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Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865

Edited by George R. Agassiz

The Army of the Potomac was a political black hole for many aspiring officers who crossed swords with the Lincoln administration or the Republican-controlled Congress. The wartime letters of Theodore Lyman published in Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865 reveal the intrigue that permeated the high command at a time of incredible public pressure to defeat Lee’s Confederate army. Lyman’s correspondence, moreover, brilliantly captures the politics of war without losing sight of the everyday struggles of the men in the ranks. As a result his letters about the Overland campaign, the Siege of Petersburg and the retreat to Appomattox stand as one of the most important accounts inscribed by a Union officer who served in Virginia.

Lyman came from a distinguished New England family, but he spent his early years in Europe, where he received exceptional training from tutors and at private academies. Growing up in this privileged world made Lyman something of an elitist who felt free to critique superior and subordinate alike in the army. Such an outlook makes his letters lively and entertaining to read. He made fun of Ulysses Grant, for instance, as the “concentration of all that is American. He talks bad grammar….Then his writing, though very terse and well expressed, is full of horrible spelling.”

In regard to the hero of Little Round Top, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, Lyman wrote: “Warren looks careworn. Some people say he is a selfish man, but he is certainly the most tender-hearted of our commanders. Almost all officers grow soon callous in the service; not unfeeling, only accustomed, and unaffected by the suffering they see. But Warren feels it a great deal, and that and the responsibility…all tend to make him haggard.”

Lyman spent his military service on Maj. Gen. George Meade’s staff during a time in which Meade found himself in an awkward working relationship with his boss, Grant. Meade remained at the helm of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant accompanied the army and exercised a great deal of control. The convoluted command structure frustrated Meade and often resulted in tactical disarray in battle. Lyman did not spare Grant for this difficult situation, and he sought any opportunity to commend Meade for functioning within that impossible command situation. “What I don’t understand is,” he wrote on August 24, 1864, “that the successes are Grant’s but the failures Meade’s. In reality the whole is Grant’s: he directs all, and his subordinates are only responsible as executive officers having more or less important functions.”

Grant’s operations during the summer of 1864 eviscerated Northern morale. Extraordinarily high Union casualties and the apparent invincibility of the Army of Northern Virginia were threatening to exhaust the Union war effort. After the Union debacle at the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, Lyman recalled a breakfast he had with Meade in which the general read out loud from a Northern paper that he was to be relieved of command. Meade, Lyman wrote, chuckled and said: “Oh, that’s bad: that’s very bad! I should have to go and live in that house in Philadelphia; ha! ha! ha!”

Democracies at war are often ugly and horribly inefficient, and to assuage the moods of their electorates, politicians frequently put great pressure on generals at the front. But as Lyman’s letters demonstrate, democracies also create soldiers and the officers who have faith in a system of government that permits those on the home front to criticize a war in which they are giving their lives.


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