Dissipated by Facts (December 16, 1864)

Edwin Forbes sketched the arrival in a Union cap at Rappahannock Station of newspapers from Washington. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Edwin Forbes sketched the arrival of newspapers from Washington in a Union camp at Rappahannock Station . Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

George Meade never had any love for the press or Congress. Here he advises his wife about both institutions.

I received this evening your letter of the 14th inst., having received day before yesterday the one dated the 12th. I am sorry the good public should have been disappointed in the result of Warren’s expedition, but the facts are, as I stated them, he accomplished all that he went for, namely, the destruction of some eighteen miles of the Weldon Railroad.

This passion of believing newspaper and club strategy will I suppose never be eradicated from the American public mind, notwithstanding the experience of four years in which they have from day to day seen its plans and hopes and fears dissipated by facts.

I don’t anticipate either Grant or his campaign will be attacked in Congress. In the first place he has too many friends; in the next place, Congress having legislated him into his present position, he can only be removed by their act, and that would be stultifying themselves.

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. 252. Available via Google Books.

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The Evils of War (December 11, 1864)

George Meade weighs in on Gouverneur Warren’s expedition to tear up the Weldon Railroad. Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman fills in some of the details.

Five days ago I sent Warren, with a large force, to destroy the Weldon Railroad, which the enemy continue to use up to a certain point. It was expected Lee would send a force after him, and that we should have some sharp fighting, but to-day Warren is returning, having, undisturbed, effectually destroyed some twenty miles of the road. During Warren’s absence we have had a violent storm and the poor men have suffered a great deal, but this is one of the evils of war and must be borne.

Lyman adds to Meade’s dutiful account and provides a quick overview of Union concerns around the country. General Potter is Robert Potter, who commanded a division in the IX Corps. In his letter yesterday, Lyman mentioned that Potter had been sent to support Warren.

Gen. Robert Potter.(Library of Congress).

Gen. Robert Potter.(Library of Congress).

Weather as before—only a little more so. I suppose they have a good deal such in England. If so, don’t want to live there. Pretty times for half the army, off and on, to be marching and reconnoitring and expeditionizing about the country, as if it were picnic season! And still stranger is it to be sitting quiet in my tent when so many people are running round loose. Our affairs are rather mixed up, you see. So are those of everybody. Sherman has disappeared in Georgia and nobody knows what awful strategy he contemplates. Not so Hood: he is poking about in a manner I don’t at all like: jamming Thomas up in Nashville, and now I fancy he is just marching round the city and into Kentucky. That won’t do! Old Lee don’t let us march round towns unless he chooses, or has at least a hard fight for it. However, I can’t think Hood can do severe damage with so powerful an army as that of Thomas in his neighborhood. Well, we will hope for a big thing, of some sort, somewhere, for there are a number of irons, small and great, in the fire, and as much activity prevails as if we were not near the real winter. One thing I am sure of, that, what with expeditions little and big, threatenings and reconnaissances, the Rebels must be kept in quite an active state of simmer. Poor General Potter! He had a frightful night march and was doubtless buoyed up by the feeling that he had a separate command and could distinguish himself if there was a fight, and slam in on Hill’s left flank, and win a great name for himself. What then was his disgust to see, about noon, the head of Warren’s column trudging peaceably back, on the other side of the river! There were two decent-sized armies staring at each other, across the stream, each wondering what the other meant by being there; and both wondering why so many men were concentrated against nobody. General Potter philosophically shrugged his shoulders, gave the word to face about, and put his best leg forward for home, where he arrived a little after dark. It was a terrible night for a bivouac, with an intensely piercing cold wind and everything frozen up. Warren crossed the river and spent the night on this side of it.

