Happy 201st!


I started this morning by drinking coffee out of my Old Baldy mug . It seemed appropriate, as today would have been George Gordon Meade’s 201st birthday. The annual birthday commemoration took place at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery today. Once sufficiently caffeinated, my wife and I jumped in the car and headed for the City of Brotherly Love. This is an annual event to which we always look forward. It’s fun and respectful, and weird and wonderful, and unique. I always tell people, if you want to spend the last day of the year standing in a cemetery, this is the place to be.

It was a little odd to see Meade’s gravesite without the big Norway maple that towered over it. The tree, which had been standing there when the general was buried, finally succumbed to old age and was cut down earlier this year. Nothing lasts forever.

The tree, like the general, is gone, but yet it still lives on. At today’s event I purchased some coasters made from the old maple, and there were also things like flag holders available, too. Things fade and die, but they also live on. History keeps memory alive, and the people who show up each year for the Meade birthday commemoration obviously love history.

As I said, fun but respectful. Many thanks to the General Meade Society of Philadelphia for throwing this birthday celebration every year.









John Sedgwick, R.I.P.

DSC_1476I’ve long wanted to get an excuse to drop in and pay my respects to John Sedgwick, who is buried in Cornwall Hollow Cemetery in northwest Connecticut. It’s a tiny rural cemetery in the middle of nowhere. Sedgwick lies beneath a granite obelisk, one of the most prominent monuments here. On the other side of Rt. 43 from the cemetery is a fairly impressive monument to Sedgwick, with a granite obelisk, bronze profile, cannon, and stacks of cannonballs at the corners. I wonder how many people who drive past it have any idea who Sedgwick was.


The Sedgwick monument.

John Sedgwick commanded the VI Corps under Meade. He was a dependable general, if perhaps too cautious. This, of course, is a criticism that is often used against Meade, but Sedgwick could make Meade look positively reckless in comparison, as witnessed by his activities at Chancellorsville and during the pursuit of Meade after Gettysburg.

Here’s a bit of what I had to say about Sedgwick in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg.


John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Sedgwick was a Connecticut native who had graduated from West Point two years after Meade. A lifelong bachelor, he was “married” to the army and enjoyed passing the time playing long games of solitaire. War correspondent George Smalley called him “one of the best generals we had: a man of utterly transparent honesty, simplicity, and truth of character; trusted, beloved, ardently followed by his men; a commander who had done great things and was capable of greater.” His men loved him and called him “Uncle John.”


If there were a Famous Last Words Hall of Fame, Sedgwick would hold a place of honor. On the morning of May 9 outside Spotsylvania, he was near the Union front lines when he noticed some of his artillerymen dodging sharpshooters’ bullets. He chastised them for their fear. “Why, what are you dodging about?” he asked. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.” Just then a bullet struck him below his left eye. His chief of staff, Col. Martin McMahon, was standing next to him when the bullet hit. Sedgwick turned toward him, and McMahon saw blood spurting from the wound like a fountain. Then the general fell, knocking McMahon to the ground, too. Sedgwick died almost instantly, a smile still on his lips.

meade and sedgwick

Meade (left) and Sedgwick at Brandy Station before the start of the Overland Campaign (Library of Congress).

Poor Sedgwick! “We bore him tenderly to an ambulance, and followed it to army headquarters where an evergreen bower had been prepared, and there he lay in simple state with the stars and stripes around him,” remembered Major Thomas Hyde, whom the general had been good-naturedly teasing just before he died. “All who came remained to weep; old grizzled generals, his comrades for many years; young staff officers, and private soldiers: all paid this tribute to his modest greatness.”


Meade was bothered by the fact that he had been sharp with Sedgwick at their last meeting the night before. Meade thought Sedgwick had been relying too much on Warren’s judgment, so he snapped at him, saying he wished “he would take command of his own corps.” It was the last time they spoke. “I feel more grieved at his death because we had not parted entirely in good feeling,” he told Theodore Lyman. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright took over the VI Corps.


The bronze likeness on the monument.




Sedgwick’s gravesite.



Happy 200th Birthday!

Meade ribbonYou 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.

DSC_0201I 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?

DSC_0175Other 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.






The Perfect Gift!

paperback scan

Here’s the perfect gift for the Civil War buff on your Christmas list. Or just a little something special for yourself.

