152 Years Later

A marker indicates the spot where Hancock fell at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (Photo by Tom Huntington).

A marker indicates the spot where Hancock fell at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (Photo by Tom Huntington).

Steve Weatherbee as Meade (Tom Huntington photo).

Steve Weatherbee as Meade (Tom Huntington photo).

I met my fourth George Gordon Meade yesterday.

I know Andy Waskie, of course, the founder and president of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia. Waskie often portrays Meade at talks and living history events. He was out of the country during the 2013 anniversary commemorations, so Jerry McCormick—who usually portrays Gen. Andrew Humphreys—stood in for him as Meade at Gettysburg with the Confederation of Union Generals. I talked to Bob Creed at a Gettysburg reenactment when I was working on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. And today I met Steve Weatherbee, who portrays Meade for the Civil War Heritage Foundation. That doesn’t come close to matching the profusion of Robert E. Lees you will find at Civil War events, but it’s a beginning.

I talked with Weatherbee while we waited for advancing Confederates at the stone wall at Gettysburg’s Bloody Angle. The Angle was considerably less bloody today, and the crowd gathered here 152 years after the Union soldiers along this line repulsed Lee’s attack—Pickett’s Charge—was considerably smaller than it had been in 2013, when some 47,000 people showed up for the 150th anniversary.

Over the past couple days I had watched several of the Gettysburg Battlewalks on the Pennsylvania Cable Network, which made me realize I must get down to Gettysburg myself on July 3. So I packed a lunch and set out. It was a fine, pleasant day for a visit, with a light cloud cover blocking the July sun, and a cool breeze blowing through. My goal was to take the 10:00 walk, which covered Winfield Scott Hancock at Gettysburg. A large crowd gathered at the white Abraham Brian farm buildings. As we waited, I overhead some people talking favorably about George Meade. I pointed out the Meade Society cap I was wearing, and we agreed that the general had never really received his due.

Ranger Matt Atkinson talks about Hancock at the Copse of Trees (tom Huntington photo).

Ranger Matt Atkinson talks about Hancock at the Copse of Trees (Tom Huntington photo).

Park ranger Matt Atkinson led the Hancock walk, and he added a distinctive Southern flavor to it. At the start, he admitted that he didn’t often do Union-themed talks, and that he had grown up in the South looking up to Confederate heroes as a boy. Still, he told us that Hancock was one of his favorite generals, and that he was “a natural-born leader.” From the Brian buildings, we moved south down Cemetery Ridge. We made a stop at the monument that marks the spot where Confederate General Lewis Armistead fell on July 3 1863. Armistead and Hancock had been friends before the war—a friendship portrayed as a full-blown bromance in the book Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg. We finished across the road from the monument that marks the spot where Hancock fell, taken down by a bullet that went through the pommel of his saddle and into his thigh. Atkinson provided a fairly graphic account of Hancock’s wound and the various attempts to remove the musket ball. Maybe that’s what led to our only casualty of the morning, when a woman went faint and had to be helped to the ground (and later to an air conditioned park vehicle).

Alonzo Cushing's belt at the National Civil War Museum (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

Alonzo Cushing’s belt at the National Civil War Museum (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

After the talk, I whiled away some time reading the new book by Jim Hessler and Wayne Motts, Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: A Guide to the Most Famous Attack in American History. My wife and I had attended the book launch event the previous Sunday at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, where Wayne serves as CEO. Jim and Wayne both spoke, and the two of them, plus cartographer Steven Stanley, signed copies of the book afterwards. Wayne had also put out a collection of artifacts related to Pickett’s Charge, including the belt worn by Alonzo Cushing, the Union artillerist who had been cut down at his guns as Armistead approached them. Cushing was just recently awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions that day.

One of two Lewis Armisteads at Gettysburg on July 3. The real George Pickett never got this far (Tom Huntington photo).

One of two Lewis Armisteads at Gettysburg on July 3. The real George Pickett never got this far (Tom Huntington photo).

Back at Gettysburg, I walked over to the Angle to wait for the Confederates with Weatherbee and other reenactors. I spotted only one Robert E. Lee, but two Armisteads.

It seemed to me that the day felt politically charged in the wake of the debate over the Confederate flag sparked by the church shootings in Charleston. (“Keep flying it,” I heard one woman remark to a Confederate reenactor as he passed her with a Rebel flag.) I’ve written about the flag issue elsewhere. I have no problems with Confederate flags in a historical context. I do have issues with it in a political context, whether it’s being flown at a statehouse or in the back of a pickup truck.

Anyone who has read Searching for George Gordon Meade knows that I have little patience for Lost Cause rhetoric. Here’s one thing I wrote:

During the war and in the years since, Lee has been lionized. Entire bookshelves groan beneath the weight of the volumes dedicated to him. He has come to symbolize a glorious “lost cause,” a world of “cavaliers and cotton fields,” as Gone with the Wind put it. In this view of the Civil War, the noble, freedom-loving South fought a valiant but doomed battle against the institutionalized and bureaucratic forces of the North. The Southern generals, men like Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, tend to be remembered as glamorous and noble warriors. The generals in the North come across more like CEOs of major corporations, faceless and colorless. Except perhaps for Ulysses S. Grant, who gained a reputation as a “butcher” willing to exchange his soldiers’ lives for victory. Who wants to cheer for those guys, especially today, when public distrust of the federal government seems to have reached an all-time high? No, it’s much cooler to cheer for the rebels.

