OPERATIONS OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, JUNE 5-15, 18641
COLONEL THEODORE LYMAN
Vol. A. D. C. To Major-General George G. Meade, Commanding Army Of The Potomac
Read before the Society, January 9,1882
It was the fourth of June. The disastrous assault at Cold Harbor had been delivered, and the Army of the Potomac, deeply discouraged, lay behind its parapets over against its old enemy, the Army of Northern Virginia. On the contemporary maps the spot is called by a ghastly euphemism ” Cool Arbor.” Of all the wastes I have seen, this was the most dreary. Fancy a baking sun to begin with; then a foreground of abandoned breastworks; and on one side Kelly’s wretched house ; in the front an open plain trampled fetlockdeep into fine white dust, and dotted with caissons, regiments of weary soldiers, and dead horses, killed in the previous cavalry fight. On the sides and in the distance were pine woods, some red with fires that had run through them, some gray with the clouds of dust that rose high in the air.
At night all the trenching tools had been ordered up; the lines were strengthened and saps run out, so as to bring them still closer to the opposing intrenchments. And there the two armies slept, almost within a stone’s throw of each other, and the separating space ploughed by cannon shot, and dotted with dead bodies that neither side dared to bury. Nothing can give a greater idea of deathless tenacity of purpose than the picture of these two hosts, after a bloody and nearly continuous struggle of thirty days, thus lying down to sleep with their hands almost on each other’s throats.
The month’s campaign had been divided as follows: from May 4th to 7th, in the Wilderness proper (a region often erroneously extended quite to the Chickahominy River) ;
then a march of 12 miles to Spottsylvania Court House, which was the tactical pivot till the 20th ; next a long stride of 40 miles to the North Anna, which operation as a whole continued till the 27th ; another march of 30 miles to Totopotomoy Creek, where the remaining days of the month were expended; and finally a connected movement to the left, which brought the army opposite Cold Harbor, where it remained through the 11th of June. The Overland Campaign, so called, ended by the passage of the James and a long route of 60 miles, which brought the whole army before Petersburg on the 17th.
In this series of marches to the east and south the army is usually, though incorrectly, described as moving by the flank, whereas it always broke by the right to march to the left. That is to say, the right wing marched to the left, in rear of the centre; and the centre followed in rear of the left wing which stood fast and at the proper moment moved after the rest, as a rear guard. It goes without saying that any attempt to move directly by the left flank would have at once invited an attack of the most dangerous description.
The action at Cold Harbor ended the attempt against Richmond itself, an attempt that had occupied the month of May. For this assault General Grant has received not only blame, but severe denunciation. Blame he deserves, but not denunciation ; for he acted, not blindly and with the bull-dog idea of straight-out fighting, but advisedly and with a plan. He is a man whose nature is a reasoning one. His reasons may be good or bad, but they are reasons. The present difficult problem entailed the consideration of the following points: (1) The strength of his army; (2) its spirit and capacity for fighting; (3) the position of the enemy in reference to the objective point, Richmond. During the terrible ordeal since the camps had been broken north of the Rapidan the losses in killed, wounded, and prisoners had reached nearly 50,000 men. To make these numbers good,
we had received from the garrisons near Washington about 40,000 men, and there were then at the front 12,000 men of the 10th and 18th Corps, so that, numerically, the army was as strong as when it entered the Wilderness. Man for man, it was in no wise equal to its former self. A series of severe battles usually unsuccessful, or only half successes, closely connected by fierce skirmishes, and accompanied by weary marches and the heavy labor of building intrenchments, had enfeebled the muscles and unstrung the nerves of these hardy soldiers. Then the flower of the force was hors du combat; for the best officers and men are liable by their greater gallantry to be first disabled, and of those that are left even the toughest become demoralized by failure and the loss of good leaders; so that, after a time, the men will no longer charge intrenchments, and will only go forward when driven by their officers.
Of the reinforcements from Washington a good part consisted of heavy artillery, troops well drilled, but wholly unused to warfare, and of whom many had enlisted in the hope of securing a safe place.