Making it even better, this year marks George Gordon Meade’s bicentennial. The future general was born on December 31, 1815. What better way to commemorate his 200th birthday than by reading about his life and legacy in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg? It is available in both hardcover and paperback editions.

You can order the book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.


“Despite his great victory at Gettysburg and his command of the army that forced Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, George Meade saw his fame eclipsed by that of Lee, Grant, and other Civil War generals. This book does a great deal to redress that historical injustice. Tom Huntington has invented a new genre of biography that shifts between past and present as he tells the story of Meade’s life and describes his own pilgrimage to the key sites of that life. The result is an engrossing narrative that the reader can scarcely put down.” —James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Searching for George Gordon Meade is a splendid book! Well-researched, well-reasoned and well-written, it’s a timely and vital addition to the all-too-meager literature on this neglected American hero. Strongly recommended for serious historians as well as for a general readership. Excellent!” —Ralph Peters, author of Cain at Gettysburg

Much more than another Civil War biography, Tom Huntington’s gripping personal ‘search’ for George Gordon Meade is unique and irresistible: a combination life story, military history, travelogue, and cultural commentary that brings us closer than ever to the old general and his strange reputation—and also opens new windows to our own unending search for an understandable national identity.” —Harold Holzer, Chairman, Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

“[A] refreshingly readable and well-researched book . . . . Searching for George Gordon Meade should be required reading for all those interested in Civil War history.”—Civil War News, July 2013


Gettysburg Monuments

You can always buy Tom Huntington’s other books, Guide to Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Civil War Trails. You can get them at Amazon.com or directly from Stackpole Books.

Dead Confederates

Tomb with a view. From the Seddon family plot at Hollywood Cemetery.

Tomb with a view. From the Seddon family plot at Hollywood Cemetery.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee, I am not partial to Confederate idolatry. Until the other day, I had never visited Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, where many notable rebels are buried. But with some time to fill before I spoke to the Richmond Civil War Round Table about Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, I decided to visit the dead.

I’m glad I did.

Hollywood is a classic nineteenth-century cemetery, laid out on a hilly terrain with some incredible views over the James River to Belle Island (once the site of a Civil War prison). It provides the final resting place for many Southern notables, including two U.S. presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler) and all the presidents of the Confederacy. (Admittedly, that’s only one guy.) There are also 22 Confederate generals and around 18,000 ordinary soldiers.

Jb Stuart's gravesite.

Jeb Stuart’s gravesite.

So, on a beautiful October afternoon, I parked my car by the entrance, grabbed my cemetery map, and began to explore. I stopped first at the gravesite of Jeb Stuart, mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern in 1864 after years spent bedeviling the Army of the Potomac with his cavalry. Jeb now lies beneath a tall obelisk atop one of the cemetery’s hills.

Meade's brother in law.

Meade’s brother-in-law.

My next stop was the grave of Henry A. Wise, the former governor of Virginia, and George Gordon Meade’s brother-in-law. (Wise’s first wife was the sister of Meade’s wife.) Throughout the war, Meade kept his wife up to date with information he had gleaned about Wise and his family, and he finally encountered his brother-in-law at Appomattox Court House. Wise now rests beneath a heavy slab, surrounded by other members of the Wise family.

James Monroe: Pardon our Appearance.

James Monroe: Pardon our Appearance.

Presidents Monroe and Tyler are buried adjacent to each other in Presidents’ Circle. Monroe’s tomb is undergoing some kind of restoration, and the sarcophagus inside its iron casing–which reminded me of an old-fashioned elevator–was covered with a blue blanket, as though someone had just conducted some kind of arcane ceremony. (Incidentally, it was Governor Wise who spearheaded the effort to get President Monroe reinterred here.) Tyler, who became the 10th U.S. president following the death of William Henry Harrison, headed a peace convention that tried to head off Civil War in 1861. Theodore Lyman, Meade’s aide, wrote about passing by Tyler’s Virginia birthplace at the Army of the Potomac made its way to the James River on the way to Petersburg in 1864. Lyman referred to Tyler as “him of the big nose and small political principles.” One of those traits, at least, is visible in the bust that adorns Tyler’s tomb.

The "accidental president."

The “accidental president.”

I found Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon in some prime real estate, a family plot with a sweeping view of the rocky waters of the James. Continuing on, I reached the grave of Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the Confederate States of America. He lies beneath a statue of himself at the cemetery’s far reaches. Nearby is the statue of an angel that crouches over the grave of Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, the “daughter of the Confederacy,” who was born during the Civil War. Just past Davis’s grave is the last resting place of Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. and a Virginia governor after the war.