Modern rebels at Gettysburg, 152 years later (Tom Huntington photo).

Modern rebels at Gettysburg, 152 years later (Tom Huntington photo).

Yet there’s one thing that tarnishes this glamorous view of the rebellious South, an elephant in the room that many try to ignore. And that is slavery. The South fought to preserve a culture that rested on a foundation of human bondage. Don’t take it from me–take it from the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In a famous speech he made in March 1861, less than a month before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War, Stephens declared that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Furthermore, he added, the foundation of the Confederate government—its very cornerstone, in fact—“rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Claiming that slavery did not cause the Civil War is like clearing the iceberg of any responsibility for sinking the Titanic. That’s why I find it galling to see the Sons of Confederate Veterans contend that the South’s “motivating factor” for war was “the preservation of liberty and freedom.” Except, of course, for the approximately four million people of African descent whom the slave-holding states kept in bondage. It’s a stain that will forever sully the story of the Confederate States of America. There’s no escaping it.

The recent discussions have dragged the unsavory side of Confederate banners into the light, which is a good thing. People forget that South Carolina started flying the stars and bars over its state capitol in 1962, not to salute the courage of Confederate soldiers, but to symbolize its resistance to civil rights. “Heritage not hate,” is what flag supporters tell us the banners symbolize. But that’s not quite right. “Heritage AND hate,” would be a more accurate motto.

So I sensed that subtext percolating beneath the day’s events at Gettysburg. The present has a way of forcing its way into these things, photo bombing history.

Hands across the wall (Tom Huntington photo).

Hands across the wall (Tom Huntington photo).

After watching Union and Confederate reenactors grasp hands across the stone wall, I headed up to the Meade statue for the start of a short “real time” talk about Alexander Webb and the Philadelphia Brigade, led by ranger Emma Murphy. By the walk’s end we were down at the Copse of Trees by the monument to the 69th Pennsylvania. She read us excerpts from Lt. Frank Haskell’s account of the battle and the final repulse of the Confederates on July 3, 1863. “The line springs,” Haskell had written; “the crest of the solid ground, with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load,–men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass; it rolls to the wall; flash meets flash; the wall is crossed; a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, an undistinguished conflict, followed by a shout universal, that makes the welkin ring again; and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.”

As far as I’m concerned, the right side won at Gettysburg. But as all the debate about the Confederate flag has shown us, in some people are still fighting the Civil War.

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Submission and Resignation (February 27, 1865)

The gravestone for John Sergeant Meade, in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery.

The gravestone for John Sergeant Meade, in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

George Meade had left the army for his home in Philadelphia on February 21, and arrived two days later. By then his oldest son, John Sergeant, was dead. He had died at 11 p.m. on the 21st of the tuberculosis he had been fighting for years. On the 26th, Meade received a telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton calling him back out of fear that Robert E. Lee was stirring. Meade wrote this letter while still in Washington.

The mention of Winfield Scott Hancock is a reference to the general’s appointment as commander of the Department of West Virginia. He was replacing General George Crook, who had the misfortune of being captured while in bed by Confederate guerillas.

I take advantage of a delay, waiting to see the Secretary, to send you a few lines. I slept nearly all the journey, much to my surprise; but I was grateful it was so, as I feel in consequence much better than if I had lain awake all night.

Hardy Norris was very kind to me this morning, and accompanied me to the hotel, where we breakfasted, after which I came up here.

General Hancock left suddenly yesterday for Western Virginia. This has given rise to rumor of movements of Lee in that direction, but I have heard nothing reliable in this respect. I saw General Hooker this morning at breakfast. He was very affable and civil, and enquired particularly after you, expressing deep sympathy with us in our affliction. This feeling has been manifested by all whom I have met, including Senator Foster, Mr. Odell and others.

I hardly dare think of you in your lonely condition, surrounded by so many associations of our beloved boy. God have mercy on you and send you submission and resignation! No human reasoning can afford you or myself any consolation. Submission to God’s will, and the satisfaction arising from the consciousness that we did our duty by him, is all that is left us.

I shall leave here at 3 p.m., and will write to you on my arrival at my headquarters.

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. 264-5. Available via Google Books.

Poor Ba-ba (December 5, 1864)

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock has gone from the Army of the Potomac, but he is not forgotten. Here Theodore Lyman relates a story about Hancock, who had a legendary mastery of profanity.

The weather continues very fine and really warm of days, though the nights are provocative of blankets—weather, law! that isn’t very interesting, is it? My head has indeed been singularly empty for letter-writing; when a man talks about weather to his own wife he must be pretty hard up. I heard a characteristic anecdote of Hancock which made me laugh, as I knew his ways. It appears that he had issued stringent orders against plundering, despite which the troops had fallen on a large flock of sheep and were making short work of them. Away went Hancock, followed by the inevitable Morgan, Mitchell, and Parker. Very soon all these three were sent spinning off at tangents, after distant delinquents, and the General went frothing along alone. Presently he catches sight of four men pursuing a poor sheep, bayonet in hand, and off he goes, full tilt, to arrest them; but, before he can get in, poor ba-ba is down and still. “You blank blank all-sortsof-bad-things,” roars Hancock, “how dare you? How dare you kill that sheep?” “Please, General, we didn’t kill it,” cried the terrified soldiers. “What! Didn’t kill it! You liars! You infernal, desperate liars! I saw you kill it, with my own eyes; and there it lies dead!”—when—the sheep hopped up and ran away.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 288-9. 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.