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. 250. 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. 296-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A High Festival (December 10, 1864)

"Destruction of Water Ta[nk]s & Engines & engine houses for pumping water into them at Jarrets Station" by Alfred Waud depicts action from December 8 on the Weldon Railroad. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Destruction of Water Ta[nk]s & Engines & engine houses for pumping water into them at Jarrets Station” by Alfred Waud depicts action from December 8 on the Weldon Railroad. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the expedition across Hatcher’s Run to threaten the Boydton Plank Road. And he discusses other things as well. Duane is James C. Duane, the army’s chief engineer; William Riddle is another member of Meade’s staff. Riddle, a Philadelphian, had once served as an aide to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds and had been with that ill-fated general when a bullet struck him down during the first day at Gettysburg. In his letter Lyman leaves out one thing about Riddle’s going away party that he mentions in his notebooks, namely that aide Frederick Rosenkrantz got so disgracefully drunk “it brought the matter next morning to a crisis.” Rosenkrantz promised to mend his ways.

Lyman also writes about Gouverneur Warren’s expedition to destroy the Weldon Railroad. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in command of a brigade in the V Corps, wrote home to his sister about the same expedition and the mutual retaliation it sparked. “Our stragglers fared hard when caught by the enemy’s scouts & guerrillas,” he wrote. “In fact they were murdered—their throats cut from ear to ear. . . . In retaliation our men on the return burnt almost every house on the road. This was a hard night.” Concluded Chamberlain, “It was a sad business.”

[Brig. Gen. Nelson] Miles, with the troops which had been sent to reinforce him, maintained a threatening attitude near Hatcher’s Run till afternoon, when he was ordered to withdraw again to our lines. The enemy undertook to follow up a little, but the rear guard faced about and drove them away.—There was I seized with a fearful sleepy fit last night and went to bed; thus missing a letter home to you. However, I have not before missed one in a very long time; and, if I followed Duane’s advice, I should miss much oftener. “Lyman,” says this ancient campaigner, “you are foolish to write so much. Now I write only once a week, so my letters are valued. You write every day, and probably Mrs. Lyman puts them in her pocket and pays no attention to them.” Ah! I was speaking of Miles, and had got him with all his forces, and put him inside the works, all right. We had to pay farewell respects to Riddle, for his resignation has been accepted and he goes to-morrow. For a long time he has been in miserable health and, in warm weather, is seldom well enough for hard duty. He has been twice wounded, at Antietam and on the Peninsula, and was taken prisoner, but got away from Libby and arrived, after many hardships, within our lines. He is a very good officer and quite a superior person, whom we shall miss on our Staff. The kind-hearted Woolsey invited us all to take oysters in his honor (for you must know that there is a log house where one may have a “fancy roast,” “plain stew,” or “one fried,” just across the road). We gathered in the greatest force, for oysters attracted, even if Riddle didn’t, and had a high festival. We had songs, whereof I sang several, with large applause. “You don’t drink,” said Duane, “but it don’t make any difference, because you look as if you had been drinking, and that’s all that is necessary.”

