George Gordon Meade. Born in 1815 in Cadiz, Spain (where his father served as an agent for the U.S. Navy), George Gordon Meade graduated from West Point in 1835. He fought in the Mexican-American War, built lighthouses and did survey work. When the Civil War broke out he rose from command of a brigade, to a division, to a corps, and finally to command of the Army of the Potomac, a position he held to the end of the war. He was not flamboyant. Like most of the generals around him he was very ambitious, but he rather naively expected that if he did his duty those in authority would recognize his virtues. He was wrong about that and it embittered him. Meade also had a ferocious temper, “which under irritating circumstances became almost ungovernable,” as one officer noted. His soldiers reportedly called him “an old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.” An aide once noted, “He is a slasher, is the General, and cuts up people without much mercy. His family is celebrated for fierceness of temper and a sardonic sort of way that makes them uncomfortable people; but the General is the best of them, and exhausts his temper in saying sharp things.” The temper sometimes created problems and enemies but he proved himself a capable warrior on the field of battle.
Zachary Taylor. Meade’s commander during the Mexican-American War, Taylor was hearty and unpretentious, with a “mahogany complexion, piercing eye, iron-grey hair, and stout frame.” His men called him “Old Rough and Ready.” He was a strong and steady warrior on the battlefield but so unassuming off it that a newly arrived lieutenant once offered the general a dollar to clean his sword, unaware that he was talking to his commanding officer and not an orderly. Meade found the general to be “a plain, sensible old gentleman, who laughs very much at the excitement in the Northern States on account of his position, and thinks there is not the remotest probability of there being any war.”
George McClellan. The first commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Brinton McClellan was vain, paranoid, self-righteous, and insubordinate in equal measures. He was also, by his own estimates, always outnumbered by “vastly superior numbers” of Confederates. He seemed incapable of admitting error. “It’s not my fault,” could have served as his personal motto. Throughout his stormy tenure in the Union army he spared no one in the administration from his invective. President Abraham Lincoln was “nothing more than a well meaning baboon.” Secretary of State William Seward was “a meddling, officious, incompetent little puppy.” Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles “is weaker than the most garrulous old woman you were ever annoyed by.” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton “is without exception the vilest man I ever knew or heard of.” Surprisingly, McClellan once had good words to say about postmaster General Montgomery Blair. McClellan called him the “only man of courage & sense in the Cabinet.” But then he added, “I do not altogether fancy him!” To McClellan’s credit, he truly loved his army. He complained about his generals but never had a harsh word for his soldiers. He loved them and they loved him back. How he loved to write about how much they loved him! No, when things went wrong on the battlefield the fault never lay with McClellan or the ordinary soldiers. It was always somebody else’s fault.
John Reynolds. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1820, John Fulton Reynolds graduated from West Point in 1837. He fought in Mexico, served in California and Oregon, and was an instructor at West Point when war broke out. One of Reynolds’ aides described him as “somewhat rough and wanting polish,” but thought him “Brave, kind-hearted, modest,” and “a type of the true soldier.” Reynolds tended to be taciturn. No one in his family or, apparently, in the army knew that he was engaged to be married, the reason why he wore a Catholic medal around his neck, with a gold ring shaped like clasped hands on its chain. He and Katherine Hewitt had met when Reynolds was returning east. They planned to marry if Reynolds survived the war and honeymoon in Europe. If he died, Kate pledged to enter a convent. Reynolds served as Meade’s commander for a time and, for a very brief period, Meade was Reynolds’ superior.
John Pope. Political currents always buffeted the Army of the Potomac, but John Pope’s arrival on the scene in the summer of 1862 intensified them in all new ways. He had fought with some success in the West as the commander of the Army of the Mississippi so President Lincoln summoned him east to take command of the newly formed Army of Virginia. Pope made a bad first impression on his Eastern troops by issuing a blustery proclamation. “I have come to you from the West,” he announced, “where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense.” The implied rebuke, or course, was that the Army of the Potomac shared none of those qualities. A story began making the rounds that Pope proclaimed that his “headquarters would be in the saddle,” prompting many inevitable jokes about his hindquarters. Decades later Pope still complained about the “fanciful story,” one he said “furnished General Lee with the basis for the only joke of his life.” George McClellan seethed over Pope’s arrival and wrote to his wife that “the paltry young man who wanted to teach me the art of war will in less than a week either be in full retreat or badly whipped.”
