Follow-up (February 4, 1865)

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

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

George Meade writes home with some follow-up on his Senate confirmation and the Confederate peace commissioners. The Chandler to whom he refers is Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, a staunch Meade opponent. As members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Chandler and Senator Ben Wade had spearheaded the effort to have Meade removed from the command a year earlier.

The peace commissioners had indeed met with Lincoln. I included Ulysses S. Grant’s account of the meetings in the post of February 1. I have my own follow-up to that post. In it, I had added this editorial comment: Clearly, Meade feels that he should not have spent time talking with the commissioners. I have even read an interview with one historian who says Meade’s actions here were treasonous.” Not wanting to point fingers, I kept the historian’s identity to myself. In a Facebook discussion that ensued, though, the historian in question stepped forward. He is Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. The interview was one he did for Harry Smeltzer’s Bull Runnings blog, in which Dr. Guelzo said this about the letter in question:After reading this, the first question which burned through my mind was, Whose side are you on? What Union major-general gives talking points to Confederate negotiators as they are on their way to meet with Lincoln and Seward? No wonder Meade concluded the letter with the injunction, ‘all this I have written you, must be confidential, as it would not do to let it be known I had been talking with them, or what I have said.’ This letter appears nowhere in young Meade’s Life and Letters, or Freeman Cleaves’ well-known biography of Meade.” (You can find the entire interview here

I remember reading that interview and feeling my blood run cold.

Now, I will freely admit to making some errors in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. I still flush with embarrassment when I recall how I wrote that Col. Henry Baker died at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. In fact, that was Col. Edward Baker. My subconscious must have been thinking of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the Sherlock Holmes story in which Henry Baker drops a Christmas goose that eventually leads to the recovery of a stolen gem. As far as I am aware, no Christmas gooses were dropped at Ball’s Bluff. I also referred to divisions as brigades (or perhaps vice versa) and at one point stated that Grant launched his Overland Campaign in 1865. (Incidentally, those errors have been corrected for the paperback edition, available here.)

But while I made some mistakes, I thought I correctly presented the big picture, which is that Meade had served his country well but had been unfairly ignored by history, for a variety of reasons. Yet apparently I had overlooked a letter that called into question Meade’s very loyalty to the Union. How had I missed it? I knew that his son and grandson left out passages and some entire letters when they edited his Life and Letters for publication, but I had looked over microfilmed copies of the originals from this period. Somehow this bombshell had eluded me. I felt chagrined and depressed.

But, as it turns out, Dr. Guelzo was mistaken. The letter was indeed included in Life and Letters. It had not been suppressed by the Meades. It’s right there for all to see. I had read the letter, but thought little of it. It did not make me question Meade’s loyalty. Meade obviously knew he was sticking his prominent nose into places it didn’t belong, but he was just repeating administration policy (that war could end only when the seceded states returned to the Union and slavery was abolished). I don’t consider that to be “giving talking points.” Had he written to his wife, “I told the rebels that the best way to throw Lincoln off his game was to mention Ann Rutherford,” or “if you want to make things work out your way, try contacting John Wilkes Booth and figure out when the president will be attending the theater,” then I would have seen things somewhat differently.

Anyway, my post of Meade’s letter led to a long and lively Facebook discussion among Dr. Guelzo, Meade supporter Scott Brown (who made some excellent points), and me. I remained insistent that Dr. Guelzo admit he had been mistaken when he said the letter had not appeared in Life and Letters. A small point, perhaps, but I felt it was important. Dr. Guelzo had used this mistaken assertion to underscore his interpretation of the letter as being especially damaging to Meade’s reputation. By this reasoning, the Meades could not let the letter see the light of day because it was so bad. That was simply not true. (Apparently Dr. Guelzo had repeated this assertion—and got the date of the letter wrong—in an article he had written for Gettysburg Magazine. I have not read that article.)