Before I finish this day I must go back to tell of the beginning and progress of the Weldon road expedition. Last Wednesday, General Warren, with his own Corps, Mott’s division of the 2d Corps, and nearly the whole of Gregg’s division of cavalry, started in the morning and marched down the Jerusalem plank road, striking across to the Nottoway River, at Freeman’s Bridge, a distance of from fifteen to seventeen miles. There a pontoon bridge was thrown and the whole command got over before daybreak the next morning, the advance getting that night to Sussex Court House. Meantime the enemy, getting [wind] of the move, sent off A. P. Hill’s Corps, that evening, twelve hours after Warren. Hill went to Dinwiddie Court House, but what became of him thereafter, I have not yet learned. Their place in the lines was taken, I presume, by some of Early’s men, who were nearly all come down from the valley and are helping Lee now. On Thursday Warren continued his march and struck the Weldon road, a little south of the Nottoway, in the afternoon, and immediately went to destroying the track and burning the river bridge. The work went on systematically: the line being halted on the road, the men stacked arms, and went at the track. Sleepers were torn up, and these, with fence-rails, made great bonfires, on which the rails were laid. Soon the iron would wax red-hot, when the weight of the ends would bend the rails. Some of the men, however, were so enthusiastic as to take rails and twist them round trees, which could be done while the ends were cool and the middle hot. As soon as a brigade had finished its work, it marched down to a new piece, passing the other men who were destroying; and so they kept on till midnight, when they had got to Jarrott’s station and there halted. Next day, Friday, the column kept on, as before, the cavalry preceding them, who, when they arrived at Meherrin Bridge, found strong earthworks on the opposite side and some ten guns, which immediately opened on them. . . . This night was a very severe one, with its high wind and snow, sleet and rain; but it was rendered tolerable by the big fires that the soldiers lighted to heat rails with. General Warren did not deem proper to cross the Meherrin, as it would take a day to flank the Rebels’ works, and he started with but six days’ provisions. Next day, Saturday to wit, he began his return march and the head of the column got as far as Sussex C.H. On this march the people of the country had the bad judgment to “bushwhack” our troops: that is, to kill any stragglers or small parties they could catch. This is against the rules of war. I will not say it is surprising, because the stragglers of an army always steal and plunder and exasperate the people. Colonel Sergeant told me he himself saw five of our men shot and stripped nearly naked. The troops were so enraged by such cases, that they fired every house on their march, and, what made them worse, they found a great amount of apple-brandy in the country, a liquor that readily intoxicates. The superior officers destroyed a great deal of it, but the men got some and many were drunk. The people make this brandy on account of its great price. It sells for $1500 a barrel. Colonel Wainwright told me he found two tithing-bills in one house, one a year old, the other recent; in the old one wheat was valued at $10 a bushel, in the recent, at $40, showing that it has quadrupled in price within a year. It was on this day that a cavalry reconnaissance that pushed out on the Vaughan road reported heavy artillery firing in the direction of Jarrott’s station. This made Grant so uneasy that he directed aid to be sent Warren. Accordingly Potter, with 9000 men, marched that night, and arrived next morning at five a.m. at the Nottoway, at Freeman’s Bridge. A wretched march indeed! in slush and mud and a damp cold; but his men followed on very well and arrived with little straggling, which surprised me.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 293-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Looking for that perfect holiday gift? What could be better than Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg? (You can order the book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.) Or maybe a 2015 George Gordon Meade calendar–the perfect way to commemorate the general’s bicentennial year! You can get the calendar right here.

A Man of Character and Honor (August 24, 1864)

William T. Sherman (Library of Congress).

William T. Sherman (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Meade receives what he perceives as a figurative slap in the face when he hear that William T. Sherman, Winfield Scott Hancock, and Phil Sheridan have all received promotions, while his own promised advancement to major general in the Regular Army remains stalled. He fumes about the slight and once again confronts Grant, as you can read in his letter of August 24.

I see you have heard of the promotion of Sherman, Hancock and Sheridan, and noted the absence of my name. I cannot tell you how I felt when I first heard this, but I determined to keep quiet till I could obtain some explanation from General Grant. To-day was the first time I have seen him since I learned the intelligence. On my asking him the reason of my name being omitted when those recommended at the same time had been appointed, he answered it was his act; that he had asked for the immediate appointment of the others, but had not asked for mine; and the reason he had not asked for mine was, that if Sherman and myself had been appointed on the same day, I would rank him, and he wished Sherman to rank me. That neither his opinion nor that of the President and Secretary had changed with regard to me; that it was still a settled thing that I was to have the vacancy; and that he proposed to have me appointed, when I should be assigned to the command of the Middle Division, which he said he would have done before now, but for the peculiar position Sheridan was placed in, having to fall back, and if superseded now, it would be construed into a disapproval of his course, which was not the case. Of course to all this I had nothing to say. My object was to ascertain whether any fault was found with me, or whether any change of opinion had taken place since the last time he had assured me I was to be appointed when the others were. As he had disclaimed any such reasons, I did not care to know why I had been left out. I never expected, nor did I much care about, the appointment except to prove to the ignorant public that they had been imposed upon by a lying press. Nothing more was said upon the subject. The whole substance of the explanation was that he desired to advance his favorites, Sherman and Sheridan. I was left out because it would interfere with Sherman’s rank to have me in, and Hancock was brought in because he could not appoint Sheridan before Hancock, not having recommended him when he did Hancock. Of course I could say nothing to this explanation. It would not do for me to claim promotion or express dissatisfaction at not receiving it. I had the right to ask why, after telling me I had been recommended, and would be appointed, I found I was not, but when the above explanation was made, however unjust I may have deemed such reasoning to be, I could take no notice of it, and could not with propriety complain. It is the same old story, an inability to appreciate the sensitiveness of a man of character and honor. Grant really thinks he is one of my best friends, and can’t conceive why I should complain of a little delay in giving me what he tells me I am certainly to have. It is rather hard to have denied me the vindication which the Government might give to my course, by conferring a promotion that I have the most positive evidence it, the Government, has acknowledged I merited and should have. However, I suppose this, like all else, must be borne with patience.

