Washington (May 12, 865)

George Gordon Meade and his staff, photographed outside Washington in June 1865 (library of Congress).

George Gordon Meade and his staff, photographed outside Washington in June 1865 (library of Congress).

George Meade and the Army of the Potomac have reached Washington. The review he mentions will happen, on May 23 and 24. The Army of the Potomac will be disbanded, but not until June 28, 1865, two years to the day from the time Meade took command.

I reached here last evening in time to pitch camp on the banks of the Potomac. To-day I have been in town at the Department, and waiting to see General Grant, who has been all day before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. I have not yet seen him, so am not able to give you any news. From what I gather, I infer the armies are to be disbanded at once. The review or parade has been talked about, but there appears to be nothing settled, and I rather think it will fall through. I have received your letters up to the one dated the ninth.

We had a delightful march from Richmond; some rain towards the end of the journey, which impeded our progress.

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. 279. Available via Google Books.

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Report on the Mine (February 9, 1865)

Ambrose Burnside. The Battle of the Crater provided a good reason to get him out of the Army of the Potomac once and for all (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside. The Battle of the Crater provided a good reason to get him out of the Army of the Potomac once and for all (Library of Congress).

General Meade writes home about the report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War’s on the Battle of the Crater (a.k.a. the Mine). Meade was obviously no fan of the committee, which had come after him in the spring of 1864. In his book Over Lincoln’s Shoulder, historian Bruce Tap questioned the committee’s value, especially in its criticisms of Meade. “Other than contributing to the destruction of Meade’s reputation for generations to come, little was accomplished by the committee’s investigation except for reinforcing the hostility that army officers felt toward their civilian overseers.” Grant’s telegram supports Meade’s contention that the committee report was intended to support Ambrose Burnside. And once again he defends Grant when his wife questions the general-in-chief’s trustworthiness.

Meade also mentions the failure of the Confederate peace commissioners to strike any agreement with Lincoln, and stresses the need for a “vigorous prosecution of the war.”

The Beckham whose obituary Meade sends to his wife was Robert F. Beckham. As a lieutenant before the war, Beckham had served under Meade on a survey of Lake Huron. He joined the rebels when war broke out. J.L. Kirby Smith, not to be confused with Edmund Kirby Smith, the Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, also served under Meade on the survey.

I note you have seen the report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, about the Mine. You have done Grant injustice; he did not testify against me; but the committee has distorted his testimony, my own, and that of every one who told the truth, in order to sustain their censure. When you see all the testimony you will find their verdict is not sustained. Immediately on the appearance of this report Grant sent me a despatch, a copy of which I enclose, and from it you will see what he thinks of the course of the committee, and of Burnside’s testimony. (see below). I replied to him that, after the acknowledgment of my services by the President, the Secretary and himself, and the endorsement of the Senate, as shown by the large vote in my favor, I thought I could stand the action of the committee, and I felt confident that when the facts and the truth were laid before the public, the report of the committee would prove a more miserable failure than the explosion of the Mine. I, however, asked him to exert his influence to have published the proceedings of the court of inquiry. He has gone to Washington, and I am in hopes he will have this done; I think Burnside has used himself up.

Richmond papers of the 7th, have a message from Davis and the report of the commissioners, from which it appears they required recognition as an independent power, precedent to any negotiations. Of course this was out of the question, and I think Mr. Lincoln’s course ought to meet the approval of all true patriots.

We cannot and ought not ever to acknowledge the Confederacy or its independence, and I am surprised they took the trouble to send men into our lines with any such ideas. This conference ought to unite the North to a vigorous prosecution of the war; and the people, if they do not volunteer, should submit cheerfully to the draft. In the same paper, which I send you, is an obituary notice of Beckham, who, it appears, was killed in one of Thomas’s fights at Columbia, in Tennessee, he being colonel and chief of artillery to S. D. Lee’s Corps. Poor fellow, he and Kirby Smith have both been sacrificed!


Grant to Meade:
Feb. 9, 10 a.m.

The Committee on the Conduct of the War have published the result of their investigation of the Mine explosion. Their opinions are not sustained by knowledge of the facts nor by my evidence nor yours either do I suppose. Gen. Burnside’s evidence apparently has been their guide and to draw it mildly he has forgotten some of the facts. I think in justification to yourself who seem to be the only party censured, Genl. Burnside should be brought before a Court Martial and let the proceedings of the Court go before the public along with the report of the Congressional Committee.

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. 261-2 and p. 344. Available via Google Books.