Fitzhugh Lee (foreground) overlooking the Jefferson Davis family.

Fitzhugh Lee (foreground) overlooking the Jefferson Davis family.

Walking back to the entrance, I passed the graves of even more notables: John Pegram, killed at Hatcher’s Run in 1865; James Archer, captured during the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg; Douglass Southall Freeman, the biographer of Robert E. Lee.

Pickett, post-charge.

Pickett, post-charge.

I got back into my car and made the short drive over to the 90-foot stone pyramid that was erected here in 1869 as a memorial to the Confederate dead. It was designed by Charles Henry Dimmock, the same engineer who laid out the “Dimmock Line” of defensive fortifications around Petersburg. Just beyond, backed up against the cemetery fence, was the tomb of George Pickett, the general for whom the final, doomed charge at Gettysburg was named. His wife, Sallie, who did so much to burnish her husband’s reputation, lies nearby. Her stone provides this bit of detail: “Pen and Stage Name ‘LaSalle.’” Also nearby is a plot reserved for the dead of Gettysburg, many of whom, no doubt, fell during that futile attack against Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863.

The Gettysburg dead.

The Gettysburg dead.

Seeing the graves of all these dead Confederates, I thought about words from Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, about Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly,” Grant wrote, “ and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Fate? As George Pickett one supposedly said, "I think the Yankees had something to do with it."

Fate? As George Pickett once supposedly said, “I think the Yankees had something to do with it.”

I like historic cemeteries. They help drive home the point that the names we read in history books once belonged to real, flesh-and-blood people. Even though they have long since turned to dust.

The cemetery's pyramid.

The cemetery’s pyramid.

152 Years Later

A marker indicates the spot where Hancock fell at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (Photo by Tom Huntington).

A marker indicates the spot where Hancock fell at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (Photo by Tom Huntington).

Steve Weatherbee as Meade (Tom Huntington photo).

Steve Weatherbee as Meade (Tom Huntington photo).

I met my fourth George Gordon Meade yesterday.

I know Andy Waskie, of course, the founder and president of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia. Waskie often portrays Meade at talks and living history events. He was out of the country during the 2013 anniversary commemorations, so Jerry McCormick—who usually portrays Gen. Andrew Humphreys—stood in for him as Meade at Gettysburg with the Confederation of Union Generals. I talked to Bob Creed at a Gettysburg reenactment when I was working on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. And today I met Steve Weatherbee, who portrays Meade for the Civil War Heritage Foundation. That doesn’t come close to matching the profusion of Robert E. Lees you will find at Civil War events, but it’s a beginning.

I talked with Weatherbee while we waited for advancing Confederates at the stone wall at Gettysburg’s Bloody Angle. The Angle was considerably less bloody today, and the crowd gathered here 152 years after the Union soldiers along this line repulsed Lee’s attack—Pickett’s Charge—was considerably smaller than it had been in 2013, when some 47,000 people showed up for the 150th anniversary.

Over the past couple days I had watched several of the Gettysburg Battlewalks on the Pennsylvania Cable Network, which made me realize I must get down to Gettysburg myself on July 3. So I packed a lunch and set out. It was a fine, pleasant day for a visit, with a light cloud cover blocking the July sun, and a cool breeze blowing through. My goal was to take the 10:00 walk, which covered Winfield Scott Hancock at Gettysburg. A large crowd gathered at the white Abraham Brian farm buildings. As we waited, I overhead some people talking favorably about George Meade. I pointed out the Meade Society cap I was wearing, and we agreed that the general had never really received his due.

Ranger Matt Atkinson talks about Hancock at the Copse of Trees (tom Huntington photo).

Ranger Matt Atkinson talks about Hancock at the Copse of Trees (Tom Huntington photo).

