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Chapter 17

  • Preparing the Petersburg mine
  • -- Exploding the mine -- Grant's adventure between the lines -- failure of the assault at the mine -- a New command for Sheridan -- an infernal machine exploded near headquarters

This time the general-in-chief was devoting much of his attention to the planning of an important movement in connection with the explosion of the famous Petersburg mine, which had now been completed. The operations attending it were novel and interesting, though the result was the greatest disaster which occurred during the siege of Petersburg. After the assaults on the 17th and 18th of June, Burnside's corps established a line of earthworks within one hundred yards of those of the enemy. In rear of his advanced position was a deep hollow. In front the ground rose gradually until it reached an elevation on which the Confederate line was established. Colonel Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment, composed largely of miners, conceived the idea of starting a gallery from a point in the hollow which was concealed from the enemy's view, pushing it forward to a position under his earthworks, and there preparing a mine large enough to blow up the parapets and make a sufficiently wide opening for assaulting columns to rush through. Before the end of June he communicated the project to Burnside, [258] [259] who talked the matter over with General Meade. It was then submitted to General Grant for his action. This point of the line was in some respects unfavorable for an assault; but it was not thought well to check the zeal of the officer who had proposed the scheme, and so an authorization was given for the undertaking to continue. There was a main gallery, 511 feet long and 41 feet square, and two lateral galleries. The terminus was under the enemy's parapet, and at a depth of about 23 feet below the surface of the ground. These preparations were completed July 23, and the mine was soon after charged with eight thousand pounds of powder, and made ready for use. A movement preliminary to its explosion was begun on July 26, that required the exercise of much ingenuity and good generalship, and which the general-in-chief had planned with great care. It involved making a feint against Richmond, which should be conducted with such a show of serious intention that it would induce Lee to throw a large portion of his command to the north side of the James, and leave the works at Petersburg so depleted that the movement on Burnside's front would have in its favor many chances of success. Hancock's corps drew out from its position on the afternoon of the 26th, and made a rapid night march to Deep Bottom, on the north side of the James, and was followed by Sheridan with the cavalry. This entire force was placed under Hancock's command. On the morning of the 27th it advanced and captured a battery of rifled guns. I had been sent to Hancock that morning, and found him with his troops, lying upon the grass with some of his staff during a lull in the firing. I threw myself on the ground beside him while we conversed in regard to the situation, and informed him that General Grant would be with him some hours later. Suddenly firing broke out again in front, and we all [260] sprang to our feet to mount our horses. Hancock wore a thin blue flannel blouse, and as I rose up one of my spurs caught in the sleeve, and ripped it open from wrist to elbow. I felt not a little chagrined to find that I was the means of sending this usually well-dressed corps commander into battle with his sleeve slit open and dangling in the air, and made profuse apologies. There was not much time for words, but Hancock treated the matter so good-naturedly in what he said in reply that he at once put my mind at ease.

General Grant rode out on the field in the afternoon, arriving there at half-past 3 o'clock, for the purpose of determining upon the spot what the possibilities were on that side of the river before giving directions for carrying out the rest of his plans. Lee was now rushing troops to the north side of the James to reinforce the defenses of Richmond. The next morning (July 28) Sheridan, while moving around the enemy's left, was vigorously assaulted by a large body of infantry, and driven back a short distance; but he promptly dismounted his men, made a determined counter-attack, and drove the enemy back in confusion, capturing two hundred and fifty prisoners and two stands of colors. This engagement was called the battle of Darbytown. Now that Grant had satisfied himself that more than half of Lee's command had been sent to the north side of the James, he made preparations to throw Hancock's corps again in front of Petersburg, and carry out his intended assault upon that front.

