The Crapsey Incident (June 9, 1864)

This Thomas Nast illustration from Harper's Weekly salutes the correspondents in the field (Library of Congress).

This Thomas Nast illustration from Harper’s Weekly salutes the correspondents in the field (Library of Congress).

On June 2, 1864, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a short article that would have some big repercussions for George Gordon Meade’s reputation. This is what it said:

MEADE’S POSITION

He is as much the commander of the Army of the Potomac as he ever was. Grant plans and exercises a supervisory control over the army, but to Meade belongs everything of detail. He is entitled to great credit for the magnificent movements of the army since we left Brandy, for they have been dictated by him. In battle he puts troops in action and controls their movements; in a word, he commands the army. General Grant is here only because he deems the present campaign the vital one of the war, and wishes to decide on the spot all questions that would be referred to him as General-in-Chief.

History will record, but newspapers cannot, that on one eventful night during the present campaign Grant’s presence saved the army, and the nation too; not that General Meade was on the point to commit a blunder unwittingly, but his devotion to his country made him loth to risk her last army on what he deemed a chance. Grant assumed the responsibility and we are still

ON TO RICHMOND

Overall, not a bad notice for Meade. But he bristled at the implication that he had intended to retreat following the battle in the Wilderness.

The article was the work of one Edward Crapsey (often spelled Cropsey). As a correspondent for Cincinnati papers, he had reported on Grant’s successful Vicksburg Campaign and the fighting for Knoxville, Tennessee. By the time the Overland Campaign lurched into motion, he was reporting for the Inquirer. He had even been captured briefly by rebel cavalry near Rappahannock Station with two other reporters. The three newspapermen managed to escape when their captors got into a skirmish with some Union cavalrymen.

The accusation that Meade wanted to retreat stung, especially with the stories circulating in Washington that Meade had intended to retreat from Gettysburg, the sense that Grant had to be present to keep the Army of the Potomac fighting, and the feeling that the newspapers—as well as Grant and the politicians in Washington—were unwilling to give Meade his due. Meade also worried that the article could cause his soldiers to lose confidence in their commander. This story in a paper from his hometown proved to be the last straw. He decided to make an example of Crapsey. He ordered the reporter to be placed backward on a mule while wearing a sign around his neck that read, “Libeler of the press.” Thus humiliated, Crapsey was drummed out of camp to the tune of the “Rogue’s March.”

This was not a wise media strategy.

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Grant and Charles Dana both tried to reassure Meade that the authorities in Washington would not believe the accusation. Dana even telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about it. Stanton wired back, “Please say to General Meade that the lying report alluded to in your telegram was not even for a moment believed by the President or myself. We have the most perfect confidence in him. He could not wish a more exalted estimation of his ability, his firmness, and every quality of a commanding general than is entertained for him.” By then, though, it was too late.Meade probably felt he should take the soothing words of politicians with a grain of salt—especially when he heard rumors that the real source for Crapsey’s story had been Congressman Eli Washburne, Grant’s political mentor, who had been traveling with the army. If Meade got evidence to prove that charge, he told Margaret, he planned to show the congressman “no quarter.” (The references to Washburne’s involvement were edited out of Meade’s letters when they were published.)

The newspaper reporters with the army reacted to Crapsey’s punishment with outrage. “Major Gen. Meade may have the physical courage which bulls & bull dogs have; but he is as leprous with moral cowardice as the brute that kicks a helpless cripple in the street, or beats his wife at home,” wrote Whitelaw Reid, the reporter who had written about Meade at Taneytown and Gettysburg.

Sylvanus Cadwallader, then with the Chicago Times, was something of a favorite with Grant—or at least Grant was canny enough to make Cadwallader feel as if he were a favorite. “Every newspaper reporter in the Army of the Potomac, and in Washington City, had first an implied, and afterward an expressed understanding, to ignore Gen. Meade in every possible way and manner,” Cadwallader reported. “The publishers shared their feelings to a considerable extent, and it was soon noticed that Gen. Meade’s name never appeared in any army correspondence if it could be omitted.” He became as forgotten, Cadwallader said, “as any dead hero of antiquity.”

However, the press had been overlooking Meade even before the incident with Crapsey. On June 5, three days before Crapsey’s humiliation, Charles Wainwright noted, “The newspaper correspondents speak of Grant doing this and that, hardly ever mentioning Meade’s name. Here we see nothing of General Grant; I hardly heard his name mentioned.”

