Easter with the Army of the Potomac

March 27, 1864 (Easter Sunday)

Spring seemed to be slowly arriving in Virginia, but this Easter Sunday was a fine one. The two armies went about their duties as they might any other day, save that the soldiers had their pick of services to attend. Perhaps wishing for a little enlightenment, General George Meade took in two.

Meade enjoys a good sermon or two.
Meade enjoys a good sermon or two.

Both were held by Henry Benjamin Whipple, the Episcopalian bishop who visited the army several times each year. Bishop Whipple had established an outpost in Minnesota, presiding over the entire state. There, he preached and railed against what he saw as the abusive treatment of the Natives. It was he who convinced President Lincoln to pardon 265 of the 303 Sioux involved in the 1862 massacres. Incidentally, he was also the first cousin of Henry Halleck, which may have been how he came to be associated with the army.

The Good Friday before Easter, Bishop Whipple preached in St. John’s Church in Washington. He visited with the wounded soldiers and received a telegram from General Meade asking him “to celebrate the Holy Communion at his headquarters on the Rapidan.”

During the morning service, Bishop Whipple administered communion to quite a number of officers and soldiers, hastily collected from the staff and the detachments on duty at these headquarters.” According to Whipple, it was a blessed service, and never was the trysting-place dearer than when I knelt with those veteran soldiers to receive the Blessed Communion.”

Following a similar afternoon service, the Bishop dined with General Meade. “The bishop brought down with him a magnificent bouquet of flowers,” wrote Meade, “with which our rude altar was adorned.” Together, Meade told him the story of how he came to be in command of the Army of the Potomac on the eve of the battle of Gettysburg.

Meade was very familiar with the Bishop, and not only through his service in the Army of the Potomac. It had been Bishop Whipple who presided over his and Mrs. Meade’s wedding. Additionally, like Meade himself, and George McClellan before him, Whipple was a Democrat. It was McClellan who asked the Bishop to “perform Divine service in my Camp” following the battle of Antietam. McClellan then asked him to stay the night in his tent and they were up for hours in deep discussion.

The Right Reverend Henry Benjamin Whipple, First Bishop of Minnesota
The Right Reverend Henry Benjamin Whipple, First Bishop of Minnesota

Two years later, the commander had changed, but Whipple remained, preaching “two most appropriate and impressive discourses, well adapted to all classes of his hearers.”

After the Bishop took his leave, Meade had the chance to write to his wife, telling her all about the services. But it wasn’t a day fully set aside for holy concerns. There was, after all, still the drama of war. In response to her apparent disapproval of General Grant, however, Meade took issue.

“You do not do Grant justice,” came Meade’s rebuttal, “and I am sorry to see it. You do not make a distinction between his own acts and those forced on him by the Government, Congress and public opinion. If left to himself, I have no doubt Grant would have let me alone; but place in the position he holds, and with the expectations formed of him, if operations on a great scale are to be carried on here, he could not have kept aloof.”

His wife was clearly fearing that Grant’s insistence to remain with the Army of the Potomac meant that Meade would be corralled or even replaced. “As yet he had indicated no purpose to interfere with me,” Meade consoled her, “on the contrary, acts promptly on all my suggestions, and seems desirous of making his stay here only the means of strengthening and increasing my forces. God knows I shall hail his advent with delight if it results in carrying on operations in the manner I have always desired they should be carried on. Cheerfully will I give him all credit if he can bring the war to a close.”

Meade had turned from the “damn goggle-eyed snapping turtle” to a stubborn optimist. But as yet, the spring campaign had hardly reached the planning stages. Out West, things were afoot. It was also on this date that James Longstreet’s Confederates received their orders to back off from their positions north of Knoxville to eventually rejoin Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Without a pause, they stepped off, though it would take nearly a month for them to arrive in the east. 1

  1. Sources: Life and Letters by George Meade; Civil War Papers of George McClellan; Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate by Henry Benjamin Whipple; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. []
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One thought on “Easter with the Army of the Potomac

  1. Wow – just like that, Longstreet’s gone from Tennessee? After waiting all winter to see what was going to development there, they’re called back Just as the weather was turning nicer. But, I bet there were some big sighs of relief as well.

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