Submission and Resignation (February 27, 1865)

The gravestone for John Sergeant Meade, in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery.

The gravestone for John Sergeant Meade, in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

George Meade had left the army for his home in Philadelphia on February 21, and arrived two days later. By then his oldest son, John Sergeant, was dead. He had died at 11 p.m. on the 21st of the tuberculosis he had been fighting for years. On the 26th, Meade received a telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton calling him back out of fear that Robert E. Lee was stirring. Meade wrote this letter while still in Washington.

The mention of Winfield Scott Hancock is a reference to the general’s appointment as commander of the Department of West Virginia. He was replacing General George Crook, who had the misfortune of being captured while in bed by Confederate guerillas.

I take advantage of a delay, waiting to see the Secretary, to send you a few lines. I slept nearly all the journey, much to my surprise; but I was grateful it was so, as I feel in consequence much better than if I had lain awake all night.

Hardy Norris was very kind to me this morning, and accompanied me to the hotel, where we breakfasted, after which I came up here.

General Hancock left suddenly yesterday for Western Virginia. This has given rise to rumor of movements of Lee in that direction, but I have heard nothing reliable in this respect. I saw General Hooker this morning at breakfast. He was very affable and civil, and enquired particularly after you, expressing deep sympathy with us in our affliction. This feeling has been manifested by all whom I have met, including Senator Foster, Mr. Odell and others.

I hardly dare think of you in your lonely condition, surrounded by so many associations of our beloved boy. God have mercy on you and send you submission and resignation! No human reasoning can afford you or myself any consolation. Submission to God’s will, and the satisfaction arising from the consciousness that we did our duty by him, is all that is left us.

I shall leave here at 3 p.m., and will write to you on my arrival at my headquarters.

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. 264-5. Available via Google Books.

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John Segeant Meade, 1841-1865 (February 21, 1865)

Over the past few months, George Meade has agonized over the health of his oldest son, John Sergeant, who was dying of tuberculosis back in Philadelphia. Even 150 years later, you can still feel the anguish in this letter, as the general communicates his sense of being pulled between his duty to his position, and the duty to his family.

On the day that his father wrote this, John Sergeant Meade died of his disease.

I told George last evening to write to you and acknowledge the receipt of your letters of the 17th and 18th, also your telegram of the 20th. The latter I did not understand until this evening, when George received a letter from Jim Biddle, of the 19th, from which I infer Sergeant was considered sinking on Sunday, and finding him better on Monday, you telegraphed. George will leave to-morrow, and will take this. It is impossible for me to go to you, unless I resign my command. If I left for a short time, I should undoubtedly be recalled almost as soon as I reached there. Besides, to be with you for a few days would be but little satisfaction to you; and as to dear Sergeant, his condition is such that I presume it does not make much difference who is with him. For your sake I should like to be home, and for my own, but it is God’s will, and I must submit.

My duty to you and my children requires I should retain the high command I now have. My reputation and your interests are involved, and I cannot shut my eyes to these considerations, however cruel may be the conclusion that I cannot be at your side and that of my dear boy in this hour of agony and trial. We must all endeavor to be resigned to God’s will. We cannot avert the severe affliction with which it has pleased Him to visit us, doubtless for some good purpose. All we can do is to bear it with humility and resignation, and endeavor to profit by it, in preparing ourselves, as I believe my beloved son is prepared.

Dear Margaret, let me rely on your exhibiting in this, the greatest trial you have had in life, true Christian fortitude. Bear up, in the consciousness that you have ever devoted all the energy of a tender mother’s love to check and avert the fatal disease that is carrying off our first born; all that human power could do has been done. Our boy has had warning, and not only his good life, but the consciousness that he knew and was prepared for the change, should sustain us in that parting which had to be encountered one day, for we all must die in time.

George will tell you all about 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. 263-4. Available via Google Books.

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Confirmation (February 2, 1865)

Meade receives word that Congress has finally confirmed his promotion to major-general in the regular army. This good news is tempered by that knowledge that his eldest son, John Sergeant, lays dying of tuberculosis back in Philadelphia.