It Was Them Darned Rebels (November 30, 1864)

Senator James W. Nesmith, D-OR (National Archives).

Senator James W. Nesmith, D-OR (National Archives).

The “Hon. Nesmith” whom Theodore Lyman mentions in this letter is Senator James W. Nesmith, the Democratic Senator from Oregon. He was born in New Brunswick to Maine parents and gradually made his way out west until he reached Oregon. His witticism about the loss of First Bull Run echoes something George Pickett supposedly said when asked why the Confederate attack at Gettysburg failed on July 3. “I think the Yankees had something to do with it,” Pickett said.

Did you hear how the Hon. Nesmith, whom I have mentioned, discovered the real cause of the defeat at the first Bull Run? He was in Washington at the time, and the military wiseacres, as soon as they got over the scare, were prolific in disquisitions on the topic. One evening Nesmith found a lot of them very verbose over a lot of maps and books. They talked wisely of flank movements and changes of front, and how we should have won a great victory if we had only done so and so; when he remarked solemnly: “Gentlemen, I have studied this matter and I have discovered the real reason of our defeat.” They were all ears to hear. “Well,” said Nesmith with immense gravity, “well, it was them darned Rebels!” . . .

Last night the 2d Corps picket line was relieved by the 9th—a delicate job in face of the enemy, who are pretty close up; but it all was done in entire quiet, to the relief of General Humphreys, who feels the new honor of the 2d Corps. That worthy officer stopped on his way to his new Headquarters and honored me by taking a piece of your plum cake. He was much tried by the noisy ways of Hancock’s late Headquarters. “They whistle of mornings,” said the fidgety little General, “and that Shaw, confound the fellow, amuses himself with imitating all the bugle-calls! Then the negroes turn out at four in the morning and chop wood, so that I am regularly waked up. But I shall stop it, I can tell you.” And I have no doubt he will, as he is wont to have his own way or know the reason why. I rode out with him to his new Headquarters and followed the line afterwards, and was much amused to see them drilling some of the worthless German recruits, in a polyglot style: “Steady there! Mehr heraus—more to the front. Shoulder arms! Eins, zwei! One, two!” etc.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 284-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Butlerdom (November 27, 1864)

Artist William Waud sketched the activity at "Ben Butler's canal at Dutch Gap." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Artist William Waud sketched the activity at “Ben Butler’s canal at Dutch Gap.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Both George Meade and Theodore Lyman write home about a visit to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the Army of the James. Lyman, of course, provides the most detail. The Dutch Gap Canal was Butler’s ambitious scheme to foil the Confederate defense at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River by digging a canal across a neck of land and bypass them altogether. It was perfectly feasible on paper but a very difficult feat to accomplish. The canal was eventually completed, but not until after the war ended. Grant, who had attempted something similar against Vicksburg, seemed happy to let Butler occupy himself with canal digging.

Yesterday I accompanied General Grant on a visit to General Butler’s lines and the famous Dutch Gap Canal, which I had never seen. We had a very pleasant day, remaining with Butler till after dark to witness some experiments with the Greek fire, and getting home about 11 p.m.

I send you an extract from the Washington Chronicle, received to-day. It confirms what General Grant told me, and is designed to make people believe that I was already appointed when Sheridan was made. As Forney is closely allied with the powers that be, I take it for granted the above supposition is correct, and that he speaks by authority and for a purpose. I have no objection to this being arranged, so long as the essential point, justice to me, is conceded.

I had a visit this evening from Dr. McEuen who is here to take away his son Charles, who is major of the One Hundred and Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania, and who is now quite sick with fever. The doctor seems in good spirits and not much changed, except being considerable greyer than I used to see him years ago.

Lyman provides a characteristically entertaining account of the visit to “Butlerdom.” He also discusses a major change in the Army of the Potomac—the departure of Winfield Scott Hancock and his replacement at the head of the II Corps by Andrew Humphreys. The latter general, who had served as Meade’s chief of staff since just after Gettysburg, had long hungered for his own corps command—within limits. Back in July, Grant had suggested him for command of the X Corps in the Army of the James, which included African-American soldiers. Humphreys declined the offer because he did not want to command blacks, telling Grant, “I confess that while I have the kindliest feelings for the negro race and gladly see anything done that promises to ameliorate their condition, yet as they are not my own people, nor my own race, I could not feel towards negro troops as I have always felt towards the troops I have commanded, that their character, their reputation, their honor was a part of mine, that the two were so intimately connected that they could not be separated.”

Lyman provides an alternate account of the visit in his journal entry, which you can read in Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (edited by David W. Lowe, it is recommended reading). Lowe identifies “Pet” as Oliver Spencer Halsted, a New Jersey politician. He also describes Maj. Gen. John Gibbon’s reaction to Humphreys’ promotion to corps command. “Gibbon is mad, considering the appointment of Humphreys, to temporary command of the corps, a slight. He’s a fool! Gen. Meade has done everything for him, and now he sulks and asks to be relieved.”