Henry Halleck. In July 1862 President Lincoln appointed Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck to the position of general-in-chief of the Union armies. Halleck had a large forehead and bulging eyes that gave an intellectual air. People nicknamed him “Old Brains.” “Old Bureaucrat” may have been more suitable. Halleck proved less of a military spark plug for the Union and more of a cautious administrative type who became skilled at dodging risk and responsibility. Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s navy secretary and a close observer of events in the capital, would later say this about the general-in-chief: “I have been unable to see, hear, or obtain evidence of power, or will, or talent, or originality on the part of General Halleck. He has suggested nothing, decided nothing, done nothing but scold and smoke and scratch his elbows.” (The elbow scratching was one of Halleck’s peculiar nervous tics.) Halleck was a good administrator but if Lincoln had expected Old Brains to guide Union war strategy with a firm hand the president was sorely disappointed.
Ambrose Burnside. A big and gregarious man, Ambrose Burnside possessed a limited confidence in his own military abilities. He was personally close to McClellan and after the failure on the peninsula he had turned down Lincoln’s offer to take command of the Army of the Potomac out of loyalty (and perhaps a clear sense of his own limitations). He turned down another offer following Pope’s debacle at Second Bull Run. As one officer noted, “Burnside represented a well-recognized type in all armies, the California-peach class of men, handsome, ingratiating manners, and noted for a soldierly bearing,—that is, square shoulders, full breast, and the capacity on duty to wear a grim countenance, while off duty all smiles and a keen eye to please, — who, in times of peace, not only in our country but everywhere, invariably land in high places, and who almost as invariably make utter failures when they are given commands on the breaking out of war.”
Joseph Hooker. Because of a proofreading error Joseph Hooker received the nickname “Fighting Joe”—a newspaper article was supposed to read “Fighting—Joe Hooker,” but the dropped em-dash gave him a nickname that stuck. It was an apt label, too, because Hooker was a clearly a fighter—and he had dash. “General Hooker’s was a face which lighted up when the battle began,” wrote a New York Tribune correspondent. “The man seemed transformed. He rode carelessly on the march, but sat straight up in his saddle as the martial music of the bullets whistled past him.” The face that lit up in battle was clean-shaven and florid and Hooker was a “tall, fine-looking soldier, one of the finest looking in the Army,” as one of his subordinates remembered, with “skin as clear and a hand as small as many a lady” and “clear blue eyes.” He also had a somewhat raffish reputation, with a taste for the ladies and the bottle. Although there’s no truth to the oft-told story that prostitutes became known as “hookers” because of Fighting Joe’s proclivities, he did enjoy a drink and a good time. He was also quite adept at undermining his superiors, a talent he put to good use in the Army of the Potomac.
Winfield Scott Hancock. After the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, George McClellan noted, “Hancock was superb yesterday,” thus providing the general with the nickname by which he would become known: Hancock the Superb. Born in Pennsylvania in 1824 Winfield Scott Hancock had been named after Winfield Scott. Hancock had been an indifferent student at West Point, although he managed to graduate eighteenth in the class of 1844. He was a conservative Democrat who would have preferred to see the Union reunited without any interference with slavery but, like Meade, he remained discreet about his political leanings. Brave and handsome, Hancock looked like a soldier and fought like one too. He was also a master of profanity—“one of the most colorful and sulphuric in the whole Union army,” says biographer David M. Jordan. “He is a tall, soldierly man, with light-brown hair and a military heavy jaw; and has the massive features and the heavy folds round the eyes that often mark a man of ability,” judged one of Meade’s aides. Hancock also had the seemingly magical ability to always have a clean white shirt when in the field.
