Paying My Respects to George Gordon Meade

Meade Grave.jpgThe paths and driveways through Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery remind me of an ant farm I had when I was a kid. The ways twist and scurry across the landscape unpredictably in three dimensions. The map makes it all seem fairly straightforward, but it doesn’t differentiate between the roads and the sidewalks, which throws me into confusion once I circle past the front gate. I easily miss the small round “Marker Number 12” that identifies the location of George Gordon Meade’s gravesite.

Meade’s plot sits partially down an embankment, the backside of the headstone faced toward the nearest road, although a sidewalk comes up the hillside from the direction his headstone faces. Other graves crowd in around him, including the graves of his family. Once upon a time, an Norway maple stood over his grave, a witness to his internment, but it came down a few years ago. In its place, the loyal General Meade Society of Philadelphia planted a white oak, along with a commemorative marker, in November of 2016. While I love the brilliant fall colors of maples, that seems to flashy for Meade; sturdy, stalwart oak seems more fitting to me.

Meade wreathsA trio of red, white, and blue wreaths stand on thin tripods around Meade’s grave–well, two of them stand, anyway. The third has fallen sideways and rests on its side like a tipped-over drunk. I right the tipsy tripod, which keeps wanting to tilt back over like we’re in an old black-and-white slapstick. I finally drive the legs deep enough into the ground that the wreath regains its self respect.

The splash of color on the hillside from these three wreaths makes me glad that someone has remembered this man. Yet I want his gravesite to be more—not because I am disappointed by what I find but because I believe need deserves it.

Meade was a consummate professional soldier and a man of the highest character who loathed army politics and eschewed pomp and circumstance. Instead, he hoped merit would be rewarded for its own sake. He often complained bitterly to his wife in their private letters, but he never complained publicly, never jockeyed for position, never curried favor with politicians and advocates. He never sought accolades or laurels

In the months after his victory at Gettysburg, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War—in its nauseating love affair with Dan Sickles and its ongoing meddling—short-changed Meade. His decision not to vainly waste the lives of his men at Mine Run made him the target of additional political scorn despite the moral courage it took for him to make that decision. Although the rest of his wartime service as commander of the Army of the Potomac was generally overshadowed by the looming presence of his boss, Ulysses S. Grant, he remained steadfast throughout.

Meade Tree.jpg

Grant liked and respected Meade well enough, but Meade wasn’t part of Grant’s good ol’ boy’s club, and so in the postwar army, Meade didn’t advance the way Sherman and Sheridan did. Meade’s death in 1872 at the age of 56 subsequently left him unappreciated, particularly when the Golden Age of Civil War Memoirs kicked into high gear in the 1880s. Meade didn’t live long enough to tell his own story—although he has never struck me as the kind of guy who would have.

Fortunately, his letters survived and were eventually published by his son. They are an incredible treasure, highly readable and incredibly illuminating. For other essential reading about Meade, I always recommend Tom Huntington’s exceptional Searching for George Gordon Meade. Meade, underappreciated and oft-forgotten, gets the respect he deserves in Huntington’s hands. (See Ryan Quint’s ECW 2014 review.)

Ironically, another of Grant’s “victims” is buried in Laurel Hill: Confederate General John C. Pemberton, who surrendered Vicksburg to Grant on July 4, 1863. If I worry too much that Meade has been overshadowed by history, Pemberton reminds me that Meade could’ve had it much worse!

I’d be curious to see Pemberton’s grave, but I’m already behind schedule getting out of town, and now Philadelphia’s rush-hour traffic looms before me. Laurel Hill Cemetery certainly merits further exploration sometime, but for now, I have to pay my respects to Meade and then hit the road. Still, I have come all the way across the city to do so, knowing I’m tacking hours of clogged traffic onto my trip as a result. But George Gordon Meade was one of the finest men the Civil War produced, and I’m glad for the chance to stop and pay my respects. As the Meade Society has implored, “Forget not his deeds.”

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12 Responses to Paying My Respects to George Gordon Meade

  1. John C. Fazio says:

    Chris:

    Thank you for this. Meade is one of my heroes too.I agree with everything you have written about him here. I was awed by his statue on Cemetery Ridge and by his little headquarters, where he called a Council of War on the night of July 2 and made the decision that may well have changed the course of history, namely to stay and wait for Lee to attack on the 3rd.

    https://padresteve.com/2014/04/25/a-council-of-war-meade-and-his-generals-decide-to-stay-and-fight-at-gettysburg-july-2nd-1863/

    • Thanks, John. Unfortunately, Meade sometimes doesn’t even get credit for making that decision. His critics did their best to undermine him and make it seem like he didn’t have anything to do with that decision at all.

  2. David Lady says:

    I generally agree with what you wrote in praise of Meade, and fully agree with your estimate of the unfairness and meanness of the ‘Joint Committee” hearings directed toward undermining Meade in the autumn of 1863. I take issue with your alleging some sort of “club-ism and croney-ism” in Meade’s treatment by Grant between the end of the war and and the former’s death in 1872. The cautious, the meticulous, the perfectionists were never selected for the most responsible Army commands when General Grant had a choice. General and President Grant wanted agile, active, responsive subordinates with whom he had a trusting and trusted relationship, when choosing those who oversaw the Army and active theaters of war. Meade like Thomas concluded their careers in positions of departmental responsibility, and were selected for them by Grant.

