An Encounter in Washington (February 27, 1863)

This letter from February 27, 1863, raises some interesting questions about Meade’s attitudes toward African-American soldiers. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on New Year’s Day, had opened to door for black men to serve in the Union armies. They were not exactly welcomed with open arms in most quarters. Many white men refused to believe that black men would or could fight. As Theodore Lyman, who would begin serving as Meade’s aide later in 1863, noted during the Overland Campaign after he first saw black Union soldiers, “As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners?” Lyman either was unaware of the irony in his words or refused to acknowledge that Lincoln had transformed the war into more than a crusade to restore the Union. It was now a war to end slavery as well. Like many in the army, Lyman had little faith in the black soldiers’ fighting abilities. “We do not dare trust them in the line of battle,” he wrote in a letter. “Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it.” The 180,000 or so black soldiers who ended up joining the Union armies during the war—including the many who distinguished themselves in battle—would have disagreed.

General Andrew Porter. (Library of Congress photo.)

General Andrew Porter. (Library of Congress photo.)

What does the encounter detailed below indicate about Meade’s views on black soldiers? I’d like to think he was stating his views honestly, even if he was doing it to needle an officer he apparently didn’t like. In the published version of this letter Meade’s editors (either his son or grandson) diplomatically omitted the name of the officer with whom Meade was talking, but the original letter shows it was Andrew Porter. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Porter had served as a staff officer for George McClellan and probably shared McClellan’s views on race. The former commander of the Army of the Potomac had been adamantly opposed to turning the Civil War into a war to end slavery.

Interestingly, Porter’s first cousin was Horace Porter, who served on Ulysses S. Grant’s staff and wrote a book called Campaigning with Grant that I found very useful for my Meade research.

The language  in this letter is typical of the era, although it may make us cringe today.

I wrote you a few lines yesterday from Major Woodruff’s office, advising you of my detention in Washington.

I met hundreds of people whom I knew, such as Generals Cadwalader, McCall, Hartsuff and others. I had seen Hudson (McClellan’s aide) in the morning, and he asked me to come at six and dine with the general. I declined the invitation on the ground of previous engagements, but said I would drop in after dinner. As it was past eight o’clock when I got back, I went in to the private parlor where McClellan was dining, and found a party of some dozen or more, all officers but one, a Mr. Cox, Democratic member of Congress from Ohio. Among the party were Andrew Porter, Sykes, Buchanan, General Van Allen and others. McClellan received me with much distinction and seated me alongside of himself, and asked very kindly after you and the children, etc. The subject of conversation at the table was general, and referred principally to military matters and pending acts of legislation. My friend [Porter], who doubtless had heard of my confirmation and was in consequence disgusted, said he heard I was to be given an Army Corps of Niggers. I laughingly replied I had not been informed of the honor awaiting me, but one thing I begged to assure , that if the niggers were going into the field and really could be brought heartily to fight, I was ready to command them, and should prefer such duty to others that might be assigned me. As this was a fair hit at Porter’s position, it silenced him, and I heard nothing further about commanding niggers. After spending an hour in pleasant chat, I withdrew, and meeting Cram, we spent the night till near twelve o’clock, talking and walking about among the crowd in the hotel. This morning I left at eight o’clock and reached here about one P. M., being half a day behind my time. On the wharf at Acquia Creek I met Reynolds, on his way out, having just received his leave, and having been, as I expected, awaiting my return to have his granted.

Meade’s letter 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. 355-56. Available via Google Books.

In Transit (February 26, 1863)

General George Sykes. (Library of Congress photo.)

General George Sykes. (Library of Congress photo.)

Although it seems churlish to resent Meade’s opportunity to obtain leave and spend some time with his family in Philadelphia, we do regret the absence of any correspondence with his wife during that period. The gap finally ends on February 26 when Meade wrote home to detail his travails attempting to return to his command. He wrote this letter from the Bureau of Topographical Engineers in Washington, D.C.

The Cram he mentions is Henry A. Cram, his wife’s brother-in-law. When Theodore Lyman met him in 1864 he said, “Cram is a queer man–never saw one exactly like him. He has a jerky, theatrical style that made me at first suppose he had had a toddy or two.” Sykes is Maj. Gen. George Sykes, who commanded a division of Meade’s V Corps . As I describe him in the book, “Sykes was yet another West Point graduate, a Delaware native who had been fighting since First Bull Run. He looked like a cartoon general, with a big beard that jutted out in front of his chin and a firm, determined nose like the prow of a ship.” His photo (right) will give you an idea of what I mean. When Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac Sykes replaced him at the head of the V Corps.