As to the position of the enemy, it marked a strategic crisis in the campaign. Hitherto the Army of the Potomac had advanced, by a series of zigzags, nearer and nearer to Richmond ; but now closer approach was barred, and a movement in the direction of either flank would be simply a march round Richmond as a centre, while the enemy, on an inner circle, would constantly interpose his forces. In other words, the operation of flanking had come to an end, and the choice now lay between a direct attack and a new plan. General Grant may have argued, and perhaps did argue, as follows: ” This army is as numerous now as ever, and, if its morale has suffered, so too doubtless has that of the enemy. I still have Upton’s Brigade of the 6th Corps, which on the 10th of May stormed one face of the Salient at Spottsylvania, and the 2d Corps, which took the whole Salient by assault on the 12th. Within two days
the 3d Division of the 6th Corps, by no means one of the best divisions in the army, charged across an open field under a hot fire, and captured a breastwork with several hundred prisoners. If these troops will here repeat their former deeds, I can pierce Lee’s line, roll it up, and drive it back on an unfordable river.”
General Grant’s error was a great one. It was not, however, the outcome of a headstrong belief in brute combat. Rather may it be called a subjective mistake. Because his teeth were as firmly set as ever, he supposed that the nerves of other people were still well strung. His want of imagination rendered it difficult for him to understand the condition of his soldiers, or to measure the spirit of his enemy.
He has been further censured for the details of this assault, such as the parallel order of attack, with which he had no concern at all; for he was then in command of the armies of the United States, and not of the Army of the Potomac, to whose commander he gave orders of a general character; and it was for General Meade to determine how these orders were to be carried out. Having, for example, been commanded to assault the lines near Cold Harbor, General Meade at first directed the attack to be made at 4 p. M. of June 2. But, at the urgent protest of General Hancock, he deferred it for twelve hours. As to the arrangement of troops for the attack, it would not rest with General Meade, but with the corps, or the division, commanders. I recall but one instance in which the details of attack were arranged at headquarters, and that was for the explosion of the Petersburg mine; and, had those orders been obeyed, the town would have fallen. An anecdote will illustrate military custom in this respect. General Meade, during a movement near Petersburg, came on General Griffin, who, being asked how his brigades were disposed, replied that they were massed. ” Why are they massed ?” asked Meade, in a discontented voice. ” Shall I deploy them, sir ? ” said Griffin tartly. ” No, sir!” retorted
The question before us narrows itself, therefore, to this form. Did the corps and division commanders judiciously conduct the preparatory reconnoissance and the final advance ?
It is to be noticed that most of the critics of this and of similar fights assert that the vulnerable points should first have been ascertained by careful reconnoissance, and that choice troops should then have been massed against these to insure their capture. Such writers have in their minds the standard military books, which treat of grand strategy among the naked hills of Spain, or on the wheat-fields of the Palatinate when ” Brown Bess ” reigned, who was not dangerous beyond a hundred yards. There a general, standing in some church steeple within a quarter of a mile of the enemy’s skirmishers, could speedily define the entire hostile position and issue orders for immediate battle. Let us in contrast recall a corresponding situation towards the end of the rebellion. Three years of warfare, constant and severe, had made the soldiers expert in hiding and covering themselves. These were their first ideas at every halt; — to protect their lives by a parapet, and to place that parapet in the edge of a wood, where it would be hidden and would yet command a wide field of fire. In front were the intrenched pickets, not as mere videttes, but strictly as a fighting line, with good supports, and perhaps a grand guard, in the rear. Behind the main line and concealed with equal care were the field batteries.
In approaching an army thus posted, what can be seen? The answer is in one word, — nothing! Perhaps an active signal officer has climbed a tall tree, and can thence descry a rod or two of fresh earth that indicates a breastwork, or a drooping battle flag, or some gray staff officer who gallops across an opening. Such are the meagre signs that invite a reconnoissance. As the infantry deploys and the skirmishers
push out, the stillness is occasionally broken by the scream of a passing shell, followed immediately by the distant sullen report of the gun that threw it. A neighboring battery captain immediately trains a piece on the little puff of smoke, and tries to silence his opponent. Presently in the dense woods, far in front, are heard two or three musket shots, the signal for a violent spattering fire. The skirmishers have struck the intrenched picket line. And now begins the serious and tedious task of getting back this force, and determining the position and nature of the main intrenchments. To effect this sometimes requires the advance of a line of battle; and, even when a part of the pickets are forced back, a brigade may come out and recover the lost ground. Many weary hours are usually occupied in this desultory, but destructive, fighting, and, at the end of that time, the result along a front of several miles is in no sense uniform. In some places the hostile pickets may be well crowded back, while in others, covered by natural obstacles and strongly defended, the attacking troops may be still far off.