It was decided that the attack should be made at daylight on the morning of the 30th. In the mean time, in order to keep up the deception and detain the enemy on the north side of the river, many clever ruses were resorted to, in which the general-in-chief's ingenuity and rare powers of invention were displayed to the greatest [261] advantage. Meade and Ord were directed to cease all artillery-firing on the lines in front of Petersburg, and to conceal their guns, with a view to convincing the enemy that the troops were moving away from that position. Hancock withdrew one of his divisions quietly on the night of the 28th, and moved it back, while he remained with his two other divisions north of the James until the night of the 29th, so as still to keep up the feint. On the 28th Sheridan had the pontoon-bridge covered with moss, grass, and earth to prevent the tramping of horses from being heard, and quietly moved a division of his cavalry to the south side of the James. He then dismounted his men, concealed his horses, and marched back by daylight, so that the enemy would suppose that infantry was still moving to the north side. A train of empty wagons was also crossed to that side in sight of the enemy. Steamboats and tugs were sent up the river at night to the pontoon-bridges, and ordered to show their lights and blow their whistles for the purpose of making the enemy believe that we were transferring troops to the north side. These manoeuvers were so successful that they detained the enemy north of the James all day on the 29th. Immediately after dark that evening the whole of Hancock's corps withdrew stealthily from Deep Bottom, followed by the cavalry. On the morning of the 30th Lee was holding five eighths of his army on the north side of the James, in the belief that Grant was massing the bulk of his troops near Deep Bottom, while he had in reality concentrated his forces in the rear of Burnside at a point fifteen miles distant, ready to break through the defenses at Petersburg.

On the afternoon of July 29 the general-in-chief proceeded with his staff to Burnside's front, and bivouacked near the center of his line, to give final instructions, and [262] to be upon the spot when the assault should be made. Burnside had been carefully instructed to prepare his parapets and abatis in advance for the passage of his assaulting columns, so that when daylight came the troops would have no obstacles in their way in moving to the attack rapidly and with a strong formation. Ord had been moved to a position in Burnside's rear. Burnside had proposed to put Ferrero's colored troops in advance, but Meade objected to this, as they did not have the experience of the white troops; and in this decision he was sustained by Grant, and white troops were assigned to make the assault. Burnside, of course, was allowed to choose the division commander who was to lead the attack; but instead of selecting the best officer for the purpose, he allowed the division commanders to draw straws for the choice, and the lot fell, unfortunately, upon Ledlie, who was by far the least fitted for such an undertaking. Meade had joined Grant at his bivouac near Burnside's headquarters, and every one was up long before daylight, aiding in communicating final instructions and awaiting the firing of the mine.

Now came the hour for the explosion-half-past 3 o'clock. The general-in-chief was standing, surrounded by his officers, looking intently in the direction of the mine; orderlies were holding the saddled horses near by; not a word was spoken, and the silence of death prevailed. Some minutes elapsed, and our watches were anxiously consulted. It was found to be ten minutes past the time, and yet no sound from the mine. Ten minutes more, and still no explosion. More precious minutes elapsed, and it became painfully evident that some neglect or accident had occurred. Daylight was now breaking, and the formation of the troops for the assault would certainly be observed by the enemy. Officers had been sent to find out the cause of the delay, [263] and soon there came the information that the match had been applied at the hour designated, but that the fuse had evidently failed at some point along the gallery. Another quarter of an hour passed, and now the minutes seemed like ages; the suspense was agonizing; the whole movement depended upon that little spark which was to fire the mine, and it had gone out. The general-in-chief stood with his right hand placed against a tree; his lips were compressed and his features wore an expression of profound anxiety, but he uttered few words. There was little to do but to wait. Now word came that the men of the 48th Pennsylvania were not going to permit a failure. Not knowing whether the fuse had gone out or was only “holding fire,” a search through the long gallery meant the probability of death to those who undertook it; but Lieutenant Jacob Douty and Sergeant Henry Reese, of the 48th Pennsylvania, undertook to penetrate the long passageway and discover the cause of the failure. They found that the fire had been interrupted at a point at which two sections of the fuse had been defectively spliced. They promptly renewed the splice, and as soon as they emerged from the gallery the match was again applied. It was now twenty minutes to five, over an hour past the appointed time. The general had been looking at his watch, and had just returned it to his pocket when suddenly there was a shock like that of an earthquake, accompanied by a dull, muffled roar; then there rose two hundred feet in the air great volumes of earth in the shape of a mighty inverted cone, with forked tongues of flame darting through it like lightning playing through the clouds. The mass seemed to be suspended for an instant in the heavens; then there descended great blocks of clay, rock, sand, timber, guns, carriages, and men whose bodies exhibited every form of mutilation. It appeared as if [264] part of the debris was going to fall upon the front line of our troops, and this created some confusion and a delay of ten minutes in forming them for the charge. The crater made by the explosion was 30 feet deep, 60 feet wide, and 170 feet long. One hundred and ten cannon and fifty mortars opened fire from our lines. Soon fatal errors in carrying out the orders became painfully apparent. The abatis had not been removed in the night, and no adequate preparations had been made at the parapets for the troops to march over them; the debouches were narrow, and the men had to work their way out slowly. When they reached the crater they found that its sides were so steep that it was almost impossible to climb out after once getting in. Ledlie remained under cover in the rear; the advance was without superior officers, and the troops became confused. Some stopped to assist the Confederates who were struggling out of the debris, in which many of them were buried up to their necks.

