Return of the Sixth (December 13, 1864)

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).

Theodore Lyman writes about the return of the VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, to the Army of the Potomac. It had been fighting in the Shenandoah Valley under Philip Sheridan. Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton commanded one of its divisions; earlier Lyman had noted that he was “excellent for a brigade, but probably hardly up to a division.” Another division commander, Truman Seymour, had been gobbled up by the rebels during John Gordon’s flank attack at the Wilderness and later exchanged. Samuel Crawford commanded the Pennsylvania Reserves, Meade’s old division, in the V Corps.

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

As the Rebels have known the fact for some time, and as the newspapers have hinted at it in unmistakable terms, I conceive there is no impropriety in my saying that we have now with us the 6th Corps once again. A week ago Sunday night the first division came from City Point on the cars, having come straight from the neighborhood of Winchester by car and boat. The next morning we were treated to the sight of the familiar red crosses, and soon General Wheaton rode up, to see the General and report. . . . Very loath were the Sixth Corps bucks to leave the valley (where they had plenty of sheep and chickens and victories, and no fighting except in the regular battles), and come to a place with which they only connected more or less fighting, day and night (rather more than less), much dust, heat, and drought, and no particular victories. However, they find things better now, and will doubtless get contented in time. What must have gratified them was that they relieved Crawford’s division of the 5th Corps, on the line, and took possession of their very nice log huts, which had been carefully constructed uniformly in all the brigades. Crawford’s people by no means saw the thing in the same light. They took down their canvas roofs and rolled them up with dudgeon, and marched off to take a temporary camp, previous to the Weldon road expedition. I rode along the breastworks as the red crosses marched into the deserted camps, and observed the aspect of grim satisfaction with which the new comers went about, looking into the abandoned huts. The luxurious Crawford had his nice log cabin taken down and carted to his new locality. “However,” said Wheaton, “I slept in Crawford’s kitchen, and that was good enough for me.” On Tuesday came the 3d division, also with a new commander, for brave General Ricketts lies at Washington, still suffering from his wound; and General Seymour, he who was taken the second day of the Wilderness, has the command. Seymour is a fiery and irrepressible sort of party, and enraged the inhabitants of Charlottesville beyond measure. When they told him they had had most extraordinary victories over Grant, he made them a speech, in which he said it didn’t make any sort of difference how many victories they had, it wouldn’t do them any sort of good; that in every battle we killed off a good many of them, and that we intended to keep piling up men indefinitely, until they knocked under, or were all shot! This enraged them much, and they invited him to air himself for sixteen miles on foot, after it. . . . It was only last Monday that the 2d division got here, under Getty, and with it came General Wright, commanding the corps. Good General Wright, though always pleasant, is, I think rather in low spirits. He has had poor luck, on numerous occasions, and it culminated at Cedar Creek, where he chanced to have command of the army when it was surprised. He had rallied it, when Sheridan arrived on the field; but of course Sheridan had the credit of the victory, and indeed he deserved it. All the officers say that Wright made prodigious exertions and rode along all parts of the line in the hottest fire.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 298-300. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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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.

Humphreys (March 5, 1864)

Gen. Andrew Humphreys, in a photo taken during the 1862 Peninsula campaign (Library of Congress).

Gen. Andrew Humphreys, in a photo taken during the 1862 Peninsula campaign (Library of Congress).

While George Meade is in Washington, dealing with some unpleasant matters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere (more about that in tomorrow’s post), Theodore Lyman writes a letter from the Army of the Potomac’s winter quarters. One thing he notes is the failure of the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid, and he touches on the political winds blowing the army’s way from Washington (including the movement up there to replace Meade with Joe Hooker).

He also writes about Andrew Humphreys, who became Meade’s chief of staff shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. Here’s what I wrote about him in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg: “Humphreys was from Philadelphia. An engineer like Meade, he had graduated from West Point four years before him. He had served on McClellan’s staff and later commanded a division at Antietam and during the bloody battle for Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. As a division commander in the III Corps at Gettysburg he had held the right of Sickles’s advanced position. ‘He was a small, bow-legged man, with chopped-off, iron gray moustache; and when he lifted his army hat you saw a rather low forehead, and a shock of iron-gray hair,’ a staff member recalled. ‘His blue-gray dauntless eyes threw into his stern face the coldness of hammered steel.’ Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who would get to know Humphreys during the Virginia Campaign of 1864, considered him to be ‘the great soldier of the Army of the Potomac.’ ‘He was a very interesting figure,’ Dana wrote. ‘He used to ride about in a black felt hat, the brim of which was turned down all around, making him look like a Quaker. He was very pleasant to deal with, unless you were fighting against him, and then he was not so pleasant. He was one of the loudest swearers that I ever knew.’ Although Humphreys desired a corps command, he consented to become Meade’s chief of staff, Dana believed, out of pure patriotism.”

