Election Season (October 7, 1864)

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions the upcoming presidential election, which pitted President Abraham Lincoln against George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac.

I was afraid you would be uneasy at not hearing from me during our recent operations, but my headquarters were some five or six miles from the scene of action, and it was always at midnight when I got back, tired out with the day’s work, and had to start early in the morning, so that I really did not have time to write.

I see the papers announce my narrow escape. It was a pretty close shave, as I have written you. You need not worry yourself; I am not going to commit the folly of foolish and unnecessary exposure. But there are times when it is my duty and it is proper I should take my chances. Let us hope Providence will always be as merciful and protecting as in this instance; for I take it, it was only God’s will that saved my leg and perhaps my life.

The enemy have allowed us to retain the ground acquired by our recent movement, and seem to be busy fortifying against another advance. We have been reinforced, but not to the extent imagined by the sanguine public; neither is Richmond so near its fall as you tell me people believe. However, these absurd alternations of exaggerated anticipations of successes and reverses seem to be chronic with our people, and no amount of experience will ever cure them of the folly.

I note all you say of politics, but in the army we take but little interest except earnestly to wish the election was over, as we see, until it is, nothing else will be thought of and no proper thought given to the war. It is generally believed here that McClellan has very little chance. I think he is very unfortunate in his friends and backers.

I see the Chronicle announces me as a supporter of Mr. Lincoln, and is pleased to class me among the ill-treated generals who have been driven into the opposition. Well, the one has as much authority for his assertion as the other, neither having anything on which to base his remarks.

Grant has gone to Washington, leaving Butler in command. To-day the enemy made a demonstration on Butler, and I thought we were going to have a grand time, but it passed off.

Theodore Lyman also wrote home on October 7. We have encountered Brig. Gen. Henry Washington Benham before. Channing Clapp was a classmate of Lyman’s at Harvard. Samuel Crawford, in temporary command of the V Corps in Gouverneur Warren’s absence, had been a surgeon at Fort Sumter. The Pennsylvania-born Crawford took command of Meade’s old division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, just before Gettysburg. Today he and Meade are neighbors in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

There is a certain General Benham, who commands the engineers at City Point, and was up about laying out some works. Channing Clapp is on his Staff. You ought to see this “Ginral.” He has the face and figure of Mr. Briggs and wears continually the expression of Mr. B. when his horse sat down at the band of music. When he had got through all the explanations, which were sufficient to have laid out a permanent work of the first class, the Meade rose with weariness, and eased his spirit by riding out and looking at my new camp-ground, and inspecting those everlasting redoubts. Now that the camp is arranged, the Meade is dubious about moving: that’s like him! When we got to the extreme left, he thought he would go out and take a peek at the picket line. First there was a little bunch of cavalry. They were of a jocose turn; they had found an old pair of wheels whereon they had mounted a keg, making a very good cannon, which pointed, in a threatening manner, down the road. Its ensemble was completed by a figure, closely resembling those that defend cornfields, and which was keeping steady guard with a small pole. A hundred yards beyond was the picket reserve, behind a barricade. Then, beyond, a couple of hundred yards more, the sentries, each standing and looking sharply to the front. The one in the road was a half-breed Indian, though he looked more like a Neapolitan. He had that taciturnity that clings to the last drop of blood. “Are you a picket here?” asked the General. “Yes.” “Is there anyone on your right and left?” “No.” “You are an Indian, are you not?” “Part.” All of which the red warrior delivered, without turning his gaze from the vista before him. Beyond this gentleman was a post of two cavalry videttes. From this place we could get a very good view of one of the Rebel lines of earthworks; but there seemed very few men behind it. I could only notice one or two. And so we rode back again past the perils of the keg cannon. General Warren has a short leave, and General Crawford commands the Corps, to the indignation, I presume, of old cocks like Griffin and Ayres; for C. was doctor in Fort Sumter, and thus got a star, and thus is an old brigadier, and thus ranks the regulars G. and A. General Grant was on a flying visit to Washington to-day. I like to have him down here: first, he gives a general balance and steadiness; then, what is most important, he can order—just order what groceries he pleases, and no questions asked behind the counter!

