Historic names meet again

Heritage: Descendants of Union and Confederate generals at Battle of Gettysburg get together under friendly terms.

July 03, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

The last meeting between Robert E. Lee and George Gordon Meade, on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863, determined the course of American history.

Yesterday, they met again. Sort of.

Their great-great-grandsons -- both of them namesakes -- got together in Taneytown to rehearse for a radio play in which they portray the commanding generals in the Civil War's pivotal battle.

Their meeting wasn't as momentous as the one at Gettysburg. It was a bit awkward. After all, an athletic director from Maryland (Lee) and a biomedical engineer from Pittsburgh (Meade) don't have a lot in common.

Making small talk isn't easy when cameras are flashing and onlookers are scrutinizing every word to see whether there's some veiled apology to close a chapter of military history.

(For the record, neither man said, "I'm sorry that my great-great-granddad's troops killed your great-great-granddad's troops.")

The two men chatted about where they're from, what they do and how they ended up in Carroll County yesterday. No military talk. Nothing profound.

Just average guys who happen to have famous names, shooting the breeze.

There was still something significant in the meeting. Not only was it the first time descendants of the generals had met, but Taneytown played a small role in the Civil War as Meade's headquarters briefly. Some historians say it's the spot where he expected to fight his battle against Lee.

But on July 1, 1863, fighting broke out in Gettysburg, and the war shifted north. That ended all chances for a "Taneytown Address."

The two men played their great-great-grandfathers yesterday in a radio presentation, "Leaders at Gettysburg," that was to be performed in Gettysburg last night and aired live on WCBM-AM (680) radio in Baltimore.

The rehearsal took place at Antrim 1844, a stately plantation where portraits of the two generals hang, beside each other, in the dining room.

Lee and Meade don't consider themselves Civil War buffs. Both said they don't flaunt their famous lineage and don't see themselves living up to the generals.

Lee, 36, who coaches football, tennis and basketball at the Potomac School in McLean, Va., is 6 feet 4 inches tall, 4 inches taller than General Lee. Some of the performers yesterday were dressed in re-enactment garb, but Lee wore khakis, a white dress shirt and tie, and a digital sports watch.

He said he is impressed, in the reading he has done, that the general was so highly regarded despite losing the pivotal battle of the war.

Lee is unmarried and has no children, but he said a son would be named Robert E. Lee VI. "I will need to check with my wife," said Lee. "If she's up for it, it's worth keeping it going."

Meade, also 36, has decided to end the legacy, at least for a generation. Neither of his two sons is named George Gordon.

"The name is not a contemporary one," he said.

He said parts of the general that live on.

"I've got his nose," said Meade. "And he was notorious for his temper. I've got some of that."

Meade almost didn't have the general's name. There are family records that suggest he was a descendant of a cousin of Meade.

Meade's mother expected her fourth child to be a girl. When it was a boy, she called her husband from the hospital to think of a name for the birth certificate.

"He called back and said, `Well what do you think of the general,' " recalled Caroline Meade Curry, 74, who added that at the time she had forgotten about the historic connection.

"I said, `What general?' He said, `General George Gordon Meade.' I said, `Well that sounds good to me.' "

Lee is one of the first names that comes to mind when many think of the war. A line in yesterday's play reads: "While comparatively few people remember the name of the winning general, the world will never forget the loser."

It seems to hold true.

Lee said he can't pay for dinner without having the waitress pause at seeing the name on his credit card, then asking whether he happens to be a relative of the general.

Asked whether the same happens to him, Meade said, "Not usually."

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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