152 Years Later

A marker indicates the spot where Hancock fell at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (Photo by Tom Huntington).

A marker indicates the spot where Hancock fell at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (Photo by Tom Huntington).

Steve Weatherbee as Meade (Tom Huntington photo).

Steve Weatherbee as Meade (Tom Huntington photo).

I met my fourth George Gordon Meade yesterday.

I know Andy Waskie, of course, the founder and president of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia. Waskie often portrays Meade at talks and living history events. He was out of the country during the 2013 anniversary commemorations, so Jerry McCormick—who usually portrays Gen. Andrew Humphreys—stood in for him as Meade at Gettysburg with the Confederation of Union Generals. I talked to Bob Creed at a Gettysburg reenactment when I was working on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. And today I met Steve Weatherbee, who portrays Meade for the Civil War Heritage Foundation. That doesn’t come close to matching the profusion of Robert E. Lees you will find at Civil War events, but it’s a beginning.

I talked with Weatherbee while we waited for advancing Confederates at the stone wall at Gettysburg’s Bloody Angle. The Angle was considerably less bloody today, and the crowd gathered here 152 years after the Union soldiers along this line repulsed Lee’s attack—Pickett’s Charge—was considerably smaller than it had been in 2013, when some 47,000 people showed up for the 150th anniversary.

Over the past couple days I had watched several of the Gettysburg Battlewalks on the Pennsylvania Cable Network, which made me realize I must get down to Gettysburg myself on July 3. So I packed a lunch and set out. It was a fine, pleasant day for a visit, with a light cloud cover blocking the July sun, and a cool breeze blowing through. My goal was to take the 10:00 walk, which covered Winfield Scott Hancock at Gettysburg. A large crowd gathered at the white Abraham Brian farm buildings. As we waited, I overhead some people talking favorably about George Meade. I pointed out the Meade Society cap I was wearing, and we agreed that the general had never really received his due.

Ranger Matt Atkinson talks about Hancock at the Copse of Trees (tom Huntington photo).

Ranger Matt Atkinson talks about Hancock at the Copse of Trees (Tom Huntington photo).

Park ranger Matt Atkinson led the Hancock walk, and he added a distinctive Southern flavor to it. At the start, he admitted that he didn’t often do Union-themed talks, and that he had grown up in the South looking up to Confederate heroes as a boy. Still, he told us that Hancock was one of his favorite generals, and that he was “a natural-born leader.” From the Brian buildings, we moved south down Cemetery Ridge. We made a stop at the monument that marks the spot where Confederate General Lewis Armistead fell on July 3 1863. Armistead and Hancock had been friends before the war—a friendship portrayed as a full-blown bromance in the book Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg. We finished across the road from the monument that marks the spot where Hancock fell, taken down by a bullet that went through the pommel of his saddle and into his thigh. Atkinson provided a fairly graphic account of Hancock’s wound and the various attempts to remove the musket ball. Maybe that’s what led to our only casualty of the morning, when a woman went faint and had to be helped to the ground (and later to an air conditioned park vehicle).

Alonzo Cushing's belt at the National Civil War Museum (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

Alonzo Cushing’s belt at the National Civil War Museum (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

After the talk, I whiled away some time reading the new book by Jim Hessler and Wayne Motts, Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: A Guide to the Most Famous Attack in American History. My wife and I had attended the book launch event the previous Sunday at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, where Wayne serves as CEO. Jim and Wayne both spoke, and the two of them, plus cartographer Steven Stanley, signed copies of the book afterwards. Wayne had also put out a collection of artifacts related to Pickett’s Charge, including the belt worn by Alonzo Cushing, the Union artillerist who had been cut down at his guns as Armistead approached them. Cushing was just recently awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions that day.

One of two Lewis Armisteads at Gettysburg on July 3. The real George Pickett never got this far (Tom Huntington photo).

One of two Lewis Armisteads at Gettysburg on July 3. The real George Pickett never got this far (Tom Huntington photo).

Back at Gettysburg, I walked over to the Angle to wait for the Confederates with Weatherbee and other reenactors. I spotted only one Robert E. Lee, but two Armisteads.

It seemed to me that the day felt politically charged in the wake of the debate over the Confederate flag sparked by the church shootings in Charleston. (“Keep flying it,” I heard one woman remark to a Confederate reenactor as he passed her with a Rebel flag.) I’ve written about the flag issue elsewhere. I have no problems with Confederate flags in a historical context. I do have issues with it in a political context, whether it’s being flown at a statehouse or in the back of a pickup truck.

