A Life of Devotion to Duty (November 15, 1864)

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

Philip Sheridan (Library of Congress).

George Meade’s off-hand mention of Philip Sheridan’s promotion belies the anger he truly felt over the fact that Grant seemed to favor Sheridan over him.  He will return to the topic in future letters. In the meantime, he continues to worry about the health of his oldest son, John Sergeant.

I am very glad Bishop Odenheimer was so kind as to visit you and talk to Sergeant, and am truly happy to hear dear Sergeant proposes to make public what I felt sure was the case, that he is a sincere and good Christian. With such a life of devotion to duty, and freedom from all the faults that youth is liable to, it needed for me no more evidence to feel satisfied that my dear boy was in the right path as far as human infirmity admitted.

General George McClellan (Library of Congress).

General George McClellan (Library of Congress).

I hear from City Point this evening that McClellan’s resignation has been accepted, and that Sheridan has been appointed a major general in the regular army. It is also reported that General Canby, commanding in Louisiana, has been mortally wounded whilst going up Red River.

An officer called to see me to-day, just from Detroit, bringing me many kind messages from friends. This officer says that, whilst at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, he heard a man publicly proclaim that the Army of the Potomac, under my influence, was going to vote for McClellan. My friend told the individual his statement was false, that he knew me and the army, and he knew I would never influence a man for either side, and he knew the army would vote largely for Mr. Lincoln. But this report of my interference was circulated all through the Western country.

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. 242. Available via Google Books.

Political Imbroglio (November 11, 1864)

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade (Library of Congress).

George Meade continues to worry about his oldest son, who is slowly dying in Philadelphia. He also follows up on the ballot controversy he wrote about on the previous day. Following Meade’s letter, Theodore Lyman goes into greater—and more comic—detail about the election scandal and other incidents of camp life.

I note all you write of dear Sergeant, and of his condition. It is hard for me to know that he continues so sick, and that I cannot be with you to assist in taking care of him and in trying to keep up his courage and spirits. I never doubted Sergeant’s firmness of purpose and moral courage. He had too often exhibited these qualities in the highest degree. I fully sympathize with you in your anxiety, but can only urge you to watch him closely. I am glad Mr. Keith goes to see him; the intercourse of good and liberal men and women cannot but be beneficial, and I consider Mr. Keith one of the best of men.

The Secretary of War relieved me of my political imbroglio by ordering me to send the persons arrested to Washington. From all I could understand of the matter, these people are innocent of any wrong intended; it is known no wrong was actually perpetrated. Still, when they were charged by others with intent to commit fraud, I was compelled, under the orders of the Department and my own sense of duty, to hold them in arrest until the matter could be investigated.

Mr. Johnny Reb has been moving about to-day, as if he had taken it into his head to do something. I am sure I would be very grateful to Lee if he would try his hand at the offensive for awhile.

To-day’s papers say Sherman has burned Atlanta and moved on Charleston. This is a bold move, the success of which will depend on Thomas’s ability to keep Hood out of Kentucky and Ohio.

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman (Library of Congress).

In his letter, Lyman waxes philosophical, puts a comic spin on the ballot incident, and describes a contretemps in the headquarters kitchen.

The McClellan procession might have spared their tapers, as he has gone up, poor Mac, a victim to his friends! His has been a career manque, and a hard time he has had, and low he has fallen. The men who stood, as green soldiers, with him in front of Yorktown, where are they? Many thousands lie in the barren land of the Peninsula and the valley of Virginia; thousands more in the highlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania and in the valley of the Shenandoah. Many are mustered out—their time expired—or sick, or crippled. The small remnant are sifted, like fine gold, through this army, non-commissioned officers, or even full officers. What an experience it is for an infantry soldier! To have carried a musket, blanket, and haversack to the Peninsula, and to the gates of Richmond, then back again to the second Bull Run; up to Antietam in Maryland; down again to Fredericksburg; after the enemy again to the Rappahannock; and at last, the great campaign, like all others concentrated in six months, from the Rapid Ann to Petersburg! All this alone on foot, in three long years, at all seasons and all hours, in every kind of weather, carrying always a heavy load, and expecting to fight at any moment; seeing so many men shot in each fight—the great regiment dwindling to a battalion—the battalion to a company—the company to a platoon. Then the new men coming down; they shot off also. Till at last the infantry-man, who left Boston thinking he was going straight to Richmond, via Washington, sits down before Petersburg and patiently makes his daily pot of coffee, a callous old soldier, who has seen too many horrors to mind either good or bad. It is a limited view of a great war, but, for that very reason, full of detail and interest.

