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?”

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