Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)
George Meade writes home with some follow-up on his Senate confirmation and the Confederate peace commissioners. The Chandler to whom he refers is Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, a staunch Meade opponent. As members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Chandler and Senator Ben Wade had spearheaded the effort to have Meade removed from the command a year earlier.
The peace commissioners had indeed met with Lincoln. I included Ulysses S. Grant’s account of the meetings in the post of February 1. I have my own follow-up to that post. In it, I had added this editorial comment: “Clearly, Meade feels that he should not have spent time talking with the commissioners. I have even read an interview with one historian who says Meade’s actions here were treasonous.” Not wanting to point fingers, I kept the historian’s identity to myself. In a Facebook discussion that ensued, though, the historian in question stepped forward. He is Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. The interview was one he did for Harry Smeltzer’s Bull Runnings blog, in which Dr. Guelzo said this about the letter in question: “After reading this, the first question which burned through my mind was, Whose side are you on? What Union major-general gives talking points to Confederate negotiators as they are on their way to meet with Lincoln and Seward? No wonder Meade concluded the letter with the injunction, ‘all this I have written you, must be confidential, as it would not do to let it be known I had been talking with them, or what I have said.’ This letter appears nowhere in young Meade’s Life and Letters, or Freeman Cleaves’ well-known biography of Meade.” (You can find the entire interview here.
I remember reading that interview and feeling my blood run cold.
Now, I will freely admit to making some errors in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. I still flush with embarrassment when I recall how I wrote that Col. Henry Baker died at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. In fact, that was Col. Edward Baker. My subconscious must have been thinking of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the Sherlock Holmes story in which Henry Baker drops a Christmas goose that eventually leads to the recovery of a stolen gem. As far as I am aware, no Christmas gooses were dropped at Ball’s Bluff. I also referred to divisions as brigades (or perhaps vice versa) and at one point stated that Grant launched his Overland Campaign in 1865. (Incidentally, those errors have been corrected for the paperback edition, available here.)
But while I made some mistakes, I thought I correctly presented the big picture, which is that Meade had served his country well but had been unfairly ignored by history, for a variety of reasons. Yet apparently I had overlooked a letter that called into question Meade’s very loyalty to the Union. How had I missed it? I knew that his son and grandson left out passages and some entire letters when they edited his Life and Letters for publication, but I had looked over microfilmed copies of the originals from this period. Somehow this bombshell had eluded me. I felt chagrined and depressed.
But, as it turns out, Dr. Guelzo was mistaken. The letter was indeed included in Life and Letters. It had not been suppressed by the Meades. It’s right there for all to see. I had read the letter, but thought little of it. It did not make me question Meade’s loyalty. Meade obviously knew he was sticking his prominent nose into places it didn’t belong, but he was just repeating administration policy (that war could end only when the seceded states returned to the Union and slavery was abolished). I don’t consider that to be “giving talking points.” Had he written to his wife, “I told the rebels that the best way to throw Lincoln off his game was to mention Ann Rutherford,” or “if you want to make things work out your way, try contacting John Wilkes Booth and figure out when the president will be attending the theater,” then I would have seen things somewhat differently.
Anyway, my post of Meade’s letter led to a long and lively Facebook discussion among Dr. Guelzo, Meade supporter Scott Brown (who made some excellent points), and me. I remained insistent that Dr. Guelzo admit he had been mistaken when he said the letter had not appeared in Life and Letters. A small point, perhaps, but I felt it was important. Dr. Guelzo had used this mistaken assertion to underscore his interpretation of the letter as being especially damaging to Meade’s reputation. By this reasoning, the Meades could not let the letter see the light of day because it was so bad. That was simply not true. (Apparently Dr. Guelzo had repeated this assertion—and got the date of the letter wrong—in an article he had written for Gettysburg Magazine. I have not read that article.)
I am sure this was an honest mistake on Dr. Guelzo’s part, although I do think it hints at an underlying anti-Meade bias. Instead of seeing a meddlesome general, he saw a disloyal one. Perhaps I am too biased in the other direction, but I don’t agree with that interpretation at all.
Now, on to Meade’s letter from February 4. The Senators who voted against Meade’s confirmation were Zachariah Chandler (R-Michigan), James Harlan (R-Iowa), Samuel C. Pomeroy (R-Kansas), Benjamin Wade (R-Ohio), and Morton S. Wilkinson (R-Minnesota).
I hear from Washington the vote on my confirmation was thirty-two to five. I have not heard the names of my opponents, but their number is about what I expected, and I have no doubt they are all like Chandler, men whose opposition is rather creditable to you.
As to the Peace Commissioners, I presume their arrival will make a great stir; I have written you what passed between us when I called on them. I understand they afterwards went down to Fortress Monroe, where they met, some say, the President, and others, Mr. Seward. To-day they returned to Richmond, but what was the result of their visit no one knows. At the present moment, 8 p.m., the artillery on our lines is in full blast, clearly proving that at this moment there is no peace. I fear there is not much chance of any agreement between the contending parties until more decided successes are gained on our side.
I would have liked to have sent a few lines to Johnny Wise by the Commissioners, but they went up the river, and did not pass through my lines.
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. 260-1. Available via Google Books.