A Gift (May 17, 1864)

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

Meade writes on May 17 on the eve of a renewed attack against Lee’s Spotsylvania lines. After the terrible fighting against the Mule Shoe salient, the Confederates had withdrawn to a new position, one the Federals hope will be more susceptible to assault.

The Gerhard Meade mentions is his wife’s brother-in-law. In the end Mrs. Meade will get her way regarding the house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia and the Meades will receive the home as a gift from their friends. The General died in the house in 1872. The building still stands and you can see the word “Meade” carved on one of the lintels.

To-morrow we shall begin fighting again, with, I trust, some decided result, for it is hardly natural to expect men to maintain without limit the exhaustion of such a protracted struggle as we have been carrying on.

The last few days have given our men rest, and the arrival of reinforcements has put them in good spirits. There is a determination on all sides to fight it out, and have an end put to the war; a result which I think will most certainly be accomplished if we can overcome the army before us.

I received to-day a kind letter from Mr. Gerhard, written from his sick room, and informing me of the generosity of kind friends in Philadelphia, who had subscribed to pay for your house in DeLancey Place. I have replied to Mr. Gerhard, and whilst I have tried to express my sense of the generosity of my friends, I have declined the gift, believing that, under existing circumstances, it would not be proper in me to accept. At the same time I have said if it should be God’s will that I should fall in this war, then anything to assist you and my orphans would be most gratefully and thankfully received. I hope you will approve of my course, and that my feelings will be understood. It would not do to lose our independence, and I don’t think we would be comfortable in a house bought with our friends’ money.

I have been riding all day, getting ready for to-morrow’s battle. I shall now retire to rest, earnestly praying God to protect us, and give victory to our side.

On May 17 Theodore Lyman resumes his account of the fighting in the Wilderness. Here he talks about Confederate General John B. Gordon’s flank attack on the Union right late in the day on May 6. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

The attackers were under Brig. Gen. John Gordon, a hard-fighting Georgian. The first troops the screaming rebels hit were brigades under the command of Brigadier Generals Alexander Shaler and Truman Seymour. It was the continuation of a string of bad luck for Seymour, the general Meade had suspected of sucking up to Reynolds back in 1862. Since then Seymour had been disastrously defeated at the Battle of Olustree in Florida and seriously injured leading an attack on Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina. Now his bad luck continued. His troops broke for the rear. The Confederates captured both Seymour and Shaler.

The men of the VI Corps fell back against Warren’s V Corps to their right. “Suddenly there was a wild, fearful yell, a terrific crash, and the tide of battle rolled backward,” remembered Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. “A portion of the Sixth corps had given way, and the enemy followed up the advantage thus gained, until they had completely turned our flank, and the firing was almost in our rear. Some of the regiments in our brigade showed signs of alarm at this situation, but the sons of Maine were determined to hold their position, even if they were surrounded and destroyed in so doing. The enemy’s advance on our right was finally checked, and our line was re-established.”

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

When Meade received reports that another Confederate flank attack had routed a portion of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, he appeared less concerned about it than Grant did. Fixing a cold eye on the panicked courier who had reported the VI Corps’ destruction, he demanded sarcastically, “Do you mean to tell me that the Sixth Corps is to do no more fighting this campaign?” In fact, Sedgwick had ridden to the front to help rally his demoralized men and soon had things under control.

Things did look bad for a time. Horace Porter reported an incident in which a general whom he did not identify reached Grant’s headquarters and expressed his fears that Lee would seek to get between the Union army and the Rapidan, cutting off the line of communications. “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience,” the officer declared with some self-importance. The normally unflappable general in chief reacted with uncharacteristic temper. He stood up and yanked the cigar from his mouth. “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do,” Grant barked. “Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Meade and Grant were right not to worry. Gordon’s flank attack was the last major action of the Battle of the Wilderness. It had been two days of bloody and confused conflict, “a battle fought with the ear, and not with the eye,” according to Horace Porter. “All circumstances seemed to combine to make the scene one of unutterable horror. At times the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moans with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of the artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.”

