Wednesday, July 3, 2013

George Meade and George Pickett

Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863) this is a special post recognizing two ‘Georges’ whose lives and legacies were effectively sealed in this largest military ever engaged in on US soil. General George Meade represents the Union army and General George Pickett represents the Confederate side.

George Meade

Philadelphia, PA. Visited September 2000

George Gordon Meade was born in Spain, December 31, 1815, son of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant doing business for the new United States with the Spanish government. Meade’s father was financially ruined while in Spain and the family came back to Philadelphia.

Meade as a West Point
George was awarded an appointment to the U.S Military Academy at West Point to the class of 1835, graduating 19th in a class of 56. Shortly after his compulsory service ended Meade resigned his commission and sought civil employment, but poor economic times made an army career much more attractive. It was during his non-military career as an engineer Meade married and had the first of his seven children.

Barnegat Light House - George
Meade's construction project
Meade returned to the army in 1842 and was assigned to an engineering unit. He saw significant action in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Following that war his most notable achievement was his design of the Barnegat Lighthouse on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, which still stands today.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Meade was promoted to brigadier general. He helped construct the defenses around Washington DC, and was severely wounded in the Seven Days Battles of June-July 1862, but recovered in time to command with distinction in the Second Battle of Bull Run in August of that year. General Meade replaced a wounded Joseph Hooker as temporary corps commander at the Battle of Antietam (Sept. 1862), and was wounded again in this most bloody single day of the war. When Hooker replaced the failed George McClellan after Antietam Meade was given permanent command of a corps and he served through the Battles of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 1863).

Meade at his tent

With Hooker’s disaster at Chancellorsville, President Lincoln searched for a new commander for the Army of the Potomac. After being turned down by others, Lincoln finally settled on George Gordon Meade, who was informed of his promotion on June 28, just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg. Meade’s surprise was such that, when informed that a courier was looking for him, he assumed he was being arrested for a politically trumped up charge.

"The Bivouac" - a painting of George Meade arriving at
Gettysburg by Keith Rocco

Meade Statue on Cemetery
Ridge at Gettysburg
George Meade reached his pinnacle as a commander at Gettysburg. Arriving on the scene at the end of the first day of the battle, he quickly assessed the situation and the all important ground upon which the armies were engaged. He set his troops in a compact fishhook-like line along the ridges, which forced the smaller Confederate force to extend a much longer line of attack. Meade’s placement of troops and choices of key subordinates resulted in the Union’s greatest victory of the war. However, his failure to follow up that victory with pursuit of Robert E. Lee's decimated army was maybe his greatest military failure.

Grant and Meade
Meade remained commander of the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war. But President Lincoln’s elevation of Ulysses S. Grant  to commander of the armies and Grant’s decision to headquarter with Meade’s army eventually left Meade as the functional second in command of his own army.

General Meade had various success through the rest of the war, with an overall effective command tarnished by significant miscalculations at the Battle of Cold Harbor (May-June 1864) and The Crater (July 1864). In the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox he was a background figure, but Grant respected his overall performance and at the conclusion of the war Meade was the third ranked officer in the victorious Union army.

General Meade and his staff

Following the war Meade returned to Philadelphia, where lived as an active duty general until his death from complications of his war wounds on November 6, 1872 at the age of 57. He is buried on a hill overlooking the Schuylkill River in historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

My friends Bauer Evans and Arie Mangrum at
Meade's grave in Philly

I visited the cemetery on a one day excursion with two long time friends and fellow history buffs, Bauer Evans and Arie Mangrum. One interesting fact I’ve found out regarding George Meade is that his great-great-great grandson is actor Matthew Fox, who played Jack Shepherd on the TV series LOST.

The preserved head of  Meade's
horse "Old Baldy", at a
museum in Philly

George Pickett

Richmond, VA. Visited May 1998

George Edward Pickett was born January 1825 in Richmond, VA to a prominent family. As a teenager he moved to Springfield, Illinois to study the law. While there he came into acquaintance with an established attorney in the town who would figure prominently in the young man’s future. The lawyer was Abraham Lincoln and it was soldiering against Lincoln’s Union army which would define George Pickett’s life.