We have had some pretty hard fighting to secure our lodgment on the Weldon Railroad. Grant and Warren are the heroes of the affair. I must confess I do not envy either of them their laurels, although in the Weldon Railroad affair Grant was sixteen miles away, and knew nothing but what was reported to him by myself. We lost a good many men in killed and wounded, but principally in prisoners. Our army is becoming much weakened by these repeated losses, and our only hope is that the enemy suffers proportionately. Their papers acknowledge in their last affairs a loss of five general officers.

Theodore Lyman, in the meantime, takes a look at Meade’s record. When he says “those men are on the ground” I assume he means “in.”

What you say of Meade’s want of success is, as a fact, true; but what I don’t understand is, that the successes are Grant’s but the failures Meade’s. In point of reality the whole is Grant’s: he directs all, and his subordinates are only responsible as executive officers having more or less important functions. There have been cases where they might be said to act alone; for instance, the assault of the 18th of June, though under a general permission from Grant, was strictly an operation of Meade. He felt badly about that failure, “Because,” said he, “I should have taken Petersburg. I had reason to calculate on success. The enemy had no defences but what they had thrown up in a few hours; and I had 60,000 men to their 25,000.” All of which was true and the result showed the difference of morale. The men who stormed the Rappahannock redoubts in November ‘63 would have walked over the breastworks and driven Beauregard into the Appomattox; but those men are on the ground between here and the Rapid Ann, or fill the hospitals in the North. Put a man in a hole and a good battery on a hill behind him, and he will beat off three times his number, even if he is not a very good soldier.

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. 223-24. 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, p. 224. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Sergeant’s Condition (August 22, 1864)

Meade writes home about the sad case of his son John Sergeant. The young man (born in 1841) is fighting a losing battle against tuberculosis (he will die in February) and Meade’s letters are filled with anguished passages about his oldest son’s health. Meade’s son and grandson edited many of that material from the letters they published. Meade, of course, was not alone in fearing the death of a loved one during those terrible Civil War years, but that knowledge certainly did little to lighten his burden.

I have received your letters of the 18th and 19th insts. I have known of Sergeant’s condition for some time, because, when I found he was so sick, I wrote to Dr. Hewson, who at once replied to me. Everything has been done for Sergeant that could be done. He has had the best medical advice, and the most careful nursing. This should be continued, and the result left to that Power who governs and rules all things, and to whose decree we must submit with resignation.

I have been very much occupied for several days past in the operations of my command on the Weldon Railroad, particularly Warren’s Corps, who during this time has had three very pretty little fights, in all of which we have whipped the enemy, though we have suffered a good deal in casualties.

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. 222-23. Available via Google Books.