Meantime, the enemy’s general has leisure to strengthen and reenforce the most exposed parts of his front. These parts, although best prepared to resist an assault, are precisely those most likely to be assaulted, because they are the only ones which have been determined by reconnoissance. And now, even with the best haste, much time must be occupied in bringing up the troops and forming them for attack ; for the woods are imperfectly known, the roads mere cartpaths, and the advancing columns are exposed to heavy artillery fire. Thus it happens that, when a charge is finally made, the enemy is found in two well-manned lines of breastworks, with intrenched batteries in the rear and perhaps a slashing in front.
The whole of such a complex and protracted military operation is well summed up in a single phrase of General Meade, spoken two days after the fight at Cold Harbor:
The foregoing review shows that it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible even, to determine how well the corps and division commanders pushed their reconnoissances and formed their troops for the final attack. At the very end of the war commanders did not agree among themselves as to the best formation for storming works. Some approved the old classical column; others favored successive parallel lines of battle; and there were not wanting those who believed in a series of strong skirmish lines. All we know certainly about Cold Harbor is that the work of getting the troops into position was accompanied by severe fighting, and that the final assault was delivered punctually and with great bravery.
The morning of the next day found the army thus disposed. The refused right, swinging to the northeast beyond Bethesda Church, was held by the 9th Corps. Then followed the 5th Corps, trending east of south to a point about half a mile northwest of Woody’s house. Here a former gap was filled by Birney’s Division of the 2d Corps; and then followed the 18th Corps, which ended at a point about a quarter of a mile west of Woody’s ; whence the 6th Corps continued to a point about half a mile west of Cold Harbor and joined the 2d Corps which trended east of south and rested its left (Barlow’s Division) on the head of the Elder Swamp. During this day (4th of June) changes were made in the disposition. Birney was taken out of the gap and sent back to his own corps. The 5th Corps changed places with the 9th, which filled the space from the right of the 18th Corps to Bethesda Church.
The order of the enemy’s troops, from his left to his right, was as follows : Heth’s Division of Hill’s Corps ; Ewell’s Corps, under Early; Longstreet’s Corps, under Anderson ; Hoke’s Division ; the two other divisions of Hill’s Corps, and Breckinridge’s Division.
At 9.30 A. M. General Meade left his headquarters in the dusty field of the Leary house and rode out to visit his corps commanders. After a short consultation with General Wright, who was at the Kelly house, he proceeded to General Hancock, whose tents, pitched in front of Cold Harbor, were enlivened by a battery in close proximity, which was firing furiously. Before noon the commander had got as far as General Baldy Smith, who was camped between the Woody house and the line of battle. His tent was much better than that of General Meade, for whose benefit he displayed a lunch with champagne and other luxuries which astonished us. Whether it was the lunch, or deep military problems, I know not, but General Meade remained there smoking for what seemed to me an unnecessarily long time. I say unnecessarily, first, because it was several hours; and secondly, because a round shot would every now and then crash through the neighboring trees or go hopity-hop along the open field on the edge of which we were. The Prince de Joinville has written a passage laudatory of round shot, referring to them probably when proceeding from him and towards the foe. Doubtless they are a useful missile as compared with a conical shell, which perhaps vaults once into the air with a noise like Catherine’s wheel, topples over and over, and drops without further trouble; whereas the cannon ball passes with a whish, hits the ground, makes a great hop, and then goes skip, skip, skip, till it becomes exhausted and tumbles flouf! raising a puff of sand.
The cannon balls had no depressing effect on the council. Not so the presence of General Burnside, who at 3.30 came to arrange the junction of his left with the right of the 18th Corps. On his arrival Generals Smith and Brooks suddenly congealed into military icicles, the result of an extreme coldness which dated from the battle of Fredericksburg. Tactical arrangements were then greatly expedited, and our horses’ heads were soon turned towards the undesirable Leary field.
The 9th Corps was free to move thus, because the enemy had swung back from its front, a movement prompted in part, no doubt, by Wilson’s Division of cavalry, which, returning last night from its bridge-burning expedition, came down from the direction of Hawes’s Shop and suddenly charged the Rebel rear, causing a great tumult and capturing some prisoners. General Sheridan, with the two remaining cavalry divisions, moved this evening to the Pamunkey River, in the rear of our right.
