A “Pleasant Task” (June 27, 1864)

Letterhead from Philadelphia's Great Central Sanitary Fair (Library of Congress).

Letterhead from Philadelphia’s Great Central Sanitary Fair (Library of Congress).

General Meade writes a letter to his oldest son, John Sergeant, whose health fills him with trepidation. “Sargie” suffers from tuberculosis and his fate increasingly weighs on his parents’ minds. Once again Meade mentions the sword competition at the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia. (Spoiler alert: Meade wins it. The sword is now in the collections of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent and is on temporary display at the Union League in Philadelphia.) It appears that Meade shares Theodore Lyman’s taste for irony, at least to a certain extent, as evidenced by his reference to “the pleasant task of sending people to eternity.”

Should I get the Philadelphia Fair sword, and the one from the City Councils, I think I shall be well off for weapons to wield in my country’s cause.

Hancock and myself are anxiously awaiting the decision in the great sword case, he having hopes some one will come down at the last moment in a sealed envelope with a clincher.

The weather has been so intensely hot, dry and dusty, that both sides were compelled to cease for awhile the pleasant task of sending people to eternity, which for the last fifty days we have been so successfully pursuing. The rest was much needed by both armies, and has been particularly enjoyed by myself.

I have now as guests two French officers sent by the Emperor, to see all they can; one of them, Colonel de Chenal, married a relative of the Hopkinsons. They are both intelligent gentlemen, and their visit has been very pleasant and agreeable.

I can hardly tell you what we are going to do next, whether to lay siege to Petersburg or something else; a few days I suppose will tell.

George continues quite well; Jim Biddle, Cadwalader and all the rest are in fine health and spirits.

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. 209. Available via Google Books.


War of Brothers-in-Law (June 17, 1864)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions Wise’s Legion. He had a reason to be particularly interested in this unit, for its commander, Henry Wise, was his brother-in-law. Wise’s second wife had been Sarah Sergeant, Mrs. Meade’s sister. (Sarah had died in childbirth in 1850.) Wise was the former governor of Virginia—in fact, it was Wise who signed John Brown’s death warrant after the radical abolitionists failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry. He was a fiery secessionist who waved his pistol when he took the podium at Virginia’s secessionist convention in April 1861 and demanded that his state leave the Union. He joined the Confederate army and, as a brigadier general, led his troops to a successful defense of Petersburg when his brother-in-law attempted to capture it.

According to one story, Robert E. Lee once took Wise aside to gently chastise him about his strong language. Wise claimed he cut Lee off and said, “General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole army of Northern Virginia; but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.”

Lee laughed. “Wise, you are incorrigible,” he said.

Meade also mentions the Great Central Sanitary Fair, which took place in Philadelphia that month. (President and Mrs. Lincoln  and son Tad visited the fair on June 16.) In his book Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union, historian Anthony Waskie wrote, “The Great Central Fair was probably the greatest purely civic act of voluntary benevolence ever attempted in Philadelphia.” The venue was Logan Square and its fundraising was directed for soldiers’ relief.  Meade comments on the competition between himself and Winfield Scott Hancock over the awarding of a sword. Meade won the sword, but Mrs. Meade was edged out in the voting for the award of an imported bonnet by Mrs. Ambrose Burnside. I assume when Meade refers to “the ‘Shoddy,’” he is referring to so-called Shoddy Millionaires, who supposedly made fortunes by selling poor quality goods to the Union army.

I have not written you for several days, as we have been moving, our mail facilities for the time being interrupted. Our march from Cold Harbor to this place has been most successful, including, as it has done, the crossing of two streams, the Chickahominy and the James, over the former of which a bridge of one thousand seven hundred feet had to be thrown, and over the James one of two thousand feet, in eighty-five feet of water—an exploit in military bridge building that has never been equaled. I reached this field yesterday, having been placed by General Grant in command of all the troops in front of Petersburg, consisting of the Army of the Potomac, and two portions of Butler’s army, Grant being back at City Point. After arriving on the ground, although our men had been marching all the night before and during the day, I at once ordered an attack, which commenced at 6 p.m. and lasted pretty much continuously till 4 a.m. to-day—that is, ten hours—eight of which was by moonlight, another unparalleled feat in the annals of war.

