Turning Operation (May 23, 1864)

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 "The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico Ford." Click to enlarge  (Library of Congress).

Edwin Forbes titled this sketch from May 23 “The Army of the Potomac (5th Corps) crossing the North Anna, at Jerico [sic] Ford.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Lee entrenches south of the North Anna River and the Army of the Potomac prepares to attack. Meade’s prediction in his letter of May 23 is correct in general, but the turning operations will continue until Lee is in Petersburg, south of Richmond.

Apparently Mrs. Meade does not think too highly of General Grant.

We expected yesterday to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.

I am sorry you will not change your opinion of Grant. I think you expect too much of him. I don’t think he is a very magnanimous man, but I believe he is above any littleness, and whatever injustice is done me, and it is idle to deny that my position is a very unjust one, I believe is not intentional on his part, but arises from the force of circumstances, and from that weakness inherent in human nature which compels a man to look to his own interests.

Theodore Lyman picks up his account of the Overland Campaign where he left off. Here he resumes his account of May 12 and the terrible fighting at the Mule Shoe salient of Lee’s line at Spotsylvania. Meade has sent him to find Horatio Wright, the commander of the VI Corps.

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

… I asked on all sides for General Wright. One said he had gone this way; another that he had gone that; so finally I just stood still, getting on the edge of the woods, on a ridge, where I dismounted and wrote a short despatch to General Meade, midst a heavy rain that now began to come down. Just before me was a very large field with several undulations, close to me was a battery firing, and in the wood beyond the field was the fighting. I stood there a short time, while the second line was deployed and advanced in support of the first. The Rebels were firing a great many explosive bullets, which I never saw before. When they strike they explode, like a fire-cracker, and make a bad wound; but I do not suppose, after all, that they are worse than the others. Presently there came along Captain Arthur McClellan (brother of the General and a very nice fellow). He said he would show me where General Wright was, which proved to be not far off, in a little hollow place. There was the stout-hearted General, seated with his aides, on the ground. He had just been hit on the leg by a great piece of shell, but was smiling away, despite his bruises. A sterling soldier he is! I soon found that the hollow did not exclude missiles, which fly in curves, confound them! There came a great selection of bullets about our ears, in the first of it. By-and-by a Rebel battery began to suspect that, from the number of horses, there must be a general about that place, and so, whing! smash, bang! came a shell, striking in the woods just beyond. “My friend,” said calm Colonel Tompkins, addressing the invisible gunner, “if you want to hit us you must cut your fuses shorter” — which indeed he did do, and sent all sorts of explosives everywhere except in our little group, which was only reached by a fragment or two. None of us got hurt, but one horse was wounded and another killed. There I staid for five hours (very long ones), and pelted all the time, but most of the balls flew too high, and, as is well known, shells make a horrid noise, but hurt comparatively few.

All this time the enemy was rolling up his fresh troops and frantically endeavoring to regain that salient. He made as many as five desperate charges with the bayonet, but in vain. At one place called the “Corner” the lines stood within fifty feet of each other, for hours!* The breastwork made a ridge between, and any living thing that showed above that line fell dead. The next day the bodies of friend and foe covered the ground. Some wounded men were then taken out from under three or four dead ones. One body, that lay exposed to the fire, had eighty bullets in it. At 12.30 I rode back to General Meade, to tell him our extreme right was hard pressed; and he sent me back to say that the whole 5th Corps had been moved to the left and that Griffin’s division could go to Wright’s support. I found that Wright had been fairly shelled out of his little hollow, and had retired to the Landron house. We clung to the salient, and that night the Rebels fell back from that part of their lines, leaving twenty-two guns, eighteen colors, and 3500 prisoners in our hands. . . . That night our Headquarters were at the Armstrong house. It was a day of general battle, for Warren attacked on the right and Burnside on the left, which kept the enemy from sending reinforcements. You will notice that the army was gradually shifting to the left, having now given up the Po River and Todd’s Tavern road.

