Professor Jennifer Murray loves an underdog. Perhaps that is why she is working on a biography of Union General George Gordon Meade, an important figure in the American Civil War that even nearly 160 years later is still overshadowed by Ulysses Grant and others.
Murray, who gained quite a reputation for her knowledge of the Gettysburg battle when she worked for the U.S. Parks Service in the Gettysburg National Park, still bristles when she recalls how visitors would look around the park and comment that the notable battle was a “great victory” for Grant.
“No, it wasn’t,” she said. “General George Gordon Meade takes command on June 28, 1863, toward the end of the war. Three days later, he commands the U.S. Army at Gettysburg. Seventy-two hours later, he leads the army to the biggest victory in that war to date. Grant gets the credit later.”
Murray explains that even though Meade retains strategic command, Grant was the one the media and President Abraham Lincoln adores. She admits that her research, including 2,000 letters and documents, shows that Meade had a volatile relationship with the press. He kicked a noted journalist from his camp, which meant he was faced with even more bad press.
According to Murray, the treasure trove of letters Meade sent to his wife reveals the general is concerned with his reputation. Gettysburg was his finest honor, yet he continually was passed over for promotion. The letters home reveal those concerns, Murray said.
“We see the softer side of Meade,” she said. “His wife is a real confidant. She is his sounding board. We don’t have her letters to him, but we can infer much from his responses to her letters.”
Paper was in short supply on a battlefield. Murray said Meade conserved paper by writing on both sides of the paper, and he also wrote horizontally and vertically.
“I’ve been doing a lot of squinting,” she said. “I can tell when he was angry about something because his penmanship would deteriorate.”
Murray was surprised by what she is learning about Lincoln’s lack of knowledge about military strategy. While Meade poured his frustration with Lincoln out in letters to his wife, Lincoln used the modern technology of the telegraph to voice his own concerns about Meade.
She said Meade was pursuing the Confederate Army after Gettysburg, but Lincoln wanted him to destroy the Confederate Army. Winning at Gettysburg was not enough for Lincoln.
“I was surprised by how much of a sophomoric understanding of strategy that Lincoln had,” Murray said. “Lincoln would send telegrams out with no idea what it was like to fight a battle, lose thousands of men, and launch an all out pursuit.”
In a flurry of forceful telegrams to Meade, Lincoln would brag on Grant and ask Meade why he couldn’t be more like Grant.
“He offers his resignation to Lincoln, but of course he would not accept it, Murray said. “Lincoln later sends a kind of apology later.”
Technology, such as the telegraph, changed war, Murray explained.
“The telegraph was the Twitter of the Civil War,” she said. “Lincoln was even known to sleep in the telegraph room.”
When asked how Meade would have used a Twitter account, Murray said he would have tried to reshape his reputation. He served his country in the military for 40 years, she explained. He served his country well, but gets little recognition.
“I’m hopeful the biography on Mede will tell this very important story,” she said.
Murray continues her work on the Meade book. Her latest book, “On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park,” has received excellent reviews.