Of course we might have known that this pack of political “commissioners” could not get down here without a shindy of some sort. The point they brought up was fraudulent votes. A long-haired personage, fat and vulgar-looking, one of that class that invariably have objectionable finger-nails, came puffing over to General Meade’s tent, with all the air of a boy who had discovered a mare’s nest. He introduced himself as a Mr. Somebody from Philadelphia, and proceeded to gasp out that a gentleman had been told by an officer, that he had heard from somebody else that a Democratic Commissioner had been distributing votes, professedly Republican, but with names misspelled so as to be worthless. “I don’t see any proof,” said the laconic Meade. “Give me proof, and I’ll arrest him.” And off puffed Mr. Somebody to get proof, evidently thinking the Commanding General must be a Copperhead not to jump at the chance of arresting a Democrat. The result was that a Staff officer was sent, and investigation held, and telegraphs dispatched here and there, while the Somebody puffed about, like a porpoise in shallow water! Finally, four or five people were arrested to answer charges. This seemed to please Stanton mightily, who telegraphed to put ‘em in close arrest; and, next morning, lo! a lieutenant-colonel sent, with a guard of infantry, by a special boat from Washington, to conduct these malefactors to the capital—very much like personages, convicted of high treason, being conveyed to the Tower. Were I a lieutenant-colonel, I should feel cheap to be ordered to convey a parcel of scrubby politicians under arrest! But that is the work that Washington soldiers may expect to spend their lives in. General Meade, I fancy, looked with high contempt on the two factions. “That Somebody only does it,” he said, “to appear efficient and get an office. As to X____, he said he thought it a trying thing for a gentleman to be under close arrest; and I wanted to tell him it wasn’t so disgraceful as to have been drunk every night, which was his case!” That’s the last I have heard of the culprits, who, with their accusers, have all cleared out, like a flock of crows, and we are once again left to our well-loved ragamuffins, in dirty blouses and spotted sky-blue trousers.

The day was further marked by an emeute in the culinary department. I would have you to know that we have had a nigger boy, to wait on table, an extraordinary youth, of muscular proportions and of an aspect between a drill sergeant, an undertaker and a clergyman—solemn, military and mildly religious. It would, however, appear, that beneath this serious and very black exterior worked a turbulent soul. The diminutive Monsieur Mercier, our chef, had repeatedly informed me that “le petit” (the unbleached brother is about a head taller than Mercier) was extremely indolent and had a marked antipathy to washing dishes—an observation which interested me little, as my observation went to show that the washing of dishes by camp-followers tended rather to dirty than to cleanse the platter, and that the manifest destiny of the plate military was to grow dirtier and dirtier, till it at last got broken. However, Anderson was reproved for not washing his crockery, and replied with rude words. On being reproved again, he proposed to smite Mercier, remarking, he “would as soon knock down a white man as a nigger.”

At this juncture the majestic Biddle interfered and endeavored to awe the crowd; but the crowd would not be awed, so Biddle put Anderson at the pleasant occupation of walking post with a log on his shoulder. Upon being liberated from this penalty, he charged upon Mercier, giving him the dire alternative of “Pay me mer wages, or I’ll smash yer crockery!” This being disorderly, I allowed him to cool his passions till next morning in the guardhouse, when he was paid off.

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. 240-1. 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. 262-5. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Lincoln Wins! (November 9, 1864)

President Abraham LIncoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham LIncoln (Library of Congress).

Meade comments on the election, in which Abraham Lincoln handily beat George McClellan. The Army of the Potomac voted solidly for Lincoln. In the case of suspected voter fraud he describes, Meade had one Jeremiah McKibbin arrested for supposedly distributing incorrect ballots in the hopes of disqualifying Republican votes. This is what Meade reported to Edwin Stanton (as it appears in the Official Records):Yesterday I was informed by Mr. Bonham, Republican agent of the State of Pennsylvania, that altered poll-books had distributed in this army by Mr. Jeremiah McKibbin, Democratic agent of the State of Pennsylvania. I immediately directed the commanding officers of Pennsylvania regiments to put the soldiers and others on their guard, and ordered the provost-marshal to detain Mr. McKibbin for examination. During the day two individuals, named Miles and Carrigan, Democratic agents, were arrested in the Second Corps, charged with circulating these altered poll-books. The alterations consist in the improper spelling of names, and in the tally lists the omission of a name. I have placed the whole matter in the hands of the judge-advocate of this army, with directions to investigate the affair and report whether any fraud has been committed or was intended, and whether the evidence justified the detention and trial of the person above named. There is, however, great difficulty in settling these important questions from the ignorance in this army, particularly on my part, not only of the machinery of elections, but of the laws of Pennsylvania and their bearing on the case in point. In this point of view I desire the instruction of the department, and would respectfully suggest whether justice to all parties would not best be subserved by turning these persons, with all the evidence, over to the authorities of the State of Pennsylvania to have tried by the courts of that State the questions that may arise, or whether I shall send these individuals to the Department at Washington, to be third by the military commission now sitting in Washington and trying analogous cases relating to New York soldiers. This proposition in not made with a view to avoid any duty which properly devolves on me, but with an earnest desire to have a proper and through investigation made, which, under the circumstances, I fear cannot be made by a commission organized in this army.”

