Northern General George Meade knew the futility of massed charges of men against a strongly entrenched opponent, the latter was his position at Gettysburg versus Lee. Though Meade was characterized as “failed, maladroit and weak-willed,” his subordinates praised their superior’s courage in ordering withdrawals in the face of strong Southern positions. They were painfully aware that “Meade had only snap his fingers” and there would have been “ten thousand wretched, mangled creatures” lying on the valley slopes. By the end of 1863, “courage” to some had become the will to renounce the charge; Lincoln and the Radicals desired relentless assaults and mass-carnage.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Awful Sacrifices and Doomed Assaults
“Even before the assault at Cold Harbor, [Northern] soldiers entering their fourth year of war understood perfectly what the result would be. They knew that the Confederates had had thirty-six hours in which to prepare their positions and that by that stage of the war any attack under such circumstances was doomed.
Charles Wainwright thought it absurd that Grant should simply repeat here the order “which has been given at all such times on this campaign, viz: “to attack along the whole line.”
On the eve of battle, Union soldiers who had glimpsed some part of the Southern defenses or heard them described by the “news-gatherers” were, Wilkinson reported, depressed: “Some of the men were sad, some indifferent; some so tired of the strain on their nerves that they wished they were dead and their troubles over . . . and though they had resolved to do their best, there was no eagerness for the fray, and the impression among the intelligent soldiers was that the task cut out for them was more than men could accomplish.”
Indeed, numbers of soldiers wrote their names on small pieces of paper and pinned them to their coats, in a hope, signaling hopelessness, that their bodies would not go unidentified.
On June 15, 1864, when Grant’s army finally reached the James [River] at a cost of 60,000 casualties, a number equivalent to the size of Lee’s army at the outset of the campaign, the Union regular Augustus Meyers felt the “gloomy and depressing effect” of such “awful sacrifices without any advantages.”
When the Twenty-seventh Maine’s tour of duty was about to expire just prior to the battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the award of the Medal of Honor to each soldier who would reenlist. Three hundred agreed to remain on duty as “emergency troops,” but medals were issued in error to all 864 members of the regiment. The Twenty-seventh Maine had seen no battle before Gettysburg; its remnant played no role at Gettysburg.
Similarly, so many brevet (i.e., honorary) promotions were awarded, Augustus Meyers complained, that they “seemed to lose dignity” and became objects of ridicule. His friends in the ranks began to refer to mules as “brevet horses” and to camp followers as “brevet soldiers.” Such awards, moreover, seemed seldom to recognize battlefield bravery.
On November 28, Meade probed Lee’s position [at Mine Run] and prepared for a large-scale assault. Meanwhile, Federal rank and file had an opportunity to judge for themselves the strength of the defense. “All felt it would be madness to assault,” Robert Carter of the Twenty-second Massachusetts said. “I felt death in my very bones all day.” George Bicknell of the Fifth Maine wrote that there was not “a man in our command who did not realize his position. Not one who . . . did not see the letters [of] death before his vision . . . [N]ever before nor since had such a universal fate seemed to hang over a command.
[Meade] canceled the assault and on December 1 ordered his army back across the Rapidan, a retreat into winter quarters.”
(Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, Gerald F. Linderman, The Free Press, 1987, excerpts, pp. 161; 163-164)