The Hero of Gettysburg Surveyed the Great Lakes.

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2022 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Many of our members have enjoyed the recreational pleasures of living on the Great Lakes and especially Lake Erie. Most of us at one time or another have boated, fished, swam, sunbathed on a beach, or simply enjoyed a pleasure cruise, for instance on the Goodtime III. However, it is probably overlooked when we enjoy Lake Erie that this is due in part to the work done prior to the Civil War by the hero of Gettysburg, none other than General George Gordon Meade.

Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain in 1815 to an American merchant. Stateside years later, however, George Meade grew up, became educated, and was nominated to West Point by a Pennsylvania congressman. Meade graduated in the class of 1835.

His first posting was in the artillery during the Florida Seminole Wars, after which he abruptly resigned to pursue a civil engineering career. In 1836 that career quickly failed. Thereafter, Meade rejoined the army as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. As such, he served during the Mexican War and earned a promotion to first lieutenant. After the war, he helped construct lighthouses in Florida, New Jersey, and Delaware.

By 1856 he was transferred to Detroit to partake in what was then a nascent survey of the Great Lakes. That year, Meade and his family arrived at the Detroit headquarters of the United States Lake Survey. In May of 1857 Meade was promoted to captain and put in command of the survey, bearing the official title of Superintendent Engineer, Survey of the Northern & Northwestern Lakes. In general, the outfit was to map the lakeshores, identify navigational hazards, chart the Great Lakes bottoms, and propose new channels. In addition, improvements were to be made to existing harbors, and potential locations proposed for new harbors, especially for wartime. The survey identified positions for lighthouses, beacons, and marker buoys. The surveyors were tasked with establishing latitude and longitude and also river discharge into the Great Lakes, and they were to mark narrows and shoals.

George Gordon Meade

Similar to the progress of economic forces that were unleashed by construction of the interstate highway system during the Eisenhower years and thereafter, the Great Lakes survey in its time unleashed a fuller potential of commercially and industrially related travel. The first Chief of the Topographical Engineers, John Albert, said of the survey that “these lakes constitute a great northern seaboard,” and at every opportunity he reminded the Congress that burgeoning lake trade would vastly increase the commercial statistics that his new department produced. Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings and others noted that Great Lakes commerce jumped from $65 million in 1841 to $125 million in 1846 and employed 6,000 seamen. Improved nautical development of the Great Lakes could dovetail with the previously completed Erie Canal linking the lakes to the east coast. Great Lakes congressmen further demanded that the federal government provide “harbors of refuge” for ships caught in fast developing and violent storms.

Lastly, prosperous Great Lakes trade helped to strengthen new political alliances and weaken the old. A new political party urging federal infrastructure investment in the North and the northern Midwest, and which included many of the most prominent anti-slavery voices, emerged in 1854 as the Republican Party. That party would hasten the momentum toward the Civil War. Clearly, Meade’s work at the time was seen as vital by those who were well informed.

One of his most important accomplishments was the survey of the whole of the important, but modestly sized, Lake Huron, navigation of which was crucial to commerce in connecting Lakes Superior and Michigan to Lakes Erie and Ontario. Lt. Col. Cyrus Comstock, who later succeeded Meade and became Commandant of the U.S. Army Engineer School, noted that “the nature of the field operations required a combination of triangulation and astronomical work for the determination of the positions of points on the shores of Lake Huron, and (Meade) made some changes necessary in the method of executing the offshore hydrography.” He also remarked that Meade successfully determined Lake Huron’s bottom configuration by running several drag lines completely across it.

Probably the most important survey modification during Meade’s tenure was a procedure to determine longitudes by use of the electric telegraph, which became known as the “American Method.” Meade worked with Professor C.A. Young of Western Reserve College, which at the time of the survey was located in Huron, Ohio, but which moved to Cleveland in 1882 and is still located in our own city after its merger with Case Institute of Technology to form Case Western Reserve University. In general, the procedure consisted of observing and timing the meridian passage of stars at two stations due east and west of each other. Meade also helped acquire cutting-edge technology in chronometers and other instruments that multiplied the accuracy, timeliness, and efficiency of the surveys.

A sketch of the campus of Western Reserve College as it appeared around the time of the Great Lakes Survey

From 1858 through 1861, annual federal appropriations for the Lake Survey rose to $75,000. This helped fund magnetic and meteorological observations and financed the building of an astronomical observatory in Detroit. In 1858, its instruments helped to make the first systematic records of Great Lakes water levels.

When the Civil War began, Meade went to Washington in late June of 1861 to request that he be given an active commission commanding troops. While younger officers in the survey were gaining such roles, Meade was instead ordered to begin construction of new lighthouses on Lake Superior. Continually passed over, Meade finally resigned from the regular army to be appointed a colonel in one of the Michigan regiments of volunteers. Unexpectedly, but much to Meade’s delight, he was notified on August 31, 1861 that he would become a brigadier general in the regular army with orders to report to General George B. McClellan. And as they say, “The rest is history!”

So the next time you are nautically involved with Lake Erie, perhaps simply on the Goodtime III or observing an ore carrier from one of the Cuyahoga River’s Flats entertainment venues, keep in mind an appreciation of the pre-Civil War work done by the hero of Gettysburg, General Meade, and perhaps credit him also as an unsung hero of our own Lake Erie and the Great Lakes.

An old goggled eyed snapping turtle that presumably is not George Gordon Meade

Finally, can we reasonably conjecture that General Meade’s beloved nickname as that “Old Snapping Turtle” wasn’t actually due to his, shall we say, “good looks.” Or was it really because of his precisely refined and excellent work crawling and prowling about the muddy shores of the Great Lakes? Since we will never know who first uttered the nickname, we must conclude that the origin of the “Old Snapping Turtle” nickname is simply “lost to history.”

Author’s note: If you would like more information on this topic, a good place to start is at the website of the General Meade Society (