Birney (April 11, 1864)

David Bell Birney.

David Bell Birney.

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had been born in the South, but a hatred of slavery motivated his father to pack up the family and move north. Birney took up the law and was practicing in Philadelphia when war broke out. As Theodore Lyman wrote, Birney “was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair.”

The bad blood between Meade and Birney stretched back to Fredericksburg, at least. When Meade’s brigade broke through the southern lines south of town, Meade sent to Birney for support. Birney replied that he could not move forward until he received word from John Reynolds to do so. This outraged Meade. He sent another officer to Birney with another demand for reinforcements. Birney again refused. Now Meade galloped over himself. He had his recent commission as a major-general in his pocket, and that meant he outranked Birney. “General, I assume the authority of ordering you up to the support of my men,” he said, according to one account. According to another, Meade said much more, in language strong enough to “almost make the stones creep.”

Birney later testified before Congress that he received only one message from Meade and in his official report he said he responded “immediately.” However, in a letter to a friend that Birney wrote shortly after the battle, he said that when a reporter from the New York Herald urged him to send some of his artillery to help Meade, “I told him the Reserves might run and be damned, that not a gun should leave my Division.”

Birney led a division of the III Corps at Gettysburg and took corps command after Daniel Sickles was wounded.

To help speed Meade’s departure from the army, Birney decided to cast his lot with Hooker and Sickles. “Meade is a fraud,” he had written to a friend in March. “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.

Following elimination of the III Corps, Birney received a division in the II Corps under Hancock. He realized he had backed the wrong horse. “Grant killed the demonstration for Hooker, that was assuming shape, and would have ended in the decapitation of Meade,” he noted in a letter on April 5.

There is no doubt General Birney is scared at the turn things have taken in the Sickles matter, for I received a note from Hancock, the other day, saying Birney had been to see him, disclaiming being a partisan of Sickles, and saying he would like to come and see me to explain matters, but did not like to do so without some intimation on my part that it would be agreeable. I replied to Hancock that I was not aware of there being any occasion for explanation on the part of General Birney, as I had heard nothing except what I had seen in the papers about his testimony, and that he had denied in writing. At the same time I was always ready to see General Birney whenever he chose to do me the honor to call.

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. 189. Available via Google Books.

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  1. The Death of Birney (October 19, 1864) | Searching for GEORGE GORDON MEADE

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