An Excerpt from “No Turning Back”

A rarely published sketch  of IX Corps commander Ambrose E. Burnside
A rarely published sketch
of IX Corps commander Ambrose E. Burnside

Today, to follow part of the Federal march south, we’re pleased to bring you excerpts from No Turning Back: A Guide to the 1864 Overland Campaign by Robert M. Dunkerly, Donald C. Pfanz, and David R. Ruth.

Stop 26: The Tyler House (Private Property)

This massive brick plantation house was built by the Taliaferro family in the mid-18th century, but by the Civil War it was owned by the Tylers. Generals Grant and Meade pitched their tents in a clover field behind the house on May 22, having crossed the Pony River at Guinea Bridge earlier in the day.

In the evening, as the IX Corps marched past the house en route to Bethel Church, its commander, General Burnside, turned aside to speak with them. Casting a sideward glance at his moving column, Burnside remarked pleasantly to Mrs. Tyler, “I don’t suppose, madam, that you ever saw so many Yankee soldiers before.” 

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “I have, many more.” Obviously puzzled, Burnside asked where she had seen such a throng. Grant and his staff roared with laughter when the woman replied, “In Richmond,” referring, of course, to the many Union soldiers being held prisoner there.

Stop 27: Bethel Church

Bethel Church was just three years old when the Civil War disrupted the lives of its congregants. Although many of its male members went off to war, the assembly continued to worship here until January 1864 when circumstances forced it to close its doors. It resumed services in September 1865 and has continued in operation since that time.

After crossing the Mattapony River at Downer’s Bridge, Burnside’s IX Corps bivouacked here on the night of May 22. An officer on Burnside’s staff penned his sister a letter from the sanctuary. “After a long & continuous march of 24 hours we have encamped here & have just got washed & cleaned up,” he wrote. “Our head Quarters are in a church, and many blankets are spread in the aisles . . . .  As our troops came marching by the church . . . the Soldiers would say, Boys prayer meeting at 7 o’clock. Hello, here’s a church fellows, let’s go in & have a camp meeting. Another says, [‘]My house is the house of God but you have made it a den of thieves.’ All seemed glad to see a church.”

Burnside was then 40 years old. A Union soldier who happened to see him that week found the general “a much younger and more dashing looking man that I had supposed him.” Burnside, he went on, “Wears side whiskers and moustache ‘a la Militaire.’ Wears a short roundabout coat and his pants in his boots and is altogether what the boys call a ‘gay duck.’” Meade’s aide, Theodore Lyman, was less charitable in his estimation of the general’s appearance. After observing the general on May 23, Lyman wrote: “Burnside has a short military jacket, and, with his bell-crowned felt hat, the brim turned down presents an odd figure, the fat man!”

The general made himself at home in Bethel Church, where one of Meade’s staff found him “sitting, like a comfortable abbot, in one of the pews, surrounded by his buckish Staff whose appearance is the reverse of clerical. Nothing,” thought the writer, “can be queerer . . . than to see half a dozen men, of unmistakable New York bon ton, arrayed in soldier clothes, midst this desolated country . . . .”

1 Response to An Excerpt from “No Turning Back”

  1. The civil war seems much more of a theological dispute, a continuation of the 30 Years’ and Hundred Years’ War, from which countries our population mostly immigrated, than I previously thought. Not a new observation. And yes, it was about slavery. And today it is about commoditized labor and billionaires.

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