The train never reached this place until ten o’clock, instead of six-thirty as due. In consequence I missed the boat. As there is none till to-morrow morning at 8 A. M., thus detaining me here all day. This is annoying, because I wished to set the example of a prompt and punctual return within the time allowed me, whereas now I shall be one day behind time, and this is the more disagreeable because there is a report in town that the enemy’s cavalry have appeared in force this side of the Rappahannock. This is only a raid, as they cannot possibly be so foolish as to attempt any advance this side of the river, at this season of the year. The first person I met at the hotel was Cram, and I am going to dine with him to-day. I next met Sykes, who is up here on a court-martial. I am now writing a few lines to give you the news, am going to see Mrs. Turnbull and then shall dine with Cram.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 355. Available via Google Books.

The Book Has Launched!


Every party needs cake! (Kyle Weaver photo.)

Every party needs cake! (Kyle Weaver photo.)


A large and enthusiastic crowd arrived for the book signing. (Kyle Weaver photo.)

A large and enthusiastic crowd arrived for the book signing. (Kyle Weaver photo.)

We had a successful launch of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. It took place at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 16, 2013. Author Tom Huntington (that’s me) signed copies of the book in the museum atrium from 10 a.m. until noon, for a large and enthusiastic crowd. Before the signing, Huntington (me again) did a talk for museum members on the Cast of Characters that appear in the book. Switching into the first person, I want to say what a great time I had at the event and I’d like to express my thanks to Wayne Motts and the museum staff for making it possible. Thanks also to Jim Schmick of Civil War and More in Mechanicsburg for ably handling the retail end. And to my wife, Beth Ann, for all her  support and for providing a great cake (above). And, of course, thanks to everyone who showed up, including family and friends.

Last week I recorded a program with Brian Lockman for the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN)’s PA Books show. It should air sometime in March. Watch this blog and the Searching for George Gordon Meade Facebook page for details as they become available.

The National Civil War Museum had plenty of books on display in the bookstore. (Kyle Weaver photo.)

The National Civil War Museum had plenty of books on display in the bookstore. (Kyle Weaver photo.)

Welcome News (February 15, 1863)

After weeks of fruitlessly waiting for Hooker to give him permission to go home to Philadelphia on leave, Meade finally received the okay from Joseph Hooker to head north. That was good news for Meade but bad news for historians, as it means there is a gap in his correspondence until he returns to the army later in the month. I assume the General Morrell to whom Meade refers is Maj. Gen. George Morell, a New Yorker who commanded the 1st Division of the 5th Corps until he was replaced by Daniel Butterfield. Morell had been close to Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, one of George McClellan’s most loyal subordinates and the man Maj. Gen. John Porter had court martialed after Second Bull Run. This did not help Morell’s career.

I thought this afternoon I would not have to write to you, for I got a note from Hooker, saying he could spare me for seven days and telling me to apply. I immediately did so, sending in the same application which he had twice refused. At the same time I wrote to him, that I did not desire to go, if there was the slightest reason to believe I should be wanted. It will be too much happiness to get home for a few days and be with you and the dear children.

Maj. Gen. George Morell.

Maj. Gen. George Morell.

I have had an application from young [William] Jay, of New York, to come upon my staff, as an extra aide. He was appointed an additional aide-de-camp at the time the law authorized such appointments, and has been serving with General Morrell. That officer having been deprived of his command, Captain Jay has applied to me. I told him, if the War Department would assign him, I should be glad to have him.

Meade’s letter 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. 354-355. Available via Google Books.

The Two Dans (February 13, 1863)

Major General George Stoneman and his staff, photographed in Falmouth, Virginia, sometime in February 1863.

