Election Eve (November 7, 1864)

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

On the eve of the presidential election, which pitted Abraham Lincoln against George McClellan, George Meade writes his wife. He addresses the rumor that Lincoln will appoint Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to the Supreme Court. Instead, Lincoln ended up appointing his former treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, even though Chase had maneuvered behind the scenes to replace Lincoln as the Republican candidate for president.

I see you have taken the cue of the newspapers, and imagine the campaign is over, and that we are going into winter quarters; but you are greatly mistaken; I don’t believe active operations will cease this winter unless we should have the good luck to get into Richmond. There seems to be quite a talk of Mr. Stanton’s being made Chief Justice, and, were it not for the Senate, I should myself think it quite probable. I should, however, regret his leaving the War Department, for I do not know who there is to take his place, who would be as satisfactory. I should esteem it a great misfortune to see either Banks or Butler there. I have not seen General Grant since last Sunday week. I am, therefore, quite ignorant of what is going on; for being “out of the ring,” I never ask any questions.

To-morrow is election day. I hope it will pass off quietly, that all good citizens will submit to and abide by the result, and that, this question being settled, attention will be turned to filling our ranks and raising more troops, so that we can have the means of bringing this war to a close, which will never be over without much more hard fighting.

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. 239. Available via Google Books.

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Visiting the Front (October 18, 1864)

"Admiral Porter and General Meade" (Library of Congress).

“Admiral Porter and General Meade” (Library of Congress).

Today George Meade notes the visitation from Washington, which Theodore Lyman wrote about more colorfully in yesterday’s letter. The admiral is David Dixon Porter, shown in a photograph above with Meade. I had believed this photo to be some sort of early composite, based on the way the background has clearly been cut away, but it appears genuine. An alternate version appears in volume six of the Photographic History of the Civil War.

The visitors would have traveled with Meade along the United States Military Railroad, a triumph of engineering that ran behind Union lines all the way from City Point, eventually extending 21 miles. The army used it to ship food, supplies and soldiers forward to the front and send the wounded back. Grant’s aide Horace Porter was struck by the way the line went up hills and down dales throughout its length. “Its undulations were so striking that a train moving along it looked in the distance like a fly crawling over a corrugated washboard,” he said. The stations were named after generals, including one that bore Meade’s name.

Yesterday General Grant came up in the morning with the Secretary of War, Secretary of the Treasury, the Collector of New York, Mr. Hooper, member of Congress from Boston, together with several military dignitaries. They spent a short time at my headquarters, from whence I took them to see a part of the lines, after which they returned to City Point, I accompanying them. At City Point I met Admiral Porter and Captain Frailey, each with his wife. As these ladies desired greatly to go to the front and see some rebels, I persuaded their husbands to return with me, and we stopped the cars near Hancock’s headquarters, inspected our line and the rebel works, and then went to Hancock’s headquarters, who got us up a comfortable supper, and after dark shelled the enemy’s lines. They seemed greatly delighted, and returned about 10 p. m. to City Point. Mr. Stanton was, as he always is, most kind and civil 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. 234-5. Available via Google Books.

Petty Tyranny (October 17, 1864)

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Col. Martin McMahon (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman grumbles about what he sees as political favoritism and retribution within the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Collis was Charles Collis, who had commanded the 114th Pennsylvania, the zouave regiment that served as Meade’s headquarters guard. McMahon is Martin T. McMahon, whose brother James had, indeed, fallen at Cold Harbor (which Lyman insists on calling Cool Arbor). His other brother, John, died of wounds he received while in command of the 164th New York. The problem with Lyman’s story about Martin being dismissed from the army for his pro-McClellan talk, though, is that McMahon was not mustered out until February 1866. There’s an interesting article about the McMahon brothers here.

