Bad Press (September 5, 1863)

Throughout his army career Meade disliked and distrusted the press. He complained about the newspaper coverage of the Mexican-American War when he was a young officer, and he complained even more vociferously during the Civil War. Things came to a head during the 1864 Overland Campaign when Meade had a reporter kicked out of the army’s camp, but that explosion was a long time coming, as his letter from September 5, 1863, attests. The Spirit of the Times was a New York weekly that was best known for its coverage of sports. George Wilkes had purchased it in 1861.

Have you seen a very bitter article in Wilkes’s Spirit of the Times, of August 29th [see below]? He says the victory of Gettysburg was due entirely to the strength of the position and the heroic bravery of the common soldiers, and was entirely independent of any strategy or military ability displayed by any general from the senior down. He then charges me with imbecility and timidity, and says the Army of the Potomac never can do anything so long as so many incompetent men are at the head of it. The only consolation I have, is that censure from such a source will in the eyes of all respectable people be praise. There is no doubt the position at Gettysburg was very strong, and that the victory was in a great measure due to this fact; and it is also equally true that if the men had not fought as well as they did, I should have been beaten; but I have yet to learn the existence in history of a general whose genius was equal to winning victory when all the advantages were against him, and his men would not fight.

Wilkes is a Hooker man; but whether his article was inspired by any of the friends of this officer, I am not prepared to say, and can hardly believe such to be the case.

This is the newspaper article that so infuriated Meade:


(Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times of August 29, 1863)

In Regard To
The Army Of The Potomac

(The following letter comes from a distinguished military writer who has had much observation in the Army of the Potomac, and whose opinions we can assure the readers of the Spirit are well worth noting. It was written to a personal friend in this city, and from his hands we obtain it.)

Washington, August 16, 1863

My Dear Sir:

The Army of the Potomac—that army which has so often elevated men from mediocrity into greatness—that army which has marched, fought and bled to no purpose—now lies in sweet repose along the line of the Rappahannock, patiently waiting, as Micawber says, “for something to turn up.” The history of this army is one of barren toil, suffering and death. Its successes are magnified by venal letter-writers into great victories, and its defeats are represented as splendid strokes of strategy. It is thus that a confiding people have been humbugged from month to month, and year to year. History can furnish no instance that will even remotely compare with this army for gross ignorance and mismanagement. In no instance has success been followed up with vigorous and rapid blows; on the contrary, the enemy have been allowed to retreat without molestation, until they had time to rally their scattered forces and fortify themselves. The battle of Gettysburg was purely defensive, and our success was mainly due to the natural strength of our position, to our artillery, and the firmness of a portion of the troops, but in no degree to the strategy or ability displayed by any of the generals, from the senior down.

Here indeed, was an opportunity for a general to have shown the qualities of an able commander, if he possessed them. His troops, however decimated, had, by his own account, suffered far less than the enemy. But his army, flushed with victory, was not permitted to follow up and harass a beaten, dispirited and demoralized enemy, hampered with a vast amount of plunder, thousands of wounded, and an impassable river obstructing their retreat; and while letter-writers were announcing their hopelessness of its escape, Lee’s army was quickly making arrangements for crossing without the slightest interruption from Gen. Meade, or serious effort to penetrate his design. Suggestions were made and heard, to send a force above the rebel position, when by cutting trees and throwing them into the river, his pontoons or other bridges might be swept away. But Gen. Meade’s frequently declared belief was, that Lee could cross when he pleased; that he did not intend to cross, but meant to fight. The sequel shows how completely he was deceived. Had Gen. Meade possessed the activity of either Grant or Rosecrans, and, I may add, of Hooker, he could, by a cavalry reconnaissance on the south side of the Potomac, and a forced one on the Maryland side, have easily discovered Lee’s true intentions; and had he attacked him with his army divided by that river, he must have inevitably destroyed or captured one half of it. But blinded and deceived by Lee, timidity ruled the hour, and the golden opportunity, that is only to be seen and grasped by genius, was lost forever. Here, then, we have a commander but a few days previous magnified into a great general, for his success in a battle which he was forced, in defence, to fight; which was due alone to the natural strength of his position, and the courage of the rank and file, and not, as I have before said, to any display of his military abilities. And yet, when an occasion was subsequently presented for the exercise of his qualities as a commander, he tranquilly sits down before a hastily constructed gutter (miscalled entrenchments) for a week, and quietly permits the enemy to prepare for and cross a formidable stream that barred his retreat. Who can estimate the future sacrifice of life that must ensue from this terrible mistake?

