Title: Address Accepting the Monument of Gen. George Gordon Meade
Date: October 19, 1927
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: A speech on the courage and character of Civil War Major General George Meade on the occasion of a monument for him in Washington D.C.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
America has ever been the most generous to those who have rendered service in time of war. We have not only been lavish in the public honors which have been also conferred upon our veterans, but we have also bestowed upon them pensions and gratuities reaching down to every man in the ranks, with which no other country can make any comparison. Such beneficences accorded to Civil War veterans will probably exceed twice the cost of that great war, although it lasted for a space of four years. It has been in this field, rather than in the direction of memorials and monuments which might correspond to the resources of our country and the importance of the men and events commemorated, that our action has been most conspicuous. It took the better part of a century to raise a fitting monument to Washington, nearly 60 years to express our appreciation of Lincoln, and about the same length of time to place a statue to Grant in the Capital City of the Nation.
This condition arose from no lack of appreciation of distinguished services, but rather from a lack of appreciation of what might be done in the way of public adornment through the agencies of architecture and sculpture. It can not be denied that some of the efforts which the Government has made, both in buildings and in monuments, have served to confirm the impression that they do not always increase the beauty of their surroundings. It is a satisfaction to realize that a change has come over public opinion. We have made a marked increase in our ability for artistic expression. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that while some memorial has been raised to a number of his comrades, it was not until the present time that a statue has been erected in this city in honor of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. But there are great compensations for the delay in the beauty and the appropriateness of the memorial and in the demonstration of the enduring quality of his fame.
As is indicated by the inscription before it, this monument has been erected by the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the memory of one of her distinguished sons. But in this case there is a double reason for this honor, because in one of the great battles of history he met and turned back in defeat almost at the border a mighty army bent on the invasion of that State. Everyone with even the most elementary knowledge of American history knows that Meade was victorious at Gettysburg. That in and of itself would be sufficient warrant to unending acclaim by his fellow countrymen. But informed students of the war know that he played a vital part throughout its whole course. He was a modest man, accustomed to giving credit to others rather than himself. Lacking the partisan support of those high in office and of the public press, he had little opportunity to be glorified during his lifetime. But finally justice comes to be done; time sets its clearer, truer estimate. The records more and more reveal General Meade as a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman. He was the great commander of the Army of the Potomac. It was that great force which for nearly four years held in check the ablest officers in the main military effort of the Confederacy. That Army had five commanders. Four of them were displaced within the first two years of its existence. During the last half of its history, from June 28, 1863, until it was disbanded after Appomattox, it was commanded by Meade alone. He was displaced not by defeat but by victory.
The military record of General Meade may be said to begin in 1831, when he entered the Military Academy at West Point from Pennsylvania. In 1835 he retired to private life, mainly on account of impaired health. But he returned to the Army in 1842, where he remained until his death in Philadelphia, November 6, 1872. While he was out of the Army he was engaged in a survey of the mouth of the Mississippi River. There he made some original experiments, which in later years led Major General Humphreys to investigations, by which he discovered the causes which formed bars and shoals at the mouth of the river. He reentered the Army as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. After serving on the staffs of General Taylor and General Scott during the Mexican War we find him in 1857 as the chief engineer of the
geodetic survey of the Great Lakes, where his scientific work was highly commended by the Smithsonian Institution.
At the outbreak of the war he was about to accept command of a Michigan volunteer regiment, when Governor Curtin gave him a commission as brigadier general of volunteers in the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps late in the summer of 1861. Up to this time he had never commanded even a company. His corps became part of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan. The great task at the time was to make an army out of a great mass of men totally inexperienced in military action. Later he served under both Burnside and Hooker, participating in the peninsula campaign, the second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and other battles of less importance. At New Market Cross Roads, June 30, 1862, he was wounded, but was back in command in six weeks. When Hooker was disabled at Antietam, McClellan gave command of his corps temporarily to Meade, although other officers outranked him. A little later he was made major general of Volunteers and placed in command of the Fifth Army Corps.
Early in June, 1863, Lee began to march north. He crossed the Potomac. His entire plans were never revealed, but if he could break through the Army of the Potomac, Washington, Baltimore, and even Philadelphia might have been captured, and there was little to prevent his marching on to New York. Hooker, commanding the Federal forces, began falling back, apparently to protect Washington. He soon asked to be relieved, and at Frederick, early on the morning of June 28, Meade was astounded at receiving orders placing him in command.
A situation of extreme difficulty confronted him. Hooker left for his post at Baltimore, giving no information as to his plans or the disposition of his forces. But the new commander accepted his unsought responsibility and proceeded to discharge it. By 7 o’clock on the same morning he had dispatched his acceptance to Washington, indicated that he would move toward the Susquehanna, and at the first opportunity give battle. He immediately worked out a plan concentrating his troops on a favorable field, where it would be necessary for Lee to attack him. He accomplished his purpose. The result was the terrible carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg. Beginning on July 1, and extending over three days, it ended when Pickett led his charge against the Union forces in vain. It is thought that in the Union Army nearly 100,000 were engaged, which was outnumbered by the Confederate Army by about 10,000. The losses of Lee in killed, wounded, and missing were estimated at 31,600; those of Meade at 23,100. The tide of war had reached its flood and from that day began to recede. Early on the morning of July 5 the great general of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, turned southward toward his native Virginia. Thereafter he must have known that he was supporting a lost cause, but the army that loved him rallied around him and his great military skill made him a dangerous foe for nearly two more years.