Hancock’s Cavalry (August 21, 1864)

In his letter of August 21, Theodore Lyman mentions an incident during the fighting along the Weldon Railroad in which Confederate General Johnson Hagood shot Colonel D.B. Daily when Daily was demanding his surrender. It was considered a treacherous act by those on the Union side but merely an incident of war for the Confederates. In his Memoirs of the War of Secession (published in 1910) Hagood recounted his version of the encounter (in the third person). He spells Daily differently. Dailey survived his wound. Hagood wrote that after the war Dailey published an account in the New York Herald clearing the former Confederate of murder. Furthermore, Hagood said, Daly contacted him in 1879 and asked for an affidavit about the action to support his pension request. Here’s Hagood’s account:

“General Hagood was with Major Wilds, commanding the Twenty-first, who was cheering on his men to renewed assault (success being now their only hope of safety), when looking to the right he saw a mounted Federal officer among the men on the left portion of the brigade to the right, with a regimental color in his hands, and a confusion and parleying immediately around him that betokened approaching surrender. The fight was still raging to Hagood’s right and left; there was no cessation on our part except in the squad just around this officer, and none whatever that was perceptible on the part of the enemy. They had pushed out from the right and left a line behind us to cut off our retreat, and this officer (Captain Daly of General Cutler’s staffs had galloped out of a sally port, seized a color from the hands of its bearer, and demanded a surrender. Some officers and men surrendered, but were not carried in; others refused, but just around him ceased fighting. General Hagood called to the men to shoot him and fall back in retreat. They either did not hear him or bewildered by the surrender of part of their number, failed to obey. It was a critical moment and demanded instant and decided action. In a few minutes the disposition to surrender would have spread and the whole brigade have been lost. Making his way across the intervening space as speedily as he could, exposed to a regular fire by file from the enemy’s line, scarce thirty yards off, and calling to his men to fall back—which they did not do—General Hagood approached the officer and demanded the colors, and that he should go back within his own lines, telling him he was free to do so. He commenced arguing the hopelessness of further struggle, and pointed out the lines in our rear. Hagood cut him short, and demanded a categorical reply—yes, or no. Daly was a man of fine presence and sat with loosened rein upon a noble-looking bay that stood with head and tail erect and flashing eye and distended nostrils, quivering in every limb with excitement, but not moving in his tracks. In reply to his abrupt demand, the rider raised his head proudly and decisively answered, ‘No!’ Upon the word General Hagood shot him through the body, and, as he reeled from the saddle upon one side, sprang into it from the other, Orderly Stoney seizing the flag from Daly’s falling hands.”

Last night, Hancock, with his two remaining divisions, marched from Deep Bottom and took position on our left, ready to support Warren. The long, rapid marches of this Corps have given it the name of “Hancock’s cavalry.” When a halt was ordered, one soldier said to the next: “O Jim, what er we a-stoppin’ for?” “The Staff is getting fresh hosses!” replied James. At 9.30 in the morning we again heard Warren’s artillery opening very heavily. I felt anxious on account of the nature of the last attack. This, however, turned out a very different thing. You saw my diagram of his position in my last letter. In addition he now had made a short exterior flank line. The enemy formed in the woods, out of sight, so as to envelop his flank defence, and coming partly in rear; the troops were those of Beauregard and A. P. Hill, many of which had been concentrated from Deep Bottom. They first opened a heavy artillery fire from behind the woods, throwing most of the projectiles into the angle of the line. Then their infantry advanced, in three lines of battle, and attempted to charge, but were received by such a discharge of all sorts of things that they broke and ran back before getting anywhere near. A South Carolina brigade coming out of the woods, saw that they were on the prolongation of our front flank line, and, thinking they had us foul, immediately charged, and caught an awful musketry fire on their flank, from our rear flank line, which they had not noticed. Immediately they began throwing down their arms and shouting, and an officer and some men from our front ran out to accept their surrender. The officer approached General Hagood and either demanded or seized the flag he held in his hand, when Hagood shot him mortally with a pistol, and shouted to his men to run. Some did so, others (about 300) gave themselves up, and others were shot down as they ran. The conduct of Hagood is denounced as treacherous, but this all depends on the details of the affair, which remain to be proved. The next time I think we shall go on shooting till some official announcement of surrender is made! Hagood’s flag we got, a new one, with fifty-seven bullet holes through it! Also three or four other flags, and some 400 prisoners in all. The total loss of the enemy in the day’s work must have been from 1500 to 2000.

