Walks on the Beach (August 6, 1863)

Meade indulges his sentimental side as he pines for a weekend at Cape May with his family, while he continues to wait to see if he will receive command of the new department in the Shenandoah Valley, an assignment that will never come through for him. It appears that this issue, more than any other, soured the relationship between him and Grant. Despite his avowals that he remained “indifferent” to the prospect, it’s apparent that Meade wanted the new assignment and was angered when he did not get it.

The court of inquiry he mentions is the one that will consider the crater debacle.

Samuel Wilkeson was indeed at Gettysburg, as a war correspondent for the New York Times. His son, 19-year-old Lt. Bayard Wilkeson, was there too, in command of battery G of the 4th U.S. Artillery. When a shell nearly tore off his leg, young Wilkeson finished the amputation with a pocket knife and then died. “Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest–the dead body of an oldest born son, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay,” wrote Wilkeson, in an article that appeared in the Times on July 6, 1863. (You can find the entire article here.)

Grant has not yet returned from Washington; no telegrams have been received from him since he left, so I presume the project of sending me to take command has fallen through. I feel quite easy and indifferent to what course they may think proper to take. My conscience is clear. I have done my duty to the best of my ability, and shall continue to do so, regardless of newspaper abuse, and without any effort at reply thereto.

A court of inquiry, at my request, has been appointed, with Hancock as President. The whole affair of the 30th will be ventilated.

I had to-day a visit from Mr. Sam. Wilkeson, one of the editors of the Tribune, and one of my most bitter villifiers last spring. This individual called to make the amende honorable—to say he had been deceived, and to express the most friendly feelings for me. As I had never seen him before, but once on the field of Gettysburg, and had never exchanged a word with him, or given him any cause of offense, I received his apologies as if nothing had ever taken place, and he left me quite pleased.

I hope the dear children will enjoy themselves at Cape May. I should be so happy if I could only be there with you, to indulge in those splendid sea baths and take our old walks on the beach. Well, let us keep up our spirits, have brave hearts, trust in God’s mercy and goodness, and believe that so long as we try to do our duty all will be well in time.

In the meantime, Theodore Lyman examines the Army of the Potomac’s soldiers, and finds them wanting.

I took a limited ride along our flank defences, where I discovered a patriotic sentry, sitting with his back to where the enemy might be supposed to come, and reading a novel! He belonged to the 7th Indiana. “What are your instructions?” say I. “Han’t got none,” replies the peruser of novels. “Then what are you here for?” “Well, I am a kind of an alarm sentinel,” said this literary militaire. “Call the corporal of the guard,” said I, feeling much disposed to laugh. The sentry looked about a little and then singling out a friend, called out: “Oh, Jim, why, won’t you just ask Jeremiah Miles to step this way?” After some delay, Jeremiah appeared. He was in a pleasing state of ignorance. Did not know the sentry’s instructions, did not know who the officer of the guard was, did not know much of anything. “Well,” said I, “now suppose you go and find the sergeant of the guard.” This he did with great alacrity. The sergeant, as became his office, knew more than the corporal. He was clear that the sentry should not read a book; also that his conduct in sitting down was eccentric; but, when it came to who was the officer of the guard, his naturally fine mind broke down. He knew the officer if he saw him, but could not remember his name. This he would say, the officer was a lieutenant. “Suppose you should try to find him,” suggested I. Of course that he could do; and soon the “Loo-tenant” appeared. To him I talked like a father; almost like a grandfather, in fact; showed him the man’s musket was rusty and that he was no good whatsoever. Loo-tenant had not much to say; indeed, so to speak, nothing; and I left him with a strong impression that you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. It is not ludicrous, but sad, to see such soldiers in this Army of the Potomac, after three years of experience. The man could not have been better: tall, strong, respectful, and docile; but no one had ever taught him. It was a clear case of waste of fine material, left in all its crudity instead of being worked up. And this is the grand characteristic of this war—waste. We waste arms, clothing, ammunition, and subsistence; but, above all, men. We don’t make them go far enough, because we have no military or social caste to make officers from. Regiments that have been officered by gentlemen of education have invariably done well, like the 2d, 20th, and 24th Massachusetts, and the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Even the 44th and the 45th, nine-monthers, behaved with credit; though there was this drawback in them, that the privates were too familiar with the officers, having known them before. However, perfection does not exist anywhere, and we should be thankful for the manifold virtues our soldiers do pre-eminently possess. I see much to make me more contented in reading Napier, before referred to. After the taking of Badajos, the English allowed their own wounded to lie two days in the breach, without an attempt to carry them off. This is the nation that now gives us very good lectures on humanity. As to old Wellington, I suspect he was about as savage an old brute as would be easy to find.

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. 219. 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. 206-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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