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Chapter 12

  • Grant Decides to cross the James
  • -- sufferings at the front -- Grant's visitor from the Pacific slope -- an important mission -- dealing with a Libeler of the press -- losses -- Grant Relates some anecdotes

The time had now come when Grant was to carry out his alternative movement of throwing the entire army south of the James River. Halleck, who was rather fertile in suggestions, although few of them were ever practicable, had written Grant about the advisability of throwing his army round by the right flank, taking up a line northeast of Richmond, controlling the railroads leading north of Richmond, and using them to supply the Union army. This view may have been favored in Washington for the reason that it was thought it would better protect the capital. Grant said, in discussing this matter at headquarters: “We can defend Washington best by keeping Lee so occupied that he cannot detach enough troops to capture it. If the safety of the city should really become imperiled, we have water communication, and can transport a sufficient number of troops to Washington at anytime to hold it against attack. This movement proposed by Halleck would separate the Army of the Potomac by a still greater distance from Butler's army, while it would leave us a long vulnerable line of communication, and [182] [183] require a large part of our effective force to properly guard it. I shall prepare at once to move across the James River, and in the mean time destroy to a still greater extent the railroads north of Richmond.”

On June 5, General J. G. Barnard, of the United States engineer corps, was assigned to duty as chief engineer at Grant's headquarters.

The general-in-chief realized that he was in a swampy and sickly portion of the country. The malaria was highly productive of disease, and the Chickahominy fever was dreaded by all the troops who had a recollection of its ravages when they campaigned in that section of the country two years before. The operations had been so active that precautions against sickness had necessarily been much neglected, and the general was anxious, while giving the men some rest, to improve the sanitary conditions. By dint of extraordinary exertions the camps were well policed, and large quantities of fresh vegetables were brought forward and distributed. Cattle were received in much better condition than those which had made long marches and had furnished beef which was far from being wholesome. Greater attention was demanded in the cooking of the food and the procuring of better water. Dead animals and offal were buried, and more stringent sanitary regulations were enforced throughout the entire command.

What was most distressing at this time was the condition of affairs at the extreme front. No one who did not witness the sights on those portions of the line where the opposing troops were in exceptionally close contact can form an idea of the sufferings experienced. Staff-officers used to work their way on foot daily to the advanced points, so as to be able to report with accuracy these harrowing scenes. Some of the sights [184] were not unlike those of the “bloody angle” at Spottsylvania. Between the lines where the heavy assaults had been made there was in some places a distance of thirty or forty yards completely covered by the dead and wounded of both sides. The bodies of the dead were festering in the sun, while the wounded were dying a torturing death from starvation, thirst, and loss of blood. In some places the stench became sickening. Every attempt to make a change in the picket-line brought on heavy firing, as both sides had become nervous from long watchfulness, and the slightest movement on either front led to the belief that it was the beginning of an assault. In the night there was often heavy artillery-firing, sometimes accompanied by musketry, with a view to deterring the other side from attacking, or occasioned by false rumors of an attempt to assault. The men on the advanced lines had to lie close to the ground in narrow trenches, with little water for drinking purposes, except that obtained from surface drainage. They were subjected to the broiling heat by day and the chilling winds and fogs at night, and had to eat the rations that could be got to them under the greatest imaginable discomfort.

The staff-officers, in their frequent visits to the front of our lines, had learned the most exposed points, and in passing them usually quickened their speed so as to be a shorter time under the enemy's fire. There was one particularly dangerous place where a dirt road ran along the foot of a knoll on the side toward the enemy. A prominent citizen from the Pacific coast, whom General Grant knew, had arrived from Washington, and was spending a few days at headquarters to see what an army in the field looked like. One morning, as the general was mounting with a portion of his staff to make one of his frequent reconnoitering trips along the [185] lines, the visitor proposed to ride with him, but said before starting: “Is there going to be much shooting where you're going, general? For I've got a wife and children waiting for me on the Pacific slope, and I don't want to get pinked by the Johnny Rebs.” “Well, they're not very particular over there where their shots strike when they begin firing. I always advise persons who have no business to transact with them to keep away,” replied the general. “Yes; but I want to see as much of this show as possible, now that I've come here,” said the guest; and mounting a horse which had been ordered up for him, he rode along with the party. Pretty soon some stray artillery shots flew in our direction, but the visitor rode on without showing any signs of disturbance, except a very active ducking of the head, accompanied by a running comment upon the utter carelessness and waste of ammunition on the part of the enemy, and the evident disposition to mow down a mild-mannered and harmless civilian with as little hesitation as they would the general-in-chief who was crowding them with all his armies.

