11 Apr The Second Battle of Gettysburg, Part Four
By Lewis Trott, Licensed Battlefield Guide, Gettysburg National Military Park
It was a fortunate occurrence that Maj. General Meade found himself in Washington during the first week of March 1863. He had not been previously summoned to appear before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, but upon being told by the President that he was indeed in town, the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Benjamin Wade invited Maj. General Meade to appear. Meade’s critics were not restricted to the Committee, but were also being heard in Congress itself. On March 2, 1864, Republican Senator Morton Wilkinson from Minnesota stated that had not the I Corps engaged the Confederates northwest of Gettysburg on July 1, “the whole army would undoubtedly have been retreating, broken, and ineffectual before the power forces of General Lee.” Wilkinson further stated “I believe that he [Meade] means and wishes to do his duty; but he has none of that ‘blundering audacity’ of Grant, which will enable him to win battles and to crown his army with glory.”
Maj. General Meade would receive support from Democratic Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland (the same Reverdy Johnson who would serve as council for Mary Surratt the following year) who issued a rebuttal towards the remarks from Senator Wilkinson. Senator Johnson believed that once Meade was put in charge of the AOP:
“he marched with a celerity unexampled, and fought the battle even sooner than the public had reason to believe it could be fought with anything like safety, and every military man who has spoken on the subject, as far as I am advised, from that day to this, (unless the honorable member [Wilkinson] be an exception and he be a military man, of which I have no particular knowledge) has spoken of that battle as one of the best that ever has been fought, both as regards the bravery of the men engaged and the skill of the leader.”
Maj. General Meade was aware of the discussion occurring on the floor of the Senate but he would write his wife on March 6, 1864 that “When I reached Washington I was greatly surprised to find the whole town talking of certain grave charges of Generals Sickles and Doubleday”. Meade would make his first appearance before the committee on March 5 and wrote that only Senator Wade was present (the transcript of the committee records that Senator Chandler was also present however). “He was very civil, denied there were any charges against me, but said the committee was making up a short history of the war and was now taking evidence to enable it to give an account of the battle of Gettysburg, and my administration since commanding the army.” This was duplicity at its finest. Meade however knew better, but was assured by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that “there was no chance of their succeeding” in having him removed from command. Be that as it may, Meade was perceptive enough to tell his wife “The only evil that will result is the spreading over the country certain mysterious whisperings of dreadful deficiencies on my part, the truth concerning which will never reach the thousandth part of those who hear the lies.” Meade’s insight was prescient in this as will be shown.
Maj. General Meade began his straightforward testimony on March 5, 1864, detailing events as he remembered them beginning with his assumption of command of the AOP on June 28, 1863. Maj. General Meade would state that he believed he had the support of all his corps commanders and when questioned at the end of his testimony if he had anything further to add, Meade stated “I would have a great deal to say if I knew what other people have said.” It wasn’t until Meade began to hear what others had testified to that he would mount a more stringent defense of his actions as commander. He began to on March 11 when he brought before the committee official orders and circulars which were issued either by him or in his name and those that were, in turn, received once he took command of the AOP. At this time he told the committee of his desire to attack the Confederate left on the morning of July 2, rather the retreat, as Meade now knew had been told the committee by previous witnesses. It wasn’t until Meade’s second appearance for the purpose of testifying further that Meade would make pointed rebuttals towards his accusers, some of whom gave new meaning to stretching the truth.
