Our Usual Little Picnic (April 8, 1865)

A Timothy O'Sullivan photo of the High Bridge (Library of Congress).

A Timothy O’Sullivan photo of the High Bridge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman recounts the penultimate day of the pursuit of Robert E. Lee. The General Williams who brought Grant’s message through the lines was Seth Williams, who had once served as Meade’s assistant adjutant general and is now on Grant’s staff. The much-liked Williams was a native of Augusta, Maine. Stute’s house, where Meade and Grant stayed on the night before Lee’s surrender, is also known as Clifton. It still stands today. Richard Ewell had been captured at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. He told his captors that Lee should surrender. The Washburne Lyman mentions is Col. Francis Washburne of the 4th MA Cavalry. His attempt to burn the High Bridge before the Confederates could cross it was unsuccessful.

Here’s a short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, about what happened while Grant and Meade were sleeping at Clifton:

“Sometime after midnight the occupants of the house heard the soldiers outside on guard duty challenge an approaching rider, followed by the sounds of spurs and the rattling of a saber from someone on the porch. It was a messenger with a reply from Lee. ‘I received at a late hour your note of to-day,’ it read. ‘In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end.’ Lee was saying he would not meet to surrender his army, but he would like to hear Grant’s proposals.

“Grant replied to Lee, keeping the delicate negotiations alive. He said a meeting would do no good, as he had no authority to discuss the general subject of peace. ‘I will state, however, general, that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed.'”

We have been making our usual little picnic to-day—say nineteen miles—and have got about half-way between Burkeville Junction and Lynchburg. Did you ever see that Washburn, Colonel in Louis Cabot’s regiment, rather a well-looking young man? He was sent the day before yesterday, by Ord, from Burkeville Junction, with a small infantry and cavalry force, to destroy the Farmville bridges, to keep back the Rebels and head them off; but he found the enemy there before him; they attacked him, got him in the forks of two runs and killed or took most of his command, after a really desperate fight; Washburn getting a bullet through the cheeks and a sabre cut in the head. Then the Rebels crossed from Farmville to the other side and then they burnt the bridges in our faces. Last night was a white frost, as my toes, under the blankets, suggested to me in the morning. We left betimes, before six, to wit; for we had to get all the way back to High Bridge and then begin our march thence. After crossing the river beside the bridge (whereof the last three spans had been burnt by the enemy), we bore to the right, into the pine woods, then kept to the left, through a poor wood road, and emerged on the main road, about a mile east of the Piedmont coal mine, just as Humphreys’s rear guard were marching on. As they had supposed, the enemy had retreated during the night and now we looked forward to a day’s stern chase. At the coal mine we found General Humphreys, wearing much the expression of an irascible pointer, he having been out on several roads, ahead of his column, and getting down on his knees and peering at foot-tracks, through his spectacles, to determine by which the main body had retreated. Here we got a great excitement, on learning that, last night, General Williams had conveyed a note from Grant to Lee, demanding his surrender. That, furthermore, Lee had made a reply, and that now General Williams had just gone forward, with a flag, to send an answer. All this looked favorable and gave a new aspect to the whole question! The original idea of sending a note came from the language used by Ewell and his Staff, captured on the 6th. These officers had stated that their position was hopeless and that Lee might surrender, if summoned. The good Williams’s mission came near being fatal to the messenger of peace; for, as he got in sight of the rear Rebel videttes and was waving away, to attract their attention, they shot at him and wounded his orderly. However, he persevered, and, with a little care, got his note delivered.

We now trotted along what had been, years since, a fine stage road; but the present condition was not exactly favorable to waggons with delicate springs—the road at present being playfully variegated with boulders, three feet high, which had inconvenienced the Rebel trains, as many a burnt waggon testified. Toiling along past the trains in rear of the Second Corps, we were caught by General Grant, who was in high spirits, and addressed General Meade as “Old Fellow.” Both Staffs halted for the night at Stute’s house, and, as Grant’s waggons could not get up, we fed him and his officers and lent them blankets. Grant had one of his sick headaches, which are rare, but cause him fearful pain, such as almost overcomes even his iron stoicism. To show how really amiable he is, he let the officers drum on the family piano a long while before he even would hint he didn’t like it. Towards sundown we could hear rapid artillery from direction of Appomattox Station, which made us anxious; for we knew it was Sheridan, and could not know the result.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 353-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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Very Little Going On (January 22, 1865)

After writing this letter, General Meade left for Philadelphia. He reached there on January 28 and left to return to the army two days later. The main purpose for his visit was his oldest son, John Sergeant, who was near death with tuberculosis. Markoe Bache is Meade’s nephew and serves on the general’s staff; we have had of him before.

