A Tribute from a Former Adversary

One great disappointment about writing a book is that I sometimes come across material I would have liked to include, but only after it’s too late. Such is the case with this passage from Confederate General John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War. I had read Gordon’s book when I was working on Pennsylvania Civil War Trails (I was especially interested in his account of the burning of the Wrightsville Bridge) but I didn’t recall this passage until I came across it while working on another project.

I understand that historians have sometimes questioned Gordon’s veracity (especially regarding his story about meeting the Union’s Francis Barlow at Gettysburg and after the war) but I still think this is an interesting passage, coming as it does from one of Meade’s former adversaries.

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

To the Union commander, General George Gordon Meade, history will accord the honor of having handled his army at Gettysburg with unquestioned ability. The record and the results of the battle entitle him to a high place among Union leaders. To him and to his able subordinates and heroic men is due the credit of having successfully met and repelled the Army of Northern Virginia in the meridian of its hope and confidence and power. This much seems secure to him, whether his failure vigorously to follow General Lee and force him to another battle is justified or condemned by the military critics of the future. General Meade’s army halted, it is true, after having achieved a victory. The victory, however, was not of so decisive a character as to demoralize Lee’s forces. The great Bonaparte said that bad as might be the condition of a victorious army after battle, it was invariably true that the condition of the defeated army was still worse. If, however, any successful commander was ever justified in disregarding this truism of Bonaparte’s, General Meade was that commander; for a considerable portion of Lee’s army, probably one third of it, was still in excellent fighting trim, and nearly every man in it would have responded with alacrity to Lee’s call to form a defensive line and deliver battle.

It was my pleasure to know General Meade well after the war, when he was the Department Commander or Military Governor of Georgia. An incident at a banquet in the city of Atlanta illustrates his high personal and soldierly characteristics. The first toast of the evening was to General Meade as the honored guest. When this toast had been drunk, my health was proposed. Thereupon, objection was made upon the ground that it was “too soon after the war to be drinking the health of a man who had been fighting for four years in the Rebel army.” It is scarcely necessary to say that this remark came from one who did no fighting in either army. He belonged to that curious class of soldiers who were as valiant in peace as they were docile in war; whose defiance of danger became dazzling after the danger was past. General Meade belonged to the other class of soldiers, who fought as long as fighting was in order, and was ready for peace when there was no longer any foe in the field. This chivalric chieftain of the Union forces at Gettysburg was far more indignant at the speech of the bomb-proof warrior than I was myself. The moment the objection to drinking my health was suggested, General Meade sprang to his feet, and with a compliment to myself which I shall not be expected to repeat, and a rebuke to the objector, he held high his glass and said, with significant emphasis: “I propose to drink, and drink now, to my former foe, but now my friend, General Gordon, of Georgia.”

Taken from Reminiscences of the Civil War by John Brown Gordon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), pp. 158-59. Available via Google Books.

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