The 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.
A 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.
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.”