Markoe Bache, Meade's nephew (Library of Congress).

Markoe Bache, Meade’s nephew (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman remains in Boston. On January 18 he had received a letter from Meade, giving him permission to stay there indefinitely. “He is low in spirits, being anxious about his confirmation, and what is worse is eldest son is very low,” Lyman noted. The general also asked his aide to use what influence he had in Massachusetts to move Meade’s promotion forward, so Lyman wrote to Senators Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson and businessman John Murray Forbes and met personally with Governor John A. Andrews. Lyman also noted that Seth Williams, the extremely capable assistant adjutant-general for the Army of the Potomac, had been promoted by Grant to be the army inspector general. You can read all of Lyman’s journal entries in Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, edited by David W. Lowe (Kent State University Press, 2007). Highly recommended!

There is very little going on here. We have had a violent storm of rain. Grant is still away, and I have heard nothing from Markoe Bache, so that I am ignorant of what turn affairs are taking in Washington. I received a letter yesterday from Cram, enclosing me one from a correspondent in Washington, who advises him (Cram) that he has been reliably informed that I am likely to be rejected. Still, this may be a street rumor, circulated by those who want this result.

To-day Bishop Lee, of Delaware, held service in the chapel tent at these headquarters, and gave us a very good sermon. He came here with Bishop Janeway, of the Methodist Church, and a Mr. Jones, a lawyer from Philadelphia, who were a commission asking admission into the rebel lines, to visit our poor prisoners in their hands to relieve their spiritual wants; but I believe the Confederate authorities declined.

The Richmond papers are very severe on Davis, and there is every indication of discord among them. I hope to Heaven this will incline them to peace, and that there may be some truth in the many reports in the papers that something is going on!

(General Meade left head-quarters for Philadelphia where he arrived January 28. He left Philadelphia on the 30th.)

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. 257-8. Available via Google Books.

A Well-Conducted Fizzle (October 28, 1864)

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

In his letter of October 28, Theodore Lyman describes the frustrating experiences of the fighting at Burgess’s Mill and captures the sense of confusion that ruled the battlefield. The fighting had been done by the II, V, and IX Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock, Gouverneur Warren, and Charles Parke, with cavalry commanded by David McMurtrie Gregg. Charles Woolsey, whose escape from capture Lyman describes, served as an aide to Seth Williams, the army’s assistant adjutant-general.

Where do you think I am? Why, right by my dear chimney! All camped just where we were! I called our movement a grand reconnaissance in force; it would be more fair to call it an “attempt,” whose success depended on the enemy not having certain advantages of position. But they were found to have these advantages, and so here we are back again, nobody having fought much but Hancock, who had a most mixed-up and really severe action, on the extreme left, in which the Rebels got rather the worst of it; but Grant ordered Hancock to withdraw during the night, or early in the morning, by which he was compelled to leave some of his wounded in a house on the field. Warren would fain fight it out there, for the name of the thing; but that would have been bad strategy, though I do confess that (albeit not a fire-eater) I would sooner have seen it through the next day, by reinforcing the left. This, however, is a mere matter of sentiment; certainly I don’t set up my wisdom. As the Mine was to be termed an ill-conducted fizzle, so this attempt may be called a well-conducted fizzle. The Rebs are good engineers and had thrown up dirt scientifically, I can tell you. We got a pretty good handful of prisoners; I dare say 800 or so, and lost, including stragglers, I fancy as many, though they say we did not. The killed and wounded about equal; perhaps the enemy lost rather more than we; but the honors of the left lie with the enemy, for we abandoned the field in the night. To-day we marched back scientifically (we are hard to beat on a retreat I can tell you). The 9th and 5th Corps withdrew by successive lines of battle, one behind the other, and alternately marching to the rear, the front line passing through that behind. A very handsome manoeuvre; and the enemy, with relief, said good riddance. I do not feel anywise down in spirits, for we gave blow for blow, and came back when we saw the positions would not admit of the plan proposed. There was no blunder or disaster, but it was soldier-like. The General kept a good temper throughout, so that it was quite pleasant all round.

