All Responsibility (December 2, 1863)

In a letter that reads less like a missive from a husband to a wife and more like a brief for the defense, George Gordon Meade outlines the reasons why he called off the attack on Lee’s defenses at Mine Run.

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

I expect your wishes will now soon be gratified, and that I shall be relieved from the Army of the Potomac. The facts are briefly these: On the 26th ultimo I crossed the Rapidan, intending to turn the right flank of General Lee and attack him, or compel him to attack me out of his formidable river entrenchments. I had previously been advised, by deserters and others, that he had commenced a line of works running perpendicular to the river, but only extending a few miles, but which he designed covering his flank, and permitting him to leave the lower fords unguarded. I accordingly made my plans to cross in three columns, to unite at a common point below his entrenchments, and then to advance rapidly and attack him before he could prepare any defenses. The plan was a good one, but owing to the failure of others to whom its execution was necessarily intrusted, it failed. In the first place, one corps [William French and the III] was three hours behind time in arriving at the river, and slow of movement afterwards; which caused a delay of one day, enabled the enemy to advance and check my columns before they united, and finally to concentrate his army in a very formidable position, behind entrenchments almost as strong as those I was making a long detour to avoid. Again, after I had come up with the enemy, one corps commander [Warren] reported he had examined a position where there was not the slightest doubt he could carry the enemy’s works, and on his positive and unhesitating judgment, he was given twenty-eight thousand men, and directed to attack the next morning at eight o’clock. At the same time another attack was to be made by fifteen thousand men, at a point where the enemy evidently was not fully prepared. On the eventful morning, just as the attack was about being made, I received a despatch from the officer commanding the twenty-eight thousand men, saying he had changed his opinion, and that the attack on his front was so hopeless, that he had assumed the responsibility of suspending it till further orders were received. This astounding intelligence reached me just ten minutes before the hour of attacking, and barely in time to suspend the other attack, which was a secondary one, and which, even if successful, could not be supported with so large a portion of my force away for the main attack. This lost me another day, during which the enemy so strengthened the point threatened by the secondary attack as to render it nearly as strong as the rest of his line, and to have almost destroyed the before probable chances of success. Finding no possibility of attacking with hope of success, and power to follow up success, and that the only weak point visible had been strengthened during the delay caused by the change of opinion of a corps commander, I determined not to attempt an assault. I could not move any further around the enemy’s flank, for want of roads, and from the danger at this season of the year of a storm, which would render locomotion, off the prepared roads, a matter of impossibility. After reviewing all the circumstances, notwithstanding my most earnest desire to give battle, and in the full consciousness of the fact that my failure to do so was certain personal ruin, I, having come to the conclusion that an attack could not be successful, determined to, and did, withdraw the army. I am fully aware it will be said I did wrong in deciding this question by reasoning, and that I ought to have tried, and then a failure would have been evidence of my good judgment; but I trust I have too much reputation as a general to be obliged to encounter certain defeat, in order to prove that victory was not possible. Political considerations will, however, enter largely into the decision, and the failure of the Army of the Potomac to do anything, at this moment, will be considered of vital consequence, and if I can be held responsible for this failure, I will be removed to prove that I am. I therefore consider my fate as settled; but as I have told you before, I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and wilfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and I am willing to stand or fall by it at all hazards. I shall write to the President, giving him a clear statement of the case, and endeavoring to free his action as much as possible, by assuming myself all the responsibility. I feel of course greatly disappointed; a little more good fortune, and I should have met with brilliant success. As it is, my conscience is clear. I did the best I could. If I had thought there was any reasonable degree of probability of success, I would have attacked. I did not think so; on the contrary, believed it would result in a useless and criminal slaughter of brave men, and might result in serious disaster to the army. I determined not to attack, no other movements were practicable, and I withdrew. There will be a great howl all over the country. Letter writers and politicians will denounce me. It will be proved as clear as the light of day, that an attack was perfectly practicable, and that everyone, except myself, in the army, particularly the soldiers, was dying for it, and that I had some mysterious object in view, either in connection with politics, or stock-jobbing, or something else about as foreign to my thoughts, and finally the Administration will be obliged to yield to popular clamor and discard me. For all this I am prepared, fortified as I said before by a clear conscience, and the conviction that I have acted from a high sense of duty, to myself as a soldier, to my men as their general, and to my country and its cause, as the agent having its vital interests solemnly entrusted to me, which I have no right wantonly to play with and to jeopardize, either for my own personal benefit, or to satisfy the demands of popular clamor, or interested politicians.

George was sent with one of the messages to suspend the attack; his horse fell with him, he was a little bruised and cut about the eye, but nothing serious.

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. 156-9. Available via Google Books.

An Army on the Move (October 11, 1863)

Artist Alfred Waud drew Union soldiers burning the railroad bridge at Rappahannock Station on October 13 as the Army of the Potomac fell back to keep from being outflanked (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

Artist Alfred Waud drew Union soldiers burning the railroad bridge at Rapphannock Station on October 13 as the Army of the Potomac fell back to keep from being outflanked (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

There’s no letter from George Meade on October 11, but his aide Theodore Lyman wrote a typically fascinating account in which he described the Army of the Potomac on the move. Robert E. Lee had sparked the activity by putting his own army into motion, the start of a flanking maneuver much like the one that had caused so much grief for John Pope in the Second Bull Run campaign. In order to prevent his army from being outflanked, Meade opted to pull back from his position on the Rappahannock towards Centreville. Lyman observed it all in his inimitable fashion.

As all is packed, I take to pencil correspondence. Uncle Lee has concluded that we have stared long enough at each other, and so is performing some fancy antics, though whether he means to fight, or retreat after a feint, or merely take a walk, I know not. He is now paddling along, in the general direction of Warrenton, between us and the Blue Ridge; and so has entirely left his station on the other bank of the river. . . . Last night I, being of a foxy disposition, turned in at an early hour, so that I was fresh and fine at four this morning, when we were routed out, and assisted to coffee and bread and cold ham. It was a Murillo-esque (!) sight to behold the officers, in big coats and bigger sabres, standing with the bright light of the camp-fire on their faces. The cavalry cloaks, slouched hats, and great boots, though, as Co [Lyman’s sister] says, “drunk “-looking, are much more suited to a painter than the trig uniforms of the Europeans. So here we are, with horses saddled, waiting to see what is what. You understand that Mr. Reb is not very near us, in fact further off than before, but he is moving, and so we, too, are “en garde.” Our army, I say with emphasis, ought to be able to whip the gentlemen. Down comes General Meade; I clap the pencil in my pocket, and in two minutes we are off, escort, orderlies, Staff and all, winding our way midst miles of baggage and ammunition waggons and slow columns of moving infantry. Ha, ha, ha! They don’t look much like the “Cadets,” these old sojers on the march. There is their well-stuffed knapsack, surmounted by a rolled gray blanket, the worse for wear; from their belt is slung a big cartridge-box, with 1 His sister. forty rounds, and at their side hangs a haversack (satchel you would call it) quite bursting with three days’ rations. Hullo! what has that man, dangling at the end of his musket? A coffee-pot! an immense tin coffee-pot! and there is another with a small frying-pan — more precious to them than gold. And there goes a squad of cavalry, the riders almost obscured by the bags of oats and the blankets and coats piled on pommel and crupper; their carbine hangs on one side and their sabre clatters from the other. And then behold a train of artillery (the best-looking arm of the service), each gun drawn by six or eight horses, and the caissons covered with bags of forage. And so the face of the country is covered, when an army is on the march, the waggons keeping the road, the infantry winding through the open land. It is singular, in regard to the latter, that, however dirty or slovenly the men may be, their muskets always shine like silver; they know it is an important member. Well, you perceive I have leisure to get a pen-full of ink, to continue the letter, begun this morning. In fact we have done our day’s march and our movable houses are all up at a new “Headquarters.” We hear nothing much of the Insurges, but are all ready to pitch into them if we find them in a soft spot. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 29-30.Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Return to Frederick (July 8, 1863)

Old Baldy, in a photo taken after the war (Library of Congress).

Old Baldy, in a photo taken after the war (Library of Congress).

On July 7 Meade left Gettysburg and traveled all the way to Frederick, not far from the spot where Colonel Hardie had arrived to bring him trouble just nine days earlier. For Meade it seemed like a lifetime. He had been living in “a great state of mental anxiety,” he wrote his wife. “Indeed, I think I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years.” Since taking command he had not changed his clothes, had a full night’s sleep, eaten a regular meal, or even had much chance to wash his face and hands.

Meade found the streets of Frederick crowded with people eager to get a glimpse of him. The citizens treated him “like a lion,” but he did not allow it to go to his head. After the botched opportunities of Antietam, George McClellan had written to his wife that he had fought a “masterpiece of war.” Meade was cut from a different cloth.

Baldy, of course, is Meade’s horse. He not only survived his wounds, he went on to outlive his master by 10 years.

I arrived here yesterday; the army is assembling at Middletown. I think we shall have another battle before Lee can cross the river, though from all accounts he is making great efforts to do so. For my part, as I have to follow and fight him, I would rather do it at once and in Maryland than to follow into Virginia. I received last evening your letters of the 3d and 5th inst., and am truly rejoiced that you are treated with such distinction on account of my humble services. I see also that the papers are making a great deal too much fuss about me. I claim no extraordinary merit for this last battle, and would prefer waiting a little while to see what my career is to be before making any pretensions. I did and shall continue to do my duty to the best of my abilities, but knowing as I do that battles are often decided by accidents, and that no man of sense will say in advance what their result will be, I wish to be careful in not bragging before the right time. George is very well, though both of us are a good deal fatigued with our recent operations. From the time I took command till to-day, now over ten days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest, and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety. Indeed, I think I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years. Old Baldy is still living and apparently doing well; the ball passed within half an inch of my thigh, passed through the saddle and entered Baldy’s stomach. I did not think he could live, but the old fellow has such a wonderful tenacity of life that I am in hopes he will.

The people in this place have made a great fuss with me. A few moments after my arrival I was visited by a deputation of ladies, and showers of wreaths and bouquets presented to me, in most complimentary terms. The street has been crowded with people, staring at me, and, much to my astonishment, I find myself a lion. I cannot say I appreciate all this honor, because I feel certain it is undeserved, and would like people to wait a little while. I send you a document1 received yesterday afternoon. It will give you pleasure I know. Preserve it, because the terms in which the General in Chief speaks of the battle are stronger than any I have deemed it proper to use myself. I never claimed a victory, though I stated that Lee was defeated in his efforts to destroy my army. I am going to move as soon as I can get the army supplied with subsistence and ammunition.

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. 132-3. Available via Google Books.

General Order No. 66 (June 28, 1863)

The outgoing commander of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

The outgoing commander of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

We should keep in mind that while George Gordon Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, another general was losing that command. After being replaced by Meade, Joseph Hooker issued General Order No. 66.In conformity with the orders of the War Department, dated June 27, 1863, I relinquish the command of the Army of the Potomac to Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, a brave and accomplished officer, who has nobly earned the confidence and esteem of this army on many a well-fought field.Impressed with the belief that my usefulness as the commander of the Army of the Potomac is impaired, I part from it; yet not without the deepest emotion.

The sorrow parting with the comrades of so many battles is relieved by the conviction that the devotion of this army will never cease nor fail; that it will yield to my successor, as it has to me, a willing and hearty support.

With the earnest prayer that the triumphs of its arms may bring successes worthy of it and the nation, I bid it farewell.

Joseph Hooker

From Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series One, Volume XXVII, Part III, pp. 373-4.

150 Years Ago (June 28, 1863)

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

It was 150 years ago today—June 28—that Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Back in Washington on June 27 Col. James A. Hardie of Halleck’s staff received orders to travel to Frederick and find Meade. Hardie looked more like an accountant than a soldier, with straggly side whiskers, hair slicked down and combed back, and pince-nez clamped to his nose. Wearing civilian clothes in case he encountered Confederate raiders, Hardie took a train from Washington to Frederick, where he found the streets thronged with boisterous and drunken soldiers from the Army of the Potomac. He rented a horse and buggy and made his way through the dark night to Meade’s headquarters at Robert McGill’s farm.

Meade was asleep in his tent, unaware of the agent of fate making his inexorable way toward him. Hardie arrived around 3:00 in the morning. He pushed open the tent flaps and rapped on the flagpole to wake the sleeping general. I’ve come to bring you trouble, he told Meade. Meade’s first thought was that he was being either relieved or placed under arrest, which says something about the state of dysfunction, paranoia, and suspicion that plagued the Army of the Potomac. The groggy general told Hardie he had a clear conscience.

Hardie explained the trouble he had brought. He had orders for Meade to take command of the Army of the Potomac. Meade protested. He wasn’t the right man, he said. Reynolds was. Hardie explained that the decision had been made—Meade had no choice but to obey his orders.

“Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution,” said Meade.

Following are Meade’s reply to Henry Halleck and his announcement to his army.

To Halleck:

The order placing me in command of this army is received. As a soldier I obey it, and to the utmost of my ability will execute it. Totally unexpected as it has been, and in ignorance of the exact condition of the troops and position of the enemy, I can only now say that it appears to me I must move towards the Susquehanna, keeping Washington and Baltimore well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna, or if he turns towards Baltimore, to give him battle. I would say that I trust that every available man that can be spared will be sent to me, as, from all accounts, the enemy is in strong force. So soon as I can post myself up I will communicate more in detail.

To the Army:

By direction of the President of the United States, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac.

As a soldier, in obeying this order—an order totally unexpected and unsolicited—I have no promises or pledges to make.

The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a foreign invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view, constantly, the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.

It is with great diffidence that I relieve in the command of this army an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must ever appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements; but I rely upon the hearty support of my companions in arms to assist me in the discharge of the duties of the important trust which has been confided to me.

Orders (June 27, 1863)

Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, a.k.a. "Old Brains." His orders placed Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, a.k.a. “Old Brains.” His orders placed Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Major General George Gordon Meade had reached the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland, on June 27, 1863. Meade established his headquarters on land owned by Robert McGill near Ballenger Creek. You can see the farm today next to modern Rt. 85, just south of town. Back in Washington, general-in-chief Henry Halleck prepared the orders that would put Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac. Col. James Hardie left the capital that day on a train to Frederick. Here are the orders he carried:

Headquarters Of The Army, Washington, D. C., June 27, 1863. Major General G. G. Meade,

Army of the Potomac. General:

You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac. Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you.

You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters. Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington, as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels. You will therefore manoeuvre and fight in such a manner as to cover the Capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit. Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him, so as to give him battle.

All forces within the sphere of your operations will be held subject to your orders.

Harper’s Ferry and its garrison are under your direct orders.

You are authorized to remove from command and send from your army any officer or other person you may deem proper; and to appoint to command as you may deem expedient.

In fine, General, you are intrusted with all the power and authority which the President, the Secretary of War, or the General-inChief can confer on you, and you may rely on our full support.

You will keep me fully informed of all your movements and the positions of your own troops and those of the enemy, so far as known.

I shall always be ready to advise and assist you to the utmost of my ability.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,
H. W. Halleck

A modern view of Arcadia, the farm owned by Robert McGill where Meade established V Corps headquarters on June 27, 1863.

A modern view of Arcadia, the farm owned by Robert McGill where Meade established V Corps headquarters on June 27, 1863.

Nervousness (January 30, 1863)

When Meade wrote to his wife he expressed a strong streak  of paranoia. Of course, after all the Army of the Potomac had been through and the commanders that had come and gone, it’s no surprise that he felt a little uneasy. (General George McClellan, back in New Jersey, later became convinced that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was having his mail opened, too.) In less than two months he would write to his wife, “I sometimes feel very nervous about my position, they are knocking over generals at such a rate.” Reading this letter from January 30, 1863, you get the sense that Meade was also writing for any unseen, secret readers in Washington.

