Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army— Volume 2

Author: Philip Henry Sheridan

Chapter XVI.


Shortly after we arrived in Berlin the Queen sent a messenger offering us an opportunity to pay our respects, and fixed an hour for the visit, which was to take place the next day; but as the tenor of the despatch Mr. Bancroft had received from Count Bismarck indicated that some important event which it was desired I should witness was about to happen at the theatre of war, our Minister got us excused from our visit of ceremony, and we started for the headquarters of the German army that evening—our stay in the Prussian capital having been somewhat less than a day.

Our train was a very long one, of over eighty cars, and though drawn by three locomotives, its progress to Cologne was very slow and the journey most tedious. From Cologne we continued on by rail up the valley of the Rhine to Bingebruck, near Bingen, and thence across through Saarbrucken to Remilly, where we left the railway and rode in a hay-wagon to Pont-a-Mousson, arriving there August 17, late in the afternoon. This little city had been ceded to France at the Peace of Westphalia, and although originally German, the people had become, in the lapse of so many years, intensely French in sentiment. The town was so full of officers and men belonging to the German army that it was difficult to get lodgings, but after some delay we found quite comfortable quarters at one of the small hotels, and presently, after we had succeeded in getting a slender meal, I sent my card to Count von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the North German Confederation, who soon responded by appointing an hour—about 9 o’clock the same evening—for an interview.

When the Count received me he was clothed in the undress uniform of the Cuirassier regiment, of which he was the colonel. During the interview which ensued, he exhibited at times deep anxiety regarding the conflict now imminent, for it was the night before the battle of Gravelotte, but his conversation was mostly devoted to the state of public sentiment in America, about which he seemed much concerned, inquiring repeatedly as to which side—France or Prussia—was charged with bringing on the war. Expressing a desire to witness the battle which was expected to occur the next day, and remarking that I had not had sufficient time to provide the necessary transportation, he told me to be ready at 4 o’clock in the morning, and he would take me out in his own carriage and present me to the King—adding that he would ask one of his own staff-officers, who he knew had one or two extra horses, to lend me one. As I did not know just what my status would be, and having explained to the President before leaving America that I wished to accompany the German army unofficially, I hardly knew whether to appear in uniform or not, so I spoke of this matter too, and the Count, after some reflection, thought it best for me to wear my undress uniform, minus the sword, however, because I was a non combatant.

At 4 o’clock the next morning, the 18th, I repaired to the Chancellor’s quarters. The carriage was at the door, also the saddle-horse, but as no spare mount could be procured for General Forsyth, he had to seek other means to reach the battle-field. The carriage was an open one with two double seats, and in front a single one for a messenger; it had also a hand-brake attached.

Count Bismarck and I occupied the rear seat, and Count Bismarck- Bohlen—the nephew and aide-decamp to the Chancellor—and Doctor Busch were seated facing us. The conveyance was strong, serviceable, and comfortable, but not specially prepossessing, and hitched to it were four stout horses—logy, ungainly animals, whose clumsy harness indicated that the whole equipment was meant for heavy work. Two postilions in uniform, in high military saddles on the nigh horse of each span, completed the establishment.

All being ready, we took one of the roads from Pont-a-Mousson to Rezonville, which is on the direct road from Metz to Chalons, and near the central point of the field where, on the 16th of August, the battle of Mars-la-Tour had been fought. It was by this road that the Pomeranians, numbering about 30,000 men, had been ordered to march to Gravelotte, and after proceeding a short distance we overtook the column. As this contingent came from Count Bismarck’s own section of Germany, there greeted us as we passed along, first in the dim light of the morning, and later in the glow of the rising sun, continuous and most enthusiastic cheering for the German Chancellor.

On the way Count Bismarck again recurred to the state of public opinion in America with reference to the war. He also talked much about our form of government, and said that in early life his tendencies were all toward republicanism, but that family influence had overcome his preferences, and intimated that, after adopting a political career, he found that Germany was not sufficiently advanced for republicanism. He said, further, that he had been reluctant to enter upon this public career, that he had always longed to be a soldier, but that here again family opposition had turned him from the field of his choice into the sphere of diplomacy.

Not far from Mars-la-Tour we alighted, and in a little while an aidede-camp was introduced, who informed me that he was there to conduct and present me to his Majesty, the King of Prussia. As we were walking along together, I inquired whether at the meeting I should remove my cap, and he said no; that in an out-of-door presentation it was not etiquette to uncover if in uniform. We were soon in presence of the King, where—under the shade of a clump of second-growth poplar-trees, with which nearly all the farms in the north of France are here and there dotted—the presentation was made in the simplest and most agreeable manner.

