Foreshadowing (March 15, 1863)

Meade wrote the following letter to his oldest son, John Sergeant, on March 15, 1863. (The George he mentions is the son who was serving with the army’s cavalry with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, a.k.a. “Rush’s Lancers.”) The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is an agency with which Meade would have many unpleasant dealings in the future. Here’s what I say in the book:

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

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

Michigan’s Republican senator Zachariah Chandler had spearheaded the committee’s creation to investigate war-related matters following the Union disasters of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff. Three senators and four congressmen served on the committee. Chandler and another Republican senator, Ohio’s Ben Wade of Ohio, were the committee’s driving force, but Democrats served on it as well, including Andrew Johnson, later Lincoln’s vice president and successor. In the years since the Civil War historians have gone back and forth on the question of the committee’s impact on the war. Some think it had a negative effect, others a positive, and still others little cumulative effect at all. Yet writing in 1881 Alexander S. Webb, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg and even served as Meade’s chief of staff, wrote, “That body must be counted among the President’s most influential advisors. It was a power during the war.”

This letter also demonstrates how Meade’s opinions about how to approach the war had evolved over time. Back in February 1862 he had said the people in the North should “deport ourselves more like the afflicted parent who is compelled to chastise his erring child, and who performs the duty with a sad heart.” Compare that to the passage below. I think we can link the changes in Meade’s thinking to the disillusionment he felt over George McClellan, who he felt erred “on the side of prudence and caution.”

Ohio's Senator Benjamin "Bljff Ben" Wade (National Archives).

Ohio’s Senator Benjamin “Bljff Ben” Wade (National Archives).

I am obliged to go up to Washington to-day, to appear before the “Committee on the Conduct of the War.” I have no idea what they want me for, but presume it is in relation to the Fredericksburg battle, and that my being called is due to the testimony of General Burnside, who has perhaps referred to me in his statement. I am very sorry I have been called, because my relations and feelings towards all parties are and have been of the most friendly character, and I shall be sorry to become involved in any way in the controversies growing out of this affair.

I have only seen George once since my return; the weather and roads have been so bad that neither of us could get to the camp of the other. The regiment has been very highly complimented by General Stoneman. One squadron has been armed with carbines, and it is expected that in a short time the whole regiment will be thus equipped and the turkey-driving implement abandoned.

I am completely fuddled about politics, and am afraid the people are very much demoralized. I trust one thing or another will be done. Either carry on the war as it ought to be, with overwhelming means, both material and personal, or else give it up altogether. I am tired of half-way measures and efforts, and of the indecisive character of operations up to this time. I don’t know whether these sentiments will be considered disloyal, but they are certainly mine; with the understanding, however, that I am in favor of the first, namely, a vigorous prosecution of the war with all the means in our power.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 357-8. Available via Google Books.

A Change in Command (January 26, 1863)


Alfred Waud’s impression of the Army of the Potomac near Falmouth, Virginia, in January 1863 (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside.

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Continuing the series of George Gordon Meade’s letters, posted here 150 years to the day after he wrote them. These were interesting times for the Army of the Potomac. Burnside’s “Mud March” had come to an ignominious conclusion and Ambrose Burnside’s days in command of the army seemed numbered. Meade wrote not one but two letters to his wife on January 26, 1863, to fill her in on what was happening.

We are much excited by rumors of what is going to be done. It is generally believed Burnside is in Washington, though when you go to see him, as I did yesterday, you are informed he is out riding.

This war will never be terminated until one side or the other has been well whipped, and this result cannot be brought about except by fighting. Hence, although I like fighting as little as any man, yet if it has to be done, and I don’t see how it can be avoided, I am of Shakespeare’s opinion, “if it were done, then ‘t were well it were done quickly.”

