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LT: August 6, 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.

August 6, 1864

I took a limited ride along our flank defences, where I discovered a patriotic sentry, sitting with his back to where the enemy might be supposed to come, and reading a novel! He belonged to the 7th Indiana. “What are your instructions?” say I. “Han’t got none,” replies the peruser of novels. “Then what are you here for?” “Well, I am a kind of an alarm sentinel,” said this literary militaire. “Call the corporal of the guard,” said I, feeling much disposed to laugh. The sentry looked about a little and then singling out a friend, called out: “Oh, Jim, why, won’t you just ask Jeremiah Miles to step this way?” After some delay, Jeremiah appeared. He was in a pleasing state of ignorance. Did not know the sentry’s instructions, did not know who the officer of the guard was, did not know much of anything. “Well,” said I, “now suppose you go and find the sergeant of the guard.” This he did with great alacrity. The sergeant, as became his office, knew more than the corporal. He was clear that the sentry should not read a book; also that his conduct in sitting down was eccentric; but, when it came to who was the officer of the guard, his naturally fine mind broke down. He knew the officer if he saw him, but could not remember his name. This he would say, the officer was a lieutenant. “Suppose you should try to find him,” suggested I. Of course that he could do; and soon the “Loo-tenant” appeared. To him I talked like a father; almost like a grandfather, in fact; showed him the man’s musket was rusty and that he was no good whatsoever. Loo-tenant had not much to say; indeed, so to speak, nothing; and I left him with a strong impression that you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. It is not ludicrous, but sad, to see such soldiers in this Army of the Potomac, after three years of experience. The man could not have been better: tall, strong, respectful, and docile; but no one had ever taught him. It was a clear case of waste of fine material, left in all its crudity instead of being worked up. And this is the grand characteristic of this war — waste. We waste arms, clothing, ammunition, and subsistence; but, above all, men. We don’t make them go far enough, because we have no military or social caste to make officers from. Regiments that have been officered by gentlemen of education have invariably done well, like the 2d, 20th, and 24th Massachusetts, and the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Even the 44th and the 45th, nine-monthers, behaved with credit; though there was this drawback in them, that the privates were too familiar with the officers, having known them before. However, perfection does not exist anywhere, and we should be thankful for the manifold virtues our soldiers do pre-eminently possess. I see much to make me more contented in reading Napier, before referred to. After the taking of Badajos, the English allowed their own wounded to lie two days in the breach, without an attempt to carry them off. This is the nation that now gives us very good lectures on humanity. As to old Wellington, I suspect he was about as savage an old brute as would be easy to find.1




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