In his next letter Meade will mention the dignitaries who graced the army with their presence, but the general will not be nearly as amusing in his descriptions as Lyman. I particularly like Lyman’s remark that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton “looks like his photographs, only more so.” The Fessenden with the “Palmer leg” (an artificial limb that included a knee joint) was Francis,  the son of Maine senator William P. Fessenden, who had replaced Salmon Chase as Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. Young Fessenden had lost the leg while commanding a brigade under Nathaniel Banks during the Red River Campaign. Once again Lyman provides an anecdote about hapless aide James C. Biddle.

It is indeed not difficult to get material for a grumble, if one will but look about in this world. You see I can’t be enthusiastic about such a government as Lincoln’s, when I see, under my nose, the petty tyranny and persecution they practise against subordinate officers. Now there is Colonel Collis, a petty, scheming political officer; he sends letters to newspapers and despatches to Mr. Stanton about the enthusiasm for Lincoln in the army, etc., etc. Nothing is said to him; that is all right; he has an opinion, as he ought to have. But there is Lieutenant-Colonel McMahon, lately Adjutant-General of the 6th Corps, an excellent soldier, whose brother fell at the head of a charge at Cool Arbor, and who himself had been in all the battles: he is a McClellan man, as was natural in one of General Sedgwick’s Staff. He talks very openly and strongly about his side, as he has a right to do. What is the consequence? He is, without any warning, mustered out of the service! That is to say, a soldier who don’t agree with the Administration must be got rid of; it is nothing in his favor that he has exposed his life in twenty different actions. You would scarcely credit the number of such cases as this, cases of petty spite, fitting rather to a bad-tempered child than to a great and dignified cabinet minister. They suffer chances of victory to pass, rather than take voters from states. They send down three brevets of brigadiers, only one of which has been recommended by General Meade; and all three are men from the much dreaded and uncertain state of Pennsylvania. Don’t think I am a grumbler; all this wickedness and smallness and selfishness is a part of humanity, and to be expected; but don’t ask me to be enthusiastic for such people. There were a parcel of them down here to-day; bah! the sight of them is enough!

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Francis Fessenden (Library of Congress).

Francis Fessenden (Library of Congress).

As we sat at breakfast there came a despatch saying that Hon. Secretary Stanton, with a long tail, might be looked for, per rail, very presently. It is an historical fact that General Meade expressed his gratification at this deep honor, in the following terms: “The devil! I shan’t have time to smoke my cigar.” Immediately I got on my double-barreled coat, with a sash withal, and a pair of white cotton gloves; but there was plenty of time to smoke a cigar, for they didn’t get along for an hour or two, and then the greatest posse of large bugs! First, on horseback, Generals Grant, Meigs (Quartermaster-General), Barnard, Eaton (Commissary-General), Barnes (Surgeon-General), Fessenden (with a Palmer leg). Then, in ambulances, Fessenden’s papa, the Secretary of the Treasury, a sharp, keen, quiet-looking man; Hon. Secretary Stanton, who looks like his photographs, only more so; Hon. Sim. Draper and Mr. Barney, twin New York politicians. The former had a very large, long nose, and a very round and abrupt waistcoat, so that he resembled a good-natured pelican, just after a surfeit of sprats. General Meade received them with his usual high ceremony. He walked out of his tent, with his hands in his pockets, said, “Hullo, how are you?” and removed one hand, for the purpose of extending it to Grant, who lighted down from his horse, put his hands in his pockets, and sat down on a camp chair. The pelican came up and bobbed at the Meade, as did his friend. We carted them all to see Fort Wadsworth, where Rosencrantz swears that Mr. Stanton, on being informed that there was only a picket line between him and the enemy, pulled out his watch and said they really must be going back! which indeed they did. When the train started with its precious freight of military and diplomatic jewels, General Meade accompanied it, with Biddle, Mason and Rosencrantz. It would appear that they encountered, at City Point, Admiral Porter with Mrs. P. and another lady, who came, on their return, as far as Hancock’s Headquarters. The hospitable H. did thereat cause supper to be set forth, for it was now dark, and the General, with much talk and good humor, took root there; for he is death to hold on, when he gets talking and in company he likes. At nine o’clock came the galliant Generale, with his aides, whereof Rosencrantz and Mason were bursting to tell something good; whereas Biddle had a foolish and deprecatory air. It immediately was related, midst loud shouts, how, at City Point Grant had given General Meade a bunch of cigars to beguile the way of himself, Admiral Porter, and some other guests going to the front. The Chief handed them to Biddle, asking him to take charge of them for the present. Now B. has few equals in the power of turning things end for end; and so he at once and clearly understood that he [was] made a sort of almoner of tobacco, and proceeded to distribute the cigars in the most liberal manner, to everybody who would either smoke or pocket them! The Staff and bystanders asked no questions, but puffed away at Grant’s prime Havanas. Arrived at Hancock’s and supper done, the General said to Porter: “I think now is the moment to enjoy those good cigars!” Out comes “Shaw,” the faithful servitor. “Oh, if you please, Major, the Gen’ral sends his compliments, sir: and would like that bunch of cigars, sir.” Biddle immediately assumed the attitude indicated in the accompanying drawing! and the curtain dropped. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 247-50. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Back in Camp (September 10, 1864)