After a while we came to the dangerous portion of the dirt road, and the staff-officers reminded the general that it was usually pretty hot there; but he passed over it at a walk without paying attention to the warning, and stopped at the most exposed point to examine the position in front, which seemed to him to present some features of importance. A battery instantly opened, and shot and shell shrieked through the air, and plowed the ground in a most enlivening manner. The visitor, whose head was now bobbing from one side to the other like a signal-flag waving a message, cried out to the commander: “See here, general; it don't appear to me that this place could have been selected by you with special reference to personal safety.” The general was [186] absorbed in his examination of the ground, and made no reply for a minute or two. Then, looking at his guest, who was growing red and pale by turns, and rolling nearly out of his saddle in dodging to tie right and left, remarked with a smile: “You are giving yourself a great deal of useless exercise. When you hear the sound of a shot it has already passed you.” Just then a shell exploded close by, scattering the dirt in every direction. This was too great a trial for the overstrained nerves of the visitor. He turned his horse's head to the rear, drove both spurs into the animal's flanks, and as he dashed away with the speed of a John Gilpin, he cried back to us: “I have a wife and family waiting for me, and I'm pressed for time. Besides, I'm not much of a curiosity-seeker anyway.” Just then his black silk hat blew off, but he did not stop to recover it, and was soon out of sight. He had evidently reached a state of mind when the best of hats appears to be of no special value.

That evening in camp the general perpetrated a number of jokes at the visitor's expense, saying to him: “Well, you appear to have won that race you entered your horse for this afternoon.” “Yes,” said the visitor; “I seem to have got in first.” “Perhaps,” continued the general, “you felt like that soldier in one of our retreats who, when asked by an officer where he was going, said: ‘I'm trying to find the rear of this army, but it don't appear to have any.’ ” “I don't know why it was, but Lee seemed to have some personal grudge against me,” remarked the guest. “I think,” said the general, “it must have been that high hat which attracted his attention.” “Great Scott!” screamed the visitor, springing from his camp-stool as if the enemy had again opened fire on him; “do you know that that hat had a card in it with my name on? Holy smoke I [187] If the boys get hold of it, and give me away, and the news gets out to the Pacific slope, I'll be a dead duck in the next political campaign!”

General Grant was now stimulating every one to increased activity in making preparations for the formidable movement he was about to undertake in throwing the army with all its impedimenta across the James. He was fully impressed with its hazardous nature, but was perfectly confident that he could carry it out without encountering extraordinary risks. The army had to be withdrawn so quietly from its position that it would be able to gain a night's march before its absence should be discovered. The fact that the lines were within thirty or forty yards of each other at some points made this an exceedingly delicate task. Roads had to be constructed over the marshes leading to the lower Chickahominy, and bridges thrown over that stream preparatory to crossing. The army was then to move to the James, and cross upon pontoon-bridges and improvised ferries. This would involve a march of about fifty miles in order to reach Butler's position, while Lee, holding interior lines, could arrive there by a march of less than half that distance.

In the afternoon of June 6 the general called Colonel Comstock and me into his tent, asked us to be seated, and said with more impressiveness of manner than he usually manifested: “I want you to undertake an important mission preliminary to moving the army from its present position. I have made up my mind to send Smith's corps by a forced night march to Cole's Landing on the Chickahominy, there to take boats and be transferred to Butler's position at Bermuda Hundred. These troops are to move without their wagons or artillery. Their batteries will accompany the Army of the Potomac. That army will be held in readiness to pull [188] out on short notice, and by rapid marches reach the James River and prepare to cross. I want you to go to Bermuda Hundred, and explain the contemplated movement fully to General Butler, and see that the necessary preparations are made by him to render his position secure against any attack from Lee's forces while the Army of the Potomac is making its movement. You will then select the best point on the river for the crossing, taking into consideration the necessity of choosing a place which will give the Army of the Potomac as short a line of march as practicable, and which will at the same time be far enough down-stream to allow for a sufficient distance between it and the present position of Lee's army to prevent the chances of our being attacked successfully while in the act of crossing. You should be guided also by considerations of the width of the river at the point of crossing, and of the character of the country by which it will have to be approached.”

