Reflection (July 10, 1864)

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

July 10 finds Theodore Lyman in a philosophical mood as he wonders at the determination of the fighting men in the Army of Northern Virginia. He reflects the war-weariness that infected both armies by this point.

The Major Wooten to whom Lyman refers was the Confederate officer he met at Cold Harbor when delivering the flag of truce. Governor William Sprague (actually, former governor and at this point senator) is from Rhode Island. Lyman has mentioned him before. General Birney is David Bell Birney, who had provided damaging testimony against Meade for the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He had commanded the II Corps while Winfield Scott Hancock was incapacitated by his Gettysburg wound.

It seems sometimes sort of lonely and hopeless, sitting here in the dust by Petersburg, and hearing nothing except now and then a cannon in the distance. Sometimes I feel like saying to the Rebels: “You’re a brave set of men, as ever were; and honest—the mass of you. Take what territory you have left and your nigs, and go and live with your own delusions.” But then, if I reflect, of course I see that such things won’t do. Instead of being exasperated at the Southerners by fighting against them, I have a great deal more respect for them than ever I had in peace-times. They appear to much more advantage after the discipline of war than when they had no particular idea of law and order. Of course I speak only of a certain body, the army of Northern Virginia; of the rest I know nothing. Also do I not speak of their acts elsewhere; but simply of the manner of warfare of our particular opponents. It is always well, you know, to speak of what you see, and not of what you hear through half a dozen irresponsible persons. There is no shadow of doubt that the body of the Southerners are as honestly, as earnestly and as religiously interested in this war as the body of the Northerners. Of course such sentiments in the North are met with a storm of “Oh! How can they be?”—“That is morally impossible”—“No one could really believe in such a cause!” Nevertheless there is the fact, and I cannot see what possible good can come from throwing a thin veil of mere outcries between ourselves and the sharp truth. I am not so witless as not to be able to tell in five minutes’ conversation with common men whether they are reasonably honest and sincere, or false and deceitful. I was much struck with something that Major Wooten said, when we were waiting together, by night, at Cool Arbor. After listening to the tremendous noise of cannon and musketry that suddenly had burst forth, he said: “There they are, firing away; and it is Sunday night, too.” The great thing that troubles me is, that it is not a gain to kill off these people—now under a delusion that amounts to a national insanity. They are a valuable people, capable of a heroism that is too rare to be lost.

William Sprague of Rhode Island (Library of Congress).

William Sprague of Rhode Island (Library of Congress).

It is a common saying round here that the war could be settled in half an hour if they would leave it to the two armies. But I fear the two armies would settle it rather for their own convenience and in the light of old enemies (who had beaten at each other till they had beaten in mutual respect) than on the high grounds on which alone such a decision could rest. And, on second thoughts, I do not think it might turn out so smoothly. Doubtless the treaty would make excellent progress the first ten minutes; but then would arise questions at which there would be hesitation, and, at the end of the half-hour, it is to be feared both parties would be back in their breastworks. General Meade is fond of saying that the whole could be settled by the exercise of common Christian charity; but (entirely sub rosa) I don’t know any thin old gentleman, with a hooked nose and cold blue eye, who, when he is wrathy, exercises less of Christian charity than my well-beloved Chief! I do not wish to be understood as giving a panegyric on the Secesh, but merely as stating useful facts. Little Governor Sprague appeared again. He was last with us at Spotsylvania. This time he came over with Birney, who, with his thin, pale, Puritanic face, is quite a contrast. Sprague has two rabbit teeth in front that make him look like a small boy. Birney looks rather downcast. You see he was ambitious to do well while he had temporary command of the Corps; but all went wrong. His great charge of nine brigades, on the 18th of June, was repulsed; and on the 22d the Corps had that direful affair in which the whole Corps was flanked, by nobody at all, so to speak. The more I think on that thing, the more extraordinary and disgraceful does it appear. At the same time, it is in the highest degree instructive as showing what a bold and well-informed enemy may do in thick woods, where nobody can see more than a company front. The Rebel official accounts show that Mahone, with some 6000 or 7000 men, marched in the face of two corps in line of battle, took 1600 prisoners, ten flags, and four guns, paralyzed both corps, held his position till nightfall, and retreated with a loss of not over 400 men! I was with the 6th Corps and never heard a musket from the 2d nor dreamed it was doing anything, till an aide came to say the line had been driven in. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 186-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Two Heads (May 19, 1864)

Senator John Sherman. His resemblance to his older brother, the general, is striking (via Wikipedia).

Senator John Sherman. His resemblance to his older brother, the general, is striking (via Wikipedia).

Another double-header today, with letters from both Meade and Theodore Lyman. I’m especially taken by the end of Meade’s letter. It’s an interesting analysis of his role under Grant. He does chafe at his subordinate role and will later become increasingly agitated over not receiving the recognition he feels he deserves, but here he accepts the situation for what it is. Of course, by the time the article he mentions appeared, Horatio Wright replaced John Sedgwick at the head of the VI Corps, and Sedgwick had joined the thousands of soldiers who lie moldering in the grave. The Coppée he mentions is Henry Coppée, a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran who went on to become the first president of Leheigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He also wrote biographies of Ulysses Grant and George Thomas. The magazine Meade cites is the United States Service Magazine.

