Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Brigadier General George G. Meade to Margaretta Sergeant Meade, December 21, 1861

CAMP PIERPONT, VA., December 21, 1861.

It has been several days since I last wrote to you, owing to occupation, principally drilling my command and yesterday going on a foraging expedition.1 Of this last you are advised by this time through the public press, as what with the telegraph and the night train, it is actually a fact that at 11 A. M. to-day I read in the Philadelphia papers of this date an authentic account of the affair, furnished by McCall, before I had an opportunity of getting information either from Ord2 or McCall. I do not know whether you will be disappointed in not seeing my name in connection with the affair, but this is the fortune of war. Reynolds and myself were allowed to secure our plunder undisturbed, but after permitting two expeditions, the enemy made preparations to capture the third, which was Ord's. He left early in the morning with his brigade, and Reynolds followed to support him, and it was intended that I should remain in camp for the day. About 10 o'clock, however, McCall received information from Ord, who was advancing, that he had reason to believe the enemy were going to dispute his advance. McCall immediately went out to join him, leaving word with me to get my command under arms and be ready to move at a moment's notice. About 1 P. M., hearing heavy firing, without waiting for orders, I started with the brigade and reached the scene, distant eleven miles, by 4 o'clock, only to learn that it was all over, and that I might march back to camp, which we did, arriving here about half-past 8, pretty well tired out. It appears they had four regiments and a battery of artillery. Ord had a battery and five regiments. They had the choice of ground and opened the attack. Their artillery was miserably served and did us no damage. Ours, on the contrary, under Ord's directions, was very well served and did great execution — so much so that, after throwing them into confusion, our men charged, and they fled in all directions, leaving their dead and wounded and lots of baggage on the ground, giving us a complete and brilliant success. I have just seen General Ord, and I asked him how the men behaved. He replied, better than he expected, but not so well as they ought; that there was much shirking and running away on the part of both officers and men. Still, he persuaded two regiments to maintain their ground and finally to charge. These were the Kane Rifles (Charley Biddle's regiment) and the Ninth, a very good regiment commanded by a Colonel Jackson. One regiment he could do nothing with — (but this, as well as all that precedes, is entre nous). The fact that the enemy were routed, leaving killed, wounded, baggage, etc., on the ground, will always be held up to show how gallantly the volunteers can and did behave, and the world will never know that it was the judicious posting and serving of the battery by Ord (himself an artillery officer) which demoralized and threw into confusion the enemy, and prepared them to run the moment our people showed a bold front, which it required all Ord's efforts and some time to get them to do. Ord says if they had charged when he first ordered them, he would have captured the whole battery and lots of prisoners. You will see therefore that the result proves the justness of my prediction. Owing to the success of our artillery, the men were gotten up to the charging point. Had the artillery of the enemy been served as ours was, and committed the same devastation, he could not have kept his command together five minutes. In other words, it is success in the beginning of an action which keeps volunteers together, and disaster or being checked is sure to throw them into confusion or cause them to run.

Among the wounded was an officer, and from his person was taken a letter which was evidently written by a person of intelligence and position. It speaks of their fortifications at Centreville, says they are prepared for McClellan's attack, that whilst they know an attack from him would be a military faux pas and cannot but result disastrously, yet their hopes are based upon the knowledge of the pressure that is being brought to bear on him by the people of the North, who are ignorant of war and deluded with an overweening sense of their own power and a blind contempt for their enemy. This letter has been sent to McClellan. We have heard nothing from them since our return.

1 Engagement, Dranesville, Va., December 20, 1861. Federal loss, killed, wounded, and missing, 68 (O. R.).

2 Brigadier-General Edward O. C. Ord, commanding 3d Brg. Pa. Reserves.

SOURCE: George Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 1, p. 236-8

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