Happy Birthday, Ole Snapping Turtle!

As many of you probably know, we are referring in the title to this gentleman and today is indeed his birthday....

Perhaps not the most flattering of nicknames & most likely not one that was said to his face. Can you imagine Grant coming up to Meade & being all "How ya doin', Ole Snapping Turtle?" as he gives him a friendly slap on the back. Probably not the best idea when Meade has earned himself the reputation of having "a rage so magnificent that it seemed capable of moving mountains"...

All kidding aside though, when we talk of Meade we are also talking a man who had one of the most challenging first weeks on the job EVER as he was given command of the Army of the Potomac just mere days before the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. A battle in which, I might add, he delivered a MUCH needed victory for the Union. Despite this and other important contributions he made during the Civil War - like pushing Stonewall's troops back at Fredericksburg (unfortunately, Meade did not have enough backup and had to retreat but still...he pushed further than any other Union line that day in December of 1862), taking over Hooker's Corp when Hooker was wounded at the Battle of Antietam on September 17,1862 and bravely defending Henry House Hill during the Second Battle of Bull Run as Union troops had to retreat. History, unfortunately, has not been as kind to Meade when it comes to giving credit where credit is due.

Unlike the countless bios of Grant and Sherman, very few exist of Meade. And he still takes criticism over his performance at Gettysburg as well as why Lincoln named him as commander of the Army of the Potomac in the first place.

While Meade did achieve much during the Civil War, his pre-Civil War life is equally as interesting. Unlike Grant and Sherman, who struggled to find success before the Civil War, Meade did indeed find it prior to the Civil War. That is the story we want to tell you today. Many of the pre-war stories of the people who fought in the Civil War are equally as interesting as their lives during the Civil War. Looking at it, it helps to make them more real and not just a General on a battlefield commanding troops. They had lives before the war and sometimes, decisions they made during the war may very well have been influenced by the lives they led pre-war.

Meade's story begins in Cadiz, Spain on the last day of 1815, the 8th child to Richard and Margaret Meade. That's right, Meade was born in Europe. His parents were American but had moved to Spain in the early 1800's because that is where his father's business ventures took him.

Unfortunately, Richard gets caught up in some bad business deals & ends up in a Spanish prison for two years (Mafia ties are fun to think of and some Godfather-scale shit happening but it's probably not that exciting...). He is released in 1817 but his wife and children, including a nearly 2 year old George, return to the US and settle in Philadelphia, PA. Richard stays behind in Cadiz in attempt to recover some of the money he lost. He returns to the US in 1819 & eventually the family moves to Washington, DC where Richard makes a "futile campaign to get the government to reimburse him the $375, 879.75 he had lost in Spain" (Huntington 12). He never gets any of the money back.

George attends a boarding school in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania that modelled itself after West Point. In many ways, this would have been young George's introduction to military life. General Meade's son, also called George, describes his father at school:

"He was considered an amiable boy, full of life, but rather disposed to avoid the rough-and-tumble frolics of youth of his age; quick at lessons, & popular with both teachers & scholars".

At the age of 12, George loses his father when Richard dies at the age of 50 in 1828. Also in this same year, George leaves the board schooling and attends a school in Washington D.C. that is run by Lincoln's future Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase (Huntington 12). It was a classical school & Chase had opened it while studying law in DC.

In 1831, Andrew Jackson appoints Meade to West Point. While Meade wanted to go into law, his mother persuaded him to go to West Point. Being that she was a widower with 11 children, the free education that West Point offered was no doubt quite of benefit for her. So, at the age of 15, George begins his education at West Point. His son again describes how George was while he was there...

"His bearing was dignified, & manly, his manners affable, his opinions were of weight among the members of his corps, & he was universally liked & respected."

In 1835, Meade graduated from West Point. In his class of 56 pupils, he graduated 19th. One of his classmates was none other than Montgomery Blair, who later would be President Lincoln's Post Master General (Huntington 13).