[In writing some days later, Lyman thus describes the country over which this engagement was fought:] The tract marked “dense wood” on my map beggars description. It is a wood, with a tangled, thick undergrowth that almost stops the passage of a man. The rest of the country is also much wooded, but wherever you see a house, there is a farm of greater or less size. [After a more detailed description of the fighting, he continues:] Mott’s men give way, the Rebels yell and their batteries open a cross-fire, and the enemy the other side of the run make as if to attack the 2d division in front. But the valiant Egan faces his line to the rear and charges the flank of the Rebels rushing from the woods; they are in turn smashed up and run back again, and a grand mixed-up fight takes place, in the midst of which Hampton’s cavalry falls furiously upon Gregg, who falls furiously upon him, and won’t budge an inch. The most singular things happened here; for, as the woods were full of broken bands of both parties, everybody captured everybody else, and was in turn captured! A good many parties of Rebels, carrying our prisoners to the rear, took wrong direction and fell into the open maw of Crawford. Lieutenant Woolsey, General Williams’s aide, in such an affair, showed a valor little to be looked for in so mild a youth. He was going along a wood road and came directly upon twelve Rebel cavalry; all cried “Halt! surrender!” to him, and two fired their carbines at him; Woolsey snapped his pistol at them, when one seized him round the waist; whereat W. hit him a back-handed blow on the bridge of his nose, put in the spurs, and actually broke away from the whole of them! When I asked him why he didn’t give up, he replied in a simple manner: “Why, I thought my mother would be much distressed if I was taken prisoner, so I thought it would perhaps be better not to surrender.” General Williams was in the greatest state of chuckle over his aide’s conduct, and kept asking unwary persons: “Do you know how Mr. Woolsey escaped from guerillas?” and, being answered “No,” would say:”Why, thus!” at the same time giving the unwary one a punch in the stomach, with his elbow. Then Major Roebling rode into a Rebel line of battle and had his orderly killed in his escape; Major Bingham was captured, but scared his guard so by telling him he was within our lines, that the man took to the bushes and left him. Lieutenant Dresser rode into the midst of a Rebel brigade, thinking they were prisoners. “Where is the Provost Guard?” asked D., who luckily had a gray rubber coat on. “Hain’t got none.” “What troops are these?” “Fourth Alabama.” “Oh, all right,” says Dresser, with presence of mind, and rides off, very slow at first, and very fast as soon as out of sight! The best feat was that of Major Mitchell (he always does perform feats). He rode into the woods, saw 200 Rebel infantry who had got lost, and were drawn up in line; came back, got a regiment, went out again and gobbled them all up. . . .

[The letter finishes with a lively description of some curious visitors to Headquarters.]

I had got safely to the Peeble house and was watching the columns as they marched in. I was still watching when suddenly there appeared a new comico-military procession: to wit, a venerable Brigadier, of a diluted visage, followed by two or three officers, and by two beings calculated to astonish the uninitiated. The first was simply gorgeous, not of dubious character, but evidently an officer of one of those theatrical French indigene regiments. He was tightly done up in a black jacket, all over which five hundred yards of fine black braid had gone into spasmodic convulsions; then black trousers with a wide scarlet stripe, morocco knee-boots, and a light blue kepi. To complete his costume, a row of medals stretched from his central buttonhole to the point of his shoulder! The second stranger was utterly incomprehensible. He had on a pair of red, military trousers, a red fez with a blue tassel, and a black dresscoat! In order to mark this simple costume, he had, with admirable taste, suspended a small stiletto from the lower buttonhole of his waistcoat. The kepi was presented as Chef-de-bataillon de Boissac; the fez as Vicomte de Montbarthe. Upon which, to myself within myself said I: strike out the “de” and Boissac is correct; strike out “Vicomte” and substitute “Corporal” and we shall be pretty near Mr. Fez. He was one of the vulgarest of vulgar Frenchmen, and a fool into the bargain. De Boissac was a type, and I fancy the real thing; a regular, chatty, boastful, conceited, bright little Gaul, who had been in China, the Crimea, Italy, Japan, and Africa, and had worn the hair off his little bullet head with serving in various climes. “I was promoted to be Chef-de-bataillon,” said kepi (just as if I had asked anything about it), “for having planted the flag, alone, on the rampart! My comrades cry to me, ‘Descend! descend!’ I reply, ‘Non! j’y suis!’“ “And I,” chimed in fez, “received the cross for repelling, with forty men, four hundred Austrians: wounded twice in the leg, I lay on the field and the Emperor himself pinned the cross on my breast!” I could not help thinking what a pity it was that the wounds had not been higher up, whereby the Emperor would have been saved the expense of a cross, and I the trouble of listening to his stories. These two brave bucks were travelling on their good looks, having got down, the Lord knows how, with no letters to anybody; yet they dined with General Meade, and passed the night in camp; passed another night at General Davies’, and, the last I heard of them, were pledging General Hancock in the national whiskey! … I omitted to mention a third ornament to military life, a gent with eagles on his shoulders, who, on enquiry, turned out to be a brother militia man, and a great credit to the service, as he perilled his life daily, in the state of New York, as General Sanford’s aide (commanding state militia), and now was visiting the army to see that justice was done to deserving non-commissioned officers in the way of promotion. Et puis?—thought T. L. Yes, that was to electioneer the regiments in favor of the Republican candidate for governor, in case of whose election, he, Colonel D , was to be Quartermaster-General! He had not only cheek enough for this, but enough to spare to come and stay all night at Headquarters, and take his meals there, without the breath of an invitation!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 251-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Leaves (August 28, 1864)

