MY WIFE AND I ARE DRIVING in northeast Philadelphia, trying to find our way through a warren of narrow streets and alleys on a route that a Mapquest printout promises is the best way to reach our goal. I don’t know this part of Philadelphia at all and the neighborhood is starting to look a little dicey. I’m beginning to think Mapquest has played a cruel prank—and then I spot two men in Civil War uniforms walking down the sidewalk. This must be the place.
We have come to the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in General George Gordon Meade’s hometown—to visit a horse’s head. Not just any horse’s head, mind you. This head once came attached to the body of Old Baldy, the faithful steed that carried Meade through several Civil War battles, and had the scars to show for it.
Baldy suffered his first wound during First Manassas, when General David Hunter owned him. Meade bought Baldy from the quartermaster depot for $150 later in 1861. The horse received a second wound at Second Manassas, and at Antietam was so badly injured Meade gave him up for dead. After the battle the stalwart horse turned up alive, if not totally well.
Baldy suffered his final wound during the second day at Gettysburg and would carry the Confederate bullet inside his body for the rest of his life. “I did not think he could live, but the old fellow has such a wonderful tenacity of life that I am in hopes he will,” Meade wrote to his wife back in Philadelphia.
In April 1864, on the eve of the Overland Campaign, Meade decided to send the horse to a well-earned retirement at a farm outside Philadelphia. “He will never be fit again for hard service, and I thought he was entitled to better care than could be given to him on the march,” the general said. When his wife later sent him a promising update about Old Baldy, Meade replied, “I am glad to hear the good news about Baldy, as I am very much attached to the old brute.”
Meade continued riding Baldy after the war. They were two old veterans, both wounded in the line of duty. Meade’s wounds helped send him to an early grave; on November 11, 1872, Baldy marched, riderless, in Meade’s funeral procession. The horse lived another 10 years, until the ailing steed was put down at age 30. Two Union veterans got permission to have the horse’s head mounted, and presented the relic, attached to a wooden plaque outlining Baldy’s war record, to the George Meade Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Philadelphia.
The Grand Army of the Republic Museum
Founded in 1866, the GAR once wielded considerable political clout and at one time boasted 500,000 members at posts around the country. But with its membership restricted to honorably discharged Union veterans, the organization had a built-in shelf life. In 1949, the last six surviving members officially closed the books on the GAR; the last member standing, 109-year-old Alfred Woolson, died in 1956. Baldy’s head went into the GAR Museum and Library, the institution founded to care for the old post’s collections. In 1979 the museum decided it couldn’t afford refurbishment work on the head, so it loaned Old Baldy to the Civil War Museum on Philadelphia’s Pine Street. He was a mainstay there, a centerpiece in the General Meade Room, until the institution closed in 2008.
Suddenly Old Baldy was in equine limbo. The Pine Street museum decided it would lend out its collections to other institutions, but the GAR Museum and Library sued to get Baldy back. Lawyers worked out the case in Philadelphia’s Orphans’ Court and agreed that Old Baldy could return to his former home. And today, on a gray and drizzly Sunday, my wife and I have arrived at the museum for the gala unveiling.
A crowd of about 65 people have gathered for the event. We meet for a short ceremony under a canvas covering in the parking lot behind the museum. Sounds of heavy machinery from somewhere behind us and the occasional blasting music from the street add a certain charm to the proceedings. Re-enactors representing the 98th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry serve as a color guard and present the flags for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then Dr. Anthony Waskie, the museum’s vice president and the founder and president of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia, begins. “We’re very, very happy to have this icon back here on display where he originally came from,” he tells the gathering. The Reverend Richard Partington gives a short invocation. “Help us remember the past so we can be better guided in the future,” he closes.
Waskie is the other reason I’m here today. He is the center of the Meade universe, if such a thing exists. A history professor at Temple University, Waskie also makes appearances as Meade at Civil War events throughout the area.
Once the ceremony ends we all troop inside the museum for the ribbon cutting, past the bust of Alfred Woolson, which sits inside the back entrance with, for some reason, a plastic lei around his neck. Bud Atkinson, the museum’s president emeritus, and his wife Margaret, a board member, do the honors, and then people file through the room to pay respects to Old Baldy in his new home on the museum’s ground floor. The old brute, enshrined in a brand new mahogany-and-glass cabinet, shares the small space with a number of Meade artifacts. A chair from the Leister House, Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg, sits against the opposite wall, beneath photographs of Meade and his wife from Waskie’s personal collection. A glass case holds other Meade relics—his Bible, cufflinks containing locks of his hair, his calling card, Baldy’s bridle.