Early the next morning Comstock and I rode rapidly to White House, and then took a steamboat down the Pamunkey and York rivers, and up the James, reaching Butler's headquarters at Bermuda Hundred the next day. After having obtained a knowledge of the topography along the James, and secured the best maps that could be had, we despatched a message to the general and started down the James on the 10th, making further careful reconnaissances of the banks and the approaches on each side. Comstock and I had served on General McClellan's staff when his army occupied the north bank of the James two years before, and the country for many miles along the river was quite familiar to us. This knowledge was of much assistance on the present mission. We returned by the same route by which we had come, and reached headquarters on the 12th. We had noted one or two places on the river which might [189] have served the purpose of crossing; but, all things considered, we reported unhesitatingly in favor of a point familiarly known as Fort Powhatan, about ten miles below City Point, the latter place being at the junction of the James and Appomattox rivers. Several roads led to the point selected for crossing both on the north and the south side of the James, and it was found that they could be made suitable for the passage of wagon-trains by repairing and in some places corduroying them. The principal advantage of the place selected was that it was the narrowest point that could be found on the river below City Point, being twenty-one hundred feet in width from Wilcox's Landing on the north side to Windmill Point on the south side.

General Grant had been anxiously awaiting our return, and had in the mean time made every preparation for withdrawing the army from its present position. On our arrival we went at once to his tent, and were closeted with him for nearly an hour discussing the contemplated operation. While listening to our verbal report and preparing the orders for the movement which was to take place, the general showed the only anxiety and nervousness of manner he had ever manifested on any occasion. After smoking his cigar vigorously for some minutes, he removed it from his mouth, put it on the table, and allowed it to go out; then relighted it, gave a few puffs, and laid it aside again. In giving him the information he desired, we could hardly get the words out of our mouths fast enough to suit him. He kept repeating, “Yes, Yes,” in a manner which was equivalent to saying, “Go on, go on” ; and the numerous questions he asked were uttered with much greater rapidity than usual. This would not have been noticed by persons unfamiliar with his habit; but to us it was evident that he was wrought up to an intensity of [190] thought and action which he seldom displayed. At the close of the interview he informed us that he would begin the movement that night.

The same day on which Comstock and I started from Cold Harbor (June 7), Sheridan had been sent north with two divisions of cavalry to break up the Virginia Central Railroad, and, if practicable, to push west and join General Hunter's force, which was moving down the valley. It was expected that the enemy's cavalry would be compelled to follow Sheridan, and that our large trains would be safe from its attacks during the contemplated movement across the James River. Nothing was left unthought of by the trained mind of the commander who was conducting these formidable operations.

On June 9 a portion of the Army of the Potomac had been set to work fortifying a line to our left and rear on ground overlooking the Chickahominy, under cover of which the army could move down that stream. Boats for making the ferriage of the James had been ordered from all available places. Preparations had been made for bridging necessary points on the Chickahominy, and a large force had been put to work under engineer officers to repair the roads. This day (June 12) was Sunday, but it was by no means a day of rest. All was now ready for the important movement.