Follow-up (February 4, 1865)

Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

George Meade writes home with some follow-up on his Senate confirmation and the Confederate peace commissioners. The Chandler to whom he refers is Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, a staunch Meade opponent. As members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Chandler and Senator Ben Wade had spearheaded the effort to have Meade removed from the command a year earlier.

The peace commissioners had indeed met with Lincoln. I included Ulysses S. Grant’s account of the meetings in the post of February 1. I have my own follow-up to that post. In it, I had added this editorial comment: Clearly, Meade feels that he should not have spent time talking with the commissioners. I have even read an interview with one historian who says Meade’s actions here were treasonous.” Not wanting to point fingers, I kept the historian’s identity to myself. In a Facebook discussion that ensued, though, the historian in question stepped forward. He is Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. The interview was one he did for Harry Smeltzer’s Bull Runnings blog, in which Dr. Guelzo said this about the letter in question:After reading this, the first question which burned through my mind was, Whose side are you on? What Union major-general gives talking points to Confederate negotiators as they are on their way to meet with Lincoln and Seward? No wonder Meade concluded the letter with the injunction, ‘all this I have written you, must be confidential, as it would not do to let it be known I had been talking with them, or what I have said.’ This letter appears nowhere in young Meade’s Life and Letters, or Freeman Cleaves’ well-known biography of Meade.” (You can find the entire interview here

I remember reading that interview and feeling my blood run cold.

Now, I will freely admit to making some errors in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. I still flush with embarrassment when I recall how I wrote that Col. Henry Baker died at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. In fact, that was Col. Edward Baker. My subconscious must have been thinking of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the Sherlock Holmes story in which Henry Baker drops a Christmas goose that eventually leads to the recovery of a stolen gem. As far as I am aware, no Christmas gooses were dropped at Ball’s Bluff. I also referred to divisions as brigades (or perhaps vice versa) and at one point stated that Grant launched his Overland Campaign in 1865. (Incidentally, those errors have been corrected for the paperback edition, available here.)

But while I made some mistakes, I thought I correctly presented the big picture, which is that Meade had served his country well but had been unfairly ignored by history, for a variety of reasons. Yet apparently I had overlooked a letter that called into question Meade’s very loyalty to the Union. How had I missed it? I knew that his son and grandson left out passages and some entire letters when they edited his Life and Letters for publication, but I had looked over microfilmed copies of the originals from this period. Somehow this bombshell had eluded me. I felt chagrined and depressed.

But, as it turns out, Dr. Guelzo was mistaken. The letter was indeed included in Life and Letters. It had not been suppressed by the Meades. It’s right there for all to see. I had read the letter, but thought little of it. It did not make me question Meade’s loyalty. Meade obviously knew he was sticking his prominent nose into places it didn’t belong, but he was just repeating administration policy (that war could end only when the seceded states returned to the Union and slavery was abolished). I don’t consider that to be “giving talking points.” Had he written to his wife, “I told the rebels that the best way to throw Lincoln off his game was to mention Ann Rutherford,” or “if you want to make things work out your way, try contacting John Wilkes Booth and figure out when the president will be attending the theater,” then I would have seen things somewhat differently.

Anyway, my post of Meade’s letter led to a long and lively Facebook discussion among Dr. Guelzo, Meade supporter Scott Brown (who made some excellent points), and me. I remained insistent that Dr. Guelzo admit he had been mistaken when he said the letter had not appeared in Life and Letters. A small point, perhaps, but I felt it was important. Dr. Guelzo had used this mistaken assertion to underscore his interpretation of the letter as being especially damaging to Meade’s reputation. By this reasoning, the Meades could not let the letter see the light of day because it was so bad. That was simply not true. (Apparently Dr. Guelzo had repeated this assertion—and got the date of the letter wrong—in an article he had written for Gettysburg Magazine. I have not read that article.)

I am sure this was an honest mistake on Dr. Guelzo’s part, although I do think it hints at an underlying anti-Meade bias. Instead of seeing a meddlesome general, he saw a disloyal one. Perhaps I am too biased in the other direction, but I don’t agree with that interpretation at all.

Now, on to Meade’s letter from February 4. The Senators who voted against Meade’s confirmation were Zachariah Chandler (R-Michigan), James Harlan (R-Iowa), Samuel C. Pomeroy (R-Kansas), Benjamin Wade (R-Ohio), and Morton S. Wilkinson (R-Minnesota).

I hear from Washington the vote on my confirmation was thirty-two to five. I have not heard the names of my opponents, but their number is about what I expected, and I have no doubt they are all like Chandler, men whose opposition is rather creditable to you.