A McClellan campaign pin (Library of Congress).

A McClellan campaign pin (Library of Congress).

The election passed off very quietly yesterday. About nineteen thousand votes, of which thirteen thousand five hundred were for Lincoln, and five thousand five hundred for McClellan, giving Lincoln a majority in this army of about eight thousand votes. Of these, three thousand five hundred were the majority of the Pennsylvania soldiers. During the day, much to my horror, one of the Republican agents reported the distribution of spurious or altered poll books, and charged certain Democratic agents as the parties guilty of the act. I had no other course to pursue than to arrest the parties complained against, until an investigation could be had. To-day we have been examining the matter, and there appears to be no doubt that poll books were brought here and distributed, having names of Republican electors misspelled and some omitted. The Democrats declare it is only a typographical error, and does not vitiate the use of the books, whereas the Republicans charge that it is a grave and studied effort to cheat the soldiers of their vote. In this dilemma I have applied to the Secretary of War, and asked for authority to send the parties either to Pennsylvania, to be tried by the courts there, or to Washington, to be disposed of by the Department and Doubleday’s Commission, now trying the New York agent. This affair has bothered me very much. All these people are citizens of Philadelphia, and are said to be respectable. I had, however, but one course to pursue, and was compelled to notice the complaints presented to me. We have no news from the elections outside of the army, except that they passed off quietly with you and in New York; in the latter place, doubtless, owing to the presence and order of Major General Butler. Well, the election is over, with the result I expected, and now I hope no time will be lost in regulating the army.

I trust, now the election is over, measures will be taken to raise men to fill our ranks, and no time should be lost, as I don’t think we can count on more than a month of good weather. To-be-sure, we can and doubtless will stay here all winter; and being so near each other, may manage to keep fighting on. But I don’t think any operations involving any movement can be had after the beginning of December.

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. 239-40. Available via Google Books.

A Ride Along the Works (October 14, 1864)

Meade and John Parke appear together in a photo taken in June 1865. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Meade and John Parke appear together in a photo taken in June 1865. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In his letter of October 14, Theodore Lyman paints a picture of General Meade in generally good humor. We also get a sense of Meade the engineer. John Parke, who accompanied Meade on his ride along the lines, is the commander of the IX Corps. In his journal Lyman mentioned that they rode down to Fort Stevenson and that “the country is hardly to be recognized, so much timber has been felled and slashed.”

Although George McClellan, President Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the upcoming election, was the much beloved former commander of the Army of the Potomac, his old soldiers did not favor him. The main reason for that was the Democratic Party’s peace plank, which implied the war had been a failure. McClellan disagreed with the plank but it damaged his candidacy nonetheless. . “Yes, it was cruel in General McClellan to ask us to vote that our campaigns had all been failures, and that our comrades had all died in vain,” wrote Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. “And yet there were those who supposed that our love for him would cause us to do it.”

How shall I vote? I don’t know that I shall be given the chance; but, if I am, I shall vote for the blue-blooded Abraham. It was with a feeling of depression that I heard the first rumors that the Dems had carried Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana; and when the truth came out, I felt glad. This proves to me that I look on the Mac party with misgiving. The soldiers’ vote is an unexpected one; they are said to show five to one for the Administration, which tells me that they identify it with the support of the war; for the troops in their private thoughts make the thrashing of the Rebs a matter of pride, as well as of patriotism.

