May 21, 1864: Grant Moves South

Today, some 150 years ago, at Massaponax Church, Virginia, one of the most famous sequences of photographs was taken by Timothy O’Sullivan from the second floor of the church.

Here’s the church itself:

And here are Ulysses S. Grant, George G. Meade, and their staffs, conferring and planning on what to do next.

Grant consults with Meade (above), looking over his shoulder as Meade studies a map. Meade always felt that Grant was looking over his shoulder during this campaign, and that would soon lead to a typical Meade outburst.

Then Grant moves over to the bench, where he writes out something.

Finished with that task, the general shifts over on the bench and commences smoking a cigar.

At least that is the usually accepted order of these images (which coincides with their negative numbers). However, if you examine the benches and their occupants carefully, there was more than just a little moving around, and someone might offer a different ordering. I follow the suggested order offered in William Frassanito’s Grant and Lee (1983), pp. 120-21.

Here’s Grant with a little more detail:

grant 52164 closeup

Today people prefer to study the photographs, but look at these engravings:

Hmmm … there are several new generals here (Garfield?! Sherman?! Thomas?! Heintzelman?! Sickles–with both legs?!). And I don’t think Alexander Gardiner took this image. Then again, some bodies were definitely moved in this case.

Harper’s Weekly chose a different route:


Here’s a detailed look at Grant in this image:

More recently, there was an interesting attempt to render this scene with model soldiers, something like this:


… although the matching was less than perfect. That said, here’s Grant looking over Meade’s shoulder again:

DSC01094 Poor Meade.


6 thoughts on “May 21, 1864: Grant Moves South

  1. jfepperson May 21, 2014 / 4:46 am

    I love the model soldiers effort!

  2. John Foskett May 21, 2014 / 7:26 am

    Yet more good stuff. I’ve always believed that these are some of the most important ACW photographs, because they are included in the very small percentage which were not posed but which instead recorded history as it was happening. The movement of wagons in the background as Grant confers with his officers evokes the theme of this campaign – “and keep moving on.”

  3. Phil LeDuc May 21, 2014 / 1:33 pm

    My favorite photos from the Civil War for sure. Like John, I like the fact that they were candid shots with no posing. Decisions were being made and orders being given, and we’re able see it happening.
    For what it’s worth, my favorite posed photograph of the war was taken not too many weeks later – Winfield Scott Hancock with his division commanders, Gens. Barlow, Birney, and Gibbon.

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