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

After today we won’t be hearing from George Meade for a little while. Our loss is the general’s gain, for, despite what he says in the last line of this letter, he does receive permission to go home on leave. He departs camp on September 1 and reaches Philadelphia two days later. He will begin his return trip on September 7, with a stop in Washington, D.C.

The court of inquiry to which he refers is the one regarding the Battle of the Crater.

I received this evening yours of the 26th. In it you acknowledge the receipt, per Mr. England, of my testimony before the court of inquiry. The sittings of the court have been interrupted by our recent movements, but to-morrow they are to be resumed, and I trust they will push matters to a close and come to some conclusion before they are again interrupted.

I have written you of the fighting that has been going on for a week past. It has been quiet for the last two days. The enemy having left us in undisturbed possession of the railroad so long, our position is strengthened to such a degree he could not now drive us away. This is a great point gained, and we are satisfied with its accomplishment, notwithstanding it entailed heavy losses on us, particularly in prisoners. Poor young Grossman belonged to the regulars, and was killed in the first day’s fight on the railroad. I understand he was shot in the head, being unconscious from the moment of receiving his wound till he expired, which occurred soon after. I believe he had not joined very long, and I was not aware of his being here. I sympathize most sincerely with his afflicted parents, but this is one of those dispensations that are almost daily taking place here.

Julia Grant, in a photo taken after the war (Library of Congress).

Julia Grant, in a photo taken after the war (Library of Congress).

I understand General Grant has been to Fortress Monroe and returned to-day with his wife and children. He has one little girl, and either two or three boys. He seems very much attached to his children, and his wife is said to possess a great deal of good sense, and to have exercised a most salutary effect over him. I do not know why she has given up St. Louis, her native place, but Grant told me the other day he intended to keep his family in Philadelphia for the next few years, probably for the education of his children.

I think we shall be quiet for some time, unless the enemy attacks, which I hardly think probable. Butler is away now, but when he returns I shall make an effort to get off for a few days, to have a peep at you and the children; but don’t rely too much on my coming.

Theodore Lyman’s letter of August 27 is also the last we shall hear from him for a while. As the book of his letters explains, “The next day Lyman was surprised to have Meade say to him. ‘I think I must order you home to get me some cigars, mine are nearly out!’ But, as the former remarked, ‘It’s hard to surprise a man out of going home, after a five months’ campaign.’

“General [Seth] Williams gravely prepared a fifteen-day leave, and the aides tendered their congratulations. Lyman was bound for Richmond on secret service! So the Staff persuaded the inquisitive [James] Biddle, who talked about it all over camp, and got very mad when undeceived. He recovered, however, when tendered a cocktail as a peace offering.

“Lyman’s visit to the North proved longer than he expected. For, shortly after his arrival in Beverly, where Mrs. Lyman was passing the summer, he had an attack of malaria which kept him in bed for some time. According to the doctors, ‘The northern air, with the late cool change, had brought to the surface the malaria in the system.’ Consequently, he was not able to rejoin the army until the end of September.

“Meanwhile, the gloom was lifting, that had settled on the North after the failure to take Petersburg. For Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, and Sheridan’s victories over Early in the Shenandoah, had somewhat changed the situation, although the Army of the Potomac still lay before Petersburg, where it hovered for many weary months.”