Lyman’s almost Dickensian account of the visit will continue tomorrow.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

I think I will occupy the remainder of this letter with an account of our picnic yesterday to Butlerdom. The day was further remarkable for the departure of my dear General Humphreys to take command of the 2d Army Corps. For Hancock has got a leave of absence, and will doubtless be put to recruiting fresh troops, while it is hoped that the President will permanently assign Humphreys to this Corps. He is in high glee at going, and will be in despair if a big fight is not got up for his special benefit. He was a great favorite and was escorted by some fifteen mounted officers of the Staff to his new quarters, at which compliment I think he was gratified. I regretted not to be with him, but had to go with the General, who started by the mail train, at 8 a.m., to be early at Grant’s Headquarters, whence they were to start. We took our horses on a freight car. In the train we found Generals [Gouverneur] Warren and [Samuel] Crawford, who were invited to be of the party. Arrived at City Point, we discovered that the Lieutenant-General was still in bed, whereat Meade did laugh, but the three stars soon appeared and went to breakfast. After which meal, our horses were put on the boat and we put ourselves on, and off we started. The party was a big one. There were Generals Grant, Meade, Warren, Crawford and [Rufus] Ingalls, and several Staff officers. There were then the bourgeois: to wit, a great many “Turkeys” (gentlemen who had come down to distribute those Thanksgiving fowls); two men who wanted to sell a steamer; one Senator, viz., [James] Nesmith of Oregon, and one political blackguard named H____, whose special business was to praise a certain Greek fire, of which more anon. This fellow’s name is usually prefixed by “Pet.” He has wild hair and beard and a face showing a certain ability; his distinguishing mark, I am told, is the absence of any sort of morality or principle. With him was his son, a small and old boy, of whom they said that, if papa could not get the best at a game of poker, son would come in and assist. Senator Nesmith is a child of the people, and was prepared for his congressional duties by a residence of twenty-five years among the Indians. When he first got to Washington, he had never before seen a railroad, a telegraph, or a gas-light. “Senator Fessenden asked me what I thought of things. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘when I first came along I was full of the dignity of the position to which I had been elected; but now all I want to know is, who in thunder ever sent you fellers here!’“ He has plenty of brains, this same, but is a very coarse man. The “Turkeys” were of various sorts: several of them were Club men, e.g., Mr. Benson, a gentleman who seemed a middle-aged beau, with much politeness and no particular brains. He kept bowing and smiling and backing into persons, and offering his chair to everyone, from orderlies up to General Grant. He requested to know whether in my opinion he could be properly considered as having been “under fire; because,” said he, “I stood on the Avery house and could see the shells explode in the air, you know!” All this motley crowd started at once for Deep Bottom; nor should I omit to say that we had also on board a Secesh bishop—Leigh of Georgia—who was going by flag of truce to Richmond. He had remained in Atlanta, and Sherman had told him if he wished to get back, he must go via Richmond. From him they got a good deal of entertaining conversation. His opinion of Sherman was very high and complimentary. “The old Book tells us,” he said, “that the race may not be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and we feel that Providence will not desert our righteous cause.” “Yes,” said General Meade, “but then we feel that Providence will not desert our cause; now how are you going to settle that question?” Whereat they both laughed. The bishop was a scholastic, quiet-looking man, and no great fire-eater, I fancy. The boat made fast at Aiken’s landing, halfway between Deep Bottom and Dutch Gap. A Staff officer was there to receive us and conduct us, two miles, to General Butler’s Headquarters. Some rode and some were in ambulances. The James Army people always take pretty good care of themselves, and here I found log houses, with board roofs, and high chimneys, for the accommodation of the gentlemen of the Staff. You might know it was Butler’s Headquarters by the fact that, instead of the common ensign, he had a captured Reb battle-flag stuck up! This chieftain asked in the general officers and we were left to the care of the Staff, who were not behindhand in their civility. . . . Presently Butler climbed on his horse and led the way to see Fort Harrison, which was captured in the movements at the end of September. It was well worth seeing, for on our side of the river we have no hills: it is pretty much one plain with gullies. But here was a regular hill, of some size, dominating the whole country about. How they took the place, I hardly see, for the land is often for a mile in front of it, and the Rebs had artillery in position and a regular infantry running quite to the river. . . .

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. 248. 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. 279-82. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Satisfied (November 25, 1864)

In his letter, Meade mentions the Dutch Gap Canal. Benjamin Butler had initiated the digging of the canal on the James River to bypass Confederate forts. It wasn't completed until after the war (Library of Congress).

In his letter, Meade mentions the Dutch Gap Canal. Benjamin Butler had initiated the digging of the canal on the James River to bypass Confederate forts. It wasn’t completed until after the war (Library of Congress).

Meade receives word of his promotion and pronounces himself satisfied. The Mr. Cropsey is the newspaper reporter whom Meade had drummed out of camp at Cold Harbor. It seems he has now irritated Hancock, whose time with the Army of the Potomac is almost over.