Park ranger Matt Atkinson led the Hancock walk, and he added a distinctive Southern flavor to it. At the start, he admitted that he didn’t often do Union-themed talks, and that he had grown up in the South looking up to Confederate heroes as a boy. Still, he told us that Hancock was one of his favorite generals, and that he was “a natural-born leader.” From the Brian buildings, we moved south down Cemetery Ridge. We made a stop at the monument that marks the spot where Confederate General Lewis Armistead fell on July 3 1863. Armistead and Hancock had been friends before the war—a friendship portrayed as a full-blown bromance in the book Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg. We finished across the road from the monument that marks the spot where Hancock fell, taken down by a bullet that went through the pommel of his saddle and into his thigh. Atkinson provided a fairly graphic account of Hancock’s wound and the various attempts to remove the musket ball. Maybe that’s what led to our only casualty of the morning, when a woman went faint and had to be helped to the ground (and later to an air conditioned park vehicle).

Alonzo Cushing's belt at the National Civil War Museum (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

Alonzo Cushing’s belt at the National Civil War Museum (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

After the talk, I whiled away some time reading the new book by Jim Hessler and Wayne Motts, Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: A Guide to the Most Famous Attack in American History. My wife and I had attended the book launch event the previous Sunday at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, where Wayne serves as CEO. Jim and Wayne both spoke, and the two of them, plus cartographer Steven Stanley, signed copies of the book afterwards. Wayne had also put out a collection of artifacts related to Pickett’s Charge, including the belt worn by Alonzo Cushing, the Union artillerist who had been cut down at his guns as Armistead approached them. Cushing was just recently awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions that day.

One of two Lewis Armisteads at Gettysburg on July 3. The real George Pickett never got this far (Tom Huntington photo).

One of two Lewis Armisteads at Gettysburg on July 3. The real George Pickett never got this far (Tom Huntington photo).

Back at Gettysburg, I walked over to the Angle to wait for the Confederates with Weatherbee and other reenactors. I spotted only one Robert E. Lee, but two Armisteads.

It seemed to me that the day felt politically charged in the wake of the debate over the Confederate flag sparked by the church shootings in Charleston. (“Keep flying it,” I heard one woman remark to a Confederate reenactor as he passed her with a Rebel flag.) I’ve written about the flag issue elsewhere. I have no problems with Confederate flags in a historical context. I do have issues with it in a political context, whether it’s being flown at a statehouse or in the back of a pickup truck.

Anyone who has read Searching for George Gordon Meade knows that I have little patience for Lost Cause rhetoric. Here’s one thing I wrote:

During the war and in the years since, Lee has been lionized. Entire bookshelves groan beneath the weight of the volumes dedicated to him. He has come to symbolize a glorious “lost cause,” a world of “cavaliers and cotton fields,” as Gone with the Wind put it. In this view of the Civil War, the noble, freedom-loving South fought a valiant but doomed battle against the institutionalized and bureaucratic forces of the North. The Southern generals, men like Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, tend to be remembered as glamorous and noble warriors. The generals in the North come across more like CEOs of major corporations, faceless and colorless. Except perhaps for Ulysses S. Grant, who gained a reputation as a “butcher” willing to exchange his soldiers’ lives for victory. Who wants to cheer for those guys, especially today, when public distrust of the federal government seems to have reached an all-time high? No, it’s much cooler to cheer for the rebels.

Modern rebels at Gettysburg, 152 years later (Tom Huntington photo).

Modern rebels at Gettysburg, 152 years later (Tom Huntington photo).

Yet there’s one thing that tarnishes this glamorous view of the rebellious South, an elephant in the room that many try to ignore. And that is slavery. The South fought to preserve a culture that rested on a foundation of human bondage. Don’t take it from me–take it from the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In a famous speech he made in March 1861, less than a month before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War, Stephens declared that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Furthermore, he added, the foundation of the Confederate government—its very cornerstone, in fact—“rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Claiming that slavery did not cause the Civil War is like clearing the iceberg of any responsibility for sinking the Titanic. That’s why I find it galling to see the Sons of Confederate Veterans contend that the South’s “motivating factor” for war was “the preservation of liberty and freedom.” Except, of course, for the approximately four million people of African descent whom the slave-holding states kept in bondage. It’s a stain that will forever sully the story of the Confederate States of America. There’s no escaping it.

The recent discussions have dragged the unsavory side of Confederate banners into the light, which is a good thing. People forget that South Carolina started flying the stars and bars over its state capitol in 1962, not to salute the courage of Confederate soldiers, but to symbolize its resistance to civil rights. “Heritage not hate,” is what flag supporters tell us the banners symbolize. But that’s not quite right. “Heritage AND hate,” would be a more accurate motto.

So I sensed that subtext percolating beneath the day’s events at Gettysburg. The present has a way of forcing its way into these things, photo bombing history.