On the afternoon of the 2d of June there had been a deluge of rain, but by the 5th the sandy soil had dried again, and the dust clouds resumed the sway they were destined to maintain for the next 47 days, during which not another drop of rain fell.
At 3 o’clock General Meade sent for me, and said, as if asking for a piece of bread and butter, ” Lyman, I want you to take this letter from General Grant, and carry it by flag of truce to the enemy’s lines. General Hancock will tell you where you can get it out.” I recollect he was lying on his cot at the time with his riding-boots cocked up on the footboard. My ideas on flags of truce were chiefly mediaeval, and were associated with a herald wearing a tabard. However, I received the order as if my employment had been that from early youth, and proceeded at once to array myself in “store clothes,” sash, white gloves, and all other possible finery. After searching in vain for a bugler who could blow ” a parley,” I set forth with only a personable and well-dressed cavalry sergeant, and found the gallant Hancock reposing on his cot. ” Well, Colonel,” says Hancock, ” now you can’t carry it out on my front; it’s too hot there. Your best way is to go to the left, where there are only pickets, and the officers there will get it out.” So the ever-laborious Major Mitchell was summoned and told to provide some whiskey for the Rebs, and a flag. The last was a great point. There seemed nothing white about, except the General’s shirt. However, his eccen-
tric servant, the volatile Shaw, at last found a pillow-case, which, when ripped up and tacked on a staff, was an admirable object. Then we made our way towards the left, and found General Birney’s men moving in that direction, who furnished us information about the road and a guide, Colonel Hapgood, of the 5th New Hampshire, corps officer of the day. He was ornamented with a bullet hole through his hat, another through the trousers, and a third on his sword scabbard. We rode forward till we struck the breastwork at Miles’s headquarters. It was a curious sight, something like an Indian family camped half underground. Here was the breastwork, behind which were dug a number of little cellars about two feet deep, and over these were pitched some small tents. And there you could see the officers sitting, with only their heads above ground, writing, or perhaps reading, for it was a quiet time and there were no bullets or shells. We followed the line to its end, near by, and then rode through the pine woods a little way. Here Colonel Hamyl remarked in a ghostly voice: ” Do you know where you are going ? There have been two field officers killed just here.” To whom Colonel Hapgood, with injured pride: ” Yes, sir ! I do know where I am going. There ‘s some bullets comes through here, but none to hurt.” Without definitely settling what precise minimum of balls was ” none to hurt” we continued on. Presently the cautious Hapgood pulled up and peered round, and I could see an open field through the trees, and another taller wood beyond. ” Now,” said the New Hampshire patriot, ” those tallest trees are full of their sharp-shooters. If we strike into the field fifty yards above here, they will fire, but just below they can’t see.” So we followed on, and, as soon as we were in the open field, started on a gallop and got into another wood. There was here a road, which passed a mill-pond about a quarter of a mile away. This road was held by our pickets for a hundred yards or so from us, and then came those of the enemy. The Colonel said he knew a good
place to approach, and went forward to call some of them. After a great deal of delay the lieutenant on our side got one of them to send for an officer, and then word was sent down each line to cease firing in that command, as a flag of truce was going in. Then we left our horses and went forward, the sergeant carrying the flag. As we turned a corner close by, we came almost upon their party standing some paces off. It looked exactly like a scene in an opera; there was never anything that so resembled something got up for stage effect. The sun was setting, and in the heavy oak woods the light had already begun to fade. On the road stood a couple of Rebel officers, each in his gray overcoat, and just behind were grouped some twenty soldiers, the most gypsy-looking fellows imaginable, in their blue-gray jackets and slouched hats, each with his rusty musket and well-filled cartridge-box. I walked up in all stateliness (fully aware, however, that white cotton gloves injured the ensemble), and was introduced to Major Wooten of the 14th North Carolina Sharp-shooters, belonging to A. P. Hill’s Corps. He was a well-looking man with quiet and pleasing manners; and to see us all together one would suppose we had met to go out shooting, or something of that kind. I am free to confess that the bearing of the few Rebel officers I met during the war was superior to the average of our own. They had a slight reserve and an absence of flippancy — on the whole an earnestness of manner which was very becoming to them. They got this partly, perhaps, from the great hardships they suffered, and from a sense of their ruin if their cause failed.