The crater was soon filled with our disorganized men, who were mixed up with the dead and dying of the enemy, and tumbling aimlessly about, or attempting to scramble up the other side. The shouting, screaming, and cheering, mingled with the roar of the artillery and the explosion of shells, created a perfect pandemonium, and the crater had become a caldron of hell.

When it was found that the troops were accomplishing so little, and that matters were so badly handled, General Grant quickly mounted his horse, and calling to me, said, “Come with me.” I was soon in the saddle, and, followed by a single orderly, we moved forward through some intervening woods, to make our way as far as we could on horseback to the front of the attack. It was now a little after half-past 5. We soon came to a brigade lying upon its arms. The general said to an [265] officer near by, who proved to be General Henry G. Thomas, a brigade commander, “Who commands this brigade?” “I do,” he replied, springing up from the ground suddenly, and manifesting no little surprise to find that the voice of the person addressing him was that of the general-in-chief. “Well,” remarked the general, “why are you not moving in?” The officer replied, “My orders are to follow that brigade,” pointing to the one in front of him. Then, after a pause, he added, “Will you give me the order to go in now?” “No,” said General Grant, not wishing to interfere with the instructions of the division commander, “you may keep the orders you have,” and moved on to the front. A Pennsylvania regiment was now met with knapsacks piled on the ground, and about to move to the attack. The commanding officer made a salute, and the general returned it by lifting his hat. The men now recognized him, and it was all the commander of the regiment could do to keep them from breaking out into a cheer, although all noise had been forbidden. The officer said to me some years after: “If the general had given me only a slight nod of the head that morning I should have been delighted; but when I saw him, at such a trying moment, look at me and politely take off his hat, it brought the tears to my eyes and sent a big lump into my throat.”

The enemy had now rallied his men upon the line in the rear of the crater, and there was heavy fighting going on between them and our advanced troops. After proceeding a short distance I said: “General, you cannot go much farther on horseback, and I do not think you ought to expose yourself in this way. I hope you will dismount, as you will then be less of a target for the enemy's fire.” Without saying a word, he threw himself from his horse and handed the reins to the orderly, who was then directed to take our animals back to the [266] edge of the woods, while we proceeded to the front on foot. The general had by this time taken in the situation pretty fully, and his object was to find the corps commander, to have him try to bring some order out of the chaos which existed. Upon inquiry it was ascertained that Burnside was on our left and some distance farther in advance. General Grant now began to edge his way vigorously to the front through the lines of the assaulting columns as they poured out of the rifle-pits and crawled over the obstructions. It was one of the warmest days of the entire summer, and even at this early hour of the morning the heat was suffocating. The general wore his blue blouse and a pair of blue trousers — in fact, the uniform of a private soldier, except the shoulder-straps. None of the men seemed to recognize him, and they were no respecters of persons as they shoved and crowded to the front. They little thought that the plainly dressed man who was elbowing his way past them so energetically, and whose face was covered with dust and streaked with perspiration, was the chief who had led them successfully from the Wilderness to Petersburg. Some officers were now seen standing in a field-work to the left, about three hundred yards distant, and Burnside was supposed to be one of the number. To reach them by passing inside of our main line of works would have been a slow process, as the ground was covered with obstacles and crowded with troops; so, to save valuable time, the general climbed nimbly over the parapet, landed in front of our earthworks, and resolved to take the chances of the enemy's fire. Shots were now flying thick and fast, and what with the fire of the enemy and the heat of the midsummer Southern sun, there was an equatorial warmth about the undertaking. The very recollection of it, over thirty years after, starts the perspiration. [267] Scarcely a word was spoken in passing over the distance crossed. Sometimes the gait was a fast walk, sometimes a dog-trot. As the shots shrieked through the air, and plowed the ground, I held my breath in apprehension for the general's safety. Burnside was in the earthwork for which we were heading, and was not a little astonished to see the general approach on foot from such a direction, climb over the parapet, and make his way to where the corps commander was stationed. Grant said, speaking rapidly: “The entire opportunity has been lost. There is now no chance of success. These troops must be immediately withdrawn. It is slaughter to leave them here.” Burnside was still hoping that something could be accomplished; but the disobedience of orders and the general bungling had been so great that Grant was convinced that the only thing to do now to stop the loss of life was to abandon the movement which a few hours before had promised every success. The general then made his way on foot, with no little difficulty, to where our horses had been left, mounted, and returned to where we had parted from Meade.

