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Chapter 7

  • Grant and Meade
  • -- field Diversions -- seizing Vantage -- ground -- Grant and the wounded Confederate -- Grant's toilet in camp -- important despatches -- through rain and mud -- Grant and the dying soldier -- bad news

On the morning of May 13 General Grant expressed some anxiety as to the possibility of Lee's falling back toward Richmond without our knowing it in time to follow him up closely enough to attack him, although it was thought that the almost impassable condition of the roads would probably prevent such an attempt. Skirmishers were pushed forward near enough to discover the meaning of a movement of some of the organizations in Lee's center, and it was found that the enemy was merely taking up a new position in rear of the works which had been captured from him. There was no other fighting that day. The general busied himself principally with inquiries about the care of the wounded and the burial of the killed. He thought not only of the respect due the gallant dead, but of proper rewards for the living whose services had contributed conspicuously to the victory. He wrote a communication to the Secretary of War, in which he urged the following promotions: Meade and Sherman to be major-generals, and Hancock a brigadier-general, in the regular army; Wright and Gibbon to be major-generals of volunteers; and Carroll, [114] Upton, and McCandless to be brigadier-generals in that service. He had already promoted Upton on the field, but this promotion had to be confirmed at Washington. He said in his letter: “General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with.” An animated discussion took place at headquarters that day regarding General Meade's somewhat anomalous position, and the embarrassments which were at times caused on the field by the necessity of issuing orders through him instead of direct to the corps commanders. The general-in-chief always invited the most frank and cordial interchange of views, and never failed to listen patiently to the more prominent members of his staff. He seldom joined in the discussions, and usually reserved what he had to say till the end of the argument, when he gave his views and rendered his decision. It was now urged upon him, with much force, that time was often lost in having field orders pass through an intermediary; that there was danger that, in transmitting orders to corps commanders, the instructions might be either so curtailed or elaborated as to change their spirit; that no matter how able General Meade might be, his position was in some measure a false one; that few responsibilities were given him, and yet he was charged with the duties of an army commander; that if he failed the responsibility could not be fixed upon him, and if he succeeded he could not reap the full reward of his merits; that, besides, he had an irascible temper, and often irritated officers who came in contact with him, while General Grant was even-tempered, and succeeded in securing a more hearty cooperation of his generals when he dealt with them direct. The discussion became heated at times.

At the close of the arguments the general said: “I am [115] fully aware that some embarrassments arise from the present organization, but there is more weight on the other side of the question. I am commanding all the armies, and I cannot neglect others by giving my time exclusively to the Army of the Potomac, which would involve performing all the detailed duties of an army commander, directing its administration, enforcing discipline, reviewing its court-martial proceedings, etc. I have Burnside's, Butler's, and Sigel's armies to look after in Virginia, to say nothing of our Western armies, and I may make Sheridan's cavalry a separate command. Besides, Meade has served a long time with the Army of the Potomac, knows its subordinate officers thoroughly, and led it to a memorable victory at Gettysburg. I have just come from the West, and if I removed a deserving Eastern mall from the position of army commander, my motives might be misunderstood, and the effect be bad upon the spirits of the troops. General Meade and I are in close contact on the field; he is capable and perfectly subordinate, and by attending to the details he relieves me of much unnecessary work, and gives me more time to think and to mature my general plans. I will always see that he gets full credit for what he does.”

This was a broad view of the situation, and one to which the general mainly adhered throughout the war; but after that day he gave a closer personal direction in battle to the movements of subdivisions of the armies.

General Meade manifested an excellent spirit through all the embarrassments which his position at times entailed. He usually showed his orders to General Grant before issuing them, and as their camps in this campaign were seldom more than a pistol-shot distant from each other, despatches from the corps commanders directed to Meade generally reached the general-in-chief about [116] the same time. In fact, when they were together, Meade frequently handed despatches to his chief to read before he read them himself. As Grant's combativeness displayed itself only against the enemy, and he was a man with whom an associate could not quarrel without furnishing all the provocation himself, he and Meade continued on the best of terms officially and personally throughout this long and eventful campaign.