George Gordon Meade has returned to his army but his thoughts remain fixed on Philadelphia. In particular he is depressed about the health of his oldest son, John Sergeant. “Sargie” suffers from tuberculosis and his health is failing. The situation torments his parents.

The Secretary is Edwin Stanton, secretary of war.

I reached here about 4 p.m. to-day, very sad and dispirited, as I reflect on Sergeant’s ill health and your embarrassing position. I wrote you a few hurried lines from Washington by Willie Gerhard. I spent about half an hour with the President and some four hours with the Secretary. Both were very affable, apparently very glad to see me, and said many flattering things. The Secretary, particularly, kept me in his private room, to the exclusion of all other visitors, and was very sociable. I think I wrote you that when I told him of dear Sargie’s ill health, he at once said if I wanted to send him to Cuba or New Orleans, he would place at my disposition a Government steamer to take him out there, which I considered very handsome.

We left Washington at 6 p.m. in a special steamer, which, although quite comfortable, was a very slow one, and we did not reach City Point till 12 m. to-day, though the ordinary run would have brought us there at 6 p.m. yesterday. I saw Grant for a little while before coming here, and he told me he was near telegraphing me to come back on Monday, as on that day there were indications the enemy was going to attack; but they passed away, and he let me alone.

I have thought a great deal about you, and the more I think, the more I am puzzled. I really do not see anything that can be done except your accompanying Sergeant, and I think the best place to go is the Island of Madeira. This would not diminish our expenses any; still I don’t see what other arrangement can be made. If you could only hear of some kind friend who was going to Europe, who would take care of Sergeant, and thus render your going unnecessary, it would be a great relief, as your leaving the younger children is a very great disadvantage. Still, we must accommodate ourselves to things as they are, and not as we would have them, and yield everything in the hope that dear Sargie will be benefitted by the change of scene and air, and under the blessing of God his health restored. I dream about you all the time, and cannot dismiss you from my thoughts day or night.

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. 226-27. Available via Google Books.

A Stop in Washington (September 8, 1864)

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Library of Congress).

George Meade is on his way back to his army headquarters following a welcome chance to spend some time on leave in Philadelphia. The Willie to whom he refers is his wife’s brother. William Sergeant was appointed the colonel of the 210th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on September 24. Meade will continue to update his wife about her brother over the following months.

I have been received with the greatest kindness both by the President and Mr. Stanton. At my request, Willie’s appointment was immediately made out and given to him, and Mr. Stanton said I might rest assured my major-generalcy would in due time be given me.

I am very much hurried and leave this afternoon at six.

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. 226. Available via Google Books.

Sabotage! (August 9, 1864)

Alfred Waud depicted the explosion at City Point. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted the explosion at City Point. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In their letters of August 9, both Meade and Theodore Lyman mention the explosion at the docks of City Point, not far from Grant’s headquarters. The war had completely transformed this formerly sleepy town at the confluence of the Appomattox and the James Rivers, about seven miles from Petersburg. Swarms of laborers began building docks, wharves, and warehouses, plus a hospital that could handle 6,000 patients. On August 9, 1864, a Confederate agent snuck an explosive aboard one of the ammunition barges at City Point. The resulting explosion killed 43 and injured 126 but did no major damage to the Union war effort.

