March 10, 1864 (Thursday)
General Grant had been in Washington long enough to realize that he no longer wished to be in Washington. Following two days of embarrassing ceremonies where the rank of Lieutenant-General was graced upon him, he wanted to return to Nashville. First, however, he wished to visit George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, headquartered near Brandy Station, Virginia.
Grant and Meade had known each other slightly prior to this, having both served under Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War. While Meade stuck mostly to overseeing lighthouses along the eastern seaboard, Grant had struck for the West, serving as quarter-master in Washington Territory before being forced to resign while stationed at Fort Humboldt, California mostly likely due to his indulgence in drink. Neither had seen the other, however, since the 1840s.
The rain poured upon him as he detrained at Brandy Station. A Zouave regiment was there to greet him, and a band played “The General’s March,” as he sloshed his way to to exchange pleasantries with General Meade, who had grown increasingly worried that his job was on the line.
Grant now commanded all of the armies of the United States, placing George Meade as his subordinate. Meade’s opinion of Grant had been high, reasoning in a letter written to his wife in December that Grant was “justly entitled to all the honors they propose to bestow upon him.”
When Meade learned that Grant was his new commander, he believed that he “may want some one else whom he knows better in command of this army.” As the time of Grant’s promotion drew closer, Meade seemed to become embittered, writing again to his wife that Grant was “indoctrinated with the notion of the superiority of the Western armies.”
So when Grant stepped out of his rail car, Meade more than expected to be relieved of his command. But somehow or another, Meade and Grant got along surprisingly well. At their meeting, Meade immediately put forward that he would understand if Grant would like someone such as Sherman to command the Army of the Potomac, and begged Grant “not to hesitate about making the change.”
Meade, according to Grant, “urged that the work before us was of such vast importance to the whole nation that the feeling or wishes of no one person should stand in the way of selecting the right men for all positions.” General Meade offered to serve his nation in whatever capacity Grant saw fit. “I assured him,” Grant recalled, “that I had no thought of substituting any one for him.”
Meade’s humility gave Grant “even a more favorable opinion of Meade than did his great victory at Gettysburg the July before. It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.”
Grant had broached the subject of replacing Meade with both President Lincoln and Secretary of War Ediwn Stanton. Neither were in favor of such a move, though they both said that Grant would be backed should he request Meade to be replaced. Both seemed to place the blame for the Army of the Potomac’s inactivity upon General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, who was, on this date, demoted to Chief-of-Staff. With Grant in charge, they hoped that the sluggishness would be stripped away.
Prior to coming to Washington, and perhaps even after he arrived, Grant planned to establish his headquarters in Nashville. Now that had all changed. Seeing what was at stake with the eastern army, he indicated that he might make the move to the east. He would, of course, not sit behind some desk in Washington, so by all appearances, he would make his home in the field with the Army of the Potomac. “It was plain,” wrote Grant, “that here was the point for the commanding general to be.” And thus, while Grant would come east, Meade would retain direct command of the Army. He knew the officers and the ground, and ran his army well.
The next morning, Grant was gone. General Meade was incredibly optimistic about the new arrangement. Two days later, both Meade and Grant would dine with Lincoln in Washington. Afterward, he wrote again to his wife, reiterating that he was “very much pleased with General Grant. In the views he expressed to me he showed much more capacity and character than I had expected. I spoke to him very plainly about my position, offered to vacate the command of the Army of the Potomac, in case he had a preference for any other. This he declined in a complimentary speech, but indicated to me his intention, when in this part of the country, of being with the army.”
Still, Meade was not completely enthusiastic, ending his letter with a sigh: “So that you may look now for the Army of the Potomac putting laurels on the brows of another rather than your husband.” This may, of course, been some sort of sarcasm – the Army of the Potomac had hardly placed laurels upon the brows of anyone, Meade especially.
A week later, he was still ruminating on General Grant. “You may rest assured,” he wrote, “he is not an ordinary man.”1
- Sources: Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Life and Letters by George Meade; General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man by Edward Longacre; Grant by Jean Edward Smith; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert. [↩]