Following the Greek Cross and the Overland Campaign

ECW welcomes guest author Samuel Flowers

The 160th Anniversary of the Overland Campaign has come (and we remain in it a while longer!), and I thought it would be a good time to look back at a source I had used for my master’s thesis, Following the Greek Cross by Thomas Hyde. After the firing on Fort Sumter, Hyde enlisted in the 7th Maine Infantry and was elected an officer for the unit. During the war, Hyde distinguished himself as a heroic soldier and leader, earning a Congressional Medal of Honor for leading his regiment at Antietam. Although his 1894 memoir is filled with his proclaimed gallantry and military glory during the battles of 1862-63, his time during the 1864 Overland Campaign offers historians a look into early combat trauma during the Civil War.

Thomas W. Hyde

From May 5-June 12, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee engaged in a metaphorical boxing match known as the Overland Campaign. According to acclaimed historian James McPherson, both sides collectively sustained almost one hundred thousand casualties, roughly one-eighth of the total number of casualties for the entire war.[1] For the soldiers closer to the front lines, this campaign consisted of constant marching, constant digging, and constant fighting. This kind of nonstop cycle of violence and physical labor took a toll on soldiers like Thomas Hyde. He became a staff officer for Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the Union VI Corps, just in time for the Overland Campaign to begin. Although Hyde was not a grunt on the front lines, he saw his fair share of carnage in the spring of 1864 that he wrote in his memoir.

During the first day of fighting at the battle of the Wilderness, Hyde was riding back from Grant’s headquarters toward VI Corps’ battlelines. It was on this first day that Thomas encountered violence that would have damaged his psyche. Near the lines, the staff officer noticed the Jersey Brigade rushing toward the incoming cannon fire. As Hyde dismounted his horse, an artillery shell took off the head of a soldier from New Jersey, covering Hyde “with [the] brain and blood.”[2] In his memoir, Hyde recalled his trauma, saying that he “was not much use as a staff officer for fully fifteen minutes.”[3] The shock of men being blown away incapacitated Hyde and prevented him from performing his duties while under fire. He does not specifically say what his incapacitated state entailed, but historians like Dillion J. Carroll speculate that he went into shock and possibly froze at the sight of the violent death of a fellow soldier. These kinds of moments during battle, like what Hyde described, are what doctors after the Civil War would dub “Soldier’s Heart,” which would be known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Battle of the Wilderness sketch by Alfred Waud

After the Wilderness, both Union and Confederate armies moved south toward the next phase of the campaign, the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House. Both sides dug in and created field fortifications to protect themselves from what soldiers’ thought was the next inevitable offensive. On May 9, a sharpshooter killed Gen. Sedgwick, a leader adored by both Hyde and the rest of VI Corps. Hyde did not witness the initial shot, but rushed to his commanding officer as he lay lifeless on the ground. According to his own words in Following the Greek Cross, Thomas Hyde’s mental health declined, and he began to show signs of combat stress. The combined marching, combat, sleep deprivation, and the tragic loss of their corps commander took a toll. An excerpt from his memoir depicted his fatigue and hopelessness of survival: “When one has been present at a dreadful and sinister event and has at the same time met a grievous loss [Sedgwick], the springs of life are loosened for a while, and even the brightness of the world is indescribably dreary.”[4]

Hyde’s morale was still low as he witnessed the II Corps assault of the Confederate Mule Shoe on May 12, 1864. The spot earned the name the “Bloody Angle for the nearly twenty-four hours of hand-to-hand combat that was the most visceral and intimate in American military history. While riding across the battlefield as a courier, Hyde witnessed from afar some of the combat. He recalled “memories of bloodshed surpassing all former experiences, a desperation in the struggle never before witnessed.”[5] This comment was in stark contrast to his recollections of the battle of Gettysburg in which he described feeling “great joy” from winning the battle.[6]

While he observed Pickett’s Charge from a safe distance, Hyde looked with a sense of prideful awe as the Confederates advanced toward Cemetery Ridge. He called it “a thrilling sight” and compared it to the charges of French infantry during the Napoleonic Wars.[7] Up until the Overland Campaign, Hyde viewed war as a costly, but glorious adventure. Even when in combat prior to 1864, he recalled his service as a grand and almost masculine obligation.

At the battle of Antietam, where he won his Medal of Honor, Hyde and his men charged a Confederate position more than twice their size and pushed them back farther than any other Union unit. Hyde used the victory at Antietam as a magnificent consolation for the large loss in his regiment during the battle.[8] However, for the Overland Campaign, he was riddled with psychological stress brought about by the trauma of the consistent fighting and marching. As a soldier on the frontlines of bloody battles such as Antietam and Gettysburg, his descriptions of Spotsylvania Court House and the Wilderness as unimaginable horrors demonstrate the significance of the campaign from a combatant’s perspective.

Thomas Hyde is an excellent case study of soldiers undergoing combat stress and “Soldier’s Heart” while on a campaign. But his trauma highlights the importance of the Overland Campaign. This seasoned veteran who engaged in the war’s deadliest battles up to that point finally breaks down over the ferocity of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. The carnage created in the spring of 1864 sparked a turning point in not just the Civil War, but also in looking at the correlation between common soldiers and how they reacted to combat in certain battles.

Sam Flowers received his B.A. from the UNC-Charlotte and recently graduated with his M.A from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington under the guidance of Angela Zombek, PhD. His thesis looked at the significance of the Overland Campaign from the lenses of military significance, common soldier experience, and memory and memorialization. He is currently researching the Third North Carolina Infantry as its war service transitioned perpetuating Confederate myth and memory.


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, The Oxford History of the United States, v. 6 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 741-742.

[2] Thomas W. Hyde, Following the Greek Cross, or, Memories of the Sixth Army Corps, American Civil War Classics (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 184-185.

[3] Ibid, 185.

[4] Ibid, 196.

[5] Ibid, 200.

[6] Ibid, 200.

[7] Ibid, 155.

[8] Ibid, 102-104.

4 Responses to Following the Greek Cross and the Overland Campaign

  1. As Grant said, “If it rains for us, it rains for Lee’s army too.” In other words, do we get this sort of PTSD documented among the gray after the war.

    1. Hey Henry!

      In terms of Southern soldiers describing or acknowledging these symptoms, I personally haven’t seen much. I will say however that many Confederates wrote home very bluntly about the carnage they had witnessed. “Lee’s Miserables” by J. Tracy Powers is a book I’d recommend to look at their experiences.

  2. A fine article. Not to pick, but remember, it’s simply The Medal of Honor. Though Congress ratifies the nomination for the decoration, they have nothing else to do with it. There is no “Congressional” in it.

  3. A great book! I have used it myself as I research Neill’s Brigade. I am particularly interested in the 43rd New York….New York’s first 3 year regiment. It was brigaded with the 7th Maine for most of the war and served under Thomas Hyde as their brigade commander!

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