Major Wooten said he would ascertain if the despatch could be received, and soon got notice that it would, if in proper form. So it was sent in, an answer was promised in a couple of hours, and we all sat down on the grass to wait, — or rather on the leaves, for this sandy soil produces no grass to speak of. As I had time to look about, and still more to sniff about, I became aware that the spot was not so charming as it looked.
There had been a heavy cavalry skirmish in the woods, and they were full of dead horses, which, as evening closed, became, as Agassiz would have said, ” highly offensive.” It was positively frightful! And there I waited till 11 o’clock at night. As to the pickets, they were determined also to have a truce, for, when a Reb officer went down the line to give some order, he returned quite aghast and said the two lines were together amiably conversing. He ordered both to their posts, but I doubt if they stayed. At half-past eight we had quite a disagreeable experience. There suddenly was heard a shot or two towards our left centre ; then quite a volley ; and then whir-r-r-r-r, the musketry came running down right towards us, as one regiment after another took it up. The next thing I expected was that both sides just near us would take a panic and begin blazing away. The officers sprung to their feet and ran down the lines again to caution the men. So nobody fired, and there we sat and listened to the volleys and the cannonading that opened very heavily, and the singing of the distant shells. It was an attack by the enemy on the 2d Corps, and was repulsed with probably much waste of ammunition, as is usual in night fighting; but with the stillness just preceding, it sounded like a great battle. About 11 came a lieutenant with a note from a superior officer, saying that ” General Grant’s aide-de-camp need not be delayed further,” but that an answer would be sent out at the same point which could be received by the picket officer.(1) So we shook hands with the Rebs, and retreated from the unsavory position. As we rode back, we met General Mott’s people of the 2d Corps moving into position to extend our left. This was another picturesque scene. There are few things more striking than a column of infantry by moonlight, with their mounted officers here and there. Nobody has any individuality, for you cannot see faces, — only masses of shadowy outlines, and the gleaming of the musket barrels. It looks like a great procession of the dead, who have fallen in the
(1) See Vol. 4, M. H. M., p. 458.
war and have risen to their old occupation. On my arrival at camp the General greeted me with: ” Hallo, Lyman, I thought the Rebs had gobbled you up during that attack.” No armistice resulted from this flag till two days afterwards, when one was arranged from 6 to 8 p. M. of June 7th. It was very acceptable for burying the dead, but the wounded were mostly dead too by this time, having lain there since the 3d. There were probably not many of them, for our men made extraordinary exertions by night to get in their comrades, and those who were not thus reached usually had their sufferings shortened by some stray ball among the showers that continually passed between the works. Some extraordinary scenes occurred during the armistice. Round one grave, where ten men were laid, there was a great crowd of both sides. The Rebels were anxious to know who would be next President. ” Wall,” said one of our men, ” I’m in favor of Old Abe.” “He’s a damned abolitionist,” promptly exclaimed a gray-back. Upon which our man hit his adversary between the eyes, and a general fisticuff ensued, only stopped by the officers rushing in.
The 6th of June was occupied in extending our left and drawing in our right. Birney stretched to the southward till he approached Barker’s mill-pond; while the 5th Corps, on the extreme right, was withdrawn and massed in the rear of Leary’s house; after which the 9th Corps swung back and occupied a refused flank from near Bosher’s house to Allen’s mill-pond. This change, while it brought the left wing near the Chickahominy, gave us a corps with a free foot. Two of its divisions, Griffin’s and Cutler’s, were sent next day to still further extend our left to Despatch Station, which is on the railroad to White House and not far from Bottom’s Bridge. On this day (the 7th) General Sheridan, with two cavalry divisions, crossed the Pamunkey near Newcastle and cut westward across the country, intending to destroy the railroad and to endeavor to join Hunter in the Valley via Charlottesville.
General Meade spent a part of the 8th of June in inspecting the position of the 9th Corps and of Wilson’s Cavalry, which last lay near Ruffin’s house, not far from the Pamunkey. As he was consulting with General Warren at the Leary house, there passed a singular pageant; — a trumpeter, followed by the provost marshal’s flag, followed again by a guard, in whose midst rode a civilian sandwiched between two placards, “Libeller of the Press.” This man was a correspondent of the Philadelphia Enquirer. He stated in one of his letters that the army would have fallen back across the Rapidan after the Wilderness fight, had Grant not withstood the advice of one of his high officers. He confessed he meant thereby Meade, and had nothing to bring but rumor to prove this gross falsehood. Thereat the General, thinking such a statement calculated to shake the confidence of his soldiers in him, ordered the correspondent to be thus publicly exhibited and then to be put beyond the lines.