Senator John Sherman was William T. Sherman’s younger brother. Senator William Sprague was also a former governor of Rhode Island.

All goes on well up to this time. We did not have the big battle which I expected yesterday, as, on advancing, we found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall, and directed a suspension of the attack. We shall now try to manoeuvre again, so as to draw the enemy out of his stronghold, and hope to have a fight with him before he can dig himself into an impregnable position.

We have recent Richmond papers containing Lee’s congratulatory address to his army, so you see both sides claim having gained the advantage. Lee, however, seems to think they have gained their point when they check us.

Yesterday I had a visit from Senators Sherman, of Ohio, and Sprague, of Rhode Island; both were very complimentary to me, and wished me to know that in Washington it was well understood these were my battles. I told them such was not the case; that at first I had manceuvered the army, but that gradually, and from the very nature of things, Grant had taken the control; and that it would be injurious to the army to have two heads. I see one of the newspaper men is puzzled to know what share we each have in the work, and settles it by saying Grant does the grand strategy, and I the grand tactics. Coppée in his Army Magazine says, “the Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant, commanded by Meade, and led by Hancock, Sedgwick and Warren,” which is a quite good distinction, and about hits the nail on the head.

In his letter from May 19, Theodore Lyman continues his account of the campaign so far. A journal entry added as a footnote to the letter mentions the altercation that occurred between Meade and Philip Sheridan at Todd’s Tavern.

To continue my history a little—I had struggled with much paper to the morning of the 8th. It proved a really hot day, dusty in the extreme and with a severe sun. We staid till the morning was well along, and then started for Piney Branch Church. On the way passed a cavalry hospital, I stopped and saw Major Starr, who had been shot directly through both cheeks in a cavalry fight the day before. He was in college with me, and when I first came to the army commanded the Headquarter escort, the same place [Charles Francis] Adams now has. . . .

Near Piney Branch Church we halted, pitched tents and had something cooked. Meanwhile there was firing towards Spotsylvania, an ill omen for us. The Rebels were there first and stood across the way. Warren attacked them, but his were troops that had marched and fought almost night and day for four days and they had not the full nerve for a vigorous attack. General Robinson’s division behaved badly. Robinson rode in among them, calling them to attack with the bayonet, when he was badly shot in the knee and carried from the field. They failed to carry the position and lost a golden opportunity, for Wilson’s cavalry had occupied Spotsylvania, but of course could not keep there unless the enemy were driven from our front. . . .

A little before two we moved Headquarters down the Piney Branch Church road, south, to near its junction with the Todd’s Tavern road. Meantime the 6th Corps had come up and formed on the left of Warren, the lines running in a general easterly and westerly direction, a mile and a half north of Spotsylvania. There was a high and curving ridge on which was placed our second line and batteries, then was a steep hollow, and, again, a very irregular ridge, or broken series of ridges, much of them heavily wooded, with cleared spaces here and there; along these latter crests ran the Rebel lines in irregular curves. Preparations were pushed to get the corps in position to attack, but it was plain that many of the men were jaded and I thought some of the generals were in a like case. About half-past four what should Generals Grant and Meade take it into their heads to do but, with their whole Staffs, ride into a piece of woods close to the front while heavy skirmishing was going on. We could not see a thing except our own men lying down; but there we sat on horseback while the bullets here and there came clicking among trunks and branches and an occasional shell added its discordant tone. I almost fancy Grant felt mad that things did not move faster, and so thought he would go and sit in an uncomfortable place. General Meade, not to be bluffed, stayed longer than Grant, but he told me to show the General the way to the new Headquarters. Oh! with what intense politeness did I show the shortest road! for I had picked out the camp and knew the way.

Hobart Ward (Library of Congress).

J. Hobart Ward. After the Wilderness, Winfield Scott Hancock had him relieved for being intoxicated in the face of the enemy (Library of Congress).

Well, they could not get their attack ready; but there was heavy skirmishing.* … I think there was more nervous prostration to-day among officers and men than on any day before or since, the result of extreme fatigue and excitement. General Ward was relieved from his command, for misbehavior and intoxication in presence of the enemy during the Battle of the Wilderness. I had always supposed him to be a brave but rough man. . . .

*”Sheridan now came to Headquarters—we were at dinner. Meade told him sharply that his cavalry was in the way, though he had sent him orders to leave the road clear. S. replied that he never got the order. Meade then apologized, but Sheridan was plainly full of suppressed anger, and Meade too was in ill temper. S. went on to say that he could see nothing to oppose the advance of the 5th Corps; that the behavior of the infantry was disgraceful, etc., etc. Maybe this was the beginning of his dislike of Warren and ill-feeling against Meade.”—Lyman’s Journal.

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. 197-8. 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 104-106. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.