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Lifting a glass for an old hero

The General Meade Society gathers to honor a forgotten Civil War leader.
By David O'Reilly
Inquirer Staff Writer

A volley of gunshots rang out three times yesterday in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

But the crowd that was gathered around a modest, sun-dappled headstone stood as silent and still as the marble angels and Victorian crosses nearby.

Just as they have done every New Year's Eve day for a dozen years, they had come to this famous Victorian burial ground to honor the hero of the Battle of Gettysburg: Gen. George Gordon Meade.

With wreath-layings, speeches, champagne, Taps and a gun salute, the General Meade Society remembered the birthday and career of the man they call "Philadelphia's finest citizen."

"Meade felt satisfied that history would do him justice," Andrew Waskie, president of the society, told the approximately 80 men, women and children gathered around Meade's grave.

Some wore top hats; others wore blue jeans. Some came in Civil War uniforms, bearing flags or rifles.

"But time has neglected him," Waskie continued. "When Americans think of the Civil War, they don't think of General Meade."

Yet it was Meade who, as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg early in July 1863.

"It was the most critical battle of the war," said Waskie, who sometimes plays Meade in reenactments. "If the Confederacy had won, it would have led to the creation of two nations."

Meade's great victory was tarnished because he failed to pursue Lee's retreating army, and some northern newspapers - The Philadelphia Inquirer among them - minimized Meade's achievements for the rest of the war.

History's unjust snub has continued even into modern times, according to Waskie, who recalled that PBS Television's celebrated 1990 Civil War series "gave Meade just 10 seconds!"

Even Philadelphia, where Meade grew up, was married and is buried, continues to slight the man the Meade society labels "the savior of the nation."

While bronze statues of Meade's subordinate at Gettysburg, Gen. John F. Reynolds, and the discredited Gen. George McClellan flank the north side of Philadelphia City Hall, Meade's statue sits in relative obscurity in Fairmount Park.

Irked by such affronts, about 10 of Meade's admirers first gathered at his grave on New Year's Eve day in 1990, the 175th anniversary of his birth.

Meade, whose prosperous father was U.S. consul to Spain, was born in Cadiz, Spain, on Dec. 31, 1815. He was married in Philadelphia on Dec. 31, 1840.

The 1996 gathering drew about 30 people, who that day decided to incorporate what is now the General Meade Society. It has grown into a 250-member nonprofit organization (open to the public) that sponsors regular seminars on Meade and has since "adopted" the George Meade Elementary School in North Philadelphia. It also underwrites a $1,000 annual scholarship for its students. (Further information about the organization is available at www.generalmeadesociety.org.)

The New Year's Eve celebration - with toasts of Spanish champagne in honor of Meade's Spanish birth - remains the society's "signature event," according to Waskie.

Yesterday's was a curious affair, veering from the casual to the solemn and back again. Some of the speeches were punctuated by the occasional ponk of champagne corks popping in the background, and there were a few smiles as one of the wreaths refused to stand upright.

But when an "officer" of the reenactment units called, "Ready. At elevation, aim. Fire," and the blue-suited reenactors pointed their rifles high and shot off three rounds, it had all the solemnity of a military funeral.

The smoke was still drifting over the crowd, however, when Waskie smiled and called out, "Now comes the fun part!" and hoisted a magnum of champagne.

Society members circulated among the now laughing crowd, filling their cups. Then a voice called, "Hear hear!" and the crowd grew silent once more.

"One more time to General Meade," said Waskie, as all raised their cups shoulder-high. "For all you've done for the country."