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Chapter 8

  • Attempt to turn the Union right--“Bill”
  • -- Grant's Unprotected headquarters -- Grant and the Virginia lady -- a race for the North Anna -- a noonday halt at Mrs. Tyler's

The fact that a change had been made in the position of our troops, and that Hancock's corps had been withdrawn from our front and placed in rear of our center, evidently made Lee suspect that some movement was afoot, and he determined to send General Ewell's corps to try to turn our light, and to put Early in readiness to cooperate in the movement if it should promise success.

In the afternoon of May 19, a little after five o'clock, I was taking a nap in my tent, to try to make up for the sleep lost the night before. Aides-de-camp in this campaign were usually engaged in riding back and forth during the night between headquarters and the different commands, communicating instructions for the next day, and had to catch their sleep in instalments. I was suddenly awakened by my colored servant crying out to me: “Wake up, sah, fo‘ God's sake! De whole ob Lee's army am in our reah!” He was in a state of feverish excitement, and his face seemed two shades lighter than its ordinary hue. The black boys were not to be blamed for manifesting fright, for they all had a notion that their lives would not be worth praying for if they fell into the hands of the enemy and were recognized [127] as persons who had made their escape from slavery to serve in the Yankee army. Hearing heavy firing in the direction of our rear, I put my head out of the tent, and seeing the general and staff standing near their horses, which had been saddled, I called for my horse and hastened to join them. Upon my inquiring what the matter was, the general said: “The enemy is detaching a large force to turn our right. I wish you would ride to the point of attack, and keep me posted as to the movement, and urge upon the commanders of the troops in that vicinity not only to check the advance of the enemy, but to take the offensive and destroy them if possible. You can say that Warren's corps will be ordered to cooperate promptly.” General Meade had already sent urgent orders to his troops nearest the point threatened. I started up the Fredericksburg road, and saw a large force of infantry advancing, which proved to be the troops of Ewell's corps who had crossed the Ny River. In the vicinity of the Harris house, about a mile east of the Ny, I found General Tyler's division posted on the Fredericksburg road, with Kitching's brigade on his left. By Meade's direction Hancock had been ordered to send a division to move at double-quick to Tyler's support, and Warren's Maryland brigade arrived on the ground later. The enemy had made a vigorous attack on Tyler and Kitching, and the contest was raging fiercely along their lines. I rode up to Tyler, who was an old army friend, found him making every possible disposition to check the enemy's advance, and called out to him: “Tyler, you are in luck to-day. It is n't every one who has a chance to make such a debut on joining an army. You are certain to knock a brevet out of this day's fight.” He said: “As you see, my men are raw hands at this sort of work, but they are behaving like veterans.” [128]

Hancock had arrived on the ground in person, and when Birney's troops of his corps came up they were put into action on Tyler's right. Crawford, of Warren's corps, arrived about dark, and was put in position on the left. The brunt of the attack, however, had been broken by the troops upon which it first fell. Each regiment of Tyler's heavy artillery was as large as some of our brigades. These regiments had been thoroughly drilled and disciplined in the defenses about Washington, but this was their first engagement, and their new uniforms and bright muskets formed a striking contrast to the travel-stained clothing and dull-looking arms of the other regiments. When the veterans arrived they cracked no end of jokes at the expense of the new troops. They would cry out to them: “How are you, heavies? Is this work heavy enough for you? You're doing well, my sons. If you keep on like this a couple of years, you'll learn all the tricks of the trade.” They were particularly anxious to get hold of the new arms of the fresh troops, and when a man was shot down a veteran would promptly seize his gun in exchange for his own, which had become much the worse for wear in the last week's rain-storms.

The fighting was exceedingly obstinate, and continued until after nine o'clock; but by that hour the enemy had been driven back at all points, and forced to beat a rapid retreat across the Ny. His loss in killed and wounded was severe, and we captured over four hundred prisoners from him. We did not escape a considerable loss on our side, six hundred of our men having been killed and wounded. A staff-officer, passing over the ground after dark, saw in the vicinity of the Fredericksburg road a row of men stretched upon the ground, looking as if they had lain down in line of battle to sleep. He started to shake several of them, and cried out: “Get up! [129] What do you mean by going to sleep at such a time as this?” He was shocked to find that this row consisted entirely of dead bodies lying as they fell, shot down in ranks with their alinement perfectly preserved. The scene told with mute eloquence the story of their valor and the perfection of their discipline. The brevet rank predicted for Tyler was conferred upon him for his services in this engagement, and it had been fairly won.

Lee had evidently intended to make Ewell's movement a formidable one, for Early had received orders to cooperate in the attack if it should promise success, and during the afternoon he sent forward a brigade which made an assault in his front. The attempt, however, was a complete failure.

This attack by Ewell on the 19th prevented the orders previously issued for the general movement by the left flank from being carried out until the night of the 20th.

