Nicknamed "Long Sol" because of his towering, ramrod straight 6'7" frame, Meredith was an ambitious man who had spent the antebellum years honing his political, not military, skills. A North Carolina Quaker with no education and no property, Meredith had walked to Indiana when he was a young man and plunged into county politics. He had the natural politician's uncanny ability to remember names and faces, and during the next twenty years, he prospered as a farmer while he served twice as county sheriff, enjoyed numerous terms in the state legislature, and won appointment as United States marshal for the district of Indiana. This last position was a political plum that resulted from his loyal service to the Republican party, and his close personal and professional friendship with the famous "war governor" of Indiana, fellow Republican Oliver P. Morton.
When the Civil War broke out, Meredith became one of the many politicos in the army command when he used his political connections to secure an assignment as colonel of the 19th Indiana regiment. This regiment soon became part of John Gibbon's famous, hard fighting "Iron Brigade." Grumbling about Meredith's lack of ability soon started. Even one of the most generous early opinions of him, by a man in the 19th, is rather tepid: "Colonel Meredith talks right, acts right, and in fact does that very best that he knows how. I think he means well." In October 1861 the regimental surgeon reported to Governor Morton, "Our Col. has no practical sense. The officers have all found it out. Lt. Col is a good man, or we would have all gone to sticks before now. Bad administration is seen and felt throughout all the Regt. Our Col. unfortunately wants to attend to all departments down to the smallest minutiae. Of course he fails of necessity." The surgeon wrote again 18 days later: "You would be startled to hear how the officers and soldiers talk about 'Old Sol.' It seems that he is about being promoted to a Brigadier. If he is not, there will soon be a petition signed by the whole Regt. for him to resign." Another man wrote that Meredith was "notoriously unfit to command." There was a conspiracy among the men of the regiment to help Meredith get promoted to brigadier general so he would be taken away. In January 1862 an inspection of Meredith's regiment showed muskets "indifferently cleaned," accouterments in "bad condition," and the regiment generally the least well disciplined in the brigade.
Meredith suffered a fall from his horse during the Iron Brigade's first engagement, the Battle of Brawner's Farm, fought on the eve of Second Bull Run. He recovered quickly, rejoining the brigade on its march through Maryland a couple of weeks later, and commanded his regiment in a tough fight at South Mountain on September 14, 1862. A few days later, however, when the Iron Brigade spearheaded the Union army's opening attack at Antietam, Meredith was absent. He had reported himself unfit for duty a day or so earlier, citing his recent fall and the exhaustion from the march, and had gone to Washington to recuperate and campaign for a promotion (possibly even at the White House, trading on his acquaintanceship with President Lincoln). For Gibbon, a tough professional soldier, this leave on the eve of a great battle was tantamount to desertion, especially since Meredith's stand-in was killed in action. Gibbon, however, was promoted in October to command a division in another corps, and lost his chance for retribution against Meredith. Long Sol, who by October was back in Indiana trying to drum up political support for an all-Indiana brigade, heard that Gibbon's promotion had left the Iron Brigade without a brigadier, and he began a campaign for Gibbon's old post. Gibbon, who was still intensely interested in his old command, was outraged that the army would "relieve a competent colonel [Cutler, who was in temporary command] and put that fine body of men in charge of an incompetent Brig. General [Meredith]." As was frequently the case in the Army of the Potomac, however, politics held sway. Meredith obtained the army commander, fellow Indiana native Maj. Gen. Burnside's recommendation, and corps commander Joe Hooker, himself angling for advancement and eager to cultivate Governor Morton as a patron, installed Meredith at the head of the Iron Brigade with the new rank of brigadier general. Gibbon, who was not consulted, stormed in futility at this maneuvering.
At Fredericksburg, Meredith's first battle in brigade command, the Iron Brigade was not heavily engaged, losing just sixty-five men. However, Meredith failed to execute an order given toward the end of the day by the division commander, General Abner Doubleday, to have the brigade put out skirmishers and retire to a safer position. While there is a possibility Meredith never received the order, Doubleday was incensed to find that after two hours the order had not been carried out, and he relieved Meredith of command on the spot and replaced him with Colonel Cutler.
The demotion was only temporary, however, and Meredith was back at the head of the Iron Brigade at the Battle of Chancellorsville, where two regiments had the demanding task of crossing the Rappahannock in pontoon boats under fire. They did so, with the loss of about 60 men, and established a bridgehead on the opposite bank. Meredith came across soon after, standing in one of the boats, swinging his hat and hurrahing. After a change of orders, however, Meredith and his men were soon pulled back across the river and did no more fighting at Chancellorsville.
As the Westerners marched toward Gettysburg, the fifty-three year old Meredith was still a question mark as a brigade leader.
| The morning of July 1 found the Iron Brigade marching toward Gettysburg
on the Emmitsburg Road. After nearing to within a mile of the battlefield, the
brigade broke into a double-quick step, arriving at McPherson's Ridge around
10:30 A.M., with Meredith riding the rear of the column. In the next hour,
Meredith's men enveloped Archer's Brigade, routed it with heavy casualties,
captured General Archer and a substantial number of his brigade, and broke the
initial charge of Heth's Division. Meredith pulled his brigade back after its
successful envelopment of the surprised Confederates and was reforming his line
when a shell exploded near him. According to the August 28 Richmond [Indiana]
Palladium newspaper , Meredith "was stuck in the head by a fragment of the
shell and stunned, at the same moment, and by the same fire, that his horse was
struck by four balls and a shell, and fell dead, his body crushing the
General's leg and side frightfully. The wound in the head fractured the skull
and affected the brain very seriously. The fall broke several ribs and tore
them loose from the breastbone at the same time, and so seriously injured the
right leg that it is yet after nearly two months, greatly discolored." The
battle was over for Meredith.|
The Iron Brigade's regimental commanders said little about Meredith in their battle reports. Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth never mentioned Meredith in his divisional report, and First Corps commander Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday only discussed "Long Sol" in connection with his injury.
Meredith himself never wrote a report of the battle. The injuries Meredith received from the fall at Gettysburg were the reason given for his inactivity for the rest of the war. After the battle, he didn't return from sick leave until October 1863. In November, Meredith commanded the division for one day, then was sent west to a much quieter command--the garrison at Cairo, Illinois. In January and February 1864 he went home to Indiana due to "general nervous prostration," resulting largely from the horse accident at Gettysburg.
He never again served in the Army of the Potomac. He finished out the war in the serene backwater of West Kentucky.
For further reading:
Gaff, Alan D. On Many a Bloody Field: Four Years in the Iron Brigade. Bloomington, 1996
Nolan, Alan T. The Iron Brigade: A Military History. Bloomington, 1994