Robert E. Lee. In a letter to Abraham Lincoln on April 20, 1862, George McClellan wrote about potential adversaries Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee. “I prefer Lee to Johnston—the former is too cautious & weak under grave responsibility—personally brave & energetic to a fault, yet he is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.” That’s quite an amazing analysis coming from McClellan. Had he possessed a trace of introspection he might have realized he was writing an excellent description of himself. But of course he didn’t know himself any better than he knew his enemies. Lee’s father was “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War and then as the governor of Virginia. Light Horse Harry’s financial recklessness later brought shame and disgrace to the Lee name. Robert hardly knew his father, who spent his last years in the West Indies and died in 1818 on an island off the Georgia coast. Robert attended West Point, where he graduated second in the class of 1829 and served with distinction under Winfield Scott in Mexico. But after the Mexican war his career languished in the doldrums of the peacetime army. He served as the superintendent of West Point from 1852 to 1855; when John Brown raided Harpers Ferry in October 1859 Lee led the soldiers who captured him (with some help from Jeb Stuart, one of his West Point students.) In general, though Lee remained disappointed with the progress of his military career and he considered resigning from the army. And then the war came. Winfield Scott, who considered Lee a great soldier, offered him command of the Union armies, but Lee opted to fight for his home state of Virginia instead. And the rest . . . well, it wasn’t quite history yet. Lee’s efforts during the early days of the war proved lackluster. He had unspectacular stints in West Virginia and South Carolina and was serving as Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor when Johnston was wounded at Seven Pines. Even after Lee took over command from Johnston, few would have predicted his later veneration as a near Christ-like symbol of the Southern “Lost Cause.”
Old Baldy. If they awarded Purple Hearts to horses Baldy would have earned a chest full. He suffered his first wound during First Bull Run, when General David Hunter owned him. Meade bought Baldy from Hunter from the army quartermaster in 1861. He wasn’t much to write home about. In fact, Meade was always worrying about finding a good horse. “I am never fortunate with them,” he told his wife. “I should like much to have a really fine horse, but it costs so much I must try to get along with my old hacks.” His aides learned to dislike Baldy because the horse moved at an awkward pace somewhere between a walk and a run, making it difficult to keep up, but Meade thought him a loyal and steadfast mount. Baldy received a second wound at Second Bull Run; at Antietam was so badly injured that Meade gave him up for dead. After the battle the stalwart horse turned up alive, if not totally well. Baldy suffered his final wound during the second day at Gettysburg and would carry the Confederate bullet he received there inside him for the rest of his life. In April 1864, on the eve of the Overland campaign, Meade decided to send the horse to a well-earned retirement at a farm outside Philadelphia. “He will never be fit again for hard service, and I thought he was entitled to better care than could be given to him on the march,” the general said. When his wife later sent him a positive update about Old Baldy in retirement Meade wrote back, “I am glad to hear the good news about Baldy, as I am very much attached to the old brute.”
Abraham Lincoln. Meade had an uneasy relationship with the president of the United States. On Sunday, April 5, 1863, President Lincoln reached the army in the middle of a driving snowstorm. He looked “careworn and exhausted,” noted Meade, who had dinner with the president and his wife, General Hooker, the other corps commanders, and other dignitaries on Monday night. Meade knew that there was a vacant brigadier general position open in the regular army so, always ambitious, he attempted to curry favor with the president by telling him some ribald stories. As he told his wife, “I think I have made decided progress in his affections.” If so, he lost ground when Lee’s army escaped to Virginia after Gettysburg. “My dear General,” Lincoln wrote Meade, in a letter he decided not to send, “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape . . . . Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.” Meade believed Lincoln had unrealistic expectations about the realities of combat. He told Maj. Henry Abbott of the 20th MA that “Uncle Abe was very tender hearted about shooting a deserter, but that he was perfectly willing to sacrifice a thousand brave men in a useless fight.”
Daniel Sickles. He was very much an individual, a “picturesque and interesting character,” as the New York Times diplomatically described Dan Sickles in its obituary after the former general died in 1914 at the ripe old age of 90. Or was it 94? “Even his age can be debated,” wrote James A. Hessler in his book Sickles at Gettysburg. He looked something like a vaudeville villain, with a large mustache and a simmering gaze, lacking only the top hat and cape. In 1859, while a U.S. Congressman from New York, Sickles shot and killed his wife’s lover in Lafayette Square, just across the street from Buchanan’s White House. The victim was none other than the son of Francis Scott Key of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame. Then Sickles hired Edwin Stanton—later Lincoln’s Secretary of War—as part of his legal team and used the “temporary insanity” defense to emerge with a verdict of not guilty. If that wasn’t enough to scandalize society, he took his wife back (and continued, as before, to neglect her while carrying on his own affairs). Like the best villains, though, Sickles was more than just a bad guy. He may have been a rogue, but he was a fascinating rogue. Once war started Sickles raised a brigade back in New York City, where he had been a lawyer and a mover and shaker within the powerful and powerfully corrupt Tammany political machine. He became a brigadier general of volunteers, one of the “political generals” who rose through political influence instead of military experience. At Gettysburg he moved the III Corps forward from Cemetery Ridge to the area around the Peach Orchard. Sickles’ critics said that this foolhardy action could have cost the Union the battle; no one can argue that Longstreet’s men severely manhandled the III Corps and that Meade’s line eventually ended up where he had wanted it in the first place. Sickles, who lost a leg in the battle, refused to admit that his unauthorized advance had in any way jeopardized the Union forces. In fact, he insisted that his actions had saved the army at Gettysburg. As Edwin Coddington put it, “General Sickles apparently preferred to be guilty of willful insubordination than of stupidity—and he got away with it because even the most stiff-necked military man would hesitate to court-martial a general who had incurred a severe wound while fighting valiantly for the cause. As a cynic might explain it, when Sickles lost his leg at Gettysburg, he saved his reputation.”
Ulysses S. Grant. The general-in-chief of the Union armies and Meade’s new boss often confounded people’s expectations. Horace Porter, who met Grant during the Chattanooga campaign and became his aide-de-camp, said, “Many of us were not a little surprised to find in him a man of slim figure, slightly stooped, five feet eight inches in height, weighing only a hundred and thirty-five pounds, and of a modesty of mien and gentleness of manner which seemed to fit him more for the court than for the camp.” Meade, who was almost seven years older than his new superior, had known Grant slightly during the Mexican war, where he considered him “a clever young officer, but nothing extraordinary.” They had never met since. On March 10, 1864, Grant made the 50-mile trip from Washington to Brandy Station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, arriving in a pouring rain. His reception, however, was anything but stormy. Meade suspected that Grant might want his own man at the head of the army so when the two generals met he told Grant not to hesitate if he wanted to put somebody else in command. The work to be done was more important than the feelings of any individual, he said. Grant replied that he had no intention of replacing him. “This incident gave me even a more favorable opinion of Meade than did his great victory at Gettysburg the July before,” Grant wrote. Meade was also impressed by Grant. But he warned his wife that instead of remaining in Washington Grant intended to make his headquarters in the field with Meade’s army. “[Y]ou may look now for the Army of the Potomac putting laurels on the brows of another rather than your husband,” he said.
Gouverneur Kemble Warren. For a time Gouverneur Warren was a rising star in the Army of the Potomac but by the final weeks of the war he had stretched Meade’s patience to the breaking point. “General Warren is a small man, about thirty-five years old, dark complexioned, with black eyes, and long, straight black hair; he has a little of the look of an Indian, and evidently is of a nervous temperament,” noted Charles Wainwright of the I Corps. He was a finicky micro-manager who too-often proved willing to let his own sense what should be done trump the orders of his superiors. He was a serious and scholarly man but also displayed a great love for limericks and would often sit in his tent laughing over a book of them or bore others with recitations at meals. Born in New York State, Warren had graduated second in the West Point class of 1850 and had commanded a regiment and a brigade as a fighting general before becoming the army’s engineer. Today his likeness stands on a rocky outcrop on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, field glasses in hand, as he appeared on July 2 when he realized that the signalmen represented the only Union defense against the advancing Confederate forces, bayonet points glistening in the sunlight.
Philip Sheridan. Short, pugnacious and eager-for-glory, “Little Phil” had commanded cavalry for a grand total of only about three months during his military career but he had served under Grant in the west and the new general-in-chief liked his aggressive nature. Sheridan became the new cavalry commander in the Army of the Potomac. When Theodore Lyman met him he described a “small, broad-shouldered, squat man, with black hair and a square head. He is of Irish parents, but looks very like a Piedmontese.” Sheridan would become one of the crosses that Meade had to bear during the war and afterward. He was a hard fighter on the battlefield and he was equally aggressive at furthering his own reputation. On the back of a sketch he had made of Warren’s attack at Five Forks, artist Alfred Waud wrote, “Sheridan and the ring he belongs to intends to grab all laurels no matter at the cost of what injustice.”