Baldy himself…well, let’s be honest. He’s a horse’s head on a plaque. I can’t even say he looks particularly life-like. He shows his age and he has a somewhat glassy-eyed stare— probably because he has glass eyes. I note the white markings on his nose that gave him his name (they reminded Meade of an equine characteristic called “bald face”) but I search in vain for visible signs of wounds. Still, there’s something weird yet wonderful about visiting the business end of this equine warrior at his new home and sensing the excitement the museum people feel about getting him back where he belongs.
He’s certainly not the first Civil War horse to become the object of veneration. I’ve seen Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where he’s stuffed and mounted. A five-minute walk away I visited Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, who has his own grave just outside the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University where his master is enshrined. During the war admirers were almost as eager to see George McClellan’s horse, Dan Webster, as they were to spot the Young Napoleon himself. What does surprise me, though, is that throughout the entire afternoon I don’t hear a single reference to The Godfather.
Having pain my respects to Baldy, I look around the other rooms in the museum. It occupies the Ruan House, a stately brick presence that rears up above its neighbors like an elderly dowager determined to keep up appearances even as the family fortunes decline. It was built in 1796 by a physician named John Ruan. The museum bought the house in 1958, and now it’s a house-sized cabinet of curiosities, with display cases filled with an eclectic assortment of Civil War curios, including bloody strips taken from the pillow that cradled the dying Lincoln’s head and the handcuffs John Wilkes Booth intended to use on the president when he hatched his original plans to kidnap him. Baldy isn’t the only severed head on display here, either. Looking out over the adjoining room is the head of a mule, a tribute to all the army mules that labored for the Union during the war. As a regimental history said, the army mule “bore hard usage and scoffs and sneers with uncomplaining heroism, and was found dead on all the battlefields of the war. It was of inestimable value to the army, and it is doubtful if the varied operations could have been conducted without it.”
In one display case I find the medical satchel of Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War doctor and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor for her actions. (The government, in its wisdom, revoked her medal in 1917 but restored it to her in 1977. That was far too late to do any good for Walker, who died two years after learning about the revocation.) Theodore Lyman, who served as Meade’s aide-de-camp starting in 1863, once wrote to his wife about running into this “female doctor” on a train. “She was attired in a small straw hat with a cockade in front, a pair of blue pantaloons and a long frock coat, or sack,” he noted. “Over all she had a linen ‘duster’; and this, coupled with the fact that she had rips in her boots, gave her a trig appearance. She was liberal in her advice to all comers and especially exhorted two newspaper boys to immediately wash their faces, in which remark she was clearly correct.”
We head upstairs to the big back room for a champagne toast and refreshments. I take the opportunity to find a quiet corner and ask Waskie some questions about his fascination with Meade. “I’ve always been a history buff,” Waskie says, and he long nursed a fascination with Gettysburg. “I always knew Meade but I really didn’t know anything about him. It was like saying Don Carlos Buell. What do you know about Don Carlos Buell? So I started to read as much as I could about him. I just got more and more fascinated. Why is he not better known? This man is unbelievable. Three days before the battle he’s named to command, all the good things he did, the humble, unpretentious background, he rose in competence, was promoted, and on and on and on.” Waskie learned Meade was buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery and when he visited, he fell in love with the place. He’s now on the board there, conducts cemetery tours and has written a history of the cemetery. In 1990 he cajoled people into coming to the cemetery on December 31 for a ceremony on Meade’s birthday. That became an annual tradition and following the ceremony in 1996 a bunch of attendees sat around drinking and talking and decided to form the General Meade Society, its mission “to promote and preserve the life and service of Maj.-Gen. George G. Meade (USA), commander of the Army of the Potomac.”
Waskie did his first talk as Meade in 1985, with the general’s own great-grandson in attendance. “I did my talk and he was smiling, a very generous, genteel gentleman, and I’d look over at him, looking for affirmation, and he’d smile. After the talk was over he came up to me and he said, ‘you know, you know a hell of a lot more about my granddad than I do.’ ” Waskie’s been Meade ever since, doing his part to keep the general’s memory alive.
The Meade Society
A few weeks later I drive down to Gettysburg to meet up with members of the Meade Society who are helping spruce up Meade’s headquarters there. It’s an annual fall cleaning to help out the park. In contrast to the bleak and rainy weather that greeted me in Philadelphia, today is a crisp and windy October morning with a sky so blue it almost hurts my eyes. The members of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia are meeting at the tiny white building where Meade made his headquarters when he reached the battlefield after the battle’s first day. The widow Leister’s former home is plain as plain can be, a tiny, nondescript building on Taneytown Road. The diminutive wooden building has only two little rooms inside (with a tiny chamber off the porch that houses modern-day electrical equipment, including the taped message visitors can hear at the touch of a red button). A white picket fence surrounds a little garden and a stone wall runs up the hill to a small barn.
About a dozen society members have shown up today, some of them staying overnight in Gettysburg. The main topic of conversation, though, isn’t the Civil War—it’s the Philadelphia Phillies, who lost the first game of the National League Championship playoffs to the San Francisco Giants the night before.
