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Chapter 14

On the morning of June 16 General Grant went to the Petersburg front. He was accompanied by most of his staff, and by Mr. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War. The enemy was then constantly arriving and occupying his intrenchments in strong force. Burnside's corps had just come up, and was put in position on Hancock's left. At 10:15 A. M. Grant sent an order to Meade to hurry Warren forward, and start up the river himself by steamer and take command in person at Petersburg.

The enemy's intrenchments which protected Petersburg were well located, and were in some places strong. They started at a point on the south bank of the Appomattox, about a mile from the eastern outskirts of the city, and extended in the form of a semicircle to a point on the river at about the same distance from the western limits of the city. Petersburg had at that time a population of 18,000, and was called the “Cockade City” from the fact that at the breaking out of the war of 1812 it furnished a company which was peculiarly uniformed and in which each man wore in his hat a conspicuous cockade.

The probability of Lee's attacking Bermuda Hundred [205] [206] in force induced General Grant to return to City Point to direct the movements on Butler's lines. While riding in that direction he met Meade hurrying forward from the steamer-landing. In a short interview, and without dismounting from his horse, he instructed that officer to move at once to the front and make a vigorous attack upon the works at Petersburg at six o'clock in the evening, and drive the enemy, if possible, across the Appomattox. It was discovered before that hour that the enemy was advancing upon Butler's front, and General Grant directed me to ride at full speed to Meade and tell him that this made it still more important that his attack should be a vigorous one, and that the enemy might be found weaker there on account of troops having been collected at Bermuda Hundred. I found Meade standing near the edge of a piece of woods, surrounded by some of his staff, and actively engaged in superintending the attack, which was then in progress. His usual nervous energy was displayed in the intensity of his manner and the rapid and animated style of his conversation. He assured me that no additional orders could be given which could add to the vigor of the attack. He was acting with great earnestness, and doing his utmost to carry out the instructions which he had received. He had arrived at the front about two o'clock, and his plans had been as well matured as possible for the movement. Three redans, as well as a line of earthworks connecting them, were captured. The enemy felt the loss keenly, and made several desperate attempts during the night to recover the ground, but in this he did not succeed.

When I got back to City Point that evening General Grant felt considerably encouraged by the news brought him, and spent most of the night in planning movements for the next day. [207]

After further consultation with the general-in-chief I started again for the front at Petersburg before dawn on the 17th, carrying instructions looking to the contemplated attacks that day. Burnside's troops surprised the enemy at daybreak by making a sudden rush upon his works, captured his intrenchments, swept his line for a mile, and took 600 prisoners, a stand of colors, 4 guns, and 1500 stands of small arms. Attacks were also made by Hancock and Warren, and more of the enemy's line was captured, but not permanently held.

Telegrams sent by General Lee on June 17 show how completely mystified he was, even at that late day, in regard to Grant's movements. At 12 M. he sent a despatch to Beauregard, saying: “Until I can get more definite information of Grant's movements, I do not think it prudent to draw more troops to this side of the river.” At 1:45 P. M. he telegraphed: “Warren's corps crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge on the 13th; . . . that night it marched to Westover. Some prisoners were taken from it on the 14th; have not heard of it since.” At 4:30 he sent Beauregard another despatch, saying: “Have no information of Grant's crossing the James River, but upon your report have ordered troops up to Chaffin's Bluff.” Grant, on the contrary, had ascertained from watchers on Butler's tall signal-tower, which had been erected at Bermuda Hundred, just how many railway-trains with troops had passed toward Petersburg, and learned from the columns of dust that large forces were marching south. From scouts, prisoners, and refugees he had secured each day a close knowledge of Lee's movements.

Colonel Parker, the Indian, had been diligently employed in these busy days helping to take care of General Grant's correspondence. He wrote an excellent hand, and as one of the military secretaries often overhauled [208] the general's correspondence and prepared answers to his private letters. This evening he was seated at the writing-table in the general's tent, while his chief was standing at a little distance outside talking with some of the staff. A citizen who had come to City Point in the employ of the Sanitary Commission, and who had been at Cairo when the general took command there in 1861, approached the group and inquired: “Where is the old man's tent I'd like to get a look at him; have n't seen him for three years.” Rawlins, to avoid being interrupted, said, “That's his tent,” at the same time pointing to it. The man stepped over to the tent, looked in, and saw the swarthy features of Parker as he sat in the general's chair. The visitor seemed a little puzzled, and as he walked away was heard to remark: “Yes, that's him; but he's got all-fired sunburnt since I last had a look at him.” The general was greatly amused by the incident, and repeated the remark afterward to Parker, who enjoyed it as much as the others.