David Bell Birney. As one of Meade’s aides described him, Birney “was a pale, Puritanical figure, with a demeanor of unmovable coldness; only he would smile politely when you spoke to him. He was spare in person, with a thin face, light-blue eye, and sandy hair.” He had been born in the South, but a hatred of slavery motivated his father to pack up the family and move north. Birney took up the law and was practicing in Philadelphia when war broke out. Meade and Birney had an encounter at Fredericksburg, when Meade requested reinforcements and Birney refused to send them, supposedly because he felt he had to wait until he received orders from corps commander John Reynolds first. This infuriated Meade. According to a bystander, when Meade rode over to confront Birney he used language strong enough to “almost make the stones creep.” He gained an enemy for life. Later in the war Birney cast his lot with Sickles and Butterfield to get either Hooker or Sickles in command of the army. When he realized he had backed the wrong horse Birney went to Meade, hat in hand, to make amends. He told Meade he had never entertained unfriendly feelings toward him and hoped to serve under him again. Meade listened with an icy silence, saying only that he had never heard that Birney had unfriendly feelings toward him. (“I am again on very pleasant terms with Gen. Meade,” Birney wrote to a friend. “He assured me of his high regard, and desire for me to remain.”) When Birney died in October 1864, Meade told his wife that he had never liked the man personally but admired his abilities on the field. “General Birney is undoubtedly a loss to the army,” Meade wrote. “He was a very good soldier, and very energetic in the performance of his duties. During the last campaign he had quite distinguished himself.”
Theodore Lyman. Lyman was a Boston patrician and Harvard graduate who traveled among the best families and married well. He had first met Meade in Florida in 1856, when he was studying starfish and Meade was overseeing lighthouse construction. While in Europe during the war, a conflict that had already killed many in his circle, Lyman wrote to the general and asked about a staff position. He reached Meade’s side on September 3, 1863, and remained with him until Lee surrendered. Tall, bearded, and balding, Lyman was trained as a scientist and brought a scientist’s skill at observation to the journal and letters he wrote while with the Army of the Potomac. Although Lyman certainly viewed the war through the lens of a staff officer, he spent his share of time on or near the front lines, dodging shells and bullets and seeing the dead and wounded. His accounts offer incisive and often humorous portraits of the personalities he encountered and the petty grievances and unpredictable human interactions that sometimes gummed up the army’s works. His portrayals can be sympathetic or cutting. Of Judson Kilpatrick, Lyman noted, “His colorless eye, big nose, and narrow forehead, with an indescribable air between a vulgarian & a crack-brain, combine to render him almost laughable. He is pushing & managing in the extreme, but I don’t believe he is worth a fig as a general.” Of George Armstrong Custer, at one time the Union’s youngest general and still years away from the disaster at the Little Bighorn, Lyman wrote: “This officer is one of the funniest looking beings you ever saw, and looks like a circus rider gone mad!” Lyman wrote. “He wears a huzzar jacket and tight trousers, of faded black velvet trimmed with tarnished gold lace. His head is decked with a little, gray felt hat; high boots and gilt spurs complete the costume, which is enhanced by the General’s coiffure, consisting in short, dry, flaxen ringlets! His aspect, though highly amusing, is also pleasing, as he has a very merry blue eye, and a devil-may-care style.” Lyman described John Buford as “a compactly built man of middle height, with a tawny moustache and a little, triangular gray eye, whose expression is determined, not to say sinister. His ancient corduroys are tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots, and his blue blouse is ornamented with holes; from one pocket thereof peeps a huge pipe, while the other is fat with a tobacco pouch. Notwithstanding this get-up he is a very soldierly looking man. He is of a good-natured disposition, but not to be trifled with.” Although generally positive about Meade, Lyman was not blind to the general’s faults, especially that ungovernable temper. He called him “the great peppery.”
Francis C. Barlow. Like Lyman, Barlow was a Harvard man. He had practiced law before the war and looked more like a newsboy than a general, but Barlow had been wounded at Antietam and left for dead at Gettysburg. He carried an especially large sword—so that when he hit stragglers with it, he would hurt them, he told Lyman. Lyman called him “an eccentric officer.” At Cold Harbor one night Lyman found Barlow in a good mood. He had placed some stragglers—his bêtes noires—I n a field during the shelling, and two of them had been killed. After leaving Cold Harbor in the successful attempt to sweep around Lee to Petersburg, Barlow began marching his men so fast—with his provost guard spurring stragglers along at bayonet point—that Meade sent Lyman forward to tell him to slow down. Lyman found Barlow sitting, coatless, high up in the branches of a cherry tree. “By Jove!” came his voice from above Lyman’s head. “I knew I wouldn’t be here long before Meade’s staff would be up. How do you do, Theodore? Won’t you come up and take a few cherries?”