We left at about one o’clock, and rode down, first to the stalwart Hancock, who was just then at the Jones house, and then kept on and saw Warren; for we expected another heavy fight, and General Meade wished to be present and see all the troops worked to proper advantage. Warren proposed to attack in his turn, but I am glad he did not, for there was no advantage to be gained that I could see, and we had all we could desire, the possession of the railroad. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 221-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Touching a Tiger’s Cubs (August 19, 1864)

The Aiken House on the Weldon Railroad, a photo by Timothy Gardiner (Library of Congress).

The Aiken House on the Weldon Railroad, a photo by Timothy Gardiner (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides some detail about Gouverneur Warren’s capture of the Weldon Railroad. Not for the first (or last time) Lyman demonstrates that he had a good eye for military affairs. In fact, in his journal entry Lyman even criticizes Meade over the days’s action, something he didn’t often do. Regarding the way the Union lines offered the Confederates a perfect opportunity for a flank attack, Lyman wrote, “The position was faulty; Warren should have corrected it, and Meade should have known it.”

General Gersham Mott (Library of Congress).

General Gershom Mott (Library of Congress).

Some notes about the principals mentioned: Gershom Mott commanded a division in the II Corps and had been brought down from Deep Bottom, north of the James River. Robert Potter had a division in the IX Corps. Julius White had replaced James Ledlie as a IX Corps division commander; in his journal Lyman says of White, “He is no soldier but always ready to fight; a trait that goes far in war!” Brig. Gen. Joseph Hayes of the V Corps wax exchanged in April 1865, just in time to participate in the Appomattox campaign.

To-day I have been with the General to General Warren, who with the 5th Corps seized the Weldon railroad yesterday. It is touching a tiger’s cubs to get on that road! They will not stand it. Warren had a severe fight yesterday at midday, but they could not get him off. All was quiet this morning towards the railroad. Mott got in, through the mud, about seven, and began at once to relieve the 9th Corps, which was not an easy matter, for the covered way was, in many places, waist-deep in water, so the troops had to march up as well as they could, keeping behind hills, etc. The enemy opened on them with artillery but it was rather too late, and the columns were already pretty well out of reach. At noon the General started to go out to visit the scene of action. It was raining steadily, and we went slop, slop along. Near the Cheever house was a damp brigade of Potter’s division, halted. The General ordered me to tell it to move on, as it might be needed. General Potter himself was near by at General White’s Headquarters. . . . After which I was fain to gallop briskly to catch up with the Staff, which was jogging along the Williams house road. . . . Cutting through a skirt of wood, we came on a very large, flat, open farm, on which is the Globe Tavern, and through which runs the railroad. . . . General Warren had a narrow escape in the fight of yesterday. His horse was struck directly between the eyes by a minie ball. If his head had been down, there would have been nothing to save the General’s body. The Corps [Warren’s] was then formed in form of two sides of a rectangle, the longer arm lying across the railroad, the shorter parallel to it. It could scarcely fail to strike me that, while his left flank was well protected, his right was “in the air,”having nothing in connection with it but the picket line. However, as I am not a military critic, I thought no more of it. The enemy did think a good deal of it. In front of the position were dense woods, on its left a fine open tract, and, on the right, a wood separated it from the open farm of the Aiken house. We left at 3.30, and returned by the way we came. Both going and coming I quite expected to see the picket line tumbling in on top of us, and was not surprised, as we rode along near the Aiken house, to hear a number of dropping shots to our left. Just after we got to the plank road, we could hear the cannon opening, which continued a short time and then ceased. During the said short time was enacted one of those disgraceful surprises which we have in such perfection. The enemy, making a front attack, at the same moment threw a strong column down a road leading past the Linear house and outside our right flank. They smashed through the picket line, passed down the road, faced to their right, and rushed, yelling and firing, into the open fields, in rear of our right wing. Met here by a fire of artillery and reserve troops, they themselves fell into confusion, and rushing back through our lines, like a great tide, carried out to sea at least 2000 of our men, including most of our gallant little regular brigade with its commander, General [Joseph] Hayes. To be sure we drove them off and held the railroad, but we ought to have taken all that flanking column.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 217-20. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Weldon Railroad (August 18, 1864)

