Presentation Day (August 31, 1863)

Alfred Waud’s sketch of the ceremony on August 27, 1863, when the Pennsylvania Reserves  presented Meade with a ceremonial sword to honor their former commander (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud’s sketch of the ceremony on August 27, 1863, when the Pennsylvania Reserves presented Meade with a ceremonial sword to honor their former commander (Library of Congress).

Meade had written home several times about the presentation sword that the Pennsylvania Reserves, his old division, had purchased for him. The soldiers had been waiting for several months to give it to him. Finally, on August 27, the big day arrived and Meade received the beautiful, ornate weapon at a public ceremony. Meade had written his wife that he had not prepared any remarks; maybe he should have. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, Charles Wainwright of the I Corps, for one, thought that Meade “replied lamely” when it came time for him to talk. Wainwright also reported that the dinner afterwards turned into a drunken rout. A bald-headed friend of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin’s stood on a table and sang bawdy songs, while people shoved and pushed to get food and drink and privates hobnobbed with captains.

The presentation ceremony also led Meade into the kind of political controversies he wished to avoid. One newspaper reported that Meade had advocated Curtin’s reelection in November. He had said no such thing, Meade protested. He did like the sword, though.

There was much more serious business to attend to the next day—the execution of five deserters. The men were “bounty jumpers,” meaning they had signed up to obtain the government bonus for enlisting, and then deserted once they received it. It’s questionable whether the men–all immigrants, and only one of whom spoke English–realized the penalty they would pay if caught. On the afternoon of Saturday, August 29, the V Corps assembled on a slight rise looking down on the spot where the execution would take place. The funeral procession started at 3:00. The five condemned men appeared in manacles, accompanied by other soldiers lugging the coffins. They marched slowly to their freshly dug graves. Four of the men walked steadily, but one needed support to stay on his feet. The soldiers placed the coffins on the ground next to the graves, and the prisoners sat on them. By then it was nearly 4:00, and the orders stated the executions had to be carried out by that time. “Shoot these men, or after 10 minutes it will be murder!” shouted Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin. “Shoot them at once!”

A sergeant of the guard covered the condemned men’s faces with white cloth and the artists from Harper’s and Frank Leslie’s magazines who had been sketching the scene packed up their easels and supplies. The clergy—a rabbi, a priest, and a chaplain–withdrew. The executioners, twelve riflemen for each prisoner, marched into position. “Ready. Aim. Fire!” shouted the captain in charge. Sixty rifles roared and flashed. Four of the men fell with dull thumps onto their coffins and rolled onto the ground, dead. The fifth remained in a seated position until the examining surgeon laid the body back on the coffin.

I send you to-day some scraps from the newspapers. The first is an extract from the London correspondent of the Presbyterian, which Ben. Gerhard [his wife’s brother-in-law] sent to me, and which I consider very flattering; for if there is any reputation I aspire to, it is that of a gentleman. The next is the account of the grand presentation from Forney’s Chronicle, which is the best and most accurate account I have seen. The speech is accurately reported, with one exception, and that is where I am made to say, “I hoped the people of Pennsylvania would re-elect Governor Curtin.” I said nothing of the kind, and made no allusions to elections. Just before I went on the stand, _____________ came to me and said: “If you can say anything in favor of Curtin, it will help us greatly.” I replied: “I don’t know, Mr. _____________, what you mean by helping you. You know I have nothing to do with politics; but it was my intention before you spoke to me to allude to Governor Curtin and his services in behalf of the volunteers from Pennsylvania.” “Well,” said he, “that is all we want.” I did say all that I am reported to have said, except the allusion to his re-election, which was put in by ________. This was bad enough; but in to-day’s paper comes out in an editorial (which I send you), puffing Curtin and quoting my speech in italics.

The more I examine my sword the more I am delighted with its beauty. It is really most chaste and artistic. It seems a pity, though, to waste so much money on an article that from its great value is actually rendered useless.

