Brigadier General Robert Leamy Meade was truly “Old Corps.” Born in 1842, he was the nephew of Civil War Major General George G. Meade. On 14 June 1862, Robert L. Meade received an appointment as a U. S. Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. A year later, he led a raid against Fort Sumter, South Carolina and, despite this courageous effort, Meade was captured by its rebel occupants and spent the remainder of the war as a guest of the Confederate States Army. After the war, in recognition of his “gallant and meritorious service” while getting himself captured, Meade was brevetted to First Lieutenant.
In the post-war period, Meade served in several assignments that were typical of Marine Corps service in those days. He commanded the Marine Detachment aboard the first US warship to visit Cochin (present-day Vietnam), he served as Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks at the New York Navy Yard, and later as the barracks commander in Boston. It was while serving in Boston that the Assistant Secretary of the Navy prevailed upon Major Meade to consider hiring a construction company that was known to the secretary for their good work in military construction projects. Meade considered the Assistant Secretary’s suggestion as wholly inappropriate and somewhat arrogantly rebuffed Theodore Roosevelt’s recommendation. It was in this way that Robert L. Meade acquired a life-long political enemy.
The incident, while minor, illustrates how little politics has changed over the past 130 years.
In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in starting a “splendid little war” with Spain, known today as the Spanish-American War. At the time, Lieutenant Colonel Meade was serving as the Fleet Marine Officer aboard the USS New York, during which time he participated in the Battle of Santiago in Cuba. Meade’s inconsiderate (and some say, ungentlemanly) treatment of Spanish prisoners of war prompted Captain Victor Maria Concas y Palau, serving in command of the Spanish cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa to complain in writing about Meade’s poor attitude. In his letter, Captain Palau stated quite emphatically that Meade’s lack of humanity contributed to the death of several Spanish sailors by refusing to afford these wounded men adequate medical treatment. Captain Palau also complained about Meade’s blatant disrespect toward Spanish officers. Both of these charges are very likely true.
Nevertheless, in 1899, Meade was advanced to the rank of colonel and received orders to assume command of the 1st Marine Brigade in the Philippines. He would replace Lieutenant Colonel George F. Elliott, who was transferred back to the United States. Meade, as it turns out, was very much the same kind of man as his contemporary, Henry Clay Cochran, who was known as cantankerous, a stickler for adherence to regulations and protocol, and harshly critical of almost everyone and everything. Meade was also known for having pronounced affectations and for having little hesitance in offering a sharp rebuke.
One of the things that drove Meade into a tyrannical rant was a lack of punctuality among his officers and men. He would not tolerate it, and he trusted no man to be at an appointed place and time without constant reminders. Anyone who was late for muster, or late in reporting for duty, received ten days of arrest. There was never any discussion about this. Meade ruled his officers and men with an iron hand. One of Meade’s officers observed, “The Colonel puts a crimp in everyone’s style.”
Not long after Colonel Meade (shown left after retirement) arrived at Cavite, Philippine Islands, he began issuing a stream of seemingly inexhaustible orders and was intent upon informing his officers of every rule, every regulation, and every policy imaginable. His officers, especially the lieutenants, deeply resented being treated like schoolboys. The lieutenants particularly disliked Meade’s insistence that they dine in full uniform. He would not permit them to remove their blouses and dine in their shirtsleeves, which given the excruciatingly hot and humid conditions in the Philippines, might have been warranted. After all, it wasn’t as if the officers were dining at the White House. Every meal made these junior officers even more resentful of Meade for his silly protocol. Each meal added insult to injury.
Being lieutenants, the young men began to look for ways to convey their profound unhappiness to the colonel of the brigade, but none of their ideas, each presented at clandestine assemblages, seemed plausible (or safe). No one was foolish enough to present their complaint directly to the colonel, of course, because to do so would end any possibility of a career in the Marine Corps. Besides that, all their ideas seemed completely impracticable. The young officers continued to suffer and fume among themselves.
But then, since the Lord has a soft spot in His heart for lieutenants, Colonel Meade was laid up with rheumatism, a painful condition producing great discomfort. In those days, the only remedy for rheumatism was light duty and topical treatments. Colonel Meade’s physician confined him to his quarters while undergoing medical care.
In the Marine Corps, there are few intelligence gathering systems more efficient or impressive than the junior officer’s spy network. It wasn’t long before the lieutenants learned of Colonel Meade’s intense hatred of monkeys, which in the Philippines are quite populous. The constant chattering and scampering about of primates atop the corrugated tin roof of the colonel’s quarters was particularly annoying and they could not be quieted. Colonel Meade endured this constant racket for two full nights, and the longer it went on, the more profane Meade became.
