Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Not all the skirmishes and engagements of the American Civil War were fought on the battlefield. Many were waged in popular publications of the day, pitting war correspondents against high-ranking officers in a war of words. One Union commander who waged his own intensely bitter war with the established press and held the Fourth Estate in contempt throughout the entire rebellion was Major General George Gordon Meade (1815-1872), whose childhood and retirement years were spent in Philadelphia. It was no secret that the press despised him. So hostile was this relationship that a highly unflattering dispatch written by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s senior war correspondent infuriated the hot-tempered, no-nonsense Pennsylvanian, which, some believed, cost Meade a post-war nomination for the presidency.

A number of Meade’s Army of the Potomac peers actively courted representatives of the major Northern news organizations billeted with their commands, or forged uneasy alliances, in hopes of receiving favorable news coverage. Some simply permitted access to a selected reporter if he was genial – and respected and trusted for accurate reporting – as well as being able to remain cool and collected under fire if planted in the thick of battle. By credible accounts, it is exceedingly doubtful that Meade ever made such accommodations.

It was in this climate that reporting was conducted about General George Gordon Meade and his Army of the Potomac. William Swinton of the New York Times was expelled from the theater of war with the prohibition never to return because he had discussed troop movements and criticized generals. Swinton was rabidly critical of Meade, acclaimed by both military leaders and civilians as the “Hero of Gettysburg” for his leadership amid a frenzy of “smoke, yells and exploding shells,” who was nonetheless vilified by others for the remainder of his career for not counterattacking the beaten and battered Army of Northern Virginia and allowing Lee to retreat back to Virginia which, in Lincoln’s mind, was responsible for prolonging the war. Ironically, Swinton wrote in a published volume long after the war that Meade “in his judgment was singularly the one who truly earned the fame he had achieved.”

Historians generally concur that several critical issues plagued the newly appointed Army of the Potomac commander. Lincoln had appointed Meade to assume command of the army only days before the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee, fully understanding the competency of Meade, remarked upon learning of the appointment, “He will commit no blunder on my front, and if I make any he will make haste to take advantage of it.” He probably was not privy to Lincoln’s letter of June 10, 1863, to General Joseph Hooker indicating how seriously he took his role as commander-in-chief and what a large part he played in determining strategy. Meade justified caution regarding Lee’s movements after the battle, concern for his weary soldiers, and worries about the enormous logistical problems facing the army as well as his great losses in killed, wounded, and missing, especially among his officers. Meade repeatedly told his staff, a senior aide recalled, “I’m not Napoleon.”

Such concerns influenced Meade’s decisions after the battle. However, they did not prevent him from mounting a brilliant pursuit to attack his old opponent at the Williamsport, Maryland, crossing of the Potomac River. Attempting to avoid a disastrous frontal assault, he conducted a thorough reconnaissance to discover a weak point in Lee’s line, but the Confederate officer realized he was able to make a hasty escape the evening before the planned attack. Lee’s successful retreat was unfortunate for Meade and further damaged his reputation. The well-known correspondent Whitelaw Reid acknowledged Meade’s triumph but criticized him for not following up the costly win.

Lee’s escape added fuel to the unending and relentless press war against Meade that he endured for the remainder of the war and the rest of his life. He was admittedly a high-strung, stubborn warrior of high character, steadfast, principled, and competent, although not flashy or flamboyant. After his promotion to overall command of the Union armies, Ulysses S. Grant chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, after which Meade remained nominally in charge but was overshadowed by Grant, who received credit for strategies and praise for successes.

Meade had no use whatsoever for the press early on and never wavered. As brigadier general at Antietam, he complained bitterly to his wife in a letter, “A reporter confused Hooker’s division with his corps, while the truth of the matter was Hooker’s division was at Alexandria.” In another letter Meade wrote, “I am afraid I shall not get credit for these last battles that I did for those near Richmond, for two reasons: First, I was not wounded; second, old Sam Ringwalt [Meade’s staff quartermaster] was not there to write letters about me. . . . I was on the extreme right flank, had the conduct of the whole operations, and never saw General Hooker, commanding the corps, after getting his instructions, till the whole affair was over.”