I fully enter into all your feelings of annoyance at the manner in which I have been treated, but I do not see that I can do anything but bear patiently till it pleases God to let the truth be known and matters set right. I have noticed what you say about the Inquirer, but, as you observe, it is no worse than the other papers. Even Coppée, in the June number of his magazine, shows he, too, is demoralized, he having a flaming editorial notice of the wonderful genius of Grant.* Now, to tell the truth, the latter has greatly disappointed me, and since this campaign I really begin to think I am something of a general.

I don’t know whether you saw an article in the Inquirer of the 2d inst. on me, which the writer intended to be very complimentary. At the close of it he refers to an eventful occasion when Grant saved the life of the nation, when I desired to destroy it. I could not make out what in the world this meant; but fortunately I found the author, one Edward Cropsey, and having sent for him, he explained that he had heard that on the night of the second day’s battle of the Wilderness I had urged on General Grant the withdrawal of the army across the Rapidan, but Grant had firmly resisted all my intercessions, and thus the country was saved the disgrace of a retreat. I asked his authority; he said it was the talk of the camp. I told him it was a base and wicked lie, and that I would make an example of him, which should not only serve to deter others from committing like offenses, but would give publicity to his lie and the truth. I accordingly issued an order denouncing the falsehood, and ordering the offender to be paraded through the lines of the army with a placard bearing the inscription, “Libeler of the Press,” and then that he should be put beyond the lines and not allowed to return. This sentence was duly executed, much to the delight of the whole army, for the race of newspaper correspondents is universally despised by the soldiers.

General Grant happened to be present when I was making out the order, and fully approved of it, although he said he knew the offender, and that his family was a respectable one in Illinois. After the man had been turned out and the affair had become public, then I learned to my surprise that this malicious falsehood had been circulated all over the country.

We find Lee’s position again too strong for us, and will have to make another movement, the particulars of which I cannot disclose.

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. 202-3. The newspaper article is on p. 341. Available via Google Books.

*Henry Coppée edited the United States Service Magazine. Meade has mentioned him before. Here’s what Coppée had to say about Grant in his June issue. You can get an idea why Meade found this irritating:

Grant is a brave man; not only fearless in all necessary exposure of his person in battle, but cool, calculating, and clearly administrative in danger. A splendid horseman, and of great physical endurance, perhaps he is seen to best advantage on the field of battle directing the movements.

He is a true man; true in his aims, and in his adherence to them; true in speech and in act. He has no tortuous policy, no subterranean movements. He does not parade his thoughts, indeed, but he does not mean one thing and say another. He has no talking gift, and he cultivates silence, which, if speech be human, the philosopher has declared to be divine. He is no boaster, no temporizer, no dreamer; he builds no Arcadian castles. He is simply a straightforward actor; between his thoughts, words, and deeds there is an exact accordance; and very often the thought and deed dispense with words,—always, when possible.

He is a man of strong will and great mental endurance; not disheartened by disaster; always ready to repair and retrieve it. Vicksburg in especial demonstrated this. Repulsed at the north, he tried the cut-off. When that would not do, he landed on the south. Threatened by the rebel armies gathering in his rear, he besieged the town. Repulsed in his attempts to storm the works, he pushed forward the siege; and at length Vicksburg fell, because Grant adhered to his purpose.

He is a generous man; ready to give full credit to his coworkers and subordinates. He scorns to receive praise which is their due, and tells of the invaluable aid and co-operation of Sherman, McPherson, and others, with no stinted eulogium. With such a general, men can work; for such a chief they will do all in their power.

He is an unambitious man. This needs a word of explanation. Ambitious men seek, as the great end of their labors, self-exaltation. Grant has thus far worked for the good of the country. Each battle has been fought without ulterior view. If God sends honest fame as the reward, he does not disdain it; but it must be a sequel, not an aim. Heaven preserve him long from this “last infirmity of noble minds”! It ruins all it touches. It has already paralyzed some of our best men.

In a concluding word, he is a strong, iron, living, busy, honest, capable, self-sustained commander, who will plan wisely, fight terribly, follow up his victories, and leave the rest to Providence,—in whom, after all, must be our trust. He has large and varied talents. He has, what Guizot calls, “the genius of common sense,” and with that the power and determination to “go ahead;” which we have lacked more than any thing else in this war. As to his personal appearance, we can only refer our readers to the fine engraving which appears as a vignette to this number, with the remark that it is as much like him as an engraving can be.

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  1. Death of the Unfettered Press | Elaine's Idle Mind

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