*This footnote was taken from Lyman’s journal: “The great historical fight of this day extended over a front of only 1000 to 1500 yards, along the faces of the salient, or the ‘Death-angle,’ as it was afterwards called. Within that narrow field two corps were piled up to assault and in support. Indeed we had too many troops, as the generals justly said. The lines got mixed and jammed together and were hard to handle. The amount of bullets fired may be known from the fact that a red oak, twenty-three inches in diameter, was reduced, about six feet from the ground, to a fibrous structure and blew down that night! Bodies that lay between the lines were shot to pieces and could only be raised in a blanket! The result was damaging to the enemy—very—but the army of Lee was not cut in two—an issue clearly looked for by Rawlins and some others of Grant’s Staff, but not so confidently assumed by those who knew a little more.”—Lyman’s Journal.

May 16 Mott’s division, that had hitherto behaved so badly, was broken up and put with Birney—a sad record for Hooker’s fighting men! Napoleon said that food, clothing, discipline, and arms were one quarter, and morale the other three quarters. You cannot be long midst hard fighting without having this brought home to you. This day was a marked one, for being fine, nearly the whole of it; we have been having a quantity of rain and a fine bit was quite a wonder. There did appear a singular specimen to behold, at my tent, a J. Bull —a Fusileer—a doctor. Think of an English fusileer surgeon—what a combination! He walked on the tips of his toes, with his knees bent, was dressed in full uniform, and had a smirk on his face as much as to say: “Now I know a good deal; and I am coming to see; and I am not going to be put off.” Poor Medical Director McParlin was horribly bored with him; but finally got him to the 6th Corps hospital, where I afterwards saw him, running round with some large instrument. I hope they didn’t let him do much to the wounded. We were honored at dinner by the company of Governor Sprague and Sherman of the Senate. The Governor is a brisk, sparrowy little man with perky black eyes, which were shaded by an enormous straw hat. He is very courageous, and went riding about in various exposed spots. Sherman is the tallest and flattest of mortals—I mean physically. He is so flat you wonder where his lungs and other vitals may be placed. He seems a very moderate and sensible man.

Tuesday, May 17

Our Headquarters were moved to the left, and back of the Anderson house. We rode, in the morning, over, and staid some time at the house, one of the best I have seen in Virginia. It was a quite large place, built with a nest of out-houses in the southern style. They have a queer way of building on one thing after another, the great point being to have a separate shed or out-house for every purpose, and then a lot more sheds and outhouses for the negroes. You will find a carpenter’s shop, tool-room, coach-shed, pig-house, stable, out-kitchen, two or three barns, and half-a-dozen negro huts, besides the main house, where the family lives. Of the larger houses, perhaps a quarter are of brick, the rest of wood. They are plain, rarely with any ornament; in fact, these “mansions” are only farmhouses of a better class. Anderson was reputed a rich man, but he had carpets on very few rooms; most were floored with hard pine. Round these houses are usually handsome trees, often locusts, with oaks and, perhaps, some flowering shrubs. Often there is a small corner with a glass front, to serve as a greenhouse in winter. It is hard to judge what this country once was; but I can see that each house of the better class had some sort of a flower-garden; also, there are a great number of orchards in this part of the country and plenty of peach trees. Nothing gives such an air of desolation as a neglected flower-patch! There are the perennial plants that start each spring, all in disorder and struggling with weeds; and you are brought to think how some woman once took an interest in the flowers, and saw that they were properly kept. These little things appeal more pointedly to you than great ones, because they are so easily understood. In the few days’ fighting I have seen, I have come to be entirely unmoved by the appearance of the horrible forms of wounds or death; but to-day I had quite a romantic twinge at finding in a garden a queer leaf, with scallops on it, just like one I found in Bologna and put in your scrapbook. . . .

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

General Thomas Crittenden was not long with the Army of the Potomac, resigning in June over a question of rank (Library of Congress).

At Anderson’s I saw quite a galaxy of generals, among others the successor of General Stevenson, Major-General Crittenden. He is the queerest-looking party you ever saw, with a thin, staring face, and hair hanging to his coat collar — a very wild-appearing major-general, but quite a kindly man in conversation, despite his terrible looks. . . . The waggoners and train rabble and stragglers have committed great outrages in the rear of this army. Some of the generals, particularly Birney and Barlow, have punished pillagers in a way they will not forget; and they will be shot if they do not stop outrages on the inhabitants. The proper way to stop the grosser acts is to hang the perpetrators by the road where the troops pass, and put a placard on their breasts. I think I would do it myself, if I caught any of them. All this proceeds from one thing—the uncertainty of the death penalty through the false merciful policy of the President. It came to be a notorious thing that no one could be executed but poor friendless wretches, who had none to intercede for them; so that the blood of deserters that was shed was all in vain—there was no certainty in punishment, and certainty is the essence of all punishment. Now we reap the disadvantage in a new form. People must learn that war is a thing of life or death: if a man won’t go to the front he must be shot; but our people can’t make up their minds to it; it is repulsive to the forms of thought, even of most of the officers, who willingly expose their own lives, but will shrink from shooting down a skulker.