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

The “Florida Reverse” Lyman mentions was the Battle of Olustree, a defeat for Union general Truman Seymour. Meade served with but did not like Seymour. In letters to his wife he had complained about the way Seymour used to suck up to John Reynolds, their Pennsylvania reserves division commander. Back in August 1862 Meade had written, “I am sad to say that Reynolds appears to be greatly under Seymour’s influence and I fear my position in the Reserves will not be as agreeable as it has been.” He reports a conversation in which Reynolds told Seymour that he, Seymour, would probably not be with the division long because he would certainly be made a major general. At that Reynolds caught Meade’s eye and hastily added, “Meade too for that matter.” No doubt Meade experienced a bit of schadenfreude over Seymour’s reverse.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I found myself late and galloped four miles in about twenty minutes, only to find I had heated the mare for nothing, insomuch that the venerable Humphreys had put off dinner to six p.m. That young man of fifty has gone in his ambulance to see, I presume, some ladies, and I will here and now wager that we don’t dine till eight p.m. Sich is his nature. Really he should be dismissed the service for conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. Au reste, there never was a nicer old gentleman, and so boyish and peppery that I continually want to laugh in his face. I am in fear he won’t be confirmed as major-general. There are some persons, the very dregs of politicians, whom he tried by court-martial, when under him, that now do all they can against his promotion. I find that politicians, like [Charles] Sumner and company, have a way of saying of officers who have had their very clothes shot off their back and have everywhere displayed the utmost skill and courage, that “their hearts are not in the cause,” or “they are not fully with us”; meaning that these officers do not happen to fully agree with every political dogma the party may choose to enunciate. I am of the opinion that the question is: Does such and such an officer fight bravely and with skill? Anyone who has been under fire will be ready to acknowledge that it is a pretty good place to test principles; and if a man goes into the thick of it time and again, I do not ask any better proof of his earnestness. However, it would appear that Washington people often think the best test of faithfulness is to stay away from the fighting and make a good many speeches to people who entirely agree with your sentiments. To my certain knowledge, great exertions are now making to put a man at the head of this army who has made one of the most bloody failures of the War, and who is utterly incompetent to the post. Why is he pushed? Because he professes to be an ultra-Republican, ah, voila! . . .

Pa Meade is at Washington but I hope to have him back to-morrow. Behold my prophecy in regard to Killcavalry’s raid fulfilled. I have heard many persons very indignant with him. They said he went to the President and pressed his plan; told Pleasonton he would not come back alive if he didn’t succeed; that he is a frothy braggart, without brains and not over-stocked with desire to fall on the field; and that he gets all his reputation by newspapers and political influence. These charges are not new and I fancy Kill has rather dished himself. It is painful to think of those poor prisoners hearing the sound of his guns and hoping a rescue was at hand! Now all that cavalry must be carried back in steamers, like a parcel of old women going to market! Bah! Pour moi, I say nothing, as I never criticize superior officers; but I have mine own opinions, quite strong. However, these raids and the like do not much affect the War one way or the other. Nor does such a thing as the Florida reverse. Things have narrowed down now to two or three great centres, and upon large operations there depends the result. It is a favorite remark of General Meade, that “there is but one way to put down this rebellion, namely, to destroy the military power of the Rebels.” Their great armies must be overwhelmed, and there will end their hopes. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 78-80. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Flowers from Mrs. Lincoln (April 20, 1863)

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Library of Congress)

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Here Meade continues his discussion of Samuel Du Pont’s failure to subdue Charleston with navy ironclads. The Seymour to whom he refers is Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, serving as Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s chief of staff in South Carolina. Hunter had hoped he navy would use their ironclads to support a landing by his troops. Meade knew—and disliked—Seymour when they both commanded brigades under John Reynolds. Meade particularly resented the way he thought Seymour was sucking up to Reynolds in hopes of advancement.

Meade’s story about getting flowers from Mary Todd Lincoln displays a fine touch of self-deprecation, which I enjoy.

The note about son George hints at one of the upcoming problems with Hooker’s Chancellorsville campaign. George Stoneman’s cavalry, to which young George Meade’s regiment belonged, was supposed to range behind the Confederate army and disrupt its communications and supplies. Torrential storms raised the rivers and severely delayed Stoneman’s operation, putting an early kink in Hooker’s plans.

I can see by the public journals that the navy are in the affair at Charleston about to imitate the bad example of the army by squabbling among themselves after a battle with greater energy than they display fighting the enemy. DuPont will undoubtedly have to bear the brunt of the failure at Charleston, but as I see the Tribune most warmly and energetically espouses his cause, I presume he is all safe. I never had any idea the ironclads would be able to do much more than they did. They are simply able to stand fire, but have no more offensive power, indeed not as much as ordinary vessels of war.

I see Seymour has been sent by Hunter to endeavor to have countermanded the order sending the ironclads to the Mississippi. This order, if ever given, was in my judgment very injudicious, for these vessels will be of no use on that river in reducing the works of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The only service they can be put to there would be to patrol the river between the two places, and prevent supplies to the rebels from the Red River Country.

Yesterday the Richmond papers announced the fall of Suffolk, and we were all pretty blue; but this morning we have a telegram from General Peck reporting that he has stormed and carried a battery of six guns that the enemy had built, and had captured a portion of an Alabama regiment that was defending it. This is great news, not so much for the actual amount of the success, as for the facts—first, that it is the reverse of what the rebels had reported, and, second, because it is the first time in this war that our troops have carried a battery in position at the point of the bayonet, an example, I trust, will be speedily and often imitated by us.

Day before yesterday, I was astonished at receiving a very beautiful bouquet of flowers, which had attached to it a card on which was written, “With the compliments of Mrs. A. Lincoln.” At first I was very much tickled, and my vanity insinuated that my fine appearance had taken Mrs. L’s eye and that my fortune was made. This delusion, however, was speedily dissolved by the orderly who brought the bouquet inquiring the road to General Griffin’s and Sykes’s quarters, when I ascertained that all the principal generals had been similarly honored.

I understand George joined his regiment up the river, the day after he arrived. He went up in a violent storm.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 367-8. Available via Google Books.