Where Is Meade?
How Union General George G. Meade became the Rodney Dangerfield of the Civil War
The near-cloudless July skies promise a hot, sunny day for the people gathered in a large field near Gettysburg. The loud crump of a mortar sounds from the nearby pasture. Men—and a few women—in Union blue and Confederate gray make their way through the crowds moving among the tents.
I find some Yankees beneath a tent that hail from the Federal General Officer Corps. There’s an odd mix present today, including Clara Barton and photographer Mathew Brady. General William Tecumseh Sherman is here too, even though he was actually in far-off Vicksburg, Miss., in July 1863. General John Buford, the tough-as-nails cavalry commander who held off the Confederates at Gettysburg on the morning of the first day, is in evidence, along with General John Reynolds, who arrived with his I Corps just in time to support Buford—and receive a fatal bullet in the head.
I notice one major absence among the Union generals. Where is Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the Union army at Gettysburg? Certainly he should be here too?
In one way his absence makes sense, since it seems as though Meade has largely disappeared from history books. Sure, Civil War buffs know about him. Yet Meade has somehow missed being enshrined in the pantheon of greats inhabited by Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Grant and Sherman. Maybe Phil Sheridan has a seat in the hall, too, although that would surely make Meade grind his teeth. But the general who won what is perhaps the Civil War’s most important battle has been shunted aside.
Meade is the Rodney Dangerfield of Civil War generals. He gets no respect. Grant became president and occupies the $50 bill. Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield and William McKinley also reached the White House. As for Meade, after Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter chiding him for not immediately counterattacking Lee’s army. Adding insult to injury, Meade later had to testify about Gettysburg before a congressional committee, mainly because the man who had almost cost him the battle—Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles—was spreading rumors that Meade had intended to retreat from the battlefield. Even before the war ended Meade sensed his reputation was in eclipse. “I suppose after awhile it will be discovered I was not at Gettysburg at all,” he griped in a letter to his wife.
Then too, in the last year or so of the war Meade had Grant, by then general-in-chief of Union forces, traveling with his army and looking over his shoulder. Grant got credit for any victories. That situation was exacerbated by a conspiracy among newspaper reporters, angry that the hot-tempered Meade had kicked a reporter out of his camp. As a result they agreed to omit Meade from their dispatches.
Meade seemed an unlikely general. Balding and beaky, with big pouches under his eyes that gave him an air of melancholy, he was famously described by one soldier as “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.” As Frank Haskell, who fought with Meade’s army at Gettysburg and died with it at Cold Harbor, wrote, “Meade is a tall spare man, with full beard, which with his hair, originally brown, is quite thickly sprinkled with gray—has a Romanish face, very large nose, and a white, large forehead, prominent and wide over the eyes, which are full and large, and quick in their movements, and he wears spectacles….His habitual personal appearance is quite careless, and it would be rather difficult to make him look well dressed.”
His sloppy appearance underscored the fact that Meade was no prima donna. He had not sought command of the Army of the Potomac, nor did he engage in the kind of backstabbing often seen among generals. He was also a fighter, badly wounded in one battle and with plenty of shot horses and hats to testify to his courage. He took delight in a conversation overheard by an aide during a trip to Washington. “What major general is that?” a man had asked his companion. “Meade,” said the other. “I never saw him before.” The reply was, “No, that is very likely, for he is one of our fighting generals, is always on the field, and does not spend his time in Washington hotels.”
With the exception of First Bull Run, Meade participated in all the major battles of the Eastern Theater. He was wounded during the Seven Days’, when Maj. Gen. George McClellan lost his nerve and retreated from the gates of Richmond. Somewhat recovered, Meade fought at Second Bull Run, where Lee whipped Union General John Pope. He performed admirably at Antietam when McClellan, once again in charge, managed to push Lee out of Maryland. At Fredericksburg—with the army now under the command of Ambrose Burnside—Meade’s division actually had a chance to turn the Confederate right, but his men never received the support they needed. That was another disaster for the Army of the Potomac, one which spelled the end for Burnside as the army’s commander. Now it was Joseph Hooker’s turn.
Hooker had grand plans to finally defeat Lee, but when he put them to work at Chancellorsville it turned into yet another Union defeat. Meade argued with Hooker about going on the offensive, but Hooker opted to retreat. Desperate for supplies and eager for a victory on Northern soil, Lee then headed north to Pennsylvania. Hooker began to shadow him, but on June 28 a messenger arrived from Washington to relieve him of command and give the army to Meade.
