High-Ranking Skedaddle: a Previously Unidentified Sketch of Spotsylvania?

From Noel Harrison:

The following sketch appears among the many pictures recently added to the Library of Congress’ digital collections. The Library identifies the artist, Alfred R. Waud, the principal subject, Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George Meade, and the year, 1864, but neither the location nor the specific date. The sketch probably appears here for the first time in an interpretive venue:

A high-resolution version is here.

Waud’s handwritten caption reads:

Narrow escape of Genl Meade Some cavalry dashing out of the woods suddenly upon the genl & his attendants came very near cutting off Their retreat and making a capture of the party. Prominent near the genl., Col. Michler on a rough track or farm road that wound along the foot of a tree covered knoll out from which came the rebs to cut them off.

The caption strikes me as an almost certain match to a dramatic incident, mentioned in several period accounts, that occurred during fighting at Myer’s Hill on May 14, 1864—a component of the broader Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

On May 14, less than 48 hours after the end of the slugfest at the Bloody Angle, Meade and the commander of his Sixth Corps, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, ascended a farmstead-crowned feature. This was known as Myer’s Hill, among other designations. In a hard-fought action with Confederate cavalry and horse artillery, Union infantry had seized it earlier that day preparatory to a planned, two-corps assault (ultimately cancelled) against the Army of Northern Virginia’s right, or eastern, flank.

The Myer’s Hill area in context: detail from a Confederate map delineated prior to the Spotsylvania fighting of 1864 but after the Chancellorsville combats of 1863. Myer’s Hill appears as “Gayle” at lower-right edge, and the Ni River as a green line with a squiggle just above Gayle. The crossroads village of Spotsylvania Court House is at lower-right center; the future sites of the Mule Shoe and Bloody Angle fortifications arc around “McCoul” at lower-left center. While giving a fair idea of the relative positions of Myer’s Hill, the village, and the Bloody Angle, the map contains a number of distortions and omissions. Yet the Confederates perhaps still found it useful; the smudged, pencilled line and angle may represent their efforts to plan movements during the post-Bloody Angle period of the May 1864 battle, and/or plot enemy positions. Library of Congress.

The Southern cavalry, now accompanied by infantry, returned in what soon proved to be a converging attack that would recapture Myer’s Hill. Meade and Wright were among the first bluecoats to retreat, with Meade’s Chief Topographical Engineer, Capt. Nathaniel Michler, guiding them downslope towards a ford on the Ni River. A Confederate cavalry major drew especially close. Meade lost his spectacles in the rush.

Members of the Federal headquarters guard collared that close pursuer; Michler and the two commanders made it safely to the Union side of the Ni. Historian Gordon C. Rhea, in an endnote to his discussion of the Myer’s Hill action in To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee May 13-25, 1864, states that the Confederate major was probably Thomas E. Upshaw of the 13th Virginia Cavalry. If indeed true, there was an odd twist: Upshaw’s actions at Myer’s Hill left “some feeling” in his regiment that he had “allowed himself to be captured,” according to Daniel T. Balfour’s history of the 13th Virginia.

Meade’s men in still larger numbers reoccupied Myer’s Hill that evening. (It is today private property and situated outside the boundaries of the battlefield park.)

The Waud sketch is unique not only as a likely new addition to the portfolio of known, contemporary pictures of Spotsylvania but also as one of the few depictions of Meade during the extraordinary campaigning of May 1864. Meade was again “captured” for posterity in Spotsylvania County, during a more tranquil moment, one week after his Myer’s Hill adventure.

Noel G. Harrison

2 thoughts on “High-Ranking Skedaddle: a Previously Unidentified Sketch of Spotsylvania?

  1. “It was thus: Gen. Meade on getting to the Myer’s house, found Upton’s pickets but a few yards out and ordered them at once advanced. This discovering the enemy, close at hand, who charged and drove off our people. Gen. Meade had to gallop for it, and, not being familiar with the paths came quite near enough being cut off! The place was untenable from our artillery fire, and Ayres retook it at 6.15, without trouble.” Entry, May 14, 1864, Theodore Lyman, Meade’s Army.

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