This book contains the letters written by Major General George G. Meade’s volunteer aide, Theodore Lyman, from the time he joined Meade’s staff to the end of April, 1865. You can download and read the book here.
The book has since been republished as With Grant & Meade From the Wilderness to Appomattox with an introduction by Brooks Simpson.
This is an important primary source document for the Army of the Potomac in the Mine Run, Overland, and Appomattox campaigns. The letters are contemporaneous accounts of what Lyman saw and heard. The editor, George Agassiz, also included some excerpts from Lyman’s journal, another contemporaneous source.
In reading this book, we find a number of items that we’ve seen elsewhere. Lyman, for example, is the source of the description of George A. Custer as “looks like a circus rider gone mad.” [p. 17] We also see some poignant observations. such as this one: “Yesterday there was a poor farmer, that filled me with admiration. He had travelled a thousand miles from his place in Indiana to get the body of his only son, killed in our cavalry skirmish of the 13th September. ‘I am most wore out,’ said he, ‘runnin’ round; but the ambulance has gone over to that piece of woods, after him. And that old hoss, that was his; the one he was sitting on, when he was shot; she ain’t worth more than fifty dollars, but I wouldn’t take a thousand for her, and I am going to take her home to Indiana.’ So you see that bullets fired here may hit poor folks away in the West.” [p. 28]
Another use of the account is for its descriptions of the officers around Lyman. For example, on February 22, 1864, Lyman wrote, “General Meade is in excellent spirits and cracks a great many jokes and tells stories. You can’t tell how different he is when he has no movement on his mind, for then he is like a firework, always going bang at someone, and nobody ever knows who is going to catch it next, but all stand in a semi-terrified state.” [p. 73] He has this to say regarding some politicians: “I find that politicians, like Sumner and company, have a way of saying of officers who have had their very clothes shot off their back and have everywhere displayed the utmost skill and courage, that ‘their hearts are not in the cause,’ or ‘they are not fully with us’; meaning that these officers do not happen to fully agree with every political dogma the party may choose to enunciate. I am of the opinion that the question is: Does such and such an officer fight bravely and with skill? Anyone who has been under fire will be ready to acknowledge that it is a pretty good place to test principles; and if a man goes into the thick of it time and again, I do not ask any better proof of his earnestness. However, it would appear that Washington people often think the best test of faithfulness is to stay away from the fighting and make a good many speeches to people who entirely agree with your sentiments.” [pp. 78-79] On seeing Ulysses S. Grant, Lyman wrote, “Grant is a man of a good deal of rough dignity; rather taciturn; quick and decided in speech. He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it. I have much confidence in him.” [p. 81] In June, he wrote of Grant, “he is the concentration of all that is American. He talks bad grammar, but he talks it naturally, as much as to say, ‘I was so brought up and, if I try fine phrases, I shall only appear silly.’ Then his writing, though very terse and well expressed, is full of horrible spelling. In fact, he has such an easy and straightforward way that you almost think that he must be right and you wrong, in these little matters of elegance.” [p. 156] In April of 1865, Lyman recorded these observations of Meade and Grant: “The plain truth about Meade is, first, that he is an abrupt, harsh man, even to his own officers, when in active campaign; and secondly, that he, as a rule, will not even speak to any person connected with the press. They do not dare to address him. With other generals, how different: at Grant’s Headquarters there is a fellow named Cadwalader, a Herald man, and you see the Lieutenant-General’s Staff officers calling, ‘Oh, Cad; come here a minute!’ That is the style! With two or three exceptions, Grant is surrounded by the most ordinary set of plebeians you ever saw. I think he has them on purpose (to avoid advice), for he is a man who does everything with a specific reason; he is eminently a wise man. He knows very well Meade’s precise capacity and strong points. For example, if Meade says a certain movement of troops should be made, Grant makes it, almost as a matter of course, because he is so wise as to know that there is one of Meade’s strong points.” [pp. 358-359]
Lyman observed tactics as well as people. “The great feature of this campaign is the extraordinary use made of earthworks. When we arrive on the ground, it takes of course a considerable time to put troops in position for attack, in a wooded country; then skirmishers must be thrown forward and an examination made for the point of attack, and to see if there be any impassable obstacles, such as streams or swamps. Meantime what does the enemy? Hastily forming a line of battle, they then collect rails from fences, stones, logs and all other materials, and pile them along the line; bayonets with a few picks and shovels, in the hands of men who work for their lives, soon suffice to cover this frame with earth and sods; and within one hour, there is a shelter against bullets, high enough to cover a man kneeling, and extending often for a mile or two. When our line advances, there is the line of the enemy, nothing showing but the bayonets, and the battle-flags stuck on the top of the work. It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good rifle-pit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first twenty-four hours. Our men can, and do, do the same; but remember, our object is offense–to advance. You would be amazed to see how this country is intersected with field-works, extending for miles and miles in different directions and marking the different strategic lines taken up by the two armies, as they warily move about each other.” [pp. 99-100]
Lyman possessed all the prejudices against African-Americans we find in the vast majority of Americans of this time period. On seeing Ferrero’s division of black soldiers, he wrote, “As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them!” [p. 102]
Lyman also gives us his thoughts on general qualifications of officers: “An aide should be a first-rate military man; and, at least, a man of more than average intelligence and education. It is very difficult, particularly in this kind of country, to deliver an order verbally, in a proper and intelligent way; then you must be able to report positions and relative directions, also roads, etc.; and in these matters you at once see how deficient some men are, and how others have a natural turn for them. To be a good officer requires a good man. Not one man in ten thousand is fit to command a brigade; he should be one who would be marked anywhere as a person (in that respect) of superior talent. Of good corps commanders I do not suppose there are ten in this country, after our three-years’ war. Of army commanders, two or three.” [p. 121]
Lyman is also one of our sources for the several different informal “truces” that cropped up between the two sides on the picket lines. “The other day General Crawford calmly went down, took out an opera-glass and began staring. Very quickly, a Reb was seen to write on a scrap of paper, roll it round a pebble and throw it over to our line. Thereon was writ this pithy bit of advice: ‘Tell the fellow with the spy-glass to clear out, or we shall have to shoot him.’ Near this same spot occurred a ludicrous thing, which is true, though one would not believe it if seen in a paper. A Reb, either from greenness or by accident, fired his musket, whereupon our people dropped in their holes and were on the point of opening along the whole line, when the Rebs waved their hands and cried: ‘Don’t shoot; you’ll see how we fix him!’ Then they took the musket from the unfortunate grey-back, put a rail on his shoulder, and made him walk up and down for a great while in front of their rifle-pits! If they get orders to open, they call out, ‘Get into your holes, Yanks, we are ordered to fire’; and their first shots are aimed high, as a sort of warning.” [pp. 181-182]
Anyone who wants to be a serious student of the war needs to have this book on their shelf and they need to read it. It’s really a terrific read and gives us an inside view of the Army of the Potomac.