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. 225-26. Available via Google Books.

Superior Men (August 20, 1864)

The struggle for control of the Weldon Railroad continues, as Gouverneur Warren retains his hold on that vital line. Theodore Lyman reports.

Dr. Thomas Andrew McParlin, the Army of the Potomac's medical director, in a sketch by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Dr. Thomas Andrew McParlin, the Army of the Potomac’s medical director, in a sketch by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

A brigade of cavalry passed last night, coming from Deep Bottom, and reported this morning to General Warren, to cover his flank and rear, and help destroy the railroad. A Lieutenant McKibbin, who once went out with me on a flag of truce, was badly hit in the shoulder yesterday. He is a curious young man and belongs to a very fighting family. Being the son of a hotel-keeper, he joined the army as a sutler; but, at the battle of Gaines’s Mill, as soon as the musketry began, he deliberately anointed his tent with butter, set the whole shop on fire, took a gun and went into the fight, where he presently got a bullet, that entered on one side of his nose and came out under his ear! Thereupon he received a commission in the regulars, where he still remains. . . . There was rain still to-day, making the ground so bad that orders were finally issued that no waggons should go west of the plank road, all stores being sent thence on pack mules. In the morning came a couple of hundred Rebel prisoners, taken yesterday. Among them were a number of their Maryland brigade, quite well dressed and superior men, many of them. They were very civil, but evidently more touchy than the extreme Southerners, who exhibit no feeling at all. These Marylanders, however, were very anxious to say they were fighting hard when taken, which I don’t doubt they were. They had the remains of fancy clothes on, including little kepis, half grey and half sky-blue. There was one officer who was next-door neighbor of Dr. McParlin, our Medical Director, and the Doctor went to see him. General [Seth] Williams has just been in. His great delight is to rub the fuzz on top of my head with his finger, and exclaim: “Wonder what color the baby’s hair is going to be!”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 220-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Anxiety (September 30, 1863)

Sir Henry Holland, travel writer and Royal physician (via Wikipedia).

Sir Henry Holland, travel writer and Royal physician (via Wikipedia).

In an earlier letter Theodore Lyman mentioned Sir Henry Holland, the British Royal Physician who was visiting the Army of the Potomac. Besides being a medical man who attended the British royal family, Holland was also a noted travel writer whose books included Travels in the Ionian Isles, Albania, Thessaly, Macedonia, &c. During the Years 1812-1813. He died in 1873. (To see what Holland wrote about his visit, see below.)

Meade obviously had other things than British visitors on his mind, as this letter to his wife indicates.

I am sorry to see you so anxious about me, because it is impossible to keep you constantly advised of what is going on, and your imagination undoubtedly makes matters worse. You must try and be resigned, and not anticipate evil, but wait for its actual arrival. My position is of course liable to misconstruction so long as the public are ignorant of the truth, but the time will come when they will be enlightened, and then I shall be all right. Of course, if people believe that Lee has no army, and that I have an immense one, it is hard to expect them not to inquire why I do not do something; but when they come to know that just as I was about trying to do something, my army was suddenly reduced to a figure a little greater only than Lee’s, and that he occupies a very strong position, where the natural advantages in his favor more than equalize the difference in our forces, they will understand why I cannot do anything. I have remained here to offer Lee battle if he chooses to come out of his stronghold, and to prevent by my threatening attitude his sending any more troops to Bragg. Whether I will get any credit for this is perhaps questionable. The whole matter, however, reverts to what I have always told you, that I intend to act up to the French motto, “Faites bien, laissez dire.”

I don’t think I wrote to you that I had a very pleasant visit from a General Cortez, of the Mexican army, who came here with letters from the Secretaries of State and War. He spent a day with me, and I took him around the camps and showed him different portions of the army, and he went away much gratified. I also had a visit from Sir Henry Holland, physician to the Queen of England. He was a very agreeable, intelligent gentleman, over seventy years of age, who had crossed the Atlantic fourteen times. He seemed greatly interested with everything we showed him.

To-day Gouverneur Paulding and a Dr. Young, of Cold Spring, New York, have been here to present General Warren with a sword. Paulding I have known from a boy, and Dr. Young married a daughter of old Parson Hawley, of Washington. They also have been delighted with their visit.

