The Second Battle of Gettysburg, Part Five

By Lewis Trott, Licensed Battlefield Guide, Gettysburg National Military Park

Maj. General Birney was another witness who was perhaps bitter about the fact that, like Maj. General Doubleday, he was relieved of corps command after having taken over for the original commander. In this case Birney took command after Maj. General Sickles was wounded on the afternoon of July 2, 1863 and was relieved of that duty by Maj. General William French on July 9[1], who joined the AOP along with troops from Harper’s Ferry. Once relieved of command Birney departed the army on leave, therefore he was not present when the AOP had Lee’s army backed against the Potomac River. His absence did not stop the committee from eliciting more “in your view as a military man what should Maj. General Meade have done” type questions from a witness who was not on the scene.

When asked what would have been the probable outcome of an attack upon Confederate forces at Williamsport Birney stated “the utter defeat of the rebel army, I think.”[2]Of course, as in many instances, while this was what the leaders of the committee wanted to hear, it was pure conjecture. After giving his evaluation of new troops versus experienced troops, specifically that in his view new troops were better suited towards attacking, Birney offered his opinion when asked whether or not he could offer any justifications as to how a general, in this case Maj. General Meade, could allow the enemy to re-cross the Potomac River without attacking them: “I know of none.”[3] Birney would summarized what he felt the opinion of the army was towards Meade after operations concluded with the onset of winter in 1864, testifying that the army had “very little confidence in him as a military leader, or as a decided, resolute general.”[4]

But alliances being a fickle thing in the AOP, Maj. General Birney was rather quick to see that a change in command back to Maj. General Hooker was not happening so he wanted to assure Maj. General Meade that he was not in the Sickles/Hooker/Butterfield cabal. Meade would write his wife on April 11, 1864 “There is no doubt General Birney is scared at the turn things have taken in the Sickles matter, for I received a note from Hancock the other day saying Birney had been to see him, disclaiming being a partisan of Sickles and saying he would like to come and see me to explain matters.”[5]

Although not the last witness to appear, Maj. General Daniel Butterfield was the last of the heavyweight anti-Meade witnesses to testify on March 25, 1864. Butterfield was a holdover from the staff of Maj. General Hooker when Maj. General Meade took command of the AOP. Butterfield remained as Meade’s chief of staff through the battle of Gettysburg until being replaced by Maj. General Humphries on July 8, 1863. At the time of the hearings, he had been reunited with his former commander, Maj. General Hooker who was with the Army of the Tennessee. Interestingly Butterfield was technically AWOL when he appeared before the committee, having traveled to Washington without authorization undoubtedly at the behest of one of the other witnesses seeking to discredit Meade.[6]But it was Maj. General Butterfield upon whom the story of Maj. General Meade wanting to retreat on the morning of July2, 1863 rested.

Like the rest of those witnesses who wanted Meade replaced and wanted to shine a light on how it was in reality their actions that won the battle of Gettysburg despite of the commander of the AOP. Maj. General Butterfield testified that after learning that Maj. General Reynolds had been killed on July 1, is was he who told Meade that is was “his duty to go upon the field in person, or send me as his representative.”[7] When Meade said he could not go, and did not want Butterfield to go, the latter stated that if he were the commander under similar circumstances “I should entrust that duty to General Hancock, whom I considered entirely competent, and in whose ability I had great confidence.”[8] Thus it was told to the committee that Maj. General Daniel Butterfield made the decision to have Maj. General Hancock sent to Gettysburg, ensuring that battle would be fought there. What Senators Wade and Chandler really wanted to hear came next however when Butterfield testified that after he arrived at Gettysburg on the morning of July 2, “General Meade then directed me to prepare an order to withdraw the army from that position.”[9] This was exactly what the anti-Meade committee members wanted to hear.

And with a question that could have been written by Maj. General Sickles himself, Senator Wade asked Butterfield “Did this collision of General Sickles’s corps with the enemy prevent the order being executed which you had prepared?”[10] Butterfield responded that he was unsure of that, since he was not privy to what Meade really intended to do and when asked later if he had a copy of this order to retreat on the morning of July 2, Butterfield said he did not, as he had given it to Brig. General Seth Williams, serving as assistant adjutant general, to make copies. When Williams testified on April 18, 1864, he stated that while a contingency order for a withdrawal on the morning of July 2 was probably drawn up, “The particular order in question, however, was never distributed; no vestige of it is to be found among any of the records of my office”[11] and further “The order was never recorded, or issued in any sense.”[12] The idea of an early retreat on July 2 was also refuted by Brig. General Henry Hunt testifying on April 4, 1864. In response to the question regarding his knowledge of any order being prepared for a retreat on the morning of July 2, Hunt replied:

“I know of no such order, and no such intention. I presume if any such intention had been entertained, I should have known of it as soon as anybody, as the first thing to have been done was to get rid of the large reserve artillery and ammunition train under my charge, and which had been brought up on the morning of the 2d of July, under, or by direction of, General Meade.”[13]

Maj. General Meade would vehemently deny having any intent on retreating on the morning of July 2, 1863 when he testified the second time on April 4. Meade was emphatic stating “I utterly deny, under the full solemnity and sanctity of my oath, and in the firm conviction that the day will come when the secrets of all men shall be made known—I utterly deny ever having intended or thought, for one instant, to withdraw that army, unless the military contingencies which the future should develop during the course of the day might render it a matter of necessity that the army should be withdrawn.”[14] Meade would also introduce certain messages he had sent to Major General Slocum directing that officer to prepare his men to attack the Confederate left on the morning of July 2. It was clear that Maj. General Butterfield was testifying with a mind to damage the reputation and career of Meade. The latter was aware of this fact earlier when he wrote his wife on March 20, 1864 “I believe now that Butterfield commenced deliberately, from the time I assumed command, to treasure up incidents, remarks and papers to pervert and distort in the future to my injury.”[15] Meade would also lament in the same letter “It is hard that I am to suffer from the malice of such men as Sickles and Butterfield.”[16]

Ironically during previous testimony in regards to the tenure of Maj. General Joseph Hooker as commander of the AOP, Maj. General Butterfield would offer that “when a man attains a high position people are always found to carp at him and endeavor to pull him down…it always has been, and I presume will continue to be, the case, that the commander of that army, or any other army, will be more or less maligned…the arduous duties and responsibilities of commanders are nor fully appreciated by all.”[17] Apparently Butterfield was blind to this sentiment when he began his portion of testimony concern the command of Maj. General Meade. Together with Sickles and with an assist from Birney, the enemies of Maj. General Meade had given it their best shot in trying to have him removed.


[1] Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office,1865, page 369. Accessed through

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 370.

[4] Ibid, 374.

[5] The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General U.S.Army, Vol. 2. Meade, George Gordon. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. page 189. Accessed through

[6] The Union Generals Speak, ed. Bill Hyde, Louisiana State University Press, 2003, page 240.

[7] Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, 422.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 424.

[10] Ibid, 425.

[11] Ibid, 466.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 452.

[14] Ibid, 436.

[15] Meade, 181.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War,84.

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