I am sure this was an honest mistake on Dr. Guelzo’s part, although I do think it hints at an underlying anti-Meade bias. Instead of seeing a meddlesome general, he saw a disloyal one. Perhaps I am too biased in the other direction, but I don’t agree with that interpretation at all.

Now, on to Meade’s letter from February 4. The Senators who voted against Meade’s confirmation were Zachariah Chandler (R-Michigan), James Harlan (R-Iowa), Samuel C. Pomeroy (R-Kansas), Benjamin Wade (R-Ohio), and Morton S. Wilkinson (R-Minnesota).

I hear from Washington the vote on my confirmation was thirty-two to five. I have not heard the names of my opponents, but their number is about what I expected, and I have no doubt they are all like Chandler, men whose opposition is rather creditable to you.

As to the Peace Commissioners, I presume their arrival will make a great stir; I have written you what passed between us when I called on them. I understand they afterwards went down to Fortress Monroe, where they met, some say, the President, and others, Mr. Seward. To-day they returned to Richmond, but what was the result of their visit no one knows. At the present moment, 8 p.m., the artillery on our lines is in full blast, clearly proving that at this moment there is no peace. I fear there is not much chance of any agreement between the contending parties until more decided successes are gained on our side.

I would have liked to have sent a few lines to Johnny Wise by the Commissioners, but they went up the river, and did not pass through my lines.

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. 260-1. Available via Google Books.

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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.

Investigations (March 17, 1863)

General William Franklin (Library of Congress photo).

General William Franklin (Library of Congress photo).

This letter from March 17, 1863, is fascinating. In it Meade discusses the political fallout from the debacle at Fredericksburg. Burnside, of course, is Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the Army of the Potomac. Franklin is William Franklin. Born in York, Pennsylvania, Franklin had come in first in his West Point class of 1843. Like Meade he was an engineer and he had been in charge of constructing the new dome of the Capitol in Washington when war broke out. At Fredericksburg he had been in charge of the army’s left wing, which included Meade’s division. Franklin was angry with Burnside. He had been under the impression that Burnside wanted Franklin’s wing would make the main attack from below Fredericksburg and didn’t learn otherwise until the morning of the attack. Now both men were being investigated by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

The General Parke whom Meade mentions is John Parke. Wright is Horatio Wright, later to succeed John Sedgwick at the head of the VI Corps.

I returned to-day from Washington. I went up day before yesterday, the 15th, arriving in Washington about 7 P. M. I went to Willard’s, where, as usual, I saw a great many people. Finding Burnside was in the house, I sent up my name and was ushered into his room, where I found himself and Mrs. Burnside, the latter a very quiet, lady-like and exceedingly nice personage, quite pretty and rather younger than I expected to see. Burnside was very glad to see me, and we had a long talk. Among other things he read me a correspondence he had had with Franklin. Franklin had called his attention to the letter which appeared in the Times, said this was known to be written by Raymond, the editor, and it was generally believed his information was derived either from Burnside himself or some of his staff. Hence this letter was considered authority, and as it did him, Franklin, great injustice, he appealed to his, Burnside’s, magnanimity to correct the errors and give publicity to his correction. Burnside replied that he had not read the article till Franklin called his attention to it; that he was not responsible for it, nor was he aware that any of his staff had had any part in its production. Still, he was bound to say that in its facts it was true; that as to the inferences drawn from these facts, he had nothing to say about them and must refer him to Raymond, the reputed author. Several letters had passed, Franklin trying to get Burnside to (as he, Burnside, expressed it) whitewash him. This Burnside said he was not going to do; that Franklin must stand on his own merits and the facts of the case; that he had never made any accusation against him, except to say that the crossing of the river, being against his, Franklin’s, judgment, he thought Franklin had been wanting in a zealous and hearty co-operation with his plans. That about the time my attack failed, hearing from one of his, Burnside’s, staff officers, just from the field, that Franklin was not attacking with the force and vigor he ought to, he immediately despatched him an order “directing him to attack with his whole force if necessary,” which order he assumed the responsibility of not executing, and he must now take the consequences, if blame was attached to him for it.