On my return from my visit to General Grant, I found your letter of the 23d inst. General Grant told me that, as soon as he spoke to the President, the President acknowledged the justice of his statements, and said he had hesitated when appointing Sheridan on the very ground of its seeming injustice to me, and he at once, at General Grant’s suggestion, ordered the Secretary to make out my appointment, to date from August 19th, the day of the capture of the Weldon Railroad, thus making me rank Sheridan and placing me fourth in rank in the regular army. Grant virtually acknowledged that my theory of Sheridan’s appointment was the correct one, and that without doubt, had the matter been suggested at the time, I would have been appointed a few days in advance.

As justice is thus finally done me, I am satisfied—indeed, I question, if left to me, whether I should have desired my appointment announced in the way Sheridan’s has been. At one tiling I am particularly gratified, and that is at this evidence of Grant’s truthfulness and sincerity. I am willing to admit, as he does himself, that his omissions have resulted unfavorably to me, but I am satisfied he is really and truly friendly to me. I like Grant, and always have done so, notwithstanding I saw certain elements in his character which were operating disadvantageously to me.

To-morrow I am going with General Grant to visit General Butler’s famous canal at Dutch Gap. Grant does not think Mr. Stanton will be removed, or that he desires the Chief-Justiceship.

He says Stanton is as staunch a friend of mine as ever, and that the President spoke most handsomely of me.

You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Mr. Cropsey has again gotten himself into trouble. I received to-day a letter from General Hancock, complaining of Mr. Cropsey’s account of our recent movement. I told General Hancock to put his complaints in the form of charges and I would have Mr. Cropsey tried by a commission, and abide by its decision.

Hancock leaves us to-morrow, he having a leave of absence, after which he will be assigned to recruiting duty. Humphreys takes his place. The change in my position has rendered it unnecessary to have an officer of Humphreys’s rank, as chief-of-staff. I deemed it due to him to suggest his name as Hancock’s successor.

Butler has finally succeeded in getting the colored troops with this army, replacing them with an equal number of white troops. He is going to organize a corps of colored troops, and expects to do very great things with them.

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. 247-8. Available via Google Books.

Distinguished Foreigners (November 22, 1864)

George Meade did not vote in the presidential election. In 1860 he had voted for John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. Bell’s running mate was Edward Everett. On November 19, 1863, Everett was the featured speaker at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. President Abraham Lincoln also spoke there.

I do not know how the fact of my not voting has reached Philadelphia, or is there considered a matter of importance. One of the Republican agents, formerly an officer in the Reserves, came to see me and desired I would vote at the polls of the regiment where he was going to be. I declined going to his polls, but did not intimate to him whether I was or was not going to vote. It is probable, however, that some zealous partisan has watched to see what I did. I cannot but be flattered that so much importance is attached to my action, particularly as nearly all other general officers, including Grant, did the same—that is, not vote.

I should like to see the article in the British Military Review you refer to. It is some consolation to know that distinguished foreigners think well of you.

Theodore Lyman takes the army’s British visitors out on a tour. In his notebooks he also mentions at stop at Winfield Scott Hancock’s headquarters. Andrew Humphreys is supposed to replace Hancock at the head of the II Corps. Lyman noted, “Hancock has not yet his orders, and Gen. Humphreys is fussing and fuming, afraid that he shan’t have any fighting this autumn–as he is to command the 2d Corps.”

As it was fine, after three days’ rain, General Humphreys bestirred himself to give rational entertainment to the two Englanders; and so General Meade ordered a couple of brigades of cavalry turned out and a horse-battery. We first rode along the rear line and went into a fort there. It made quite a cortege, for, besides the Generals and their officers and orderlies, there followed Mr. Lunn in a four-horse spring waggon, with General [Henry] Hunt to bear him company; for Lunn had received the horseback proposition with mild horror. So he followed in a waggon, much as Mr. Pickwick was wheeled after the shooting party, when he finally turned up in the pound. In the fort was a company of soldiers that you might know beforehand were Germans, so dirty and especially so grimy — they have a great facility for looking grimy do the Germans. It was funny to see the different chaps among them: one, evidently a ci-devant Prussian soldier, was seized with rigidity in all his muscles on beholding a live brace of Generals. There was another who was an unmistakable student; he had a moustache, a poetically fierce air, a cap with the brim turned up, and a pair of spectacles. There he stood, a most out-of-place individual, with our uniform on, watching anxiously the progress of a pot, boiling on a fire. The cavalry looked what I have learned to consider as very well; that is, the men looked healthy, the horses in good flesh, and the arms and equipments in proper repair. To a European they must have been fearful; very likely so to Major Smyth, though he was silently polite—no polish, horses rough and woolly, and of all sizes and colors; men not sized at all, with all kinds of beards and every known species of hat; but as I know that men do not fight with their hats and beards, I was satisfied to see evidences of good discipline. Thereafter we called on General Gregg, where I had a treat in form of some Newton pippins, of which excellent apple there was a barrel on hand.

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. 244-5. 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. 277-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Tender Adieu (October 29, 1864)

General Meade continues to stew over the article in Henry Ward Beecher’s Independent, which said that Ulysses s. Grant desired to get rid of him. One gets the sense that Meade was less angry at the paper and more concerned that it might have hit on the truth about Grant’s feelings. It’s possible that Meade was more jittery than usual because of the impending presidential election. Lincoln had waited until after an election season to relieve George McClellan, and perhaps Meade worried the same thing was going to happen to him.