We are having a little excitement to-day, in an expedition that has been sent down the river, to attempt to destroy two gunboats which the enemy recently surprised and captured at the mouth of the Rappahannock. The expedition was ordered from Washington, and I hope it will prove successful.

The conscripts are coming in now pretty fast. To-day for the first time over a thousand arrived. They are generally pretty good men, and I trust the example made of the five deserters, who were shot on Saturday, will check the evil of desertion. This execution was witnessed by a very large number of soldiers, and I am told the only remark made was, “Why did they not begin this practice long ago?” Not a murmur against the justice or the propriety of the act was heard. Indeed, the men are the most anxious to see this great evil cured, as they know their own security will be advanced thereby.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLE, GENERAL MEADE’S SPEECH OF ACCEPTANCE OF SWORD PRESENTED BY THE DIVISION OF “PENNSYLVANIA RESERVES,” AUGUST 28, 1863, MENTIONED IN LETTER OF AUGUST 31, 1863.

(New York Tribune, August 31, 1863)

Gen. Crawford, and Officers of the Division of Pennsylvania Reserve Corps: I accept this sword with feelings of profound gratitude and with just pride. I should be insensible to all the generous feelings of humanity, if I were not proud and grateful at receiving a testimonial of approbation from a band of officers and men so distinguished as has been the Division of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps during the whole period of this war. I have a right, therefore, to be proud that such a body of soldiers should think my conduct, and my course, of such a character as to justify them in collecting together here so many distinguished gentlemen as I see around me from different parts of the country, and particularly our own State, to present to me, this handsome testimonial, which is no more than saying, I have done my duty toward them. From the very commencement of my connection with that corps as Commander of the Second Brigade, in the Fall of 1861, it was my earnest desire to do my duty by officers and men, and I faithfully endeavored, during the time I commanded them, to discharge my duty toward them as to men entitled to every consideration for the manner in which they had performed their services to their country. I am very glad that you have mentioned the distinguished gentleman present, the Governor of Penn.; I have a personal knowledge of his efforts to raise this corps, and, after it was raised and organized, to see that all its interests were attended to upon every occasion. I have been with him many times as he visited the men and officers, with a zeal that never tired, to see that all their wants were supplied, and to stir them up to renewed exertion by his patriotic and manly eloquence. I am, therefore, glad that you have been able to witness this presentation from Pennsylvania soldiers, and I hope that the citizens of Pennsylvania have appreciated and will remember his services in promoting the interest of our country and suppressing this Rebellion. [Applause.] In speaking of the pride with which I receive a sword from this division, I feel justified, though it may seem egotistic, in saying a few words of the service rendered by the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps: and I say unhesitatingly before this large assembly, and in view of the history of the War, which will vindicate my words, there is no division in the Army of the Potomac, glorious as I consider it, which can claim greater credit for gallant and laborious service than the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. [Applause.] In this, Sir, I take no credit to myself. It is not my own personal services, but the services of the soldiers of which I speak—the gallantry of the privates of the Pennsylvania Corps. I have only to appeal to Dranesville—the first success that crowned the arms of the Army of the Potomac—which was gained by the unaided gallantry of one brigade of this division; I have only to refer to Mechanicsville, where the whole of Longstreet’s Corps was held in check for several hours and a victory achieved by two brigades alone of the Pennsylvania Corps. [Cheers.] I have only to allude to New Market Cross Roads, sometimes called Glendale, to which I refer most emphatically, because some of the most distinguished officers of this army, ignorant of the facts and misled by information received at the time, but which subsequently proved incorrect, have brought grave charges against this Division. Upon that field I stood by this Corps till dark, when it pleased God I should be shot down. It has been said that this Corps ran from that field, but I stood there with them and saw them fighting in their places until darkness fell upon the field, and at the time I was borne away my men were engaged in a hand-to-hand contest with the batteries of the enemy; and although there were men who left the field, as there are always cowards in every army and every division, yet the large body of this gallant Corps, remained there steadily facing the enemy until dark. They never ran away; and the two guns said to be taken from them by the enemy were in fact left the next day, abandoned by our army, and not captured from the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. I will also point to South Mountain, of