Presentations (April 5, 1863)

TestimonialCivil War soldiers liked to give their officers fancy (and expensive) presentation swords. It was a way to honor their commanders and also acknowledge their own performances. In the letter below Meade writes about the sword that his old division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, had ordered to present to him. I’ve included scans of the articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer of April 1, 1863, to which he was referring. At the end I’ve included a scan of the item that appeared immediately above the one about Meade’s sword. It says something about public reaction to the subject of black soldiers.

Meade did not actually receive the sword until August 27 and he had to admit it was a thing of beauty. It had a blade of Damascus steel and a scabbard of gold. His initials were engraved near the hilt and inlaid with enamel, gold and diamonds. Precious stones circled the handle. Engraved on the blade were the battles that Meade and the reserves had shared. “The more I examine my sword the more I am delighted with its beauty,” Meade wrote home. “It is really most chaste and artistic. It seems a pity, though, to waste so much money on an article that from its great value is actually rendered useless.” The sword had been on display at the Civil War museum on Pine Street in Philadelphia but went into storage when that museum closed. I hope it will go on display someplace for the Gettysburg 150th anniversary.

I have to assume the letter he mentions at the end is this one, which New York Times reporter Samuel Wilkeson wrote about David Birney, with whom Meade had clashed at Fredericksburg. (Apparently Wilkeson was under the impression he was dealing with David’s brother William, another Union general.) Wilkeson, who had been with the Tribune during the Peninsula campaign, was reporting for the New York Times when he was with the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. His son, 19-year-old Bayard Wilkeson, was at Gettysburg, too, as the commander of Battery G, 4th U.S. Artillery. The young Wilkeson died during the first day’s fighting, after being forced to amputate his own shattered leg.

Yesterday I received yours of the 2d instant, announcing you had been to Bailey’s to see my sword. I saw the item in the Inquirer you allude to, and was not a little taken down by another in the next column, in which the presentation fever was most justly inveighed against. I did all I could to prevent anything being given to me, and on several occasions when I was approached to know what I would like to have, I always refused to take anything, and earnestly requested as a personal favor to have the thing stopped. This last affair was gotten up after I had left the division, and the first I knew of it was that the sword had been ordered and would soon be ready for presentation. There is to be a grand jollification at Willard’s, I hear, on the occasion, when the Governor and divers other big-bugs will be present to gas and make me feel uncomfortable. I would give a good deal to escape this ordeal, and am in hopes we shall be on the move before they get ready. I would much prefer the men giving their money to their wives, or, if they are not so blessed, to the widows and orphans that the war has made. I see by the Inquirer of yesterday that the 18th instant is the day appointed for the presentation, but I rather think that by that date I shall have other work on hand.

Some one has sent me a copy of the Evening Journal with Wilkeson’a letter about Birney in it.

Meade really did not need to worry about this article. It was complaining about the presentations of swords to doctors, not to soldiers.

Meade did not need to worry about this article. It was complaining about sword presentations to doctors, not soldiers.

This is the item that appeared in the Inquirer just above the one about Meade’s sword:

This is the news items that appeared directly above the one about Meade's sword in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 1, 1863.

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. 362-3. Available via Google Books.

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