It says something about the state of affairs that Meade’s first thought when the messenger entered his tent was that he was about to be placed under arrest. The Army of the Potomac had always been buffeted by political currents. Following his defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff back in October 1861, Brig. Gen. Charles Stone spent six months in prison without learning what the charges were against him. But Meade abruptly found himself commanding the army that Lee had manhandled pretty effectively in the past. As he said with a bit of rueful humor to the officer who brought him his orders, “Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing and I suppose I shall have to go to execution.”
Although he was in command for only three days before the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia collided in Pennsylvania, Meade emerged from Gettysburg with a clear victory. That wasn’t enough to win President Lincoln’s admiration. Meade’s exhausted army pursued the defeated Confederates to Williamsport, Md., where the surging Potomac River forced Lee to halt. By the time Meade was ready to attack, Lee had slipped across the river. Some people—Meade’s own generals included—thought his army would have been slaughtered had it tried to take on Lee’s strong defenses, much as Lee had been defeated when he made his frontal attack at Gettysburg. Lincoln believed otherwise. “Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it,” the president wrote in a letter to the general that he would file rather than sending. Meade had already angrily offered his resignation when General-in-Chief Henry Halleck sent him a similar message; Lincoln couldn’t afford to replace the man who had beaten Lee at Gettysburg. Lincoln never did replace Meade, who remained in command of the Army of the Potomac until it was dissolved after the war.
His health broken by war wounds, Meade succumbed to pneumonia in 1872 at age 61. By that time his reputation had further eroded. He didn’t get a statue in Washington, D.C., until 1927. It was one of the last Civil War memorials erected in the nation’s capital, arriving after years of bureaucratic wrangling.
Another reason for Meade’s lack of stature lay in his personality. He was not flamboyant. Content to do his duty, he believed his virtue would one day be recognized—and he was wrong about that. Toward the end of the war Meade watched angrily as one-time subordinate Philip H. Sheridan grasped for glory and found it, often to the detriment of the Army of the Potomac. Although Grant and Meade got along well enough in the course of the war, during his presidency Grant passed Meade over for advancement, preferring Sherman and Sheridan.
Meade also had a ferocious temper, “which under irritating circumstances became almost ungovernable,” as one officer noted. “He is a slasher, is the General, and cuts up people without much mercy,” wrote the general’s aide-de-camp Theodore Lyman. “His family is celebrated for fierceness of temper and a sardonic sort of way that makes them uncomfortable people; but the General is the best of them, and exhausts his temper in saying sharp things.” The temper sometimes created problems and enemies, as it did with the newspapermen.
I wonder if there’s also another reason for Meade’s relative eclipse, one that lies in the way we remember the war. A visit to Gettysburg gives us a clue to what’s going on here. There is a statue to Meade standing on Cemetery Ridge, the middle of the Union lines here. There is another statue directly across the broad field, over which the Confederate forces massed for Pickett’s Charge. This is the State of Virginia memorial, which towers 41 feet above the battlefield. Crowning it is an equestrian statue of Lee. Compare that memorial to the more modest one of Meade and you might think that Lee won the battle.
Both during and after the war, Lee has been lionized. 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 war, the noble South fought a valiant but doomed battle against the institutionalized, bureaucratic forces of the North. Southern generals like Lee and Jackson and Stuart tend to be remembered as glamorous warriors. Northern leaders come across more like CEOs of major corporations, faceless and colorless. Who wants to cheer for those guys? No, it seems much cooler to cheer for the underdog Rebels.
As I wander through the sutlers’ tents at the Gettysburg reenactment I find plenty of books and items related to Lee and Stonewall Jackson—books, postcards, posters, paintings—but at first I see nothing related to Meade. Finally I see a Meade postcard, and later purchase a coffee mug and bookmark.
The next morning when the Union generals gather for a presentation, Winfield Scott Hancock steps forward. “General Meade was not able to be here this morning,” he announces. Meade arrives later that day, and I finally discover him sitting with some other officers. It’s not really Meade, of course. It’s a fellow by the name of Bob Creed, who seems more pleasant-natured than the real Meade must have been. He talks to me about the tight-knit military fraternity of the war years, which so often found friends, family and acquaintances fighting on opposite sides. “While in Mexico I got to know an artillerist by the name of Thomas Jackson,” this faux-Meade says. “And also John Pope, whom General Buford”—he acknowledges the cavalry commander with a nod—“didn’t much care for.”
“Not after what he did,” the faux-Buford growls.” Pope, of course, was the general responsible for the Union rout at the Battle of Second Manassas.
As I walk away I’m still wondering why admiring crowds flock around Lee but leave Meade alone. A “damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle” could win the Battle of Gettysburg, but he lost the war of reputation.
Tom Huntington is the author of Pennsylvania Civil War Trails: The Guide to Battle Sites, Monuments, Museums and Towns.