Hands across the wall (Tom Huntington photo).

Hands across the wall (Tom Huntington photo).

After watching Union and Confederate reenactors grasp hands across the stone wall, I headed up to the Meade statue for the start of a short “real time” talk about Alexander Webb and the Philadelphia Brigade, led by ranger Emma Murphy. By the walk’s end we were down at the Copse of Trees by the monument to the 69th Pennsylvania. She read us excerpts from Lt. Frank Haskell’s account of the battle and the final repulse of the Confederates on July 3, 1863. “The line springs,” Haskell had written; “the crest of the solid ground, with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load,–men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass; it rolls to the wall; flash meets flash; the wall is crossed; a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, an undistinguished conflict, followed by a shout universal, that makes the welkin ring again; and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.”

As far as I’m concerned, the right side won at Gettysburg. But as all the debate about the Confederate flag has shown us, in some people are still fighting the Civil War.

This Army Ceasing to Exist (June 28, 1865)

George Gordon Meade and his staff, photographed outside Washington in June 1865 (library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade and his staff, photographed outside Washington in June 1865 (library of Congress).

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the Army of the Potomac was officially disbanded. General George Gordon Meade had commanded the army longer than anyone else had—in fact, longer than all three of his predecessors combined. The army ended its existence exactly two years to the day after Meade had assumed command. The order he issued on June 28, 1865, follows, plus some commentary that appeared in Meade’s Life and Letters.

Headquarters Army of The Potomac, June 28, 1865


This day, two years, I assumed command of you, under the order of the President of the United States. To-day, by virtue of the same authority, this army ceasing to exist, I have to announce my transfer to other duties, and my separation from you.

It is unnecessary to enumerate here all that has occurred in these two eventful years, from the grand and decisive Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the war, to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. Suffice it to say that history will do you justice, a grateful country will honor the living, cherish and support the disabled, and sincerely mourn the dead.

In parting from you, your commanding general will ever bear in memory your noble devotion to your country, your patience and cheerfulness under all the privations and sacrifices you have been called upon to endure.

Soldiers! having accomplished the work set before us, having vindicated the honor and integrity of our Government and flag, let us return thanks to Almighty God for His blessing in granting us victory and peace; and let us sincerely pray for strength and light to discharge our duties as citizens, as we have endeavored to discharge them as soldiers.

Geo. G. Meade, Major General, U. S. A.

Thus closed the career of the grandest army that this continent has ever seen. When its history shall have been one day faithfully and well written it will be seen that, with all due justice to the other heroic armies of the North, its record stands pre-eminent as the most heroic of them all. It was engaged in more difficult campaigns, fought more hard-contested battles, and suffered more severely than any other army. If, with the double task of guarding the capital of the nation, and of confronting the flower of the Southern armies, it was not always successful, it never failed to respond to the call of duty, and cheerfully to bear the dangers, hardships, and fatigues incidental to active campaigning even under the most trying circumstances of leadership.

It was in existence within two months of four years. General Meade was continuously with it from within a few days of its organization to its final disbandment. He was absent from it, during those four years, but one hundred and nine days, forty-two of which he was recovering from a wound. He was present in every campaign of the army, and in all its engagements, save three. He was its commander for more than half the term of its existence, and as such fought and gained in the greatest battle of the war its most important and signal victory.

From The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 282-3. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

A Visit to Monterey Pass

the new museum at Monterey Pass.

The new museum at Monterey Pass.

My lovely wife, Beth Ann, and I made a trip to Gettysburg yesterday. It was a beautiful Sunday, warm, but not too hot, with mostly sunny skies. We decided to explore Culp’s Hill, since I had just read John D. Cox’s guide to that part of the battlefield, Culp’s Hill: the Attack and Defense of the Union Flank, July 2, 1863. We started at Benner’s Hill, where Confederate artillery had received a punishing fire from their Union counterparts, then drove over to Spangler’s Spring and parked the car. From there we had a pleasant walk to the top of the hill (where we paid our respects to George Sears Greene), over to Stephen’s Knoll, and then back to the car.