It’s possible that Stanton’s opinion of Meade dated back to a letter Grant had written from Spotsylvania in May. “General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations,” he had written to Stanton. “He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with.”

I am delighted to see your letter is written in such good spirits, and am truly rejoiced to hear I have so many and such warm friends. The attempt to implicate me in the recent fiasco was truly ridiculous; still, the public must in time be influenced by these repeated and constant attacks, however untrue and unjustifiable they may be. Have you ever thought that since the first week after Gettysburg, now more than a year, I have never been alluded to in public journals except to abuse and villify me? And why this is I have never been able to imagine.

I had a letter to-night from Cortlandt Parker, who has recently seen George Harding. He says Harding told him he had recently seen Stanton, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Grant, and that Stanton observed that Grant had a most exalted opinion of me, and told him, Stanton, that when he first came East he thought Sherman was the first soldier in the country, but now he believed I was his equal, if not superior. I send you this for what it is worth. I certainly think Grant has a queer way of showing his appreciation. Grant has not until recently seen Stanton, since we crossed the Rapidan, so could not have told him this; but Dana may have conveyed this information.

There was an awful explosion to-day at City Point of a powder and ammunition vessel. It is said sixty were killed and one hundred and fifty wounded.

I have been engaged for two days giving my testimony before the court of inquiry that is investigating the Petersburg disaster. It will take them a long time to get through, and I fancy active operations will interrupt their proceedings till such time that the witnesses will be scattered. Grant has not yet acted on my application to have Burnside relieved. The weather continues awfully hot, but the army is in good health.

Aftermath of the explosion (Library of Congress).

Aftermath of the explosion (Library of Congress).

Lyman’s entry is, a usual, much more descriptive and adds a fine note about Ulysses S. Grant.

In the forenoon, as we were sitting in camp, we heard a noise, like a quick, distant clap of thunder, but sharper. We concluded it must be an explosion, from the sound, and in a few minutes came a telegraph from Grant, at City Point, saying that an ordnance barge had blown up, with considerable loss of life. I think the number of killed will not exceed thirty-five; and, of the wounded, perhaps eighty; at first they thought there were many more. The greater part of the injured were negroes employed as wharf-laborers. To return to the explosion: Rosy, Worth, Cavada, and Cadwalader were at Grant’s Headquarters, and they said it perfectly rained shells, shot, bullets, pieces of timber, and saddles (of these latter there was a barge load near by). Two dragoons were killed, close to them, and a twelve-pounder solid shot went smash into a mess-chest in the tent. The only man who, at the first shock, ran towards the scene of terror was Lieutenant-General Grant, which shows his kind of character very well. We dined very pleasantly with Dalton. You should see his town of tents, with regular streets—accommodation easy for 8000 patients. Everything as neat as a pin. Steam-engine to pump water from the river; every patient of the 4000 on a cot; the best of food for all; and the most entire cleanliness. When Dalton heard the explosion, he jumped on his feet, and, true to his instincts, cried out: “Harness the ambulances!”

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. 220. 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. 209-10. 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.

A Flank March (June 12, 1864)

"Bridge Through the Chickahominy Swamp" by Alfred Waud depicts the landscape the Army of the Potomac would have to cross on its flanking movement (Library of Congress).

“Bridge Through the Chickahominy Swamp” by Alfred Waud depicts the landscape the Army of the Potomac would have to cross during its flanking movement (Library of Congress).

We have encountered Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana before, most notably when he insisted on reading a telegram from William Sherman out loud in front of Meade. The telegram said that the Union would certainly win if Grant could make the Army of the Potomac do its part. Meade was not amused. The big news in his letter from June 12 is that the Army of the Potomac is about to disengage from Cold Harbor and make its great flanking movement around Lee and down to the James River.