When Maj. General Meade appeared before the committee a second time on April 4, 1864 he addressed specific allegations which had been previously levied against him as commander of the AOP. In between his first appearance and the second, Meade would be attacked most aggressively by Maj. General’s Alfred Pleasonton and Daniel Butterfield, and to a lesser extent by Maj. General David Birney. In the case of Maj. General Pleasonton, he was very flexible with facts. In that portion of testimony concerning Maj. General Hooker’s tenure as commander of the AOP, Pleasonton stated that on the approach of Confederates towards a line of guns he had established on May 2, 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville, Pleasonton ordered them to fire. He would continue “the whole turn of the battle was the death of Stonewall Jackson, or his being mortally wounded. According to statements of the prisoners taken that night, he was wounded by this very fire.” Whether or not Pleasonton actually believed this is uncertain, but what is certain is that, by this time, it was known that Lt. General Jackson had indeed been mortally wounded by his own men, as Maj General Hooker himself would testify. As for providing timely advice to Maj. General Meade, Pleasonton testified that “I was satisfied from my general knowledge of the country–and so mentioned to General Meade several times–that there was but one position in which for us to have a fight, and that was at Gettysburg; and I had given orders to General Buford to hold that point to the last extremity until we could get there.” One must wonder then why Maj. General Pleasonton was not rewarded with his own monument at Gettysburg.
Maj. General Pleasonton would testify that he had “always been of the opinion that the demonstration of cavalry on our left materially checked the attack of the enemy on the 3d of July; for General Hood, the rebel general, was attempting to turn our flank..” It must be assumed that he is referring to the actions of Brig. General Wesley Merritt and perhaps the charge of Brig. General Elon Farnsworth, but it is obvious that he is also conflating these two actions before a willing audience. In his words, immediately after the Confederates had been repulsed in what was Longstreet’s assault, Maj. General Pleasonton rode with Meade to Little Round Top where Pleasonton “urged him to order a general advance of his whole army in pursuit of the enemy, for I was satisfied that the rebel army was not only demoralized, but that they must be nearly, if not quite out of ammunition; and that our army being in fine spirits with this last repulse, could have easily defeated and routed the enemy.” And once the AOP had Lee’s army backed up against the Potomac River at Williamsport Pleasonton gave the committee more of what some wanted to hear when he stated “It was my opinion that our army should have attacked the rebel army then at Falling Waters….I believe we should have captured–if not captured, at least dispersed–three-fourths of that army, at least taken all their artillery…proving that the enemy were also of that opinion, was the fact that they themselves moved off.” As to how wounded was the Confederate army that had their back to the Potomac River in mid-July 1863, Pleasonton “considered that they lost out of their army at Gettysburg 45,000 to 50,000 in killed, wounded, deserters, and all that.” With Pleasonton stating losses of this degree, the committee must have also wondered what prevented Meade from destroying the Confederate army before they moved back into Virginia.
Maj. General Pleasonton’s testimony on March 7, 1864 further bolstered the opinions of those on the committee who wanted Maj. General Meade removed. Pleasonton’s way of spinning a tale was as good as his penchant for spinning what went for intelligence in his mind. Three weeks after testifying, Maj. General Pleasonton was removed from command of the cavalry corps of the AOP. Lt. General Grant, in overall charge of all Union armies messaged Secretary of War Stanton on Mach 24, 1864 “I would respectfully suggest that the order relieving General Pleasonton from duty here, and sending him to the Department of the Missouri be made at once.” By this point Meade was aware of those testifying against him and would write his wife on March 8, 1864 “I am curious to see how you take the explosion of the conspiracy to have me relieved, for it is nothing less than a conspiracy, in which the Committee on the Conduct of War, with Generals Doubleday and Sickles, are the agents.” The next day Meade offered his own comments about Pleasonton when he wrote his wife “Birney [Brig Gen. David Birney] and Pleasonton have appeared in the hostile ranks. The latter’s course is the meanest and blackest ingratitude; for I can prove, but for my intercession he would have been relieved long since.” Testimony would continue with Brig. General Birney and then a witness who was technically AWOL while testifying, Maj. General Daniel Butterfield.
 Ibid, 898.
 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 169. Accessed through hathitrust.org.
 Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office,1865, page 347. Accessed through hathitrust.org.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 359.
 Ibid, 360.
 Ibid, 361.
 Ibid, 363.
 The War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I Vol XXXIII. Washington: Government printing Office, 1891, page 721. Accessed through hathitrust.org.
 Meade, 176.