At daylight on the 18th Meade's troops advanced to the assault which had been ordered, but made the discovery that the enemy's line of the day before had been abandoned. By the time new formations could be made Lee's army had arrived in large force, great activity had been displayed in strengthening the fortifications, and the difficulties of the attacking party had been greatly increased. The Second Corps was temporarily commanded by D. B. Birney, as Hancock's Gettysburg wound had broken out afresh the day before, entirely disabling him. Gallant assaults were repeatedly made by Burnside, Warren, and Birney; and while they did not succeed in the object of carrying the enemy's main line of fortifications, positions were gained closer to his works, and these were held and strongly intrenched. [209] Both of the opposing lines on this part of the ground were now strengthened, and remained substantially the same in position from that time until the capture of Petersburg.

General Grant realized the nature of the ground and the circumstances that prevented the troops from accomplishing more than had been done, and he complimented Meade upon the promptness and vigor with which he had handled his army on this day of active operations. Indeed, Meade had shown brilliant qualities as commander of a large army, and under the general directions given him had made all the dispositions and issued all the detailed orders. Grant felt it necessary to remain at City Point in order to be in communication with both Meade and Butler, as Lee's troops were that day moving rapidly south past Butler's front.

My duties kept me on Meade's front a large part of the day. He showed himself the personification of earnest, vigorous action in rousing his subordinate commanders to superior exertions. Even his fits of anger and his resort to intemperate language stood him at times in good stead in spurring on every one upon that active field. He sent ringing despatches to all points of the line, and paced up and down upon tie field in his nervous, restless manner, as he watched the progress of the operations and made running comments on the actions of his subordinates. His aquiline nose and piercing eyes gave him something of the eagle's look, and added to the interest of his personality. He had much to try him upon this occasion, and if he was severe in his reprimands and showed faults of temper, he certainly displayed no faults as a commander. When the battle was over no one was more ready to make amends for the instances in which he felt that he might have done injustice to his subordinates. He said to them: “Sorry [210] to hear you cannot carry the works. Get the best line you can and be prepared to hold it. I suppose you cannot make any more attacks, and I feel satisfied all has been done that can be done.” Lee himself did not arrive at Petersburg until noon that day.

After I had returned to headquarters that evening, and had given the general-in-chief reports of the battle in more detail than he had received them by despatches during the day, he sat in his tent and discussed the situation philosophically, saying: “Lee's whole army has now arrived, and the topography of the country about Petersburg has been well taken advantage of by the enemy in the location of strong works. I will make no more assaults on that portion of the line, but will give the men a rest, and then look to extensions toward our left, with a view to destroying Lee's communications on the south and confining him to a close siege.” At ten o'clock he turned to his table and wrote the following message to Meade: “I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults of to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained. Now we will rest the men, and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck. . ..”

It was apparent in the recent engagements that the men had not attacked with the same vigor that they had displayed in the Wilderness campaign; but this was owing more to the change in their physical than in their moral condition. They had moved incessantly both day and night, and had been engaged in skirmishing or in giving battle from the 4th of May to the 18th of June. They had seen their veteran comrades fall on every side, and their places filled by inexperienced recruits, and many of the officers in whom they had unshaken confidence had been killed or wounded. Officers had been in the saddle day [211] and night, securing snatches of sleep for a few hours at a time as best they could. Sleeping on horseback had become an art, and experienced riders had learned to brace themselves in their saddles, rest their hands on the pommel, and catch many a cat-nap while riding. These snatches of sleep were of short duration and accomplished under many difficulties, but often proved more refreshing than might be supposed.

There was considerable suffering from sickness in many of the camps. It may be said that the enemy had suffered equally from the same causes that impaired the efficiency of our men, but there was a vast difference between the conditions of the two armies. The enemy had been engaged principally in defending strong intrenchments and in making short marches; he was accustomed to the Southern climate, and was buoyed up with the feeling that he was defending his home and fireside.

A controversy had arisen as to the cause of Hancock's not reaching Petersburg earlier on the 15th. Hancock conceived the idea that the circumstances might be construed as a reproach upon him, and he asked for an official investigation; but General Grant had no intention of reflecting either upon him or Meade. He assured them that, in his judgment, no investigation was necessary. He recommended them both for promotion to the grade of major-general in the regular army, and each was appointed to that rank.