When it is remembered that before this terrific engagement Meade had been in command of the Army but three days, his victory becomes the more wonderful. Of course, he became an object of investigation by the Congress, but was able to vindicate himself. While President Lincoln was profoundly grateful for the decisive victory, he was no doubt filled with regret that Meade had not been able to pursue and destroy the retreating forces of Lee. Learning of this, the general requested to be relieved from command of the Army, but his request was disregarded for reasons probably best stated in a letter from the President to Gen. O. O. Howard, of July 21, when he said: “I was deeply mortified by the escape of Lee across the Potomac, because the substantial destruction of his army would have ended the war. A few days having passed, I am profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done.” The general himself felt that though he was victorious, his army had been disorganized, while the army of Lee, although repulsed, was by no means shattered. Before long they were facing each other across the Rappahannock. The withdrawal of a considerable number of his forces, due to the draft riots in New York and for other service, delayed his plan to lead an attack across the stream.
In November, after Lee had withdrawn behind the Rapidan, Meade planned to engage him at Mine Run. His plan became disarranged by the failure of one of the generals, so that the advance was abandoned. Although there was great public clamor for him to go forward, he refused to permit what he believed would be a wanton slaughter of brave men and might put in jeopardy the Union cause. He had sufficient character to rely on his own judgment and sufficient conscience to do what he thought was right.
At the opening of the next campaign in March, 1864, General Grant was made lieutenant general and placed in supreme command of all the forces, making his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. He refused the offer of Meade to retire, who held his command to the end, taking a prominent part in the battles of the next 12 months, which included the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. On the 1st of February, 1865, he was made a major general in the Regular Army. It was during this month that he was notified that his son lay dying. So great, however, was his devotion to duty that he refused to leave the front, and did not reach home until two days after the boy was gone. Three days later he was directed to return to his command. He was so worn out from his long service that in the closing days before Appomattox he was compelled to travel in an ambulance. But disease could not shake the vigor of his mind. He still retained his command. The first notes between Lee and Grant, paving the way for capitulation, passed through Meade’s lines. But having ridden over to the position commanded by Sheridan, Grant received the final note of surrender through him. The commander of the Army of the Potomac, therefore, was not present when late in the afternoon of April 9, 1865, General Lee, realizing the hopelessness of further resistance, acknowledged the defeat of the Confederate cause. Meade rode at the head of his men in the grand review at Washington, and on June 28, the second anniversary after he had been placed in command, he issued a farewell address to his men, in the course of which he said, “Let us return thanks to Almighty God for His blessings in granting us victory and peace, and let us sincerely pray for strength and light to discharge our duties as citizens as we have endeavored to discharge them as soldiers.”
After the war General Meade seems to have been engaged in the routine work of the Army of that day. From July, 1865, he commanded the Division of the Atlantic, with headquarters at Philadelphia, except for some service in the South. In 1868, as head of the Third Military Division, he acted as civil governor of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, where he displayed a most sympathetic and tolerant spirit in his efficient promotion of reconstruction. The next year he was back in Philadelphia, where he took an active interest in the welfare of the city, serving as vice president of the Fairmount Park Commission and in many benevolent enterprises. This eminent soldier and faithful citizen passed away at the early age of 57. When President Grant
was informed of his death he is said to have exclaimed, “What a calamity it would have been had it occurred during the war.” When it is remembered that not Meade but Sherman and Sheridan were the favorites with Grant, it can all the better be realized what high praise and appreciation these words conveyed. It is fitting that his statue should stand here, crowned with the emblems of victory, in front of the mounted figure flanked by wheeling squadrons, which has been raised to the memory of his commanding general.
The more we study the history of the war in which he fought, the more General Meade stands out as a responsible and reliable commander. Others may have had more dash, though none surpassed him in courage. He did not engage himself in leading hopeless charges. He was, rather, a general who kept himself sufficiently informed as to the movements of his enemy and made such preparation and wise disposition of his own troops that hopeless charges were not necessary. It can not be said that he always won, but he experienced very little of defeat. His personality was well rounded out. If it appeared to possess no lofty peaks, it was not marred by any deep depressions. If he was sometimes quick of temper, he was eminently sound of judgment. He was a solid and substantial man, one who inspired confidence, one who could be trusted. The victor of Appomattox assigned to him the second place among his generals. History has revealed that the estimate was none too high. General Lee is reported to have ranked him even higher, saying, “Meade, in my judgment, had the greatest ability. I feared him more than any man I ever met upon the field of battle.”
Throughout his life General Meade was a man of deep religious conviction. When he entered the service he said, “I go into the field * * * trusting to God to dispose of my life and actions in accordance with my daily prayer that His will, not mine, shall be done.” Throughout his entire military career he constantly acted in harmony with that sentiment. Time and again, in his letters and statements, he acknowledged his dependence upon Divine Providence. Like most great soldiers he was devoted to peace, not war. He even hesitated to regard those who supported the southern cause in the light of enemies, even reproving his own men for glorying in their defeat, which he would reserve for the case of a foreign foe.
On behalf of the Government of the Nation which he helped to save, I accept this memorial erected by the Commonwealth which was his own home and the home of his ancestors. The conflict in which he took such an important part has long since passed away. The peace which he loved has come. The reconciliation which he sought is complete. The loyalty to the flag which he followed is universal. Through all of this shines his own immortal fame.
Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, Library of Congress
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of David DeCleene, who prepared this document for digital publication.
Calvin Coolidge found a kindred spirit in General Meade, I believe. “Others may have had more dash” Coolidge states of Meade, but finds the greater, more enduring virtue of courage perhaps his chief quality, a quality that would, to Meade’s great surprise, see him given command when others surpassed him in rank. Coolidge’s own humility and quiet competence, like Meade’s, rested upon a substrate of courage. Coolidge highlights the character of a soldier who sought peace through the intercession of God, but gave his all to war to save a Union dedicated to the preservation of peace.