Colonel Meade’s orderly was Private Coughlin. Coughlin’s good friend was a young man who performed orderly duties for the lieutenants. The source of their information thus established, the lieutenants learned about Meade’s unhappiness with the monkeys and his muttering threats about having them shot. They also learned about the colonel’s double barrel shotgun, which he kept stored in a closet, and that Colonel Meade had ordered Coughlin to obtain a box of double-ought buckshot shells. It was this information that prompted the lieutenants to call another clandestine meeting.
The plan called for two groups of lieutenants. One group, having collected a sum of money from all members of the lieutenant’s protective association, purchased every caged monkey they could get their hands on from the nearby village. The second group performed a careful safety inspection of the shotgun shells. That very night, in the safety of early morning darkness, Meade’s lieutenants liberated the caged monkeys into trees surrounding the Colonel’s quarters.
At dawn, the roof of Colonel Meade’s quarters was a solid mass of squabbling monkeys —so much so, in fact, that there was hardly any room for any more of them on the colonel’s roof or in any of the surrounding trees. If this wasn’t bad enough, the cheeky monkeys were leaping from the trees to the colonel’s open windowsills. At one-minute past dawn, Colonel Meade roared for his orderly. “Private Coughlin! Bring me my god-damned shotgun!”
Private Coughlin was quite worried. The colonel was beside himself, stomping from one end of his quarters to the other, cursing like a sailor. Considering the colonel’s state of mind, Private Coughlin was anxious about placing a weapon in his hand, but of course, orderlies do not argue with their officers. Coughlin dutifully took the shotgun out of a closet and presented it to his commanding officer.
The expression on Colonel Meade’s face was maniacal. Refusing to take the weapon, the colonel roared at Coughlin, “Private, I want you to shoot every one of these god-damned monkeys!” Less than twenty feet away, sitting on the windowsill of the colonel’s bedroom, was a screeching monkey. “And start with that bastard,” Colonel Meade added, pointing.
Private Coughlin loaded the double barrel weapon and took aim. The Monkey defiantly chattered and shrieked at Coughlin, but the Marine, a veteran of several battles, calmly pulled the trigger. The blast was deafening, and shotgun residue filled the space between Private Coughlin and the windowsill. One might have expected to observe a monkey shot to pieces. No, the monkey remained in the window —more agitated and fussing even more loudly. Confused, Coughlin first looked at the weapon, and then at Colonel Meade standing a few feet away. “Shoot him, damn you,” the colonel thundered.
Private Coughlin again took aim and pulled the second trigger. Another loud blast followed by even more residue … and the monkey, remaining very much alive, began running helter-skelter inside the colonel’s bedroom. Colonel Meade stood staring in disbelief. Private Coughlin was perplexed. He didn’t understand … but the purple-faced colonel who stomped off into his drawing room understood. Someone had reloaded his shotgun shells with sawdust.
Colonel Meade’s lieutenants had taken their revenge.
Later that morning, after consulting with his adjutant, Colonel Meade passed the word that henceforth, the officers would be allowed to dine in shirt sleeves. That very night, quite amazingly, all but a mere handful of monkeys disappeared from around the Colonel’s quarters.
A few weeks later, Colonel Meade received orders transferring him to serve as Senior Marine Officer at the International Legation in Peking where he would occupy his time dealing with the so-called Boxer Rebellion. Eventually, Meade returned to the United States for medical reasons. In recognition of his distinguished service in China, Meade was brevetted to the rank of brigadier general on 13 July 1900.
In 1903, Major General Charles Haywood retired from his post as Commandant of the Marine Corps. With Haywood’s retirement, Brigadier General Meade became the most senior officer on active duty. According to tradition, Meade was next in line to serve as Commandant, and he might have received that appointment were it not for the fact that President Theodore Roosevelt had a long memory. Passing Meade over, Roosevelt instead promoted George F. Elliott to Major General and appointed him to serve as Commandant, U. S. Marine Corps.
Brigadier General Meade retired from active service in 1906. He passed away in 1910 and was buried with honors in Huntington, New York.
Source: Colonel Frederic M. Wise, USMC (Deceased): A Marine Tells It to You. J. L. Sears Company, 1929. Colonel Wise was a lieutenant serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the monkey incident.