Grant sent me a note this morning, saying a telegram from Washington announced my confirmation yesterday by a heavy majority; thus I have gained another victory, and have found that I really have more friends than I had any idea of.

There have been some English officers here this evening from the frigate Galatea, and they have kept me up so late that I cannot write as much as I would wish.

I thought my last visit was, excepting dear Sergeant’s sickness, most happy, but I cannot be happy and see my noble boy suffering as he does. I think of him all the time, and feel at times like asking to be relieved, that I may go home and help you nurse him. May God in his infinite mercy restore him to health, is my constant prayer!

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. 260. Available via Google Books.

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Recalled (January 10, 1865)

One of the wharves at City Point, in a photograph taken during January 1865 (Library of Congress).

One of the wharves at City Point, in a photograph taken sometime in January 1865 (Library of Congress).

General Meade has returned to camp. He left the army for Philadelphia on December 30 and stayed there until he received a message recalling him on January. The visit home was tinged with sadness because of the failing health of his oldest son, John Sergeant. The return trip was not uneventful, as Meade describes in his letter of January 10. He also mentions the dismissal of Benjamin Butler. Grant had long longed to rid himself of the cockeyed political general, and Butler finally gave him the opportunity the general-in-chief sought by bungling an attack on Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Grant sent him packing.

I reached City Point at 6 p.m. to-day. I found the cause of my recall to be as I expected. General Grant had received information of Lee’s sending off two divisions of troops, and was, and is, under the impression that it is the commencement of the evacuation of Richmond. Should this prove to be the case, or should Lee materially weaken his force, we will take the initiative, and for this contingency I was required. I explained to General Grant Sergeant’s condition and my earnest desire to remain with him. He expressed regret he had not known all I told him, and promised to let me return to Philadelphia as soon as this affair was settled. As I do not believe Lee is going to give us any chance, I am in hopes it will not be long before I return. I telegraphed you this morning from Fortress Monroe, because we had last night an accident on the bay, which I feared might be exaggerated in the papers, and you alarmed. The night was dark and foggy, and we were run into by a schooner. Fortunately the damage was confined to the upper works, and although four lives were lost, and several bruised, we received no material injury, and our boat continued on. For a time, however, before the extent of the injury was known, there was much alarm and excitement on board our boat, which was unusually crowded, owing to the ice on the Potomac.

The great subject of discussion in the army is the recent relieving of General Butler. He was relieved by the President, on Grant’s request. The particular cause had not been made public.

It is hardly necessary I should tell you how much I have suffered since I left you. All I can do is earnestly to pray God to have mercy on dear Sergeant and yourself, and to give you strength to bear up under the affliction you are visited with. My heart is too full to write more.

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. 255. Available via Google Books.

Reason to be Grateful (October 13, 2014)

The Meade statue at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington photo).

The Meade statue at Gettysburg (Tom Huntington photo).

General George Meade often complained about how other generals received their promotions before he did, or that the press ignored his accomplishments as commander of the Army of the Potomac. In Washington he had had to suffer the humiliating attacks on his record from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. As he once wrote to his wife, “I supposed after awhile it will be discovered I was not at Gettysburg at all.” With all that in mind, his letter of October 13 is remarkably even-handed. Of course, having a child dying back home no doubt helped put things in perspective.

I undoubtedly do not occupy the position I did just after the battle of Gettysburg, and no one will retain any such position in this country, unless he continues to be successful; but when you compare my position with my numerous predecessors, McClellan, Pope, McDowell, Burnside, Hooker, Rosecrans, Banks, Sigel and many others, I think you will admit that my retaining command, and the hold I have at present, is even more creditable than the exaggerated laudation immediately succeeding Gettysburg. Recollect, also, that most persistent efforts have been made by influential men, politicians and generals, to destroy me, without success; and I think you will find reason to be grateful and satisfied, even though you should desire to see more justice done. I don’t mean to say I have not been badly treated, but I do mean to say I might have been much worse treated, and that my present status is not without advantages, and does not justify my being discontented.

I am very much distressed to hear that Sergeant does not seem well enough to bear a sea voyage, and still hope the fine weather of the fall will enable him to gather strength.