Since it was such a nice day, and we were in the neighborhood of the neighborhood, we decided to drive to Monterey Pass, the site of fighting during Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg. A little museum had opened there in the spring and I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit. When I wrote about Monterey Pass for a book called Pennsylvania Civil War Trails, there was almost nothing about the battle there, just a single historical marker. But a team of volunteers from the Friends of Monterey Pass Battlefield, Inc., has labored for years to build a visitor center, and their dream reached fruition this spring. The museum tells the story of the battle and a good deal about the region’s history. It is certainly worth a visit, and the Friends of Monterey Pass should feel proud of what they have accomplished.

Here’s an adaptation of what I wrote about the battle in Pennsylvania Civil War Trails (which is available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Stackpole Books):

Trails coverOnce the Union threw back Pickett’s Charge, Robert E. Lee knew he had to get his battered army out of Pennsylvania. The retreat required monumental feats of logistics and planning. The army needed ambulances for the wounded and wagons for the tons of provisions that it had foraged. The wagon train for Richard Ewell’s division alone stretched for 40 miles. Supplying his army from Pennsylvania’s riches had been one of Lee’s primary goals, after all, and he wasn’t about to leave his spoils behind. Making the retreat even more difficult was the driving rain that began on July 4 and turned roads to mud and drenched the defeated army as it made is way back towards the Potomac River and safety.

The quickest way back to the ford across the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland, was via Fairfield, then across South Mountain at Monterey Pass. Through the downpour of July 4, one of the two southern wagon trains (the other was proceeding via Cashtown Pass) was laboring up South Mountain on a steep, narrow route called the Maria Furnace Road. Heading up the Emmitsburg/Waynesboro Turnpike from the south, on a collision course with the retreating rebels, was Judson Kilpatrick and his Union cavalry.

Kilpatrick’s men approached the pass through a pitch-black night, with visibility made even worse by the driving rain. The cavalrymen literally couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces until sudden bolts of lightning lit everything for brief instants. On their way up the steep pike towards Monterey Pass, Kilpatrick’s men met 12-year old Hetty Zeilinger. The girl offered to guide the Union cavalry up to the pass, so one of the Union troopers hoisted her onto his horse.

Near the top of the road, at Monterey Pass, Kilpatrick’s men, with Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer in the lead, ran headlong into a tiny force of defenders, about 90 men and a single cannon under the command of Captain George Emack of Company B, First Maryland Cavalry. Aided by the darkness and confusion, Emack’s small force managed to delay the 4,500 Federal cavalrymen, before he was forced slowly back towards the wagon train.

With the sounds of the wagon train coming from the darkness in front of him, Custer sent the Sixth Michigan forward through the dark and rain to attack it. It was so dark, in fact, that one of the dismounted cavalrymen literally stepped on a Confederate lying on the ground in his path. The rebel shot him dead. In the charge that followed, Custer’s men captured 300 wagons and 1,300 prisoners during a nightmarish encounter amid crashing thunder and lightning, panicked animals, and screams and shouts. Captain Emack suffered a series of serious wounds before his men carried him to safety.

Henry J. Chritzman of Greencastle, a surgeon with one of the Union cavalry brigades, recalled the scene. “When we came up with the wagon-train, Federal and Confederate cavalry, wagons, ambulances, drivers and mules became a confused mass of pursued and pursuing demons whose shouts and carbine shots, mingled with the lightning’s read glare and the thunder’s crash, made it appear as if we were in the infernal regions,” he wrote. Panicked animals went tearing down the road and plunged over the steep edge, where the wagons crashed to pieces. When Kilpatrick burned his captured wagons later that night, the light from their flames was visible for miles.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The Grand Review

Detail of a photograph of the reviewing stand in front of the White House shows a number of VIPS, including (left to right) Ulysses S. Grant, the blurred figure of Edwiin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson, Wesley Merritt (as commander of the cavalry corps in Philip Sheridan's absence, he sat next to the president as his corps passed), Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Postmaster William Dennison, William T. Sherman, and Quatermaster General Montgomery Meigs (Library of Congress).

Detail of a photograph of the reviewing stand in front of the White House shows a number of VIPs, including (left to right) Ulysses S. Grant, the blurred figure of Edwin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson, Wesley Merritt (as commander of the cavalry corps in Philip Sheridan’s absence, he sat next to the president as his corps passed), George Gordon Meade, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Postmaster William Dennison, William T. Sherman, and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs (Library of Congress. Thanks to Garry Adelman for discovering this detail.).

