Laurel Hill Cemetery event honors ‘humble’ Civil War general

He was the first commissioner of Fairmount Park.

He designed the Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey.

In between, he was the victorious general in the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought in North America.George Gordon Meade was certainly accomplished, but his name and personal history often gets lost among other, more famous Civil War generals such as Robert E. Lee or William Sherman.

A local group is seeking to change that. As part of that effort, The General Meade Society of Philadelphia celebrates Meade every year on Dec. 31, his birthday and wedding anniversary.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

On Monday, Meade society members and fellow-minded supports, many dressed in period clothing, gathered at Meade’s grave inside Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Ave. His contributions during the Civil War were highlighted most.

“He was the victor of Gettysburg and he saved the nation there,” said Andrew Waskie, president of the Meade Society and a professor of history at Temple University, before walking with over 100 participants, many Civil War era re-enactors to Meade’s hillside grave.

Toasting Meade

The procession was a colorful sight. Re-enactors from many units were dressed in Civil War garb, some with gaudy epaulets and colorful red pants, and others in plain privates’ uniforms. Women in wide hoop skirts that swayed from side to side cautiously navigated the clogged pathway to the gravesite.

The 22nd annual ceremony there was a simple one. Waskie spoke briefly on Meade’s career and the Meade Society and introduced representatives of the many veterans’ and reenactment groups who were present.A brass band played Civil War tunes, an honor guard fired three volleys over Meade’s grave, and three wreathes were laid at the grave, including one from Meade’s descendants.

Participants then drank a champagne toast to Meade before retiring to the gatehouse for brunch.

A defining battle

The man they toasted lived much of his life in and around Philadelphia.

Meade, a West Point graduate, was a career military officer, first serving in the Mexican-American War.

During the Civil War, Meade quickly assumed more and more responsibility and was eventually asked to command the Army of the Potomac.

Upon his appointment in June 1863, Meade immediately issued orders for the pursuit of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which, under General Robert E. Lee, was invading Pennsylvania in the hopes of weakening Union forces. Lee had led his army from triumph to triumph, always in battles where he was severely outnumbered.

At Gettysburg, however, the numbers would be almost even – 85,000 Confederates against 92,000 troops for Union.

Still, if bets had been placed on the outcome, the smart money would have been put on Lee, who was revered by his men and had commanded his army for a year. Meade was little-known to the rank-and-file and had just three days to take the reins of command before battle on July 1.

In the words of Civil War historian Stephen Sears, however, Meade “unexpectedly and against the odds, thoroughly outgeneraled Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.”

Meade chose his best generals as subordinate commanders and skillfully placed his troops where they would be best able to throw back Lee’s successive hammer-blow assaults.

At the end of three bloody days – combined Confederate and Union casualties in killed, wounded and missing at Gettysburg were more that 45,000 – it was the Confederate Army that was forced to retreat in disarray.

Meade remained in command of the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war. But in 1864, Gen. Ulysses Grant assumed command of all union armies.

A humble man with a temper

So how did the general who won arguably the most pivotal battle of the Civil War end up in relative obscurity? In Waskie’s view, it was the result of circumstances and Meade’s personality.

“Meade’s own nature had a lot to do with it,” said Waskie following Monday’s ceremony. “He was very humble and unassuming.”

Meade also wasn’t a charismatic figure in appearance, once being described as a “goggle-eyed old snapping turtle” by a subordinate. The “snapping turtle” part of the description was another facet of Meade’s personality that didn’t serve him well – he struggled with a volcanic temper, and said Waskie, “He didn’t get along with the press.”

Meade quarreled with a reporter and banished him from camp. In response, the newspapermen combined to ascribe the army’s successes to Grant, its setbacks to Meade.

“Even though it’s Meade’s army he’s consigned to second-class status,” said Waskie.

And generals who felt slighted by Meade at and after Gettysburg carried on a decades-long public campaign to get their views across and blacken his name, further diminishing his accomplishments in the public eye.

Anniversary of Gettysburg

After the Civil War, Meade was chosen as the first commissioner of the newly-created Fairmount Park Commission, formed in 1866 to safeguard Philadelphia’s water supply by keeping the land along the Schuylkill River free from development.

He died in 1872, seven years after the close of the Civil War.

Meade may be in for renewed attention this year, with 2013 being the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg.

On Feb. 16 at 10 a.m., the Meade Society will meet again at Meade’s grave to take cuttings from the old dying maple tree that hangs over it and which must shortly be cut down. Waskie said, “We’ll souvenir the tree,” which was alive at the time of Meade’s burial.

The Meade Society has also begun a campaign to move an equestrian statue of Meade in West Fairmount Park near Memorial Hall to its originally-intended site at City Hall. The statue was sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder, who created the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal