You have only one chance to turn 200. And now George Gordon Meade has done it.
Meade was born on December 31, 1815, and to commemorate his bicentennial, the General Meade Society of Philadelphia had a gala celebration at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The weather gods smiled favorably on the occasion, and it was dry and relatively warm for the event (although there’s always a cold breeze blowing off the Schuylkill River over the Meade gravesite). Several hundred people showed up, including three generations of Meade descendants, and a host of living historians. The Meade Society did a terrific job organizing everything. Beck’s Philadelphia Brigade Band provided music, President Abraham Lincoln was on hand to deliver a few appropriate remarks, and a number of speakers made remarks at the gravesite before a ceremonial wreath laying, 21-gun salute, and the traditional champagne toast.
I was honored to be one of the speakers. I kept my remarks brief (to the palpable relief of the crowd). I quoted William Faulkner, who once said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” I remarked on the irony of how easy it is to realize the truth of that when you’re in a historic cemetery where all the figures from the past are indisputably dead. But the history they helped create is a living thing, and the events involving these historical figures still reverberate today. The American Civil War is one of the great defining events of American history, and George Gordon Meade had a strong influence on how that war played out. What would have happened if he had not led the Army of Potomac to victory at Gettysburg? What would have happened to the nation we know today?
Other speakers pointed out that by honoring George Meade, we also honor the thousands of soldiers who fought with him and under him. It was a huge, bloody, ugly war, but it ended with the nation intact and slavery abolished. Anyone who has been following the controversies over the Confederate flag, Confederate war monuments, and even the still-ongoing struggles over civil rights understands that the issues raised by that war are still with us, one way or another. But that’s the thing about the past—it hasn’t even passed.