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Chapter 10

  • Grant crosses the Pamunkey
  • -- manoeuvering for position -- Grant interviews a prisoner -- region of the Totopotomoy -- Grant Seizes old Cold Harbor -- W. F. Smith's troops join the Army of the Potomac -- Grant Disciplines a teamster -- Grant's fondness for horses -- moving into position -- the halt at Bethesda Church

As soon as all the commands had safely recrossed the North Anna, General Grant set out on the morning of May 27, and marched with the troops in the new movement to the left. Sheridan, with two divisions of his cavalry, had started east the afternoon of the day before, and had moved rapidly to Hanovertown on the Pamunkey, a distance of nearly thirty miles.

On the march the general-in-chief, as he rode by, was vociferously cheered, as usual, by the troops. Every movement directed by him inspired the men with new confidence in his ability and his watchfulness over their interests; and not only the officers, but the rank and file, understood fully that he had saved them on the North Anna from the slaughter which would probably have occurred if they had been thrown against Lee's formidable intrenchments, and had had to fight a battle with their backs to a liver; that he had skilfully withdrawn them without the loss of a man or a wagon, and that they were again making an advance movement. [154] The soldiers by this time were getting on intimate terms with their commander-in fact, becoming quite chummy. One man in the ranks touched his hat as the chief rode by, and asked, “Is it all right, general?” He received a nod of the head in reply, and the words, “Yes, I think so.” Another man looked up at him, and said in an earnest tone, “General, we'll lick 'em sure pop next time.” These remarks were not attempts at undue familiarity, but expressions of a genuine sentiment of soldierly fellowship which the men had learned to entertain toward their chief. That night general headquarters were established at Mangohick Church, about twenty miles in a southeasterly direction from Quarles's Ford.

The cavalry had been handled with great skill. It made a feint as if to cross at Littlepage's and Taylor's fords on the Pamunkey, and after dark moved rapidly to Hanover Ferry, about twelve miles farther down the stream, where the actual crossing took place on the morning of the 27th. It was followed by Russell's division of infantry. The rest of the troops had made a good march, and soon after midday on May 28, Wright, Hancock, and Warren had crossed the river and gone into position about a mile and a half beyond. Burnside had reached the ferry, but remained on the north side to guard the trains. General Grant had pushed on to Hanover Ferry, and expressed himself as greatly pleased at the success of the movement. He had abundant reason to congratulate himself upon the thorough carrying out of his instructions. In each of his three attempts to move close to Lee's troops and cross difficult rivers in his very face, Grant had been completely successful, and had maneuvered so as to accomplish a most formidable task in warfare with insignificant loss.

In the operations of the last few days General Grant [155] had employed with wonderful skill his chief military characteristics of quickness of thought, celerity of action, and fertility of resource. While his plans were always well matured, and much thought and investigation were expended upon perfecting them in advance, yet they were sufficiently general in their nature to admit readily of those changes which often have to be made upon the instant in consequence of some unanticipated movement of the enemy, or some unexpected discovery in the topography of the field of operations. It seemed a little singular to him that Lee, after falling back behind the North Anna River, had allowed the Union army to advance across that difficult stream without any substantial resistance, and that, when across, he had made a stand with his back to another river, the South Anna, and remained there entirely passive, and that three days afterward he had permitted the Union army to withdraw across the North Anna under his very nose without even attacking its rear-guards. It was these circumstances which made Grant say at this time, and also write to the government: “Lee's army is really whipped. . . . A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. . ..”

Our base of supplies was now transferred from Port Royal to White House on the York River.