Pickett at West Point
At the age of 17 George Pickett obtained an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point, joining the class of 1846 – a class that included STONEWALL JACKSON and George McClellan. Pickett distinguished himself mostly for his practical jokes and cavalier attitude toward studies, graduating dead last in a class of 59 cadets. This would have guaranteed him a post in obscurity, but the Mexican-American War (1846-48), like it did so many other future Civil War soldiers, allowed Pickett to move right into active war command. It was George Pickett, taking the US flag from wounded commander James Longstreet, who led the charge over the walls at the decisive Battle of Chapultepec.

Following the war he remained in the service and married a descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Tragically his wife died in childbirth during their first year of marriage. In 1853 Pickett got into a clash with fellow officer Winfield Scott Hancock and challenged him to a duel, which Hancock wisely refused. But they would meet again with much more at stake. During the greater part of the 1850’s Captain Pickett served in the Northwest territories.

Sallie Pickett
Though he personally detested slavery, at the outbreak of the Civil War George Pickett felt compelled, like so many other southern-born soldiers, to resign his commission and enlist in the Confederate Army, receiving the rank of brigadier general in January 1862. He led a brigade in the Peninsula Campaign (Spring 1862) and like George Meade above was wounded in the Seven Days Battle. But his bravery in command led to his promotion to major general under his former Mexican War commander Longstreet. Due to the strategic plans of the war Pickett’s division saw no significant action until July 1-3, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg. He did, however, find time to marry a twenty year old woman (18 years his junior). His new wife Sallie would be the love of his life and would do much to burnish his image after his death.

General Pickett’s division arrived at the end of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Due to the freshness of his troops, Pickett was chosen to lead the ill-fated charge on the third day that Lee hoped would finally break the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. At 3:00 on the hot humid July day, after a morning of poorly coordinated preparations and a massive but largely ineffective artillery barrage, George Pickett’s Virginians stepped out of a line of trees to lead an assault of 12,500 soldiers in a frontal assault of a strong Union line. The charge was to cover over a mile of open ground obstructed by several fence lines. On the high ground in front of Pickett were the well-entrenched Union forces led by Pickett’s erstwhile dueling opponent Winfield Scott Hancock.

The charge was doomed from the outset. Union cannon fire met the three divisions almost at the start. As they crossed the ground, cannonballs were replaced by blasts of canister shot which tore huge holes in the Confederate lines. Coordinated rifle fire into the front and flanks of the lines reduced the charge to a small band of brave soldiers who actually reached the Union line, where they were quickly repulsed by reinforcements. This is generally considered the ‘High Water Mark’ of the Confederacy, the moment in the war when the Confederate Army was closest to a decisive victory. But victory was never really in reach. Instead, Pickett’s charge was a truly tragic rout, a one hour exercise in military futility in which half of the assault force was lost, including over half of Pickett’s officers. Most significantly all of his senior staff were casualties; two of which – Garnett and Armistead – were killed, and a third – Kemper – was seriously wounded. Pickett, who observed the action from the rear, responded to Lee’s call to rally his division with the words, "General Lee, I have no division" .

Your blogger at the High Water Mark of the Confederacy -
a poignant spot on a dismal day 

George Pickett’s post-Gettysburg command was generally undistinguished. He was part of the surrender at Appomattox and, fearing the consequences of his role in the Confederacy, spent a brief time in Canada. However he returned to the Union in 1866 and worked in Insurance in Norfolk, Virginia until his death at the age of fifty in July 1875. About a year before his death he had received a congressional pardon for his role in the Confederate army. He was buried with honors at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA, which contains other Confederate luminaries including Jefferson Davis and Jeb Stuart.

I visited Hollywood Cemetery with my family as part of a two day trip to Richmond on our way to a beach holiday. Hollywood Cemetery is a must see for anyone interested in Civil War history in the Richmond area.

Your blogger at Pickett's gravesite

Some question swirls around Pickett’s perspective on the failed charge at Gettysburg. He is sometimes portrayed as bitter at Robert E. Lee for ordering the ill-fated charge, but most historians believe that he accepted the defeat as simply the result of overpowering defensive force at the point of attack.  A more recent controversy revolves around a trunk of Pickett's effects (uniform, papers, maps, etc.) which had remained in his family.  In the late 1990's a descendent of Pickett sold the contents of the trunk to well known artifacts dealers for $88,000.  The dealers turned around and sold them to the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA for ten times that amount.  The dealers, who had appeared as experts on Antiques Road Show were eventually convicted of fraud.  But the museum kept the artifacts, which can be viewed there today. 

Confederate veterans in charge mode once again July 3, 1913 -
Fifty years after the first attempt