Here’s how Lyman wrote about it:

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

. . . Just at dark there occurred a most disgraceful stampede in the 6th Corps — a thing that has been much exaggerated in the papers, by scared correspondents. You will remember I told you that we had two dubious divisions in the army: one, the Pennsylvania Reserves, has done finely and proved excellent; but the other, General Ricketts’s division of the 6th Corps, composed of troops from Winchester, known as “Milroy’s weary boys,” never has done well. They ran on the Mine Run campaign, and they have run ever since. Now, just at dark, the Rebels made a sort of sortie, with a rush and a yell, and as ill-luck would have it, they just hit these bad troops, who ran for it, helterskelter. General Seymour rode in among them, had his horse shot, and was taken. General Shaler’s brigade had its flank turned and Shaler also was taken. Well, suddenly up dashed two Staff officers, one after the other, all excited, and said the whole 6th Corps was routed; it was they that were routed, for Wright’s division stood firm, and never budged; but for a time there were all sorts of rumors, including one that Generals Sedgwick and Wright were captured. In a great hurry the Pennsylvania Reserves were sent to the rescue, and just found all the enemy again retired. A good force of them did get round, by a circuit, to the Germanna plank, where they captured several correspondents who were retreating to Washington! Gradually the truth came out, and then we shortened the right by drawing back the 5th and 6th Corps, so as to run along the interior dotted line, one end of which ends on the Germanna plank.

General Meade was in favor of swinging back both wings still more, which should have been done, for then our next move would have been more rapid and easy.

The result of this great Battle of the Wilderness was a drawn fight, but strategically it was a success, because Lee marched out to stop our advance on Richmond, which, at this point, he did not succeed in doing. We lost a couple of guns and took some colors. On the right we made no impression; but, on the left, Hancock punished the enemy so fearfully that they, that night, fell back entirely from his front and shortened their own line, as we shortened ours, leaving their dead unburied and many of their wounded on the ground. The Rebels had a very superior knowledge of the country and had marched shorter distances. Also I consider them more daring and sudden in their movements; and I fancy their discipline on essential points is more severe than our own — that is, I fancy they shoot a man when he ought to be shot, and we do not. As to fighting, when two people fight without cessation for the best part of two days, and then come out about even, it is hard to determine.

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. 196-7. 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 97-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Sheridan (May 16, 1864)

Philip Sheridan and Meade developed a cantankerous relationship (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan and Meade developed a cantankerous relationship (Library of Congress).

Meade mentions cavalry commander Philip Sheridan in his letter to his wife from May 16. In the battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, one of Sheridan’s men mortally wounded Jeb Stuart, a major blow to Lee’s army. Meade does not mention the unpleasant encounter he had had with Sheridan early in the morning on May 8 at a place called Todd’s Tavern. Meade had been angry that Sheridan’s men hadn’t cleared the road all the way to Spotsylvania. Sheridan, already chafing under Meade’s command, was incensed that Meade had felt it necessary to issue some orders directly to his cavalry. According to Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, Meade was in “a towering passion” while Sheridan was “equally fiery.” The two men argued and Sheridan said, “If I am permitted to cut loose from this army I’ll draw Stuart after me and whip him, too.” Meade reported Sheridan’s insubordination to Grant, and repeated what the cavalry commander had said about Stuart. “Did Sheridan say that?” replied Grant. “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.” Meade issued the orders, no doubt irritated that Grant was rewarding Sheridan for his insubordination to a superior officer. Sheridan did kill Stuart, but he also deprived the Army of the Potomac of the eyes and ears of his cavalry during a vital part of the Overland Campaign.

The weather still continues unfavorable for military operations, so, unless the enemy attack us, we shall probably remain quiet to-day. Our cavalry, under Sheridan, have been heard from. He was sent to get in the enemy’s rear, destroy their communications and supplies, fight their cavalry, and when his forage was exhausted, make his way to [Benjamin] Butler, on the James River. He reports having executed his orders, and it is said that J. E. B. Stuart was killed in the battle with Sheridan.