Anyone who has read Searching for George Gordon Meade knows that I have little patience for Lost Cause rhetoric. Here’s one thing I wrote:

During the war and in the years since, Lee has been lionized. Entire bookshelves groan beneath the weight of the volumes dedicated to him. He has come to symbolize a glorious “lost cause,” a world of “cavaliers and cotton fields,” as Gone with the Wind put it. In this view of the Civil War, the noble, freedom-loving South fought a valiant but doomed battle against the institutionalized and bureaucratic forces of the North. The Southern generals, men like Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, tend to be remembered as glamorous and noble warriors. The generals in the North come across more like CEOs of major corporations, faceless and colorless. Except perhaps for Ulysses S. Grant, who gained a reputation as a “butcher” willing to exchange his soldiers’ lives for victory. Who wants to cheer for those guys, especially today, when public distrust of the federal government seems to have reached an all-time high? No, it’s much cooler to cheer for the rebels.

Modern rebels at Gettysburg, 152 years later (Tom Huntington photo).

Modern rebels at Gettysburg, 152 years later (Tom Huntington photo).

Yet there’s one thing that tarnishes this glamorous view of the rebellious South, an elephant in the room that many try to ignore. And that is slavery. The South fought to preserve a culture that rested on a foundation of human bondage. Don’t take it from me–take it from the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In a famous speech he made in March 1861, less than a month before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War, Stephens declared that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Furthermore, he added, the foundation of the Confederate government—its very cornerstone, in fact—“rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Claiming that slavery did not cause the Civil War is like clearing the iceberg of any responsibility for sinking the Titanic. That’s why I find it galling to see the Sons of Confederate Veterans contend that the South’s “motivating factor” for war was “the preservation of liberty and freedom.” Except, of course, for the approximately four million people of African descent whom the slave-holding states kept in bondage. It’s a stain that will forever sully the story of the Confederate States of America. There’s no escaping it.

The recent discussions have dragged the unsavory side of Confederate banners into the light, which is a good thing. People forget that South Carolina started flying the stars and bars over its state capitol in 1962, not to salute the courage of Confederate soldiers, but to symbolize its resistance to civil rights. “Heritage not hate,” is what flag supporters tell us the banners symbolize. But that’s not quite right. “Heritage AND hate,” would be a more accurate motto.

So I sensed that subtext percolating beneath the day’s events at Gettysburg. The present has a way of forcing its way into these things, photo bombing history.

Hands across the wall (Tom Huntington photo).

Hands across the wall (Tom Huntington photo).

After watching Union and Confederate reenactors grasp hands across the stone wall, I headed up to the Meade statue for the start of a short “real time” talk about Alexander Webb and the Philadelphia Brigade, led by ranger Emma Murphy. By the walk’s end we were down at the Copse of Trees by the monument to the 69th Pennsylvania. She read us excerpts from Lt. Frank Haskell’s account of the battle and the final repulse of the Confederates on July 3, 1863. “The line springs,” Haskell had written; “the crest of the solid ground, with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load,–men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass; it rolls to the wall; flash meets flash; the wall is crossed; a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, an undistinguished conflict, followed by a shout universal, that makes the welkin ring again; and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.”

As far as I’m concerned, the right side won at Gettysburg. But as all the debate about the Confederate flag has shown us, in some people are still fighting the Civil War.

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2015 Meade Symposium

This is one of the images I used in my talk. Garry Adleman of the Center for Civil War Photography tipped me off about it. This is a detail from a photograph of the reviewing stand at the Grand Review of the Armies. It was probably taken on May 23, 1865, the day the Army of the Potomac marched. In it you can see Ulysses Grant, the blurred figure of Edwin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson, Wesley Merritt (commanding the cavalry corps in Philip Sheridan's absence), George Meade, Sumner Wells, Postmaster General William Dennison, William T. Sherman, and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. Quite extraordinary. As far as I know, this is the only photo in which Grant and Meade appear together. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

This is one of the images I used in my talk. Garry Adleman of the Center for Civil War Photography tipped me off about it. This is a detail from a photograph of the reviewing stand at the Grand Review of the armies in Washington. It was probably taken on May 23, 1865, the day the Army of the Potomac marched. In it you can see Ulysses Grant, the blurred figure of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson, Wesley Merritt (commanding the cavalry corps in Philip Sheridan’s absence), George Meade, Secretary of the Navy Sumner Wells, Postmaster General William Dennison, William T. Sherman, and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. Quite extraordinary. As far as I know, this is the only photo in which Grant and Meade appear together. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

The man of the hour.

The man of the hour.

It’s safe to say that the 2015 Meade Symposium was a great success. There must have been at least 60 people present, despite severe cold and strong winds. The weather had been so bad, in fact, that one of the speakers, Ralph Peters, couldn’t make the trip to Philadelphia from his home in Virginia. Held in the beautiful conservatory building at West Laurel Hill Cemetery on Sunday, February 15, the symposium featured four speakers (myself included) who provided a cradle-to-grave summary of George Gordon Meade’s life. Dr. John Selby of Roanoke College spoke about Meade’s life up until the Civil War; Jerry McCormick picked up the story through the Battle of Chancellorsville; and Dr. Andy Waskie, the founder and president of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia, stood in for Col. Peters and covered the rest of the Civil War. I wrapped things up by talking about the last seven years of Meade’s life, which included incidents of murder, torture, armies of Irishmen, and the difficulties of Reconstruction.

Of course, I had to get a Meade bicentennial tee shirt!

Of course, I had to get a Meade bicentennial tee shirt!

If that weren’t enough, Jim Schmick of Civil War and More was there with a large selection of Civil War books for sale, and the Kearney Kommissary was on hand to provide a delicious lunch (plus wine and beer).

The conservatory provided an extremely picturesque setting for the day’s events, with large windows looking out over the cold and windswept cemetery. Just 200 yards away was the grave of Meade’s West Point classmate Herman Haupt, the Union’s railroad mastermind (and one of Meade’s critics). I wish I had the time to find his grave, as well as those of other notables buried there. One of those eternal residents is Francis Adams Donaldson, who journal of his experiences in the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry provided the material for the book Inside the Army of the Potomac. I had used that book when I researched Searching for George Gordon Meade. It’s fascinating. Donaldson hated his commanding officer, so he contrived to get kicked out of the army, with the plan of visiting Abraham Lincoln in Washington and having the president give him an honorable discharge. It sounded like a far-fetched plan, but that is exactly what Donaldson did.

And we also bought a couple of Meade bicentennial champagne glasses. They will be perfect for the birthday celebration on December 31.

And we also bought a couple of Meade bicentennial champagne glasses. They will be perfect for the birthday celebration on December 31.

Other celebrity residents include musicians Grover Washington, Jr., and Teddy Pendergrass. West Laurel Hill is a big, sprawling cemetery, with dozens of elaborate mausoleums, and I hope to go back on a warmer, greener day and explore.

As the last speaker of the day, I am about to kill off George Gordon Meade.

As the last speaker of the day, I am about to kill off George Gordon Meade. The general watches me with trepidation.

As I said, this was a great event. It’s truly gratifying to see so many people with this kind of interest in history. And it wasn’t all seriousness, either. There were plenty of laughs and a sense of camaraderie. History should always be so much fun!

This is George Meade’s bicentennial year and I have a lot of talks scheduled. Next up are appearances before the round tables in Milwaukee and Chicago, and then talks at Pamplin Historical Park outside Petersburg, Virginia, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Later in the year I’m scheduled to speak in Richmond, at a Meade bicentennial event in Gettysburg, and at the Civil War Round Table at Philadelphia’s Union League in December. The year will end at the Meade 200th birthday commemoration at Laurel Hill Cemetery on December 31. Check out the event calendar for details.

paperback scanThe paperback edition of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg is now available! You can purchase it through Stackpole Books, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Annual Seminar

Every year the General Meade Society of Philadelphia holds a seminar focusing on some Meade-related aspect of the Civil War. This year the topic is “Meade and Grant–The Virginia Campaign of 1864.” It will take place on Sunday, February 16, 2014, at the conservatory at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. The speakers will be Ralph Peters, author of Cain at Gettysburg and Hell or Richmond; Tom Huntington (author of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg) and Jerry McCormick (the world’s leading authority on General Andrew Humphreys). In addition, the Kearney Kommissary will serve its delicious food and Jim Schmick of Civil War and More will be on hand with a large selection of books. Like all the society events, it promises to be both informative and fun.

The $40 admission cost includes lunch. I encourage all the attend!

I’ve posted the flyer. Click on it to see a larger version.Meade seminar