“The Siege of Petersburg, the Overland Campaign, and the Pleasures of Washington, D.C.” – as told from Inside Soldier’s Rest, Alexandria, VA

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

By 1864, the United States had been ravaged by three years of catastrophic civil war. In March of that year, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as his overall commanding general, convinced he had finally found a military leader willing and able to crush the struggling Confederacy. Grant took immediate control and began to consolidate his power and authority. The shrewd general considered the president’s mandate to be unmistakable – he was meant to completely crush the enemy through a multiple series of coordinated offensives, bringing a final end to the detested war.

In the spring of 1864, Grant set out to tighten his stranglehold on Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. In May, the Army of the Potomac began its ambitious Overland Campaign, a series of strategic battles fought in Virginia with names that are now seared into the collective memory as the killing fields of a brutal and unforgiving war: Wilderness; Spotsylvania Courthouse; North Ana; and the bloodiest one of all, Cold Harbor. Grant threw everything he had at the Confederate Army. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, but the deadly campaign was considered a strategic success for the Union forces because the South was no longer able to replenish their increasingly depleted resources.

These battles led directly to the Siege of Petersburg, a nine month campaign of vicious trench warfare that began in June 1864. The city provided a crucial supply line to both Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and to the Confederate capital of Richmond, boasting a junction of five railroads and access to the James River. By summer, Petersburg had become a city of refugees, its citizens struggling to survive while Grant slowly but surely tightened his stranglehold. It had worked at Vicksburg, and he knew it would work here as well – he intended to starve Petersburg and force its unconditional surrender.

“March to the Sea”

In September of 1864 Gen. William T. Sherman initiated his pivotal Atlanta Campaign, and by November he had destroyed nearly half of the city after evacuating its residents. After achieving his goal, he departed with his troops to capture Savannah, GA, leaving behind a swath of destruction during his now infamous “March to the Sea.”

The final battles were about to be fought. Grant would ultimately force Lee to retreat from Petersburg on April 2, 1865, and Richmond would fall the next day. Lee officially surrendered his Army of N. Virginia on April 9, 1865 in the parlor of the home belonging to Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Courthouse, formally ending the Civil War.

When John H. Mathews arrived at Soldiers Rest in Alexandria, VA, in May of 1864, Grant’s Spring offensive was just getting underway. Assigned to Company “B” of the Veterans Reserve Corps, he had finally recovered from the wounds received ten months earlier during the Siege of Vicksburg. He was pulling light guard duty, and during his time off he would often venture into Washington, D.C. The  four letters presented here portray a man anxiously waiting for his next assignment. 

–Clifford B. Davids

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Soldier's Rest, Alexandria, Virginia. U.S. Military RR Roundhouse upper left; Union Barracks in foreground

Soldier’s Rest, Alexandria, Virginia–U.S. Military Railroad Roundhouse upper left; Union Barracks in foreground

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Soldiers Rest, Alexandria, Virginia

May 2nd /1864

Brother Watson

I received yours of the 23rd of last month in six days. I had just got ready to go to Washington when I got it and read it with the deepest interest while going over on the boat. I took over the monthly reports of the Company.

We are looking every day to hear of a great fight taking place between General Grant and General Lee, as the army in front is in motion for these three or four days past. All that we can hear is from individuals that have come in from the front.

I was sorry to hear that your early wheat looked so poor, but I hope that you will not have to plow any of it up. I think you will have all the corn you will want to work. I guess that frostbitten corn of yours will be worth the hauling yet. I notice that the price is going up in N.Y. all the time. I thought that you had sold your wheat too soon.

I received a letter today from Father of April 25 in which he tells me that they are nothing heard from T.C. up to the date of his letter. And you can scarcely imagine how I felt when I opened your letter of the 23rd and the first words that I saw were from the 77th and Colonel Webb killed. You can scarcely know how I appreciated those words as I understood the full meaning of them. And in regard to the Officers in command of the expedition I know not what to say, but think it very hard. At the least, if it was in my power it would be the last army they ever would be allowed to command, you can bet on that. This is a time when the best men of our country are puzzled to know what to say or do, but I hope that it will not last this way long.

In one of Mother’s late letters she as good as wished me to get a picture taken to send home, and I have done so. It is my picture with beard and all. I got it taken in Alexandria, and it is one of the oldest towns I have ever been in. The population is nearly two negroes to one white person. If you had seen a negro waiter and driver escorting a lady into a carriage the other day when there were a few drops of rain falling, it would have made you wonder. They were dressed in broad cloth, silk hat, and gloves. I hear tell were getting $40 per month for this work.