I had a conversation with Grant in reference to my letter about Beecher’s article, and told him I did not care about his despatches, but desired he would furnish me a few lines for publication, that would set at rest, as far as he was concerned, the wicked and malicious falsehoods which that article contained. This he said he would most cheerfully give me. At the same time I told him that, whilst I did not doubt the good feeling of the President and Secretary for me, yet I was satisfied of the existence of a bitter hostility towards me on the part of certain supporters of the President, and I did not desire to embarrass Mr. Lincoln, nor did I wish to retain command by mere sufferance; and that, unless some measures were taken to satisfy the public and silence the persistent clamor against me, I should prefer being relieved; that I was becoming disheartened, and my usefulness and influence with the army were being impaired. In all successful operations I was ignored, and the moment anything went wrong I was held wholly responsible, and rather than continue in this way, I would prefer retiring, and desired him to say this to the President.

General Régis Dénis de Keredern de Trobriand (Library of Congress).

General Régis Dénis de Keredern de Trobriand (Library of Congress).

Yesterday Theodore Lyman wrote about the arrival of two Frenchman who came to observe the Army of the Potomac. Such visitors were not a rarity, but the demands required of a gracious host could make them a nuisance. Here Lyman explains how he contrived to get rid of them. It makes sense that the visitors would want to visit General Régis Dénis de Keredern de Trobriand, for he was a countryman of theirs. De Trobriand had been born into wealth and privilege in France in 1816, married an American heiress, and moved to New York City in 1847. He volunteered for the army when war broke out and proved to be a capable officer, commanding a brigade in the III Corps at Gettysburg. At this point he commanded a brigade in Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps.

After the war de Trobriand wrote Quatre ans a l’armeé du Potomac. He had this to say about Hancock, whose tenure with the Army of the Potomac ended after the Battle of Burgess’s Mill: “General Hancock is one of the handsomest men in the United States army. He is tall in stature, robust in figure, with movements of easy dignity. His head, shaded by thick hair of a light chestnut color, strikes one favorably from the first by the regularity of his features and the engaging expression which is habitual to him. His manners are generally very polite. His voice is pleasant, and his speech as agreeable as his looks. Such is Hancock in repose. In action he is entirely different. Dignity gives way to activity; his features become animated, his voice loud, his eyes are on fire, his blood kindles, and his bearing is that of a man carried away by passion, —the character of his bravery. It is this, I think, which renders him much less fit for an independent command than to act under orders. We will see in the course of our narrative that, after having distinguished himself above all others at the head of a division or an army corps, he was much less fortunate in independent operations which were intrusted to him. Brilliant in the second rank, he did not shine so brightly when occupying the first. Was it a question of execution? he was admirable. If it was necessary to plan and direct, he was no longer equal to the occasion. This is often the case amongst soldiers.”

Having been seized with a powerful suspicion that the valiant Frenchmen would fain squat, to speak in Western phrase, at our Headquarters, I applied my entire mind to shipping them; for, as a travelled man, it was a matter of pride not to be put upon by a brace of such chaps. So I lay [in] wait till they said they would like to see General de Trobriand, and then I hastened to place them on horseback and give an orderly as a guide and tenderly shake hands with them, grieving I should not have the delight of seeing them again! There was a look about their intelligent countenances that seemed to say: “Ah, you are not so soft as we thought,” as they bid me a tender adieu.

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. 237-8. 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, p. 256. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Well-Conducted Fizzle (October 28, 1864)

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, the aide to Seth Williams who made a daring escape from the rebels (Library of Congress; accessed via CivilWarTalk.com).

In his letter of October 28, Theodore Lyman describes the frustrating experiences of the fighting at Burgess’s Mill and captures the sense of confusion that ruled the battlefield. The fighting had been done by the II, V, and IX Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock, Gouverneur Warren, and Charles Parke, with cavalry commanded by David McMurtrie Gregg. Charles Woolsey, whose escape from capture Lyman describes, served as an aide to Seth Williams, the army’s assistant adjutant-general.

Where do you think I am? Why, right by my dear chimney! All camped just where we were! I called our movement a grand reconnaissance in force; it would be more fair to call it an “attempt,” whose success depended on the enemy not having certain advantages of position. But they were found to have these advantages, and so here we are back again, nobody having fought much but Hancock, who had a most mixed-up and really severe action, on the extreme left, in which the Rebels got rather the worst of it; but Grant ordered Hancock to withdraw during the night, or early in the morning, by which he was compelled to leave some of his wounded in a house on the field. Warren would fain fight it out there, for the name of the thing; but that would have been bad strategy, though I do confess that (albeit not a fire-eater) I would sooner have seen it through the next day, by reinforcing the left. This, however, is a mere matter of sentiment; certainly I don’t set up my wisdom. As the Mine was to be termed an ill-conducted fizzle, so this attempt may be called a well-conducted fizzle. The Rebs are good engineers and had thrown up dirt scientifically, I can tell you. We got a pretty good handful of prisoners; I dare say 800 or so, and lost, including stragglers, I fancy as many, though they say we did not. The killed and wounded about equal; perhaps the enemy lost rather more than we; but the honors of the left lie with the enemy, for we abandoned the field in the night. To-day we marched back scientifically (we are hard to beat on a retreat I can tell you). The 9th and 5th Corps withdrew by successive lines of battle, one behind the other, and alternately marching to the rear, the front line passing through that behind. A very handsome manoeuvre; and the enemy, with relief, said good riddance. I do not feel anywise down in spirits, for we gave blow for blow, and came back when we saw the positions would not admit of the plan proposed. There was no blunder or disaster, but it was soldier-like. The General kept a good temper throughout, so that it was quite pleasant all round.

