A Change in Command (January 26, 1863)


Alfred Waud’s impression of the Army of the Potomac near Falmouth, Virginia, in January 1863 (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside.

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Continuing the series of George Gordon Meade’s letters, posted here 150 years to the day after he wrote them. These were interesting times for the Army of the Potomac. Burnside’s “Mud March” had come to an ignominious conclusion and Ambrose Burnside’s days in command of the army seemed numbered. Meade wrote not one but two letters to his wife on January 26, 1863, to fill her in on what was happening.

We are much excited by rumors of what is going to be done. It is generally believed Burnside is in Washington, though when you go to see him, as I did yesterday, you are informed he is out riding.

This war will never be terminated until one side or the other has been well whipped, and this result cannot be brought about except by fighting. Hence, although I like fighting as little as any man, yet if it has to be done, and I don’t see how it can be avoided, I am of Shakespeare’s opinion, “if it were done, then ‘t were well it were done quickly.”

I send you three letters which I think you will be interested in reading, and which you may as well keep as mementoes of the war. The first is from Levi Richards, a private in the Pennsylvania Reserves, who was detailed as a teamster and drove my wagon while I was connected with the Reserves. His letter is spontaneous, he having nothing, as he says, to gain by it, as we are now separated, but it is gratifying to me as an evidence of the opinion entertained of me by the soldiers of my command. [For text of the letter, see below.]  The second is from Surgeon Pineo, one of the most accomplished officers of his department, who was under me, while I had command of the First Corps, as medical director. He asked me to recommend him for promotion, which I did, and his letter in reply shows what some officers think of me. The other is from Hon. William Wilkins, formerly judge in Pennsylvania, Senator and Secretary of War. He desires a favor for his grandson, but he is pleased to say I am powerful and in favor, hence his letter indicates in some measure public opinion in regard to me. I send them because, knowing how much you think of me, I know it will gratify you to know that others have a favorable opinion. This may be vanity, but I deem it pardonable in writing to one’s wife.

George [Meade’s son] gave me my spectacles, and the glasses suit exactly, and are truly welcome, for a day or two before we moved, I was on horseback, when a sudden puff of wind carried away the only pair of spectacles I had, and for a few minutes I was in despair, until fortunately my orderly found them. Now I am provided against such accidents.

(Meade wrote his second letter at 9:00 that night.)

Joseph Hooker (Library of Congress).

Joseph Hooker (Library of Congress).

I wrote you a long letter to-day, little thinking while I was quietly employed writing to you what momentous events were going on immediately around me. After writing to you, I went out to ride for exercise, and on my return at 6 P. M., found an order awaiting me, announcing Major General Hooker as in command of the Army of the Potomac and Major General Meade in command of the Centre Grand Division. I then learned for the first time that this news arrived this morning (Burnside having brought it down from Washington last night), and that he, Burnside, and all his staff had gone off this morning, and that Generals Sumner and Franklin had both been relieved and ordered to Washington. You can readily imagine my surprise at all this, although some such step had been talked about for some time back. As to my commanding a grand division, I consider it a mere temporary arrangement, as either some one of more rank will be sent, or, what is more likely, the grand division organization broken up altogether, as it was purely an invention of Burnside’s, and has not, I think, been considered a good one. You will, doubtless, be anxious to know what I think of these changes. With all my respect, and I may almost say affection, for Burnside—for he has been most kind and considerate towards me—I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that he was not equal to the command of so large an army. He had some very positive qualifications, such as determination and nerve, but he wanted knowledge and judgment, and was deficient in that enlarged mental capacity which is essential in a commander. Another drawback was a very general opinion among officers and men, brought about by his own assertions, that the command was too much for him. This greatly weakened his position. As to Hooker, you know my opinion of him, frequently expressed. I believe my opinion is more favorable than any other of the old regular officers, most of whom are decided in their hostility to him. I believe Hooker is a good soldier; the danger he runs is of subjecting himself to bad influences, such as Dan Butterfield and Dan Sickles, who, being intellectually more clever than Hooker, and leading him to believe they are very influential, will obtain an injurious ascendancy over him and insensibly affect his conduct. I may, however, in this be wrong; time will prove.

Here is an excerpt from the letter Meade mentions, written on January 9. The original is in the Meade papers.

To relieve my mind of things that I wish to make known to you I will take this opportunity. As I am a Private Soldier in the P.R. and as one sildier will express himself to another more readily than to an officer, I think I can tell you the feeling of this division. Towards you since the battle of the Peninsula I have never heard but two men that had anything to say against you and one of them was an officer. They all as a division loved you as a commander. They all appeared glad to hear of your Promotion but parted with you with Regret. Although strict they all told the same tale and that was that officers and men were used alike.

And as for myself I consider you have used me as a father would use his son although strict yet no more so than I think it Requires to make good soldiers and now am satisfied if a man does his duty with you it is all is required as I have been with you for almost one year . . . .

Meade’s letters taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 349-351. Available via Google Books.

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