Here’s Lyman’s letter from September 29. He touches on some of the same topics, but in a much livelier style. He also mentions Seth Williams, the army’s assistant adjutant general. Like me, Williams was born in Augusta, Maine. He was apparently much liked in the army for I never found anyone who had a bad word to say about him. Lyman also mentions General Henry Benham, whom we have encountered on this blog before. From this brief mention it does not appear that Benham had cleaned up his act since his disgraceful appearance during the Chancellorsville campaign. Channing Clapp was one of Lyman’s Harvard classmates.

Seth Williams of Augusta, Maine (National Archives).

Seth Williams of Augusta, Maine (National Archives).

I see such flocks of generals now, that I do not always take the pains to describe them. On Sunday there arrived General Benham, one of the dirtiest and most ramshackle parties I ever saw. Behind him walked his Adjutant General, a great contrast, in all respects, being a trig, broad-shouldered officer, with a fierce moustache and imperial and a big clanking sabre. I gazed at this Adjutant General and he at me, and gradually, through the military fierceness, there peeped forth the formerly pacific expression of Channing Clapp! There never was such a change, Achilles and all other warlike persons; and is much improved withal. That same evening enter another general (distinguished foreigner this time), El General Jose Cortez, chevalier of some sort of red ribbon and possessor of a bad hat. He was accompanied by two eminent Senors, Mexicans and patriotic exiles. We were out riding when they came; but, after our return, and in the midst of dinner, there comes an orderly with a big official envelope, proving to be a recommendation from Mr. Seward. “Oh,” says the General, “another lot, hey? Well, I suppose they will be along to-morrow”; and went on quietly eating dinner. Afterwards I went into the office of General Williams (or “Seth” as they call him here) and there beheld, sitting in a corner, three forlorn figures. Nobody seemed to know who they were, but the opinion prevailed that they were a deputation of sutlers, who were expected about that time! But I, hearing certain tones of melancholy Spanish, did presently infer that they were the parties mentioned in the big, official envelope, and so it proved! They were speedily entered into the General’s presence and, after a few compliments, anxiously asked when the next train left for Washington; for it appears that they had supposed Culpeper was a pleasant jaunt of about fifteen minutes from the Capitol, and was furnished with elegant hotels and other conveniences; consequently they had brought no sac de nuit, and had had nothing to eat since early morning, it being then dark! Their surprise was considerable, after a weary ride of some hours, to be dumped in a third rate village, deserted by its inhabitants and swarming with dusty infantry. John made ready with speed, and, after a meal and a bottle of champagne, it was surprising to see how their barometers rose, especially that of small Sefior, No. 2, who launched forth in a flood of eulogium on the state of civil liberty in the United States. Our next care was to provide them sleeping-accommodations; no easy matter in the presence of the fact that each has barely enough for himself down here. But I succeeded in getting two stretchers from the hospital (such as are used to bring in the wounded from the field) and a cot from Major Biddle; three pillows (two india-rubber and one feather) were then discovered, and these, with blankets, one tin basin, one bucket, and one towel, made them entirely happy. Really, how they looked so fresh next morning was quite a marvel. Then, after a good breakfast, we put them all on horseback (to the great uneasiness of the two Sefiors) and followed by a great crowd of a Staff (who never can be made to ride, except in the higglety-pigglety style in which “Napoleon et ses Marechaux” are always represented in the common engravings), we jogged off, raising clouds of red dust, to take a look at some soldiers. … El General was highly pleased and kept taking off his bad hat and waving it about. Also he expressed an intense desire that we should send 50,000 men and immediately wipe out the French in Mexico.

“Why doesn’t Meade attack Lee?” Ah, I have already thrown out a hint on the methods of military plans in these regions. But, despite the delays, I should have witnessed a great battle before this; if, If, IF, at the very moment the order had not come to fill up the gap that the poltroonery of two of Rosecrans’ Corps has made in the western armies. I do believe that we should have beaten them (that’s no matter now), for my Chief, though he expressly declares that he is not Napoleon, is a thorough soldier, and a mighty clear-headed man; and one who does not move unless he knows where and how many his men are; where and how many his enemy’s men are; and what sort of country he has to go through. I never saw a man in my life who was so characterized by straightforward truthfulness as he is. He will pitch into himself in a moment, if he thinks he has done wrong; and woe to those, no matter who they are, who do not do right! “Sir, it was your duty and you haven’t done it; now go back and do it at once,” he will suddenly remark to some astonished general, who thinks himself no small beer. Still I do wish he would order the Provost-Marshal to have a few more of the deceased horses buried. The weather here is perfect—could not be finer.