I send you three letters which I think you will be interested in reading, and which you may as well keep as mementoes of the war. The first is from Levi Richards, a private in the Pennsylvania Reserves, who was detailed as a teamster and drove my wagon while I was connected with the Reserves. His letter is spontaneous, he having nothing, as he says, to gain by it, as we are now separated, but it is gratifying to me as an evidence of the opinion entertained of me by the soldiers of my command. [For text of the letter, see below.]  The second is from Surgeon Pineo, one of the most accomplished officers of his department, who was under me, while I had command of the First Corps, as medical director. He asked me to recommend him for promotion, which I did, and his letter in reply shows what some officers think of me. The other is from Hon. William Wilkins, formerly judge in Pennsylvania, Senator and Secretary of War. He desires a favor for his grandson, but he is pleased to say I am powerful and in favor, hence his letter indicates in some measure public opinion in regard to me. I send them because, knowing how much you think of me, I know it will gratify you to know that others have a favorable opinion. This may be vanity, but I deem it pardonable in writing to one’s wife.

George [Meade’s son] gave me my spectacles, and the glasses suit exactly, and are truly welcome, for a day or two before we moved, I was on horseback, when a sudden puff of wind carried away the only pair of spectacles I had, and for a few minutes I was in despair, until fortunately my orderly found them. Now I am provided against such accidents.

(Meade wrote his second letter at 9:00 that night.)

Joseph Hooker (Library of Congress).

Joseph Hooker (Library of Congress).

I wrote you a long letter to-day, little thinking while I was quietly employed writing to you what momentous events were going on immediately around me. After writing to you, I went out to ride for exercise, and on my return at 6 P. M., found an order awaiting me, announcing Major General Hooker as in command of the Army of the Potomac and Major General Meade in command of the Centre Grand Division. I then learned for the first time that this news arrived this morning (Burnside having brought it down from Washington last night), and that he, Burnside, and all his staff had gone off this morning, and that Generals Sumner and Franklin had both been relieved and ordered to Washington. You can readily imagine my surprise at all this, although some such step had been talked about for some time back. As to my commanding a grand division, I consider it a mere temporary arrangement, as either some one of more rank will be sent, or, what is more likely, the grand division organization broken up altogether, as it was purely an invention of Burnside’s, and has not, I think, been considered a good one. You will, doubtless, be anxious to know what I think of these changes. With all my respect, and I may almost say affection, for Burnside—for he has been most kind and considerate towards me—I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that he was not equal to the command of so large an army. He had some very positive qualifications, such as determination and nerve, but he wanted knowledge and judgment, and was deficient in that enlarged mental capacity which is essential in a commander. Another drawback was a very general opinion among officers and men, brought about by his own assertions, that the command was too much for him. This greatly weakened his position. As to Hooker, you know my opinion of him, frequently expressed. I believe my opinion is more favorable than any other of the old regular officers, most of whom are decided in their hostility to him. I believe Hooker is a good soldier; the danger he runs is of subjecting himself to bad influences, such as Dan Butterfield and Dan Sickles, who, being intellectually more clever than Hooker, and leading him to believe they are very influential, will obtain an injurious ascendancy over him and insensibly affect his conduct. I may, however, in this be wrong; time will prove.

Here is an excerpt from the letter Meade mentions, written on January 9. The original is in the Meade papers.

To relieve my mind of things that I wish to make known to you I will take this opportunity. As I am a Private Soldier in the P.R. and as one sildier will express himself to another more readily than to an officer, I think I can tell you the feeling of this division. Towards you since the battle of the Peninsula I have never heard but two men that had anything to say against you and one of them was an officer. They all as a division loved you as a commander. They all appeared glad to hear of your Promotion but parted with you with Regret. Although strict they all told the same tale and that was that officers and men were used alike.

And as for myself I consider you have used me as a father would use his son although strict yet no more so than I think it Requires to make good soldiers and now am satisfied if a man does his duty with you it is all is required as I have been with you for almost one year . . . .

Meade’s letters taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 349-351. Available via Google Books.

The Mud March (January 23, 1863)

Alfred Waud sketched the Army of the Potomac on the disastrous "Mud March" in January 1863.