I assume the “great women’s movement about dress” to which Meade refers has something to do with the Victorian Dress Reform movement, in which concerned people sought changes in women’s constrictive garments.

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana (Library of Congress).

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana (Library of Congress).

In my last letter I gave you an account of a wicked and malicious falsehood which I found had been extensively circulated all through the North, and the first intimation of which was a reference to it in the Inquirer of the 2d inst. Since writing, I have received the enclosed message from the Secretary of War, to which I sent the accompanying note. I do not remember whether I ever told you that we were honored with the presence of Mr. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, who accompanies this army, as a kind of staff officer of the Secretary, and who keeps the Secretary advised by daily telegrams of the progress and condition of affairs. It is from Mr. Dana’s telegrams that Mr. Stanton’s despatches to General Dix are made up. This I learned accidentally, yesterday, in a conversation with Grant, in which I commented on some of Mr. Stanton’s despatches. Grant agreed fully with me in my views, and then told me he had never sent a despatch to Mr. Stanton since crossing the Rapidan, the few despatches he had sent being directed to General Halleck. I was glad to hear this, because it removed from my mind a prejudice I had imbibed, on the supposition that Mr. Stanton was quoting Grant, and arising from the fact I have mentioned, that in all Mr. Stanton’s despatches from Grant’s headquarters my name was never alluded to; for which I had held Grant responsible, without cause.

I believe I have saved you some annoyance by informing an officer, who applied to me in the name of Mrs. Judge Daly, of New York, to know if you would not unite in the great woman’s movement about dress, that, practically, you had been engaged in that movement ever since your marriage, and that at present your domestic duties were, from your large family, so absorbing, you really had no time to devote to public matters, even as important as the great woman’s movement.

To-day we commence a flank march, to unite with Butler on the James. If it is successful, as I think it will be, it will bring us to the last act of the Richmond drama, which I trust will have but few scenes in it, and will end fortunately and victoriously for us.

Both George and myself are quite well, though the heat, hard service, bad water, and swampy regions are beginning to tell on the health of the army.

I send you an excellent picture of Sedgwick.

And now a report from Theodore Lyman:

Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

General Grant has appeared with his moustache and beard trimmed close, giving him a very mild air—and indeed he is a mild man really. He is an odd combination; there is one good thing, at any rate—he is the concentration of all that is American. He talks bad grammar, but he talks it naturally, as much as to say, “I was so brought up and, if I try fine phrases, I shall only appear silly.” Then his writing, though very terse and well expressed, is full of horrible spelling. In fact, he has such an easy and straightforward way that you almost think that he must be right and you wrong, in these little matters of elegance. … At 3 p.m. tents were struck and we all rode to Despatch Station, where we turned up to the left and went as far as Moody’s house. . . . We halted in a field hard by and waited for the train, an operation that required much patience: for the waggons undertook to go over a sort of mill-dam, and tumbled down a bank and had many mishaps, so that they arrived only at ten. General Grant, however, had made a big fire, got a piece of board, lain down on it, with a bag under his head, and was fast asleep. At eleven, before getting to bed, we had news that Wilson’s cavalry had forced the passage of the Chickahominy at Long’s Bridge (the bridge was long since burnt) and that the pontoon was going down for the passage of the 5th Corps. Fain would I write more, but I am so stupid and sleepy that I am not equal to it.

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. 203-4. 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, p. 156. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Crapsey Incident (June 9, 1864)

This Thomas Nast illustration from Harper's Weekly salutes the correspondents in the field (Library of Congress).

This Thomas Nast illustration from Harper’s Weekly salutes the correspondents in the field (Library of Congress).

On June 2, 1864, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a short article that would have some big repercussions for George Gordon Meade’s reputation. This is what it said:

MEADE’S POSITION

He is as much the commander of the Army of the Potomac as he ever was. Grant plans and exercises a supervisory control over the army, but to Meade belongs everything of detail. He is entitled to great credit for the magnificent movements of the army since we left Brandy, for they have been dictated by him. In battle he puts troops in action and controls their movements; in a word, he commands the army. General Grant is here only because he deems the present campaign the vital one of the war, and wishes to decide on the spot all questions that would be referred to him as General-in-Chief.