Early Southern accounts of Gettysburg are fascinating. The Richmond Daily Dispatch – praised for its coverage of the First Battle of Bull Run by one of the few correspondents permitted to witness it from the Southern side – on July 6, 1863, opined, “It is difficult to say from the accounts which we publish to-day, (all Yankee, of course) what portion, or whether all of our army was engaged. We presume, however, that it was only a portion, as the main body is supposed not to be in the immediate neighborhood of Gettysburg. It is evident to us at any rate, that our troops have gained a great victory. The Philadelphia Inquirer cannot conceal the fact, although it lies with an order and an earnestness that deserved success. We are told, in the first place, that ‘our troops’- to wit, the Yankee troops – maintained their position in Gettysburg, in spite of the most obstinate attempts on the part of the rebels to capture it. Again we are told that the rebels were triumphantly beaten back. But a little further on we discover that towards the close of the action these same ‘rebels’ made an attack upon one of the enemy’s flanks, and that he fell back a mile, fighting valiantly, of course, as Yankees always do – on paper. Lastly, the Yankees say the affair is ‘indecisive,’ which is proof enough that they have been badly beaten. Had it really been indecisive, they would have claimed a decided victory. It is only necessary to remember what McClellan did at Sharpsburg to be convinced of this. That affair was anything but decisive, McClellan was beaten with immense slaughter.”

The article continued, “Fighting Joe [Hooker] has disappeared at last; gone the way of all Yankee Generals” – and offered advice to General Meade to “instead of imitating their vain glorious and hollow ways, bend thine ear with humility amongst the long grass that covers their creases. In the meantime Lee, who has swallowed one Grand Army after another, is standing with open mouth at the gates of the enemy, asking for more. We are fearful that Meade will not organize his larder in time for the visitation of this ravenous Virginian and that he may find it necessary, in order to allay the pangs of hunger, to bolt Washington whole, and all its horrid contents.”

On the following day, the newspaper reported, “the Confederates hold Gettysburg.” It also published dispatches from the New York World containing excerpts from Meade’s official report, which was all the War Department, it charged, would allow to be telegraphed from Washington to the Northern papers. In subsequent issues, it reported, “Federal movement around Richmond in the direction of Hanover,” and printed excerpts of Northern newspapers relaying additional dispatches of the commander of the Army of the Potomac from the field. In coming days the sway of the battle would become clear to both Northern and Southern readers.

The press battled with Meade to the bitter end. During the triumphant celebrations in the nation’s capital at the war’s conclusion, Meade was astride a flower-draped horse on May 23, 1865, leading the first of his units amid the roar of cheering crowds. Unfortunately, as Ernest Furgurson in his book, Freedom Rising, describing Washington in the Civil War, notes, “The names of Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas and Farragut were everywhere but not the long-ignored George Meade, still commander of the Army of the Potomac.”

Meade’s treatment by the press must be balanced at least partly by the considerable difficulties faced in the news gathering endeavors of the day; correspondents were pressed more and more as the war continued by publishers to obtain news in advance of a competitor – even if it meant little or no time to get the facts straight. Many of the Union generals were typecast by the Northern press as either military geniuses or total incompetents unfit for any command. Those in the latter category certainly had their own thoughts on the subject, one calling reporters, “Snakes in the grass; no act of villany of which they are not capable.” Few could legitimately discount Meade’s overall abilities, experience, and personal valor in spite of his often disagreeable treatment of them.

Grant toured the Southern states late in 1865 primarily for military reasons, but also to secure information about the attitudes of Southerners toward the national government. Meade, who served as chief of the Third Military District of the Atlantic, and later headed the Department of the South, garnered favorable treatment in recognition of his actions during the early Reconstruction period. He earned respect in Georgia and the Carolinas for exercising nonpartisan and effective administration between 1866 and 1868, while deftly navigating the sea of politics so disagreeable to him.

In Atlanta, Meade, “accompanied by General R. C. Drum and Colonels George Meade [his son] and C. D. Emory of his staff, arrived on Sunday morning, Jan. 6, 1868,” to replace John Pope (1822-1892) as governor of the Reconstruction, Third Military District, and “immediately assumed the duties of his position” at a rented private home at 80 Marietta Street. The city’s governing committee prepared various resolutions for Meade, as they were pleased with the change from Pope – whom they intensely disliked – George Gordon Meade, who they considered “a gentleman and a soldier.” They presented their resolutions and recorded they “had a very pleasant interview,” although they soon learned government policies were not changing, no matter how agreeable the administrator. Meade also visited Georgia’s coastal plains region, conducting inspections and dealing with pockets of unrest when and where necessary as he had done in Camilla, Georgia, six months after establishing his Atlanta headquarters.