The Army of the Potomac had been embarrassed by having too much artillery. Finding that the country through which it had to move was more difficult than had been supposed, General Grant gave an order on the 19th to send ninety-two guns back to Washington.

The next morning, May 20, the general was later than usual in making his appearance, in consequence of having overslept. Finally his voice was heard calling from his tent to his colored servant: “Bill! Ho, Bill! What time is it?” The servant ran to him, found he was still in bed, and told him the hour. In scarcely more than ten minutes the general appeared at the mess-table. We were not surprised at the rapidity with which he had dressed himself, for we had learned by this time that in putting on his clothes he was as quick as a lightning-change actor in a variety theater. When the officers at headquarters were called up particularly early to start on the march, every one did his utmost to be on time [130] and not keep the general waiting; but, however vigorous the effort, no one could match him in getting on his clothes. There was seldom any occasion for such hurried dressing, but with him it was a habit which continued through life.

Bill, the servant who waited on the general, was a notable character. He was entirely a creature of accident. When the general was at Cairo in 1861, Bill suddenly appeared one day at headquarters with two other slave boys, who had just escaped from their former masters in Missouri. They belonged to that class of fugitive blacks who were characterized by those given to artistic comparisons as “charcoal sketches from the hands of the old masters.” Bill was of a genuine burnt-cork hue, and no white blood contaminated the purity of his lineage. He at once set himself to work without orders, taking care of one of the aides, and by dint of his force of character resisted all efforts of that officer to discharge him. When any waiter was absent, or even when all were present, he would turn up in the headquarters mess-tent and insist on helping the general at table. Then he attached himself to Colonel Boomer, and forced that officer in spite of himself to submit to his services. After the colonel had been killed in the assault on Vicksburg, Bill suddenly put in an appearance again at headquarters, and was found making himself useful to the general, notwithstanding the protests of the other servants, and before long he had himself regularly entered upon the general's private pay-roll. When his chief came East, Bill followed, and gradually took entire charge of the general's personal comfort as valet, waiter, and man of all work. He was devoted, never known to be beyond call, had studied the general's habits so carefully that he could always anticipate his few wants, and became really very useful. I had a [131] striking illustration one morning in front of Spottsylvania of how devoted Bill was to the general's comfort. While we were camping in the region of wood-ticks, garter-snakes, and beetles, I saw Bill in front of the general's tent thrusting his hand first into one of the chief's boots and then into the other. “What are you doing that for, Bill” I asked. “Oh,” he explained, “I allers feels around in de gin'ral's boots afore I lets him put dem on, to see dat no insec's done got into dem de prev'us night.” He followed in the general's shadow all through his Presidential terms, then he insisted upon attempting business in Washington, and afterward tried his hand at preaching; but he had fed so long at the public crib that his appetite had been spoiled for any other means of sustaining life, and he finally made his way into a government department as messenger, where he still is and where it is hoped that his eventful life may be rounded out in the quiet and comfort to which his public services entitle him. He will not be as dramatic an historical character as Napoleon's Mameluke, but in his humble way he was as faithful and devoted to his chief as the famous Roustan.

In discussing the contemplated movement to the left, General Grant said on the morning of May 20: “My chief anxiety now is to draw Lee out of his works and fight him in the open field, instead of assaulting him behind his intrenchments. The movement of Early yesterday gives me some hope that Lee may at times take the offensive, and thus give our troops the desired opportunity.” In this, however, the general was disappointed; for the attack of the 19th was the last offensive movement in force that Lee ventured to make during the entire campaign.

The series of desperate battles around Spottsylvania had ended, but other soil was now to be stained by the [132] blood of fratricidal war. Torbert's cavalry division began the march to the South on May 20, and as soon as it was dark Hancock's corps set out for Milford Station, a distance of about twenty miles, to take up a position on the south bank of the Mattapony. Guiney's Station was reached the next morning, after a night march of eight miles. Hancock's advance crossed the Mattapony at noon and intrenched its position. At ten o'clock that morning Warren had moved south, and that night he reached the vicinity of Guiney's Station. Burnside put his corps in motion as soon as the road was clear of Hancock's troops, and was followed by Wright.