History will record, but newspapers cannot, that on one eventful night during the present campaign Grant’s presence saved the army, and the nation too; not that General Meade was on the point to commit a blunder unwittingly, but his devotion to his country made him loth to risk her last army on what he deemed a chance. Grant assumed the responsibility and we are still

ON TO RICHMOND

Overall, not a bad notice for Meade. But he bristled at the implication that he had intended to retreat following the battle in the Wilderness.

The article was the work of one Edward Crapsey (often spelled Cropsey). As a correspondent for Cincinnati papers, he had reported on Grant’s successful Vicksburg Campaign and the fighting for Knoxville, Tennessee. By the time the Overland Campaign lurched into motion, he was reporting for the Inquirer. He had even been captured briefly by rebel cavalry near Rappahannock Station with two other reporters. The three newspapermen managed to escape when their captors got into a skirmish with some Union cavalrymen.

The accusation that Meade wanted to retreat stung, especially with the stories circulating in Washington that Meade had intended to retreat from Gettysburg, the sense that Grant had to be present to keep the Army of the Potomac fighting, and the feeling that the newspapers—as well as Grant and the politicians in Washington—were unwilling to give Meade his due. Meade also worried that the article could cause his soldiers to lose confidence in their commander. This story in a paper from his hometown proved to be the last straw. He decided to make an example of Crapsey. He ordered the reporter to be placed backward on a mule while wearing a sign around his neck that read, “Libeler of the press.” Thus humiliated, Crapsey was drummed out of camp to the tune of the “Rogue’s March.”

This was not a wise media strategy.

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Congressman Eli Washburne of Illinois, a great supporter of Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress).

Grant and Charles Dana both tried to reassure Meade that the authorities in Washington would not believe the accusation. Dana even telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about it. Stanton wired back, “Please say to General Meade that the lying report alluded to in your telegram was not even for a moment believed by the President or myself. We have the most perfect confidence in him. He could not wish a more exalted estimation of his ability, his firmness, and every quality of a commanding general than is entertained for him.” By then, though, it was too late.Meade probably felt he should take the soothing words of politicians with a grain of salt—especially when he heard rumors that the real source for Crapsey’s story had been Congressman Eli Washburne, Grant’s political mentor, who had been traveling with the army. If Meade got evidence to prove that charge, he told Margaret, he planned to show the congressman “no quarter.” (The references to Washburne’s involvement were edited out of Meade’s letters when they were published.)

The newspaper reporters with the army reacted to Crapsey’s punishment with outrage. “Major Gen. Meade may have the physical courage which bulls & bull dogs have; but he is as leprous with moral cowardice as the brute that kicks a helpless cripple in the street, or beats his wife at home,” wrote Whitelaw Reid, the reporter who had written about Meade at Taneytown and Gettysburg.

Sylvanus Cadwallader, then with the Chicago Times, was something of a favorite with Grant—or at least Grant was canny enough to make Cadwallader feel as if he were a favorite. “Every newspaper reporter in the Army of the Potomac, and in Washington City, had first an implied, and afterward an expressed understanding, to ignore Gen. Meade in every possible way and manner,” Cadwallader reported. “The publishers shared their feelings to a considerable extent, and it was soon noticed that Gen. Meade’s name never appeared in any army correspondence if it could be omitted.” He became as forgotten, Cadwallader said, “as any dead hero of antiquity.”

However, the press had been overlooking Meade even before the incident with Crapsey. On June 5, three days before Crapsey’s humiliation, Charles Wainwright noted, “The newspaper correspondents speak of Grant doing this and that, hardly ever mentioning Meade’s name. Here we see nothing of General Grant; I hardly heard his name mentioned.”