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. 234. Available via Google Books.

Very Great News (September 23, 1864)

"Confederate prisoners captured at the battle of Fisher's Hill, VA. Sent to the rear under guard of Union troops" (Library of Congress).

“Confederate prisoners captured at the battle of Fisher’s Hill, VA. Sent to the rear under guard of Union troops” (Library of Congress).

Once again Meade must acknowledge a victory by Philip Sheridan over Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. Although Meade graciously salutes Sheridan’s accomplishments, they were a bitter pill for him to swallow. He felt that Grant had promised him the position Sheridan now holds, and while Sheridan was collecting the glory Meade was still stuck with the thankless task of commanding the Army of the Potomac with Grant looking over his shoulder.

To-night we have the news of Sheridan’s second victory at Fisher’s Hill, near Strasburg. This is very great news. The destruction and dispersion of Early’s army is a very great feat, and at once relieves Maryland and Pennsylvania of any fears of more invasion this year. If now we are only rapidly reinforced, we may be enabled to give Lee some hard blows before he can recruit and increase his army.

I feel quite unhappy about Sergeant having to go away, though I have the highest hopes of the good effect of the change of climate.

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. 230. 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.

Sergeant’s Condition (August 22, 1864)

Meade writes home about the sad case of his son John Sergeant. The young man (born in 1841) is fighting a losing battle against tuberculosis (he will die in February) and Meade’s letters are filled with anguished passages about his oldest son’s health. Meade’s son and grandson edited many of that material from the letters they published. Meade, of course, was not alone in fearing the death of a loved one during those terrible Civil War years, but that knowledge certainly did little to lighten his burden.

I have received your letters of the 18th and 19th insts. I have known of Sergeant’s condition for some time, because, when I found he was so sick, I wrote to Dr. Hewson, who at once replied to me. Everything has been done for Sergeant that could be done. He has had the best medical advice, and the most careful nursing. This should be continued, and the result left to that Power who governs and rules all things, and to whose decree we must submit with resignation.

I have been very much occupied for several days past in the operations of my command on the Weldon Railroad, particularly Warren’s Corps, who during this time has had three very pretty little fights, in all of which we have whipped the enemy, though we have suffered a good deal in casualties.

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. 222-23. Available via Google Books.

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.

 

God’s Will (June 6, 1864)

Timothy O'Sulivan took this image, which he identified as "Cold Harbor, Virginia. Camp in the woods," on June 6, 1864. The landscape looks much like this today  (Library of Congress).

Timothy O’Sullivan took this image, which he identified as “Cold Harbor, Virginia. Camp in the woods,” on June 6, 1864. The landscape looks much like this today (Library of Congress).

Even as he commands the Army of the Potomac during its relentless campaign against Robert E. Lee, George Meade is a husband and his father. Here he attempts to discharge some of his responsibilities in those fields. He soothes his wife, collects items she can contribute to the Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia, and he worries about his son, John Sergeant. The Meades’ oldest child, “Sargie” suffered from tuberculosis. His failing health will be a continual theme in his father’s letters, although his son and grandson cut much of that personal agony from the letters when editing them for publication.

Do not be deceived about the situation of affairs by the foolish despatches in the papers. Be not over-elated by reported successes, nor over-depressed by exaggerated rumors of failures. Up to this time our success has consisted only in compelling the enemy to draw in towards Richmond; our failure has been that we have not been able to overcome, destroy or bag his army.

His success has been in preventing us from doing the above, and in heading us off every time we have tried to get around him. In the meantime, both sides have suffered great losses, probably proportionate to our original relative strength, and it is highly probable that both sides have repaired their losses by reinforcements, so that we stand now in the same relative proportion, three to two, with original numbers. The great struggle has yet to come off in the vicinity of Richmond. The enemy have the advantages of position, fortifications, and being concentrated at their centre. We shall have to move slowly and cautiously, but I am in hopes, with reasonable luck, we will be able to succeed.

I am sorry, very sorry, to hear what you write of Sergeant, but God’s will must be done, and we must be resigned.

I am trying to collect some trophies from our recent battle-fields to send you for your fair.

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. 201-2. Available via Google Books.