Major General George Stoneman and his staff, photographed in Falmouth, Virginia, sometime in February 1863. (Library of Congress)

In this letter from February 13, 1863, General Meade expresses distaste for some fellow generals who would later pose major problems for him: the two Dans, Sickles and Butterfield. In his landmark book, Gettysburg: A Study in Command, Edward Coddington wrote, “There is something strange, if not uncanny, about the way Meade got into difficulty with those two cronies of Hooker, Generals Butterfield and Sickles.” Sickles was a political general with strong ties to New York City’s powerful Tammany Democratic machine. He had also gained a measure of renown when, as a New York congressman, he killed his wife’s lover in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, within sight of the White House. At this point he commanded the Army of the Potomac’s III Corps. Butterfield had commanded the V Corps until Meade rightly pointed out that he, Meade, had seniority.

The new cavalry head was George Stoneman. His tenure in that position did not last long following a lackluster effort before Chancellorsville. He later served as governor of California. The George whom Meade mentions is his son, who was serving in the cavalry. Pope is John Pope, who commanded the Army of Virginia during the disastrous Second Bull Run (Second Manassas to the South).

I have not seen General Hooker for several days, indeed his course towards me is so inexplicable in refusing me leave of absence, and not vouchsafing any reason for it, that I feel indisposed to see him. Besides, I do not like his entourage. Such gentlemen as Dan Sickles and Dan Butterfield are not the persons I should select as my intimates, however worthy and superior they may be. I rode over to George’s camp to-day and paid him a short visit. The regiment, since the breaking up of the grand divisions, has been placed under Stoneman, who has command of all the cavalry. This will give them a much better chance of seeing service than when attached to Headquarters, which is a lazy, loafing sort of duty. Have you read General Pope’s famous report? I see he says I did my duty in all fidelity to the Government, for which, of course, I am truly grateful.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p 354. Available via Google Books.

More Characters

I’ve added a few more people who play roles in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg to the “Cast of Characters” page. They are all characters, in one way or another. These are the new additions:

BirneyDavid Bell Birney. As one of Meade’s aides described him, Birney “was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair.” He had been born in the South, but a hatred of slavery motivated his father to pack up the family and move north. Birney took up the law and was practicing in Philadelphia when war broke out. Meade and Birney had an encounter at Fredericksburg, when Meade requested reinforcements and Birney refused to send them, supposedly because he felt he had to wait until he received orders from corps commander John Reynolds first. This infuriated Meade. According to a bystander, when Meade rode over to confront Birney he used language strong enough to “almost make the stones creep.” He gained an enemy for life. Later in the war Birney cast his lot with Sickles and Butterfield to get either Hooker or Sickles in command of the army. When he realized he had backed the wrong horse Birney went to Meade, hat in hand, to make amends. He told Meade he had never entertained unfriendly feelings toward him and hoped to serve under him again. Meade listened with an icy silence, saying only that he had never heard that Birney had unfriendly feelings toward him. (“I am again on very pleasant terms with Gen. Meade,” Birney wrote to a friend. “He assured me of his high regard, and desire for me to remain.”) When Birney died in October 1864, Meade told his wife that he had never liked the man personally but admired his abilities on the field. “General Birney is undoubtedly a loss to the army,” Meade wrote. “He was a very good soldier, and very energetic in the performance of his duties. During the last campaign he had quite distinguished himself.”

LymanTheodore Lyman. Lyman was a Boston patrician and Harvard graduate who traveled among the best families and married well. He had first met Meade in Florida in 1856, when he was studying starfish and Meade was overseeing lighthouse construction. While in Europe during the war, a conflict that had already killed many in his circle, Lyman wrote to the general and asked about a staff position. He reached Meade’s side on September 3, 1863, and remained with him until Lee surrendered. Tall, bearded, and balding, Lyman was trained as a scientist and brought a scientist’s skill at observation to the journal and letters he wrote while with the Army of the Potomac. Although Lyman certainly viewed the war through the lens of a staff officer, he spent his share of time on or near the front lines, dodging shells and bullets and seeing the dead and wounded. His accounts offer incisive and often humorous portraits of the personalities he encountered and the petty grievances and unpredictable human interactions that sometimes gummed up the army’s works. His portrayals can be sympathetic or cutting. Of Judson Kilpatrick, Lyman noted, “His colorless eye, big nose, and narrow forehead, with an indescribable air between a vulgarian & a crack-brain, combine to render him almost laughable. He is pushing & managing in the extreme, but I don’t believe he is worth a fig as a general.” Of George Armstrong Custer, at one time the Union’s youngest general and still years away from the disaster at the Little Bighorn, Lyman wrote:  “This officer is one of the funniest looking beings you ever saw, and looks like a circus rider gone mad!” Lyman wrote. “He wears a huzzar jacket and tight trousers, of faded black velvet trimmed with tarnished gold lace. His head is decked with a little, gray felt hat; high boots and gilt spurs complete the costume, which is enhanced by the General’s coiffure, consisting in short, dry, flaxen ringlets! His aspect, though highly amusing, is also pleasing, as he has a very merry blue eye, and a devil-may-care style.” Lyman described John Buford as “a compactly built man of middle height, with a tawny moustache and a little, triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to say sinister. His ancient corduroys are tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots, and his blue blouse is ornamented with holes; from one pocket thereof peeps a huge pipe, while the other is fat with a tobacco pouch. Notwithstanding this get-up he is a very soldierly looking man. He is of a good-natured disposition, but not to be trifled with.” Although generally positive about Meade, Lyman was not blind to the general’s faults, especially that ungovernable temper. He called him “the great peppery.”