And now here’s a letter from Lyman from May 23, which picks up his narrative from the day before.

It was with regret that early this morning we left the fine clover field of Dame Tyler, and wended our way towards the North Anna. We crossed the Mat (or what is called South River, I am not sure which, at any rate a mere brook), and kept straight on for Garrett’s Tavern. Grant, mounted on the purloined black pony, ambled along at a great pace, but General Meade, who got his pride up at Grant’s rapidity, set off at a rate that soon raised a cloud of dust and left the Lieutenant-General far behind; whereat George G. was much pleased, and his aides much the contrary, as they had to scramble after. About ten we got to a side road, leading to the right, and here we turned off the 9th Corps, so as to keep the telegraph road open for the passage of the 5th. Then we took a bend to the left again and came out by the Moncure house, crossing the Polecat Creek by the way — a pleasant stream running over stones, and with the trees quite growing into it. There, I knew, Biddle and Mason “straggled” and took a bath. We passed also a house where dwelt four women, all alone; we left them a guard, to stay till next morning. A hazardous position for these people, with all the stragglers and camp scoundrels about! Old Ma’am Moncure was a perfect old railer, and said: “They should soon see us coming back on the double-quick.” However, they (the family) were amazing sharp and eager in selling us sheep, and took our greenbacks with avidity. A gold dollar now is worth about $30 in Confederate money! This afternoon Warren crossed the North Anna at Jericho Bridge, and was fiercely attacked on the other side by Longstreet; but he repulsed him with heavy loss, after a sharp fight. Hancock coming along more to the left, stormed the rifle-pits near Chesterfield station and seized the bridge, ready to cross. I have been lately up at three and four in the morning and I am so sleepy I must stop.

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. 198. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 112-117 and 121-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

 

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Letters from the Front (May 11-13, 1864)

Alfred Waud called this sketch "The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient" (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Alfred Waud called this sketch of the fighting for the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania “The toughest fight yet. The fight for the salient” (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

Since the last time George Meade wrote home to his wife his army had undergone some serious punishment—and did some punishing itself. First came the two bloody days in the Wilderness and then the horrible, terrible fighting at Spotsylvania. The fighting for the bulge—the salient—in Lee’s lines that came to be called the Mule Shoe (and a portion of that was baptized the “Bloody Angle”) had ended with the Confederates pulling back to a second line. Although this appeared to be a victory for the Union forces, it merely moved the fighting to a new position. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, “After the rebels retreated, Rufus Dawes and his men from the 6th Wisconsin moved forward to occupy their entrenchments. They found a scene from hell. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere in the mud and filth. Dawes saw one corpse propped up in the corner, the head missing and the neck and shoulders badly burned. Dawes presumed it was the work of a Union mortar.

“Horace Porter surveyed the result of the fighting the next day and found it ‘harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the “angle,” while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.’ Another soldier who witnessed the devastation called it ‘the most horrible sight I had ever witnessed.’

“That same day Grant wrote to Stanton: ‘General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with. If their services can be rewarded by promotion to the ranks of major-generals in the regular army the honor would be worthily bestowed, and I would feel personally gratified. I would not like to see one of these promotions at this time without seeing both.’”

Battle-field, Spottyslvania Court House, May 11—9 a.m.

I have only time to tell you we are all safe—that is, George and myself—and as far as I know, all your friends, except General Wadsworth, who fell into the hands of the enemy, mortally wounded, without hopes of life.

We have been fighting continuously for six days, and have gotten, I think, decidedly the better of the enemy, though their resistance is most stubborn.

Return thanks to the Almighty for the gracious protection extended to us, and let us try to deserve its continuance.