During the ten days of battle through which we had just passed very little relief, physical or mental, had been obtained; but there was one staff-officer, a Colonel B , who often came as bearer of messages to our headquarters, who always managed to console himself with novel-reading, and his peculiarity in this respect became a standing joke among those who knew him. He went about with his saddle-bags stuffed full of thrilling romances, and was seen several times sitting on his horse under a brisk fire, poring over the last pages of an absorbing volume to reach the denouement of the plot, and evincing a greater curiosity to find how the hero and the heroine were going to be extricated from the entangled dilemma into which they had been plunged by the unsympathetic author than to learn the result of the surrounding battle. One of his peculiarities was that he took it for granted that all the people he met were perfectly familiar with his line of literature, and he talked about nothing but the merits of the latest novel. For the last week he had been devouring Victor Hugo's “Les Miserables.” It was an English translation, for the officer had no knowledge of French. As he was passing a house in rear of the “angle” he saw a young lady seated on the porch, and, stopping his horse, bowed to her with all the grace of a Chesterfield, and endeavored to engage her in conversation. Before he had gone far he took occasion to remark: “By the way, [117] have you seen “Lees Miserables”?” anglicizing the pronunciation. Her black eyes snapped with indignation as she tartly replied: “Don't you talk to me that way; they're a good deal better than Grant's miserables anyhow!” This was retold so often by those who heard it that, for some time after, its repetition seriously endangered the colonel's peace of mind.

On the morning of the 14th it was decided to move the headquarters of Generals Grant and Meade farther east to a position on some high ground three quarters of a mile north of the Ny River, and near the Fredericksburg and Spottsylvania Court-house road. The two generals and their staff-officers rode forward on the Massaponax Church road, and came to a halt and dismounted at a house not far from the Ny River. About half a mile south of that stream, at a place near the Gayle house, there was a hill held by the enemy, which overlooked both the Massaponax and the Fredericksburg roads, and as it commanded an important position, it was decided to try to get possession of it.

Just then General Upton rode up, joined the group, and addressing himself to both Generals Grant and Meade, said, with his usual enthusiasm and confidence, and speaking with great rapidity: “I can take that hill with my brigade. I hope you will let me try it; I'm certain I can take it.” He was asked how many men he had left, as his brigade had seen very hard fighting in the last few days. He replied, “About eight or nine hundred men.”

It was soon decided to let him make the attempt, and General Wright, who was supervising the movement, gave Upton orders to start forward at once and seize the position. Upton put his brigade in motion with his usual promptness, but the regular brigade had preceded him and captured the hill. Upton relieved the regular [118] brigade and occupied the place, but his possession of it was not of long duration. The enemy sent forward a portion of Mahone's infantry and Chambliss's cavalry, and Upton was compelled to fall back before superior numbers. However, there was no intention to allow the enemy to hold such an important position, and Meade directed Warren to send one of his brigades to recapture it. Ayres's brigade moved forward with spirit, and the position was soon retaken and held. General Grant expressed to General Meade his pleasure at seeing Warren's troops making so prompt and successful a movement, and as both officers had censured Warren on the 13th, they were anxious now to give him full credit for his present conduct. General Meade sent him the following despatch: “I thank you and Ayres for taking the hill. It was handsomely done.” General Wright then moved forward two brigades to relieve Ayres. This was the only fighting on that day.

While riding about the field General Grant stopped at a house and expressed a desire to prepare some despatches. A number of wounded were lying upon the porch and in the rooms; they had made their way there in accordance with the usual custom of wounded men to seek a house. It seems to be a natural instinct, as a house conveys the idea of shelter and of home. I walked with the general into a back room to see whether there was a dry spot which he might take possession of for a short time, to write messages and look over the maps.

As we entered, there was seen sitting in the only chair a Confederate corporal of infantry who had been shot in the right cheek just under the eye, the ball coming out near the left ear. A mass of coagulated blood covered his face and neck, and he presented a shocking appearance. He arose the moment we entered, [119] pushed his chair forward toward the general, and said, with a bow and a smile, “Here, take my chair, sir.” General Grant looked at him, and replied: “Ah, you need that chair much more than I; keep your seat. I see you are badly hurt.” The officer answered goodnaturedly: “If you folks let me go back to our lines, I think I ought to be able to get a leave to go home and see my girl; but I reckon she would n't know me now.” The general said, “I will see that one of our surgeons does all in his power for you” ; and soon after he told one of the surgeons who was dressing the wounds of our own men to do what he could for the Confederate. The despatches were afterward written in another room. Thirty-three years afterward I discovered that this corporal's name was W. R. Thraxton, and that he was in excellent health and living in Macon, Georgia.