Before describing the personal incidents connected with what is known as the Cold Harbor campaign, it is important to give the reader a general idea of the character of the country in which the maneuvering and fighting occurred. Hanovertown, near which place our army had now been concentrated, is about seventeen miles in a straight line northeast from Richmond. The country is crossed by two streams, Totopotomoy Creek and the Chickahominy River, both running in a southeasterly direction, the latter being about four miles from [156] Richmond at the nearest point. Between these are a number of smaller creeks and rivulets. Their banks are low, and their approaches swampy and covered with woods and thickets. Three main roads lead from Hanovertown to Richmond. The most northerly is called the Hanovertown or Shady Grove road; the second route, the Mechanicsville road; the third and most southerly, which runs through Old Cold Harbor, New Cold Harbor, and Gaines's Mill, is known as the Cold Harbor road. Old Cold Harbor, half-way between Hanovertown and Richmond, consisted merely of a few scattered houses; but its strategic position was important for reasons which will hereafter appear. New Cold Harbor was little more than the intersection of crossroads about a mile and a half west of Old Cold Harbor. It was at first supposed that Cold Harbor was a corruption of the phrase Cool Arbor, and the shade-trees in the vicinity seemed to suggest such a name; but it was ascertained afterward that the name Cold Harbor was correct, that it had been taken from the places frequently found along the highways of England, and means “shelter without fire.”

On May 28 Sheridan was pushed out toward Mechanicsville to discover the enemy's position, and after a sharp fight at Haw's Shop, drove a body of the enemy out of some earthworks in which it was posted. That night the Ninth Corps crossed the river. Wilson's cavalry division remained on the north side until the morning of the 30th to cover the crossing of the trains. General headquarters had crossed the Pamunkey on the pontoon-bridge in the afternoon of May 28, after a hard, dusty ride, and had gone into camp on the south side. In the mean time Lee had moved his entire army rapidly from the North Anna, and thrown it between our army and Richmond. [157]

On the morning of the 29th, Wright, Hancock, and Warren were directed to moye forward and make a reconnaissance in force, which brought about some spirited fighting. The movement disclosed the fact that all of Lee's troops were in position on the north side of the Chickahominy, and were well intrenched.

General Grant was particularly anxious, that evening, to obtain information of the enemy from some inside source. Several prisoners had been taken, and one of them who was disposed to be particularly talkative was brought in to headquarters, it being thought that the general might like to examine him in person. He was a tall, slim, shock-headed, comical-looking creature, and proved to be so full of native humor that I give the portion of his conversation which afforded us the most amusement. He, of course, did not know in whose presence he was as he rattled off his quick-witted remarks. “What command do you belong to?” asked the general. “I'm in Early's corps, and I belong to a No'th Ca'lina reegiment, suh,” was the reply. “Oh, you re from North Carolina,” remarked the general. “Yes,” said the prisoner, “and a good deal fa'thah from it jes' now than I'd like to be, God knows.” “Well, where were you taken, and how did you get here?” was next asked. “How did I get h'yah! Well, when a man has half a dozen oa them thah reckless and desp'rit dragoons oa yourn lammin‘ him along the road on a tight run, and wallopin‘ him with the flats oa thah sabahs, he don't have no trouble gittin‘ h'yah.” “Is your whole corps in our front, and when did it arrive” inquired the general. “Well, now, jes' let me tell you about that,” said the prisoner; “and let me begin right from the sta't. I'm not goin‘ to fool you, ‘cause I'm fast losin‘ interest in this fight. I was a peaceful man, and I didn't want to hurt nobody, when a conscript [158] officah down thah in the ole Tar State come around, and told me I'd have to git into the ranks, and go to fightin‘ fo‘ my rights. I tried to have him p'int 'em out fo‘ me. I told him I'd as lief have 'em all, but I was n't strenuous about it. Then he begun to put on more airs than a buckin‘ hoss at a county fair, and told me to come right along — that the country wanted me. Well, I had noticed that our folks was losin‘ a good many battles; that you-all was too much for 'em; and I got to flatterin‘ myself that perhaps it was only right fo‘ me to go and jine our army, jes' to kind oa even things up. But matters has been goin‘ pretty rough with us ever since, and I'm gettin‘ to feel peacefuller and peacefuller every day. They're feedin‘ us half the time on crumbs, and thah's one boy in my company that's got so thin you have to throw a tent-fly over him to get up a respectable shadow. Then they have a way of campin‘ us alongside oa creeks not much biggah than a slate-pencil; and you have to be powerful quick about gittin‘ what watah you want, or some thirsty cow'll come along and drink up the whole stream. I thought, from all the fuss she had made at the sta't, that South Ca'lina was goin‘ to fight the whole wah through herself, and make it a picnic for the rest of us; but when thah's real trouble she has to get the ole Tar State to do the solid work.”