An Alfred Waud drawing depicts Gouverneur Warren at the Weldon Railroad, supervising the construction of entrenchments by moonlight Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

An Alfred Waud drawing depicts Gouverneur Warren at the Weldon Railroad, supervising the construction of entrenchments by moonlight. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In his letter of August 18, Meade mentions Winfield Scott Hancock’s battles north of the James as well as the start of a movement by Gouverneur K. Warren, commander of the V Corps. This is the beginning of the attack during which Warren will finally get a toe hold on the Weldon Railroad, one of the lines vital to supplying Petersburg. Here’s what I wrote in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

Samuel Crawford (Library of Congress).

“Warren and the V Corps attacked here near a local landmark called Globe Tavern early on the morning of August 18, fighting off a Confederate counterattack to keep their grip on the railroad. The rebels counterattacked through a driving rain the next day. It was a close fight for a time, with the rebels overrunning Samuel Crawford’s division of the V Corps, but the Union soldiers, reinforced by a division of the IX Corps, thrust the enemy back. The rebels attacked again on Sunday, August 21, but by then Warren had his men positioned behind entrenchments, and once again they repulsed the Confederate attack. This portion of the Weldon Railroad was now in Union hands, and the construction of Fort Wadsworth–named after the New York politician-turned-general who had fallen in the Wilderness–was built here to make sure the Confederates couldn’t take it back. Now Confederate supplies coming to Petersburg could travel only as far as Stony Creek station, where they had to be unloaded, placed on wagons, and transported to Dinwiddie Court House and then up the Boydton Plank Road to the city.”

Here’s what Meade wrote on August 18:

Hancock’s movement across the James has resulted in bringing on an action with a part of Lee’s army, which at first was in our favor, but from their reinforcing him I judge Hancock has come to a stand still, and will not probably be able to effect more. Warren has gone to-day on a similar mission on our left, to see if he can find a weak spot in the enemy’s line. His guns are now plainly heard. These movements are made by Grant, with a view to keep the enemy on the alert, prevent his detaching any troops to Early, and, if possible, compel his bringing back some of the troops in the Valley, and thus give Sheridan more chance.

Now it’s Theodore Lyman’s turn:

Last night I had got well into the first sound sleep, when images of war began to intrude on my dreams, and these, taking on a more corporeal form, gradually waked me enough to prove to my mind that there was a big racket going on. The noise of a few shells and many muskets I don’t mind, as I am used to it, but, when it comes to firing heavy mortar shells in salvos, one is authorized to sit up in bed, even if it is one in the morning. Once awake, I recognized the fact that the largest kind of a cannonade was going on. The still, damp air was filled with the detonations of all sorts of big guns and projectiles. It was quite as extensive as the firing on the morning of the mine and sounded very much louder, in the night. Our side replied rather moderately, but the enemy kept up one roar of batteries for some two hours, and the air was full of the humming and bursting of the shells. At the end of that time they stopped, rather suddenly. We expended some 1500 rounds of ammunition and they must have fired much more, and all to kill and wound thirty men. . . . The great joke of the matter was, that General Meade (who is a sound sleeper, and was a little deaf from a cold in the head) remained calmly in the arms of Morpheus, till a telegraph from Grant at City Point, came in, asking what all that firing was about! It so happened that the General woke just at a lull in the cannonade; so he didn’t understand the despatch, but called the officer of the night to know if he had heard any more firing than usual! You should have seen the deshabille parade of officers in the camp: such a flitting of figures in a variety of not much clothing! General Humphreys said: “Yes, perhaps it would be well to have the horses saddled; for,” he added with a hopeful smile, “we may have a scrimmage, you know.” But he was disappointed, and we all went to bed again.

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. 222. 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. 216-17. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.