I venture to say that at no time during the war have the Rebel papers talked so desperately; they speak of the next month settling the question, and of arming the negroes. If they do this latter, the slavery candle will burn at both ends. I have no idea that the next month will settle it, though, of course, there is a chance for important movements during the autumn, as at other seasons of good weather. We must keep at them—that is the only way; no let up, no armistice. They perfectly hate what we are doing now, going a couple of miles and fortifying, then going two more and fortifying again; then making a sudden rush, taking a position and a lot of cannon, and again fortifying that. All these moves being a part of what we may call a throttling plan. Their struggles, though often apparently successful, do them thus far no good. They flank us on the Weldon railroad and brush off 2000 prisoners: no use! we hold the road. They flank us again at the Pegram house, and capture 1000 more: no use; we hold the Pegram position and add it to former acquisitions. Then they flank Butler and get eight of his guns; but they have to go back, and Benjamin remains in what General Halleck terms a “threatening attitude.” . . . Yesterday, Loring, whom I saw over at General Parke’s Headquarters, was speaking of the quaint ways of talking among soldiers. Their lines are at peace out there, and the soldiers don’t fire; notwithstanding, some sharpshooters, with telescopic rifles, are posted here and there. As he rode along, he met two of these gentry coming with faces as of men who had labored in a good cause, without profit. “Hullo!” said L., “did you get good places out in front?” “Yes, fust-rate places: but no shooting, no shooting!” General Meade rode to Parke’s on account of a statement from a deserter, that the enemy would attack our left. “If they do” quoth the General, proud of his engineering skill, “if they do, they’ll get into a nice hornet’s nest.” It is funny to see two engineers, like Meade and Parke, ride along works and pleasantly discuss them. In their enthusiasm, they always personify redoubts as far as to give them eyes, and speak of their “looking” in sundry directions, meaning thereby that they can fire there. “Here is a nice swallow-tail lunette,” says Parke as if introducing a pate de foie gras; “these two faces, you see, look down the two roads of approach, and here is a face that looks into that ravine: nothing could live in that ravine, nothing!” This last he emphasizes, as if the presence of life in the ravine aforesaid was a thing in the highest degree sinful, and this redoubt was virtuously bent on preserving the public morality. “Yes,” replies Father Meade, “that seems all right; now you want to slash out, about 300 yards further, and get a good field of fire so that the enemy’s sharpshooters can’t annoy your gunners.” The use of the word “annoy” is another military eccentricity. When half the men are killed or wounded by the enemy’s riflemen, an officer will ride pleasantly in to the chief of artillery, and state that the battery is a good deal “annoyed” by sharpshooters, giving to the novice the impression that the sharpshooters complained of have been using provoking and impertinent language to the battery. To-day I was the sole companion of the General on his exercise ride, on which occasions, instead of riding behind him, I ride beside him, but keep as it were a little back of his horse’s head. When we approach any body of troops, I fall entirely to the rear — strong on etiquette we are! For two or three days he has been in the best of humors and sits in the evening by the camp-fire before my tent, talking familiarly with all the aides; a rare thing with him. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 245-7. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Election Season (October 7, 1864)

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions the upcoming presidential election, which pitted President Abraham Lincoln against George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac.

I was afraid you would be uneasy at not hearing from me during our recent operations, but my headquarters were some five or six miles from the scene of action, and it was always at midnight when I got back, tired out with the day’s work, and had to start early in the morning, so that I really did not have time to write.

I see the papers announce my narrow escape. It was a pretty close shave, as I have written you. You need not worry yourself; I am not going to commit the folly of foolish and unnecessary exposure. But there are times when it is my duty and it is proper I should take my chances. Let us hope Providence will always be as merciful and protecting as in this instance; for I take it, it was only God’s will that saved my leg and perhaps my life.

The enemy have allowed us to retain the ground acquired by our recent movement, and seem to be busy fortifying against another advance. We have been reinforced, but not to the extent imagined by the sanguine public; neither is Richmond so near its fall as you tell me people believe. However, these absurd alternations of exaggerated anticipations of successes and reverses seem to be chronic with our people, and no amount of experience will ever cure them of the folly.

I note all you say of politics, but in the army we take but little interest except earnestly to wish the election was over, as we see, until it is, nothing else will be thought of and no proper thought given to the war. It is generally believed here that McClellan has very little chance. I think he is very unfortunate in his friends and backers.

I see the Chronicle announces me as a supporter of Mr. Lincoln, and is pleased to class me among the ill-treated generals who have been driven into the opposition. Well, the one has as much authority for his assertion as the other, neither having anything on which to base his remarks.

Grant has gone to Washington, leaving Butler in command. To-day the enemy made a demonstration on Butler, and I thought we were going to have a grand time, but it passed off.

Theodore Lyman also wrote home on October 7. We have encountered Brig. Gen. Henry Washington Benham before. Channing Clapp was a classmate of Lyman’s at Harvard. Samuel Crawford, in temporary command of the V Corps in Gouverneur Warren’s absence, had been a surgeon at Fort Sumter. The Pennsylvania-born Crawford took command of Meade’s old division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, just before Gettysburg. Today he and Meade are neighbors in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Henry Benham (Library of Congress).