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. 232-3. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 241-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Abandonment of Slavery (July 26, 1864)

Horace Greeley (Library of Congress).

Horace Greeley (Library of Congress).

Meade returns to the subject of Horace Greeley’s peace conference at Niagara Falls. The general was essentially conservative. While never as outspoken as George McClellan about not turning the war into one of “servile insurrection,” we can assume Meade agreed with those sentiments. By this time, though, there was no turning back. Lincoln would not (and could not) reverse course on the subject of slavery. Once the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation the North’s war had changed from one to restore the Union to one to restore the Union without slavery.

Lincoln knew perfectly well that the Confederates would reject the terms he offered in the“To Whom It May Concern” letter he sent with Greeley (and had published in northern newspapers). He feared that simply demanding the restoration of the Union might lead to a cease-fire that could ultimately scuttle the Union’s war efforts. But his insistence on the abolition of slavery emboldened his critics. Wrote David Herbert Donald in Lincoln, “The New York Herald announced the publication of the President’s ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letter ‘sealed Lincoln’s fate in the coming Presidential campaign.’ . . . ‘All he has a right to require of the South is submission to the Constitution,’ Democratic editors announced. They were sure that ‘the people of the loyal states will teach him, they will not supply men and treasure to prosecute a war in the interest of the black race.’”

I consider the peace movement in Canada, and the share Horace Greeley had in it, as most significant. The New York Times of the 23d has a most important article on the President’s “To whom it may concern” proclamation, in which it is argued that Mr. Lincoln was right to make the integrity of the Union a sine qua non, but not to make the abandonment of slavery; that this last is a question for discussion and mutual arrangement, and should not be interposed as a bar to peace negotiations.

It is a pity Mr. Lincoln employed the term “abandonment of slavery,” as it implies its immediate abolition or extinction, to which the South will never agree; at least, not until our military successes have been greater than they have hitherto been, or than they now seem likely to be. Whereas had he said the final adjustment of the slavery question, leaving the door open to gradual emancipation, I really believe the South would listen and agree to terms. But when a man like Horace Greeley declares a peace is not so distant or improbable as he had thought, and when a Republican paper, like the Times, asserts the people are yearning for peace, and will not permit the slavery question to interpose towards its negotiations, I think we may conclude we see the beginning of the end. God grant it may be so, and that it will not be long before this terrible war is brought to a close.

The camp is full of rumors of intrigues and reports of all kinds, but I keep myself free from them all, ask no questions, mind my own business, and stand prepared to obey orders and do my duty.

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. 215-16. Available via Google Books.

Generals in Conversation (July 12, 1864)

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Mathew Brady took this photo of Winfield Scott Hancock with his staff and division commanders. Francis Barlow leans against the tree to Hancock’s right. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Things remain quiet before Petersburg but, as Meade writes on July 12, things are getting a little interesting up north, as Jubal Early threatens Washington. It was on either July 11 or 12 that President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Fort Stevens on the outskirts of Washington and came under fire in the Union defenses. (One soldier, supposedly Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., yelled at the president, “Get down, you damned fool!”) Within the Army of the Potomac other conflicts are brewing. As detailed below, Winfield Scott Hancock had heard that Meade was to be relieved as commander. This is the start of a series of rumors that would leave Meade feeling increasingly angered and disrespected and ultimately result in Philip Sheridan getting his own command in the Shenandoah Valley, a command Meade believed Grant had promised to him. (It was also a command intended to unify the competing army elements that Meade writes about here.)

Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Senators Zachariah Chandler and Morton Wilkinson were persistent Meade critics in Washington. Chandler, of Michigan, nursed a grudge that dated back to 1861 when Meade was still a captain in Detroit. The citizens of Detroit, in a burst of early patriotic fervor, had asked Meade and his men to publicly take an oath of loyalty to the United States. Meade refused out of principle but said he would be happy to if the war department requested it. This angered Chandler.

Theodore Lyman also writes about Winfield Scott Hancock in a letter that captures the Union generals at their most human.