Generals Grant and Meade, with their staffs, took up their march on May 21, following the road taken by Hancock's corps, and late in the afternoon reached Guiney's Station. Our vigilant signal-officers, who had made every effort to read the enemy's signals, now succeeded in deciphering an important despatch, from which it was learned that Lee had discovered the movement that our forces were making. Hancock was now many miles in advance, and the head of Warren's corps was a considerable distance in the rear. Our party, besides a small cavalry and infantry escort, consisted entirely of officers, many of them of high rank. One might have said of it what Curran said of the books in his library, “Not numerous, but select.” It was suggested by some that, before pitching camp for the night, the headquarters had better move back upon the road on which we had advanced until Warren's troops should be met; but General Grant made light of the proposition and ordered the camp to be established where we were, saying, “I think, instead of our going back, we had better hurry Warren forward.” Suggestions to the general to turn back fell as usual upon deaf ears. [133]

While our people were putting up the tents and making preparations for supper, General Grant strolled over to a house near by, owned by a Mr. Chandler, and sat down on the porch. I accompanied him, and took a seat beside him. In a few minutes a lady came to the door, and was surprised to find that the visitor was the general-in-chief. He was always particularly civil to ladies, and he rose to his feet at once, took off his hat, and made a courteous bow. She was ladylike and polite in her behavior, and she and the general soon became engaged in a pleasant talk. Her conversation was exceedingly entertaining. She said, among other things: “This house has witnessed some sad scenes. One of our greatest generals died here just a year ago-General Jackson-Stonewell Jackson of blessed memory.” “Indeed!” remarked General Grant. “He and I were at West Point together for a year, and we served in the same army in Mexico.” “Then you must have known how good and great he was,” said the lady. “Oh, yes,” replied the general; “he was a sterling, manly cadet, and enjoyed the respect of every one who knew him. He was always of a religious turn of mind, and a plodding, hard-working student. His standing was at first very low in his class, but by his indomitable energy he managed to graduate quite high. He was a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman, and I can understand fully the admiration your people have for him.”

“ They brought him here the Monday after the battle of Chancellorsville,” she continued. “You probably know, sir, that he had been wounded in the left arm and right hand by his own men, who fired upon him accidentally in the night, and his arm had been amputated on the field. The operation was very successful, and he was getting along nicely; but the wet applications made to the wound brought on pneumonia, and it was that [134] which caused his death. He lingered till the next Sunday afternoon, May 10, and then he was taken from us.” Here the lady of the house became very much affected, and almost broke down in recalling the sad event.

Our tents had by this time been pitched, and the general, after taking a polite leave of his hostess, and saying he would place a guard over her house to see that no damage was done to her property, walked over to camp, and soon after sat down with the mess to a light supper.

The question has been asked why General Grant in this movement left so great a distance between Hancock's corps and the rest of his army. He did it intentionally, and under the circumstances it was unquestionably wise generalship. He was determined to try by every means in his power to tempt Lee to fight outside of his intrenched lines. He had in the battles of the last two weeks thoroughly measured Lee's capacity as an opponent, and he believed it would be difficult to force him to take the offensive unless some good opportunity were offered. He knew that Lee, from the distance over which he would have to move his troops, could not attack the isolated Hancock with more than an army-corps. Such a force he was certain Hancock could whip; and Grant, being in close communication with the several corps, felt that he could bring up reinforcements as rapidly as the enemy, and that the chances would be greatly in his favor if he could thus bring on an engagement in the open field. There was no question in his mind as to whipping his opponent; the only problem was how to get at him.

The next morning, May 22, headquarters moved south, following the line which had been taken by Hancock's troops, which ran parallel with the Fredericksburg Railroad. The officers and men had never experienced a [135] more sudden change of feelings and prospects. The weather was pleasant, the air was invigorating, the sun was shining brightly, and the roads were rapidly drying up. The men had been withdrawn from the scenes of their terrific struggles at Spottsylvania, and were no longer confronting formidable earthworks. The features of the country had also entirely changed. Though there were many swamps, thickets, and streams with difficult approaches, the deep gloom of the Wilderness had been left behind. The country was now more open, and presented many clearings, and the range of vision was largely increased. The roads were broad, the land was well cultivated, and the crops were abundant. The men seemed to breathe a new atmosphere, and were inspired with new hope. It was again “on to Richmond,” and the many miles they were now gaining toward the enemy's capital, and out of reach of fire, made them experience that buoyancy of feeling which always accompanies the prestige of success. But while the country was covered with farms and houses, there was scarcely an inhabitant to be seen. Most of the able-bodied men were serving in the armies, and the slaves had been driven farther south. Many of the non-combatants had gone away to escape the invading army, and the only people encountered were women and children and old and decrepit men.

The corps were now rapidly moving toward Hanover Junction, which is about twenty-five miles north of Richmond. Lee, notwithstanding his superior means of obtaining information, had not begun to move until Hancock's corps had crossed the Mattapony at Milford. He then started rapidly down the Telegraph road, and as he had a shorter route than the Union forces, it appears that he reached Hanover Court-house at the head of Ewell's corps at 9:30 o'clock on May 22. His telegrams [136] and maneuvers all go to show that he was entirely deceived in regard to Grant's movements. He reported at that time: “I have learned, as yet, nothing of the movements of the enemy east of the Mattapony.” Tile day before, in speaking of the position of Grant's army, he said: “I fear [this] will secure him from attack until he crosses the Pamunkey.” Even after Grant had crossed the Mattapony, Lee spoke of the Union forces as being east of that river, and was hurrying forward troops in order to prevent Grant from crossing the Pamunkey, a stream formed by the junction of the North Anna and the South Anna rivers, while Grant was in reality moving toward the North Anna. In these movements Lee was entirely outgeneraled.

