A Philadelphia gentleman: The cultural, institutional, and political socialization of George Gordon Meade
George Gordon Meade, remembered in history as the victor of the celebrated Battle of Gettysburg, remains among the least understood public figures in the annals of nineteenth-century America. Though Meade's personality and military performance have been the subjects of ample debate within the historical community, much of the existing literature focuses narrowly upon the sectional conflict that propelled him to national prominence. Notably lacking is contemplation of the formative years of one whose career exemplified the singular qualities of an antebellum-era professional soldier. This work focuses almost entirely upon Meade's early life—incorporating recent nineteenth-century American scholarship—in considering one of the Civil War's most prominent generals. It maintains that Meade's socialization within Philadelphia elite society, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the U.S. Army was instrumental in defining the character of an individual whose lifelong aspiration was to gain honored status as a respectable gentleman.
Adhering to a cultural philosophy that celebrated the preeminence of trained leaders who ruled for the common good of all, Meade was motivated by the strong sense of ambition, duty, and moderation characteristic of antebellum Philadelphia's first families. After struggling to find his “proper” place in society—in and out of the army—throughout his early manhood, Meade's participation in the Mexican War was critical in shaping his public outlook for years to come. The Philadelphian not only earned honors and gained practical military knowledge south of the Rio Grande, he acquired other professional attributes, most notably an abiding distrust for the nation's political leadership, that would endure for the rest of his career. Indeed, Meade's parochial view of civil-military relations—an idealistic outlook arguing that the civilian authority should defer operational control in wartime to those politically neutral, educated officers who best understood martial affairs—represented his great shortcoming as a commander during the Civil War and ultimately led to his professional decline after Gettysburg. Attacked by politicians and the public press for failing to garner lasting victory, Meade reacted negatively to criticism, deeming censure above all to be an attack on his gentlemanly honor. Marginalized from those on high, only in Philadelphia did he obtain, in postbellum years, unqualified credit for his services to the nation.