Meade is commissioned, upon graduation, as a brevet Second Lieutenant in the 3rd US Artillery. He is sent to Florida, where is involved in the Seminole War. While he is here, Meade ends up contracting an illness, which Tom Huntington tells us in his book "Searching For George Gordon Meade" was probably malaria - "Pronounced unfit to continue serving in the tropics, Meade received orders to escort some Seminoles on a roundabout journey to Arkansas, after which he travelled to Washington & received a new assignment in the exotic locale of Watertown, Massachusetts". (Huntington 13)

Basically Meade when he finds out about Watertown...

In 1836, Meade decides to GTFO of the military since he didn't think it was the sort of life he wanted. Unlike Sherman & Grant, however, Meade would meet with success in a non-military life. He went on to pursue a career in Civil Engineering. Huntington outlines this quite well in his book telling us that Meade does some railway work which brought him back to Florida. He did surveys of various rivers, including the mouth of the Mississippi. In 1840, he was in Maine surveying the border between America and what was then British territory but is now Canada (Huntington 13).

Within all this work, other life events are happening for Meade. In between his work as a civil engineer, he was courting a lovely young lady from Washington D.C. named Margaretta Sergeant....

Margaretta was the daughter of John Sergeant, a Whig politician. He had been Henry Clay's running mate in the 1832 election (Huntington 13). Meade must have impressed Margaretta very much because on his birthday in 1840 (aka TODAY), they were married in Philadelphia.

George & Margaretta would have 7 children: John, George, Margaret, Spencer, Sarah, Henrietta, & William. He would also write her many letters during his absences from her, including during the Civil War. He was described as being tenderly devoted to Margaretta & one of his letters he wrote during the Civil War shows this...

"You were so kind & loving to me when I lay wounded & helpless that tho' I thought I loved you as much as it was possible for a man to love a woman I think now I love you more than ever."

In 1842, Meade decides he is going to rejoin the Army. For a married man with a growing family, the army no doubt was much more lucrative to Meade. He was now a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corp of Topographic Engineers, where he works on designing lighthouses (Huntington 14).

However, plans change....

Meade ends up receiving orders to report to Texas in August of 1842. This is due to the Mexican-American war. No doubt it was hard to leave his family behind but Meade remains faithful they will see each other again, writing that "there is no use in fretting over what cannot be helped & there only remains for us to pray God to protect us & bring us together in good pleasure".

During the Mexican war, Meade serves on the staffs of a few different generals, including future President, Zachary Taylor. Meade is brevetted First Lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterry, fought on September 21-24, 1846.

After the Mexican-American war, Meade stays in the Army but is involved with lighthouse and breakwater construction. He designs a hydraulic lamp that was adopted by the lighthouse board for use in American lighthouses. Some of the lighthouses he was involved in the designing of include:

  • Barnegat Lighthouse, Long Beach Island

  • Abescon Lighthouse, Atlantic City

  • Cape May Light, Cape May

  • Jupiter Inlet Light, Jupiter, Florida

  • Sombrero Key Light, Florida Keys

In 1857, Meade takes over surveying of the Great Lakes, including completing the survey of Lake Huron, which happens to be the lake the Canadian half of this podcast lives near. For Lake Michigan, he extends the surveys down to Grand an Traverse Bays. This work will keep Meade busy until 1861. By the this time, the Civil War had broken out and that's where we will leave you today with this post.

So, happy birthday to General George Gordon Meade & happy anniversary to he & his wife Margaretta. And also...

Happy New Year to all of you! Huge thank you for all the support you've shown us with this podcast. We have lots of exciting things planned for 2021!

Oh, and how could we forget to do a little Civil War Book Enabling? Much of the information for this post came out of the awesome book "Searching For George Gordon Meade" by Tom Huntington.

We'll close with this very appropiate meme....

See y'all next time!

-Darin & Mare

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