His Majesty, taking my hand in both of his, gave me a thorough welcome, expressing, like Count Bismarck, though through an interpreter, much interest as to the sentiment in my own country about the war. At this time William the First of Prussia was seventy-three years of age, and, dressed in the uniform of the Guards, he seemed to be the very ideal soldier, and graced with most gentle and courteous manners. The conversation, which was brief, as neither of us spoke the other’s native tongue, concluded by his Majesty’s requesting me in the most cordial way to accompany his headquarters during the campaign. Thanking him for his kindness, I rejoined Count Bismarck’s party, and our horses having arrived meantime, we mounted and moved off to the position selected for the King to witness the opening of the battle.

This place was on some high ground overlooking the villages of Rezonville and Gravelotte, about the centre of the battlefield of Mars-la-Tour, and from it most of the country to the east toward Metz could also be seen. The point chosen was an excellent one for the purpose, though in one respect disagreeable, since the dead bodies of many of the poor fellows killed there two days before were yet unburied. In a little while the King’s escort began to remove these dead, however, bearing them away on stretchers improvised with their rifles, and the spot thus cleared was much more acceptable. Then, when such unexploded shells as were lying around loose had been cautiously carried away, the King, his brother, Prince Frederick Charles Alexander, the chief-of-staff, General von Moltke, the Minister of War, General von Roon, and Count von Bismarck assembled on the highest point, and I being asked to join the group, was there presented to General von Moltke. He spoke our language fluently, and Bismarck having left the party for a time to go to a neighboring house to see his son, who had been wounded at Mars-la-Tour, and about whom he was naturally very anxious, General von Moltke entertained me by explaining the positions of the different corps, the nature and object of their movements then taking place, and so on.

Before us, and covering Metz, lay the French army, posted on the crest of a ridge extending north, and about its centre curving slightly westward toward the German forces. The left of the French position was but a short distance from the Moselle, and this part of the line was separated from the Germans by a ravine, the slopes, fairly well wooded, rising quite sharply; farther north, near the centre, this depression disappeared, merged in the general swell of the ground, and thence on toward the right the ground over which an approach to the French line must be made was essentially a natural open glacis, that could be thoroughly swept by the fire of the defenders.

The line extended some seven or eight miles. To attack this position, formidable everywhere, except perhaps on the right flank, the Germans were bringing up the combined forces of the First and Second armies, troops that within the past fortnight had already successfully met the French in three pitched battles. On the right was the First Army, under command of General Von Steinmetz, the victors, August 6, of Spicheren, near Saar, and, eight days later, of Colombey, to the east of Metz; while the centre and left were composed of the several corps of the Second Army, commanded by Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia, a part of whose troops had just been engaged in the sanguinary battle of Mars-la-Tour, by which Bazaine was cut off from the Verdun road, and forced back toward Metz.

At first the German plan was simply to threaten with their right, while the corps of the Second Army advanced toward the north, to prevent the French, of whose intentions there was much doubt, from escaping toward Chalons; then, as the purposes of the French might be, developed, these corps were to change direction toward the enemy successively, and seek to turn his right flank. But the location of this vital turning-point was very uncertain, and until it was ascertained and carried, late in the afternoon, the action raged with more or less intensity along the entire line.

But as it is not my purpose to describe in detail the battle of Gravelotte, nor any other, I will speak of some of its incidents merely. About noon, after many preliminary skirmishes, the action was begun according to the plan I have already outlined, the Germans advancing their left while holding on strongly with their right, and it was this wing (the First Army) that came under my observation from the place where the King’s headquarters were located. From here we could see, as I have said, the village of Gravelotte. Before it lay the German troops, concealed to some extent, especially to the left, by clumps of timber here and there. Immediately in front of us, however, the ground was open, and the day being clear and sunny, with a fresh breeze blowing (else the smoke from a battle between four hundred thousand men would have obstructed the view altogether), the spectacle presented Was of unsurpassed magnificence and sublimity. The German artillery opened the battle, and while the air was filled with shot and shell from hundreds of guns along their entire line, the German centre and left, in rather open order, moved out to the attack, and as they went forward the reserves, in close column, took up positions within supporting distances, yet far enough back to be out of range.