As to the Peace Commissioners, I presume their arrival will make a great stir; I have written you what passed between us when I called on them. I understand they afterwards went down to Fortress Monroe, where they met, some say, the President, and others, Mr. Seward. To-day they returned to Richmond, but what was the result of their visit no one knows. At the present moment, 8 p.m., the artillery on our lines is in full blast, clearly proving that at this moment there is no peace. I fear there is not much chance of any agreement between the contending parties until more decided successes are gained on our side.

I would have liked to have sent a few lines to Johnny Wise by the Commissioners, but they went up the river, and did not pass through my lines.

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. 260-1. 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.

A Strong Denial (April 1, 1864)

Daniel Butterfield has one of the most elaborate tombs in the Military Academy at West Point's cemetery. Unlike Meade, Butterfield did not go to school here (Tom Huntington photo).

Daniel Butterfield has one of the most elaborate tombs in the Military Academy at West Point’s cemetery. Unlike Meade, Butterfield did not go to school here (Tom Huntington photo).

Meade’s troubles in Washington continue, as he testifies before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War about Daniel Butterfield’s accusations that Meade had asked him to prepare orders for the retreat of the army from Gettysburg. While Meade was willing to admit he may have asked Butterfield to familiarize himself with the local roads in case a retreat became necessary, he strongly denied that he had anything else in mind. He vehemently refuted Butterfield’s implications that he had planned to retreat from Gettysburg. “I utterly deny, under the full solemnity and sanctity of my oath, and in the firm conviction that the day will come when the secrets of all men shall be made known—I utterly deny every having intended or thought, for one instant, to withdraw that army, unless the military contingencies which the future should develop during the course of the day might render it a matter of necessity that the army should be withdrawn,” he said.

I came up yesterday with Grant, am going to-day before the committee to answer Dan Butterfield’s falsehoods. Shall return tomorrow. I am all right, and every one is most civil to me. I will write more fully on my return.

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. 186. Available via Google Books.

Butterfield (March 20, 1864)

Daniel Buttefield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he "has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade's reputation under the fifth rib" (Library of Congress).

Daniel Butterfield. In the words of early Gettysburg historian John Bachelder, he “has never lost the occasion to stab General Meade’s reputation under the fifth rib” (Library of Congress).

No one can deny that George Meade had a knack for making enemies. One of them was Daniel Butterfield. Back in 1862 Ambrose Burnside appointed Butterfield to command the V Corps. Meade pointed out that he outranked Butterfield and the position should have been his. Burnside agreed, and Meade took over from Butterfield. He thought he and Butterfield smoothed things over afterwards, but apparently not. Joe Hooker later appointed Butterfield his chief of staff. “I believe Hooker is a good soldier,” Meade wrote to his wife back then; “the danger he runs is of subjecting himself to bad influences, such as Dan Butterfield and Dan Sickles, who, being intellectually more clever than Hooker, and leading him to believe they are very influential, will obtain an injurious ascendancy over him and insensibly affect his conduct.” Once Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac he tried to find someone to replace Butterfield as chief of staff, but he could not find anyone willing to take the job. When John Sedgwick heard that Butterfield would keep his position, the VI Corps commander “looked solemn and said he regretted it, that he knew Butterfield well, that he was a bold bad man and that Meade would live to regret it.” Sedgwick was right. When the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War began investigating Meade and Gettysburg, Butterfield, who had been sent west, traveled to Washington without leave to provide damaging testimony. He said that on July 2 Meade had told him to prepare an order directing the Army of the Potomac to retreat from the battlefield, a charge Meade vehemently denied.

I have received a letter from [John] Gibbon which has worried me a great deal. It is now evident that Butterfield, either intentionally or otherwise, misconstrued something that I said to him on the 2d of July into instructions to prepare an order to withdraw the army. To-be-sure, this order was never issued; it is also certain I never intended it to be prepared, much less issued. Nevertheless, the fact that he did prepare it, and, as he will swear, was ordered to do so, notwithstanding it was never issued, will operate against me, as people disposed to find fault will say I was all the time anticipating defeat, and hampered accordingly. God knows my conscience is clear that I never for a moment thought of retreating, although I presume I held in view the contingency that the enemy might compel me so to do, and I may have told Butterfield to familiarize himself with the roads, etc., so that if it became necessary we would be prepared to do it promptly and in good order. Out of this he has manufactured the lie that I intended at the time to do so. The falsehoods that have been uttered against me, and the evidence of a regular conspiracy which has been organizing almost since the date of the battle, make me heartsick. I believe now that Butterfield commenced deliberately, from the time I assumed command, to treasure up incidents, remarks and papers to pervert and distort in the future to my injury. How otherwise to account for his having a copy of this pretended order? Not only is no such order or paper found among the records of the Adjutant General’s Office, but the clerks and others have no recollection of any order.