Having satisfied himself about the position of his right and rear, General Meade the next day (9th) examined his centre and left, that he might be well prepared for the grand movement presently to be made. He first halted at General Hancock’s new headquarters, for that officer had been driven out of his former place, where his provost-marshal had been killed by a shell. There was no serious amount of military talk between the two commanders, who were chiefly occupied in rallying each other about a sword which was to be raffled for in Philadelphia, and for which they were the chief candidates. At last General Meade said he would give up all claim to the sword, if Hancock would get his cook to make him a batch of the fresh bread for which he was noted. He then rode off in a southerly direction, and passed Birney’s Division, now in position with its right resting near Barker’s mill-pond where the flag of truce had gone out. Thence the line ran southeast nearly straight to a point in front of Despatch Station. Here was the classic ground of the Chickahominy
swamps, so destructive to the health of McClellan’s army. From near the mill-pond I could look across the heavy growth of trees that marked the course of the stream and see the Dudley house, a mile to the west of which was the Trent house where McClellan had his headquarters. Not far from the mill-pond the land becomes very flat; indeed, Sumner’s old headquarters, now occupied by Griffin, were in a house situated in a dry bog. Further on we came to some woods with undulating ground, passed St. James’s, — a church like a secondrate country schoolhouse, — and struck the railroad. Before getting to it, however, we saw from an open rise the Rebel works on the other side with a battle-flag on them. Some of these were garrisoned by a battalion of Richmond government clerks, who amused our veterans by their continuous and nervous firing. The rising ground just by Despatch Station gave a fair view across an open bog and so over the railroad bridge and for some distance along the track on the opposite side, dotted with knots of the enemy’s infantry standing here and there. I had hoped to see the railroad monitor, but it had retired. It was a car carrying a heavy rifled gun which threw a peculiar conical shell. This shell had a base-cup of copper to take the rifling, held by a single central screw, and furnished with radiating shoulders to keep it from twisting on the base of the shot. The gun could only traverse a small angle, for fear of kicking the machine off the track, so that the few shots fired from it were calculated rather to excite curiosity than to inspire dread.
The 10th of June completed the week that the army had lain in trenches since the battle. It was high time the troops were relieved; for the sufferings of those in the advanced lines were well-nigh intolerable. There were actually some miles of breastworks where the men were obliged to keep under cover day in and day out. They constructed all sorts of bomb-proofs and traverses; and still many were hit. Some even were shot vertically in the top of the head, by bullets
As some small compensation, there was one thing for which we had reason to bless the Rebels. They had ordered all people to store plenty of ice the last winter for their sick and wounded, and now our army was reaping the benefit. Not a decent house but had also a large ice-house. It was usually about three inches thick and of poor quality, but still it was ice. One man had snow as they do at Naples, — travelled man, possibly.
On the morning of June 11 General Warren with his two divisions, hitherto in reserve near Leary’s house, marched to the left and massed near the Moody house, lying east of Despatch Station and on the road to Long’s Bridge. Meantime the engineers were laying out a short interior line which could be occupied by two corps while the rest of the army moved by the left. Upon this there of course ensued plenty of bickering between Majors Duane and Michler on one side and Generals Hancock and Wright on the other; the latter insisting that those engineers had laid out their intrenchments in a most exposed manner, while the former maintained that the line was quite a gem of fortification.
The next afternoon at three o’clock Generals Grant and Meade, after a stay of nine days in Leary’s sand-field, broke camp and rode via Despatch Station to Moody’s house, where they arrived at five. The staffs and escorts made so long a cavalcade that it is surprising the enemy’s batteries opposite Savage’s did not open on us. Moody’s was a little house, as it were on skids, like a corn-barn ; and with several pleasant catalpa trees about it. General Warren was just striking his tents, to move on. We would fain camp on a flat near by. It was cool and damp, and they built a fire, in front of which General Grant accommodated himself on a board, with a bag under his head, and went to sleep. The wagons were not up till 10 o’clock, because they undertook to cross a sort of mill
dam and some tumbled into the pond. Among them was the wagon of Adjutant General Seth Williams, who, to his extreme disgust, found his files of ” respectfully forwarded ” documents in a sopping condition.