I received to-night your letter of the 10th, and am glad to see you are not excited about the rebel invasion. This is a bold stroke of Lee’s to endeavor to procure the withdrawal of this army from its menacing attitude, and to prevent the sending of reinforcements to Grant. The manoeuvre thus far has been successful, as not only has the Sixth Corps been sent away, but the Nineteenth Corps (twenty thousand strong), which was to reinforce us, has been diverted to Washington. This loss of strength will practically prevent our doing anything in the way of offensive movements until the campaign in Maryland is settled and the rebels so crippled as to quiet all apprehensions of their return. I understand Ord has been sent to Baltimore to command, in place of Wallace, defeated, and that Howe has been sent to supersede Sigel. Augur is in Washington, and Hunter coming from Cumberland. The danger is that with so many commanders, independent of each other (I ought to have mentioned Couch also), and their forces so scattered, that the rebs will have it all their own way to commit depredations and collect supplies, and when our troops leave the places they are now guarding, and attempt the offensive, that before they can concentrate, the rebs will fall upon some portion and whip them in detail. I consider the situation as critical; not that I believe the enemy can effect anything permanent, but I fear they will so embarrass and check our operations as to paralyze our efforts and prolong the period when we can collect enough troops here to do the work before us.

Hancock told me to-day he had been confidentially informed it was intended to remove me from command, and that he was to be my successor. He would not give me his authority, but said it was reliable. He did not know the grounds on which this action was to be based. This seemed to me so preposterous that I could not help laughing, but Hancock assured me it was undoubtedly in agitation, and thought I ought to be warned. He said, from what he could gather, he thought that Grant opposed it, but that he would be overruled. Hancock thought I would not be relieved entirely, but would be ordered somewhere, perhaps to Pennsylvania. Now, as my conscience is clear that I have done my duty to the best of my ability since this campaign commenced, and as I feel I have been unjustly treated, and have not had the credit I was and am entitled to, I shall not worry myself about any such outrage as being relieved without cause. I mention all this confidentially to you, simply as a preparation for the coming event, should it take place.

There have been recently with the army several Senators and Representatives; among others, Chandler and Wilkinson of Minnesota. The latter individual was at General Crawford’s. He was very severe on me, showing he still retained the animus that dictated his attack on me in the Senate last winter.

Theodore Lyman, too, writes about Winfield Scott Hancock. I wonder if the conversation he witnesses was the same one that Meade describes?

I sent off a detail of fifty men at daylight to prepare the ground for the new camp, and at eight o’clock, the waggons moved off with all our worldly effects, and the Staff remained under the shade of the abandoned gourbis [An Algerine word for a bower over a tent].We live very much after the way of Arabs, when you think of it — nomadic, staying sometimes a day, sometimes a month in a place, and then leaving it, with all the bowers and wells that cost so much pains. Afterwards most of the officers went to the new camp, while the General, with two or three of us, went down the road, towards the Williams house. There was an odd group at Hancock’s temporary Headquarters, by a little half-torn-to-pieces house, on whose walls some fellow had inscribed “the Straggler’s Rest.” Hancock lay, at full length, in a covered waggon, which had been placed under a weeping willow, one of the few green objects midst the desert of dust. He was attired in a white shirt and blue flannel pantaloons, quite enough for the intensely hot day. He lies down as much as he can, to give his wounded leg rest. General Meade mounted on the front seat, put his feet on the foot-board and lighted a cigar; and we all knew he was fixed for an hour at least. When he gets down with Hancock they talk, and talk, and talk, being great friends. Hancock is a very great and vehement talker but always says something worth hearing. Under the ruined porch was [Francis] Barlow, in his costume d ‘ete — checked shirt and old blue trousers, with a huge sabre, which he says he likes, because when he hits a straggler he wants to hurt him. He immediately began to pump the Captain Guzman, for he never neglects a chance to get information. After we had been well fried and dusted, General Meade rose to go, but I budged not, for I knew he would sit down again. He always rises twice or three times before he finally leaves Hancock. By the time we got to camp, it was all ready and looked quite neat.

