March 29, 1864 (Tuesday)
The letter appearing in the March 12th edition of the New York Herald was signed only as “Historicus.” Through its pompous prose, it supposedly detailed all the ways that General George Meade failed at the battle of Gettysburg. The main crux of the letter held that Meade wished to retreat before the fighting began on the second day. It purported that Meade delayed giving any orders because he was busy preparing his order to fall back into Maryland.
What’s more is that throughout the long and flowing letter, General Daniel Sickles is praised again and again for his decision to advance his corps against orders – a move which created a salient and obliterated his own command.
With 150 years between our own time and the battle of Gettysburg, it’s easy to dismiss the Historicus letter as mostly unfounded, but when it appeared in the Herald, it seemed to shed new and intimate light on the inner workings of the battle itself.
“Historicus” penned that Sickles’ salient move was “made in the very face of the enemy, who were advancing in columns of attack, and Sickles dreaded lest the conflict should open before his dispositions were completed. At this juncture he was summoned to report in person at headquarters, to attend a council of corps commanders.” Throughout the letter, time was conveniently compressed to make it seem that Sickles had no choice but to sacrifice his corps to save the Army of the Potomac from the bumbling, cowardly hands of George Meade.
So intimate were many of the details, in fact, that Meade concluded that it could only have been written by Dan Sickles, himself. This revelation came to him at a time when he was being ruthlessly roasted in the press for letting Lee’s army slip away after the battle. He was also in the process of defending himself before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. But when the March 12 letter was published, he believed that some action must be taken to defend his honor and decisions during the campaign.
Three days after the letter was published, Meade clipped it and forwarded it to President Lincoln. He accompanied it with a note explaining that “the character of the communication enclosed bears such manifest proofs that it was written either by some one present at the battle, or dictated by some one present and having access not only to official documents, but to confidential papers that were never issued to the Army, much less made public.”
Such a charge, if true, was a dear one, and Meade knew who to blame. “I cannot resist the belief that this letter was either written or dictated by Major General D.E. Sickles,” he concluded. Meade explained that he and Sickles had come to loggerheads over his salient position at Gettysburg.
Meade was not simply cluing the President in to the drama that was unfolding, but was requesting “the interposition of the Department [of War], as I desire to consider the questions raised purely official.” Since this Historicus clearly had access to confidential and official documents, it stood to reason, in Meade’s eyes, that this be dealt with through official channels.
Specifically, Meade wanted the War Department to “take steps to ascertain whether Major General Sickles has authorized or endorses this communication, and in the event of his reply in the affirmative I have to request the President of the U.S. a court of inquiry that the whole subject may be thoroughly investigated and the truth made known.”
While Meade waited for Lincoln’s reply, he fumed over the Historicus, vowing to his wife that if the War Department did not look into it, he would then “ask permission to make public such official documents as I deem necessary to my defense.”
Not surprisingly, Meade’s supporters wrote letters of their own discounting the Historicus letter. “I think Historicus after awhile will be sick of his only true and authentic account of the battle,” wrote Meade to his wife on the 22nd, still not having heard a reply from Lincoln.
Finally, on this date, came Lincoln’s response. “It is quite natural,” began the President, “that you should feel some sensibility on the subject; yet I am not impressed, nor do I think the country is impressed, with the belief that your honor demands, or the public interest demands, such an Inquiry. The country knows that, at all events, you have done good service; and I believe for you to be engaged in trying to do more, than to be diverted, as you necessarily would be, by a Court of Inquiry.”
And that put an end to it. But when Meade received Lincoln’s reply, he was hardly satisfied. The President only addressed the Court of Inquiry, completely ignoring Meade’s wish to make Dan Sickles fess up about the Historicus letter. He took the issue before War Secretary Edwin Stanton, in hopes for some explanation.
Though the President had ignored it, it was not because it was not considered. Stanton explained to Meade, as Meade later wrote to his wife, “that it was concluded submitting the letter to Sickles was only playing into his hands; that a court of inquiry, if called at my request, although it might exonerate me, yet it would not necessarily criminate him; and that, on the whole, it was deemed best not to take any action.”
Meade was, more or less, “bound to be satisfied” with Lincoln’s reply. And though Historicus would crop up again in the papers (this time making it all but certain that it was Sickles’ pen doing the poisoning), Meade would officially ignore it, venting only to his wife: “Is it not too bad that one’s reputation should be in the hands of such men?”1
- Sources: New York Herald, March 12, 1864; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p127-128; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 7, March 29, 1864; Life and Letters by George Meade. [↩]