General Meade had been untiring in his efforts during this eventful week. He was General Grant's senior by seven years, was older than any of the corps commanders, and was naturally of an excitable temperament, and with the continual annoyances to which he was subjected he not infrequently became quite irritable. He was greatly disturbed at this time by some newspaper reports stating that on the second night of the battle of the Wilderness he had advised a retreat across the [191] Rapidan; and in talking this matter over with General Grant, his indignation became so great that his wrath knew no bounds. He said that the rumor had been circulated throughout the press, and would be believed by many of the people, and perhaps by the authorities in Washington. Mr. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, who was still with the army, was present at the interview, and he and General Grant tried to console Meade by assurances that the story would not be credited, and that they would give a broad contradiction to it. Mr. Dana at once sent a despatch to the Secretary of War, alluding to the rumor, and saying: “This is entirely untrue. He has not shown any weakness of the sort since moving from Culpeper, nor once intimated a doubt as to the successful issue of the campaign.” The Secretary replied the next day (June 10), saying: “Please say to General Meade that the lying report alluded to in your telegram was not even for a moment believed by the President or myself. We have the most perfect confidence in him. He could not wish a more exalted estimation of his ability, his firmness, and every quality of a commanding general than is entertained for him.” The newspaper correspondent who had been the author of this slander was seized and placed on a horse, with large placards hung upon his breast and back bearing the inscription, “Libeler of the press,” and drummed out of camp. There had never been a moment when Meade had not been in favor of bold and vigorous advances, and he would have been the last man to counsel a retreat.

While at the mess-table taking our last meal before starting upon the march to the James on the evening of the 12th, the conversation turned upon the losses which had occurred and the reinforcements which had been received up to that time. The figures then known did [192] not differ much from those contained in the accurate official reports afterward compiled. From the opening of the campaign, May 4, to the movement across the James, June 12, the total casualties in the Army of the Potomac, including Sheridan's cavalry and Burnside's command, had been: killed, 7621; wounded, 38,339; captured or missing, 8966; total, 54,926. The services of all the men included in these figures were not, however, permanently lost to the army. A number of them were prisoners who were afterward exchanged, and many had been only slightly wounded, and were soon ready for duty again. Some were doubtless counted more than once, as a soldier who was wounded in a battle twice, and afterward killed, may have been counted three times in making up the list of casualties, whereas the army had really lost but one man. The losses of the enemy have never been ascertained. No precise information on the subject has been discovered, and not even a general statement can be made of his casualties. In a few of the battles of this campaign his losses were greater than the losses suffered by the Union troops; in the greater part of the battles they were less. Our reinforcements had amounted to just about the same number as the losses. It was estimated from the best sources of information that Lee had also received reinforcements equal to his losses, so that the armies were now of about the same size as when the campaign began.

All the reinforcements organized in the North and reported as on their way to the front did not reach us. There was a good deal of truth in the remark reported to have been made by Mr. Lincoln: “We get a large body of reinforcements together, and start them to the front; but after deducting the sick, the deserters, the stragglers, and the discharged, the numbers seriously diminish by the time they reach their destination. It's [193] like trying to shovel fleas across a barnyard; you don't get 'em all there.”

General Grant said during the discussion:

I was with General Taylor's command in Mexico when he not only failed to receive reinforcements, but found that nearly all his regulars were to be sent away from him to join General Scott. Taylor was apt to be a little absent-minded when absorbed in any perplexing problem, and the morning he received the discouraging news he sat down to breakfast in a brown study, poured out a cup of coffee, and instead of putting in the sugar, he reached out and got hold of the mustard-pot, and stirred half a dozen spoonfuls of its contents into the coffee. He didn't realize what he had done till he took a mouthful, and then he broke out in a towering rage.

We learned something at Shiloh about the way in which the reports of losses are sometimes exaggerated in battle. At the close of the first day's fight Sherman met a colonel of one of his regiments with only about a hundred of his soldiers in ranks, and said to him, ‘ Why, where are your men?’ The colonel cast his eyes sadly along the line, wiped a tear from his cheek, and replied in a whimpering voice: ‘We went in eight hundred strong, and that's all that's left of us.’ ‘You don't tell me!’ exclaimed Sherman, beginning to be deeply affected by the fearful result of the carnage. ‘Yes,’ said the colonel; ‘the rebs appeared to have a special spite against us.’ Sherman passed along some hours afterward, when the commissary was issuing rations, and found that the colonel's men were returning on the run from under the bank of the river, where they had taken shelter from the firing; and in a few minutes nearly all of the lost seven hundred had rejoined, and were boiling coffee and eating a hearty meal with an appetite that showed they were still very much alive.

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