There had been well more than 200,000 troops in the states of the former Confederacy in June 1865, and the number dropped to just less than 39,000 by April 1866, and to 9,000 by October 1870. Affairs in the South from 1865 through March 1867 under the First Reconstruction Act seemingly had less to do with the decrease of the size military than it did with the money it was costing. By additional legislation, on March 3, 1869, the size of the army was further reduced and few members of Congress even mentioned the South in the debate, as they were more concerned with finances overall and “cutting an unwieldy officer corps,” according to historian and author James E. Sefton.

Meade believed in the idea of returning the South to civilian control as quickly as possible as opposed to extended military occupation. Again in the state of Georgia he replaced a former Whig governor, who had opposed secession, with New York native and Wisconsin-raised Thomas H. Ruger (1833-1907) as provisional governor, a battle-tested military general and West Pointer. Ruger only served six months, but his administration was noteworthy for the relocation of the state capital from Milledgeville, with its thoroughly anti-Republican press, to Atlanta. He served well although wielded little real authority, taking his instructions from Meade during this period.

Perhaps Meade best expressed his sentiments about the press in letters to his wife. After Fredericksburg, he bitterly complained to Margaretta that the newspaper correspondents, as usual, ignored his Pennsylvania Reserves and wrote scandalous lies. Following the horrendous bloodbath at Antietam and immensely dissatisfied with the inaccuracies of the press reporting of the campaign, as well as displeased with lack of credit due him, he wrote, “But such is history,” and thereafter, “I don’t think the true story will ever be told, and I have a great contempt for history.” He constantly complained that newspapers published outlandish falsehoods and incorrect facts which minimized his military reputation. Nonetheless, George Gordon Meade has not been forgotten, but there are those who believe he has yet to receive his just honors.


An Officer and a Gentleman

George Gordon Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, on December 31, 1815, to Margaret Coates Butler (1782-1852) and Richard Worsam Meade (1778-1828), an affluent merchant who was serving as U.S.consul and agent for the U.S. Navy. The family returned to the United States and settled in Philadelphia where the young Meade attended the Mt. Airy Institute. His father’s financial reverses, however, forced him to withdraw. For several years, the family moved between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., and the younger Meade attended several different schools. He wanted to enroll at a traditional college, but applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was accepted as a cadet in 1831.

After graduating from West Point in 1835, Meade fought in the Second Seminole War in Florida. He resigned from the army the following year to pursue a career as a civil engineer. On December 31, 1840, his twenty-fifth birthday, at the Sergeant home in Philadelphia, Meade married Margaretta Sergeant (1815-1886), daughter of Margaretta Watmough (1787-1869) and John Sergeant (1779-1852), who represented Pennsylvania in Congress and was the Whig Party running mate of Henry Clay in the 1832 presidential election, and the granddaughter of Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, a member of the Continental Congress and a wealthy Philadelphian. The couple had four sons and three daughters. Meade was hired by the U.S. Costal Survey to conduct survey work and, in 1842, was appointed 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. During the Mexican War, he served on the staffs of Generals Zachary Taylor, William J. Worth, and Robert Patterson. For his gallantry at the Battle of Monterrey, he was promoted to 1st lieutenant. Following the war, he returned to engineering and supervised the construction of lighthouses in New Jersey and Florida. In 1856, he was promoted to the rank of captain and the following year was named superintendent of the survey of the Great Lakes and their tributaries.

On August 31, 1861, several months after the outbreak of the American Civil War, Meade was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, based on the recommendation of Pennsylvania’s War Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin (1815-1894). He was given command of the 2nd Brigade, Pennsylvania Reserves, and constructed fortifications protecting Washington, D.C. He and his troops joined the Army of the Potomac, organized by General George B. McClellan (1826-1885), scion of a prominent Philadelphia family. Meade was severely wounded at the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles. He recovered sufficiently to participate in the Northern Virginia Campaign and led his brigade in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Several days later, at the beginning of the Maryland campaign, he received command of the 3rd Division, 1st Corps, Army of the Potomac. He distinguished himself in the battles of South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, where he commanded the V Corps.

Early on the morning of June 28, 1863, a messenger informed Meade that President Lincoln had named him to replace General Joseph Hooker, who had recently resigned his command of the Army of the Potomac. Just three days later, Meade confronted Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, one of the turning points of the war. Following staggering losses at Gettysburg, Lee and his troops retreated to Virginia. Although Lincoln harshly criticized Meade for not aggressively pursuing the Confederates during their retreat, Congress later commended him and his officers and soldiers “for the skill and heroic valor which at Gettysburg repulsed, defeated, and drove back, broken and dispirited, beyond the Rappahannock, the veteran army of the Rebellion.”