I am quite well and in good spirits, and hope we shall continue to be successful and bring this unhappy war to an honorable close.

May 12, 1864—2 o’clock, p.m.

A severe battle is raging, with the advantages thus far on our side. We have captured to-day over thirty guns, four thousand prisoners, including three generals. The enemy are strongly posted and entrenched, which, with their desperation, makes the struggle stubborn.

8 a.m., May 13, 1864.

By the blessing of God I am able to announce not only the safety of George and myself, but a decided victory over the enemy, he having abandoned last night the position he so tenaciously held yesterday. Eight days of continuous fighting have thus resulted with the loss to the enemy of over thirty guns and eight thousand prisoners. Our losses have been frightful; I do not like to estimate them. Those of the enemy fully as great. Our work is not over, but we have the prestige of success, which is everything, and I trust our final success will be assured. I have not time to write much. God’s blessing be with you and the dear children! Pray earnestly for our success.

Here are Theodore Lyman’s accounts of the same period. His regular letters actually resume on May 15, but throughout this time he took up the habit of writing about the events of each day at a later point. I have taken these post-dated accounts and posted them here.

May 10, 1864

General Gersham Mott (Library of Congress).

General Gershom Mott (Library of Congress).

[Tuesday] there was sharp fighting all along the line. General Mott’s division of the 2d Corps was put on the left of the 6th Corps, with the idea of making a connection with Burnside and then swinging our left to take the enemy in flank. I was ordered early to go to General Wright and explain to him, then to General Mott and direct him to demonstrate along his front and feel on the left for Burnside. General Wright had moved his Headquarters and had put them a little back and on one side, being moved thereto by the fact that the first selection was a focus for shells. Then I rode along the lines to General Mott and got his position as well as I could, and gave him the order. Coming back to General Wright, I had a sharp corner to go through. A battery was firing at one of ours and the shells coming over struck right among our infantry. They cut the pine trees about me in a manner I didn’t like, and one burst close by, throwing the pieces round just as you see them in French battle pictures. All day there was firing. About eleven came General Meade and told me to go out at once to Mott and to get a written report from him, which I did; and a sharpshooter shot at me, which I hate — it is so personal. More by token, poor General Rice, a Massachusetts man and very daring, was to-day killed by a sharpshooter. The ball broke his thigh, and, when they amputated his leg, he never rallied. As he lay on the stretcher, he called out to General Meade: “Don’t you give up this fight! I am willing to lose my life, if it is to be; but don’t you give up this fight!” All day we were trying to select places for an assault. Barlow crossed the Po on the right, but was afterwards ordered back, and had a brilliant rear-guard fight in which he punished the enemy. From five to six p.m. there was heavy cannonading, the battalions firing by volley. At 6.30 Upton, with a heavy column of picked men, made a most brilliant assault with the bayonet, at the left of the Sixth Corps. The men rushed on, without firing a shot, carried the breastworks in the face of cannon and musketry, and took 900 prisoners. Some of the men, who faltered, were run through the body by their comrades! But Mott’s men on the left behaved shamefully, and so Upton was obliged again to fall back, bringing his prisoners with him.* . . .

*11 p.m. Grant in consultation with Meade. Wright came up also; he uttered no complaints, but said quietly and firmly to Meade: ‘General, I don’t want Mott’s men on my left; they are not a support; I would rather have no troops there!’ Warren is not up to a corps command. As in the Mine Run move, so here, he cannot spread himself over three divisions. He cannot do it, and the result is partial and ill-concerted and dilatory movements.” — Lyman’s Journal. 

May 12, 1864

This was the date of one of the most fearful combats, which lasted along one limited line, and in one spot, more than fourteen hours, without cessation. I fancy this war has furnished no parallel to the desperation shown here by both parties. It must be called, I suppose, the taking of the Salient.

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as "Allegheny" or "Clubby" (Library of Congress).

Confederate General Edward Johnson, also known as “Allegheny” or “Clubby” (Library of Congress).