There is a certain General Benham, who commands the engineers at City Point, and was up about laying out some works. Channing Clapp is on his Staff. You ought to see this “Ginral.” He has the face and figure of Mr. Briggs and wears continually the expression of Mr. B. when his horse sat down at the band of music. When he had got through all the explanations, which were sufficient to have laid out a permanent work of the first class, the Meade rose with weariness, and eased his spirit by riding out and looking at my new camp-ground, and inspecting those everlasting redoubts. Now that the camp is arranged, the Meade is dubious about moving: that’s like him! When we got to the extreme left, he thought he would go out and take a peek at the picket line. First there was a little bunch of cavalry. They were of a jocose turn; they had found an old pair of wheels whereon they had mounted a keg, making a very good cannon, which pointed, in a threatening manner, down the road. Its ensemble was completed by a figure, closely resembling those that defend cornfields, and which was keeping steady guard with a small pole. A hundred yards beyond was the picket reserve, behind a barricade. Then, beyond, a couple of hundred yards more, the sentries, each standing and looking sharply to the front. The one in the road was a half-breed Indian, though he looked more like a Neapolitan. He had that taciturnity that clings to the last drop of blood. “Are you a picket here?” asked the General. “Yes.” “Is there anyone on your right and left?” “No.” “You are an Indian, are you not?” “Part.” All of which the red warrior delivered, without turning his gaze from the vista before him. Beyond this gentleman was a post of two cavalry videttes. From this place we could get a very good view of one of the Rebel lines of earthworks; but there seemed very few men behind it. I could only notice one or two. And so we rode back again past the perils of the keg cannon. General Warren has a short leave, and General Crawford commands the Corps, to the indignation, I presume, of old cocks like Griffin and Ayres; for C. was doctor in Fort Sumter, and thus got a star, and thus is an old brigadier, and thus ranks the regulars G. and A. General Grant was on a flying visit to Washington to-day. I like to have him down here: first, he gives a general balance and steadiness; then, what is most important, he can order—just order what groceries he pleases, and no questions asked behind the counter!

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. 232-3. 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. 241-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Eve of Battle (June 2, 1864)

Alfred Waud labled this drawing "June 2nd Position nr. Cold Harbor--rifle pits in the front." On the back he wrote, "A union battery held this hill at the battle of Gaines Mill tenaciously from a position near the buildings looking to the right of the picture, at right angles to the present line of battle." Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud labeled this drawing “June 2nd Position nr. Cold Harbor–rifle pits in the front.” On the back he wrote, “A union battery held this hill at the battle of Gaines Mill tenaciously from a position near the buildings looking to the right of the picture, at right angles to the present line of battle.” Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

On June 2 Grant and Meade position the Army of the Potomac in preparation for an attack on the Rebel lines. In his letter Theodore Lyman continues to call the battleground Cool Arbor although today we remember it by another name: Cold Harbor.

Here Lyman presents his case for George McClellan as the Union’s best general. He echoes McClellan’s reasoning for the failure of the Peninsula Campaign back in 1862–It was all the fault of President Lincoln, who held back 35,000 men of Irvin McDowell’s corps to defend Washington. Those men included George Meade’s brigade. McClellan, in a typical bit of understatement, had called Lincoln’s act “the most infamous thing that history has recorded.”

To-day has been occupied with strategy; but our strategy is of a bloody kind, and even the mere movements have not passed without the sounds of cannon and musketry for two or three hours. Sharp as steel traps those Rebs! We cannot shift a hundred yards, but presto! skirmishers forward! and they come piling in, pop, pop, pop; with reserves close behind and a brigade or two hard on the reserves, all poking and probing as much as to say: “Hey! What! Going are you! Well, where? How far? Which way? How many of you are there?”—And then they seem to send back word: “There they go—down there; head ’em off! Head ’em off quick!” And very soon General So-and-so, who thinks he has entirely got round the Rebel line, begs to report that he finds them strongly entrenched in his front! Yesterday the 6th Corps drove the enemy from their lines, in their front, and took a good many prisoners. The division of Ricketts, which Hancock called a “weakly child,” suddenly blazed out, and charged with the bayonet; an example I hope it will follow up! The “weary boys” at first broke and ran as usual, but Ricketts, their new commander, a man of great personal courage, pitched into them and kept at them, till finally, on the 1st of June, he got them to storm breastworks, and now I hope and believe they will continue good troops. Such are the effects of good pluck in generals. You hear people say: “Oh, everyone is brave enough; it is the head that is needed.” Doubtless the head is the first necessity, but I can tell you that there are not many officers who of their own choice and impulse will dash in on formidable positions. They will go anywhere they are ordered and anywhere they believe it is their duty to go; but fighting for fun is rare; and unless there is a little of this in a man’s disposition he lacks an element. Such men as Sprigg Carroll, Hays (killed), Custer and some others, attacked wherever they got a chance, and of their own accord. Very few officers would hold back when they get an order; but the ordeal is so awful, that it requires a peculiar disposition to “go in gaily,” as old Kearny used to say.