The enemy had now set to work to discover the real meaning of our present movements. In the afternoon skirmishers pushed forward on our right, and found that Warren's corps was no longer there.

In the night of the 14th Lee began to move troops to his right. Grant now directed Hancock's corps to be withdrawn and massed behind the center of our line, so that it could be moved promptly in either direction. When the general got back to camp that evening his clothes were a mass of mud from head to foot, his uniform being scarcely recognizable. He sat until bedtime without making any change in his dress; he never seemed particularly incommoded by the travel-stained condition of his outer garments, but was scrupulously careful, even in the most active campaigns, about the cleanliness of his linen and his person. The only chance for a bath was in having a barrel sawed in two and using the half of it as a sort of sitz-bath. During most of this campaign the general, like the staff-officers, used this [120] method of bathing, or, as our English friends would say, “tubbing.” Afterward he supplied himself with a portable rubber bath-tub. While campaign life is not a good school for the cultivation of squeamishness, and while the general was always ready to rough it in camp, yet he was particularly modest in performing his toilet, and his tent fronts were always tied close, and the most perfect privacy was secured, when he was washing, or changing his clothes. While thus engaged even his servant was not allowed to enter his quarters.

The next day, May 15, the rain continued, and the difficulties of moving became still greater. Important despatches were received from the other armies. They informed the general-in-chief that General Averell's cavalry had cut a portion of the East Tennessee Railroad, and had also captured and destroyed a depot of supplies in West Virginia. Butler reported that he had captured some works near Drewry's Bluff, on the James River. The next day, the 16th, came a despatch from Sherman saying that he had compelled Johnston to evacuate Dalton and was pursuing him closely. Sheridan reported that he had destroyed a portion of the Virginia Central and the Fredericksburg railroads in Lee's rear, had killed General J. E. B. Stuart, completely routed his cavalry, and captured a portion of the outer lines of Richmond. He said he might possibly have taken Richmond by assault, but, being ignorant of the operations of General Grant and General Butler, and knowing the rapidity with which the enemy could throw troops against him, he decided that it would not be wise to make such an attempt.

The loss of General Stuart was a severe blow to the enemy. He was their foremost cavalry leader, and one in whom Lee reposed great confidence. We afterward heard that he had been taken to Richmond, and had [121] reached there before he died; that Jefferson Davis visited his death-bed, and was greatly affected when he found that there was no hope of saving the life of this accomplished officer.

The continual rain was most disheartening. On May 16 Grant wrote to Halleck: “We have had five days almost constant rain, without any prospect yet of its clearing up. The roads have now become so impassable that ambulances with wounded men can no longer run between here and Fredericksburg. All offensive operations must necessarily cease until we can have twenty-four hours of dry weather. The army is in the best of spirits, and feels the greatest confidence in ultimate success. . . . The elements alone have suspended hostilities.”

In the Wilderness the army had to struggle against fire and dust; now it had to contend with rain and mud. An ordinary rain, lasting for a day or two, does not embarrass troops; but when the storm continues for a week it becomes one of the most serious obstacles in a campaign. The men can secure no proper shelter and no comfortable rest; their clothing has no chance to dry; and a tramp of a few miles through tenacious mud requires as much exertion as an ordinary day's march. Tents become saturated and weighted with water, and draft-animals have increased loads, and heavier roads over which to haul them. Dry wood cannot be found; cooking becomes difficult; the men's spirits are affected by the gloom, and even the most buoyant natures become disheartened. It is much worse for an army acting on the offensive, for it has more marching to do, being compelled to move principally on exterior lines.

Staff-officers had to labor day and night during the present campaign in making reconnaissances and in cross-questioning natives, deserters, prisoners, and fugitive [122] negroes, in an attempt to secure data for the purpose of constructing local maps from day to day. As soon as these were finished they were distributed to the subordinate commanders. Great confusion arose from the duplication of the names of houses and farms. Either family names were particularly scarce in that section of the State, or else the people were united by close ties of relationship, and country cousins abounded to a confusing extent. So many farm-houses in some of the localities were occupied by people of the same name that, when certain farms were designated in orders, serious errors arose at times from mistaking one place for another.

The weather looked a little brighter on May 17, but the roads were still so heavy that no movement was attempted. A few reinforcements were received at this time, mainly some heavy-artillery regiments from the defenses about Washington, who had been drilled to serve as infantry. On the 17th Brigadier-general R. O. Tyler arrived with a division of these troops, numbering, with the Corcoran Legion, which had also joined, nearly 8000 men. They were assigned to Hancock's corps.

