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Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman

Edited by David W. Lowe, Kent State University Press, 2007, 518 pages, $45.

It is hard to imagine that the person- al diaries of a dear friend and aide- de-camp of Union General George Gordon Meade—diaries that detail the final two years of the Civil War from a front-row vantage point—have been readily accessible to the general public for so many years and yet never published. Fortunately, editor David W. Rowe has finally brought forth those records in an impressive new work, Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman. The notebooks, spanning from August 1863 to July 1865, are a revelation of primary materials about the inner workings and final campaigns of the Union Army of the Potomac. They are, as Charles Francis Adams Jr. astutely wrote in 1897, “the most valuable, as well as the most graphic, of all the inside views of the memorable Virginia campaigns of 1863, 1864, and 1865.”

Theodore Lyman was a member of the Boston aristocracy and a Harvard-trained natural scientist who was remarkably disciplined in recording detailed observations of the world around him. In 1856, while studying starfish in Florida, Lyman met and befriended then-Lieutenant George Meade, who was supervising the construction of lighthouses along the Florida coast. The meeting spawned a lifelong friendship that eventually led to Lyman’s joining Meade’s staff in late 1863, after Meade had gained attention as the Army of the Potomac commander at Gettysburg. Lyman had been in Europe during the first years of the war, but when his notions of duty got the better of him, he wrote Meade to request placement in the Army.

While serving, Lyman turned his perspicacious eye onto the people, places and events around him, recording entertaining anecdotes, vignettes of officers and detailed military movements supplemented by his own sketches of troop placements and fields of battle. There is, of course, much to be read about the personalities of Meade and Ulysses S. Grant, and their sometimes strained relationship, along with numerous other historical figures and the everyday life of an officer in the Army of the Potomac. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the journals is their immediacy, detailing battle plans, troop movements and military actions in nearly real-time reporting, though he could slip into hyperbole, such as when he referred to the Wilderness campaign as “a scientific bushwhack of 200,000 men!”

Lyman’s observations have been known and admired since the 1922 publication of his letters to his wife in Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Col. Theodore Lyman From the Wilderness to Appomattox (edited by George R. Agassiz). Lyman’s journals have been available in the Massachusetts Historical Society since then, and were even used by Agassiz to produce a supplement to the letters. But Lowe discovered and corrected that shameful omission, and also correctly points out that Lyman’s letters and journals should be read simultaneously to get the complete picture of his observations and experiences. Comparatively, Lyman’s letters to his wife are more colorful and narrative—more generally readable—than his journal, which he intended for his own benefit. His letters omit many of the grisly and disturbing details of battles and campaigning, while his journals are more matter-of-fact and visceral.

Lowe has done a remarkable job in delivering the first proper and scholarly editing of Lyman’s journals. Meade’s Army—both alone and as a companion to Lyman’s letters in Meade’s Headquarters—will be regarded as the most detailed and useful primary source about the Army of the Potomac ever published. It should be an essential addition to any buff’s bookshelf.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.