Living historians of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia pose in front of Alexander Calder’s statue on October 27, 2012. They had gathered to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the statue’s unveiling.

The General Meade Society of Philadelphia does not like to pass up an opportunity to celebrate its favorite general. Last weekend members of the society gathered to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the unveiling of Alexander Calder’s statue of Meade that stands in the city’s Fairmount Park. Dr. Anthony Waskie, the society’s founder and president, served as master of ceremonies for the commemoration. Waskie often appears at events as Meade, but since the general had been dead for some 15 years when his statue was dedicated on October 18, 1887, he appeared instead as Philadelphia mayor Edwin Fitler, who played a similar role 125 years earlier. Also present were representatives of the ladies of Philadelphia, members of the 3rd United States Colored Troops, the 98th Pennsylvania, and two colorfully garbed members of the 114th Pennsylvania. Also known as Collis’ Zouaves, the 114th PA served for a time as Meade’s headquarters guard. General John Gibbon, in the twenty-first century person of Bob Hanrahan, delivered the oration—all 7,300 words of it.

Here’s what I say about the original ceremony in the book:

Alexander Milne Calder's Meade Statue

Two members of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry (Collis’s Zouaves) flank Calder’s statue of Meade.

This Meade is an equestrian statue by Alexander Milne Calder, whose huge William Penn stands atop the masonry tower of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Calder’s Meade has a much lonelier posting behind a sprawling Beaux-Arts style building called Memorial Hall. Calder created this Meade for $30,000, raised by the Fairmount Park Art Association, and cast it with metal from captured Confederate cannons. “The design is a spirited one, and the execution all that could be desired,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times when the statue was unveiled at a gala ceremony on October 18, 1887. The general’s grandsons performed the actual unveiling “amid tumultuous cheering” from a crowd estimated at twenty thousand. John Gibbon was the featured speaker, and his listeners included Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, now a former governor of Maine; Fitz John Porter, who had successfully challenged the court-martial over his actions at Second Bull Run; William Franklin, Meade’s superior at Fredericksburg; and a number of other aging soldiers who had fought with the Army of the Potomac.

The cheers and speeches, as well as the soldiers, have long since faded away, replaced now by the rush of traffic from nearby I-76. Meade sits on his horse, a spirited steed that has its head down as it bites at its bridle, and he gazes in the direction of his grave up the Schuylkill. I agree with the New York Times assessment that statue is a good likeness—better, I think, than the one at Gettysburg. Behind it a quiet and empty park stretches back to Memorial Hall, a behemoth constructed for the nation’s centennial in 1876. It now houses the Please Touch Museum.

Brigadier General John Gibbon as he appeared during the war.

Gibbon was a close friend of Meade’s and delivered a detailed outline of his career.  “Nearly forty years ago the Seminole Indians broke out and commenced murdering the settlers in Florida,” he began. “Troops were sent into the country and a line of camps was established across the Peninsula. Into one of these camps, late one afternoon, rode a horseman attended by a single orderly. He was a gaunt, thin man, with a hatchet face and a prominent aquiline nose. He introduced himself as Lieutenant Meade, Topographical Engineers, just from a reconnaissance on the hostile border. He was wet, tired, and hungry. It was my good fortune to be able to offer dry clothes, food, and a bed of blankets to one whose name was destined fourteen years later to render famous the little town of Gettysburg, in the southern part of Pennsylvania.

“It was the first time I had met him,” Gibbon continued. “He was then about thirty-four years of age, had accompanied our army into Mexico, served in the war with that country in a subordinate position and without any especial notice. The next time we met he was a Brigadier-General of volunteers, commanding a brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves in front of Washington in the fall of 1861.”

Bob Hanrahan, as General Gibbon, delivers the oration.

At the time, Meade’s reputation still suffered from the rumor that he had intended to retreat from Gettysburg, and Gibbon addressed that, too. “It is worth no man’s while to attempt to defend General Meade from a charge which came very near being made the pretext for depriving him of the command of the army,” he said. “Those who knew the character of the man will not hesitate to accept as conclusive his adjuration made before the Committee on the conduct of the war, and repeated in other places with the same earnestness. ‘I deny (he says), under the full solemnity and sanctity of my oath, and in the firm conviction that the day will come when the secrets of all men shall be known—I utterly deny ever having intended, or thought for one instant, to withdraw that army, unless the military contingencies, which the future should develop during the course of the day, might render it a matter of necessity that the army should be withdrawn.’

Members of the 3rd USCT serve as a color guard while members of the 98th Pennsylvania Infantry salute Meade with a volley.

“But, whilst not deeming it necessary to attempt any defense against this charge of an intended retreat, I believe the time has now come, and that this is a suitable occasion, to emphatically declare, no matter what errors or misconceptions may have existed in the minds of others, that there is not the slightest evidence tending to show any intention in the mind of General Meade to retreat from the field of Gettysburg on the morning of the 2d of July, or at any other time during the continuance of the battle.”

Andy Waskie appeared at the commemoration as Philadelphia’s Mayor Edwin H. Fitler. Like Meade, the real Fitler is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, but the mayor’s monument there is much more grandiose than Meade’s.

Time has marched on since the statue’s dedication and now this section of Fairmount Park is a bit of a backwater. That’s why Waskie and the General Meade Society have been trying to get the Meade statue relocated to a more prominent spot in Philadelphia. If you’d like to sign the petition, you can find it here.

If you’d like to read Gibbon’s entire oration, plus some other background on the original ceremony, you can find it on Google Books here.

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