Alfred Waud sketched the Army of the Potomac during the disastrous “Mud March” in January 1863. Notice the pontoon boat in the foreground. (Library of Congress)

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg, I thought it would be interesting to post excerpts from the letters George Meade wrote exactly 150 years earlier. He wrote the following letter to his wife on January 23, 1863, from his army camp near Falmouth, Virginia, on the opposite shore of the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. The Army of the Potomac had suffered a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg the previous month. Major General Ambrose Burnside remained in command, despite his officers’—and his own—growing doubt as to his abilities. After his defeat at Fredericksburg poor Burnside still had one more indignity to suffer, an event that would go down in history as the “Mud March.”

I have not written to you for several days, for the reasons that I have had no opportunity, and that I was aware all letters from the camp were stopped in Washington, so that there was no use in writing. On the 19th, in the night, we received orders to move the next day. On the 20th, the whole army moved from their camp to a position four miles up the river, where crossing places had previously been selected. Everything went off very well up to about 8 P. M. of the 20th. The army reached its position. The pontoons, artillery and all other accessories were up in time, and we all thought the next morning the bridges would be thrown over and we should be at it. But man proposes and God disposes. About 9 P. M. a terrific storm of wind and rain set in and continued all night. At once I saw the game was up. The next day the roads were almost impassable; the pontoons, in attempting to get them to the water’s edge, stuck on the bank, and a hundred men could not budge them. Instead of six bridges being thrown over by 8 A. M., it was found late in the day that the materials for one only could be got to the water’s edge. Burnside visited us, and soon saw the state of the case. Still in hopes something might happen, he directed we should remain in position. All that night, the 21st, and the next day, the 22d, it continued to rain, and the roads to get into such a condition, that early yesterday, the 22d, I had to turn out the whole of my corps, fifteen thousand men, and go to work and bridge with logs, or corduroy, as it is called, nearly the whole road from our camp to the crossing place, eight miles. The men worked cheerfully at this, which was accomplished by early this morning, and Burnside having recalled the army to its old camp, we have been all day getting our artillery back, and to-morrow the infantry will return, thus consuming two days to get back, when it took only a few hours to get there. I never felt so disappointed and sorry for any one in my life as I did for Burnside. He really seems to have even the elements against him. I told him warmly, when I saw him, how sorry I felt, and that I had almost rather have lost a limb than that the storm should have occurred. He seemed quite philosophical, said he could not resist the elements and perhaps it was as well, for that his movement had been most strongly opposed and some of his generals had told him he was leading the men to a slaughter pen; and I am sorry to say there were many men, and among them generals high in command, who openly rejoiced at the storm and the obstacle it presented. We were very much amused to see in the papers to-day, flaming accounts of our crossing, of the battle, and of Hooker being mortally wounded. I hope you did not attach any importance to these absurd reports, which, when I saw, I feared you might have been anxious. I presumed the truth had been telegraphed and that you would know the storm had frustrated our plans. The plan was based on the presumption that we would take the enemy unawares, at least so far as the place of crossing was concerned, and I believe, but for the storm, we should have succeeded in this. What will be done now I cannot imagine, the mud is at present several feet thick wherever any wagons pass over a road, and if the weather from this time, should at all resemble that of last year, it will effectually stop all operations for two months to come.

I did not see George [Meade’s son, who was serving with the cavalry] during our fiasco, though I was at one time bivouacked near a part of his regiment, but his company was not with that part.

[Abner] Doubleday has been assigned to the Reserves, which is a good thing for me, for now they will think a great deal more of me than before.

Taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 348-349. Available via Google Books.

Museum Pieces

Last week I visited the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg to talk to CEO Wayne Motts and his staff about the upcoming book launch of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. (It will take place February 16, 2013, at the museum. Go here for full details.) After the meeting Wayne took me into another room, excited at the chance to show me some Meade-related items the museum will include in its new exhibit about the year 1863, which opened on January 17. tomorrow He had a bunch of items laid out on a table. Among them was a copy of the order Meade issued on June 30, 1863—two days after he received command of the Army of the Potomac and only one day before the fighting began at Gettysburg. It ended with this chilling note: “Corps and other commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldier who fails in his duty at this hour.”