“Are there any men from South Carolina in your brigade” was the next question. The answer came with a serio-comic expression of countenance: “Yas; a few — in the band.” The general suppressed the laugh with which he was now struggling, and feeling that an effort to get any useful information from the North Carolinian would be a slow process, disappeared into his tent to attend to some correspondence, and left the prisoner to be further interviewed by the staff. “I tell [159] you, gentlemen,” went on the Confederate, “thah's lots o‘ cobwebs in my throat, and I could talk to you-all a good deal bettah if I only had a dish oa liquor. Thah's nothin‘ braces a man up like takin‘ a little oa the tanglefoot.”

Thereupon a canteen and cup were brought, and after the man had poured out about four fingers of commissary whisky and tossed it off as if it were water, he looked considerably invigorated. “Nothin‘ as soothin‘ as co'n-juice, aftah all,” he continued. “I'd like to live in Kaintucky; them Kaintucky fellers say they can walk right into a co'n-field, strip off an eah, and jes' squeeze a drink of whisky right out'n it.” “How did you happen to be picked up?” was now asked. “Well, you see, suh,” he replied, “our cap'n, Jimmy Skipwo'th, marched me out on the picket-line. Cap'n Jimmy's one oa them thah slack-twisted, loose-belted, toggle-j'inted kind oa fellers that sends you straight out to the front; and if you don't get killed right off, why, he gets all out oa patience, an‘ thinks you want to live fo'evah. You can't get away, because he's always keepin‘ tab on you. When he marched us out to-day I says to him: ‘Cap'n Jimmy, thah don't ‘pear to be enough of the boys a-comin‘ along with us. Now I tell you, when we go to monkeyin‘ with them Yankees we ought to have plenty oa company; we don't want to feel lonesome.’ Well, we got thah, and went to diggin‘ a ditch so we could flop down in it and protect our heads, and could use it afterward fo‘ buryin‘ you-all in it, ef we could get hold oa you. Well, jes' then you opened lively, and come at us a-whoopin‘ and a-careerin‘ like sin; and ez fo‘ me, I took a header fo‘ the ditch. The boys saw somethin‘ drop, and I didn't make any effo't to pick it up ag'in till the misunderstandin‘ was ovah. The fust thing I knowed aftah that, you lighted onto me, yanked [160] me out oa the hole, and then turned me ovah to some of you ‘ dragoons; and Lo'd! how they did run me into you’ lines! And so h'yah I am.”

After the provost-marshal's people had been told to take the prisoner to the rear and treat him well, the man, before moving on, said: “Gentlemen, I would like mighty well to see that thah new-fangled weepon o‘ yourn that shoots like it was a whole platoon. They tell me, you can load it up on Sunday and fiah it off all the rest oa the week.” He had derived this notion from the Spencer carbine, the new magazine-gun which fired seven shots in rapid succession. After this exhibition of his talent for dialogue, he was marched off to join the other prisoners.

On May 30, Wright, Hancock, and Warren engaged the enemy in their respective fronts, which led to some active skirmishing, the enemy's skirmishers being in most places strongly intrenched. Burnside this day crossed the Totopotomoy. Early's (formerly Ewell's) corps moved out with the evident intention of turning our left, and made a heavy attack, but was repulsed, and forced to fall back, after suffering a severe loss, particularly in field-officers.

About noon Grant received word that transports bringing W. F. Smith's troops from Butler's army were beginning to arrive at White House; and they were ordered to move forward at once, and join the Army of the Potomac. General Grant thought that it was not improbable that the enemy would endeavor to throw troops around our left flank, in the hope of striking Smith a crushing blow before we could detach a force from the Army of the Potomac to prevent it. Sheridan was directed to watch for such a movement, and an infantry brigade was sent out early that morning to join Smith, and march back with him so as to strengthen [161] his forces. General Grant said at this time: “Nothing would please me better than to have the enemy make a movement around our left flank. I would in that case move the whole army to the right, and throw it between Lee and Richmond.” But this opportunity did not arise.

