An 1863 Staff Ride with the Russians?

Theordore Lyman III

Over the holidays, I had a couple of long flights which is the perfect opportunity to catch up on reading. One of the books I had “gifted myself” for Christmas is the edited letters of Theodore Lyman who served on General George G. Meade’s staff. I wanted to read the published collection to see if it answered some of my questions about the Overland Campaign, but I was also happily entertained with the anecdotes woven into the primary sources.

During the winter 1863, Lyman recorded a variety of visitors to the winter camp headquarters. He wrote about military reviews, ladies’ visits to the camps, politicians arriving to parade around, and other scenes from the winter that give perspective on a staff officer’s experience during the cold months.

Among these accounts, appears the tale of when a group of Russian naval officers arrived and wanted to see Union soldiers and camps. The ensuing situation gave me the chuckles and perhaps it will enliven your own winter day.

On a historical take-away note: quite a few European officers traveled to America to witness or attempt to take part in the Civil War. Arthur L. Freemantle is probably one of the most famous since he traveled with the Army of Northern Virginia and wrote about his experiences. The Confederacy drew many curious Europeans, but the Federal capital and armies had their share of visitors. Although European nations officially remained neutral, that did not mean the governments’ position or sentiments were reflected by the citizens. Russian sent a fleet to visit America in 1863; details in this 1915 article and perhaps more in a later blog post.

Now, I’ll turn the blog post over the words from Theodore Lyman’s letter dated December 16, 1863, when he and other staff officers had to take Russian officers on a ride:

Yesterday we had one of the funniest exhibitions that the Army has been favored with in a long while. The peaceful…forenoon was suddenly broken by a telegraph, announcing a Russian invasion — nothing less than a legion of Muscovite naval officers pouring down, to the number of twenty-four, in a special train on our devoted heads! And they were to come in a couple of hours! Would they pass the night? if so, where put them, in a camp where two or three guests make a crowd? Would they be fed? Even this was a problem, unless we ordered the Commissary to open a dozen boxes of the best stearine candles.

However, General Meade at once orders the 6th Corps to parade, and gets hold of all the ambulances of the Staff, which are forthwith sent to the depot, after the serene Bears. [Note: Russia was often symbolized by a bear in 19th Century political sketches and drawings.] And soon the vehicles returned, with flat caps hanging out of all the openings. 

Members of the Russian fleet sent to American in 1863. (No known restrictions)

Then the thing was to put them on horseback, as soon as possible, for it grew late in the day, already. You have heard of “Jack on horseback,” and this was the most striking instance. Each one sat on his McClellan saddle, as if double-reefing a topsail in a gale of wind. Their pantaloons got up, and their flat caps shook over their ears; and they kept nearly tumbling off on one side and hoisting themselves up again by means of the pommel. Meanwhile they were very merry and kept up a running fire of French, English and Russian. 

The extraordinary cavalcade having reached a hill, near the ground, there was found an ambulance which had brought such as did not wish to ride, including the Captain, Bootekoff, who was the head feller. He, however, was persuaded to mount my mare, while I remained in the carriage. Thereupon the other carriage company were fired with a desire also to mount. So a proper number of troopers were ordered to get down, and the Russians were boosted into their saddles, and the procession moved off; but suddenly—

A horseman darted from the crowd

Like lightening from a summer cloud.

It was a Muscovite, who had discovered that the pommel was a great thing to hold on to, and who had grasped the same, to the neglect of the rein; whereupon the steed, missing his usual dragoon, started at a wild gallop! Off flew the flat cap and away went the horse and rider, with a Staff officer in full chase! Example is contagious, and, in two minutes, the country was dotted with Russians, on the wings of the wind, and vainly pursuing officers and orderlies. Some tumbled off, some were caught and brought back; and one chief engineer was discovered, after dark, in the woods, and in the unpleasant vicinity of the enemy’s picket line.

However, the most of them were at last got up and viewed the troops from their uncertain positions. After which they were filled up with large quantities of meat and drink and so sent in a happy frame of mind to Washington….


Source: Lyman, Theodore. edited by Brooks D. Simpson. With Grant and Meade: From the Wilderness to Appomattox. (University of Nebraska Press, 1994). Pages 61-63.

3 Responses to An 1863 Staff Ride with the Russians?

  1. What I love about Lyman’s journal is that he can turn a very colorful phrase. The writing is first-rate. He’s also deeply loyal to Meade, which is nice to see to an army commander who tends to not get the credit he deserves.

  2. Just have to point out that the Russians pictured are sailors. The officers would have been much differently, and probably more elaborately, decked out. But pictures of them seen hard to find.

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