Congress (March 6, 1864)

Daniel Sickles commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg and began attacking Meade's reputation afterwards (Library of Congress).

Daniel Sickles commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg and began attacking Meade’s reputation afterwards (Library of Congress).

We are now entering into a troubling time for George Gordon Meade, as he discovers his generalship is being questioned by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a Congressional body investigating the Union war effort. The driving forces behind the committee were Republican senators Zachariah Chandler of Michigan and Ben Wade of Ohio. Both of them despised General George McClellan and wanted to root out all taints of McClellanism from the Army of the Potomac. The found a willing ally in General Daniel Sickles, who had moved his III Corps forward at Gettysburg, lost a leg, and began spreading the story that Meade had intended to retreat from the battlefield; by helping precipitate the fighting on July 2, Sickles told people,  the III Corps had kept Meade from leaving. Other generals, including Abner Doubleday, also testified against Meade. Here’s what I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Starting in February 1864 and continuing through April, seventeen generals from the Army of the Potomac trooped through the Capitol’s corridors so they could testify in the basement room where members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War examined its witnesses. They brought with them a collection of bruised egos, simmering resentments, and unrestrained ambition—leavened here and there by a dash of true patriotism and a desire to see more progress in the war.

Chandler and Wade wanted Joe Hooker returned to command, even though he was another West Pointer who had once resisted the idea of emancipation. Later, though, he apparently had seen which way the wind was blowing and shifted his position on that subject. His aggressive talk about fighting also made committee members think he was the aggressive, offensive-minded general they needed, Chancellorsville notwithstanding. Perhaps most important, Hooker showed no signs of political ambition; any military success he achieved would not create a potential rival at the ballot box.

Sickles was an equally unlikely ally for a committee dominated by Radical Republicans, for he was a partisan Democrat who had emerged from the highly politicized party machinery in New York City. Yet “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sickles was out to get Meade and so was the committee.

Sickles testified on February 26. Wade asked all the questions. When he did not outright lie—for example, by saying the III Corps had occupied Little Round Top when it clearly had not—Sickles used his lawyer skills to carefully skirt the truth. For example, when he read into the record Meade’s Pipe Creek Circular, which he said demonstrated that Meade had intended to retreat from Gettysburg, he did not read this line: “Developments may cause the commanding general to assume the offensive from his present position.” In other words, it was a contingency plan, not a plan to retreat.

Abner Doubleday took over command of the I Corps at Gettysburg after the death of John Reynolds. Meade replaced him with John Newton and Doubleday never forgot the slight (Library of Congress).

Abner Doubleday took over command of the I Corps at Gettysburg after the death of John Reynolds. Meade replaced him with John Newton and Doubleday never forgot the slight (Library of Congress).

Abner Doubleday testified on March 1. Like Sickles, he was still nursing grievances against Meade because Meade had replaced him at the head of the I Corps with John Newton following [John] Reynolds’s death. The aggrieved Doubleday told the committee that Meade’s plan was to make him and General [Oliver O.] Howard scapegoats in case the battle turned out badly. Meade, he said, liked to place his personal friends in power. “There has always been a great deal of favoritism in the army of the Potomac,” he claimed. “No man who is an anti-slavery man or an anti-McClellan man can expect decent treatment in that army as at present constituted.”

Brig. Gen. Albion Howe, “a zealot who despised anyone he thought to be an admirer of General McClellan,” had commanded a division of the VI Corps at Gettysburg. He continued Doubleday’s line of reasoning when he testified on March 3 and 4. Responding to some leading questioning by Wade, Howe explained that Meade and other generals in the Army of the Potomac had been tainted by the connection with McClellan., that there were “certain sympathies, feelings, and considerations of action which seem to govern now as they did then.” In fact, Howe decided, the problem within the Army of the Potomac was an epidemic of “copperheadism.”

After hearing all this Wade and Chandler went to see Stanton and Lincoln and urged them to replace Meade with Hooker . . . .

While in Washington Meade heard that Sen. Morton S. Wilkinson, a Republican from Minnesota and a Chandler ally, had attacked him on the Senate floor the previous day. Wilkinson told the Senate he had learned that before the Battle of Gettysburg, “the order went forth from the commander of that army to retreat; and but for the single fact that one of the corps commanders had got into a fight before the dispatch reached him, the whole army would undoubtedly have been retreating.”

At the end of his letter Meade mentions that the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid had failed. There will be repercussions from the raid to come later. For Meade’s report on the raid, from the Official Records, series, 1, volume 33, see below.

Senator Ben Wade of Ohio (via Wikipedia).

Senator Ben Wade of Ohio (via Wikipedia).

I returned from Washington to-day. I went there Friday morning on business connected with the reorganization of the army. The night before I left I saw Mr. Wilkeson’s attack on me in the Senate and Reverdy Johnston’s reply and defense. When I reached Washington I was greatly surprised to find the whole town talking of certain grave charges of Generals Sickles and Doubleday, that had been made against me in their testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. On Saturday I was summoned before the committee. I found there only Mr. Wade, of Ohio. He was very civil, denied there were any charges against me, but said the committee was making up a sort of history of the war and was now taking evidence to enable it to give an account of the battle of Gettysburg, and my administration since commanding the army. I then occupied about three hours giving a succinct narrative of events. Subsequently Mr. Stanton told me (this is strictly confidential), that there was and had been much pressure from a certain party to get Hooker back in command, and that thinking, through Sickles and others, they might get me out (a preliminary step) they had gotten up this halloobaloo in the Committee on the Conduct of the War; but that I need not worry myself, there was no chance of their succeeding. The only evil that will result is the spreading over the country certain mysterious whisperings of dreadful deficiencies on my part, the truth concerning which will never reach the thousandth part of those who hear the lies. I suppose and fear you will be worried about them, but I beg you to be calm and quiet, and rest satisfied that I will come out all right in the end.

I saw nobody in Washington, except people about the Government, except Mr. Howard, of Michigan, whom I went to see and to whom I explained the absurd charge of Sickles, that I had ordered a retreat at Gettysburg, and that that battle was fought in spite of all my efforts to prevent it.

It is a melancholy state of affairs, however, when persons like Sickles and Doubleday can, by distorting and twisting facts, and giving a false coloring, induce the press and public for a time, and almost immediately, to take away the character of a man who up to that time had stood high in their estimation. However, I suppose we cannot change human nature; we must be patient, await the period when the truth will slowly and surely make itself be known.

You have doubtless seen that Kilpatrick’s raid was an utter failure. I did not expect much from it. Poor Dahlgren I am sorry for.

Meade's report on the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid, page 1

Meade’s report on the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid, page 1

Meade's report, page 2

Meade’s report, page 2

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), pp. 169-70. Available via Google Books.

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