“The Most Impartial Account” (December 3, 1864)

This Currier & Ives print from 1863 depicts a very heroic version of the victor of Gettysburg (Library of Congress).

This Currier & Ives print from 1863 depicts a very heroic version of the victor of Gettysburg (Library of Congress).

George Meade likes an article on Gettysburg by Captain Charles Cornwallis Chesney that appeared in British Army and Navy Review. “The grand address of Mr. Everett” that he mentions is the talk that Edward Everett gave at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Everett prepared his epic oration with background material that Meade had asked Theodore Lyman to gather. (“Prepared, by order, a sort of résumé of Gen. Meade’s official report of the battle of Gettysburg, to be sent to Mr. Everett, who is to deliver an oration at the cemetery, to be made at that place,” Lyman had noted in his notebook entry for October 5, 1863.) Everett’s two-hour talk was overshadowed by the brief remarks of the speaker who followed him, President Abraham Lincoln.

I received the two volumes of the Army and Navy Review (British) and have read with great interest Captain Chesney’s critique of the battle of Gettysburg. It is decidedly the most impartial account of this battle that I have read, and I think does more justice to my acts and motives than any account by my countrymen, including the grand address of Mr. Everett. What has struck me with surprise is the intimate knowledge of many facts not made very public at the time, such as [Henry] Slocum’s hesitation about reinforcing [Oliver O.] Howard, [Daniel] Butterfield’s drawing up an order to withdraw, and other circumstances of a like nature. This familiarity with details evidences access to some source of information on our side, other than official reports or newspaper accounts. Captain Chesney’s facts are singularly accurate, though he has fallen into one or two errors. I was never alarmed about my small arm ammunition, and after Hancock’s repulsing the enemy on the 3d, I rode to the left, gave orders for an immediate advance, and used every exertion to have an attack made; but before the troops could be got ready, it became dark. There is no doubt the fatigue and other results of the three days’ fighting had produced its effect on the troops and their movements were not as prompt as they would otherwise have been. I have no doubt all his statements about Lee, and his having been overruled, are true. Lee never before or since has exhibited such audacity. I am glad this impartial account by a foreign military critic has been written.

One of the enjoyable things about Theodore Lyman’s letters is the way he casts light on day-to-day life in the Army of the Potomac. Here we learn a little bit about General Meade on pay-day. Lyman also writes about “contrabands,” escaped slaves who seek freedom with the Union army.

At the end of each month, General Meade sends up his pay-rolls, that is, a large printed sheet which each officer fills up, stating what the Government owes him, and saying that he hasn’t cheated Uncle Sam, and don’t owe him anything and is all right generally. The pay department keeps this as a receipt and returns your money for the past month. Lieutenant-Colonel Woodruff gets the General’s pay. One part he sends to Mrs. Meade and the rest he sends to the General, who, the moment that he gets it, sends violently for Mercier and John and everyone else to whom he is indebted, and pays them all, in hot haste, as if his last day were come. He is a thorough old soldier about money and regards greenbacks in a weak and helpless sort of way. “Once,” said he, “Mrs. Meade said it was my plain duty to go to market, as other gentlemen did: it would be so satisfactory and saving. I went the next morning. We had a famous dinner—oysters, terrapin, and lots of good things—the children were delighted; but, when I came to look, I found I had spent the week’s allowance in one day! I wasn’t allowed to go any more to market.” You would have laughed to see yesterday the crowd of contrabands that came in with Gregg. Usually, wherever they can, they cut and run, not showing that devotion to their masters described by the Southrons. It is sometimes rather remarkable the way they run off. Now in this lot (mostly women) there was all the way from a newly born baby to an old woman who, they told me, was over ninety, and who, from her looks, might very likely have been a hundred and fifty. The young women had their mistresses’ things on, if I know myself. There was one Christian Commission kuss who went whining about and saying: “Oh! you are free, free! Oh! thank God for it!” “Look here, my friend,” said I, “if you want to show your Christian feeling, go and tell your commission to get these people something to eat; they have had nothing since yesterday.” The pious party took this with an ill grace, but was fain to walk off “to see our agent,” who, I hope, made some good soup for them.

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. 248-9. 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. 287-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.