This illustration by Arthur Lumley shows Ambrose Burnside talking with William Franklin about evacuating his position following the debacle at Fredericksburg. At the bottom Lumley wrote, "Franklin corps in the distance and Rebel batteries on the mountains." (Library of Congress.)

This illustration by Arthur Lumley shows Ambrose Burnside talking with William Franklin about evacuating his position following the debacle at Fredericksburg. At the bottom Lumley wrote, “Franklin corps in the distance and Rebel batteries on the mountains.” (Library of Congress.)

The next morning I went up to the Capitol, to the committee room, and found only the clerk present. He said the committee had been awaiting me some days; that Senators Chandler and Wade were the only two members present, and now down town; that he would hunt them up, and have them at the room by three o’clock, if I would return at that hour. At three I again presented myself to the committee, and found old Ben Wade, Senator from Ohio, awaiting me. He said the committee wished to examine me in regard to my attack at Fredericksburg. I told him I presumed such was the object in summoning me, and with this in view I had brought my official report, which I would read to him, and if he wanted any more information, I was prepared to give it. After hearing my report, he said it covered the whole ground, and he would only ask me one or two questions. First, was I aware that General Burnside, about the time of my attack, had ordered General Franklin to attack with his whole force? I answered, “At the time of the battle, No; indeed, I only learned this fact yesterday evening, from General Burnside himself.” Secondly, what, in my judgment, as a military man, would have been the effect if General Franklin had, when my attack was successful, advanced his whole line? I said I believed such a movement would have resulted in the driving back of the enemy’s right wing; though it would, without doubt, have produced a desperate and hard-contested fight; but when I reflected on the success that attended my attack, which was made with less than ten thousand men (supports and all), I could not resist the belief that the attack of fifty thousand men would have been followed by success. This was all he asked, and except the last question, the answer to which was a mere matter of opinion, I don’t think any one can take exception to my testimony. My conversations with Burnside and Wade satisfied me that Franklin was to be made responsible for the failure at Fredericksburg, and the committee is seeking all the testimony they can procure to substantiate this theory of theirs. Now, Franklin has, first, his orders, as received from Burnside, and then the fact that the execution of these orders was entrusted to Reynolds, for his defense. Before the committee, of course, he will not be heard, but after their report comes out, it will be incumbent on him to notice their statements and demand an investigation. I feel very sorry for Franklin, because I like him, and because he has always been consistently friendly to me.

After returning from the Capitol, I dined with General and Mrs. Burnside and Parke. Parke said he was about being left off the list of major generals, when Burnside’s opportune arrival saved him, Halleck giving as a reason that he had exercised no command since his appointment. Burnside, however, had his name sent in, and now he is going to supersede Baldy Smith and take command of the Ninth Corps, which is to accompany Burnside in his new command, to which he, Burnside, expects to be ordered in a few days.

The best piece of news I learned when in Washington was that the President was about issuing his proclamation putting in force the conscription law, and ordering immediately a draft of five hundred thousand men. Only let him do this, and enforce it and get the men, and the North is bound to carry the day.

I sometimes feel very nervous about my position, they are knocking over generals at such a rate. Among others, Wright, who was my beau ideal of a soldier, and whom I had picked out as the most rising man, has had his major-generalcy and his command both taken away from him, because he could not satisfy the extremists of Ohio (anti-slavery) and those of Kentucky (pro-slavery), but tried by a moderate course to steer between them.

Did I tell you the old Reserves had subscribed fifteen hundred dollars to present me with a sword, sash, belt, etc.? It is expected they will be ready about the close of the month, when I am to go, if possible, to their camp near Washington to receive them.

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. 358-61. Available via Google Books.

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.