Joseph Henry, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution who didn't want to see Meade become "food for powder." (Library of Congress.)

Joseph Henry, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution who didn’t want to see Meade become “food for powder.” (Library of Congress.)

George Meade spent much of his time just before the war doing scientific work, including a survey of Lake Superior. “Many were the regrets expressed at this time by those with whom he had come in contact in the course of those labors, at the loss to science of one who had evinced for it such high qualifications,” wrote his son in the first volume of Meade’s Life and Letters. “So strong was this feeling on the part of Professor [Joseph] Henry, the distinguished secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, that he endeavored to dissuade General Meade from seeking active service. They had been thrown much together during the last few years while General Meade was conducting the lake survey, and Professor Henry had come to regard him as one possessed of so great aptitude for that class of work that he was unwilling to lose him from the ranks of science, to which he was himself so enthusiastically devoted. Professor Henry even went so far as to call upon Mrs. Meade, on the occasion of a visit of his to Philadelphia, for the express purpose of beseeching her to lend her aid to prevent a step which would result in so great a loss to science. From his point of view he regarded it as sheer waste for one possessed of the scientific qualifications of General Meade to relinquish his brilliant future in the field of science, and, as he expressed it, become mere food for powder.” The opening of Meade’s letter from March 13, 1863, shows that he still retained his interest in science. If the professor is John C. Cresson, Meade must have gotten to know him better after the war when both men served as commissioners for Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

I am glad you went to Professor Cresson’s experiments on the polarization of light, which must have been very interesting, even though unintelligible!

Captain Magaw and ladies left us to-day. Though we were utterly unprepared for such visitors, we managed to make them quite comfortable, and they left delighted. Yesterday I put the ladies in an ambulance and mounted Magaw on Baldy, and we went over and took a look at Fredericksburg, and afterwards called on Hooker. The General was, however, absent at a grand wedding which took place yesterday in camp, followed last night by a ball, and I understand another ball is given to-night by General Sickles. Not being honored with an invitation to these festivities, I did not go.

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. 357. Available via Google Books.

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