I fully enter into all your feelings of annoyance at the manner in which I have been treated, but I do not see that I can do anything but bear patiently till it pleases God to let the truth be known and matters set right. I have noticed what you say about the Inquirer, but, as you observe, it is no worse than the other papers. Even Coppée, in the June number of his magazine, shows he, too, is demoralized, he having a flaming editorial notice of the wonderful genius of Grant.* Now, to tell the truth, the latter has greatly disappointed me, and since this campaign I really begin to think I am something of a general.

I don’t know whether you saw an article in the Inquirer of the 2d inst. on me, which the writer intended to be very complimentary. At the close of it he refers to an eventful occasion when Grant saved the life of the nation, when I desired to destroy it. I could not make out what in the world this meant; but fortunately I found the author, one Edward Cropsey, and having sent for him, he explained that he had heard that on the night of the second day’s battle of the Wilderness I had urged on General Grant the withdrawal of the army across the Rapidan, but Grant had firmly resisted all my intercessions, and thus the country was saved the disgrace of a retreat. I asked his authority; he said it was the talk of the camp. I told him it was a base and wicked lie, and that I would make an example of him, which should not only serve to deter others from committing like offenses, but would give publicity to his lie and the truth. I accordingly issued an order denouncing the falsehood, and ordering the offender to be paraded through the lines of the army with a placard bearing the inscription, “Libeler of the Press,” and then that he should be put beyond the lines and not allowed to return. This sentence was duly executed, much to the delight of the whole army, for the race of newspaper correspondents is universally despised by the soldiers.

General Grant happened to be present when I was making out the order, and fully approved of it, although he said he knew the offender, and that his family was a respectable one in Illinois. After the man had been turned out and the affair had become public, then I learned to my surprise that this malicious falsehood had been circulated all over the country.

We find Lee’s position again too strong for us, and will have to make another movement, the particulars of which I cannot disclose.

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. 202-3. The newspaper article is on p. 341. Available via Google Books.

*Henry Coppée edited the United States Service Magazine. Meade has mentioned him before. Here’s what Coppée had to say about Grant in his June issue. You can get an idea why Meade found this irritating:

Grant is a brave man; not only fearless in all necessary exposure of his person in battle, but cool, calculating, and clearly administrative in danger. A splendid horseman, and of great physical endurance, perhaps he is seen to best advantage on the field of battle directing the movements.

He is a true man; true in his aims, and in his adherence to them; true in speech and in act. He has no tortuous policy, no subterranean movements. He does not parade his thoughts, indeed, but he does not mean one thing and say another. He has no talking gift, and he cultivates silence, which, if speech be human, the philosopher has declared to be divine. He is no boaster, no temporizer, no dreamer; he builds no Arcadian castles. He is simply a straightforward actor; between his thoughts, words, and deeds there is an exact accordance; and very often the thought and deed dispense with words,—always, when possible.

He is a man of strong will and great mental endurance; not disheartened by disaster; always ready to repair and retrieve it. Vicksburg in especial demonstrated this. Repulsed at the north, he tried the cut-off. When that would not do, he landed on the south. Threatened by the rebel armies gathering in his rear, he besieged the town. Repulsed in his attempts to storm the works, he pushed forward the siege; and at length Vicksburg fell, because Grant adhered to his purpose.

He is a generous man; ready to give full credit to his coworkers and subordinates. He scorns to receive praise which is their due, and tells of the invaluable aid and co-operation of Sherman, McPherson, and others, with no stinted eulogium. With such a general, men can work; for such a chief they will do all in their power.

He is an unambitious man. This needs a word of explanation. Ambitious men seek, as the great end of their labors, self-exaltation. Grant has thus far worked for the good of the country. Each battle has been fought without ulterior view. If God sends honest fame as the reward, he does not disdain it; but it must be a sequel, not an aim. Heaven preserve him long from this “last infirmity of noble minds”! It ruins all it touches. It has already paralyzed some of our best men.

