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LT: June 23, 1864 Theodore Lyman

Editor’s Note: Theodore Lyman was General George G. Meade’s aide-de-camp from the fall of 1863 through Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  An intelligent and outspoken individual, Lyman’s letters to his wife provide great insight into the happenings at Meade’s headquarters.  These letters, taken from the now public domain book Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865; Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox and written by Lyman to his wife, appear here at the Siege of Petersburg Online exactly 150 years to the day after they are written.  Since this site is concerned solely with the Siege of Petersburg, the letters start on June 12, 1864 and end on April 3, 1865.  See the bottom of this and every other letter for a list of all the letters which have appeared to date.

June 23, 1864

All were up at an early hour and ready for an advance, which had been ordered. On the right, towards the Gregory house, we were already against them, and I suppose my friend there, Major Crow, had seen us under more hostile circumstances. . . . By 4.30 General Meade started for General Wright’s Headquarters at the Williams house, where he ordered me to stay, when he left at seven. . . . I rode about with General Wright, who visited his line, which was not straight or facing properly. That’s a chronic trouble in lines in the woods. Indeed there are several chronic troubles. The divisions have lost connection; they cannot cover the ground designated, their wing is in the air, their skirmish line has lost its direction, etc., etc. Then General Meade gets mad with the delay. The commanders say they do as well as they can, etc. Well, Ricketts ran one way and Russell another; and then the 2d Corps — how did that run? and were the skirmishers so placed as to face ours? and what would General Birney do about it? How long was the line? could it advance in a given direction, and, if so, how? All of which is natural with a good many thousand men in position in a dense wood, which nobody knows much about. All this while the men went to sleep or made coffee; profoundly indifferent to the perplexities of their generals; that was what generals were paid for. When General Wright had looked a great deal at his line, and a great deal more at his pocket compass, he rode forth on the left to look at the pickets, who were taking life easy like other privates. They had put up sun-shades with shelter-tents and branches, and were taking the heat coolly. …

About this time a Vermont captain (bless his soul!) went and actually did something saucy and audacious. With eighty sharpshooters he pushed out boldly, drove in a lot of cavalry, and went a mile and a quarter to the railroad, which he held, and came back in person to report, bringing a piece of the telegraph wire. . . . Some time in the morning, I don’t exactly know when, the signal officers reported a large force, say two divisions, marching out from the town, along the railroad, whereof we heard more anon. At noon there still had been no advance, and General Wright went to General Birney to arrange one. There was General Meade, not much content with the whole affair. They all pow-wowed a while, and so we rode back again, through the dreary woods, through which fires had run. It was after two when we returned. Now then — at last — all together — skirmishers forward! And away they go, steadily. Oh, yes! but Rebs are not people who let you sit about all the day and do just as you like; remember that always, if nothing else. There are shots away out by the railroad — so faint that you can scarce hear them. In comes a warm sharpshooter: “They are advancing rapidly and have driven the working party from the railroad.” Here come the two divisions, therefore, or whatever they are. “Stop the advance,” orders General Wright. “General Wheaton, strengthen that skirmish line and tell them to hold on.” The remainder of Wheaton’s division is formed on the flank, and begins making a breastwork; more troops are sent for. The fire of the skirmishers now draws nearer and gets distinct; but, when the reinforcement arrives, they make a stout stand, and hold them. . . . All the while the telegraph is going: “Don’t let ’em dance round you, pitch into them!” suggests General Meade (not in those exact words). “Don’t know about that — very easy to say — will see about it,” replies the cautious W.; etc., etc. Pretty soon the cavalry comes piling in across the Aiken oat-field; they don’t hold too long, you may be certain. This exposes the flank of the picket line, which continues to shoot valiantly. In a little while more, a division officer of the day gallops in and says they have broken his skirmishers and are advancing in line of battle. But the Rebels did not try an approach through the open oat-field: bullets would be too thick there; so they pushed through the woods in our rear. I could hear them whooping and ki-yi-ing, in their peculiar way. I felt uncomfortable, I assure you. It was now towards sunset. Our position was right in the end of the loop, where we should get every bullet from two sides, in event of an attack. General Grant, of the Vermont Brigade, walked up and said, in his quiet way: “Do you propose to keep your Headquarters here?” “Why not?” says Ricketts. “Because, when the volleys begin, nothing can live here.” To which Ricketts replied, “Ah?” as if someone had remarked it was a charming evening, or the like. I felt very like addressing similar arguments to General Wright, but pride stood in the way, and I would have let a good many volleys come before I would have given my valuable advice. A column of attack was now formed by us, during which the enemy pushed in their skirmishers and the bullets began to slash among the trees most spitefully; for they were close to; whereat Wright (sensible man!) vouchsafed to move on one side some seventy yards, where we only got accidental shots. And what do you think? It was too dark now for us to attack, and the Rebs did not — and so, domino, after all my tremendous description! Worse than a newspaper isn’t it? I was quite enraged to be so scared for no grand result.(1)1


(1) “I look on June 22d and 23d as the two most discreditable days to this army that I ever saw! There was everywhere, high and low, feebleness, confusion, poor judgment. The only person who kept his plans and judgment clear was General Meade, himself. On this particular occasion Wright showed himself totally unfit to command a corps.” — Lyman’s Journal.




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