barlowFrancis C. Barlow. Like Lyman, Barlow was a Harvard man. He had practiced law before the war and looked more like a newsboy than a general, but Barlow had been wounded at Antietam and left for dead at Gettysburg. He carried an especially large sword—so that when he hit stragglers with it, he would hurt them, he told Lyman. Lyman called him “an eccentric officer.” At Cold Harbor one night Lyman found Barlow in a good mood. He had placed some stragglers—his bêtes noires—I n a field during the shelling, and two of them had been killed. After leaving Cold Harbor in the successful attempt to sweep around Lee to Petersburg, Barlow began marching his men so fast—with his provost guard spurring stragglers along at bayonet point—that Meade sent Lyman forward to tell him to slow down. Lyman found Barlow sitting, coatless, high up in the branches of a cherry tree. “By Jove!” came his voice from above Lyman’s head. “I knew I wouldn’t be here long before Meade’s staff would be up. How do you do, Theodore? Won’t you come up and take a few cherries?”

Good-bye, Baldy (February 6, 1863)

William F. "Baldy" Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

William F. “Baldy” Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

In this letter from February 6, 1863, Meade mentions General William “Baldy” Smith, another man with whom he would have unpleasant dealings later. Smith and Meade were friendly enough at this time. In fact, Smith was one of the generals Meade invited to share his champagne and celebrate his assumption to command of the V Corps on December 23. But Smith, who had commanded the VI Corps at Fredericksburg, had also been one of the generals undermining Ambrose Burnside. He had even visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House to complain about Burnside’s generalship. (William Franklin, whom Meade mentioned in his previous letter, went with Smith. Both generals were sent packing from the Army of the Potomac.) When Theodore Lyman, Meade’s observant aide, met Smith in 1864 he described him as “a short, quite portly man, with a light-brown imperial and shaggy mustache, a round, military head, and the look of a German officer, altogether.” He was not really bald, although his hair was thinning. He possessed “unusual powers of caustic criticism” and quarreled incessantly with his superior officers. The Sedgwick who replaced Baldy Smith at the head of the VI Corps was John Sedgwick. He was a Connecticut native who had graduated from West Point two years after Meade. A lifelong bachelor, he was “married” to the army and enjoyed passing the time playing long games of solitaire. War correspondent George W. Smalley called him “one of the best generals we had: a man of utterly transparent honesty, simplicity, and truth of character; trusted, beloved, ardently followed by his men; a commander who had done great things and was capable of greater.” His men loved him and called him “Uncle John.”

I assume the Frailey Meade mentions is James M. Frailey, a Philadelphian who commanded the USS Quaker City, a sidewheel steamer that served in the Union blockading fleet. Southern ironclads had attacked Union vessels outside Charleston on January 31, seriously damaging the Quaker City.

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John." (Library of Congress)

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John.” (Library of Congress)

To-day an order is issued abolishing grand divisions and returning to the system of corps. I am announced as in command of the Fifth Corps. This is what I expected and accords with my ideas of what is best for the efficiency of the army. Baldy Smith has been relieved of his command and Sedgwick takes his corps—cause unknown, but supposed to be his affiliation with Franklin, and the fear that he would not co-operate with Hooker. This, however, is mere surmise, I have not seen any one to know or hear what is going on.