Instructions were reiterated to Burnside to withdraw the troops; but he came to Meade in person and insisted that his men could not be drawn out of the crater with safety; that the enemy's guns now bore upon the only line of retreat; and that there must be a passageway dug to protect them in crossing certain dangerous points. Both of these officers lost their tempers that morning, although Burnside was usually the personification of amiability, and the scene between them was decidedly peppery, and went far toward confirming one's belief in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute. Meade had sent Burnside a note saying: “Do you mean to say your officers and men will not obey your orders to advance? If not, what [268] is the obstacle? I wish to know the truth.” Burnside replied: “I have never, in any report, said anything different from what I conceive to be the truth. Were it not insubordinate, I would say that the latter remark of your note was unofficerlike and ungentlemanly.” It was quite evident that the conference was not going to resolve itself into a “peace congress.” However, both officers were manly enough afterward to express regret for what they had written and said under the excitement of the occasion. Although Ledlie had proved a failure, other division commanders made gallant efforts to redeem the fortunes of the day, but their men became disorganized, and huddled together inextricably in the crater. When the confusion was at its worst Burnside threw in his division of colored troops, who rushed gallantly into the crater, but only added greater disorder to the men already crowded together there. As a colored regiment was moving to the front in the midst of this scene of slaughter, a white sergeant, who was being carried to the rear with his leg shot off, cried out: “Now go in with a will, boys. There's enough of you to eat 'em all up.” A colored sergeant replied: “Dat may be all so, boss; but the fac‘ is, we hab n't got jis de bes' kind ob an appetite for 'em dis mornin‘.”

The enemy soon brought to bear upon the crater a mortar fire, which did serious execution. There were many instances of superb courage, but the most heroic bravery could not make amends for the utter inefficiency with which the troops had been handled by some of their officers. It was two o'clock before all the survivors could be withdrawn. The total losses amounted to about thirty-eight hundred, nearly fourteen hundred of whom were prisoners.

Thus ended an operation conceived with rare ingenuity, prepared with unusual forethought, and executed [269] up to the moment of the final assault with consummate skill, and which yet resulted in absolute failure from sheer incapacity on the part of subordinates. Burnside had given written orders which were excellent in themselves, but he failed entirely to enforce them. When the general-in-chief and staff rode back to Petersburg that day, the trip was anything but cheerful. For some time but little was said by him, owing to his aversion to indulging in adverse criticisms of individuals, which could not mend matters. He did not dwell long upon the subject in his conversation, simply remarking: “Such an opportunity for carrying a fortified line I have never seen, and never expect to see again. If I had been a division commander or a corps commander, I would have been at the front giving personal directions on the spot. I believe that the men would have performed every duty required of them if they had been properly led and skilfully handled.” He had no unkind words for Burnside, but he felt that this disaster had greatly impaired that officer's usefulness. Two weeks afterward Burnside was granted a leave of absence, and did not serve again in the field. General Parke, one of his division commanders, and an officer of eminent ability, was placed in command of the Ninth Corps. Grant and Burnside, however, did not break their amicable relations on account of this official action, and their personal friendship continued as long as they both lived.