which it is not necessary to say much, for the gallantry of the Reserve Corps in ascending that height, and turning the left wing of the enemy, was recognized by the commander and is known to all the country; of Antietam, where they commenced the attack on the 16th of September, and unaided took such of the Confederate batteries as were in their front and held their position until next morning, when the battle was renewed; again of Fredericksburg, where this division alone and unaided advanced to the attack, drove the enemy from their position, and held for twenty minutes a position on those heights which, if they had been sufficiently supported and enabled to hold, would have given us a victory. [Cheers.] Have I not, then, a right to be justly proud, when the officers and men of a command, which have performed such services, which I now declare to be truth and fact, present me with this testimonial? I think I have a right to be proud and grateful, and I feel a proportionate pride and gratitude to-day. But while I express this pride and gratitude, it is not unmingled with mournful feelings. When I look around and reflect how many of the gallant officers and brave soldiers who originally composed this Corps are now sleeping their sleep in lonely battlefields, and how many others are now limping over the country mutilated cripples, I cannot but be saddened to think that your glorious achievement should be attended with such misfortune; that this fair country, which should be resting in peace and flowing with milk and honey, is disturbed and desolated by intestine war; that our arms, in preserving the integrity of the country, should have been compelled to enact the scenes I have witnessed. This testimonial, gratifying as it is under the circumstances, suggests many sad thoughts. At the same time I feel that I, and all the rest of you, are doing only our duty, acting from the highest impulses of the heart. It must not be—it is impossible—that this Government should be divided; that there should be two Governments and two flags on this continent. Every man of you, I am sure, is willing to sacrifice his life in vindication of the principle that our Government must be preserved as it was handed down to us, and but one flag shall wave over the whole territory, which shall be called the Republic of the United States. [Prolonged cheers.] Like you, I remember, sadly, mournfully, the names of the fallen. I am sorry that I cannot now recall the roll of honor of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. There is one—your former commander, first of brigade and then of division, one of the noblest souls among men, one of the most accomplished officers of this army—Major-General John F. Reynolds, I cannot receive this sword without thinking of that officer, and the heroic manner in which he met his fate in front at Gettysburg. There I lost, not only a lieutenant most important to me in his services, but a friend and brother. When I think, too, of others fallen—of McNeill and Taylor, of the Rifles; of Simmons, of the Fifth; of Dehone of Massachusetts; of young Kuhn, who came from Philadelphia and assisted me so efficiently, and many more who are gone, I am saddened by the recollection. It is more oppressive to go over the names of those who have been sacrificed. I wish I could mention the names of all the soldiers, but it would be a long, long list, that would include the names of all those from the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps who are now resting in honorable graves or crippled and mutilated in the service of their country. I thank you, Sir, for the kind manner in which you have conveyed to me this elegant testimonial, and to all those gentlemen, who have come so far to be present on this occasion, I am extremely grateful. I trust that this sword will be required but a short time longer. Events now look as if this unhappy war might soon be brought to a termination. All I can say to those gentlemen who have come here, is to earnestly entreat them on their return home to spare no effort to let the people know that all we want is men—men to fill up our thinned ranks. Give us the numbers, and in a short time I think the people on the other side will be satisfied that the result is inevitable, that it is only a question of time, and, seeing that we are bringing to bear the numbers which are required, they will themselves yield. Before I close, let me add what I had intended to say before, but it escaped my memory until this moment, an expression of my gratification that I heard that on the field of Gettysburg the division of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, under your command, enacted deeds worthy of its former reputation, and proved that there was no change whatever in the division—deeds which I feel satisfied will always be achieved by them while the division is composed of such officers and men. Thanking you again for this testimonial, and for the kind manner in which it has been conveyed to me, I will here conclude my remarks. [Renewed applause.]

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp.145-6. Editorial reprinted on pp. 313-315. Available via Google Books.

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  1. September 16, 1863 | Searching for GEORGE GORDON MEADE
  2. Gettysburg in the Rain | Searching for GEORGE GORDON MEADE

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