Meade offered to resign his post after Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed to command the Union armies, in order to give Grant a free hand in selecting officers, but Grant assured him he had no intentions of replacing him. The two shared headquarters for the remainder of the war, but Meade sometimes chafed at what he perceived to be Grant’s close supervision. In June 1864, an enraged Meade ordered the arrest of Edward Cropsey, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who published a rumor circulating in the Army of the Potomac that Meade had wanted to retreat after the Battle of the Wilderness.

Incensed by the public humiliation of Cropsey, the newspaper correspondents assigned to Meade’s army agreed to mention Meade only in conjunction with setbacks and failed missions. Meade knew nothing of this arrangement, and the sole credit given to Grant in the press angered him greatly. His short temper also earned him notoriety and, although his subordinates feared his wrath, they nevertheless admired him greatly. Some of his officers and soldiers called him “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

Over the years, Meade and his command of the Army of the Potomac have generated much debate and controversy. His reputation among the public and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians suffered as a result of his temper and his acrimonious relationship with the press, but recent researchers and scholars have portrayed him more favorably.

During the war, prominent Philadelphians, in appreciation of his heroism, offered Meade a proper house for the man who helped save the Union. A delegation of city officials traveled to Virginia to present him with their gift of gratitude for protecting Philadelphia. Meade, however, declined, citing that he was only doing his duty. The delegation returned home, but a member suggested offering a residence to the general’s wife, who was living in a modest house, which she accepted. The Meades took up residence in a handsome house located at Delancey Place and South Nineteenth Street. In 1999, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a state historical marker to commemorate Meade at 1836 Delancey Place, where he died on November 6, 1872, from pneumonia caused by complications of his old war wounds. His large funeral was attended by President Grant and he was interred in the city’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. Meade’s modest headstone is inscribed “He did his work bravely and is at rest.”


The Press and the American Civil War

An Associated Press wire dated October 17, 1859, carried news of a dispatch reporting “an insurrection has broken out at Harpers Ferry.” One week after John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal and capture by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper reported, “the invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event, with many Southerners agreeing it be so.”

Attempting to make political capital of the raid, Northern Democrats charged that prominent Northern Republicans were aligned with Brown. Astute lawyers representing both the North and the South in Congress understood each other’s legal terminology and arguments very well; “states’ rights” and “state sovereignty” projected emotional overtones which lent them a certain ambiguity and made them useful in political debates. After Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) advanced his pro-slavery program in an 1860 United States Senate resolution, the battle lines were drawn.

As the American Civil War broke out, the newly elected president did not enjoy good press; even William Herndon (1818-1891), one of his former law partners, wondered if Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) believed he could “squelch out this huge rebellion by pop guns filled with rose water.” The public’s clamoring for news escalated as Union armies organized to invade the secessionist states, smash the Confederacy’s mounting defense of independence, and reestablish the federal government’s authority. The press flourished and correspondents openly criticized military policy and, whenever possible, printed news of military preparations – information of some use to Southern leaders since they scoured the Northern newspapers for critical details.

Amid the battles over the following four years were the repeated skirmishes between the insatiable press and the president’s “imperial staff” at the U.S. War Department over controlling telegraphic lines and other restrictions, including issuing suppressions or suspensions, although most were promptly revoked by Lincoln. His later use of presidential wartime powers angered many who believed the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech was sometimes stretched or ignored in the interest of “preserving public safety.”

Apart from items of its Washington correspondents, the metropolitan press during the 1850s depended for news from around the country gleaned from the brief telegrams of the New York Associated Press, supplemented by “copyings” from local newspapers and occasional letters from volunteer correspondents. After Lincoln’s election, nearly all the principal New York newspapers engaged correspondent – at a cost of between one to five thousand dollars yearly paid in advance – at locations in Southern states to keep readers informed of crucial events, although in time the Southern press made gathering such information increasingly difficult for these perceived “Lincoln spies.”

In the beginning of the conflict, daily bulletins were issued by the War Department, an innovation first praised by news agencies, but as the announcements became less frequent the publishers’ enthusiasm eroded. When some of the “newspaper brigade” took sides in reporting a particular battle or campaign, their own high command took steps so as to “not demoralize” the troops or be “overoptimistic” or “create false hopes for the Army’s performance” as the case might be. From the outbreak of the war in 1861, not one of Washington’s three major daily newspapers made serious pretense of gathering facts from outside the nation’s capital, but other leading publications, such as the New York Times and the New York Herald, endeavored to surpass each other in both the quantity and quality of war reports.