It is hard that I am to suffer from the malice of such men as Sickles and Butterfield.

Grant is expected here next Wednesday. He spoke very fairly when here last, and from all I can hear of what he has said of me to others, I ought to be satisfied, as I understand he expressed every confidence in me, and said no change would be made in the command, as far as he was concerned. Still, he undoubtedly will have the power, and will exercise it, of bringing here such a force as will effect results that hitherto I have been unable to effect, and this will by the ignorant public be set down to his superior merit and quoted against me. However, I shall do my duty to the best of my ability, and trust to Providence.

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. 181-2. Available via Google Books.*

A Prudent General (March 15, 1864)

Meade was often very revealing in his letters to Henry A. Cram, his wife’s brother-in law. Here he discusses his recent tribulations with Congress, and provides a pretty good sense of his immediate future and his place in history: “I expect to retain my place, but I am anxious about my reputation.”

I received your note in due course of mail, but was so busy at the time I could not reply. It was hardly necessary for you to write that you would do anything in my defense, because I shall always fully count on you in this way. I was glad to have your sympathy, because I am free to confess the suddenness of this attack, its injurious combination of several interests against me, that really have no particular cause of complaint, has in reality astounded me and for awhile I was embarrassed what to do. I believe now, however, I have produced a reaction in my behalf, simply by exposing the character and motives of my assailants. I feared the Committee on the Conduct of the War was against me, and that their examination would be ex-parte; to which their organization, the absence of myself or counsel, the ignorance I am under of what is testified against me, all combine to give great power for injury, if abused. Fortunately my friend Mr. Odell is on this committee, and although hitherto a great friend of my principal adversary, he is most indignant at the course pursued, and has entered heart and soul into the determination to see justice done. Now this is all I ask, a thorough investigation of the whole matter and the bringing out the truth.

The ingenuity of my enemies, in the theory of their attack, is worthy of admiration. They acknowledge the battle of Gettysburg as one of the greatest victories the world has ever seen; but they expect to prove that it was fought in opposition to all the plans I had formed; that I was all the time expecting disaster and issuing orders to retreat; in fine, that had I not been there, great as was the battle, it would have been far greater. Now, although I can tear away all this flimsy framework of argument in this operation, I shall have to expose that as a prudent general, whilst my orders were always looking to fighting, I did at times, in discussions, councils, preparatory orders, etc., hold in view the contingency of a reverse and endeavor to be prepared for it. This is the sum and substance of my offense, and I regret to say that, among a certain class of my fellow-countrymen, this will be an offense and indicative of what they call too much caution, and being paralyzed by contingent reverses, proving that I did not have the dash and blundering audacity of others.

My enemies consist of certain politicians who wish me removed to restore Hooker; then of certain subordinates, whose military reputations are involved in the destruction of mine; finally, a class of vultures who in Hooker’s day preyed upon the army, and who sigh for a return of those glorious days. I expect to retain my place, but I am anxious about my reputation.

A very good article has been sent to me in the new paper in your city called the Round Table. [See below.] I wish, if you know the editors, you would, in my name, thank them for their generous interposition in my behalf. I am of the opinion that the characters and motives of my assailants have been of immense benefit, in staying public judgment before I could reply. I should like to see that article republished over the country, also one from the Times, which was no more personal, but discussed temperately the destruction of all subordination and discipline in an army where the inferior generals were spies and critics of their commanding general.

I think my testimony will pull the lion’s skin off of some of my disguised foes, and that they will perhaps, before the thing is over, repent they ever meddled with it. Already the liars have disclaimed any intention to attack me, and in evidence produce the article in the Herald signed Historicus, which you have doubtless read, and which is filled with false and perverted statements, which have astonished even myself, and those around me, who have great respect for the capacity, adroitness and skill in this respect of my opponents.

Give my love to Kate, and tell her I shall come out of this last battle of Gettysburg with flying colors.

Here’s the Round Table article that Meade mentions:


This question is now absorbing the attention of the authorities at Washington, and soon will be, if it is not already, decided. The fatality that has attached to every commander of the brave Army of the Potomac has affixed itself to General Meade. The movement against him, at first only whispered among a few discontented subordinates in the army, has at last reached the capital, and has attained the dignity—if dignity it be—of an open opposition. The main movers appear to be General Daniel E’ Sickles and the new Committee on the Conduct of the War. It is urged that General Meade is too slow; that but for the dash of some of his division commanders the victory at Gettysburg would have been a cowardly retreat; that he erred in not following up Lee immediately after that battle; and that since that time he has let slip more than one opportunity of adding new laurels to those of which the Army of the Potomac cherish an honorable pride. Such, in brief, are the charges against General Meade.