[In writing some days later, Lyman thus describes the country over which this engagement was fought:] The tract marked “dense wood” on my map beggars description. It is a wood, with a tangled, thick undergrowth that almost stops the passage of a man. The rest of the country is also much wooded, but wherever you see a house, there is a farm of greater or less size. [After a more detailed description of the fighting, he continues:] Mott’s men give way, the Rebels yell and their batteries open a cross-fire, and the enemy the other side of the run make as if to attack the 2d division in front. But the valiant Egan faces his line to the rear and charges the flank of the Rebels rushing from the woods; they are in turn smashed up and run back again, and a grand mixed-up fight takes place, in the midst of which Hampton’s cavalry falls furiously upon Gregg, who falls furiously upon him, and won’t budge an inch. The most singular things happened here; for, as the woods were full of broken bands of both parties, everybody captured everybody else, and was in turn captured! A good many parties of Rebels, carrying our prisoners to the rear, took wrong direction and fell into the open maw of Crawford. Lieutenant Woolsey, General Williams’s aide, in such an affair, showed a valor little to be looked for in so mild a youth. He was going along a wood road and came directly upon twelve Rebel cavalry; all cried “Halt! surrender!” to him, and two fired their carbines at him; Woolsey snapped his pistol at them, when one seized him round the waist; whereat W. hit him a back-handed blow on the bridge of his nose, put in the spurs, and actually broke away from the whole of them! When I asked him why he didn’t give up, he replied in a simple manner: “Why, I thought my mother would be much distressed if I was taken prisoner, so I thought it would perhaps be better not to surrender.” General Williams was in the greatest state of chuckle over his aide’s conduct, and kept asking unwary persons: “Do you know how Mr. Woolsey escaped from guerillas?” and, being answered “No,” would say:”Why, thus!” at the same time giving the unwary one a punch in the stomach, with his elbow. Then Major Roebling rode into a Rebel line of battle and had his orderly killed in his escape; Major Bingham was captured, but scared his guard so by telling him he was within our lines, that the man took to the bushes and left him. Lieutenant Dresser rode into the midst of a Rebel brigade, thinking they were prisoners. “Where is the Provost Guard?” asked D., who luckily had a gray rubber coat on. “Hain’t got none.” “What troops are these?” “Fourth Alabama.” “Oh, all right,” says Dresser, with presence of mind, and rides off, very slow at first, and very fast as soon as out of sight! The best feat was that of Major Mitchell (he always does perform feats). He rode into the woods, saw 200 Rebel infantry who had got lost, and were drawn up in line; came back, got a regiment, went out again and gobbled them all up. . . .

[The letter finishes with a lively description of some curious visitors to Headquarters.]

I had got safely to the Peeble house and was watching the columns as they marched in. I was still watching when suddenly there appeared a new comico-military procession: to wit, a venerable Brigadier, of a diluted visage, followed by two or three officers, and by two beings calculated to astonish the uninitiated. The first was simply gorgeous, not of dubious character, but evidently an officer of one of those theatrical French indigene regiments. He was tightly done up in a black jacket, all over which five hundred yards of fine black braid had gone into spasmodic convulsions; then black trousers with a wide scarlet stripe, morocco knee-boots, and a light blue kepi. To complete his costume, a row of medals stretched from his central buttonhole to the point of his shoulder! The second stranger was utterly incomprehensible. He had on a pair of red, military trousers, a red fez with a blue tassel, and a black dresscoat! In order to mark this simple costume, he had, with admirable taste, suspended a small stiletto from the lower buttonhole of his waistcoat. The kepi was presented as Chef-de-bataillon de Boissac; the fez as Vicomte de Montbarthe. Upon which, to myself within myself said I: strike out the “de” and Boissac is correct; strike out “Vicomte” and substitute “Corporal” and we shall be pretty near Mr. Fez. He was one of the vulgarest of vulgar Frenchmen, and a fool into the bargain. De Boissac was a type, and I fancy the real thing; a regular, chatty, boastful, conceited, bright little Gaul, who had been in China, the Crimea, Italy, Japan, and Africa, and had worn the hair off his little bullet head with serving in various climes. “I was promoted to be Chef-de-bataillon,” said kepi (just as if I had asked anything about it), “for having planted the flag, alone, on the rampart! My comrades cry to me, ‘Descend! descend!’ I reply, ‘Non! j’y suis!’“ “And I,” chimed in fez, “received the cross for repelling, with forty men, four hundred Austrians: wounded twice in the leg, I lay on the field and the Emperor himself pinned the cross on my breast!” I could not help thinking what a pity it was that the wounds had not been higher up, whereby the Emperor would have been saved the expense of a cross, and I the trouble of listening to his stories. These two brave bucks were travelling on their good looks, having got down, the Lord knows how, with no letters to anybody; yet they dined with General Meade, and passed the night in camp; passed another night at General Davies’, and, the last I heard of them, were pledging General Hancock in the national whiskey! … I omitted to mention a third ornament to military life, a gent with eagles on his shoulders, who, on enquiry, turned out to be a brother militia man, and a great credit to the service, as he perilled his life daily, in the state of New York, as General Sanford’s aide (commanding state militia), and now was visiting the army to see that justice was done to deserving non-commissioned officers in the way of promotion. Et puis?—thought T. L. Yes, that was to electioneer the regiments in favor of the Republican candidate for governor, in case of whose election, he, Colonel D , was to be Quartermaster-General! He had not only cheek enough for this, but enough to spare to come and stay all night at Headquarters, and take his meals there, without the breath of an invitation!

