The victor of Gettysburg’s Forrest Gump moment

The tale of General Meade’s White House visit

I ran across an amusing letter by Major General Gordon Meade written to his wife and dated May 2, 1869. Meade is famous for leading the Federal army to victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War. His nickname was “Old Snapping Turtle”, which was earned by his snapping turtle nose along with his quick temper and sarcastic wit. Meade is remembered for his Union victory at Gettysburg, but he always felt overshadowed by both Generals Lee and Grant. His prickly temperament made him a target for newspapers of the day, which contributed to his feelings of being passed over.

On the morning of May 1st, 1869, Meade was about to have breakfast at the famous Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. The Willard was the place to stay for both politicians and military officers of that day.

That morning, newly elected President Grant noticed Meade from a distance across the smoke-filled hotel lobby. On the spur of the moment the president sought out Meade and insisted that he accompany him back to the White House to “meet a mutual acquaintance” who would be visiting that day. Grant did not tell Meade that his guest was none other than Robert E. Lee.

Word had recently reached Grant that Lee considered inviting President-elect Grant to Washington College for a visit but thought it would be forward of him to make such a gesture. When Grant saw that Lee was visiting Baltimore on business, he took the opportunity to invite him to the White House.

Meade received a preview of how the White House visit would go for him when Grant mistakenly addressed his doorkeeper as ‘Meade”, rather than by his name “Pendel.”

Grant then proceeded to leave Meade alone in the empty office of his secretary, adjacent to his own, closing the door behind him. After passing an hour in silence, Meade was surprised to see a small party that included General Lee enter the room. The victor of Gettysburg rose to his feet with outstretched hand, only to have Lee deliver him his hat. Lee offered no recognition that he had mistaken his former adversary on the battlefield as an office attendant.

One interesting take away from my read of Meade’s letter is how more formal and isolated Washington DC is today for our elected representatives as compared to 1869. President Grant walked freely and unaccompanied in Washington and was among the people. Indeed, Grant conducted unofficial business in the lobby of the Willard Hotel both before and after taking office. The White House was also open to the public and average citizens had access to presidents. It almost doesn’t need to be said that Washington is vastly different today.

Today, Meade’s visit would be characterized as a “Forrest Gump” moment. The general’s account of the visit to his wife had a sense of amusement, but you can definitely also detect a feeling of him being slighted by both Grant and Lee. Read his short account linked here. Meade does a much better job than I telling the story. Meade also offers a better account of this last meeting of Grant and Lee than I have been able to find anywhere else.

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