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.

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