It would have suited my notion much better if I had seen some crippled soldier doing this type of work. Negroes get to such places in Washington and Alexandria as soldiers can’t that have lost their health and limbs to support the government. There was a regiment of black troops came in here just yesterday from Illinois–they seemed to march to the tap of a drum as well as any men could who have not drilled longer then they have done.

I am ever the Well-Wisher of my Friends.

Your Brother

J.H. Mathews

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The Old National Mall with the completed Capital Blgd. Dome in the back

The Old National Mall with the recently completed U. S. Capital Dome presiding in the background

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Soldiers Rest, Alexandria, Virginia

May 28th /1864

Dear Brother

I have yours of the 16th before me and will endeavor to answer it this most beautiful Saturday afternoon. I am as well as can be and never enjoyed myself better.

I made another trip to Washington yesterday. I went to the 11th Regiment Headquarters for a lot of blankets, and by the way I found two sergeants of the 2nd Ill. and they were two of the best boys that I have met since I have been in Washington. The headquarters are called Martindale Barracks. The company of the Regiment are in different places.

I done up my business and had plenty of time to go all through the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. It done me the greatest pleasure imaginable. I saw all kinds of birds, beasts, rocks and minerals. Birds from the size of a bumble-bee till the ostrich that I would take to be 12 feet in height. These birds are all stuffed and look just like life. I never thought they were half as many small birds as they are. They are placed in glass showcases so they can all be seen. I think it worth the $5 to anyone who has never been to see it.

I think if we stay here very long I will get to see all of the sights that are in Washington. They are only two places that I have not been in, and that is the Treasury Department and the Arsenal. I hope to see them soon.

I expect you think that I am down east where everything is cheap, but here a price for writing paper ranges from 20 to 50 cents per quire. This paper I am writing on I paid 50 cents for yesterday in Wash. D.C., and is the best I ever run a pen on–but look at the price. Good note paper is 25 cents.

I have done no duty this week but go to Washington yesterday. I am eating the cream of soldiering now but I don’t know how long it will last. It has been the most pleasant weather for three days past that I ever saw.

The wounded have commenced to come in today, as this place is being turned into a hospital and it will accommodate about 1,500 patients. We don’t know whether we will stay, but I guess that we are liked as well as any Company that has been here, and think if a guard is kept here that it will be Company “B”.

I was very glad to hear that the weather had so improved and that you are getting along so well with your crops. I’m here doing one day of duty out of five or six, and I put about two thirds of my time into reading and the other into sleep. I am a clerk–or so the boys call me. I don’t think that I need to tell you any thing about the army as you know it all by this time. Only Grant and his army are marching on. We still have prayer meetings three times a week, and I attend every night.

I still remain your true Brother

John H. Mathews

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The Overland Campaign–General Grant examining a map held by General George G. Meade at Massaponax Church, Virginia on May 21, 1864

“The Generals in Council” – Gen. Grant (sitting in the middle of the top bench) pondering his next move during the Overland Campaign. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana is to Grant’s left; Gen. George G. Meade is seated on the bottom bench far left. (Photo taken  May 21, 1864 outside of Massaponax Church, VA)

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Soldiers Rest, Alexandria, Virginia

June 10th /1864

Dear Brother

I received a letter from Father dated the 2nd of this month, the first one that I have had since the 15th of May, and you may know how welcome this was received. We don’t get our mail right regular yet, but think we will hereafter as the Headquarters of the Regiment is here in Alexandria. I wrote to Father last Sunday telling him that I with four others were employed in the Ordinance Department, but there were not enough of men left at the Soldiers Rest to do the duty, so we had to come back. We moved out of the tents into good barracks.

Gen. George B. McClellan

Gen. George B. McClellan

They have been five or six hundred wounded soldiers sent to this Rest since I last wrote to you. It is amusing and interesting to hear them talk about General Grant. They say they never saw such a man as Grant in all the time they have been in the army. They speak of him in this way: When he gets ready, if the rebs don’t attack him, he moves forward and attacks and drives the rebs and then marches all night–and makes another attack in the morning. When the rebs get entrenched and fortified, then they say he makes a flanking movement–and how the rebs do skedaddle. They say he don’t care whether he gets whipped or not, he still keeps driving them on. They think Grant is a brick.

I guess you have heard the news of the nomination of Abraham Lincoln. This makes the boys feel about right, and all we ask for the Copperheads is to nominate the great American bore George B. McClellan (they call him “Little Mac”) so that the Unionists will have the opportunity to put him in his proper place in the United States. The idea of having an able and honest Statesman for four years longer is the source of great satisfaction.