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. 211-12. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 189-90. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Ignored (June 21, 1864)

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

George Meade’s letter of June 21, 1864, includes one of his persistent complaints about being ignored, this time in the dispatches of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Meade craved affirmation, a need that seemed motivated by some basic insecurity. Of course, commander of the Army of the Potomac was a position that naturally bred a sense of insecurity—just ask George McClellan, Joe Hooker, or Ambrose Burnside. But Meade seemed to need some kind of official “vindication” and validation that he had performed well. Despite his repeated claims to his wife that he was “indifferent” to such things, he wanted an official seal of approval that always seemed to evade him. Perhaps Meade would have had more success in advancing his cause if he had more nakedly lusted for glory and aggressively sought fame. He was more than willing to carp about the situation in his letters to his wife, but his son and grandson edited most of those complaints out of the letters for publication. Publicly, though, Meade had an almost naïve–or perhaps idealistic is a better word–belief that true honors would come to those who deserved them. Of course, it didn’t help that the correspondents traveling with the army had agreed to leave Meade out of their reports in revenge for the Crapsey incident.

Meade mentions in passing President Lincoln’s visit to the army. Horace Porter, Grant’s aide, included a long account of the visit in his book, Campaigning with Grant. Lincoln was especially eager to see the black soldiers of the XVIII Corps who had taken a portion of the Petersburg defenses. “When we wanted every able-bodied man who could be spared to go to the front, and my opposers kept objecting to the negroes, I used to tell them that at such times it was just as well to be a little color-blind,” the president said. The black soldiers gave the president a rapturous reception, which affected him deeply. “The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode,” wrote Porter.

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In the evening the president relaxed with Grant and his staff and indulged himself in one of his favorite pastimes, telling humerous stories. “He did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or to clench a fact,” Porter noted. “So far as our experience went, his anecdotes possessed the true geometric requisite of excellence: they were neither too broad nor too long. He seemed to recollect every incident in his experience and to weave it into material for his stories. One evening a sentinel whose post was near enough to enable him to catch most of the President’s remarks was heard to say, ‘Well, that man’s got a powerful memory and a mighty poor forgettery.’

“He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat on a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures. An officer once made the remark that he would rather have a single photograph of one of Mr. Lincoln’s jokes than own the negative of any other man’s.

My last letter was written on the 17th, during the battle of Petersburg, which lasted off and on from 4 o’clock on the afternoon of the 16th to dark of the 18th, day and night, during which time we drove the enemy more than a mile and a half, taking from them two strong lines of works, capturing over twenty guns, four colors and nearly seven hundred prisoners. In all this fighting and these operations I had exclusive command, Grant being all the time at City Point, and coming on the field for only half an hour on the 17th, and yet in Mr. Stanton’s official despatch he quotes General Grant’s account, and my name is not even mentioned. I cannot imagine why I am thus ignored.

I think I wrote you on the 17th that I was fighting Mr. Wise. Since then I have seen a Petersburg paper, announcing the wounding severely of George D. Wise, his nephew and aide, also of Peyton Wise, another nephew and aide-de-camp.

On the 18th we found the enemy had retired to an inner line, which I had reason to believe was not strongly fortified. I followed them and immediately attacked them with my whole force, but could not break through their lines. Our losses in the three-days’ fight under my command amount to nine thousand five hundred, killed, wounded and missing. As I did not have over sixty thousand men, this loss is severe, and shows how hard the fighting was.

Your accounts of the fair are quite amusing. Hancock and myself have much fun over the sword contest, and are both quite sorry to see we stand no chance for the five thousand dollar vase.

Mr. Lincoln honored the army with his presence this afternoon, and was so gracious as to say he had seen you in Philadelphia, etc., etc.

We have been very quiet for two days, having given up the idea of taking Petersburg by assault. Indeed, the army is exhausted with forty-nine days of continued marching and fighting, and absolutely requires rest to prevent its morale being impaired.

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. 205-6. Available via Google Books.

Digging (June 7, 1864)

The situation at Cold Harbor has turned into a stubborn stalemate. As Theodore Lyman notes in his letter of June 7, the soldiers began digging complex entrenchments where they could exist without being killed by shells or snipers. Merely peeking over the breastworks tempted death, with sharpshooters lurking on each side to shoot anything that moved. The land around Cold Harbor became crisscrossed by vast networks of trenches, which reminded one Union soldier of the work of prairie dog colonies.

A marker on the Cold Harbor battlefield today.