The headquarters camp at City Point was destined to become historic and to be the scene of some of the most memorable events of the war. It was located at the junction of the James and the Appomattox rivers, and was within easy water communication with Fort Monroe and Washington, as well as with Butler's army, which was to occupy positions on both sides of the [212] upper James. The City Point Railroad was repaired, and a branch was constructed to points south of Petersburg, immediately in rear of the line held by the Army of the Potomac, so that there might be convenient communication with that army. The new portion of the road was built, like most of our military railroads, upon the natural surface of the ground, with but little attempt at grading. It ran up hill and down dale, and its undulations were so marked that a train moving along it looked in the distance like a fly crawling over a corrugated washboard. At City Point there was a level piece of ground on a high bluff, on which stood a comfortable house. This building was assigned to the chief quartermaster, and General Grant's headquarters camp was established on the lawn. The tents occupied a line a little over a hundred feet back from the edge of the bluff. In the middle of the line were General Grant's quarters. A hospital tent was used as his office, while a smaller tent connecting in the rear was occupied as his sleeping-apartment. A hospital tent-fly was stretched in front of the office tent so as to make a shaded space in which persons could sit. A rustic bench and a number of folding camp-chairs with backs were placed there, and it was beneath this tent-fly that most of the important official interviews were held. When great secrecy was to be observed the parties would retire to the office tent. On both sides of the general's quarters were pitched close together enough officers' tents to accommodate the staff. Each tent was occupied by two officers. The mess-tent was pitched in the rear, and at a short distance still farther back a temporary shelter was prepared for the horses. A wooden staircase was built reaching from headquarters to the steamboat-landing at the foot of the bluff; ample wharves, storehouses, and hospitals were rapidly constructed, [213] and a commodious base of supplies was established in the vicinity. The day the wharf was completed and planked over the general took a stroll along it, his hands thrust in his trousers pockets, and a lighted cigar in his mouth. He had recently issued instructions to take every precaution against fire, and had not gone far when a sentinel called out: “It's against orders to come on the wharf with a lighted cigar.” The general at once took his Havana out of his mouth and threw it into the river, saying: “I don't like to lose my smoke, but the sentinel's right. He evidently is n't going to let me disobey my own orders.”

Each staff-officer took his turn in acting as “caterer” of the mess, usually for a month at a time. His duties consisted in giving general directions to the steward as to ordering the meals, keeping an account of the bills, and at the end of his tour dividing up the expenses and collecting the amount charged to each officer. General Grant insisted upon paying two shares of the expenses instead of one, upon the ground that he invited more guests to meals than any one else in the mess, although this was not always the case, for each officer was allowed to entertain guests, and there were at times as many visitors at table as members of the mess. The officer acting as caterer sat at the head of the mess-table, with the general on his right.

It now came my turn to take a hand in managing the affairs of the mess. The general, while he never complained, was still the most difficult person to cater for in the whole army. About the only meat he enjoyed was beef, and this he could not eat unless it was so thoroughly well done that no appearance of blood could be seen. If blood appeared in any meat which came on the table, the sight of it seemed entirely to destroy his appetite. (This was the man [214] whose enemies delighted in calling him a butcher.) He enjoyed oysters and fruit, but these could not be procured on an active campaign. He never ate mutton when he could obtain anything else, and fowl and game he abhorred. As he used to express it: “I never could eat anything that goes on two legs.” Evidently he could never have been converted to cannabalism. He did not miss much by declining to eat the chickens which were picked up on a campaign, for they were usually tough enough to create the suspicion that they had been hatched from hard-boiled eggs, and were so impenetrable that an officer said of one of them that he could not even stick his fork through the gravy. The general was fonder of cucumbers than of anything else, and often made his entire meal upon a sliced cucumber and a cup of coffee. He always enjoyed corn, pork and beans, and buckwheat cakes. In fact, he seemed to be particularly fond of only the most indigestible dishes. He had been eating so little for several days just before I took my turn as caterer that I looked about to try to find some delicacy that would tempt his appetite, and after a good deal of pains succeeded in getting some sweetbreads sent down from Washington. They had been nicely cooked, and I announced them, when they came on the table, with an air of ill-disguised triumph; but he said: “I hope these were not obtained especially for me, for I have a singular aversion to them. In my young days I used to eat them, not knowing exactly what part of the animal they came from; but as soon as I learned what they were my stomach rebelled against them, and I have never tasted them since.”

When any fruit could be procured, it was placed on the table by way of helping to ornament it, and afterward used as dessert. Between the courses of the dinner the general would often reach over to the dish of fruit and Grant at the mess-table [215] pick out a berry or a cherry and eat it slowly. He used to do this in a sly way, like a child helping itself to some forbidden dish at the table, and afraid of being caught in the act. He said one day: “I suppose I ought not to eat a course out of its turn, but I take the greatest delight in picking out bits of fruit and eating them during a meal. One of the reasons I do not enjoy dining out as much as I do at home is because I am compelled to sit through a long list of courses, few of which I eat, and to resist the constant temptation to taste a little fruit in the meanwhile to help pass away the time.” Napoleon was famous for eating out of the various dishes before him with his fingers. General Grant's use of the fingers never went beyond picking out small fruits. He was always refined in his manners at table, and no matter how great was the hurry, or what were the circumstances of the occasion, he never violated the requirements of true politeness.

He ate less than any man in the army; sometimes the amount of food taken did not seem enough to keep a bird alive, and his meals were frugal enough to satisfy the tastes of the most avowed anchorite. It so happened that no one in the mess had any inclination to drink wine or spirits at meals, and none was carried among the mess's supplies. The only beverage ever used at table besides tea and coffee was water, although on the march it was often taken from places which rendered it not the most palatable or healthful of drinks. If a staff-officer wanted anything stronger he would carry some commissary whisky in a canteen. Upon a few occasions, after a hard day's ride in stormy weather, the general joined the officers of the staff in taking a whisky toddy in the evening. He never offered liquor of any kind to visitors at headquarters. His hospitality consisted in inviting them to meals and to smoke cigars.

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