It is well known that, in his report of the battle of Gettysburg, General Meade indirectly censured General Sickles for advancing farther than he had authority to do by virtue of his orders, and so not only subjected his corps to severe loss, but rendered the extrication of it from the difficulty in which it was thereby involved no easy task. Whether General Sickles intentionally disobeyed or unintentionally misinterpreted his orders, was not distinctly stated. But one thing is certain, that the fact that General Sickles lost a leg in the engagement saved him from removal from the army. We honor General Sickles for the devotion to the cause of his country; we honor him for the untiring energy and personal bravery he has displayed in its defense; and when the war shall be ended and the roll of honor made out, we shall not be the last to claim for General Sickles no mean place on it. But we cannot blink the fact that General Sickles is quite as much a politician as a soldier. We know that he has accomplished more by personal address, adroitness, and cunning management of newspaper correspondents, than by actual display of military ability. * * * He is not a man to forget a fancied slight or to lose an opportunity of resenting it. In view of this, we are at no loss to account for his hostility to General Meade. As to the Committee on the Conduct of the War, the less that is said of it the better. So much for General Meade’s accusers.

Concerning General Meade, we presume no one will deny that he is a high-minded gentleman and a thorough soldier. All his dispatches and reports show that he has the instincts of a gentleman; and since he has been in the command of the Army of the Potomac he has won one great battle, has obtained several smaller successes, and has suffered no great disaster. As regards the battle of Gettysburg, the fate of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and perhaps of the nation itself, depended upon him, and with this in mind he had no business to take any risks. We see now how a pursuit of Lee immediately after the battle might have proved advantageous; but General Meade could not feel sure of it then, and under the circumstances he ought not to have undertaken the pursuit unless he was certain of its proving successful.

As a strategist and a tactician, General Meade has displayed no ordinary military ability. His disposition of his troops at Gettysburg has yet to be questioned, while the various movements he has planned since then, though not ending in the results which were hoped for, have stamped him as an able general. His retreat in the valley of the Shenandoah, when outflanked by Lee, was more than redeemed by the fact that he captured a number of rebel prisoners, which is, we believe, the only instance in the war in which a retreating force not only saved itself, but captured no small portion of its pursuers. Indeed, the rebels acknowledge this. The retreat from Mine Run, though it was to be regretted, reflected but little on General Meade, for his plan of the movement was proved to have been good, despite the failure in its execution.

Besides, the present is not a time for the removal of a general in command of so important an army, unless his faults be much greater than any that can be proved of General Meade. The spring campaign is about to open—who is better fitted to lead the Army of the Potomac than he who led it to victory at Gettysburg, and has since kept its honor bright? We have changed commanders too often; with the exception of General Meade, each change has been for the worse. We tried Burnside, Pope, Hooker, and found each of them wanting. There was no victory between those of Antietam and Gettysburg. It is due to the general who won the latter that he should have a chance to share the honors of the triumphs which we hope are awaiting our armies in the coming campaign. This is no time for experiments. And so long as we have got a good commander—one, too, who has proved himself such—we should stand by him; certainly we should not remove him to gratify the pique of any man or any set of men. General Grant was given a fair trial after the disaster at Belmont and Shiloh. Shall not as much be granted to General Meade, who as yet has met with no disaster?

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. 178-80. The Round Table article appears on pp. 321-3. Available via Google Books.

A Violent Attack (March 9, 1864)

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

David Bell Birney was not a Meade ally. He had commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg following the wounding of Daniel Sickles.

Meade’s travails with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War continue. He has learned that Generals David Bell Birney and Alfred Pleasonton have testified against him. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

As the head of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps, Pleasonton had embarrassed Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station just before Lee’s push north into Pennsylvania, but he had a less-than-sterling reputation. One cavalry officer said Pleasonton owed his position to “systematic lying,” and another called him “the greatest humbug of the war.” According to Pleasonton’s testimony he was with Meade following the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3 and “urged him to order a general advance of his whole army in pursuit of the enemy.” Instead, Meade sent him to determine whether the enemy was retreating. A year later Pleasonton will remember even more about his dealings with Meade. This time he recollects that on the afternoon of July 2, Meade had ordered him to prepare his cavalry to cover the army’s retreat, and he had spent the entire remainder of July 2, until around midnight, doing just that. Apparently this had all slipped his memory when he first testified.