Everyone pitches in. Some begin weeding the garden. I trim a large bush that sits in front of the house. Ken Garson, a retired librarian, helps me collect the clippings. When I’m done with the bush I start painting the weather-beaten garden fence and then do a little touch-up work on the house itself. I wonder if battlefield guides who bring people by will say, “Disregard the painting here. It’s obviously 21st-century work. And not very good at that.” After a couple of hours of reasonably productive activity the house looks a little bit better and we all retire to the Farnsworth House on Baltimore Street for pizza and beer.
The building was here during the battle, and if you look closely you can see the bullet marks that pock its brick walls. Inside it’s small and cozy, with a Civil War motif in its décor. One large glass case holds Gettysburg relics once removed— costumes from the 1993 film Gettysburg. There’s also a framed movie poster signed by members of the cast.
As I wait at the bar, I start talking with Jerry McCormick, the society’s treasurer. He tells me the group has about 250 members, some from as far away as the West Coast. There are even some in France. McCormick got involved after meeting Waskie at Antietam during that battle’s 135th anniversary in 1997 and talking about doing living history. “I told him, ‘Well, I’m not going to grow a beard,’” McCormick says, so Waskie suggested he portray General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, who sported only a moustache and served as Meade’s chief of staff after the Battle of Gettysburg. “I didn’t know who he was but I began to research him,” he says. Now McCormick does living history events as Humphreys for an organization of living historians called the Confederation of Union Generals.
After lunch, which includes a toast to Meade, I head back to the battlefield to walk around. It’s an absolutely stunning day, brisk and windy with leaves on the trees beginning to turn. I walk from the Leister House up to the Meade statue on the crest of Cemetery Ridge. Meade is mounted on Old Baldy and stares across the wide fields toward the statue of his old adversary, Robert E. Lee, that tops the Virginia Memorial. I walk on down Cemetery Ridge, roughly following the Union line, until I reach the huge domed Pennsylvania Memorial.
This monument to the Commonwealth’s native sons is the largest on the battlefield. Pennsylvania has the home field advantage here, but it also owns a good claim to bragging rights. As one Union general noted, “It is remarkable that, in the one Pennsylvania battle of the war, the men of that State should have borne so prominent a part. It was a Pennsylvanian [Meade] who directed the movement on Gettysburg and commanded there in chief. It was a Pennsylvanian [John Reynolds] who hurried the left wing into action and lost his life in determining that the battle should be fought at Gettysburg, and not at any line more remote. It was a Pennsylvanian [Winfield Scott Hancock] who came up to check the rout and hold Cemetery Hill for the Union arms, who commanded the left center in the great battle of the second day, and on the third received and repelled the attack of Pettigrew and Pickett.”
The monument to these Pennsylvanians and the men they commanded weighs in at a hefty 3,840 tons and stands 110 feet high. Perched atop the dome is the Goddess of Victory and Peace—she must work two jobs—holding aloft a sword and a palm branch. Statues of Pennsylvania generals stand at attention around the monument’s perimeter. Meade poses with a hand on a hip and one leg thrust out, which unfortunately makes him look like a model at the end of the runway, poised to spin around and flounce backstage. Reynolds stands next to him, clutching his chest with one hand and wearing an expression that speaks more of heartburn than combat. Cavalry chief Alfred Pleasonton rears back as though affronted by something he’s just heard. The heavily bearded David McMurtrie Gregg, first cousin to Pennsylvania’s war-time governor, leans on his sword and looks suitably general-like. Next to Gregg, Winfield Scott Hancock has binoculars in one hand and rests the other on his sheathed sword. Sharing the front of the structure are Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin, holding one lapel in a classic politician’s pose, and Abraham Lincoln, who also holds a lapel with one hand. He extends his other hand as though he intends to pat an invisible pony on the nose. Around the base are 90 bronze tablets that list the names of all 34,530 Pennsylvania soldiers who served during the war.
Walking back to my car I spy a small blue flag fluttering from a stone wall in the middle of the field, so I detour to investigate. It’s a small Minnesota flag flapping in the breeze next to a tiny empty staff. I assume it’s a tribute to the 1st Minnesota, sent by Hancock from a position near here on a desperate holding action during the fighting on July 2. It’s interesting to see the tributes people leave on the battlefield. Earlier I saw a glittery owl pendant sitting on top of the small stone that marks the right flank of the 93rd New York near Meade’s headquarters. People complain that Americans are terrible when it comes to remembering their own history. That may be true in general, but when you visit Gettysburg—or any other Civil War battlefield—you’ll find a stubborn core of people who refuse to forget. Just ask the members of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia.
Adapted from the upcoming book Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Hero of Gettysburg, by Tom Huntington (Stackpole Books, February 2013).