I have not had any letters from you since you sent me your Oration. I succeeded in getting a letter today from William James–it was the third or fourth he has written to me. When he wrote he had just gotten over a bilious spell of sickness, Sarah was gaining strength slowly, and all of the rest of the folks were well.

I have got one of them six-shooting eight-inch revolvers that you have heard me talk about. It was captured from the rebs about a month since by our Calvary. It cost me $10.

There were a negro come in here last night from Richmond. He states they are on half rations with most of their supplies cut off. He says that he heard the whites whisper it around that they were gone up like Pemberton was at Vicksburg–that they will have to surrender the city to General Grant at last and that they are scared already. They find that the old “Farmer General” can outflank any maneuver of their world renowned Lee–he that was heretobefore the terror of the Army of the Potomac.

I still remain your Truly Affectionate Brother till Death

J.H. Mathews

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Union Soldiers in trenches before the Battle of Petersburg--June 9, 1864

Union Soldiers in their trenches prior to going into battle

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Soldiers Rest, Alexandria, Virginia

July/1864

Brother Watson

All parts and classes of people are in the greater of glee about the present victory won by U.S. Grant. The funniest part is that they don’t understand his plans. I mean that he don’t telegraph to Washington and tell how and when he is going to move the army before he does it. He moves the army, whips the rebs, and then tells it afterwards.

About three days ago it was reported that they had been an engagement between the two armies. They were no telegraphic news received at Washington for two or three days (this would not do, you know).

So the Assistant Secretary took the cars and started for the army to see what had been done. He went out as far as a man that did not belong to the army could get and had to stop. When he inquired why they had not got any telegraph news, he was told that General Grant himself had cut the telegraph wires so they could not be any news received at Washington till after the fight. He was obliged to return, learning that U.S. Grant had kept his own secrets. I guess that next time the Secretary will not go to see what Gen. Grant is doing in a hurry.

George G. Meade

Gen. George G. Meade

The people have about made up their minds to wait till after General Grant does a thing before they are allowed to hear it. They are a large number of killed and wounded on both sides, but if half be true the rebs are the worst whipped they ever have been in Virginia–all put together by Meade.

Old Ben Butler has cleaned out General Beauregard, cut the R.R. and is making towards Richmond. Lee was drove off the field leaving behind his killed with General Grant, with Meade and Burnsides after him and making towards Richmond.

Richmond is in danger of the Yanks, and Lee is getting in tighter quarters then he has ever been before. We have also heard that Sherman has driven the enemy at Tunnel Hill in the southwest. The ball is open and a-rolling. This campaign has opened as well as I would have had it opened. And the next victory we may take and hold is that rebel-starved den called “The Capital of the Southern States.” Look out Mr. Reb, Uncle Sam and his boys are a-coming this summer.

But thinking this is a pretty good answer to yours, I will close. It is warm and windy today and I write in my shirtsleeves and feel well for I have got pretty strong, and wouldn’t mind taking a game of trying to knock off caps with you.

At present I remain Your Brother Sincerely

John H. Mathews

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4 Responses to “The Siege of Petersburg, the Overland Campaign, and the Pleasures of Washington, D.C.” – as told from Inside Soldier’s Rest, Alexandria, VA

  1. Lydia Jankovic says:

    Cliff, great writing! I feel like I am there witnessing the events!

  2. Robin Richardson Gilbert says:

    Cliff, thanks once again for putting together another great article. This is one of my favorites because it discusses more of the small things that make up a soldier’s life. We read so much about the battles and the death tolls, it is nice to be reminded that in between those horrific events were some very mundane things: concerns about the success of the crops back home, the high price of writing paper, a trip to the local museum (Smithsonian!), pleasure reading, catching up on sleep…and don’t forget prayer meetings three times a week!

    These letters are very much like a conversation between the brothers, where Uncle John relates his personal thoughts on Grant, McClellan, and Lincoln. It seems the troops had a real appreciation for their General Grant! John is off the front lines, but still observing and participating in historic events.

  3. VERY interesting site! I found you because I have a standing Google search for anything new on the Siege of Petersburg. This looks like an excellent information compilation blog. I’ll be adding a link for you over at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.

  4. Mary James says:

    I just love how these letters from John Mathews to his brother Watson bring to life the human side of the Civil War, especially while still in the midst of it. “This is a time when the best of our country are puzzled to know what to say or do…” (letter from May 2, 1964). So interesting, the soldiers’ perspective of Grant as an impressive “brick” who makes the rebels “skedaddle”, and who only delivers news after winning a battle. It’s also fun to get to know the man through his writing. Amazing how Mathews maintained such a positive attitude during such a bloody and frightening period. And excellent writing, as always, by YOU, Cliff. Thanks again for these remarkable glimpses into the Civil War.

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