Our attack was quite successful, as we captured several of their works, four guns and five hundred prisoners. The first prisoners brought in replied, on being asked to what command they belonged, Wise’s Legion. I asked where the general was; they said right in my front. I asked how he was, and they replied, the old man seemed quite well. I inquired what members of his family were with him, and they replied, he had two aides, named Wise, one of whom was his son and the other a nephew. This is the latest intelligence I can send you from your Virginia connections.

We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond, and that Grant’s words of keeping at it all summer will prove to be quite prophetic. Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.

I have to-day received your letters of the 10th and 12th. Hancock was with me when I read them. Hancock and I have great fun over the sword contest at the fair, I telling him that he made use of his time last winter to make friends with the “Shoddy,” and of course, as they have the money, I can’t expect to compete with him. We laugh and joke a good deal about it, and whenever a paper comes in we look for the state of the vote. The last date we have is the 14th, and that shows me about one hundred and fifty ahead, which, as I have been behind him all the time, is the source of much merriment.

Your account of the fair is very interesting. I should think, from the newspapers, you would be likely to beat the New York fair in receipts, and that your expenses would be much less.

I wish Sargie would get well enough to travel; he might pay me a visit, now the weather is warm. I don’t suppose Sargie cares much about seeing war, but I and George would like hugely to see him. The weather is getting quite warm. I continue in excellent health and spirits.

In his letter of June 17, Theodore Lyman writes about the IX Corps. Brig. Gen. Robert Potter had been with Ambrose Burnside and that corps since its early successes in the Carolinas and had been one of the generals responsible for finally forcing Union troops across “Burnside Bridge” at Antietam. James Ledlie was one of the Union’s worst generals. In his journal, Lyman had written, “Ledlie was a wretched, incapable drunkard, not fit to command a company, and was the ruin of his division.” Potter and Ledlie will both play roles in the episode of the Crater. Major Morton was Major James St. Clair Morton. “He was of a gallant, daring temperament, and, on one or two occasions during the campaign had led in person charges of the troops upon the enemy’s intrenched lines,” read an 1867 history of the XI Corps. “Always in the van, he had narrowly escaped with his life in former battles. On the 17th of June, he headed the advance of General Hartranft’s brigade, and was killed while the troops were retiring from the attack.”

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman's letter (Library of Congress).

Brigadier General Robert Potter and his staff. Photographer Mathew Brady stands off to the right. This photo was probably taken on June 21, only a few days after Lyman’s letter (Library of Congress).

At daylight Potter, of the 9th Corps, assaulted the enemy’s works at a point near what was then our left. He took the works very handsomely, with four guns and 350 prisoners, and had his horse shot under him. Potter (a son of the Bishop of Pennsylvania) is a grave, pleasant-looking man, known for his coolness and courage. He is always very neatly dressed in the full uniform of a brigadier-general. His Headquarters are now at the house where he took two of the cannon. You ought to see it! It is riddled with bullets like the cover of a pepper-box. In a great oak by his tent a cannon-ball has just buried itself, so that you can see the surface under the bark. In a few years the wood will grow over it, and there it will perhaps remain to astonish some wood-cutter of the future, when the Great Rebellion shall have passed into history. This was a brave day for Burnside. He fought in the middle of the day, with some gain, and just before evening Ledlie’s division attacked and took a third line, beyond the one taken by Potter. This could have been held, I think, but for the idea that we were to advance still more, so that preparations were made to push on instead of getting reserves in position to support the advanced force. The enemy, however, after dark, concentrated and again drove out our troops, who fell back to the work taken by Potter in the morning; and so ended the anniversary of Bunker Hill. In the attack of that evening, Major Morton, Chief Engineer of the 9th Corps, was killed—a man of an eccentric disposition, but of much ability. He was son of the celebrated ethnologist, whose unrivaled collection of crania is now in the Philadelphia Academy.

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. 204-5. 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. 166-7. 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.