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 251-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Burgess’s Mill (October 27, 1864)

Armstrong's mills and rebel works on "Hatcher's Run, captured by the Second Corps, October 27, 1864 / sketched by C.H. Chapin," as it appeared in Harpers Weekly (Library of Congress).

“Armstrong’s mills and rebel works on Hatcher’s Run, captured by the Second Corps, October 27, 1864 / sketched by C.H. Chapin,” as it appeared in Harpers Weekly (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade doesn’t note it in his letter of October 27, but this movement of the Army of the Potomac and the fighting at Burgess’s Mill marked the end of active campaigning for 1864. Here’s how I describe the fighting in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Meade had another narrow escape later that month during the Battle of Burgess’s Mill on October 27. Once again Grant had Butler attack the Confederates north of the James, while Meade moved against the Confederate right in an attempt to capture the South Side Railroad. Hancock and the II Corps were to be the tip of the spear, supported by the V and IX Corps under Warren and Parke. Grant and Meade rode out to the front on the damp and dreary morning of October 27 to observe Hancock’s position. The II Corps faced the Confederate right near Hatcher’s Run at a spot called Burgess’s Mill on the Boydton Plank Road. The fighting here was brisk, and a shell exploded near Meade–so close that Horace Porter thought it must have killed him. But again Meade emerged unscathed. Grant also had a close brush with a bursting shell, and then his horse got one leg tangled in a fallen telegraph line. An aide had to carefully free the horse’s leg while Grant remained exposed to enemy fire.

By then it was apparent that the rebel entrenchments extended much farther to the west than anyone had anticipated, and Grant called off the attack. Hancock prepared to withdraw from his exposed position the next morning. The Confederates, as they often did, had different plans. Finding a weakness, William Mahone’s men made a stealthy passage through swamp and forest toward the Union right. Hancock had thought Samuel Crawford’s division was moving up to connect with him there; instead, the rebel forces swung around his flank and attacked. The Federals managed to recover from their surprise and force the Confederates back, but Hancock decided to withdraw his forces that night despite the rain and the darkness.

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress).

The Battle at Burgess’s Mill finished the active campaigning for 1864–and it marked the end of Winfield Scott Hancock’s time with the Army of the Potomac. He had been summoned back to Washington to raise a corps of veteran soldiers. The Petersburg Campaign had been one disappointment after another for Hancock, who seemingly had reached his own high-water mark at Gettysburg. One of his last actions was to make an official complaint to Meade about the reporting of Edward Crapsey, whom Meade had allowed to return to the army. Meade advised Hancock to write up charges and said he would have Crapsey tried by a commission.

I moved to-day with the greater portion of the Army of the Potomac, intending, if practicable, to make a lodgment on the Southside Railroad. We, however, found the enemy so strongly entrenched, and the character of the country was such, we were not able to accomplish reaching the road. We have had some quite sharp fighting, principally Hancock’s Corps on our side, in which we successfully resisted the attempts of the enemy to check our advance or dislodge us from positions taken. We shall, however, I think, be under the necessity of returning to our entrenched lines. General Grant has been on the field all day, sanctioning everything that was done. At one time both Grant and myself were under a heavy artillery fire, but luckily none of either of our large corteges were touched.

Theodore Lyman has been strangely quiet since his letter from October 17, but he finally breaks his silence today. Here’s his letter home about the day’s events. His pen will remain busy over the next few days.

I won’t write at length till I get a decent chance. I caught the greatest pelting with all sorts of artillery projectiles to-day, you ever saw, but no hurt therefrom. I could not help being amused, despite the uncomfortable situation, by the distinguished “queue” of gentlemen, behind a big oak! There was a civilian friend of Grant’s, and an aide-de-camp of General Barnard (a safe place to hold), and sundry other personages, all trying to giggle and all wishing themselves at City Point! As to yours truly, he wasn’t going to get behind trees, so long as old George G. stood out in front and took it. “Ah!” said Rosey, with the mild commendation of a master to a pupil: “oh! you did remember what I did say. I have look at you, and you did not doge!” It don’t do to dodge with Hancock’s Staff about; they would never forgive you. At length says the General: “This is pretty hot: it will kill some of our horses.” We came out on a big reconnaissance, which may be turned into a move or not, according to results. I rather fancy the enemy’s line is too long to be turned by what troops we have to dispose.

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. 237. 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. 250-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.