Last night the 2d Corps marched, to form on the left of the 6th at Cool Arbor; it was badly managed, or rather it was difficult to manage, like all those infernal night marches, and so part of the troops went fifteen miles instead of nine and there was any amount of straggling and exhaustion. I consider fifteen miles by night equal to twenty-five by day, and you will remember our men have no longer the bodily strength they had a month before; indeed, why they are alive, I don’t see; but, after a day’s rest, they look almost as fresh as ever. . . . We set out in the morning by half-past seven and, partly by roads, partly by cross-cuts, arrived at Kelly’s via Woody’s house. Of all the wastes I have seen, this first sight of Cool Arbor was the most dreary! Fancy a baking sun to begin with; then a foreground of breastworks; on the left, Kelly’s wretched house; in the front, an open plain, trampled fetlock deep into fine, white dust and dotted with caissons, regiments of many soldiers, and dead horses killed in the previous cavalry fight. On the sides and in the distance were pine woods, some red with fires which had passed through them, some grey with the clouds of dust that rose high in the air. It was a Sahara intensified, and was called Cool Arbor! Wright’s Headquarters were here, and here, too, I first beheld “Baldy” Smith, a short, quite portly man, with a light-brown imperial and shaggy moustache, a round, military head, and the look of a German officer, altogether. After getting all information, General Meade ordered a general assault at four p.m.. but afterwards countermanded it, by reason of the exhausted state of the 2d Corps. We pitched camp in the place shown on my map by a flag, where we since have remained—ten whole days. Towards evening Warren was to close in to his left and join with the rest of the line, his right resting near Bethesda Church, while Burnside was to mass and cover his movement; but they made a bad fist of it between them. The enemy, the moment the march began, rushed in on the skirmishers. A division, 5th Corps, got so placed that it bore the whole brunt (and a fine division too). Between the two corps—both very willing—the proper support was not put in. The enemy in force swung round by Via’s house and gobbled up several miles of our telegraph wire, besides several hundred prisoners. We ought to have just eaten them up; but as it was, we only drove them back into some rifle-pits we had formerly abandoned, and then the line was formed as originally ordered, with Burnside swung round to cover our right flank from Bethesda Church towards Linney’s house, while the enemy held Via’s house and a line parallel to our own. . . .*

General George McClellan. Lyman believes he was the Union's best general (Library of Congress).

General George McClellan. Lyman believes he was the Union’s best general (Library of Congress).

You know I was never an enthusiast or fanatic for any of our generals. I liked McClellan, but was not “daft” about him; and was indeed somewhat shaken by the great cry and stories against him. But now, after seeing this country and this campaign, I wish to say, in all coolness, that I believe he was, both as a military man and as a manager of a country under military occupation, the greatest general this war has produced. You hear how slow he was; how he hesitated at small natural obstacles. Not so. He hesitated at an obstacle that our ultra people steadily ignore, the Rebel Army of Northern Virginia; and anyone that has seen that army fight and march would, were he wise, proceed there with caution and wariness, well knowing that defeat by such an enemy might mean destruction. When I consider how much better soldiers, as soldiers, our men now are than in his day; how admirably they have been handled in this campaign; and how heroically they have worked, marched, and fought, and yet, how we still see the enemy in our front, weakened and maimed, but undaunted as ever, I am forced to the conclusion that McClellan (who did not have his own way as we have) managed with admirable skill. Mind, I don’t say he was perfect. I say he was our best. Think how well we are off. Do we want the very garrison of Washington? Grant beckons, and nobody is hardy enough to say him nay. McClellan had over 20,000 men taken from him at the very crisis of the campaign. Suppose at the culmination of our work, a telegraph from the President should come: “Send General Wright and 25,000 men at once to Winchester.” How would that do? In all this I praise the present commanders. The handling of this army, in especial, has been a marvel. Through narrow roads (the best of them not better than the “lane” opposite our back avenue), ill known and intricate, over bogs and rivers, we have transported cannon and army waggons in thousands, and a vast army has been moved, without ever getting in confusion, or losing its supporting distance. I don’t believe there is a marshal of France that could do it with his army. I am sure there is not.

*“When Grant heard of it, he said to Meade: ‘We ought to be able to eat them up; they have placed themselves in such a position. Generally I am not in favor of night attacks; but I think one might be justified in such a case as the present.’ Indeed it was a wretched affair.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.138-42. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

That Crazy Old Man (April 8, 1864)

Count Adam Gurowski (via Wikipedia).

Count Adam Gurowski (via Wikipedia).

In this letter from April 8, Meade mentions one Gurowsky, whom he describes as “that crazy old man.” Adam Gurowski was indeed one of the eccentric characters who enlivened Washington during the Civil War. (You can read more about him here.) His emotional and sometimes almost unhinged behavior on the city streets even made President Lincoln eye him as a potential assassin. A Polish count, Gurowski had come to the United States in 1849 after a life of radical (and inconstant) political agitation. As the Civil War approached, the excitable Polish count allied himself with the Radical Republicans. Once the war began, he pestered Lincoln with numerous hectoring letters about war policy. “He was the perfect radical type, an uncompromising Puritan in the fold,” wrote Leroy H. Fischer in the article linked above. As such, George McClellan—whom Gurowski described as “that half ass half traitor”—and anything associated with him, including Meade, would have been anathema.