A good deal of excitement exists in the army from a report prevailing that the provost marshal of Washington, or rather the head of the detective police in his department, is in the habit of systematically opening the letters received and written by officers. For my part I can hardly credit the statement, and so far as I am concerned am willing it should prove true, for I cannot see how information obtained in this manner can be used against one. I have endeavored to the best of my ability to do my duty, and I have never said a word to any one around me that the most hypercritical could find fault with. In writing to you, however, the wife of my bosom and the only confidential friend I have in the world, I have without doubt at times expressed opinions about men and things, that would not be considered orthodox, but I maintain no government in the world would take advantage of such confidential intercourse to find a man guilty, and I don’t believe that any of my letters have ever been opened.

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), p. 353.  Available via Google Books.

“Fighting Joe” Takes Charge (January 28, 1863)

What follows is a letter that Meade wrote to his wife on January 28, 1863. It’s another fascinating look at the rumor and speculation that swirled among the upper echelons of the Army of the Potomac at this tumultuous time. Major General Joseph Hooker had just replaced Ambrose Burnside as the army’s commander. The Gibbon whom Meade mentions is General John Gibbon; Humphreys is Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, who would serve as Meade’s chief of staff after Gettysburg.

hooker standing

A carte de visite taken of Major General Joseph Hooker sometime in 1862. (Library of Congress)

Your anxiety lest I should be placed in command of the army causes me to smile. Still, I must confess when such men as Gibbon say it is talked about, it really does look serious and alarming; yet, when I look back on the good fortune which has thus far attended my career, I cannot believe so sudden a change for the worse can occur as would happen if I were placed in command. I think, therefore, we may for the present dismiss our fears on that score. General Hooker has been two days in Washington. I am looking anxiously for his return to hear what will be the result. Before he was placed in command he was open-mouthed and constant in his assertions that he did not want to command, and that he would not command unless he was perfectly untrammeled and allowed in every respect to do exactly as he pleased. Now, I am quite confident no such conditions will be acceded to in Washington. Hence, either “Fighting Joe” will have to back down or some one else will be sent to take the command. From my knowledge of friend Hooker, I am inclined to surmise the former will be the case. But even supposing they give him carte-blanche, his position is anything but enviable. This army is in a false position, both as regards the enemy and the public. With respect to the enemy, we can literally do nothing, and our numbers are inadequate to the accomplishment of any result even if we go to the James River. On the other hand, the wise public are under the delusion that we are omnipotent, and that it is only necessary to go ahead to achieve unheard-of success. Of course, under such circumstances, neither Csesar, Napoleon nor any other mighty genius could fail to meet with condemnation, never mind what he did, and Hooker, I fancy, will find in time his fate in the fate of his predecessors, namely, undue and exaggerated praise before he does anything, and a total absence of reason and intelligence in the discussion of his acts when he does attempt anything, and a denial of even ordinary military qualifications unless he achieves impossibilities. Such being the case, he certainly is not to be envied. I think when his head is cut off, the Administration will try a general of their own kidney, either Fremont, Hunter or some other. Of course, so long as Hooker is absent, I continue in command of the Centre Grand Division, but I am more and more inclined to believe that his visit to Washington will result in the abolition of the grand-division system altogether, and the return to corps alone. I hope I shall retain the Fifth Corps, as it is one of the best, including as it does the regulars.

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. (Library of Congress)

Humphreys has gone to Washington. I believe I wrote you he behaved with distinguished gallantry at Fredericksburg. It appears that soon after the battle, Burnside told him both the President and Secretary assured him solemnly that Humphreys should be immediately promoted. He now finds a long list sent to the Senate, including such names as Butterfield, Sickles, Berry and others, who have really done nothing, while his name is omitted, and he cannot hear that there is any record in the Department going to show he has ever even been thought of. Under these circumstances he is naturally very indignant. This is all entre nous. Just as I had gotten thus far, I heard Hooker had returned, and notwithstanding it is storming and snowing violently, I rode three miles to his headquarters to see him, and have just returned. He seemed in excellent spirits, said they had treated him “en prince” in Washington, and told him he had only to ask and he should have what he wanted. He did not tell me his plans, but intimated that as soon as the weather and the roads permitted he was prepared to try something.

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. 351-353. 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.