A marker on the Cold Harbor battlefield today.

When I visited Cold Harbor I found it eerie to see the earthworks that remain, knowing they had once provided the setting for scenes of bloodshed and horror and the deaths of hundreds of men whose names have been lost to history. At the same time, as I wandered around the battlefield and read the markers, I came across names that were familiar, almost like old friends. Emory Upton’s name popped up time and time again, and on one marker at Cold Harbor I found a quote from Wilbur Fisk, a Vermont soldier whose letters have been collected in a book called Hard Marching Every Day. “The breastworks against which I am leaning is not more than 200 yards from the enemy’s lines, and in front of us are skirmishers and sharpshooters still nearer,” he wrote on June 11. “Our line is just outside the edge of a woods, and theirs is partly in an open field, and partly covered by timber in our immediate front. The field is open between us, but it is a strip of land across which no man dare to pass. An attacking party from either side would be mown down like grass.”

After extraordinary delays an armistice was concluded between six and eight p.m. this evening. It was very acceptable for burying the dead; but the wounded were mostly dead too, by this time, having been there since the 3d. I fancy there were not many, for our men make extraordinary exertions in the night to get in their comrades, and those who were not thus reached usually had their sufferings shortened by some stray ball, among the showers that continually passed between the works. We here found the body of Colonel McMahon, brother of Sedgwick’s Adjutant-General. He was wounded and sat down by a tree, where he was soon hit by two or three other bullets. . . . Some extraordinary scenes occurred during the armistice. Round one grave, where ten men were laid, there was a great crowd of both sides. The Rebels were anxious to know who would be next President. “Wall,” said one of our men, “I am in favor of Old Abe.” “He’s a damned Abolitionist!” promptly exclaimed a grey-back. Upon which our man hit his adversary between the eyes, and a general fisticuff ensued, only stopped by the officers rushing in. Our entrenchments were most extraordinary in their extent, with heavy traverses, where exposed to enfilade, and all done by the men, as it were, spontaneously. An officer told a man it was not worth while to go on with a little private bomb-proof he was constructing, as he would only be there two or three days. “I don’t care,” replied he, “if we only stay two or three hours; I ain’t going to have my head knocked off by one of them shells!”…

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 154. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Before the Committee (April 2, 1864)

The United States Capitol Building in July 1863 (Library of Congress).

The United States Capitol Building in July 1863 (Library of Congress).

Meade continues to chew over his difficulties in Washington. For the letter he mentions (and Lincoln’s response), see the correspondence regarding Historicus. Pennie is his son Spencer.

I left Washington this morning, bidding dear Pennie good-bye at the hotel, which he was to leave half an hour after me. He has had a pretty pleasant time, and his visit has been a source of great happiness to me.

I enclose you a letter I addressed the Department, with an autograph reply from the President. I feel quite sure the President meant to be very kind and complimentary in paying me the distinguished honor of writing a reply in his own hand, and under this conviction I am bound to be satisfied. You will perceive, however, that the main point of my request is avoided, namely, my desire that the letter of Historicus should be submitted, with my letter, to General Sickles, and if he acknowledged or endorsed it, then I wished a court of inquiry, not otherwise. However, Mr. Stanton told me the true reason, which was that it was concluded submitting the letter to Sickles was only playing into his hands; that a court of inquiry, if called at my request, although it might exonerate me, yet it would not necessarily criminate him; and that, on the whole, it was deemed best not to take any action. [Daniel] Butterfield, I hear, was very bitter in his testimony, and made wonderful revelations. I went before the committee yesterday and replied only to his assertion that I instructed him to draw up an order to retreat. This I emphatically denied; also denied any knowledge of his having drawn up such an order; presented documentary evidence to show that, if I had any such idea, that my orders and despatches were contradictory, and referred to numerous officers who ought to have and would have known if I entertained any idea of the kind.

Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

I find I have three warm friends on the committee—[Moses] Odell of New York, [Daniel] Gooch of Massachusetts, and [Benjamin] Harding of Oregon. It is believed [Bnjamin] Wade, of Ohio, is favorably inclined. If either he or one of the others should prove so, it would make a majority in my favor. Old Zach Chandler is my bitterest foe and will show me no quarter. While going up to Washington I had a long and satisfactory talk with Grant, who has expressed himself and acted towards me in the most friendly manner. Among other things he said he heard Horace Greeley had been in Washington, demanding my removal, and that [George] Thomas be brought here. Grant said, if he saw Greeley he should tell him that when he wanted the advice of a political editor in selecting generals, he would call on him. The President, Secretary, indeed every one I met, were civil and affable to me.

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. 186-7. Available via Google Books.

Satisfaction (November 9, 1863)

On November 9 Meade writes to his wife with his comments on the Battle of Rappahannock Station.

When I last wrote to you I thought we were on the eve of a great battle, and I was also under the impression that the work I had before me was likely to prove a very severe task. The enemy occupied very strong positions on the Rappahannock, which at one place I knew were strongly entrenched, and I believed they were so at other points. Thanks, however, to their being entirely deceived as to my capacity to move, and to the gallantry of my men, we were enabled to carry then- strong works and to force the passage of the river (considered one of the most critical operations in war), with a comparatively small loss, and with great eclat, as we captured four guns, eight battle flags and nearly two thousand prisoners. The operation being successful, the army is in fine spirits, and of course I am more popular than ever, having been greeted yesterday as I rode through the ranks with great cheering; and my having forced the passage of the Rappahannock and compelled Lee to retire to the Rapidan, will I trust convince the intelligent public that my retreat to Centreville was not to avoid battle, and that Lee, who was not outflanked, or had his communications threatened, but was attacked in front, and yet withdrew, is really the one who has avoided battle. I certainly expected he would fight, and can only now account for his not doing so on the ground that he was deceived as to my strength and construed my sudden and bold advance into an evidence that I had been strongly reinforced and greatly outnumbered him. I must say I was greatly disappointed when I found Lee refused my offer of battle, because I was most desirous of effecting something decisive, and I know his refusal was only a postponement of a question that had to be met and decided.

I have received a telegram from the President, expressing his satisfaction with my operations.

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. 155-6. Available via Google Books.

Dissatisfaction (November 3, 1863)

This image, taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, shows Meade with several of his generals. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in temporary command of the II Corps while Winfield Scott Hancock recovered from his Gettysburg wound; William French, commanding the III Corps; Meade; Henry Hunt, the army's artillery chief, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys; and George Sykes (V Corps).

This image, taken in September 1863 outside Culpeper, shows Meade with several of his generals. From left to right we have Gouverneur Warren, then in temporary command of the II Corps while Winfield Scott Hancock recovered from his Gettysburg wound; William French, commanding the III Corps; Meade; Henry Hunt, the army’s artillery chief, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys; and George Sykes (V Corps).

In his letter home on November 1, Meade remains defensive about his recent operations. He knew that President Lincoln and General in Chief Henry Halleck were not happy with the results, but he felt they should remove him from command if they thought someone could do better. Yet when he did propose a plan of action—an attempt to flank Lee’s army by crossing the Rappahannock at Banks Ford and Fredericksburg—Lincoln refused permission. Perhaps Meade’s projected strategy aroused bad memories of Ambrose Burnside’s disastrous campaign, but almost certainly the president worried that the movement risked leaving Washington exposed. It’s interesting to speculate, though, what would have happened had the Army of the Potomac been in Fredericksburg in the spring of 1864 instead of having to fight its way through the Wilderness.

Within the army rumor had it that Meade was going to be replaced. “Candidly, we feel every confidence in Meade, and if anyone succeeds him but McClellan, the dissatisfaction will be intense,” noted one officer.

There is no doubt my failure to engage Lee in battle during his recent advance created great disappointment, in which feeling I fully shared. I have seen and heard of no indications of absolute dissatisfaction, though this may have existed without its being manifested. The General in Chief did telegraph me I had better fight instead of running away, but as he did not explain how I could fight to advantage, I paid no attention to the very rough manner in which he expressed his views, except to inform him that, if my judgment was not approved, I ought to be and deserved to be relieved; to which I received no reply beyond a disclaiming of any intention to give offence. Now I have clearly indicated what I thought feasible and practicable and my plan is disapproved. I think under these circumstances justice to me and the true interests of the country justify their selecting some one else to command.

