As I processed the George G. Meade collection (#410), I found it very interesting to see the amount of military information transmitted in George G. Meade’s letters to his wife during the Mexican-American War (and later letters during the Civil War). [Like the map on the left.] I always associated military correspondence with censorship, but Meade’s letters show that the flow of information was much more free in the mid-nineteenth century.
Meade relates the everyday events of his life, which happen to involve major battles and military decisions, and through these letters we gain great insights into how these decisions were made and how conflict over the course of years affected one man’s psyche. Meade’s letters are tender, funny, and family-oriented, and they often contain detailed descriptions of battlefield scenes and camp life.
One letter, which Meade begins on January 1, 1846, begins:
“I have had a rather stupid day of it for the first of the year. — In the morning I was engaged in making official complimentary visits to the big bugs of the camp, all of whom had egg-nogg + cake for their visitors–then we had a race–gotten up by the officers for their amusement and then I dined with a party who endeavored to be as merry as they could be under the circumstances — and in the evening I accompanied them to the Theatre … they have built a theatre + imported a company of … actors who murder tragedy + burlesque comedy — + render farce into buffoonery… –And now late at night I am jotting down a few thoughts to send to you my own Dear + Sweet wife — to be separated from whom mars all enjoyment and renders me callous to war or peace….”
In a letter near the end of 1846, Meade relates some more serious activity that illustrates the ugliness of war:
“Nothing has transpired worthy of note since the date of my last letter. The volunteers have been creating disturbances … some few days ago a party of volunteers, to what regiment attached unknown–went into a house in the suburbs of the town, and after forcibly driving out the husband committed outrages on the wife. A day or two afterwords a Kentucky volunteer was found in the morning with his throat cut, supposed to have been done by the outraged husband as an act of retaliation. The same day Two Mexicans were shot while working in their cornfields…. The next day another Kentuckian was brought into camp with his throat cut and several more Mexicans also shot.”
Meade’s letter goes on to discuss how the volunteer regiments are often a menace–wasting their provisions, plundering, and killing innocent people. He condemns the commanding officers of these regiments, telling Margaretta that the officers are incapable of controlling the men under their command, that they choose to ignore the volunteers’ behavior because of their short term of service.
George G. Meade talks about both the mundane and the extraordinary throughout his letters. In some letters, he writes about family finances, getting angry at Margaretta for asking him questions about bills when he is many miles away. In other letters, he writes about significant battles. After Gettysburg, he writes “I think I have written since the battle, and is in my judgement a most decided victory, tho I did not annihilate or bag the Confederate army — This morning they retired in great haste into the mountains leaving their dead un-buried + their wounded on the field.” (July 5, 1863)
In addition to the letters in this collection that illuminate the battlefields on which Meade fought, there are many maps that show the areas in Texas and the East Coast, many of which are in Meade’s hand. This rich collection will soon have a new finding aid available on our website, which will make these materials more accessible to researchers. I will keep you posted when it is posted!