Here’s what Sir Henry Holland wrote about his visit to the United States during the Civil War, which he published in Recollections of Past Life (D. Appleton & Co., 1872, and available via Google Books. This passage is from pp. 64-66.)

In travelling through Holstein and the Danish Isles in 1848, I saw something of the petty war of Germans and Danes then going on, since followed on the same field by events of so much higher import. At a later period (in 1863), when 75 years of age, I was an active spectator—I will not say an actor—in the midst of the great civil war then raging in America. At the headquarters of the Federal army in Virginia, and with the advanced division on the Rapidan in front of General Lee’s army, and still more in the country through which I passed to reach the army, I saw warfare on its largest scale of action and devastation. Twice before I had traversed this part of Virginia, then very different in aspect—a happy and flourishing country, where the evils of slavery were mitigated by various social conditions more or less peculiar to this great State. The contrast of scene, as I saw it in the heat of war, was saddening to the eye and to the mind. But in a region so variously favoured by nature, time and tranquillity will restore what has been lost. The too sudden advance of the Negro to political power may retard this restoration, but cannot prevent it. Eight weeks of absence from my own house in Brook Street comprised this extraordinary spectacle of American warfare, with much besides of political and social interest, to which my several preceding visits to the United States gave me access. Living in the hospitable house of my excellent friend Mr. Seward at Washington, and seeing much of President Lincoln, I enjoyed facilities which few travellers can obtain. Mr. Staunton [sic], then Secretary of War, sent Adjutant-General Townshend with me to the army of the Potomac; an accomplished soldier and admirable companion, to whom the expedition was a luxury, as he had hitherto known the war only through his heavy official duties at Washington. General Meade, the recent victor at Gettysburg, was at this time in command of the army. By him, and the other generals and officers at head-quarters, as well as those at the advanced posts, I was received with a courtesy which I cannot readily forget. Such interludes are not common in the life of a London physician. But I have already confessed to a certain pleasure, whether rational or not, from these sudden contrasts; and in the instance just given, this taste, such as it is, was amply satisfied.

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. 151-2. 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. 23-4.Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Lee Escapes (July 14, 1863)

 A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, "On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters" (Library of Congress).


A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, “On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters” (Library of Congress).

July 14, 1863, was not a good day for Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. He and his army had had Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Northern Virginia backed up against the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

The council took place in Meade’s small and crowded tent at Devil’s Backbone. Howard and Maj. Gen. James Wadsworth, who had taken over the I Corps from an ill Newton, voted to attack. The rest of the corps commanders voted to hold off until the army could better investigate Lee’s defenses. Perhaps remembering what had happened at Chancellorsville when Hooker overruled his corps commanders, Meade decided to defer to his generals’ advice. He postponed his attack for a day.

Meade wired Halleck the next day. It was a lengthy message with a slightly defensive tone. “In my dispatch of yesterday I stated that it was my intention to attack the enemy to-day, unless something intervened to prevent it,” he said. “Upon calling my corps commanders together and submitting the question to them, five out of six were unqualifiedly opposed to it. Under these circumstances, in view of the momentous consequences attendant upon a failure to succeed, I did not feel myself authorized to attack until after I had made more careful examination of the enemy’s position, strength, and defensive works. These examinations are now being made. So far as completed, they show the enemy to be strongly intrenched on a ridge running from the rear of Hagerstown past Downsville to the Potomac. I shall continue these reconnaissances with the expectation of finding some weak point, upon which, if I succeed, I shall hazard an attack.”

He received a terse message from Halleck in reply. “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing,” said the general in chief. “Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute your orders. Call no council of war. It is proverbial that councils of war never fight. Re-enforcements are pushed on as rapidly as possible. Do not let the enemy escape.”

On the morning of July 13 war correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Journal rode over to Meade’s headquarters at Devil’s Backbone. There he found Seth Williams, the army’s adjutant general, in Meade’s tent. Williams told Coffin that Meade was out reconnoitering the rebel lines.

“Do you think that Lee can get across the Potomac?” Coffin asked.

“Impossible!” replied Williams. “The people resident here say that it cannot be forded at this stage of the water. He has no pontoons. We have got him in a tight place. We shall have reinforcements to-morrow, and a great battle will be fought. Lee is encumbered with his teams, and he is short of ammunition.”