They established fairly elaborate organizations with representatives of the Union naval fleet and land theaters of war. No less than sixty-three correspondents of the New York Herald were in the field at one time or another during the Civil War.

With relays of stenographers, telegraphers, engravers, and extra printers, newspaper publishers attempted to be ready for all emergencies at the home office. In the first two years of the war, they spent between $60,000 and $100,000 annually on war correspondents; special messengers received smaller wages than reporters, but they were accorded liberal travel allowances. In June 1861, the demand was so great for New York and Philadelphia newspapers at the U.S. Capitol, the so-called “center of gravity,” that newsboys organized “pony expresses” to race them at top speed from the railroad depot to Willard’s Hotel. Newspaper circulation burgeoned as a result of the public’s hunger for news of troop movements and battles.

The government’s attempts at censorship immediately provoked suspicions and misapprehensions. On the night of April 19, 1861, Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) assigned a government censor to supervise all messages sent out of Washington, D.C., telegraph offices. Less than two weeks before the July 21, 1861, First Battle of Bull Run, General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), the old warhorse ensconced in Washington, D.C., issued an order to stem the leakage of sensitive military information by the press. He forbade the telegraphic transmission from Washington of any dispatches concerning troop movements, unless they had been reviewed by the commanding general. This new form of censorship was cleverly evaded by many reporters, and the directive was amended to allow the publication of “progress and results of all battles actually occurring” without first submitting their copy to a military censor for review.

Day and night, in all kinds of weather, and under perilous circumstances, young newsmen – their age averaged in the late twenties needed – to be alert and extremely enterprising to avoid being scooped by rivals. Their business was to go everywhere, see everything, and squeeze information out of everybody, from the commanding general to the rearmost teamster in the quartermaster’s train. “If I have the watermelons and whiskey ready when the officers come along from the fight,” one reporter said, “I get the news without asking questions.”

Some scribes were educated and seasoned, but many possessed scant or no experience reporting a war of this magnitude. They relied on a learn-as-you-go indoctrination, which may account for reporting of a highly candid, adjectival nature that would not be published today. Not all war correspondents could be of the caliber of Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Journal, who was later praised as historian of the war,and George Smalley, noted for his vivid account of the Battle of Antietam for the New York Tribune.

Frequently, there wasn’t much time to ensure accuracy or confirm facts. Confidential relations with enemy pickets were often established over a persuasive commodity in order to extract information.


For Further Reading

Bache, Richard Meade. Life of General George Gordon Meade: Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates and Company, 1897.

Beckett, I.F. W. The American Civil War: The War Correspondents. New York: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993. Cleaves, Freeman. Meade of Gettysburg. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

Coopersmith, Andrew S. Fighting Words: An Illustrated History of the Newspaper Accounts of the Civil War. New York: The New Press, 2006.

Meade, George Gordon. Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade. Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1994. Merriam, John Duke. Meade’s Reprise. Chevy Chase, Md: Posterity Press, 2002.

Pennypacker, Isaac R. General Meade. Lake Monticello, Va.: Olde Soldiers Books, 1987.

Perry, James M. A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents – Always Rough, Sometimes Ready. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2001.

Sauers, Richard A. A Caspian Sea of Ink: The Meade-Sickles Controversy. Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1989.

____. Meade: Victor of Gettysburg. Dulles, Va.: Brassey’s Inc., 2004.


Joan Wenner, J.D., a resident of Martinsville, Virginia, is a widely published writer whose articles have appeared in numerous regional and national magazines for more than twenty-five years. She is a regular contributor to Civil War News, and her features have appeared in America’s Civil War, Military Heritage, True West, and Old West, among others. For the last seven years, the author has been involved in the preservation of Civil War-era historic sites. She regularly reports about community and regional cultural and heritage tourism related events and exhibitions in several states. She has undertaken historical research for government agencies and historic preservation organizations and prepared historical marker text for the North Carolina Department of Commerce and Tourism’s designation of Union General George Stoneman’s headquarters in Danbury.


Andy Waskie, Ph.D., Philadelphia, is a professor of languages at Temple University. He is a Civil War historian and active in a number of organizations. He serves as a research historian and on the boards of the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library and Laurel Hill Cemetery. He also serves on the executive committee of the Philadelphia Civil War History Consortium. He is a board member of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, of which he formerly served as vice president and was a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Scholar. He is the founder and current president of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia. The author has served as a historical consultant for television, film, documentary, and museum projects. His articles have appeared in Civil War News, Military Images, Civil War Times, and many others. He portrays George Gordon Meade in living history performances.