Swelling the Ranks for Review

In mid-November 16, 1863, with Army of the Potomac commander George Meade in Washington to consultation with the president and War Department, it fell to VI Corps commander Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to serve as the army’s temporary commander as it sat huddled around Culpeper, Virginia. As it happened, four observers from the British army were visiting the army for the month. “These Britons are the best lot that have seen,” said Meade’s aide-de-camp, Theodore Lyman. “Names: Lieut. Col. Earle; Lord Castlecuffe (Grenadier Guards), Capt’ns Stephonson & Peel (Scotch Fusileer Guards).

As a show of hospitality, Sedgwick decided to host a series of reviews for the guests, beginning with a review of the III Corps on November 16. The demonstrations continued for several days, with the honor finally falling to Sedgwick’s VI Corps on Friday, November 20. “This was by far the best review that have seen,” Lyman noted. “As we rode along the rear of the line, not a head was turned; everyone steady. The men were clean; the cannon burnished.”

However, men in the ranks had a different view, explained Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont. In a letter to his hometown newspaper, Fisk said the men had been well-practiced in maneuvers because they had little else to do:

We drill every day and sometimes twice a day. We have our company drills and our brigade drills, our battalion drills and our division drills, to say nothing of our skirmish drills and reviews without number. We have our reviews as often as the commanding officers see fit to order them, which has been remarkably often for the last week or two. . . .

We soldiers are not always disposed to appreciate the beauty of these drills and reviews, especially when they are tediously prolonged, and when the order to execute the different manoeuvers are pretty thickly interspersed with the order to double quick.

Gen. Sedgwick was the reviewing officer on this occasion, and in order that he might entertain as exalted opinion as possible of this superb division, every man was ordered out that could go, and a great many were ordered out that pretended they were sick and couldn’t go. Even a part of the brigade guard—the relief off duty—was ordered to help swell the ranks on this occasion, and one fellow who was tired and cross when he came in, positively asserts that several who were dead and buried barely escaped being ordered out, their escape being due not so much to the fact that they were dead simply, but because they were buried out of convenient reach, besides being on that account constitutionally discharged from further service in the Army of the Potomac. I shall ask no one to endorse an opinion quite so extravagant.

Lyman’s comments come from Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, edited by David Lowe, pp. 67-9.

Fisk’s comments come from Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865, edited by Emil & Ruth Rosenblatt, pp. 155-6.

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