David Birney testified the same day as Pleasonton. He had his own ax to grind with Meade following their unpleasant encounter at Fredericksburg. “Meade is a fraud,” he had written to a friend in March. To help speed Meade’s departure from the army, Birney decided to cast his lot with Hooker and Sickles. “We must have Hooker back to this army and I believe he will be sent to us!” he wrote. He also had great hopes for the future of Dan Sickles. “Sickles will I think command this army and in time will be President,” he had predicted back in October. So when Birney testified before the committee, he claimed that on July 5 he had wanted to attack the retreating Confederates but received an order not to do so. That was just the kind of example of timidity the congressmen were seeking. No matter that such an order never appeared in any official record, nor had Birney mentioned this incident in his official report.

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Alfred Pleasonton headed the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

I have answered Mr. Harding’s note, likewise one from Cortlandt Parker, and numerous others I have received from sympathizing friends. To prepare a statement and furnish it to all my friends who are desirous of defending me would take too much time. Besides, I intend to await the action of the committee, give them a chance to do me justice, failing which I will publish a pamphlet giving my side of the question. Yesterday’s Tribune has a most violent attack on me, full of the basest and most malicious slanders, in which, not satisfied with attacking my military reputation, they impugn my loyalty and attribute expressions to me I never dreamed of using. [For the article, see below.]

Birney and Pleasanton have appeared in the hostile ranks. The latter’s course is the meanest and blackest ingratitude; for I can prove, but for my intercession he would have been relieved long since.

Here’s the Tribune article that so incensed Meade:


The points made before the War Investigating Committee against Gen. Meade, who is substantially on trial before this congressional Commission, by the testimony of Gens. Sickles and Doubleday, are, that he gave and promulgated an order to his army to retreat from Gettysburg at the close of the first day’s fight, when his superior strength, his advantage of position, and the honor and interests of the country, required him to give battle; that, in the forenoon of the second day’s fight—Thursday—he gave another order to retreat, but which was not promulgated in writing; that he had made no dispositions for battle that day, had no plan for fighting, and seemingly no purpose to fight, but that the battle was precipitated by Gen. Sickles, and forced on Meade in part by the enemy, but principally by General Sickles, that Meade did not know on Friday night that our men had whipped Lee, or distrusted the fact that night, and was so uncertain of it on Saturday that he dared not pursue the beaten enemy, and weakly and ignorantly threw away the certainty of capture or destroying the entire Rebel army; that for a few moments he yielded to persuasions to let the 3d Corps pursue, but countermanded the order to do so in ten minutes after it was given, saying, alluding to the Rebels, “Oh, let them go;” that Meade’s subsequent representation that he was not in condition to pursue was not true; that his army was abundantly able and in condition to make immediate pursuit, and, if necessary, to fight and crush Lee’s disordered columns; that the 6th Corps was fresh and substantially intact; it had lost only 100 men, the 12th Corps had lost only 700 and had about 12,000 left, the 3d Corps had 6,000 men left and prayed to be permitted to pursue; the whole of the cavalry, 10,000 was intact and fresh. Gen. French had at Frederick 10,000 veterans in perfect condition, and Couch’s great force was also at Meade’s call. That, in a word, he had over 40,000 effective and ardent troops with which to pursue and destroy Lee’s flying and demoralized army, but refused to use them and suffered the enemy to escape. It is upon the question of the issuance of the second order to retreat that Gen. Butterfield has been summoned.

In the committee room it is understood that the origin of the effort made by Gen. Meade to break up the Third Corps to the waste of its esprit, and the discontent of every man and officer in it, and dissatisfaction with the service, was the refusal of the corps to subscribe to the McClellan testimonial.

It is stated that testimony can be added to convict Gen. Meade of expressing the opinion that we cannot subdue the Rebels. Gens. Birney and Pleasonton, examined before the War Committee to-day, told the remarkable story of the war councils called during and after the battle of Gettysburg, and exhibited the strength and efficiency of the army the morning after the last day’s fight. The testimony of both these Generals was very damaging.

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. 176. The Tribune article appears on pp. 320-1. Available via Google Books.

Congress (March 6, 1864)

Daniel Sickles commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg and began attacking Meade's reputation afterwards (Library of Congress).

Daniel Sickles commanded the III Corps at Gettysburg and began attacking Meade’s reputation afterwards (Library of Congress).