On May 30 the general headquarters had been established in a clearing on the north side of the Shady Grove road, about a mile and three quarters west of Haw's Shop. General Grant this day sent a despatch to Halleck at Washington saying: “I wish you would send all the pontoon-bridging you can to City Point to have it ready in case it is wanted.” As early as May 26 staff-officers had been sent from the Army of the Potomac to collect all the bridging material at command, and hold it in readiness. This was done in order to be prepared to cross the James River, if deemed best, and attack Richmond and Petersburg from the south side, and carry out the views expressed by Grant in the beginning of the Wilderness campaign as to his movements in certain contingencies.

It was seen by him from the operations of the 30th that the enemy was working his way southward by extending his right flank, with a view to securing Old Cold Harbor, and holding the roads running from that point toward the James River and White House. This would cut off Grant's short route to the James in case he should decide to cross that river, and would also command the principal line of communication with his base at White House. Old Cold Harbor was therefore a point much desired by both the contending generals, and the operations of the 31st were watched with much interest to see which army would secure the prize.

That morning my orders took me to the extreme left in connection with the movements of the cavalry. [162] Sheridan advanced rapidly upon Old Cold Harbor, attacked a body of the enemy intrenched there, and after a severe fight carried the position. The place, however, was too important to be abandoned by the enemy without a further struggle, and he soon returned, bringing up a force so large that it appeared for a time impossible for Sheridan to hold his position. Finding no troops advancing to his support, the only course which seemed open to him was to fall back; but just as he had withdrawn he received an order to hold the place at all hazards until reinforcements could reach him. With his usual zeal and boldness, he now reoccupied the enemy's breastworks, dismounted his men, and determined to make a desperate struggle to hold the position against whatever force might be sent against him. Darkness set in, however, before the enemy made another assault. In anticipation of a hard fight for the possession of Cold Harbor, General Grant had ordered Wright's corps to make a night march and move to Sheridan's relief. Lee, discovering this, ordered Anderson's corps to Cold Harbor. On Sheridan's front during the night we could distinctly hear the enemy's troops making preparations for the next morning's attack, and could even hear some of the commands given by their officers. Soon after daylight on June 1 the assault began. Sheridan kept quiet till the attacking party came within a short distance of his breastworks, and then opened with a destructive fire, under which the enemy fell back in considerable confusion. He soon rallied, however, and rushed again to the assault, but once more recoiled before Sheridan's well-delivered volleys. Wright had been instructed to arrive at daylight, but the night march had been exceptionally difficult, and the head of his column did not appear until nine o'clock. The troops were footsore and jaded, [163] but they moved promptly into line, and relieved Sheridan's little force, which had been fighting desperately against great odds for about four hours. Grant had secured Old Cold Harbor, and won the game.

Smith's corps consisted of 13,000 men. He left about 2500 to guard White House, and with the rest started for the front, reaching there at three o'clock in the afternoon of June 1. At five o'clock Wright's and Smith's commands advanced and captured the earthworks in their front, taking about 750 prisoners.

The enemy had made three attacks upon Warren, but had been handsomely repulsed. Hancock and Burnside had also been attacked, no doubt to prevent them from sending troops to reinforce our left.

The enemy seemed roused to desperation in his struggle to gain the much-coveted strategic point at Old Cold Harbor, and made several savage attacks in that direction during the night; but they were all successfully repelled. In gaining and holding the important position sought, the Union army that day lost nearly 2000 men in killed and in wounded; the enemy probably suffered to about the same extent.

Headquarters were moved about two miles this day, June 1, to the Via House, which was half a mile south of Totopotomoy Creek on the road leading from Haw's Shop to Bethesda Church. Before starting, the general's servant asked whether he should saddle “Jeff Davis,” the horse Grant had been riding for two days. “No,” was the reply; “we are getting into a rather swampy country, and I fear little ‘Jeff's’ legs are not quite long enough for wading through the mud. You had better saddle ‘Egypt.’ ” This horse was large in size and a medium-colored bay. He was called “Egypt,” not because he had come from the region of the Nile, but from the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in [164] southern Illinois, a section of country named after the land of the Ptolemies.

When the horse was brought up the general mounted as usual in a manner peculiar to himself. He made no perceptible effort, and used his hands but little to aid him; he put his left foot in the stirrup, grasped the horse's mane near the withers with his left hand, and rose without making a spring, by simply straightening the left leg till his body was high enough to enable him to throw the right leg over the saddle. There was no “climbing” up the animal's side, and no jerky movements. The mounting was always done in an instant and with the greatest possible ease.

