The Death of Birney (October 19, 1864)

The "thin, pale, Puritanic face" of David Bell Birney.

The “thin, pale, Puritanic face” of David Bell Birney.

George Meade and David Bell Birney had never been friendly. It was a mutual dislike that dated back at least to Fredericksburg, when Meade sent messages asking Birney to send men to support his division, which had pierced Stonewall Jackson’s line. Birney refused, and in a face-to-face meeting on the battlefield, Meade’s language had been strong enough to “almost make the stones creep,” in the words on one bystander. Birney didn’t care for Meade., either. In a letter he wrote on October 28, 1863, Birney said that Meade, when commanding a brigade and a division, “was always badly beaten, troops flying in disorder and has no confidence in Soldiers of the volunteers.” Birney had castigated a number of his fellow generals in the same letter. George Sykes, he said, “was a disagreeable conceited selfish unpopular fellow”; John Newton was “a captain engineer with but little executive capacity, fond of whiskey, and will never distinguish himself although a pet of Meade.” William French, he said, “is drunk every afternoon, lately screeching drunk, jealous of every one in his command” and “hated by the corps.” Andrew Humphreys “is what we call an old granny, a charming, clever gentleman, fussy and [unclear] to troops.” Meade was perfectly aware that Birney had tried to get him replaced with either Joe Hooker or Daniel Sickles, as detailed here. So is it any wonder that when Birney died of typhoid on October 18 that Meade had said in a letter home to his wife that he had not liked Birney personally? (That remark, however, was edited out of the letter when it was printed in Meade’s Life and Letters.)

I am very glad you went to see Mrs. Birney. The telegraph to-day announces her husband’s decease. This has shocked every one here, for no one had any idea he was so ill. General Birney is undoubtedly a loss to the army. He was a very good soldier, and very energetic in the performance of his duties. During the last campaign he had quite distinguished himself. I feel greatly for his poor wife, who is thus so suddenly deprived of her husband and protector. When he left here he was said to be threatened with a serious attack, but it was hoped change of air and being at home would keep it off. He must have been much more sick than persons generally, or he himself, were aware of, because he was very reluctant to leave.

To-day I had a visit from the Rev. Dr. Pyne, of Washington, who has come to the army to visit a poor creature, a Frenchman, who deserted the service and then re-enlisted to get the large bounties. He was sentenced to be shot, but at the earnest solicitation of Dr. Pyne, and of his representations, I remitted the sentence to imprisonment at the Dry Tortugas.

I saw General Grant to-day, and we had a laugh over the ridiculous canard of my being relieved. He then told me he was asked in Washington if it was true, it being reported at the same time that he had resigned. These foolish reports were doubtless gotten up for political purposes and to affect the elections.

To-day Robert Meade [Meade’s nephew] went down the river in the flag-of-truce boat, having been exchanged. I saw a young navy officer who was captured at the same time and exchanged with Robert. He said Robert was well, but thin, as he had felt his captivity a good deal. His mother will be delighted to have him once more at home.

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. 235. Available via Google Books.

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