Last Day at Aldie (June 25, 1863)

Once again Meade writes from Aldie, where his corps waits as Joe Hooker attempts to determine Robert  E. Lee’s plans. The Monroe Estate he mentions is Oak Hill, the former home of President James Monroe. It still stands today but is privately owned.

Little did Meade know it, but in only three days he will receive command of the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln and general-in-chief Henry Halleck were rapidly losing any remaining confidence in Hooker. There were also doubts within the army. General Marsena Patrick, the army’s provost marshal general (and a notoriously cranky observer), wrote on Hooker around this time, “He acts like a man without a plan and is entirely at a loss what to do, or how to match the enemy, or counteract his movements. . . . He knows that Lee is his master & is afraid to meet him in a fair battle.”

This is a lengthy and interesting letter. Shortly after writing it Meade received orders to move his corps north toward Frederick. The men broke camp early the next morning and marched to Edwards Ferry, where it crossed the Potomac.

This is the last letter in the first volume of Life and Letters. Volume II picks up the story with a narrative of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Reynolds’s honors, commanding the right wing, only lasted two days, for as soon as we got to Manassas, General Hooker informed him he would communicate direct with corps commanders. Reynolds was at first quite indignant, and took it into his head that Hooker expected our withdrawal from the Rappahannock was going to be disputed, and that he had selected him for a scapegoat to bear the brunt of the shock. Everything, however, passed off quietly, as Lee was well on his way up the Valley of the Shenandoah, and A. P. Hill, who was left to guard Fredericksburg, was glad enough to let us go, that he might follow Lee, as he has done and rejoined him, although we could readily have prevented him, and in my judgment should have done so. What Lee’s object is in moving up the valley is not yet clearly developed. He has massed his army between Winchester and Martinsburg. The invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, so far as I can gather, has as yet been a mere foraging expedition, collecting supplies and horses for his army. He does not, at the latest accounts, seem to have crossed any of his good troops; he has perhaps been waiting for Hill, also to see what Hooker and the authorities at Washington were going to do, before he struck a blow. That he has assumed the offensive and is going to strike a blow there can be no doubt, and that it will be a very formidable one is equally certain, unless his forces have been very much exaggerated. He is said to have collected over ninety thousand infantry and fifteen thousand cavalry, with a large amount of artillery. Hooker has at present no such force to oppose him, but I trust the Government will reinforce Hooker with troops that have been scattered at Suffolk, Baltimore, Washington and other places, and that such will be the case seems probable, from a despatch I received from headquarters yesterday, asking me if I would like to have the Pennsylvania Reserves attached to my corps. I replied, promptly: “Yes; they or any other reinforcements that could be obtained.” I understand the Reserves are seven thousand strong, which will be a very decided addition to my present weak corps. I have seen very few papers lately, and therefore know little or nothing of what is going on. I see you are still troubled with visions of my being placed in command. I thought that had all blown over, and I think it has, except in your imagination, and that of some others of my kind friends. I have no doubt great efforts have been made to get McClellan back, and advantage has been taken of the excitement produced by the invasion of Maryland to push his claims; but his friends ought to see that his restoration is out of the question, so long as the present Administration remains in office, and that until they can remove Stanton and Chase, all hope of restoring McClellan is idle. I have no doubt, as you surmise, his friends would look with no favor on my being placed in command. They could not say I was an unprincipled intriguer, who had risen by criticising and defaming my predecessors and superiors. They could not say I was incompetent, because I have not been tried, and so far as I have been tried I have been singularly successful. They could not say I had never been under fire, because it is notorious no general officer, not even Fighting Joe himself, has been in more battles, or more exposed, than my record evidences. The only thing they can say, and I am willing to admit the justice of the argument, is that it remains to be seen whether I have the capacity to handle successfully a large army. I do not stand, however, any chance, because I have no friends, political or others, who press or advance my claims or pretensions, and there are so many others who are pressed by influential politicians that it is folly to think I stand any chance upon mere merit alone. Besides, I have not the vanity to think my capacity so pre-eminent, and I know there are plenty of others equally competent with myself, though their names may not have been so much mentioned. For these reasons I have never indulged in any dreams of ambition, contented to await events, and do my duty in the sphere it pleases God to place me in, and I really think it would be as well for you to take the same philosophical view; but do you know, I think your ambition is being roused and that you are beginning to be bitten with the dazzling prospect of having for a husband a commanding general of an army. How is this?

Oak Hill, the former home of President James Monroe. Meade visited here on June 24, 1863 (Library of Congress).

Oak Hill, the former home of President James Monroe. Meade visited here on June 24, 1863 (Library of Congress).

This is a beautiful country we are now in, and we are reveling in lovely landscapes, with such luxuries as fresh butter, milk, eggs, lamb, chickens and other delicacies, to which we have for a long time been strangers. There are some nice people about here, though strong “secesh.” I went the other day to see a fine view, which is to be had from the Monroe estate. It is at present in the hands of a Major Fairfax, who is on Longstreet’s staff. While on the ground I received a polite message from Mrs. Fairfax, saying she would be glad to see me and show me the house, whereupon I called, and found her very affable and ladylike and very courteous. I apologized for my intrusion, but she said she did not so consider it; that she was always glad to see the officers of our army, knowing they took an interest in the place from its having been the former residence of a President of the United States. She referred to the war in a delicate manner, and said her husband, the Major, was at home when Pleasanton attacked Aldie, and that he had barely time to mount his horse and get off before their people were obliged to retire. I spent a half-hour chatting with her and left. Generally the women, when they find you are a gentleman, and not violent and bloodthirsty in your feelings, are disposed to be civil and affable.

Young Morrow, of George’s company, has returned from Richmond. He told George that he saw a great deal of Beckham when he was first captured, who inquired very particularly after me.

Everything is very quiet here. The enemy have a small cavalry force watching us, but no signs of their army this side of the Blue Ridge. At what moment they may show themselves, or when we will advance, is more than I can tell. I hear nothing whatever from headquarters, and am as much in the dark as to proposed plans here on the ground as you are in Philadelphia. This is what Joe Hooker thinks profound sagacity—keeping his corps commanders, who are to execute his plans, in total ignorance of them until they are developed in the execution of orders.

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. 387-9. Available via Google Books.

End Volume 1

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