A Violent Attack (March 9, 1864)

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

Meade’s travails with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War continue. He has learned that Generals David Bell Birney and Alfred Pleasonton have testified against him. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

As the head of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps, Pleasonton had embarrassed Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station just before Lee’s push north into Pennsylvania, but he had a less-than-sterling reputation. One cavalry officer said Pleasonton owed his position to “systematic lying,” and another called him “the greatest humbug of the war.” According to Pleasonton’s testimony he was with Meade following the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3 and “urged him to order a general advance of his whole army in pursuit of the enemy.” Instead, Meade sent him to determine whether the enemy was retreating. A year later Pleasonton will remember even more about his dealings with Meade. This time he recollects that on the afternoon of July 2, Meade had ordered him to prepare his cavalry to cover the army’s retreat, and he had spent the entire remainder of July 2, until around midnight, doing just that. Apparently this had all slipped his memory when he first testified.

David Birney testified the same day as Pleasonton. He had his own ax to grind with Meade following their unpleasant encounter at Fredericksburg. “Meade is a fraud,” he had written to a friend in March. To help speed Meade’s departure from the army, Birney decided to cast his lot with Hooker and Sickles. “We must have Hooker back to this army and I believe he will be sent to us!” he wrote. He also had great hopes for the future of Dan Sickles. “Sickles will I think command this army and in time will be President,” he had predicted back in October. So when Birney testified before the committee, he claimed that on July 5 he had wanted to attack the retreating Confederates but received an order not to do so. That was just the kind of example of timidity the congressmen were seeking. No matter that such an order never appeared in any official record, nor had Birney mentioned this incident in his official report.

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

I have answered Mr. Harding’s note, likewise one from Cortlandt Parker, and numerous others I have received from sympathizing friends. To prepare a statement and furnish it to all my friends who are desirous of defending me would take too much time. Besides, I intend to await the action of the committee, give them a chance to do me justice, failing which I will publish a pamphlet giving my side of the question. Yesterday’s Tribune has a most violent attack on me, full of the basest and most malicious slanders, in which, not satisfied with attacking my military reputation, they impugn my loyalty and attribute expressions to me I never dreamed of using. [For the article, see below.]

Birney and Pleasanton have appeared in the hostile ranks. The latter’s course is the meanest and blackest ingratitude; for I can prove, but for my intercession he would have been relieved long since.

Here’s the Tribune article that so incensed Meade:


The points made before the War Investigating Committee against Gen. Meade, who is substantially on trial before this congressional Commission, by the testimony of Gens. Sickles and Doubleday, are, that he gave and promulgated an order to his army to retreat from Gettysburg at the close of the first day’s fight, when his superior strength, his advantage of position, and the honor and interests of the country, required him to give battle; that, in the forenoon of the second day’s fight—Thursday—he gave another order to retreat, but which was not promulgated in writing; that he had made no dispositions for battle that day, had no plan for fighting, and seemingly no purpose to fight, but that the battle was precipitated by Gen. Sickles, and forced on Meade in part by the enemy, but principally by General Sickles, that Meade did not know on Friday night that our men had whipped Lee, or distrusted the fact that night, and was so uncertain of it on Saturday that he dared not pursue the beaten enemy, and weakly and ignorantly threw away the certainty of capture or destroying the entire Rebel army; that for a few moments he yielded to persuasions to let the 3d Corps pursue, but countermanded the order to do so in ten minutes after it was given, saying, alluding to the Rebels, “Oh, let them go;” that Meade’s subsequent representation that he was not in condition to pursue was not true; that his army was abundantly able and in condition to make immediate pursuit, and, if necessary, to fight and crush Lee’s disordered columns; that the 6th Corps was fresh and substantially intact; it had lost only 100 men, the 12th Corps had lost only 700 and had about 12,000 left, the 3d Corps had 6,000 men left and prayed to be permitted to pursue; the whole of the cavalry, 10,000 was intact and fresh. Gen. French had at Frederick 10,000 veterans in perfect condition, and Couch’s great force was also at Meade’s call. That, in a word, he had over 40,000 effective and ardent troops with which to pursue and destroy Lee’s flying and demoralized army, but refused to use them and suffered the enemy to escape. It is upon the question of the issuance of the second order to retreat that Gen. Butterfield has been summoned.

In the committee room it is understood that the origin of the effort made by Gen. Meade to break up the Third Corps to the waste of its esprit, and the discontent of every man and officer in it, and dissatisfaction with the service, was the refusal of the corps to subscribe to the McClellan testimonial.

It is stated that testimony can be added to convict Gen. Meade of expressing the opinion that we cannot subdue the Rebels. Gens. Birney and Pleasonton, examined before the War Committee to-day, told the remarkable story of the war councils called during and after the battle of Gettysburg, and exhibited the strength and efficiency of the army the morning after the last day’s fight. The testimony of both these Generals was very damaging.

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. 176. The Tribune article appears on pp. 320-1. Available via Google Books.

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