This post is about fathers and sons. It involves one of the most interesting father-and-son teams in the Army of the Potomac, Brigadier General John White Geary and his son, Lieutenant Edward Ratchford Geary. The elder Geary commanded a division (2nd Division, 12th Corps) in the Army of the Potomac and the younger Geary officered a battery (Battery E, Independent Pennsylvania Light) attached to that division. The Gearys served side by side for two years, until a battle in Tennessee claimed Edward Geary’s life. Interestingly, when the dust settled, General Geary blamed his son’s death on his foolish, fatherly pride. It was not an inaccurate explanation.
Brigadier General Geary was an ambitious man, and he wanted his son to be ambitious too. When the Civil War began, John Geary journeyed to Washington to seek a personal audience with President Lincoln, requesting a colonelcy for himself, which he subsequently received. Edward Geary enlisted in his father’s regiment shortly thereafter, becoming a musician in the band. However, Colonel Geary did not want his son to play an instrument. Using his political influence, John Geary asked the War Department if he could raise a battery of artillery and attach it to his regiment. When Colonel Geary got his wish, he told his son that he must apply for a lieutenancy in that battery and he must do so by going to Washington to stand before the Board of Artillery Examiners. Not wanting to let down his father, Edward Geary accomplished this, and he became a second lieutenant (at age sixteen, believe it or not), returning to the regimental bivouac in December 1861 with his commission in hand. The news caused Colonel Geary to explode with fatherly joy. He called out his regiment, the 28th Pennsylvania, for dress parade, and made his soldiers watch as his senior staff presented a sword to his newly-commissioned son. After that, Colonel Geary made his son address the men and deliver a speech. “Fellow soldiers,” said Colonel Geary, “I do not intend to make a speech for my son, for the Gearys are well expected to speak for themselves!” It is not known what Lieutenant Geary thought about all this, or if he was even ready for that speech. In any event, he did as his father asked, and his feelings on the subject remain unknown.
Evidence suggests, however, that Edward Geary did not possess the ambitious personality of his father, and instead, he appeared to have rendered his career decisions solely to satisfy his father’s vanity. Indeed, whenever Edward Geary demurred from seeking promotion, John Geary lashed out at him with a frightening temper. In October 1862, Lieutenant Geary acquiesced to another officer who advanced himself to an open first lieutenancy in the battery, refusing to ask for that position himself. Furious that his son had traded motivation for modesty, General Geary (who had been promoted in April) ordered his son into his tent, and in wrathful language, accused him of lacking drive. Although he later apologized for his foul temper, General Geary never changed his opinion about what his son ought to do. General Geary wanted his eldest child to advance quickly, never taking a backseat to others. When Edward Geary finally submitted to his father’s wishes and received his commission as first lieutenant, General Geary gushed with pride. Writing to his wife, Mary, on July 17, 1863, John Geary explained, “Edward received his commission and is now mustered as First Lieutenant of the Battery. I think he is tolerably proud of his promotion, and justly so too.”
It did not end there. A few months later, in October, after Geary’s division had been transferred to Tennessee, General Geary was still obsessed with getting his son another promotion. Now, General Geary had found a vacant captaincy in Battery F, Independent Pennsylvania Light Artillery, a unit still assigned to the main body of Army of the Potomac back in Virginia. Hopeful that he could employ his political connections with Governor Andrew Curtin to secure that captaincy for Edward, General Geary wrote to his wife, telling her that he would gladly accept his son’s transfer to see him rise in rank: “In that event he will be re-transferred to the Army of the Potomac, and although I dislike the idea of separation from him, still I will not let anything stand in the way of his promotion.”
Geary’s pride in his son’s promotion did not last long. Three days after he wrote to Mary, his division engaged in the confusing night action at Wauhatchie, Tennessee. During the battle, Eddie Geary was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. In the aftermath, General Geary explained Edward’s death only in the most self-absorbed way, as God’s personal chastisement. General Geary believed that God had punished him for committing the sin of pride. On November 2, he wrote this to his wife:
Poor dear boy, he is gone, cut down in the bud of his usefulness, but I trust in this chastisement, I may learn to love my dear Savior Jesus Christ, with unalloyed devotion, and that through our noble, sainted son’s example, I feel his chastisement for the pride I took in him, his rapid development, and general character and ability.
Four days later, General Geary’s guilt had only increased. Writing to Mary, he explained:
An impenetrable gloom hangs over my mind in consequence of the death of my beloved Eddie. His rapid development in every particular, his high attainments and manly deportment, had filled to the brim the cup of paternal pride, and perhaps he was my idol; I feel now that I almost worshipped him, and dwelt more upon the creature than upon the Creator.
In short, Geary blamed himself for his son’s death. He possessed blinding pride in his son’s talent, and thus, he accepted Eddie’s death with a sense of propriety derived by acknowledging it as God’s ruling, for, as Geary wrote, “He who rules the universe knows what is best for us all.”
At the risk of revealing my personal opinion about religion, let me say this: I don’t believe that God killed Edward Geary. The rebels killed him with a bullet to the forehead.
But of course, that’s not the point.
What is the point, you ask? General Geary was partially correct. Paternal pride had, indeed, killed Edward. General Geary cared about one thing above all else: securing his son’s advancement within the chain-of-command. As General Geary later admitted, he worshipped Eddie Geary’s accomplishments. Geary loved the idea of his son, rather than his son himself. Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that Edward Geary, in his heart of hearts, wanted all the promotions that his father heaped upon him. Perhaps Edward Geary possessed no sincere ambition at all. Instead, a primordial desire to satisfy his father’s ravenous vanity actuated him. That desire put Lieutenant Edward Geary into the danger zone at Wauhatchie. Like some seventy-eight other Union soldiers, Lieutenant Geary gave his last full measure of devotion there, but I suspect his motivations were not much like the others who died around him.
Nevertheless, General Geary got it right in the end. He realized, too late, he had committed the sin of paternal pride.
This is Brig. Gen. John White Geary, statesman and Union general. For the purposes of this post, he was a father obsessed with seeing his son promoted.
Here is 2nd Lt. Edward Ratchford Geary, as a member of Battery E, Pennsylvania Independent Light Artillery. Did he wish to be like his father? One wonders.
There are not many images connected with the Battle of Wauhatchie. But there is this one. You can see Atwell's Battery (to which Lt. Geary belonged) firing from a knoll in middle distance at the far right.