In his letter of May 16, Lyman resumes his account of the fighting in the Wilderness, especially the struggle around the Brock Road and the arrival of James Longstreet’s corps. Fortunately for the Union, Longstreet’s flank attack faltered when its commander was accidentally shot by his own troops. Lyman writes about the death of Henry Abbott, his Harvard friend and the commander of the 20th Massachusetts Earlier Abbot had commented on how Meade and Grant worked together. He thought the combination was “the next best thing to having a man of real genius at the head.” Meade was “a good combiner and maneuverer” and “unquestionably a clever man intellectually,” while Grant had “force” and “character” and wasn’t “afraid to take the responsibility to the utmost.”

I will continue the letter of this morning, describing our first day’s fight. I had got as far as the death of General Hays and the wounding of Carroll. This was between five and six o’clock. Hays commanded one brigade of Birney’s division. He was a strong-built, rough sort of man, with red hair, and a tawny, full beard; a braver man never went into action, and the wonder only is that he was not killed before, as he always rode at the very head of his men, shouting to them and waving his sword. Mott’s division behaved badly (as you observed, it broke and came back). This is a curious instance of a change of morale. It is Hooker’s old fighting division, but has since been under two commanders of little merit or force of character; then there was some discontent about re-enlistments and about the breaking up of the old 3d Corps, to which it had belonged; and the result has been that most of this once crack division has conducted itself most discreditably, this campaign. However, the fresh troops saved the day, and, at dark, we occupied our old line (the dotted one along the Brock road). . . .

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

It was long after dark when I rode back, and, with some difficulty, found our camp, now pitched in a dusty, ploughed field. The fight of this day had been an attack by parts of our three corps against the Corps of Ewell on our right, and of Hill on our left. The fight had swayed back and forth and ended in a drawn battle, both sides holding their lines. General Grant ordered the attack all along the line, the next morning at 4.30; but put it off to 5 o’clock on the representation that Burnside could not get up in time. He was ordered to get in position by daylight and to go in on Hill’s left flank, where you see a dotted line nearly parallel to the Parker’s Store road. We were all up right early on that Friday the 6th of May, you may depend. “Lyman,” said the General, “I want you to take some orderlies and go to General Hancock and report how things go there during the day.” It was after five when I mounted, and already the spattering fire showed that the skirmishers were pushing out; as I rode down the crossroad, two or three crashing volleys rang through the woods, and then the whole front was alive with musketry. I found General Hancock at the crossing of the plank: he was wreathed with smiles. “We are driving them, sir; tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully. Birney has gone in and he is just cleaning them out be-auti-fully!” This was quite apparent from the distance of the receding firing and the absence of those infernal minie balls. “I am ordered to tell you, sir, that only one division of General Burnside is up, but that he will go in as soon as he can be put in position.” Hancock’s face changed. “I knew it!” he said vehemently. “Just what I expected. If he could attack now, we would smash A. P. Hill all to pieces!” And very true were his words. Meantime, some hundreds of prisoners were brought in; all from Hill’s troops. Presently, however, the firing seemed to wake again with renewed fury; and in a little while a soldier came up to me and said: “I was ordered to report that this prisoner here belongs to Longstreet’s Corps.” “Do you belong to Longstreet?” I hastened to ask. “Ya-as, sir,” said grey-back, and was marched to the rear. It was too true! Longstreet, coming in all haste from Orange Court House, had fallen desperately on our advance; but he had uphill work. Birney’s and Getty’s men held fast and fought with fury, a couple of guns were put in the plank road and began to fire solid shot over the heads of our men, adding their roar to the other din. The streams of wounded came faster and faster back; here a field officer, reeling in the saddle; and there another, hastily carried past on a stretcher. I stood at the crossing and assisted in turning back stragglers or those who sought to go back, under pretext of helping the wounded. To some who were in great pain I gave some opium, as they were carried past me.

