Women of the Civil War: Margaretta Sergeant Meade
The wife of a high-ranking Civil War general descended from a long line of Pennsylvania politicians. Her father, John Sergeant, was Henry Clay’s National Republican Party running mate in the 1832 U.S. presidential election against the Democratic Party’s Andrew Jackson.
John Sergeant’s daughter, Margaretta (known as “Margaret”), married George Gordon Meade on Dec. 31, 1840. George Meade had graduated from West Point in 1835, but resigned his commission four years later to pursue a career in engineering.
After his marriage to Margaret, George rejoined the army and served during the Mexican War. When several states seceded from the Union in 1860-1861, Meade became a brigadier general commanding three Pennsylvania brigades.
Absent a personal memoir or copies of her correspondence, we glimpse Margaret’s life through George’s letters to her, which reflect her interest and participation in his military career.
From “Life and Letters of General George Gordon Meade,” which their son and grandson compiled and published in 1913, we learn that George Meade confided his feelings about military strategy and tactics and political issues to his wife. Their Democratic Party allegiance was at times contrary to the Republican President Abraham Lincoln’s policies.
Intermarriage between Northerners and Southerners was common, thereby complicating reaction to the growing national divide. Margaret’s sister Sarah married Henry A. Wise, who was governor of Virginia until 1860 and served as a Confederate general during the Civil War.
As the Civil War escalated by December 1861, Meade expressed thoughts about the slavery issue. As a Democrat who was fighting to save the Union and not to end slavery, he was happy to see “old Abe” Lincoln restraining Secretary of War Simon Cameron from coming out openly in favor of abolition.
Meade’s letters to Margaret often mentioned his desire for advancement and promotion to higher rank, and included evidence of his battlefield accomplishments. Margaret Meade may well have used this information lobbying behind the scenes to further her husband’s career.
Following the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Margaret informed George that the public viewed him as a hero. Taking that in stride, Meade responded, “I fear it will take more than newspaper correspondents and your great love to make me believe I am anything more than an ordinary soldier conscientiously doing his duty.”
Margaret Meade expressed concern about their son George, who was a lieutenant in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Her husband dismissed her fears with the thought, “He will have a comparatively pleasant time,” because “We have not lost a dozen cavalry officers since the war began.”
When George Gordon Meade became a major-general in December 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton passed word of his promotion to him through his wife, Margaret. George acknowledged to Margaret that Stanton was sending a signal he “would make you a major-general if he could, and, that you had made me” because of her family’s political prominence.
In June 1863, Meade told Margaret that President Lincoln had appointed him commander of the Army of the Potomac, and that he was moving toward a battle with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army in Pennsylvania that “will decide the fate of our country and our cause ... [despite] how reluctant we both have been to see me placed in this position.”
When Meade defeated Lee at Gettysburg but allowed his army to escape back across the Potomac River to Virginia to fight another day, Lincoln expressed disappointment directly to Meade. When Meade reported that to Margaret, she was indignant about the president’s treatment of her husband.
By the end of 1863, Lincoln had assigned Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief of the Union army. Grant retained Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac but traveled with the army to urge it forward against the enemy.
As a result, Meade’s days in the limelight ended, and he dutifully followed Grant’s orders until Lee’s forces surrendered at Appomattox, Va., in April 1865. When the war ended, Margaret Meade went to Washington from Philadelphia for the Grand Review in which her husband led the Army of the Potomac down Pennsylvania Avenue.
As described in Freeman Cleaves’ biography “Meade of Gettysburg,” Margaret Meade attended a Harvard University ceremony in July 1865 that bestowed a doctor-of-laws degree on Meade with the citation: “…his courage and sagacity restored the fortunes of his country.” Although he had not received the acclaim she believed he deserved for his service during the war, Margaret Meade was pleased the sentiments of this award honored Meade’s accomplishments.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point