We are now entering into a troubling time for George Gordon Meade, as he discovers his generalship is being questioned by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a Congressional body investigating the Union war effort. The driving forces behind the committee were Republican senators Zachariah Chandler of Michigan and Ben Wade of Ohio. Both of them despised General George McClellan and wanted to root out all taints of McClellanism from the Army of the Potomac. The found a willing ally in General Daniel Sickles, who had moved his III Corps forward at Gettysburg, lost a leg, and began spreading the story that Meade had intended to retreat from the battlefield; by helping precipitate the fighting on July 2, Sickles told people,  the III Corps had kept Meade from leaving. Other generals, including Abner Doubleday, also testified against Meade. Here’s what I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Starting in February 1864 and continuing through April, seventeen generals from the Army of the Potomac trooped through the Capitol’s corridors so they could testify in the basement room where members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War examined its witnesses. They brought with them a collection of bruised egos, simmering resentments, and unrestrained ambition—leavened here and there by a dash of true patriotism and a desire to see more progress in the war.

Chandler and Wade wanted Joe Hooker returned to command, even though he was another West Pointer who had once resisted the idea of emancipation. Later, though, he apparently had seen which way the wind was blowing and shifted his position on that subject. His aggressive talk about fighting also made committee members think he was the aggressive, offensive-minded general they needed, Chancellorsville notwithstanding. Perhaps most important, Hooker showed no signs of political ambition; any military success he achieved would not create a potential rival at the ballot box.

Sickles was an equally unlikely ally for a committee dominated by Radical Republicans, for he was a partisan Democrat who had emerged from the highly politicized party machinery in New York City. Yet “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sickles was out to get Meade and so was the committee.

Sickles testified on February 26. Wade asked all the questions. When he did not outright lie—for example, by saying the III Corps had occupied Little Round Top when it clearly had not—Sickles used his lawyer skills to carefully skirt the truth. For example, when he read into the record Meade’s Pipe Creek Circular, which he said demonstrated that Meade had intended to retreat from Gettysburg, he did not read this line: “Developments may cause the commanding general to assume the offensive from his present position.” In other words, it was a contingency plan, not a plan to retreat.

Abner Doubleday took over command of the I Corps at Gettysburg after the death of John Reynolds. Meade replaced him with John Newton and Doubleday never forgot the slight (Library of Congress).

Abner Doubleday took over command of the I Corps at Gettysburg after the death of John Reynolds. Meade replaced him with John Newton and Doubleday never forgot the slight (Library of Congress).

Abner Doubleday testified on March 1. Like Sickles, he was still nursing grievances against Meade because Meade had replaced him at the head of the I Corps with John Newton following [John] Reynolds’s death. The aggrieved Doubleday told the committee that Meade’s plan was to make him and General [Oliver O.] Howard scapegoats in case the battle turned out badly. Meade, he said, liked to place his personal friends in power. “There has always been a great deal of favoritism in the army of the Potomac,” he claimed. “No man who is an anti-slavery man or an anti-McClellan man can expect decent treatment in that army as at present constituted.”

Brig. Gen. Albion Howe, “a zealot who despised anyone he thought to be an admirer of General McClellan,” had commanded a division of the VI Corps at Gettysburg. He continued Doubleday’s line of reasoning when he testified on March 3 and 4. Responding to some leading questioning by Wade, Howe explained that Meade and other generals in the Army of the Potomac had been tainted by the connection with McClellan., that there were “certain sympathies, feelings, and considerations of action which seem to govern now as they did then.” In fact, Howe decided, the problem within the Army of the Potomac was an epidemic of “copperheadism.”

After hearing all this Wade and Chandler went to see Stanton and Lincoln and urged them to replace Meade with Hooker . . . .

While in Washington Meade heard that Sen. Morton S. Wilkinson, a Republican from Minnesota and a Chandler ally, had attacked him on the Senate floor the previous day. Wilkinson told the Senate he had learned that before the Battle of Gettysburg, “the order went forth from the commander of that army to retreat; and but for the single fact that one of the corps commanders had got into a fight before the dispatch reached him, the whole army would undoubtedly have been retreating.”

At the end of his letter Meade mentions that the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid had failed. There will be repercussions from the raid to come later. For Meade’s report on the raid, from the Official Records, series, 1, volume 33, see below.

Senator Ben Wade of Ohio (via Wikipedia).

Senator Ben Wade of Ohio (via Wikipedia).