Hancock was ordered to attack with his corps as soon after four in the morning as possible and Burnside was to follow the example. A little after daylight we were all gathered round General Grant’s tent, all waiting for news of importance. The field telegraph was laid to all corps Headquarters and there we could hear from all parts. At a little after five o’clock, General Williams approached from the telegraph tent; a smile was on his face: Hancock had carried the first line! Thirty minutes after, another despatch: he had taken the main line with guns, prisoners and two generals! Great rejoicings now burst forth. Some of Grant’s Staff were absurdly confident and were sure Lee was entirely beaten. My own experiences taught me a little more scepticism. Hancock presently sent to ask for a vigorous attack on his right, to cover and support his right flank. General Wright was accordingly ordered to attack with a part of the 6th Corps. As I stood there waiting, I heard someone say, “Sir, this is General Johnson.” I turned round and there was the captured Major-General, walking slowly up. He was a strongly built man of a stern and rather bad face, and was dressed in a double-breasted blue-grey coat, high riding boots and a very bad felt hat. He was most horribly mortified at being taken, and kept coughing to hide his emotion. Generals Meade and Grant shook hands with him, and good General Williams bore him off to breakfast. His demeanor was dignified and proper. Not so a little creature, General Steuart, who insulted everybody who came near him, and was rewarded by being sent on foot to Fredericksburg, where there was plenty of mud and one stream up to his waist. Our attack was a surprise: the assaulting columns rushed over the breastworks without firing a shot, and General Johnson, running out to see the reason of the noise, found himself surrounded by blue blouses. I was now sent by General Meade to see how far General Wright’s column of attack was prepared. I found the columns going into the woods south of the Brown house; the enemy had seen them and the shells were crashing through the thick pines. When I came back and reported, the General said: “Well, now you can take some orderlies and go to General Wright and send me back intelligence from time to time.” There are some duties that are more honorable than pleasant! As I turned into the pines, the musketry began, a good way in front of me. I pressed past the column that was advancing. Presently the bullets began to come through the pine trees. Then came back a Staff officer, yelling: “Bring up that brigade! Bring it up at the double-quick!” “Doublequick,” shouted the officers, and the column started on a run.

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. 194-5. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s correspondence is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 108-11. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Upton’s Attack (May 10, 1864)

Emory Upton (Library of Congress).

Emory Upton (Library of Congress).

On May 10, 1864, Emory Upton led a famous charge against a portion of the Confederate lines outside Spotsylvania. Here’s an adaptation of my account of the fighting, taken from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

Lee’s defensive line here above Spotsylvania had one very distinctive characteristic: there was a large bulge in his line. Because of its shape, this protrusion, or salient, became known as the Mule Shoe. Such salients were usually weak spots in a defensive line because attackers could strike them from different angles. On the west side of the big Mule Shoe salient was a smaller bulge, called Doles’s Salient after the Confederate general whose brigade defended it. This is the spot where Upton intended to make his attack.

The war had entered a new phase. Early in the war, when Lee had resorted to defensive measures, people had derided him as the “King of Spades.” No more. By the time of Mine Run, the Army of the Potomac had come to understand the futility of attacking a well-dug-in position. “With the formidable rifles now in use, a single line of veteran soldiers, behind a three-foot breastwork of earth and rails or a stone fence, can drive back and almost destroy three similar lines approaching to attack them,” noted one Union captain. “Give either our army or the rebels twenty-four hours’ notice of an approaching attack, and they will select a good position, and throw up intrenchments, which it is folly for any but overwhelmingly superior numbers to attempt to carry.”

The defensive works here had proven equally resistant to attack, but Upton thought he could breach them. He was determined to leave the field either “a live brigadier general or a dead colonel.” Upton planned to make a rapid and concentrated assault at a single spot, and Doles’s Salient seemed to offer the perfect opportunity.