Rawlins rode with the general at the head of the staff. As the party turned a bend in the road near the crossing of the Totopotomoy, the general came in sight of a teamster whose wagon was stalled in a place where it was somewhat swampy, and who was standing beside his team beating his horses brutally in the face with the butt-end of his whip, and swearing with a volubility calculated to give a sulphurous odor to all the surrounding atmosphere. Grant's aversion to profanity and his love of horses caused all the ire in his nature to be aroused by the sight presented. Putting both spurs into “Egypt's” flanks, he dashed toward the teamster, and raising his clenched fist, called out to him: “What does this conduct mean, you scoundrel Stop beating those horses!” The teamster looked at him, and said coolly, as he delivered another blow aimed at the face of the wheel-horse: “Well, who's drivin‘ this team anyhow-you or me?” The general was now thoroughly angered, and his manner was by no means as angelic as that of the celestial being who called a halt when Balaam was disciplining the ass. “I'll show you, you infernal villain!” he cried, shaking his fist in the man's face. [165] Then calling to an officer of the escort, he said: “Take this man in charge, and have him tied up to a tree for six hours as a punishment for his brutality.” The man slunk off sullenly in charge of the escort to receive his punishment, without showing any penitence for his conduct. He was evidently a hardened case. Of course he was not aware that the officer addressing him was the general-in-chief, but he evidently knew that he was an officer of high rank, as he was accompanied by a staff and an escort, so that there was no excuse for the insubordinate and insolent remark. During the stirring scenes of that day's battle the general twice referred to the incident in vehement language, showing that the recollection of it was still rankling in his mind. This was the one exhibition of temper manifested by him during the entire campaign, and the only one I ever witnessed during my many years of service with him. I remarked that night to Colonel Bowers, who had served with his chief ever since the Fort Donelson campaign: “The general to-day gave us his first exhibition of anger. Did you ever see him fire up in that way in his earlier campaigns?” “Never but once,” said Bowers: “and that was in the Iuka campaign. One day on the march he came across a straggler who had stopped at a house and assaulted a woman. The general sprang from his horse, seized a musket from the hands of a soldier, and struck the culprit over the head with it, sending him sprawling to the ground.” He always had a peculiar horror of such crimes. They were very rare in our war, but when brought to his attention the general showed no mercy to the culprit.

Grant and Meade rode along the lines that day, and learned from personal observation the general features of the topography. About noon they stopped at Wright's headquarters, and the commander of the Sixth [166] Corps gave the party some delicious ice-water. He had found an ice-house near his headquarters, and after a hot and dusty ride since daylight the cool draught was gratefully relished by those whose thirst it slaked. The previous winter had been unusually cold, and an abundance of ice had formed upon the streams in Virginia. The well-filled ice-houses found on the line of march were a great boon to the wounded. General Wright had assumed command of the Sixth Corps at a critical period of the campaign, and under very trying circumstances; but he had conducted it with such heroic gallantry and marked ability that he had commended himself highly to both Grant and Meade.

That night the variety of food at the headquarters mess was increased by the arrival of a supply of oysters received by way of White House. Shell-fish were among the few dishes which tempted the general's appetite, and as he had been living principally on roast beef and hard bread during the whole campaign, and had not eaten enough of these to sustain life in an ordinary person, every one was delighted that evening, when sitting down at the mess-table, to see the general attack the oysters with evident relish, and make a hearty meal of them. Thereafter every effort was made to get a supply of that species of sea food as often as possible. At the dinner-table he referred again to the brutality of the teamster, saying: “If people knew how much more they could get out of a horse by gentleness than by harshness, they would save a great deal of trouble both to the horse and the man. A horse is a particularly intelligent animal; he can be made to do almost anything if his master has intelligence enough to let him know what is required. Some men, for instance, when they want to lead a horse forward, turn toward him and stare him in the face. He, of course, thinks they are [167] barring his way, and he stands still. If they would turn their back to him and move on he would naturally follow. I am looking forward longingly to the time when we can end this war, and I can settle down on my St. Louis farm and raise horses. I love to train young colts, and. I will invite you all to visit me and take a hand in the amusement. When old age comes on, and I get too feeble to move about, I expect to derive my chief pleasure from sitting in a big arm-chair in the center of a ring,--a sort of training-course,--holding a colt's leading-line in my hand, and watching him run around the ring.” He little foresaw that a torturing disease was to cut short his life before he could realize his cherished hopes of enjoying the happiness of the peaceful old age which he anticipated.

