Hunting George Meade

Author Tom Huntington’s quest for the Civil War general who won Gettysburg and nearly disappeared from memory


William Faulkner’s observation “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” takes on new meaning in an age when all our yesterdays and peccadilloes live on as digital ghosts in the machine. At its worst the Internet sustains vile speech and action by propagating and vivifying symbols of past oppression. At its best the Internet reconnects old friendships and restores forgotten reputations.

Tom Huntington and I spent time together at a fine old liberal arts college in his home state of Maine. The winds and tides of life pulled us in different directions until we found each other on Facebook and brought some of our pasts to life again. Tom and I spoke about his recent work — an investigation both historical and contemporary — of an overlooked Civil War general.

If you’ve never heard of George Gordon Meade you’re in company, for few Americans today know of the man who defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg during three epic days in Pennsylvania. George Meade earned his place in history. But he couldn’t keep it. Who was he?

“George Meade,” said Tom, “was born in 1815 in Spain where his father, from Philadelphia, served as an agent for the U.S. Navy. He graduated from West Point, fought in the Mexican-American War and built lighthouses before the Civil War.

“Meade fought in every important battle of the Eastern Theater with the exception of First Bull Run. He received command of the dysfunctional Army of the Potomac only three days before winning the pivotal battle of Gettysburg and he remained the army’s leader until it was dissolved on June 28, 1865. He died in 1872, helped to his grave by wounds he received ten years earlier.”

Civil War reenactors, Ohio, 2012. Western Reserve Historical Society

Participatory Biography

To get to know this general in eclipse Tom set out by car and foot to follow Meade’s life and career.

A history writer with previous stints as editor of Air & Space/Smithsonian, Historic Traveler and American History magazines, Tom discovered the Civil War after he moved to Washington DC. His book Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg was published by Stackpole Books in 2013 and is just out now in paperback.

“I liked the mix of past and present we offered in Historic Traveler magazine,” he said, “and I had read and really enjoyed Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic. Whenever I read history I always wonder what pieces of the past still remain on the landscape today, so I figured I’d incorporate that kind of thing into my book. Plus, so much of Meade’s story is the way he has disappeared here in the present, so I thought today’s perspective on his life and legacy was a necessary part of the book.”

Huntington wanted the book to reflect his own journey of discovery as he investigated Meade’s disappearing reputation. “I planned to tell the story of Meade’s life but I also wanted to visit the battlefields he knew and see what was there now,” he said. “I visited museums and talked to park rangers, curators, preservationists and people who have found their passion in Civil War history.”

“Not only did I visit a horse’s head for the book, I also paid my respects to an amputated arm (Stonewall Jackson’s) and a severed leg (which was once attached to General Daniel Sickles.) I read the names of soldiers buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg during a hushed and eerie candlelit ceremony.

“I got to go inside the Leister House, the little white building that Meade used as his headquarters at Gettysburg. And I helped the Meade Society during its annual trip to tidy up around the house and even did a little painting on the historic structure.

“Best of all, I spent a lot of time on Civil War battlefields. Meade fought in every important battle of the Eastern Theater with the exception of First Bull Run, so I had plenty to explore. I took part in big, ranger-led walks at Antietam on the battle’s anniversary and followed Frank O’Reilly in the footsteps of the Irish Brigade through Fredericksburg.

“I found some bones near the Brawner Farmhouse on the Second Bull Run battlefield and I explored Cold Harbor all by myself early on a gray and silent morning. I followed in the footsteps of Meade and Ulysses S. Grant on the Overland Campaign. There were times when I really felt like I was on the edge of falling into the nineteenth century.”

And did he find Meade?

“In a sense I guess I did,”, said Tom. “I learned that he had been a victim of several factors. His own irascible personality, especially his explosive temper, certainly played a role in his eclipse. ‘Meade does not mean to be ugly,’ artilleryman Charles Wainwright once observed, ‘but he cannot control his infernal temper.’ That temper also led to a bad relationship with the press. Politics became a factor, too.

“The Radical Republicans in Congress mistrusted and investigated him because of his links to General George McClellan, the first commander of the Army of the Potomac.” Huntington notes that Meade, too, became disenchanted with McClellan.