In a concluding word, he is a strong, iron, living, busy, honest, capable, self-sustained commander, who will plan wisely, fight terribly, follow up his victories, and leave the rest to Providence,—in whom, after all, must be our trust. He has large and varied talents. He has, what Guizot calls, “the genius of common sense,” and with that the power and determination to “go ahead;” which we have lacked more than any thing else in this war. As to his personal appearance, we can only refer our readers to the fine engraving which appears as a vignette to this number, with the remark that it is as much like him as an engraving can be.

Weighing Grant (March 14, 1864)

This print, titled "Lincoln and His Generals," shows the president with Admirals Porter and Farragut and Generals Sherman, Thomas, Grant and Sheridan. In typical fashion, Meade is not included (Library of Congress).

This print, titled “Lincoln and His Generals,” shows the president with Admirals Porter and Farragut and Generals Sherman, Thomas, Grant and Sheridan. In typical fashion, Meade is not included (Library of Congress).

As of March 14 George Meade may think the tempest raised by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is over, but there are more storm clouds ahead, including repercussions from an account of Gettysburg published on March 12 in the New York Herald by an anonymous correspondent calling himself Historicus. In a broader sense, though, Meade was correct that his position was secure, but that was due less to his own forceful testimony than to the fact that Ulysses S. Grant had become general-in-chief. Grant’s presence essentially derailed the efforts to get either Joe Hooker or Dan Sickles assigned as Meade’s replacement. As David Bell Birney, one of the generals backing Hooker, will write in a letter on April 5, “Grant killed the demonstration for Hooker, that was assuming shape, and would have ended in the decapitation of Meade.” In this letter Meade also continues the story of his letter to Senator Reverdy Johnson, which me mentioned in his letter of March 10.

I wrote you, I think, on the evening of the 10th, the day Grant was here. It rained all that day, and as he could not see anything, he determined to return to Washington the next day. The President having invited both General Grant and myself to dinner on Saturday, the 12th, I had of course to go up to Washington, and as I wanted to add to my testimony to the committee, I concluded to go up with General Grant. When I arrived, I immediately went before the committee and filed documentary evidence to prove the correctness of my previous assertion that I never for an instant had any idea of fighting anywhere but at Gettysburg, as soon as I learned of Reynolds’s collision and obtained information that the ground was suitable. Mr. Wade was the only member present. He took great pains to endeavor to convince me the committee were not responsible for the newspaper attacks on me, and I might rest assured there was no disposition on their part to do me injustice. Afterwards I saw Mr. Stanton, who told me Mr. Wade had been to see him, and said my testimony was the clearest statement that had ever been made to the committee, and that, as far as he could see, it was perfectly satisfactory in explanation of all charges against me. I soon found the tide had turned in my favor, and that Sickles had overreached himself. I also ascertained that Chandler and Wilkinson were my foes on the committee, that Wade was rather friendly, and that Harding, of the Senate, Gooch and Odell, of the House, were my warm friends.

I think I wrote to you that the Secretary had officially inquired of me by what authority I had written to Hon. Reverdy Johnston, a Senator, about military affairs, and that I had replied to him I did not require any authority to write a private letter to a friend, defending myself from slanders. When I saw Mr. Stanton I referred to this matter, when he told me his letter had been written in my interest; that I had made a great mistake in writing to Mr. Johnston, who was showing it to everybody, and making it appear he was my chosen champion; and that his political status was such that any identification with him could not fail to damage me and my cause. He said he was aware of how I had been led into the step, and all he wanted was just such a reply as I had made, which he would now show to Senators and Representatives when they called on him to know what my relations were with Reverdy Johnston. I fortunately met Mr. Johnston in the street, begged him to consider my letter strictly private, and borrowed it to copy for file in the War Department.

I think I told you I was very much pleased with General Grant. In the views he expressed to me he showed much more capacity and character than I had expected. I spoke to him very plainly about my position, offered to vacate the command of the Army of the Potomac, in case he had a preference for any other. This he declined in a complimentary speech, but indicated to me his intention, when in this part of the country, of being with my army. So that you may look now for the Army of the Potomac putting laurels on the brows of another rather than your husband.

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. 177-8. Available via Google Books.