Upton, a severe-looking young man with roundish face, high cheekbones, a mustache, and a trim beard, looks fierce and resolute in his photograph. Born in New York, Upton attended Ohio’s Oberlin College before he entered West Point. In 1859 he fought a duel with a fellow cadet Wade Hampton Gibbes, a South Carolinian who had declared that Upton, an ardent abolitionist, had slept with black students at integrated (and co-educational) Oberlin. The two cadets fought with swords one evening in an upstairs room at the barracks. Upton received a cut on the face but emerged with his honor intact. He graduated from West Point in May 1861; just over two months later he fired the first gun at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Upton’s brigade had participated in the successful charge at Rappahannock Station the previous fall, so that may have influenced his thinking here. His plan was to have his men rush the enemy in a narrow column without stopping to fire. Once they broke through the enemy’s works, they would swing left and right to widen the breach and wait for reinforcements. He had twelve hand-picked regiments, about five thousand  men. The regiments are listed on the monument here. They came from Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New York.On hearing the command “Forward,” one man with the 121st Pennsylvania remembered, “I felt my gorge rise, and my stomach and intestines shrink together in a knot, and a thousand things rushed through my mind.” He knew the terrible odds against him. So did all the others. “I looked about in the faces of the boys around me, and they told the tale of expected death.” The men charged across the two hundred yards or so that separated them from the enemy. They saw puffs of smoke appear from behind the log breastworks–each one an announcement of potential death or dismemberment. Men began to fall. The orders, though, prohibited stopping for any reason–not even to fire and certainly not to help a wounded comrade.

Upton’s men dashed through the hail of Confederate lead until they reached the enemy’s line. They tore down the abatis–tangled tree limbs and branches thrown down as a barrier–and clambered over the log breastworks. The rebels on the other side waited, guns cocked, to fire bullets through the first heads that appeared over the works. Union attackers tumbled down dead.“Others seeing the fate of their comrades, held their pieces at arm’s length and fired downwards, while others, poising theirs vertically, hurled them down upon the enemy, pinning them to the ground,” Upton reported. His men poured over the enemy breastworks. “The enemy’s lines were completely broken,” said Upton, “and an opening had been made for the division that was to have supported, but it did not arrive.”

That supporting division belonged to the II Corps’ Gershom Mott, but because of confusing orders and limited manpower (and, rumor had it, because Mott was drunk), his attack proved ineffectual. Down to the right, Warren, eager to show his fighting spirit, had already made his attack. Even farther down the line a brigade of Hancock’s II Corps under Brig. Gen. J. Hobart Ward made another temporary break in the Confederate line before being driven back. On the far Union left Burnside made a feeble advance that accomplished nothing. Upton’s men killed and captured more than a thousand enemy soldiers, but they lost nearly as many. Lacking support, they were finally forced to withdraw, past the spot where monument to them stands today, and into the sheltering woods.

Grant gave Upton his promotion to brigadier general, and Upton’s attack gave Grant an idea. If something like that could almost work with five thousand men, what would happen if he tried it with four times that number? Why not attack the Mule Shoe with the entire II Corps?

Adapted from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 272-4. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.

Famous Last Words

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John" (Library of Congress).

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John” (Library of Congress).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps. He was killed outside Spotsylvania by a sharpshooters bullet. Here’s how I wrote about it in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

From where we’re standing we can see the heavy stone memorial at the park entrance. This marks the spot where John Sedgwick died, killed by a Confederate sharpshooter who fired from someplace around here. If there were a Famous Last Words Hall of Fame, Sedgwick would hold a place of honor. On the morning of May 9 he was near the Union front lines when he noticed some of his artillerymen dodging sharpshooters’ bullets. He chastised them for their fear. “Why, what are you dodging about?” he asked. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.” Just then a bullet struck him below his left eye. His chief of staff, Col. Martin McMahon, was standing next to him when the bullet hit. Sedgwick turned toward him, and McMahon saw blood spurting from the wound like a fountain. Then the general fell, knocking McMahon to the ground, too. Sedgwick died almost instantly, a smile still on his lips.

The Sedgwick monument at Spotsylvania.

The Sedgwick monument at Spotsylvania.

Poor Sedgwick! “We bore him tenderly to an ambulance, and followed it to army headquarters where an evergreen bower had been prepared, and there he lay in simple state with the stars and stripes around him,” remembered Major Hyde, whom the general had been good-naturedly teasing just before he died. “All who came remained to weep; old grizzled generals, his comrades for many years; young staff officers, and private soldiers: all paid this tribute to his modest greatness.”

Meade was bothered by the fact that he had been sharp with Sedgwick at their last meeting the night before. Meade thought Sedgwick had been relying too much on Warren’s judgment, so he snapped at him, saying he wished “he would take command of his own corps.” It was the last time they spoke. “I feel more grieved at his death because we had not parted entirely in good feeling,” he told Lyman. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright took over the VI Corps.

Excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 271-2. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.