The fair that Meade mentions is the Great Central Sanitary Fair, held in June 1864 to raise money for the Sanitary Commission, which provided care for wounded soldiers. In his book Philadelphia and the Civil War, Anthony Waskie described the fair as “probably the greatest purely civic act of voluntary benevolence ever attempted in Philadelphia.” By the time it closed on June 28 the fair had raised $1,261,822.55.

The New York Tribune of yesterday informs the world it has been positively ascertained that I am and have been in constant correspondence with McClellan, and that this fact has destroyed all my chances for nomination as major general in the regular army, but it is not believed it will remove me from command. I know where this canard comes from. Grant told me that he had received several visits and innumerable letters from that old crazy man Gurowsky, all to the effect that I was completely under the influence of McClellan, and in constant correspondence with him, and urging Grant to relieve me. I saw Historicus’s last effort, and was greatly amused at the very powerful position that he assigned me in the despotism he asserts I have exercised in the face of the lieutenant general and others. I am sure I ought to be flattered that I am allowed to exercise such powers. It is a redeeming trait in the powers that be, and in my countrymen, that the base and persistent attacks on me have so signally failed, principally from the bad standing of my assailants. As to my being nominated for the regular army, I never dreamed of it, though I always believed the secret of some of the attacks on me was to remove a rival from some one who did want and expected to be nominated.

The Philadephia fair's dining saloon, in one of the temporary buildings erected in Logan Square (Library of Congress).

The Philadephia fair’s dining saloon, in one of the temporary buildings erected in Logan Square (Library of Congress).

I think it a pity Philadelphia was so late in getting up its fair. The subject will be so thoroughly exhausted that people will be tired with such matters. Still, there seems to be great spirit evinced by those who have it in charge.

I have now as a guest Lieutenant Colonel Strave, of the Russian Engineers, who seems a young man of intelligence. He came down with letters from Mr. Seward and Mr. Stanton.

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. 188-9. Available via Google Books.

Defense (July 21, 1863)

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. He defended Meade in a letter to President Lincoln (Library of Congress).

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. He defended Meade in a letter to President Lincoln (Library of Congress).

When Meade wrote to his wife on July 21 he was still steaming over the reaction from Washington to Robert E. Lee’s escape to Virginia. Apparently, President Lincoln’s attitude had softened somewhat over the ensuing week. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard had written a letter to the president defending Meade (for the full text of the letter, scroll down) and on July 21 Lincoln replied. “I was deeply mortified by the escape of Lee across the Potomac, because the substantial destruction of his army would have ended the war, and because I believed such destruction was perfectly easy—believed that General Meade and his noble army had expended all the skill and toil and blood up to the ripe harvest, and then let the crop go to waste,” Lincoln wrote Howard. “A few days having passed I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done. General Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer and a true man.”

Your indignation at the manner in which I was treated on Lee’s escape is not only natural, but was and is fully shared by me. I did think at one time writing frankly to the President, informing him I never desired the command, and would be most glad at any time to be relieved, and that, as he had expressed dissatisfaction at my course, I thought it was his duty, independent of any personal consideration, to remove me. After reflection, however, I came to the conclusion to take no further action in the matter, and leave it entirely with them. I took the command from a sense of duty. I shall continue to exercise it, to the best of my humble capacity, in the same spirit. I have no ambition or ulterior views, and whatever be my fate, I shall try to preserve a clear conscience. I have received very handsome letters, both from Generals McClellan and Pope, which I enclose for your perusal and preservation. I have answered them both in the same spirit as appears to have dictated them.

This is what McClellan wrote to Meade:

My Dear General: I have abstained from writing to you simply because I hear that you have no time to read letters—but I will say a word now, anyhow.

I wish to offer you my sincere and heartfelt congratulations upon the glorious victory you have achieved, and the splendid way in which you assumed control of our noble old army under such trying circumstances.

You have done all that could be done and the Army of the Potomac has supported you nobly. I don’t know that, situated as I am, my opinion is worth much to any of you—but I can trust saying that I feel very proud of you and my old Army. I don’t flatter myself that your work is over—I believe that you have another severe battle to fight, but I am confident that you will win. That God may bless you and your army in its future conflicts is the prayer of

Your sincere friend


This is the letter Howard wrote to Lincoln. (From Official Records, Series I, Volume 27, Part 1, p. 700.)


Having noticed in the newspapers certain statements bearing upon the battle of Gettysburg and subsequent operations, which I deem calculated to convey a wrong impression to your mind, I wish to submit a few statements.