I returned from Washington to-day. I went there Friday morning on business connected with the reorganization of the army. The night before I left I saw Mr. Wilkeson’s attack on me in the Senate and Reverdy Johnston’s reply and defense. When I reached Washington I was greatly surprised to find the whole town talking of certain grave charges of Generals Sickles and Doubleday, that had been made against me in their testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. On Saturday I was summoned before the committee. I found there only Mr. Wade, of Ohio. He was very civil, denied there were any charges against me, but said the committee was making up a sort of history of the war and was now taking evidence to enable it to give an account of the battle of Gettysburg, and my administration since commanding the army. I then occupied about three hours giving a succinct narrative of events. Subsequently Mr. Stanton told me (this is strictly confidential), that there was and had been much pressure from a certain party to get Hooker back in command, and that thinking, through Sickles and others, they might get me out (a preliminary step) they had gotten up this halloobaloo in the Committee on the Conduct of the War; but that I need not worry myself, there was no chance of their succeeding. The only evil that will result is the spreading over the country certain mysterious whisperings of dreadful deficiencies on my part, the truth concerning which will never reach the thousandth part of those who hear the lies. I suppose and fear you will be worried about them, but I beg you to be calm and quiet, and rest satisfied that I will come out all right in the end.

I saw nobody in Washington, except people about the Government, except Mr. Howard, of Michigan, whom I went to see and to whom I explained the absurd charge of Sickles, that I had ordered a retreat at Gettysburg, and that that battle was fought in spite of all my efforts to prevent it.

It is a melancholy state of affairs, however, when persons like Sickles and Doubleday can, by distorting and twisting facts, and giving a false coloring, induce the press and public for a time, and almost immediately, to take away the character of a man who up to that time had stood high in their estimation. However, I suppose we cannot change human nature; we must be patient, await the period when the truth will slowly and surely make itself be known.

You have doubtless seen that Kilpatrick’s raid was an utter failure. I did not expect much from it. Poor Dahlgren I am sorry for.

Meade's report on the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid, page 1

Meade’s report on the Kilpatrick/Dahlgren raid, page 1

Meade's report, page 2

Meade’s report, page 2

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. 169-70. Available via Google Books.

Foreshadowing (March 15, 1863)

Meade wrote the following letter to his oldest son, John Sergeant, on March 15, 1863. (The George he mentions is the son who was serving with the army’s cavalry with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, a.k.a. “Rush’s Lancers.”) The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is an agency with which Meade would have many unpleasant dealings in the future. Here’s what I say in the book:

Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Senator Zachariah Chandler. (National Archives.)

Michigan’s Republican senator Zachariah Chandler had spearheaded the committee’s creation to investigate war-related matters following the Union disasters of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff. Three senators and four congressmen served on the committee. Chandler and another Republican senator, Ohio’s Ben Wade of Ohio, were the committee’s driving force, but Democrats served on it as well, including Andrew Johnson, later Lincoln’s vice president and successor. In the years since the Civil War historians have gone back and forth on the question of the committee’s impact on the war. Some think it had a negative effect, others a positive, and still others little cumulative effect at all. Yet writing in 1881 Alexander S. Webb, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg and even served as Meade’s chief of staff, wrote, “That body must be counted among the President’s most influential advisors. It was a power during the war.”

This letter also demonstrates how Meade’s opinions about how to approach the war had evolved over time. Back in February 1862 he had said the people in the North should “deport ourselves more like the afflicted parent who is compelled to chastise his erring child, and who performs the duty with a sad heart.” Compare that to the passage below. I think we can link the changes in Meade’s thinking to the disillusionment he felt over George McClellan, who he felt erred “on the side of prudence and caution.”

Ohio's Senator Benjamin "Bljff Ben" Wade (National Archives).

Ohio’s Senator Benjamin “Bljff Ben” Wade (National Archives).

I am obliged to go up to Washington to-day, to appear before the “Committee on the Conduct of the War.” I have no idea what they want me for, but presume it is in relation to the Fredericksburg battle, and that my being called is due to the testimony of General Burnside, who has perhaps referred to me in his statement. I am very sorry I have been called, because my relations and feelings towards all parties are and have been of the most friendly character, and I shall be sorry to become involved in any way in the controversies growing out of this affair.

I have only seen George once since my return; the weather and roads have been so bad that neither of us could get to the camp of the other. The regiment has been very highly complimented by General Stoneman. One squadron has been armed with carbines, and it is expected that in a short time the whole regiment will be thus equipped and the turkey-driving implement abandoned.

I am completely fuddled about politics, and am afraid the people are very much demoralized. I trust one thing or another will be done. Either carry on the war as it ought to be, with overwhelming means, both material and personal, or else give it up altogether. I am tired of half-way measures and efforts, and of the indecisive character of operations up to this time. I don’t know whether these sentiments will be considered disloyal, but they are certainly mine; with the understanding, however, that I am in favor of the first, namely, a vigorous prosecution of the war with all the means in our power.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 357-8. Available via Google Books.