A surgeon told us a story, one of the many echoes of the mine affair, about a prisoner who had been dug out of the crater and carried to one of our field-hospitals. Although his eyes were bunged and his face covered with bruises, he was in an astonishingly amiable frame of mind, and looked like a pugilistic hero of the prizering coming up smiling in the twenty-seventh round. He said: “I'll jest bet you that after this I'll be the [270] most unpopular man in my regiment. You see, I appeared to get started a little earlier than the other boys that had taken passage with me aboard that volcano; and as I was comin‘ down I met the rest of 'em a-goin‘ up, and they looked as if they had kind oa soured on me, and yelled after me, ‘ Straggler! ’ ”

General Grant ordered the cavalry and a corps of infantry to start south at daylight the next morning, before the enemy could recross the James River, with instructions to destroy fifteen or twenty miles of the Weldon Railroad. That night, however, information of the crossing of the Potomac by Early's troops compelled the general to change his plans and send Sheridan to Washington with two divisions of his cavalry.

Early, finding that pursuit had been abandoned, and that the Union forces had returned to Washington, put his army in motion and started to return to Maryland. His advance reached Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on July 30; and finding no troops to oppose them, burned the defenseless town, and left three thousand women, children, and unarmed men homeless. A week afterward this force, while retreating, was overtaken by Averell, and completely routed.

General Grant now expressed himself as determined not only to prevent these incursions into Maryland, but to move a competent force down the valley of Virginia, and hold permanently that great granary, upon which Lee was drawing so largely for his supplies. The most important thing was to find a commander equal to such an undertaking. No one had commended himself more thoroughly to the general-in-chief for such a mission than Sheridan, and he telegraphed Halleck to put Sheridan in command of all the troops in the field, and to give him instructions to pursue the enemy to the death. Sheridan reached Washington on August 3. Halleck [271] telegraphed expressing some other views in regard to the disposition to be made of Sheridan, but they did not prevail. On the evening of the 3d the President sent to General Grant the following remarkable telegram, which is so characteristic that it is given in full:

I have seen your despatch in which you say: “I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death; wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.” This, I think, is exactly right as to how our forces should move; but please look over the despatches you may have received from here even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here of “putting our army south of the enemy,” or of “following him to the death” in any direction. I repeat to you, it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day and hour, and force it.

A. Lincoln, President.

It will be seen from this that the President was undoubtedly possessed of more courage than any of his advisers at Washington, and that he did not call for assistance to protect the capital, but for troops and a competent leader to go after Early and defeat him. It is the language of a man who wanted an officer of Grant's aggressiveness to force the fighting and send the troops after the enemy, even if the capital had to be left temporarily without defense.

General Grant received the President's despatch at noon of August 4, and he left City Point that night for Hunter's headquarters at Monocacy Station in Maryland, reaching there the next evening, August 5. He ordered all the troops in the vicinity to move that night to the valley of Virginia. The general had now a delicate [272] duty to perform. He had decided to put General Sheridan in command of the active forces in the field; but he was junior in rank to General Hunter, and in order to spare the feelings of Hunter, and not subject him to the mortification of being relieved from duty, the general-in-chief suggested that he remain in command of the military department, and that Sheridan be given supreme control of the troops in the field. Hunter removed all embarrassment by saying that, under the circumstances, he deemed it better for the service that he should be relieved entirely from duty. This unselfish offer was accepted, and Sheridan was telegraphed to come at once from Washington to Monocacy by a special train. Grant met him at the station, and explained to him what was expected of him. His present army consisted of nearly thirty thousand men, including eight thousand cavalry. Early's army was about equal in numbers. Grant said to Sheridan in his instructions: “Do not hesitate to give commands to officers in whom you have confidence, without regard to claims of others on account of rank. What we want is prompt and active movements after the enemy in accordance with the instructions you already have. I feel every confidence that you will do the best, and will leave you as far as possible to act on your own judgment, and not embarrass you with orders and instructions.” This despatch was eminently characteristic of Grant; it affords a key to his method of dealing with his subordinates, and explains one of the chief reasons why his commanders were so loyal to him. They felt that they would be left to the exercise of an intelligent judgment; that if they did their best, even if they did not succeed, they would never be made scapegoats; and if they gained victories they would be given the sole credit for whatever they accomplished. [273]

As soon as Sheridan moved south the enemy was compelled to concentrate in front of him, and the effect was what Grant had predicted — the termination of incursions into Maryland. The general returned to City Point on August 8.