There was also a copy of Meade’s General Orders No. 68. Issued over the name of assistant adjutant-general Seth Williams (like me, a native of Augusta, Maine) on July 4, 1863, it was a congratulatory message to his army and, innocuous as it might appear on the surface, it damaged Meade’s relationship with President Abraham Lincoln. The offending passage was this one: “Our task is not yet accomplished, and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” When Lincoln saw that he exclaimed, “Great God! Is that all?” He complained to another listener, “Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil!”

A third item that will go on display is Meade’s own copy of a government-issued

Daniel Buttefield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he "has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade's reputation under the fifth rib."

Daniel Butterfield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he “has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade’s reputation under the fifth rib.”

booklet that listed all the army’s officers and their seniority. Meade’s signature is on the cover of the little blue publication. No doubt most of the army’s officers kept their own copies handy, because, in general, advancement in rank depended on seniority. Before the war the pace of advancement could be glacially slow as officers waited for those above them to die or retire. Even during the war ambitious officers—and Meade was certainly ambitious—kept a close eye on who got promoted and who had seniority. For example, when Ambrose Burnside promoted Daniel Butterfield to command of the V Corps shortly before the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade was acutely aware that he had seniority over Butterfield yet still remained in command of only a division. After wrestling a bit with the best way to handle the matter, he decided to bring it up with Burnside. On November 23, 1862, he rode over to Burnside’s headquarters. Here’s what I write in Searching for Meade:

I have come to pick a crow with you,” he said as playfully as he could. Then he explained his feelings about Butterfield getting command of the V Corps. Burnside acted surprised. He said that he had no idea Meade ranked Butterfield and certainly had meant no disrespect. His intention was for Butterfield to command the corps only temporarily, perhaps until someone senior to both men—John Sedgwick, perhaps—could take over. Meade pronounced himself satisfied and rode back to his tent.

(On December 23, the debacle at Fredericksburg over, Burnside told Meade he was giving him command of the V Corps.)

 That left Meade with some tricky diplomatic work not only with Butterfield but also with Joe Hooker. Butterfield was a Hooker crony, and the V Corps belonged to Hooker’s Grand Division. Meade heard rumors that Hooker was not happy with the change of commanders. Nonetheless, the news called for a celebration. Meade obtained some champagne and invited his fellow generals, including Franklin, Reynolds, and William F. “Baldy” Smith, to share it with him. “Whereupon it was unanimously agreed that Congress ought to establish the grade of lieutenant general, and that they would all unite in having me made one, provided I would treat with such good wine,” Meade reported.

On the day before Christmas Meade rode to Hooker’s tent to officially report for duty. He found Hooker with Butterfield. After what must have been an awkward few minutes, Butterfield excused himself.

“I told Burnside, when he informed me of his intention, that there was no officer in the army I would prefer to you, were the corps without a commander and the question of selection open,” Hooker told Meade, “but Butterfield having been placed there and having discharged the duties to my satisfaction, particularly through the late battle, I deemed myself authorized to ask that he might be retained.” Hooker said it was nothing personal, and then he signed the order relieving Butterfield and giving Meade command.

Butterfield invited his successor to a Christmas dinner the next day, a handsome entertainment shared by all the brigade and division commanders. After everyone else had left, Meade remained behind to talk with Butterfield. He understood his feelings, Meade told him. “Poor Butterfield then opened his heart,” said Meade. Burnside had promised him that command of the V Corps was permanent, Butterfield complained. Meade sympathized but pointed out that the original injustice had been done when Butterfield was promoted over him. When he said good night to Butterfield, Meade felt that the situation was “definitely and satisfactorily settled.” He would have further unpleasant dealings with Butterfield in the future.