriage (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman is sending notes and cigars to Meade because he remains in Boston on leave, where he has fallen ill. Lyman’s sister was married to Rowland Shaw, whose nephew was Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Shaw had been killed the previous July leading his African-American soldiers into battle outside Charleston, South Carolina.

I wish you would dismiss all politics from your mind; I think you allow yourself to be unnecessarily harassed about such matters. I fancy we shall be happy, never mind who is President, if God will only spare my life, restore me to you and the children, and graciously permit dear Sergeant’s health to be re-established. Besides, politics are so mixed up that, thinking about them, and trying to unravel their mysteries, is enough to set a quiet person crazy.

I got a nice note last evening, and a box, from Lyman. The box had five hundred cigars in it, which he said were a present from his patriotic sister, Mrs. Rowland Shaw, and his wife, so you see how I am honored. By-the-by, talking of presents, I have never suitably acknowledged Mr. Tier’s handsome present of a box of tea. I wish you would tell him it is most excellent, just the kind I like, and that all the members of my mess, including the French officers, one of whom served in China and is therefore a judge, are equally with myself delighted with the flavor and hold him in most honorable and grateful remembrance. Poor Colonel de Chanal has received letters from the Minister of War, who does not seem to be oversatisfied with his reports from the field, and wants more information about our arsenals and manufacture of arms and munitions; so the colonel is going to leave us, to travel; which I regret very much, as he does, for I believe he has become quite attached to our service and the officers of my staff.

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. 228-29. Available via Google Books.

Excellent Spirits (February 22, 1864)

For those who can’t get past the image of George Gordon Meade as “the old goggle-eyed snapping turtle,” the idea of the general cracking jokes and telling stories may come as a surprise. But such accounts provide the joy of reading Theodore Lyman’s accounts of his life with the Army of the Potomac and the detailed portraits of Meade and the other generals he encounters. Here he talks about not only Meade but also chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, another general with a temper (and an admirable command of profanity).

In this letter Lyman touches on the question of African-Americans serving in the army. Lyman was not in favor of it. Later in the spring he will write, “Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayoneted by the unsparing Southerners?” The idea that these may also be the black man’s battles did not seem to cross his mind. Ironically, one of Lyman’s Harvard friends had been Robert Gould Shaw, who will die commanding the black troops of the 54th Massachusetts.

The Mr. Kennedy of the Census Bureau was Joseph C.G. Kennedy, who served as the bureau’s head from 1853-1855 and again from 1860-1865. According to the bureau’s website, “Joseph Kennedy was a major innovator in census taking; specializing schedules to cover specific demographic areas and centralizing data processing to improve control and efficiency.”

A tale of two tempers: Meade and Humphreys (Library of Congress).

A tale of two tempers: Meade and Humphreys (Library of Congress).

General Meade is in excellent spirits and cracks a great many jokes and tells stories. You can’t tell how different he is when he has no movement on his mind, for then he is like a firework, always going bang at someone, and nobody ever knows who is going to catch it next, but all stand in a semi-terrified state. There is something sardonic in his natural disposition, which is an excellent thing in a commander; it makes people skip round so. General Humphreys is quite the contrary. He is most easy to get on with, for everybody; but, practically, he is just as hard as the Commander, for he has a tremendous temper, a great idea of military duty, and is very particular. When he does get wrathy, he sets his teeth and lets go a torrent of adjectives that must rather astonish those not used to little outbursts. There came down with the General (who returned yesterday from Washington) a Mr. Kennedy, Chief of the Census Bureau, a very intelligent man, full of figures. He can tell you how many people have pug noses in Newton Centre, and any other little thing you want. There was a bill passed in the House of Reps to raise 100,000 negro troops, from the free colored men of the North. When the bill came before the Senate, Mr. Kennedy sent in word that there were less than 50,000 colored men who were free and capable of bearing arms in the whole North, which rather squelched the bill! He says that the free negroes South increase hardly at all; while those in the North even decrease; but the slaves increase more than any other class. So I think it will be best to free the whole lot of them and then they will sort of fade out.

There are perfect shoals of womenkind now in the army — a good many, of course, in Culpeper, where they can live in houses. The rest of them must live a sort of Bedouin life. The only one I have seen of late is Mrs. Captain Commissary Coxe, for behold we had a service al fresco, near General Patrick’s tent. There was Mr. Rockwell as clergyman, quite a good preacher, and very ready to speak, nevertheless not too long in his remarks. I marched over with a camp-stool very solemnly. There were quite a collection of officers from the Headquarters, also a company of cavalry, which was marched down dismounted and stood meekly near by; for this cavalry belongs to General Patrick, and the General is pious, and so his men have to be meek and lowly. Likewise came some of the red-legs, or Zouaves, or 114th Pennsylvania, who finally had an air of men who had gone to a theatre and did not take an interest in the play. There too were some ladies, who were accommodated with a tent open in front, so as to allow them to see and hear. The band of the Zouaves sang the hymns and were quite musical. .. . To-night is a great ball of the 2d Corps. The General has gone to it; also General Humphreys. None of the Staff were invited, save George Meade, to the huge indignation of the said Staff and my great amusement.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 73-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.