No warrior was ever more anxious for peace, and all of the general's references to the pending strife evinced his constant longing for the termination of the struggle upon terms which would secure forever the integrity of the Union. When he prepared his letter of acceptance of his first nomination for the Presidency, he wrote no random phrase, but expressed the genuine sentiments of his heart, when he said, “Let us have peace.”

The night of the 1st of June was a busy one for both officers and men. Grant, eager as usual to push the advantage gained, set about making such disposition of the troops as would best accomplish this purpose. Hancock was ordered to move after nightfall from the extreme right to the extreme left of the army. The night was extremely dark, especially when passing through the woods, no one was familiar with the roads, the heat was intense, and the dust stifling; but notwithstanding all the difficulties encountered, Hancock arrived at Old Cold Harbor on the morning of June 2, after a march of over twelve miles. As the men were [168] greatly exhausted, however, from hunger and fatigue, they had to be given an opportunity to rest and eat their rations, and it was found impossible to make a formidable assault until five o'clock in the afternoon. Warren and Burnside were both attacked while they were moving their troops, but they repelled all assaults, and caused the enemy considerable loss.

At daylight on June 2 the headquarters were moved about two miles south to a camp near Bethesda Church, so as to be nearer the center of the line, which had been extended toward the left. Upon reaching the church, and while waiting for the arrival of the wagons and the pitching of the tents, a number of important orders were issued. The pews had been carried out of the church and placed in the shade of the trees surrounding it. The general-in-chief and his officers seated themselves in the pews, while the horses were taken to a little distance in the rear. The ubiquitous photographers were promptly on the ground, and they succeeded in taking several fairly good views of the group. A supply of New York papers had just been received, and the party, with the exception of the general, were soon absorbed in reading the news. He was too much occupied at the time in thinking over his plans for the day to give attention to the papers, and was content to hear from the staff a summary of anything of importance mentioned in the press. He was usually a diligent reader of the newspapers and of all current literature. There was one New York morning journal which claimed a special previous knowledge of his movements, and made some very clever guesses concerning his plans. He used to call this paper his “organ,” and upon the arrival of the mail he would generally pick it up first, and remark: “Now let me see what my organ has to say, and then I can tell better what I am going to do.” [169]

A large delegation of the Christian Commission had arrived at White House, and was now moving up toward the lines with a supply-train which carried many comforts for the wounded. I saw among the number a person whom I recognized as the pastor of a church which I had attended some years before. He was trudging along like the others in his shirt-sleeves, wearing a broad-brimmed slouch-hat, and was covered with Virginia dust. I presented him to General Grant and the rest of the officers, and then brought up a number of the other members of the Commission, and presented them in turn. General Grant rose to his feet, shook hands with them, and greeted them all with great cordiality; then, resuming his seat, he said: “Sit down, gentlemen, and rest; you look tired after your march.” They thanked him, and several of them took seats in the church pews near him, though, considering their professional training, most of them would have doubtless felt more at home in the pulpit than in the pews. The general continued by saying: “I am very glad to see you coming to the army on your present mission; unfortunately, you will find an extensive field for your work. My greatest concern in this campaign is the care of the large number of wounded. Our surgeons have been unremitting in their labors, and I know you can be of great assistance.”

The gentlemen replied: “We have brought with us everything that we thought could minister to the comfort of the wounded, and we will devote ourselves religiously to the work.” After the general had assured them that they should have all necessary transportation put at their disposal, they bid him good-by, and continued their march. His parting words were: “Remember, gentlemen, whatever instructions you may receive, let your first care be for the wounded.” Before leaving [170] they expressed to the staff their great delight in having had this unexpected chat with the commander of the armies, and having been treated by him with so much consideration.

The Christian Commission, as well as the Sanitary Commission, was often of inestimable service to the wounded, and many a gallant fellow owed his life to its kindly and devoted ministerings.

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