The French artillery and mitrailleuses responded vigorously to the Krupps, and with deadly effect, but as far as we could see the German left continued its advance, and staff-officers came up frequently to report that all was going on well at points hidden from our view These reports were always made to the King first, and whenever anybody arrived with tidings of the fight we clustered around to hear the news, General Von Moltke unfolding a map meanwhile, and explaining the situation. This done, the chief of the staff, while awaiting the next report, would either return to a seat that had been made for him with some knapsacks, or would occupy the time walking about, kicking clods of dirt or small stones here and there, his hands clasped behind his back, his face pale and thoughtful. He was then nearly seventy years old, but because of his emaciated figure, the deep wrinkles in his face, and the crow’s-feet about his eyes, he looked even older, his appearance being suggestive of the practice of church asceticisms rather than of his well-known ardent devotion to the military profession.

By the middle of the afternoon the steady progress of the German left and centre had driven the French from their more advanced positions from behind stone walls and hedges, through valleys and hamlets, in the direction of Metz, but as yet the German right had accomplished little except to get possession of the village of Gravelotte, forcing the French across the deep ravine I have mentioned, which runs north and south a little distance east of ihe town.

But it was now time for the German right to move in earnest to carry the Rozerieulles ridge, on which crest the French had evidently decided to make an obstinate fight to cover their withdrawal to Metz. As the Germans moved to the attack here, the French fire became heavy and destructive, so much so, indeed, as to cause General Von Steinmetz to order some cavalry belonging to the right wing to make a charge. Crossing the ravine before described, this body of horse swept up the slope beyond, the front ranks urged forward by the momentum from behind. The French were posted along a sunken road, behind stone walls and houses, and as the German cavalry neared these obstructions it received a dreadful fire without the least chance of returning it, though still pushed on till the front ranks were crowded into the deep cut of the road. Here the slaughter was terrible, for the horsemen could make no further headway; and because of the blockade behind, of dead and wounded men and animals, an orderly retreat was impossible, and disaster inevitable.

About the time the charge was ordered, the phase of the battle was such that the King concluded to move his headquarters into the village of Gravelotte; and just after getting there, we first learned fully of the disastrous result of the charge which had been entered upon with such spirit; and so much indignation was expressed against Steinmetz, who, it was claimed, had made an unnecessary sacrifice of his cavalry, that I thought he would be relieved on the spot; though this was not done.

Followed by a large staff, General Steinmetz appeared in the village presently, and approached the King. When near, he bowed with great respect, and I then saw that he was a very old man though his soldierly figure, bronzed face, and shortcropped hair gave some evidence of vigor still. When the King spoke to him I was not close enough to learn what was said; but his Majesty’s manner was expressive of kindly feeling, and the fact that in a few moments the veteran general returned to the command of his troops, indicated that, for the present at least, his fault had been overlooked.

The King then moved out of the village, and just a little to the east and north of it the headquarters were located on high, open ground, whence we could observe the right of the German infantry advancing up the eastern face of the ravine. The advance, though slow and irregular, resulted in gradually gaining ground, the French resisting stoutly with a stubborn musketry fire all along the slopes. Their artillery was silent, however; and from this fact the German artillery officers grew jubilant, confidently asserting that their Krupp guns had dismounted the French batteries and knocked their mitrailleuses to pieces. I did not indulge in this confidence, however; for, with the excellent field-glass I had, I could distinctly see long columns of French troops moving to their right, for the apparent purpose of making a vigorous fight on that flank; and I thought it more than likely that their artillery would be heard from before the Germans could gain the coveted ridge.

The Germans labored up the glacis slowly at the most exposed places; now crawling on their bellies, now creeping on hands and knees, but, in the main, moving with erect and steady bearing. As they approached within short range, they suddenly found that the French artillery and mitrallleuses had by no means been silenced—about two hundred pieces opening on them with fearful effect, while at the same time the whole crest blazed with a deadly fire from the Chassepot rifles. Resistance like this was so unexpected by the Germans that it dismayed them; and first wavering a moment, then becoming panicstricken, they broke and fled, infantry, cavalry, and artillery coming down the slope without any pretence of formation, the French hotly following and pouring in a heavy and constant fire as the fugitives fled back across the ravine toward Gravelotte. With this the battle on the right had now assumed a most serious aspect, and the indications were that the French would attack the heights of Gravelotte; but the Pomeranian corps coming on the field at this crisis, was led into action by Von Moltke, himself, and shortly after the day was decided in favor of the Germans.