Meanwhile the 5th Corps, preceded by Wilson’s Cavalry, was pushing on towards Long’s Bridge, and at 11 p. M. came news that the passage had been forced and the pontoons were going down. At dark the 2d and 6th Corps retired to the inner line, and covered the withdrawal of the 18th and 9th Corps, of which the former marched to White House and there embarked for City Point. During the night the 6th Corps, followed by the 9th, marched to Jones’s Bridge, via Allen’s Mill. In the order, the 9th was to have gone first, but by some error the positions were reversed. The 2d Corps moved on Long’s Bridge, and thus the whole army at last turned its back on the weary trenches of Cold Harbor.
The next morning (13th) headquarters moved at 5.30 A. M., and, making a cut across the woods, we soon came on Barlow’s Division of the 2d Corps going rapidly towards the river close to which we found General Hancock sitting on the grass. He was pouring water from a canteen on the wound inside his thigh, which he received at Gettysburg, and which now had reopened, giving him much trouble.
At this point the Chickahominy is nothing of a stream. Three or four pontoons suffice to bridge it. But when it inundates the bottom lands on either side it may be 1000 yards wide, more or less, according to the extent of the bottoms, the water being just deep enough to stop wagons. From this McClellan had great trouble, none of which we experienced. It is a characteristic river. A drawing of this very scene at Long’s Bridge might pass as the incarnation of malaria and swamp-fever. Fancy a wide ditch, partly choked with rotten logs, and full of brown, tepid, sickly-looking water, whose slow current would scarcely carry a straw along. From the banks of dark mould rises a black and luxuriant vegetation.
Cypresses of immense size with their pyramidal butts, willowoaks, and swamp magnolias remind you that you are within the limits of a sub-tropical climate, as does the unhealthy and peculiar smell of decaying leaves and stagnant water. A great contrast to this landscape, so suggestive of silence and loneliness, was the rumbling and clatter of Barlow’s batteries, as they passed over the resounding pontoon bridge. We clattered over too, as soon as the last of the regiments was across, and followed along the flank of the column, admiring its excellent marching, — a result due in part to the good spirit of the men, and in part to the terror in which stragglers stood of General Barlow. His provost guard was a study. They followed the column with their bayonets fixed, and drove up loiterers with small ceremony. Of course their tempers did not improve with heat and hard marching. There was one thin hard-featured fellow, who was a perfect scourge. ” Blank you! You [here insert any profane and extremely abusive expression, varied to suit the peculiar case] get up, will you? By blank, I’ll kill you, if you don’t go on double quick! ” And he looked so much like carrying out his threat that the hitherto utterly prostrate party would skip like the young lamb. Occasionally you would see a fellow awaiting the charge with an air of calm superiority, and, when the guard approached, pull out the aegis of a “surgeon’s pass.” The column marched so fast that I was sent forward to tell General Barlow to go more slowly. I found that eccentric officer divested of his coat, and seated in a cherry-tree. ” By Jove! ” said a voice among the branches, ” I knew I shouldn’t be here long before Meade’s staff would be up. How do you do, Theodore ? Won’t you come up and take a few cherries?”
At 3.30 we arrived at the Clark house, where General Meade ordered me to ride on and see what sort of a position there was and how the land lay. It was about 4 o’clock that I caught the first sight of the James River as I cantered round the corner of a little grove. To appreciate such a spectacle,
you must pass five weeks in an almost unbroken wilderness, with no sights but weary, dusty troops, endless wagon-trains, convoys of poor wounded men, and hot, uncomfortable camps. Here was a noble river, a mile wide, with high green banks, studded with large plantation houses. In the distance, opposite, was Fort Powhatan, below which lay two steamers; and, what seemed strangest of all, not a Rebel soldier to be seen anywhere ! The river at this point may be called an estuary; for though the water is fresh, it has a tide of three or four feet. Its waters, like those of most streams near their mouth, are yellowish, but the current is rapid at the narrower parts, where the tide makes and falls. The point where I stood was Wilcox’s Wharf, a narrow jetty, partly destroyed, which once had served as a landing-place. There was a signal officer waving away with his flag to attract the attention of the steamers, and to notify all concerned that the head of the Army of the Potomac had struck the James.