Last evening I received orders to send out an expedition this morning, which I did; but it has been storming violently all day, and this afternoon I sent to recall it. The Ninth Corps, which came with Burnside from North Carolina, is not announced in the order published to-day, and I hear it is under orders to move—where it is going, not known, but the probability is that Burnside has asked to have it with him, in case he returns to North Carolina.

The news from Charleston looks very badly, I hope our friend Frailey will come out all right. Stellwagon of theMercedita,if you remember we met at Mrs. Frailey’s last summer, the evening I went in there. Our navy has hitherto been so successful, that it seems hard to realize a reverse.

I do not know what to make of the political condition of the country. One thing I do know, I have been long enough in the war to want to give them one thorough good licking before any peace is made, and to accomplish this I will go through a good deal.

Meade’s letter 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. 353-354. Available via Google Books.

Morning at Gettysburg

Dawn StatueI was down at the Gettysburg battlefield the other day and I took this picture of the Meade statue beneath a dramatic morning sky. That’s all.

Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available. Don’t be the last on your block to get a copy! Order it now! did a nice story about me and the book, which you can find here.

Family Ties (February 1, 1863)

A view of Fredericksburg, taken in February 1863. So near, and yet so far.

A view of Fredericksburg, taken in February. So near, and yet so far. (Library of Congress)

The American Civil War is often characterized as being “brother against brother” and that was sometimes literally true. For example, General John Gibbon, whom Meade mentioned in his letter of January 28, had three brothers who fought for the Confederacy. Even under circumstances not quite so extreme, the conflict often divided families. Meade’s family is a case in point. His wife’s sister, Sarah, had married Henry Wise, who became governor of Virginia, signed John Brown’s death warrant, and served in the Army of Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Meade’s own sister, Elizabeth, had married a Virginia planter named Alfred Ingraham and moved to Mississippi with him. She became an ardent rebel. In June 1863 Union forces reached her home, Ashwood, during the Vicksburg campaign and generals John McClernand and James McPherson made their headquarters there. It’s not clear whether she told them that her brother commanded the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps.

On July 23, 1863, Elizabeth wrote to her brother. “My dear George,” she began, “We have been despoiled of everything, our crops ruined, our home literally gutted, but the Federal soldiers under Gen’l Grant & McClernand, Gen’l McPherson being in my parlor during a portion of the time & to whom I applied personally without effect.” Among the possessions she said the soldiers had ruined was their father’s desk. She wanted to a permit to cross the Federal lines with what possessions she still had. “My sons are dead,” she said, “Edward murdered at Farmington [MS] after he had surrendered, he’s buried near Corinth. Frank, killed at Chancellorsville on 3rd May, the very day this house was despoiled, is buried on Mary’s Hite, without even a winding sheet, it being one of the barbarous usages of this cruel & unnatural war to strip the dead—God help me.”

But those tragedies still lay in the future when Meade wrote to his wife on February 1, 1863, to tell her he had received word from his doomed nephew Frank, who was with Lee’s army at Fredericksburg. (Ned was Frank’s brother, who had died in Mississippi and Apolline his sister.)

The Franklin that Meade mentions is Major General William Franklin. A native of York, Pennsylvania, Franklin had commanded the left wing of the Army of the Potomac, to which Meade’s brigade belonged, at the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December. The Committee on the Conduct of the War now had Franklin in its sights.

Yesterday I received by the flag of truce, a note from Frank Ingraham, who says he is a private in the Twenty-first Mississippi Regiment, now at Fredericksburg. He says Ned was killed last spring, and that Apolline has lost her husband, who died from exposure in service; that his mother and the rest are all well, and wish to be remembered to his yankee relatives.

Major General William Franklin. After the Battle of Gettysburg he found himself the focus of Congressional attention. (Library of Congress)

Major General William Franklin. After the Battle of Gettysburg he found himself the focus of Congressional attention. (Library of Congress)

The weather continues most unfavorable, rain and mud are the order of the day, and in my judgment it will be some months before we can undertake operations of any magnitude. I am afraid, from what I see in the papers, that General Franklin is going to have trouble, for which I shall be truly sorry, for I really like Franklin.

Elizabeth’s letter is from Moore, Sue Burns, and Drake, Rebecca Blackwell, editors. Leaves: The Diary of Elizabeth Meade Ingraham, the Rebel Sister of General George Meade. Champion Hill Heritage Foundation, 2010.

Meade’s letter is taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 353. Available via Google Books.