When the French guns opened fire, it was discovered that the King’s position was within easy range, many of the shells falling near enough to make the place extremely uncomfortable; so it was suggested that he go to a less exposed point. At first he refused to listen to this wise counsel, but yielded finally—leaving the ground with reluctance, however—and went back toward Rezonville. I waited for Count Bismarck, who did not go immediately with the King, but remained at Gravelotte, looking after some of the escort who had been wounded. When he had arranged for their care, we set out to rejoin the King, and before going far, overtook his Majesty, who had stopped on the Chalons road, and was surrounded by a throng of fugitives, whom he was berating in German so energetic as to remind me forcibly of the "Dutch" swearing that I used to hear in my boyhood in Ohio. The dressing down finished to his satisfaction, the King resumed his course toward Re’zonville, halting, however, to rebuke in the same emphatic style every group of runaways he overtook.

Passing through Rezonville, we halted just beyond the village; there a fire was built, and the King, his brother, Prince Frederick Charles, and Von Roon were provided with rather uncomfortable seats about it, made by resting the ends of a short ladder on a couple of boxes. With much anxiety and not a little depression of spirits news from the battle-field was now awaited, but the suspense did not last long, for presently came the cheering intelligence that the French were retiring, being forced back by the Pomeranian corps, and some of the lately broken right wing organizations, that had been rallied on the heights of Gravelotte. The lost ground being thus regained, and the French having been beaten on their right, it was not long before word came that Bazaine’s army was falling back to Metz, leaving the entire battle-field in possession of the Germans.

During the excitement of the day I had not much felt the want of either food or water, but now that all was over I was nearly exhausted, having had neither since early morning. Indeed, all of the party were in like straits; the immense armies had not only eaten up nearly everything in the country, but had drunk all the wells dry, too, and there seemed no relief for us till, luckily, a squad of soldiers came along the road with a small cask of wine in a cart. One of the staff-officers instantly appropriated the keg, and proceeded to share his prize most generously. Never had I tasted anything so refreshing and delicious, but as the wine was the ordinary sour stuff drunk by the peasantry of northern France, my appreciation must be ascribed to my famished condition rather than to any virtues of the beverage itself.

After I had thus quenched my thirst the King’s, brother called me aside, and drawing from his coat-tail pocket a piece of stale black bread, divided it with me, and while munching on this the Prince began talking of his son—General Prince Frederick Charles, popularly called the Red Prince—who was in command of the Second Army in this battle—the German left wing. In recounting his son’s professional career the old man’s face was aglow with enthusiasm, and not without good cause, for in the war between Prussia and Austria in 1866, as well as in the present campaign, the Red Prince had displayed the highest order of military genius.

The headquarters now became the scene of much bustle, despatches announcing the victory being sent in all directions. The first one transmitted was to the Queen, the King directing Count Bismarck to prepare it for his signature; then followed others of a more official character, and while these matters were being attended to I thought I would ride into the village to find, if possible, some water for my horse. Just as I entered the chief street, however, I was suddenly halted by a squad of soldiers, who, taking me for a French officer (my coat and forage cap resembling those of the French), leveled their pieces at me. They were greatly excited, so much so, indeed, that I thought my hour had come, for they could not understand English, and I could not speak German, and dare not utter explanations in French. Fortunately a few disconnected German words came to me in the emergency. With these I managed to delay my execution, and one of the party ventured to come up to examine the "suspect" more closely. The first thing he did was to take off my cap, and looking it over carefully, his eyes rested on the three stars above the visor, and, pointing to them, he emphatically pronounced me French. Then of course they all became excited again, more so than before, even, for they thought I was trying to practice a ruse, and I question whether I should have lived to recount the adventure had not an officer belonging to the King’s headquarters been passing by just then, when, hearing the threatenings and imprecations, he rode up to learn the cause of the hubbub, and immediately recognized and released me. When he told my wrathy captors who I was, they were much mortified of course, and made the most profuse apologies, promising that no such mistake should occur again, and so on; but not feeling wholly reassured, for my uniform was still liable to mislead, I was careful to return to headquarters in company with my deliverer. There I related what had occurred, and after a good laugh all round, the King provided me with a pass which he said would preclude any such mishap in the future, and would also permit me to go wherever I pleased—a favor rarely bestowed.


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Chicago: Philip Henry Sheridan, "Chapter XVI.," Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army— Volume 2, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army—Volume 2 Original Sources, accessed March 1, 2024,

MLA: Sheridan, Philip Henry. "Chapter XVI." Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army— Volume 2, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army—Volume 2, Original Sources. 1 Mar. 2024.

Harvard: Sheridan, PH, 'Chapter XVI.' in Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army— Volume 2, ed. . cited in , Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan, General, United States Army—Volume 2. Original Sources, retrieved 1 March 2024, from