Headquarters were this day moved about a mile and a quarter to the southeast, to a point not far from Massaponax Church. We knew that the enemy had depleted the troops on his left in order to strengthen his right wing, and on the night of the 17th Hancock and Wright were ordered to assault Lee's left the next morning, directing their attack against the second line he had taken up in rear of the “angle,” or, as some of the troops now called it, “Hell's half-acre.” The enemy's position, however, had been strengthened at this point more than it was supposed, and his new line of intrenchments had been given a very formidable character. Our attacking [123] party found the ground completely swept by a heavy and destructive fire of musketry and artillery, but in spite of this the men moved gallantly forward and made desperate attempts to carry the works. It was soon demonstrated, however, that the movement could not result in success, and the troops were withdrawn.

General Grant had ridden over to the light to watch the progress of this attack. While he was passing a spot near the roadside where there were a number of wounded, one of them, who was lying close to the roadside, seemed to attract his special notice. The man's face was beardless; he was evidently young; his countenance was strikingly handsome, and there was something in his appealing look which could not fail to engage attention, even in the full tide of battle. The blood was flowing from a wound in his breast, the froth about his mouth was tinged with red, and his wandering, staring eyes gave unmistakable evidence of approaching death. Just then a young staff-officer dashed by at a full gallop, and as his horse's hoofs struck a puddle in the road, a mass of black mud was splashed in the wounded man's face. He gave a piteous look, as much as to say, “Could n't you let me die in peace and not add to my sufferings” The general, whose eyes were at that moment turned upon the youth, was visibly affected. He reined in his horse, and seeing from a motion he made that he was intending to dismount to bestow some care upon the young man, I sprang from my horse, ran to the side of the soldier, wiped his face with my handkerchief, spoke to him, and examined his wound; but in a few minutes the unmistakable death-rattle was heard, and I found that he had breathed his last. I said to the general, who was watching the scene intently, “The poor fellow is dead,” remounted my horse, and the party rode on. The chief had turned [124] round twice to look after the officer who had splashed the mud and who had passed rapidly on, as if he wished to take him to task for his carelessness. There was a painfully sad look upon the general's face, and he did not speak for some time. While always keenly sensitive to the sufferings of the wounded, this pitiful sight seemed to affect him more than usual.

When General Grant returned to his headquarters, greatly disappointed that the attack had not succeeded, he found despatches from the other armies which were by no means likely to furnish consolation to him or to the officers about him. Sigel had been badly defeated at New Market, and was in retreat; Butler had been driven from Drewry's Bluff, though he still held possession of the road to Petersburg; and Banks had suffered defeat in Louisiana. The general was in no sense depressed by the information, and received it in a philosophic spirit; but he was particularly annoyed by the despatches from Sigel, for two hours before he had sent a message urging that officer to make his way to Staunton to stop supplies from being sent from there to Lee's army. He immediately requested Halleck to have Sigel relieved and General Hunter put in command of his troops. General Canby was sent to supersede Banks; this was done by the authorities at Washington, and not upon General Grant's suggestion, though the general thought well of Canby and made no objection.

In commenting briefly upon the bad news, General Grant said: “Lee will undoubtedly reinforce his army largely by bringing Beauregard's troops from Richmond, now that Butler has been driven back, and will call in troops from the Valley since Sigel's defeated forces have retreated to Cedar Creek. Hoke's troops will be needed no longer in North Carolina, and I am prepared to see Lee's forces in our front materially strengthened. I [125] thought the other day that they must feel pretty blue in Richmond over the reports of our victories; but as they are in direct telegraphic communication with the points at which the fighting took place, they were no doubt at the same time aware of our defeats, of which we have not learned till to-day; so probably they did not feel as badly as we imagined.”

The general was not a man to waste any time over occurrences of the past; his first thoughts were always to redouble his efforts to take the initiative and overcome disaster by success. Now that his cooperating armies had failed him, he determined upon still bolder movements on the part of the troops under his immediate direction. As the weather was at this time more promising, his first act was to sit down at his field-desk and write an order providing for a general movement by the left flank toward Richmond, to begin the next night, May 19. He then sent to Washington asking the cooperation of the navy in changing our base of supplies to Port Royal on the Rappahannock.

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