“Dan Sickles, who moved his III Corps forward at Gettysburg despite Meade’s orders and paid the price for his audacity when he lost his leg, spent the rest of his long and interesting life tearing down Meade’s reputation.

“The cult of Robert E. Lee and the myth of the Lost Cause have also overshadowed Meade — as has Ulysses S. Grant, who served as general-in-chief in the field with Meade’s Army of the Potomac.”

Major General George G. Meade, 1864. National Archives

The Past Isn’t Past, Nor Well Recall’d

I asked Tom if he saw parallels between Meade’s wartime and postwar experience and those of modern American generals, for example Franks, Mattis, McChrystal and Petraeus.

He replied, “I guess the biggest parallel is how much war is entangled in politics, directly and indirectly. The Army of the Potomac, being closest to Washington, was, I think, the Civil War army most subject to political influences. I see it as being like a small moon in close orbit around a big planet and getting twisted and torn by gravitational effects.

“Meade was buffeted by politics all the time — especially when, in the spring of 1864, he was being investigated by Congress for his actions at Gettysburg. I think also, particularly in the cases of McChrystal and Petraeus, generals of today, like those of the Civil War, are human beings, with all the human failings that embodies.”

The Mexican and Civil Wars shaped George Meade’s life and career. Both conflicts — one legendary, the other obscure — remain, like Faulkner said, neither dead nor past. “The Mexican War still strikes me as one complicated affair,” Tom said. “I think Americans, in general, like to see themselves as the ‘good guys,’ but it’s hard to view America’s role in the Mexican war from that perspective. It was basically a land grab, without much nobility of purpose. And the territory added by the war just poured more fuel on the fire over the slavery issue, which eventually erupted into Civil War.

“As to the Civil War — boy, that’s a big topic. I still have mixed feelings when I walk the battlefields. I am exhilarated to be there, but feel almost guilty to be enjoying myself so much on land that saw so much misery and destruction. I am also sadly astonished by how many people today will insist that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.

“I can understand the impulse — it’s hard to talk about that part of history (especially the southern side, of course) in terms of glory, honor, valor, and all those fine words when the root cause of the conflict was to keep four million people in bondage.

“I know people in the North were complicit in the slave system as well, so I don’t want to portray the conflict as good guys vs. bad guys. I mean, at the start of the war, I’m sure Meade himself had no desire to fight a way to end slavery. But there’s no escaping the fact that slavery caused the war, and the war ended slavery.

“I often find myself quoting Grant’s words when I get into discussions about this. In his memoirs, Grant wrote, ‘I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.’”

Tom Huntington. photo Dan Gleiter, the Patriot-News

The Art of Historical Remembrance

I asked Huntington how he saw the “art of historical remembrance” in America, based on his experiences. “The circles I travel in are populated by folks with a great passion for history,” he says, “and I find it really gratifying to see people who are so interested in history. It was inspiring to see so many people show up for the 150th anniversary commemorations at Gettysburg, and the thousands who recently went to Appomattox for the commemoration of Lee’s surrender.

“People often complain about a general ignorance of history here in the United States, and perhaps that’s the case, but I think there will always be a solid core of passionate enthusiasts. I hope young people will continue to replenish the ranks in the future.

“I do worry, though, about the ways history is sometimes hijacked for political ends, as happened when politicians influenced the content of school text books from Texas. History has to be presented warts and all — that’s the only way we can learn from past mistakes. On the other hand, I am equally distrustful of history that comes across as all warts.”

Huntington is gratified by the number of people who have enjoyed the book and agree that Meade deserves to be better remembered. But there’s still a long way to go, he says. Just recently, he spoke at a Civil War Round Table and people were still surprised, he said, when he noted Meade was never fired and remained in command of the Army of the Potomac until the army was dissolved in 1865.

“I don’t think Meade was a perfect general (nobody was) but I think he played an important role during the war, a role we should remember,” said Tom. “I also think his life provides a great gateway into the war as a whole, at least in the Eastern Theater.”

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Meade’s birth. Just barely (he was born on December 31, 1815). As a proud member of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia, Tom Huntington plans to celebrate the bicentennial at the annual graveside ceremony at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. Although always a fun event, but this year’s should be something special. As Tom says, “if you like spending the day before New Year’s in a cemetery, this is the place to be.”