One hundred and fifty years ago today, a triumphant Army of the Potomac marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. Here’s how I described the event in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

May 23 dawned with the promise of perfect weather, with just enough rain early in the morning to keep the dust down. The Army of the Potomac began forming around the Capitol building in the early hours. At 9:00 a cannon shot from Capitol Hill announced the parade’s start, and the long blue lines of men began marching down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol toward the White House, Meade astride his horse Blackie proudly at their head. “The plaudits of the multitude followed him along the entire line of march; flowers were strewn in his path, and garlands decked his person and his horse,” wrote Horace Porter. His staff—minus Theodore Lyman, who was back in Boston—followed behind him. When he reached the reviewing stand in front of the White House, Meade turned, drew his sword, and saluted. He then joined the dignitaries to watch his army pass.

An artist's conception of the reviewing stand (Library of Congress).

An artist’s conception of the reviewing stand (Library of Congress).

Sheridan was absent. Grant had sent him west to deal with matters there. However, Charles Wainwright suspected that Sheridan had left early because he did not want to appear in the Grand Review under Meade. Wesley Merritt led the cavalry in Sheridan’s absence. When Custer passed the reviewing stand, a spectator tossed him a wreath, which made his horse bolt. Custer went galloping past before he could regain control and wheel back into position. Some people suspected that Custer was showing off for the crowd.

The photograph of the reviewing stand from which the top image was taken. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

The photograph of the reviewing stand from which the top image was taken. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

The cavalry followed Meade, then the IX, V, and II Corps. Cannons rumbled down Pennsylvania Avenue, and engineers hauled pontoon boats along the parade route. “The men preserved their alinement and distances with an ease which showed their years of training in the field,” Porter noted with satisfaction. “Their movements were unfettered, their step was elastic, and the swaying of their bodies and the swinging of their arms were as measured as the vibrations of a pendulum. Their muskets shone like a wall of steel. The cannon rumbled peacefully over the paved street, banks of flowers almost concealing them.” No African American soldiers were in the parade, as the black units were going west with Sheridan. The entire VI Corps was still in Virginia and unable to attend. But even with these absences, it took six hours for the eighty thousand men from the Army of the Potomac to pass in review.

Washington’s residents had draped the buildings along the parade route with flags and banners, replacing the black symbols of mourning that had gone up following Lincoln’s assassination. Charles Wainwright noticed one banner in particular: “The only debt we can never repay,” it read; “what we owe to our gallant defenders.” Wainwright eyed it cynically. “I could not help wondering whether, having made up their minds that they can never pay the debt, they will think it useless to try.”

But this was not a day for cynicism. “Everything went off to perfection,” said Wainwright, who had his men shine their artillery until it gleamed and paid particular attention to the appearance of the horses. Of all the brigades in the army, Wainwright thought his artillery looked best.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Proposed New Duties (May 18, 1865)

The Meade statue at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington photo).

The Meade statue at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington photo).

With this letter from George Gordon Meade, we come to the end of a road.

This is the final letter that appears in Meade’s Life & Letters. The remainder of volume II, which provides a summation of Meade’s post-war life, does include some excerpts from his correspondence, but the “letters” part of Meade’s story essentially ends here. From this point on, the general will spend much of his life back home in Philadelphia (interrupted by one long stay in Atlanta), so there will be no need to write to his wife.

With Meade’s and Theodore Lyman’s published correspondence at an end, this blog will slow down a bit. I will continue to post things—especially as we move through George Meade’s bicentennial year—but the posts won’t be as frequent as they have been in the past.

It’s been a lot of fun to follow Meade and Lyman through their war experiences. It’s also been quite an educational experience. I’ve learned a lot as I investigated the references Meade and Lyman made in their letters. It’s been a valuable project for me. I hope all of you who have accompanied me on this journey have found it to be as rewarding as I have. Thanks for reading.

I depended on the boys to tell you all the news. You will see by the papers that the great review is to come off next Tuesday. On that day, the Army of the Potomac, consisting of the cavalry, Ninth, Fifth and Second Corps, will, under my command, march through Washington and be reviewed by the President. To-day’s paper contains an announcement of the fact, in a telegram from Mr. Stanton to General Dix, which it is expected will bring the whole North to Washington.

I have heard nothing further about the proposed new duties, or about going to West Point. The order reducing the armies is published, and I suppose the reduction will take place immediately after the review, so that it will not be long before the question is settled.

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. 279-80. Available via Google Books.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.