    • I actually make my comment about Grant as a Grant fan, believe it or not. I think one of his greatest strengths and simultaneously one of his greatest weaknesses was his loyalty to the people loyal to him. He gave preferential treatment to people who showed him loyalty–not a surprising thing, by any stretch of the imagination!–but the downside was that underqualified people got promoted past better-qualified people (Sheridan’s advancement past Meade is a prime example). That blind loyalty also got Grant into trouble during his presidency and with Grant & Ward.

      Tom Huntington’s book offers a great analysis of this practice in relation to Meade.

  3. John C. Fazio says:

    Chris:

    There are always fault-finders and naysayers. Did not Lee himself properly assess Meade when he said that he would make no mistake on his, Lee’s, front? Ultimately, res ipsa loquitur—the thing speaks for itself. Arguing with success is like fixing that which ain’t broke.

    John

  4. Thanks for the mention, Chris! Laurel Hill is a really cool place to visit. Meade, of course, is the main event for me, but you’ll also find George Leppien of the 5th Maine Battery (his stone is shaped like a cannon), John and Ulric Dahlgren, Samuel Crawford, and Phillies announcer Harry Kalas (his stone is shaped like a microphone). And let’s not forget Adrian Balboa, who has a tombstone even though she never existed outside of the Rocky movies. Anyone who wants to visit should do it on Meade’s birthday, December 31. It’s a big event, with graveside ceremonies (and champagne toast) plus a free lunch buffet. Always a great time!

    • I try to push your book whenever I can, Tom. It’s not only a fascinating read in and of itself, but it’s one of the best “memory studies” books out there about the Civil War. It’s a vital book for any buff, not just folks interested in the Eastern Theater.

      On a side note, I remember listening to Harry Kalas as a kid growing up in Hershey. My brother was a huge Phillies fan, so Kalas was THE voice of baseball for me because I listened to him so much (even moreso than Phil Rizzuto, who did the games for my Yankees). When he died in 2009, I wrote a brief memorial: https://scholarsandrogues.com/2009/04/13/outta-here-baseball-loses-one-of-its-finest-voices/.

  5. Rob Orrison says:

    Poor John C. Pemberton!

  6. Dear Friends of History,
    Many sincere thanks for all your kind and welcome comments on the Victor of the Battle of Gettysburg and Savior of the Union, Major General George G. Meade. By virtue of his critical victory, a turning point in the tragic story of Rebellion, and this after only THREE (3) days in command of the Army of the Potomac, Meade and his troops set the Union on the path to ultimate victory. Could any commander have done better confronted with such dire odds against him? I think not.
    To honor Meade and his stellar life and career as soldier, scientist, engineer and citizen, and promote his memory, the General Meade Society of Philadelphia was founded in 1996 at his annual Birthday Gala, held each December 31st at his final resting place in Laurel Hill Cemetery.
    The Society has taken on many challenges, tasks and an ambitious mission over the years to ‘set Meade’s record straight’.
    Yearly History symposia, trips and tours to historic sites, preservation efforts, scholarships, adopting the General Meade School in Philadelphia, Living History, parades and ceremonies, and much more.
    The over 200 members nation-wide and even abroad work tirelessly to commemorate the humble hero of Gettysburg, and we invite anyone who supports our cause to join us in our mission.
    Go to:
    https://generalmeadesociety.org/
    for details.
    Thank you sincerely and best regards
    Andy Waskie, Ph.D. president
    General Meade Society of Philadelphia
    PS
    I am an historian of Laurel Hill Cemetery, conducting tours there for over 30 years
    I am also the historian for the Civil War in Philadelphia and conduct tours of the Civil War sites of the City.
    see my book:
    ‘Philadelphia & the Civil War’ Arsenal of the Union (History Press)

  7. Joseph Wilson says:

    Nice article Chris. My G-G-Grandfather served under Meade in the Pennsylvania Reserves. I might add that the common soldiers loved Meade. To illustrate that point, Corporal George Garman, 7th Pa. Reserves, named his son George Meade Garman. No better tribute. The family tradition resulted in four George Meade Garmans. ( George Meade Garman 4th just passed ) Ironically the first George Meade Garman was born on July 3rd, the anniversary of Meade’s greatest victory. I would also add that George Garman was captured at the Battle of the Wilderness in his first battle NOT commanded by George Meade.
    Meade looked after his boys. Private Leo Faller says, “We all felt like crying when we heard Meade was wounded, (6/1862) for he had been like a father to the boys in the brigade.” Joseph F. Wilson

  8. Pingback: ECW Week In Review June 26-July 2 | Emerging Civil War

  9. Most interesting.
    Being in the UK most of our ‘news’ on Meade tends to come through books on Gettysburg and thus others’ opinions. The ones I have read seem to form around the opinion ‘Yes. He was OK….but…..’.
    I personally felt to have an army dumped on you right at the time of a great crisis, and trying to organise it particularly when one of your generals was Dan Sickles (and don’t get me started on Kilpatrick) AND in the face of Lee in full flood was something quite noteworthy.
    One very good history did accuse him of constantly having to react at Gettysburg, well going back to the suddenness of his new command having to react would have been a pretty wise option….let the other guy make the mistakes…and as we know Lee did.
    As very wise not to try and pursue too. Lee could be most dangerous when pursued.

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