The public must have news to feed upon. It matters not, it would seem, whether it be true or false; and hence they will hear before long of some remarkable things that are soon to take place, which they are not at liberty to reveal. But it may as well make up its mind that the Army of the Potomac will never accomplish anything. With some few exceptions, it is the worst handled body of men, so far as the general officers are concerned, that the world has ever seen. This is, in a great measure, due to the accursed political influence that has blighted and almost destroyed its energy and efficiency. It is due, also, to the many commanders outside the army proper, who have restrained and controlled its action on more than one important occasion, from the President down; and above all, it is due to the many ignorant and self-sufficient politicians who have been appointed to high commands, and the large infusion of foreign adventurers into the different staffs.

In the meantime, Theodore Lyman wrote home to continue the narrative about reaching the Army of the Potomac and its commander, under whom he was going to serve as a volunteer aide. The “female doctor” he describes is Mary Walker, who later won the Medal of Honor for her medical services during the war, only to have Congress revoke it a mere six days before her death in 1919. It was posthumously reinstated. The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Philadelphia, which displays the head of Meade’s horse, Old Baldy, also has Walker’s medical kit in its collections.

This is what Lyman wrote on September 5, 1863:

Mary E. Walker, the "female doctor" Lyman encountered on the train (Library of Congress).

Mary E. Walker, the “female doctor” Lyman encountered on the train (Library of Congress).

Our train consisted in a large number of freight cars, all marked “U. S. Military Railroads,” and of one passenger car containing its precious freight of officers, not to speak of the female doctor who knocked Zacksnifska out of all sight and knowledge. She was going down to get the son of an old lady, who (the said son) had had a sunstroke, and this female doctor had great confidence she could cure him. She was attired in a small straw hat with a cockade in front, a pair of blue pantaloons and a long frock coat, or sack. Over all she had a linen “duster”; and this, coupled with the fact that she had rips in her boots, gave her a trig appearance. She was liberal in her advice to all com ers and especially exhorted two newspaper boys to immediately wash their faces, in which remark she was clearly correct. . . .

At Warrenton Junction there was luckily an ambulance from headquarters; and as its owner was only a diminutive captain, I had no hesitation in asking him to carry me up, with my traps. … So off we set, on a road which went sometimes over stumps and sometimes through “runs” two or three feet deep. We passed any quantity of pickets and negroes and dragoons in twos and threes; till at last, looking off to the left (or rather right), I beheld what seemed a preparation for a gigantic picnic: a great number of side-tents, pitched along regular lines, or streets, and over them all a continuous bower of pine boughs. These were “Headquarters.” I put my best foot forward and advanced to the tent of the Commander-inChief, in front of which waved a big flag on a high staff. In my advance I was waylaid by a lieutenant, the officer of the day, who with much politeness said General Meade was out for a ride, but would I not walk into a tent and take some whiskey; which I accepted, all but the whiskey. He turned out to be a Swede, one Rosencrantz, and I rejoiced his soul by speaking of Stockholm. Presently there arrived the General himself, who cried out, “Hulloo, Lyman! how are you?” just as he used to. He was as kind as possible, and presently informed me I was to mess with him. As the Chief-of-Staff is the only other man who is allowed to do this, you may concede that my lines have fallen in pleasant places! The said Chief-of-Staff is General Humphreys, a very eminent engineer. He is an extremely neat man, and is continually washing himself and putting on paper dickeys. He has a great deal of knowledge, beyond his profession, and is an extremely gentlemanly man. As to the Assistant Adjutant-General, S. Barstow, he was most hospitable, and looked out for getting me a tent, etc. He really has a laborious and difficult position, the duties of which he seems to discharge with the offhand way of an old workman.

Now I will pull up. As to my riding forth yesterday and to-day, in martial array, beside the General, and with dragoons clattering behind, shall not the glories thereof be told in a future letter? Meanwhile, if you want to feel as if nobody ever was or could be killed, just come here! This is the effect, strange as it may seem. For your assurance I will state, that we yesterday rode seven miles directly towards the enemy, before we got to a spot whence their pickets may sometimes be seen! . . .

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 147. Newspaper article from pp. 316-7. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 5-7.Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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  1. Credit (December 28, 1863) | Searching for GEORGE GORDON MEADE

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