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. 155. Available via Google Books.

Have you read Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg yet? If not, you can buy it here!

A Capital Visit (October 23, 1863)

The United States Capitol as it appeared on June 28, 1863, coincidentally, the day that Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. William Franklin, under whom Meade had served at Fredericksburg, had been the engineer in charge of the new dome construction before the war (Library of Congress).

The United States Capitol as it appeared on June 28, 1863, coincidentally, the day that Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. William Franklin, under whom Meade had served at Fredericksburg, had been the engineer in charge of the new dome construction before the war (Library of Congress).

In which General Meade describes a summons to Washington. His laconic account in this letter to his wife is not terribly informative. Fortunately we have Theodore Lyman to fill in the details (and add, it must be said, a taste of the casual racism that would have been considered perfectly normal in the nineteenth century but grates against twenty-first century sensibilities). I’ve included Lyman’s letters from both October 23 and 24 here.

Yesterday I received an order to repair to Washington, to see the President. I arrived in Washington at 2 P. M., and expected to leave at 6 P. M., but was detained so late that I remained there all night, and left this morning, early. The President was, as he always is, very considerate and kind. He found no fault with my operations, although it was very evident he was disappointed that I had not got a battle out of Lee. He coincided with me that there was not much to be gained by any farther advance; but General Halleck was very urgent that something should be done, but what that something was he did not define. As the Secretary of War was absent in Tennessee, final action was postponed till his return.

Here’s Lyman’s much more expansive account:

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John." (Library of Congress)

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John.” (Library of Congress)

And where do you think I was all yesterday? I will tell you. Early, the orderly, poked his head into the tent saying: “Colonel Lyman, the General will have breakfast at seven” (which was an hour earlier than he had said the night before). As soon as I sat down, says the General: “I am going to Washington; would you like to go?” . . . Major-General Humphreys said he too would go, and the General’s son George completed the party. In much haste I ran, and crammed my best coat, pantaloons, shoes, sash, gauntlets, and brushes into my big saddle-bags, the which I entrusted to a mounted orderly. Thereupon we speedily got on horseback, and first rode to General Sedgwick (familiarly called “Uncle John”), to whom General Meade handed over the command, in his absence at Washington, to consult about the late moves and those consequent on them. Uncle John received the heavy honors in a smiling and broad-shouldered style, and wished us all a good journey, for he is a cheery soul. With little delay, we again mounted and rode twelve miles, briskly, to Gainesville, whither the railroad comes. The Chief stepped into a little room, used as a telegraph-office, and, quicker than winking, he stood, arrayed only in his undergarments; then, before, almost, I could get my coat off, he had put on a pair of shoes, a new coat, and an elegant pair of trousers! “Now then, Lyman, are you ready? Where’s Humphreys? Humphreys is always late! Come, come along, the train is going to start!” You should have seen the unfortunate Aide — his coat unbuttoned, his shoestrings loose; on one arm the saddle-bags, on the other, his sword, sash, etc., etc., and he hastening after the steam-engine Meade! However I completed my toilette in the car, which was all to ourselves; and flatter myself that my appearance was considerably peacock. We went rattling and bumping over a railroad that reminded me of the one from Civita Vecchia, to Manassas Junction, and thence to Washington, over a route I have already described to you when I came down. Only this time we came through Alexandria, and, instead of taking there a boat, kept on and went across the long bridge, going thus into the very city by the rail. There was a carriage from Willard’s awaiting us; the guardpost near by turned out in our honor, and we drove in great state to General Halleck’s office; where General Meade went in and held a solemn pow-wow; the two came forth presently and walked over to the White-House, where they held another pow-pow with the President. Captain George and I, meanwhile, studied the exterior architecture, and I observed a blind had been blown off and broken and allowed to lie outside. In fact they have a nigger negligence, to a considerable extent, in this half-cooked capital.