On the morning of May 22 Hancock was instructed to remain at Milford during the day, while the other corps were directed to move south by roads which would not separate them by distances of more than four miles. It appears to have been about midday of the 22d when Lee obtained information, through his cavalry, of our advance toward the North Anna. Hancock could not well have reached Hanover Junction before Lee, for Lee's route from the right of his intrenchments on the Po to Hanover Junction by the Telegraph road was about twenty-eight miles, while the route of Hancock's corps from Anderson's Mill to Hanover Junction via Bowling Green was about thirty-four miles; besides, as Hancock was advancing with a detached corps through an enemy's country and over unknown roads, he had to move with caution.

Early in the afternoon General Grant decided to halt for a couple of hours, to be in easy communication with the troops that were following. He selected for the halt a plantation. which was beautifully situated on high ground, commanding a charming view of the valley of [137] the Mattapony. A very comfortable house stood not far from the road along which Burnside's corps was marching. In making halts of this kind a house was usually selected, for the reason that good water was easily obtainable, and facilities were afforded for looking at maps and conducting correspondence. General Grant never entered any of the houses, as they were usually occupied by ladies, and he did not wish to appear to invade their dwellings; he generally sat on the porch. When we reached this plantation, the escort and the junior staff-officers lounged about the grounds in the shade of the trees, while General Grant, accompanied by two or three of us who were riding with him, dismounted, and ascended the steps of the porch. A very gentle and prepossessing-looking lady standing in the doorway was soon joined by an older woman. General Grant bowed courteously and said, “With your permission, I will spend a few hours here.” The younger lady replied very civilly, “Certainly, sir.” The older one exclaimed abruptly, “I do hope you will not let your soldiers ruin our place and carry away our property.” The general answered politely, “I will order a guard to keep the men out of your place, and see that you are amply protected” ; and at once gave the necessary instructions. The ladies, seeing that the officer with whom they were conversing was evidently one of superior rank, became anxious to know who he was, and the older one stepped up to me, and in a whisper asked his name. Upon being told that he was General Grant, she seemed greatly surprised, and in a rather excited manner informed the other lady of the fact. The younger lady, whose name was Mrs. Tyler, said that she was the wife of a colonel in the Confederate army, who was serving with General Joe Johnston in the West; but she had not heard from him for some time, and she was very anxious to learn [138] through General Grant what news he had from that quarter. The general said, “Sherman is advancing upon Rome, and ought to have reached that place by this time.” Thereupon the older lady, who proved to be the mother-in-law of the younger one, said very sharply: “General Sherman will never capture that place. I know all about that country, and you have n't an army that will ever take it. We all know very well that Sherman is making no headway against General Johnston's army.”

We could see that she was entertaining views which everywhere prevailed in the South. The authorities naturally put the best face upon matters, and the newspapers tried to buoy up the people with false hopes. It was not surprising that the inhabitants of the remote parts of the country were in ignorance of the true progress of the war. General Grant replied in a quiet way: “General Sherman is certainly advancing rapidly in that direction; and while I do not wish to be the communicator of news which may be unpleasant to you, I have every reason to believe that Rome is by this time in his possession.” The older lady then assumed a bantering tone, and became somewhat excited and defiant in her manner; and the younger one joined with her in scouting the idea that Rome could ever be taken. Just then a courier rode up with despatches from Washington containing a telegram from Sherman. General Grant glanced over it, and then read it to the staff. It announced that Sherman had just captured Rome. The ladies had caught the purport of the communication, although it was not intended that they should hear it. The wife burst into tears, and the mother-in-law was much affected by the news, which was of course sad tidings to both of them.

The mother then began to talk with great rapidity [139] and with no little asperity, saying: “I came from Richmond not long ago, where I lived in a house on the James River which overlooks Belle Isle; and I had the satisfaction of looking down every day on the Yankee prisoners. I saw thousands and thousands of them, and before this campaign is over I want to see the whole of the Yankee army in Southern prisons.”

Just then Burnside rode into the yard, dismounted, and joined our party on the porch. He was a man of great gallantry and elegance of manner, and was always excessively polite to the gentler sex. He raised his hat, made a profound bow to the ladies, and, as he looked at his corps filing by on the road, said to the older one, who was standing near him, “I don't suppose, madam, that you ever saw so many Yankee soldiers before.” She replied instantly: “Not at liberty, sir.” This was such a good shot that every one was greatly amused, and General Grant joined heartily in the laugh that followed at Burnside's expense.

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