As Coffin talked with Williams, Meade entered the tent, dripping wet from the rain. “His countenance was unusually animated,” Coffin wrote. “He had ever been courteous to me, and while usually very reticent of all his intentions or of what was going on, as an officer should be, yet in this instance he broke over his habitual silence, and said, ‘We shall have a great battle to-morrow. The reinforcements are coming up, and as soon as they come we shall pitch in.’”

But when Meade’s soldiers moved forward on July 13 they found that Lee had, in fact, slipped across the river. The next day Meade wrote to his wife:

I found Lee in a very strong position, intrenched. I hesitated to attack him, without some examination of the mode of approaching him. I called my corps commanders together, and they voted against attacking him. This morning, when I advanced to feel his position and seek for a weak point, I found he had retired in the night and was nearly across the river. I immediately started in pursuit, and my cavalry captured two thousand prisoners, two guns, several flags, and killed General Pettigrew. On reporting these facts to General Halleck, he informed me the President was very much dissatisfied at the escape of Lee. I immediately telegraphed I had done my duty to the best of my ability, and that the expressed dissatisfaction of the President I considered undeserved censure, and asked to be immediately relieved. In reply he said it was not intended to censure me, but only to spur me on to an active pursuit, and that it was not deemed sufficient cause for relieving me. This is exactly what I expected; unless I did impracticable things, fault would be found with me. I have ignored the senseless adulation of the public and press, and I am now just as indifferent to the censure bestowed without just cause.

I start to-morrow to run another race with Lee.

In the letter, Meade mentions these exchanges he had with Henry Halleck:

Halleck to Meade, July 14 (in part):

I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.

Meade to Halleck, July 14:

Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p. M. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.

Halleck to Meade July 14:

My telegram stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.

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. 134-5 and 311-12. Available via Google Books.

To Taneytown (June 30, 1863)

On June 30, 1863, Meade moved north from Middleburg, Maryland, to Taneytown, where he established his headquarters at the Shunk farm. Officers of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, who had served in Meade’s brigade, division and corps, arrived there to congratulate him on his new position. “We found him in close conference with Generals Reynolds, Hancock, Sedgwick and others,” recalled Samuel Jackson. “He seemed delighted in welcoming us back to the army. Thanked us for our congratulations, but said that he did not know whether he was a subject of congratulation or commiseration. He appeared anxious and showed that he fully realized the responsibility of his position. He said however that he had all confidence in the bravery of the officers and men of the army and felt assured that we would achieve a glorious victory in the coming conflict.”

From Taneytown Meade sent out orders, via his chief of staff Daniel Butterfield or his assistant adjutant general Seth Williams, to his corps commanders. One order went to John Reynolds, giving him command of the army’s left wing, comprising the I, III and XI Corps. Another circular read:

John Fulton Reynolds

John Fulton Reynolds

The Commanding General has received information that the enemy are advancing, probably in strong force, on Gettysburg. It is the intention to hold this army pretty nearly in the position it now occupies, until the plans of the enemy shall have been more fully developed.

Three corps, 1st, 3d and llth, are under the command of Major General Reynolds, in the vicinity of Emmettsburg, the 3d Corps being ordered up to that point. The 12th Corps is at Littlestown. General Gregg’s division of cavalry is believed to be now engaged with the cavalry of the enemy, near Hanover Junction.

Corps commanders will hold their commands in readiness at a moment’s notice, and upon receiving orders, to march against the enemy. Their trains (ammunition trains excepted) must be parked in the rear of the place of concentration. Ammunition wagons and ambulances will alone be permitted to accompany the troops. The men must be provided with three-days’ rations in haversacks, and with sixty rounds of ammunition in the boxes and upon the person.

Corps commanders will avail themselves of all the time at their disposal to familiarize themselves with the roads communicating with the different corps.

Another circular, requesting that the corps commanders communicate to their troops how important the upcoming battle would be, ended with this chilling note: “Corps and other commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldiers who fails in his duty at this hour.”

Sometime during the day Meade wrote home. He said:

All is going on well. I think I have relieved Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and that Lee has now come to the conclusion that he must attend to other matters. I continue well, but much oppressed with a sense of responsibility and the magnitude of the great interests entrusted to me. Of course, in time I will become accustomed to this. Love, blessings and kisses to all. Pray for me and beseech our heavenly Father to permit me to be an instrument to save my country and advance a just cause.

It was June 30, 1863.

Meade’s letter 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. 15-18. Available via Google Books.