A Capital Visit (October 23, 1863)

The United States Capitol as it appeared on June 28, 1863, coincidentally, the day that Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. William Franklin, under whom Meade had served at Fredericksburg, had been the engineer in charge of the new dome construction before the war (Library of Congress).

The United States Capitol as it appeared on June 28, 1863, coincidentally, the day that Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. William Franklin, under whom Meade had served at Fredericksburg, had been the engineer in charge of the new dome construction before the war (Library of Congress).

In which General Meade describes a summons to Washington. His laconic account in this letter to his wife is not terribly informative. Fortunately we have Theodore Lyman to fill in the details (and add, it must be said, a taste of the casual racism that would have been considered perfectly normal in the nineteenth century but grates against twenty-first century sensibilities). I’ve included Lyman’s letters from both October 23 and 24 here.

Yesterday I received an order to repair to Washington, to see the President. I arrived in Washington at 2 P. M., and expected to leave at 6 P. M., but was detained so late that I remained there all night, and left this morning, early. The President was, as he always is, very considerate and kind. He found no fault with my operations, although it was very evident he was disappointed that I had not got a battle out of Lee. He coincided with me that there was not much to be gained by any farther advance; but General Halleck was very urgent that something should be done, but what that something was he did not define. As the Secretary of War was absent in Tennessee, final action was postponed till his return.

Here’s Lyman’s much more expansive account:

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John." (Library of Congress)

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John.” (Library of Congress)

And where do you think I was all yesterday? I will tell you. Early, the orderly, poked his head into the tent saying: “Colonel Lyman, the General will have breakfast at seven” (which was an hour earlier than he had said the night before). As soon as I sat down, says the General: “I am going to Washington; would you like to go?” . . . Major-General Humphreys said he too would go, and the General’s son George completed the party. In much haste I ran, and crammed my best coat, pantaloons, shoes, sash, gauntlets, and brushes into my big saddle-bags, the which I entrusted to a mounted orderly. Thereupon we speedily got on horseback, and first rode to General Sedgwick (familiarly called “Uncle John”), to whom General Meade handed over the command, in his absence at Washington, to consult about the late moves and those consequent on them. Uncle John received the heavy honors in a smiling and broad-shouldered style, and wished us all a good journey, for he is a cheery soul. With little delay, we again mounted and rode twelve miles, briskly, to Gainesville, whither the railroad comes. The Chief stepped into a little room, used as a telegraph-office, and, quicker than winking, he stood, arrayed only in his undergarments; then, before, almost, I could get my coat off, he had put on a pair of shoes, a new coat, and an elegant pair of trousers! “Now then, Lyman, are you ready? Where’s Humphreys? Humphreys is always late! Come, come along, the train is going to start!” You should have seen the unfortunate Aide — his coat unbuttoned, his shoestrings loose; on one arm the saddle-bags, on the other, his sword, sash, etc., etc., and he hastening after the steam-engine Meade! However I completed my toilette in the car, which was all to ourselves; and flatter myself that my appearance was considerably peacock. We went rattling and bumping over a railroad that reminded me of the one from Civita Vecchia, to Manassas Junction, and thence to Washington, over a route I have already described to you when I came down. Only this time we came through Alexandria, and, instead of taking there a boat, kept on and went across the long bridge, going thus into the very city by the rail. There was a carriage from Willard’s awaiting us; the guardpost near by turned out in our honor, and we drove in great state to General Halleck’s office; where General Meade went in and held a solemn pow-wow; the two came forth presently and walked over to the White-House, where they held another pow-pow with the President. Captain George and I, meanwhile, studied the exterior architecture, and I observed a blind had been blown off and broken and allowed to lie outside. In fact they have a nigger negligence, to a considerable extent, in this half-cooked capital.

October 24, 1863

We went to Willard’s after the pow-pow and got a very good dinner; only poor General Meade was bored to death and driven out of all peace of mind, by dirty politicians who kept coming up and saying: “Ah, General Meade, I believe; perhaps you do not recollect meeting me in the year 1831, on a Mississippi steamboat? How do you do, sir? What move do you propose to execute next? Have you men enough, sir? What are the intentions of Lee, sir? How are the prospects of the rebellion, sir? Do you look upon it as essentially crushed, sir? Or do you think it may still rear its head against our noble Union, sir?” etc., etc. All of which the poor Chief (endeavoring to snatch a mouthful of chicken, the while) would answer with plaintive courtesy; while the obscure aides-de-camp were piling in all kinds of delicacies. . . . The papers say General Meade received imperative orders to give Lee battle; not a word of truth in it! You might as well give imperative orders to catch a sea-gull with a pinch of salt. Lee would perhaps have given us a chance; but the same storm that prevented our advance carried away the Rapidan bridge, and he could get nothing to eat. His forces were, I think, larger than supposed, especially in cavalry, which was very numerous.

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. 154. 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. 36-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 Have you read Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg yet? If not, you can buy it here!

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