The successful issue of the battle of Gettysburg was due mainly to the energetic operations of our present commanding general prior to the engagement, and to the manner in which he handled his troops on the field. The reserves have never before during this war been thrown in at just the right moment. In many cases when points were just being carried by the enemy, a regiment or brigade appeared to stop his progress and hurl him back. Moreover, I have never seen a more hearty co-operation on the part of general officers than since General Meade took the command.

As to not attacking the enemy prior to leaving his stronghold beyond the Antietam, it is by no means certain that the repulse of Gettysburg might not have been turned upon us. At any rate, the commanding general was in favor of an immediate attack, but with the evident difficulties in our way, the uncertainty of a success, and the strong conviction of our best military minds against the risk, I must say that I think the general acted wisely. As to my request to make a reconnaissance on the morning of the 14th, which the papers state was refused, the facts are, that the general had required me to reconnoiter the evening before, and give my opinion as to the practicability of making a lodgment on the enemy’s left, and his answer to my subsequent request was that the movements he had already ordered would serve the same purpose. We have, if I may be allowed to say it, a commanding general in whom all the officers with whom I have come in contact express complete confidence.

I have said this much because of the censure and of the misrepresentations which have grown out of the escape of Lee’s army. Very respectfully, your obedient servant.

Major- General

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. 136 and 312. Available via Google Books.

Straight at Them (June 29, 1863)

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 Gordon Meade was now in command of the Army of the Potomac. On June 29 he found time to write to his wife and inform her of this fact.

It has pleased Almighty God to place me in the trying position that for some time past we have been talking about. Yesterday morning, at 3 A. M., I was aroused from my sleep by an officer from Washington entering my tent, and after waking me up, saying he had come to give me trouble. At first I thought that it was either to relieve or arrest me, and promptly replied to him, that my conscience was clear, void of offense towards any man; I was prepared for his bad news. He then handed me a communication to read; which I found was an order relieving Hooker from the command and assigning me to it. As, dearest, you know how reluctant we both have been to see me placed in this position, and as it appears to be God’s will for some good purpose—at any rate, as a soldier, I had nothing to do but accept and exert my utmost abilities to command success. This, so help me God, I will do, and trusting to Him, who in his good pleasure has thought it proper to place me where I am, I shall pray for strength and power to get through with the task assigned me. I cannot write you all I would like. I am moving at once against Lee, whom I am in hopes Couch will at least check for a few days; if so, a battle will decide the fate of our country and our cause. Pray earnestly, pray for the success of my country, (for it is my success besides). Love to all. I will try and write often, but must depend on George.

The General Couch Meade mentions is Dairus Couch, the former commander of the XX Corps who had refused to serve any longer under Hooker following Chancellorsville. He now commanded the Department of the Susquehanna, based in Harrisburg.

It was also on this day that the governor of New Jersey, Joel Parker, took it upon himself to write to President Abraham Lincoln. He wrote, “The people of New Jersey are apprehensive that the invasion of the enemy may extend to her soil. We think that the enemy should be driving from Pennsylvania. There is now certainly great apathy under such fearful circumstances. That apathy should be removed. The people of New Jersey want McClellan at the head of the Army of the Potomac. If that cannot be done, then we ask that he may be put at the head of the New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania troops now in Pennsylvania, defending these Middle States from invasion. If either appointment be made, the people would raise en masse.”

Needless to say, that did not happen. Lincoln replied the next day and assured the governor that Lee was not likely to reach New Jersey. “I beg you to be assured that no one out of my position can know so well as if he were in it the difficulties and involvements of replacing General McClellan in command, and this aside from any imputations upon him,” the president wrote. Still, rumors circulated within the army at Gettysburg that McClellan had resumed command.

Ambrose Burnside. He and Meade will work together later in the war (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside. He and Meade will work together later in the war (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside, one of Meade’s predecessors in command, took time to send him a message from Cincinnati, where he commanded the Department of the Ohio. He wrote, “I am sure you are quite equal to the position you are called to fill. You are regarded by all who know you as an honest, skillful, and unselfish officer, and a true, disinterested patriot. I will not congratulate you, because I know it is no subject of congratulation to assume such a responsibility at such a time, but I will earnestly pray for your success.”

During the day Meade moved the Army of the Potomac forward towards the enemy. By evening Meade has established his headquarters in Middleburg, Maryland, and he wrote again to Margaret.

We are marching as fast as we can to relieve Harrisburg, but have to keep a sharp lookout that the rebels don’t turn around us and get at Washington and Baltimore in our rear. They have a cavalry force in our rear, destroying railroads, etc., with the view of getting me to turn back; but I shall not do it. I am going straight at them, and will settle this thing one way or the other. The men are in good spirits; we have been reinforced so as to have equal numbers with the enemy, and with God’s blessing I hope to be successful. Good-by!

Meade’s letter 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. 11-12 and 13-14. Available via Google Books. Other correspondence from Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series One, Volume XXVII, Part 3, pp. 409 and 410.