Rawlins had broken down in health from the labors and exposures of the campaign, and had been given a leave of absence on August 1, in the hope that he might soon recuperate and return to duty; but he was not able to join headquarters for two months. Already the seeds of consumption had been sown, from which he died while Secretary of War, five years afterward. He was greatly missed by every one at headquarters, and his chief expressed no little anxiety about his illness, although no one then thought that it was the beginning of a fatal disease.

An event occurred in the forenoon of August 9 which looked for an instant as if the general-in-chief had returned to headquarters only to meet his death. He was sitting in front of his tent, surrounded by several staff-officers. General Sharpe, the assistant provost-marshal-general, had been telling him that he had a conviction that there were spies in the camp at City Point, and had proposed a plan for detecting and capturing them. He had just left the general when, at twenty minutes to twelve, a terrific explosion shook the earth, accompanied by a sound which vividly recalled the Petersburg mine, still fresh in the memory of every one present. Then there rained down upon the party a terrific shower of shells, bullets, boards, and fragments of timber. The general was surrounded by splinters and various kinds of ammunition, but fortunately was not touched by any of the missiles. Babcock of the staff was slightly wounded in the right hand by a bullet, one mounted orderly and several horses were instantly killed, and [274] three orderlies were wounded. In a moment all was consternation. On rushing to the edge of the bluff, we found that the cause of the explosion was the blowing up of a boat loaded with ordnance stores which lay at the wharf at the foot of the hill. Much damage was done to the wharf, the boat was entirely destroyed, all the laborers employed on it were killed, and a number of men and horses near the landing were fatally injured. The total casualties were forty-three killed and forty wounded. The general was the only one of the party who remained unmoved; he did not even leave his seat to run to the bluff with the others to see what had happened. Five minutes afterward he went to his writing-table and sent a telegram to Washington, notifying Halleck of the occurrence. No one could surmise the cause of the explosion, and the general appointed me president of a board of officers to investigate the matter. We spent several days in taking the testimony of all the people who were in sight of the occurrence, and used every possible means to probe the matter; but as all the men aboard the boat had been killed, we could obtain no satisfactory evidence. It was attributed by most of those present to the careless handling of the ammunition by the laborers who were engaged in unloading it; but there was a suspicion in the minds of many of us that it was the work of some emissaries of the enemy sent into the lines.

Seven years after the war, when I was serving with President Grant as secretary, a Virginian called to see me at the White House, to complain that the commissioner of patents was not treating him fairly in the matter of some patents he was endeavoring to procure. In the course of the conversation, in order to impress me with his skill as an inventor, he communicated the fact that he had once devised an infernal machine which had been used with some success during the war; and [275] went on to say that it consisted of a small box filled with explosives, with a clockwork attachment which could be set so as to cause an explosion at any given time; that, to prove the effectiveness of it, he had passed into the Union lines in company with a companion, both dressed as laborers, and succeeded in reaching City Point, knowing this to be the base of supplies. By mingling with the laborers who were engaged in unloading the ordnance stores, he and his companion succeeded in getting aboard the boat, placing their infernal machine among the ammunition, and setting the clockwork so that the explosion would occur in half an hour. This enabled them to get to a sufficient distance from the place not to be suspected. I told him that his efforts, from his standpoint, had been eminently successful. At last, after many years, the mystery of the explosion was revealed.

This occurrence set the staff to thinking of the various forms of danger to which the general-in-chief was exposed, and how easily he might be assassinated; and we resolved that in addition to the ordinary guard mounted at the headquarters camp, we would quietly arrange a detail of “watchers” from the members of the staff, so that one officer would go on duty every night and keep a personal lookout in the vicinity of the general's tent. This was faithfully carried out. It had to be done secretly, for if he had known of it he would without doubt have broken it up and insisted upon the staff-officers going to bed after their hard day's work, instead of keeping these vigils throughout the long, dreary nights of the following winter. The general never knew of this action until his second term of the Presidency, when he made the discovery through an accidental reference to it in his presence by a visitor who had heard of it. He then expressed himself as feeling very much touched by the service which had been performed with a view to his personal protection.

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