Foreshadowing (March 15, 1863)

Meade wrote the following letter to his oldest son, John Sergeant, on March 15, 1863. (The George he mentions is the son who was serving with the army’s cavalry with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, a.k.a. “Rush’s Lancers.”) The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is an agency with which Meade would have many unpleasant dealings in the future. Here’s what I say in the book:

Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Republican senator Zachariah Chandler had spearheaded the committee’s creation to investigate war-related matters following the Union disasters of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff. Three senators and four congressmen served on the committee. Chandler and another Republican senator, Ohio’s Ben Wade of Ohio, were the committee’s driving force, but Democrats served on it as well, including Andrew Johnson, later Lincoln’s vice president and successor. In the years since the Civil War historians have gone back and forth on the question of the committee’s impact on the war. Some think it had a negative effect, others a positive, and still others little cumulative effect at all. Yet writing in 1881 Alexander S. Webb, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg and even served as Meade’s chief of staff, wrote, “That body must be counted among the President’s most influential advisors. It was a power during the war.”

This letter also demonstrates how Meade’s opinions about how to approach the war had evolved over time. Back in February 1862 he had said the people in the North should “deport ourselves more like the afflicted parent who is compelled to chastise his erring child, and who performs the duty with a sad heart.” Compare that to the passage below. I think we can link the changes in Meade’s thinking to the disillusionment he felt over George McClellan, who he felt erred “on the side of prudence and caution.”

Ohio's Senator Benjamin "Bljff Ben" Wade (National Archives).

Ohio’s Senator Benjamin “Bljff Ben” Wade (National Archives).

I am obliged to go up to Washington to-day, to appear before the “Committee on the Conduct of the War.” I have no idea what they want me for, but presume it is in relation to the Fredericksburg battle, and that my being called is due to the testimony of General Burnside, who has perhaps referred to me in his statement. I am very sorry I have been called, because my relations and feelings towards all parties are and have been of the most friendly character, and I shall be sorry to become involved in any way in the controversies growing out of this affair.

I have only seen George once since my return; the weather and roads have been so bad that neither of us could get to the camp of the other. The regiment has been very highly complimented by General Stoneman. One squadron has been armed with carbines, and it is expected that in a short time the whole regiment will be thus equipped and the turkey-driving implement abandoned.

I am completely fuddled about politics, and am afraid the people are very much demoralized. I trust one thing or another will be done. Either carry on the war as it ought to be, with overwhelming means, both material and personal, or else give it up altogether. I am tired of half-way measures and efforts, and of the indecisive character of operations up to this time. I don’t know whether these sentiments will be considered disloyal, but they are certainly mine; with the understanding, however, that I am in favor of the first, namely, a vigorous prosecution of the war with all the means in our power.

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. 357-8. Available via Google Books.

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