On the afternoon of July 7, 1863, George Gordon Meade arrived in Frederick, Maryland, as his army marched in pursuit of the retreating Army of Northern Virginia. Word of his major victory at Gettysburg had already circulated widely, and Meade found, to his surprise, the people of Frederick making a huge-to-do over him. To escape, he eventually retired to the United States Hotel, which he’d made his headquarters, and in the early morning hours of July 8, he penned a letter about the experience to his wife.
“The people in this place have made a great fuss with me,” he wrote. A deputation of ladies had presented him with wreaths and bouquets “in most complimentary terms” and, he wrote, “The street has been crowded with people, staring at me, and, much to my astonishment, I find myself a lion.”
Had Meade been George B. McClellan, he might have taken all that huzzahing as his due. McClellan was always glad for the opportunity to bask in adulation that, as a matter of course, should have come his way.
But Meade was no McClellan. “I cannot say I appreciate all this honor,” he wrote his wife, “because I feel certain it is undeserved, and would like people to wait a little while.”
Meade’s wife, Margaretta, had been enjoying the refracted glory of her husband’s success. The general adored her, and so he was pleased that she could enjoy some sort of benefit. “I . . . am truly rejoiced that you are treated with such distinction on account of my humble services,” he told her. But otherwise, Meade was quick to downplay all the attention. “[T]he papers,” he told her, “are making a great deal too much fuss about me.”
I claim no extraordinary merit for this last battle, and would prefer waiting a little while to see what my career is to be before making any pretensions. I did and shall continue to do my duty to the best of my abilities, and that no man of sense will say in advance what their result will be, I will to be careful in not bragging before the right time.
It wasn’t the Meade didn’t have an ego. He’d just seen too many men rise and, even as adoring cheers rang in their ears, fall flat on their faces (McClellan as Exhibit #1 on that point). Or, they let all the adulation cloud their vision and good sense.
Meade also had a good hard dose of strong reality soaking into his bones by the early morning hours of July 8. He was, he admitted, “a good deal fatigued by our recent operations.” As he told his wife:
From the time I took command till to-day, now over ten days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest, and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety. Indeed, I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years.
The Army of the Potomac was equally exhausted. Some corps had marched more than 30 miles already in pursuit of the Confederates—in the pouring rain, along muddy roads and a swollen countryside. Many of the men were shoeless. Rations were slow in getting to them. The army was short on horses, and the horses they did have were alarmingly underfed and fatigued. Supplies for man and beast were running low and behind schedule.
It’s little wonder Meade had little appetite for cheers and adulation. He was still in the thick of it. Gettysburg was over, but he expected another battle looming on the near horizon, and he had considerable obstacles to overcome to ensure his army would be able to fight it.
If Meade found himself a lion, he did not want to be one with too much pride.
Excerpts from Meade’s letter “To Mrs. George C. Meade,” 8 July 1863, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. II, 132, 134.