Museum Pieces

Last week I visited the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg to talk to CEO Wayne Motts and his staff about the upcoming book launch of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. (It will take place February 16, 2013, at the museum. Go here for full details.) After the meeting Wayne took me into another room, excited at the chance to show me some Meade-related items the museum will include in its new exhibit about the year 1863, which opened on January 17. tomorrow He had a bunch of items laid out on a table. Among them was a copy of the order Meade issued on June 30, 1863—two days after he received command of the Army of the Potomac and only one day before the fighting began at Gettysburg. It ended with this chilling note: “Corps and other commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldier who fails in his duty at this hour.”

There was also a copy of Meade’s General Orders No. 68. Issued over the name of assistant adjutant-general Seth Williams (like me, a native of Augusta, Maine) on July 4, 1863, it was a congratulatory message to his army and, innocuous as it might appear on the surface, it damaged Meade’s relationship with President Abraham Lincoln. The offending passage was this one: “Our task is not yet accomplished, and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” When Lincoln saw that he exclaimed, “Great God! Is that all?” He complained to another listener, “Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil!”

A third item that will go on display is Meade’s own copy of a government-issued

Daniel Buttefield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he "has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade's reputation under the fifth rib."

Daniel Butterfield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he “has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade’s reputation under the fifth rib.”

booklet that listed all the army’s officers and their seniority. Meade’s signature is on the cover of the little blue publication. No doubt most of the army’s officers kept their own copies handy, because, in general, advancement in rank depended on seniority. Before the war the pace of advancement could be glacially slow as officers waited for those above them to die or retire. Even during the war ambitious officers—and Meade was certainly ambitious—kept a close eye on who got promoted and who had seniority. For example, when Ambrose Burnside promoted Daniel Butterfield to command of the V Corps shortly before the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade was acutely aware that he had seniority over Butterfield yet still remained in command of only a division. After wrestling a bit with the best way to handle the matter, he decided to bring it up with Burnside. On November 23, 1862, he rode over to Burnside’s headquarters. Here’s what I write in Searching for Meade:

I have come to pick a crow with you,” he said as playfully as he could. Then he explained his feelings about Butterfield getting command of the V Corps. Burnside acted surprised. He said that he had no idea Meade ranked Butterfield and certainly had meant no disrespect. His intention was for Butterfield to command the corps only temporarily, perhaps until someone senior to both men—John Sedgwick, perhaps—could take over. Meade pronounced himself satisfied and rode back to his tent.

(On December 23, the debacle at Fredericksburg over, Burnside told Meade he was giving him command of the V Corps.)

 That left Meade with some tricky diplomatic work not only with Butterfield but also with Joe Hooker. Butterfield was a Hooker crony, and the V Corps belonged to Hooker’s Grand Division. Meade heard rumors that Hooker was not happy with the change of commanders. Nonetheless, the news called for a celebration. Meade obtained some champagne and invited his fellow generals, including Franklin, Reynolds, and William F. “Baldy” Smith, to share it with him. “Whereupon it was unanimously agreed that Congress ought to establish the grade of lieutenant general, and that they would all unite in having me made one, provided I would treat with such good wine,” Meade reported.

On the day before Christmas Meade rode to Hooker’s tent to officially report for duty. He found Hooker with Butterfield. After what must have been an awkward few minutes, Butterfield excused himself.

“I told Burnside, when he informed me of his intention, that there was no officer in the army I would prefer to you, were the corps without a commander and the question of selection open,” Hooker told Meade, “but Butterfield having been placed there and having discharged the duties to my satisfaction, particularly through the late battle, I deemed myself authorized to ask that he might be retained.” Hooker said it was nothing personal, and then he signed the order relieving Butterfield and giving Meade command.

Butterfield invited his successor to a Christmas dinner the next day, a handsome entertainment shared by all the brigade and division commanders. After everyone else had left, Meade remained behind to talk with Butterfield. He understood his feelings, Meade told him. “Poor Butterfield then opened his heart,” said Meade. Burnside had promised him that command of the V Corps was permanent, Butterfield complained. Meade sympathized but pointed out that the original injustice had been done when Butterfield was promoted over him. When he said good night to Butterfield, Meade felt that the situation was “definitely and satisfactorily settled.” He would have further unpleasant dealings with Butterfield in the future.

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