We went to a field by the Tyler house for our camp, the birthplace of John Tyler, — him of the big nose and small political principles, — once Vice-President with ” Tippy-canoe and Tyler too.” What was more to the purpose, I got some green peas there, a great coup, also some milk; though, as the negroes said, ” Them dar infants had the most of it,” meaning thereby, infantry.
The 2d Corps was all up by evening, Gibbon’s people being just behind our headquarters. As no enemy was near, the tired men were told they need not intrench, but, behold, next morning there was a handsome breastwork across the estate of the late Tyler. The infantry thought that a rifle-pit was, as General Williams used to say, ” a good thing to have in a family where there are small children.”
During the night the 6th Corps all crossed at Jones’s Bridge. The division of Crawford of the 5th Corps had a brisk skirmish with the enemy, who came down to see what we were about, drove in the cavalry, ran into the infantry, and got
It was a busy night on the river; messages going to City Point and Fortress Monroe, and gunboats and ferry-boats coming up as fast as possible to the neighborhood of Charles City.
At daylight on the 14th of June the 9th Corps crossed the Chickahominy at Jones’s Bridge and marched towards the James. The 5th Corps was brought in to the neighborhood of Charles City Court House, while Wilson’s Cavalry Division remained in observation towards Malvern Hill, where Lee’s army was intrenching. About noon General Meade rode down to Wilcox’s WJharf to watch the operation of ferrying over the 3d Division of the 2d Corps to Windmill Point, a novel and very pretty spectacle. The wharf had been repaired, and two boats coming up at a time were rapidly loaded, the men marching on board by fours. On the opposite side the shore was ornamented with hundreds of happy Doughboys bathing on the beach.
Meantime the laying of the great pontoon bridge across the narrows opposite Douthart’s house was going on with extraordinary energy. The approach to it lay along the river border under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for it had been covered a day or two previous with great cypresses, some of them three feet and a half in diameter; and these had to be cut close to the ground and the debris carefully cleared away. In a portion of the road, too, was a muddy swamp, which required a causeway of laborious construction. The bridge itself, composed of ninety-two boats, was thirteen feet wide and over two thousand feet long. It was braced by three schooners anchored in eighty-five feet of water, near the centre. The whole was laid in ten hours, and was finished at midnight. What added to the strangeness of the scene was the ci-devant Rebel iron-clad Atlanta, lying there like a big
mud-turtle with only its back exposed. The group was completed by two or three gunboats and several steamers anchored hard by. The construction of this bridge and its approaches was, without question, one of the engineering feats of the war, the chief credit of which belongs to General Weitzel. Over it passed more than half the infantry of the army, 4000 cavalry, a train of wagons and artillery, thirty-five miles long, and 3500 beef cattle ; all of which was chiefly accomplished within the space of forty-eight hours.
In the afternoon, and before the bridge was closed, General Smith’s transports, crowded with infantry, steamed up the river on their way to City Point. And thus the entire army was preparing to enter on the next grand scene, the investment of Petersburg.
The ten days, whose operations have thus briefly been described, were occupied in preparations for, and the execution of, a very difficult change of base. The problem was to move more than 100,000 men, lying in close contact with an active and vigilant enemy, across the front of that enemy and round his flank; — a problem rendered doubly difficult by the necessity of traversing two rivers, and by the incumbrance of enormous wagon-trains, whose motion, always slow, was retarded by roads the best of which scarcely ranked with a wretched lane.
General Lee would have broken fiercely out of his intrenchments and would not have permitted this withdrawal, had he been the Lee of Chancellorsville; but he was not. With the presage of a wise man, he knew even then, that his life’s blood was wasting and that the end, though distant, was sure. Nevertheless, he at no time handled his troops so well as in the last year of the war, when his attitude was defensive, and when even his offensive-defensive attacks were few and weak. We have the testimony of his officers that once only in a fit of desperation did he plan a general attack. This was when our army was astride the North Anna, where he might have thrown nearly his whole force on either wing.
If General Grant erred in his battle at Cold Harbor, he corrected his error in the brilliant operation of transferring the army to the south bank of the James; and General Meade, the immediate commander of that army, deserves the highest praise for his admirable execution of the order.
- Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 1-24 ↩