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After Winning the Battle of Gettysburg, George Meade Fought With—and Lost to—the Press

The Civil War general's reputation was shaped by partisan politics, editorial whims and his own personal failings.

Meade was far from the first Union general to make an example of a reporter. In February 1863, for instance, William T. Sherman court-martialed New York Herald correspondent Thomas Knox on charges of espionage, disobeying orders and offering intelligence to the enemy. Officers generally regarded the press as little better than paid spies whose zeal to publish any and all information pertaining to the war often proved more useful to the Confederates than their own side’s reconnaissance. While aiding the enemy wasn’t most journalists’ aim, the lack of ethical standards for reporting at the time meant many articles were biased or outright wrong.

“There were no rules or guidelines,” says Allen C. Guelzo, a historian at Princeton University. “This was a novel situation, the first time that the United States [was] involved in a war in which correspondents [were] on the ground and able to relay articles through the electrical telegraph.”

Even before the Crapsey incident, Meade was the kind of figure the press gladly diminished. Nicknamed a “goggle-eyed old snapping turtle” by his men, the general was prone to caustic irritability that could, under the right circumstances, escalate into fearsome rage. Moreover, his quiet but firm support for the Democratic Party ensured he would never be fully trusted by either President Abraham Lincoln’s administration or much of the Northern press.

The 1860s news industry was unabashedly partisan, with many editors serving concurrently in government and party offices. Under Lincoln, Republican publications benefited from the shield of patronage, while Democratic counterparts that criticized the war effort risked closure or even criminal prosecution. Editors at the time didn’t view objectivity or accuracy with any serious reverence; instead, the editorial line reigned supreme.

In this kind of environment, a Democrat like Meade was especially vulnerable. “If you have a newspaper whose editorial leadership is favorable to Lincoln and the Republican Party, then they are going to have unpleasant things to say about commanding officers whose political loyalty lies with the Democrats,” Guelzo says. “They did this with [Meade’s predecessor George B.] McClellan, and they [did] it with George Meade.”

Meade was the fifth commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, the Union’s main fighting force in the eastern theater of war. Lincoln appointed him on June 28, 1863, as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Pennsylvania, seeking a decisive battle that would shatter Union morale. Three days later, on July 1, the armies met in and around the town of Gettysburg. Meade waged a skillful defensive battle, securing Lee’s costliest defeat of the war. But the Union general handled internal challenges with considerably less finesse.