It was about seven o’clock, I think, that Webb’s brigade marched along the Brock road, and, wheeling into the pike, advanced to the support of Birney. Among them was the 20th Massachusetts. Abbot smiled and waved his sword towards me, as he rode by, and I called out to him wishing him good luck; and so he went on to his death, as gallant a fellow as fell that day; a man who could ride into the fight with a smile on his face. Just before eight o’clock came one brigade of Stevenson’s division (Burnside’s Corps) which had been sent to strengthen Hancock; the other brigade came later and was put on our left, where we were continually paralyzed by reports that the enemy was coming up the Brock road to take us in the flank. This prevented proper mobility of our left, and, after all, they turned out to be a division of Rebel cavalry, who were defeated later in the day by our men. Stevenson’s brigade was now put in to relieve the advanced lines that had long been under fire, and all other fresh troops were marched to the front. But Longstreet knew full well (they know everything, those Rebels) that Burnside was coming up with two divisions, on his flank; and knew too that he was late, very late. If Hancock could first be paralyzed, the day was safe from defeat, which now impended. Gathering all his forces, of both corps, he charged furiously. At a little after eleven Mott’s left gave way. On the right the brigade of Stevenson, consisting of three raw Massachusetts regiments miscalled “Veterans,” broke, on being brought under a tremendous fire. . . .The musketry now drew nearer to us, stragglers began to come back, and, in a little while, a crowd of men emerged from the thicket in full retreat. They were not running, nor pale, nor scared, nor had they thrown away their guns; but were just in the condition described by the Prince de Joinville, after Gaines’s Mill. They had fought all they meant to fight for the present, and there was an end of it! If there is anything that will make your heart sink and take all the backbone out of you, it is to see men in this condition! I drew my sword and rode in among them, trying to stop them at a little rifle-pit that ran along the road. I would get one squad to stop, but, as I turned to another, the first would quietly walk off. There was a German color-bearer, a stupid, scared man (who gave him the colors, the Lord only knows!), who said, “Jeneral Stavenzon, he telled me for to carry ze colors up ze road.” To which I replied I would run him through the body if he didn’t plant them on the rifle-pit. And so he did, but I guess he didn’t stick. Meanwhile there was no danger at all; the enemy did not follow up — not he. He was busy swinging round to oppose Burnside, and was getting his men once more in order. At half-past one I rode to General Meade and reported the state of affairs. The Provost-General went out at once and stopped and organized the stragglers. At two o’clock Burnside, who had been marching and countermarching, did attack. He made some impression, but it was too late, and he had not enough force to follow on. About this time I returned to General Hancock.* His men were rallied along the road; but regiments and brigades were all mixed up; and we were obliged to listen to Burnside’s fighting without any advance on our part. In our front all was quiet; and I got permission to go back to the 2d Corps hospital and look up the body of Major Abbot. Two miles back, in an open farm surrounded by woods, they had pitched the hospital tents. I will not trouble you with what I saw there, as I passed among the dead and dying. Abbot lay on a stretcher, quietly breathing his last — his eyes were fixed and the ashen color of death was on his face. Near by lay his Colonel, Macy, shot in the foot. I raised Macy and helped him to the side of Abbot, and we stood there till he died. It was a pitiful spectacle, but a common one on that day. I left in haste, after arranging for sending the remains home, for the sudden sound of heavy firing told of some new attack. The Rebels (unquenchable fellows they are!), seeing that Burnside had halted, once more swung round and charged furiously on Hancock in his very rifle-pits. I rode at once to General Meade, to ask that Burnside might attack also. This he did, without further orders and with excellent effect. When I got back to the cross-road, I was told the enemy had broken through on the plank and cut us in two; this turned out an exaggeration. They did get into a small part of a rifle-pit but were immediately driven out leaving near sixty dead in the trench at the point.

