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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 673

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This is the grave of George Meade.

Born in 1815 in Cádiz, Spain, Meade had a father who had made a ton of money in the merchant trade between the U.S. and Spain. But he put a bunch of money into the Spanish side in the Peninsular War and it nearly bankrupted him. The family returned to the U.S. in 1817 and were respectable but downwardly mobile. Meade had an older brother who became a military officer for the steady income the family needed by this time. George followed in his steps, going to military school and then to West Point in 1831.

But Meade wasn’t real interested in being a soldier. It was a path to employment, basically. He served in Florida in the Seminole War but left the military as soon as he could, in 1836, with the rank of second lieutenant. Instead, he took the engineering skills he learned in the Army and took them to the railroads, a new industry in America. He worked for the Alabama, Georgia, and Florida Railroad, as well for the federal government. But his employment as an engineer wasn’t as steady as the newly married Meade required so he rejoined the Army in 1842. He fought in the Mexican War, on the staff of Zachary Taylor, among other generals. In the 1850s, he worked on waterways and shorelines for the military. He designed several east coast lighthouses and invented a new hydraulic lamp for them. He rose to captain by 1856 and was sent to the Great Lakes and tasked with surveys of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

When the Civil War began, Meade was hardly an abolitionist. Like many of the northern generals, he was sympathetic to the South, which had dominated the officer corps of the military. He certainly rejected secession, but voted for John Bell’s Constitutional Union Party in 1860. However, he soon became one of the Union’s leading officers. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers shortly after the war started and was under the command of Irvin McDowell. His troops played a major role in the Seven Days’ Battles in June 1862, part of the ill-fated Peninsular Campaign. Initially, his troops were mostly in reserve, but at Glendale, they were in the thick of fighting. So was Meade. He was shot three times that day, in the arm, leg, and back, but survived. He was not fully recovered for Second Manassas, but led his brigade there anyway. He did very well at South Mountain in the Maryland Campaign, leading Joe Hooker to exclaim, “Look at Meade! Why, with troops like those, led in that way, I can win anything!” When Hooker was wounded, George McClellan promoted Meade over several senior officers to replace him.

Meade’s troops did pretty well at Antietam and then were basically the only troops to make any headway at Fredericksburg. For that, he was named major general of volunteers and a major in the regular army. After the disaster at Chancellorsville, when Meade urged Hooker to go after Lee, Hooker was on his way out. Of course McClellan was long gone. Lincoln was still trying to find a fighting general. He first turned to John Reynolds after Hooker stepped away. But Reynolds refused because he did not want to play the political game that dominated military leadership during the Civil War. He’s basically forgotten about today except by those really into Civil War military battles, which makes sense since he was killed at Gettysburg. So Lincoln turned to Meade. The general was surprised and actually at first thought he was being arrested for all his political machinations, or so he wrote his wife.

Meade was…not really the man Lincoln was waiting for. He was an improvement on his predecessors, sure. But he was only OK at Gettysburg, which to be fair, came almost immediately after his promotion. He was faced with the constant undercutting by politically minded generals that Hooker had faced, remnants from McClellan’s time. His chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, constantly fed bad information about him to others and said he was cowardly. Meanwhile, Daniel Sickles, who was close to Hooker, hated Meade because the latter replaced his friend and also because he himself really screwed up on the second day of the battle, disregarding Meade’s orders and nearly costing the Union the entire battle. So Sickles was undermining Meade too.

But Meade also didn’t pursue Lee after Gettysburg. One can understand why. The troops had fought for three days and were exhausted. But this was also the problem throughout the entire Civil War to this point. Lee and other traitorous generals knew that this would happen–they could invade the North and have plenty of time to move South and regroup if they lost. Meade did not change this equation. Lincoln was so very frustrated. For the rest of 1863, Meade stalled out. Grant and Sherman’s actions in the western theater were outpacing that of Meade. And so finally, Lincoln made the change and promoted Grant.

It’s worth noting that Meade was not technically demoted. A new position was created for Grant. Meade was not happy. He had a titanic ego, though it was more internally facing than McClellan, and he also had a hot temper. Grant was no idiot. He knew it was a tricky situation. So he gave Meade the benefit of the doubt. But Meade was angry at being effectively a subordinate, especially given that he and Grant shared a command center. Grant was ready to roll thunder on the Confederates, correctly realizing that crushing them was the only way to win the war instead of this interminable war with huge casualties that led to nothing. Meade found Grant’s acceptance of high casualties abhorrent; Grant knew it was necessary to prevent more later on. Meade also hated the close relationship between Grant and Phil Sheridan, with Grant constantly interfering with Meade, who was technically Sheridan’s commander. Meade didn’t perform well at Cold Harbor or Petersburg; the disaster of the Crater fell largely on Meade.

Still, Grant continued to talk well of Meade, recommending him for promotion to Major General. But Meade was also still bitter and grumbled that while he did get that promotion, it wasn’t until after Sherman and Sheridan received promotions, even though he outranked them. By and large, Grant wrote favorably of Meade in his legendary Autobiography as well.

Meade spent the postwar years in ill health, having not only been shot three times in the Peninsular Campaign but once later as well. Philadelphia named him a park commissioner, which was more of an honorary title than a job with real work. He remained in the military and took over the Reconstruction Third Military District in 1868, replacing John Pope. But he died in 1872, at the age of 56, of pneumonia and while on active duty.

George Meade is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was funded by LGM readers. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other Civil War generals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joe Hooker is in Cincinnati and John Reynolds is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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