October 24, 1863

We went to Willard’s after the pow-pow and got a very good dinner; only poor General Meade was bored to death and driven out of all peace of mind, by dirty politicians who kept coming up and saying: “Ah, General Meade, I believe; perhaps you do not recollect meeting me in the year 1831, on a Mississippi steamboat? How do you do, sir? What move do you propose to execute next? Have you men enough, sir? What are the intentions of Lee, sir? How are the prospects of the rebellion, sir? Do you look upon it as essentially crushed, sir? Or do you think it may still rear its head against our noble Union, sir?” etc., etc. All of which the poor Chief (endeavoring to snatch a mouthful of chicken, the while) would answer with plaintive courtesy; while the obscure aides-de-camp were piling in all kinds of delicacies. . . . The papers say General Meade received imperative orders to give Lee battle; not a word of truth in it! You might as well give imperative orders to catch a sea-gull with a pinch of salt. Lee would perhaps have given us a chance; but the same storm that prevented our advance carried away the Rapidan bridge, and he could get nothing to eat. His forces were, I think, larger than supposed, especially in cavalry, which was very numerous.

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. 154. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 36-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 Have you read Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg yet? If not, you can buy it here!

Meetings in Washington (September 24, 1863)

In his letter of September 24, Meade tells his wife about the events that led to the XI and XII Corps being taken from his army and sent to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans in Chattanooga following the Union defeat at Chickamauga. (The administration also sent Joe Hooker with the two corps, answering the question of what to do with Meade’s predecessor in command.) This move cost the Army of the Potomac some 16,000 men.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

The last time I wrote I told you of my having referred to Washington the question of a further advance. As I expected, no decisive answer was sent to me, but I was told to act in accordance with my own judgment. The next thing I was summoned to Washington and informed that the President considered my army too large for a merely defensive one, and proposed to take a portion of it away. I objected and reasoned against this, and left Washington with the belief that the President was satisfied. I had just arranged the programme for a movement, and was about issuing the orders, when orders came from Washington, taking troops away. Of this I do not complain. The President is the best judge of where the armies can be best employed, and if he chooses to place this army strictly on the defensive, I have no right to object or murmur. I was in Washington from 11 p. M. Tuesday till 1 p. M. Wednesday; saw no one but the President, Mr. Stanton and General Halleck; was treated very courteously by all. I told the President and General Halleck that if they thought I was too slow or prudent, to put some one else in my place. Halleck smiled very significantly, and said he had no doubt I would be rejoiced to be relieved, but there was no such good luck for me. I cannot very well tell you all that transpired; the intelligence, by no means favorable, had been received from Rosecrans, and it was evident, without any one knowing what exactly might or could be done, that there still existed a feverish anxiety that I should try and do something. Now that I have been weakened, I presume the country will not be so exigeante.

Theodore Lyman, Meade’s aide, wrote home on the same day. It’s interesting to see things from his perspective:

Yesterday we were favored with the presence of Sir Henry Holland, the Queen’s physician, who is one of the liveliest old birds for one of seventy-five that ever was seen. He travels two months every year, and has already been four or five times in these United States. Dr. Letterman, the Medical Director, put him in an ambulance, and Colonel Townsend and myself completed the party. What pains wounded people may suffer in ambulances, I know not; but I do know that, when driven at a trot, over open fields and through little ditches, the jolting is not to be expressed in words. But the royal medical person maintained his equanimity wonderfully and continued to smile, as if he were having a nice drive over a turnpike. First he was halted on a rising spot, when he could see four batteries of horse artillery, which did defile before him, to his great admiration. Then we bumped him six miles farther, to the Headquarters of the 12th Corps, close to the river. Here he hobnobbed with General Slocum, and then got on a horse and rode about the camps. After which he was taken to a safe spot, whence he could behold the Rebels and their earthworks. He returned quite fresh and departed in a most amiable mood.

There seems to me no particular prospect of a battle. I thought this morning, that we should have a great fight within a couple of days; but movements, which I dare say you will read of in the papers before this letter reaches you, have just knocked it. Entre nous, I believe in my heart that at this moment there is no reason why the whole of Lee’s army should not be either cut to pieces, or in precipitate flight on Richmond. In saying this to you, I accuse nobody and betray no secrets, but merely state my opinion. Your bricks and mortar may be of the best; but, if there are three or four chief architects, none of whom can agree where to lay the first brick, the house will rise slowly.

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. 150-1. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 21-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.