*The book includes this footnote, taken from Lyman’s journal: “1.15 (about). Back to Hancock. He alone, in rear of Brock road; and there he asked me to sit down under the trees, as he was very tired indeed. All his Staff were away to set in order the troops. They had now constructed a tolerable rifle-pit extending along the Brock and to the head of the cross-road. He said that his troops were rallied but very tired and mixed up, and not in a condition to advance. He had given orders to have the utmost exertions put forth in putting regiments in order, but many of the field officers were killed and wounded, and it was hard. At 2 P.m. Burnside, after going almost to Parker’s Store and again back, made a short attack with loud musketry. Ventured to urge Hancock (who was very pleasant and talkative) to try and attack too; but he said with much regret that it would be to hazard too much, though there was nothing in his immediate front, which had been swept by Stevenson’s other brigade, which marched from left to right.”

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. 195-6. 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 92-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Wilderness, Day Two

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this drawing "Rebel advance through the smoke, and seizure of a part of the breastworks on Brock road. The logs had caught fire." It depicted fighing that took place later in the day on May 6. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud labeled this drawing “Rebel advance through the smoke, and seizure of a part of the breastworks on Brock road. The logs had caught fire.” It depicted fighing that took place later in the day on May 6. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Here’s another short excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. This one is about the start of the fighting on May 6, 1864, the second day of the bloody struggle in the Wilderness.  The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

Fighting resumed bright and early on May 6. Grant had wanted the army to move at 4:30 a.m., but Meade, thinking that was too early for the exhausted and disorganized men–and perhaps because he suspected Burnside and the IX Corps would be late as usual–suggested 6:00. Grant said he would delay things by half an hour. Near dawn Meade and Lyman rode out to the Germanna Plank Road to find Burnside, who was supposed to move his men into the gap between the forces on the plank road and the turnpike. Burnside was late, however, delayed in part because the roads were clogged with artillery. One of his aides arrived and told Meade that if the general authorized the clearing of the roads, he would go back and hurry Burnside along. “No, Sir, I have no command over General Burnside,” Meade replied. The IX Corps was not under his control–that was Grant’s responsibility.

Back at headquarters the general ordered Lyman to report on Hancock’s progress down by the Brock Road intersection. Lyman mounted his horse at around 5:00 in the morning. Already he could hear musket fire from skirmishers, followed by the loud, crashing volleys that meant major fighting had erupted.

He found Hancock in a good mood. “We are driving them, sir; tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully,” he said. But Hancock’s mood darkened when Lyman informed him of Burnside’s delay. “Just what I expected,” Hancock snapped. “If we could attack now, we would smash A. P. Hill all to pieces!”

The Union forces were doing a pretty good job of it even without Burnside’s help. The situation was looking increasingly desperate for Lee’s army. But then, as a blood red sun rose higher in the sky, its light diffused by the smoke of battle, James Longstreet and the I Corps arrived, moving east down the Orange Plank Road toward the fighting.

A historical marker on the Wilderness battlefield driving tour details an incident that occurred as Longstreet’s men came up and prepared to counterattack. It took place near the Widow Tapp farm, where Lee had his headquarters. As the Texas Brigade, under the command of Brig. Gen. John Gregg began to advance, Lee rode along with it, swept up in the excitement of battle. But Gregg’s men refused to let him risk his life with them. “Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!” they yelled, some of them tugging on his bridle, until the general reluctantly turned back.

“Lee to the rear!” is a stirring story, even to a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee like me. It has entered the treasury of great Civil War tales. But as I read the story on the marker I think about Meade at Gettysburg on day two, sitting atop his horse on Cemetery Ridge, sword unsheathed, aides nervously arrayed behind him, with nothing between him and the advancing enemy. No markers recount that moment. No one after the war sought to add the patina of glory that would elevate the incident into legend. True, Meade lacked Lee’s charisma. He had been in command of his army for mere days at that point. His men hardly knew him. Yet it is also a great story and one that deserves to be told.

But perhaps Union soldiers felt less need to repeat such tales of glory. After all, Meade’s army had won the war. Lee’s veterans had to find solace in something other than victory.

Excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 259-60. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.