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General Meade: The Man That the Army of the Potomac Needed

The Army of the Potomac had soldiers who could fight as well as any Confederate in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but it lacked the right man at the top. After squandering his tactical advantage and failing to maximize his numerical superiority against Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville, it was clear that Major General Joseph Hooker was not the man. With momentum on his side, Lee decided to carry the war into Pennsylvania. If his invincible troops could crush the Army of the Potomac on Northern soil, “the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence,” said Lee. As Lee’s army moved north, General Hooker complained that the enemy outnumbered him, that he needed reinforcements, and that the government was not supporting him. A great battle was coming and Hooker clearly did not have the nerve to handle the developing situation. When “Fighting Joe” Hooker submitted his resignation over a dispute about the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, President Abraham Lincoln accepted it on June 28, 1863, and promoted Major General George Gordon Meade to command. In doing so, the Army of the Potomac finally had its man.

General George Gordon Meade. (Photo: Civil War Trust)

At 3 o’clock in the morning, Meade was roused from a sound sleep, finding a staff colonel standing beside his cot. At that sudden moment, Meade thought he was about to be arrested, but that certainly was not the case. The general was promptly given his instructions from Washington: “You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac.” Only days before, amid the rumors that Hooker was slated for removal, Meade had written to his wife that he stood little chance of receiving the appointment, not only because he was outranked by two of his six fellow corps commanders, but also “because I have no friends, political or others, who press or advance my claims or pretensions.” Against all the odds, Meade was now the commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Meade was a true professional. He had proven his skill as a division commander, and he had not taken part in the cliquish internecine rivalries that had plagued the army’s officer corps. The general was known to have a testy temper. That combined with his large, piercing eyes crowned by a high forehead caused one soldier to describe him as “a God-damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.” While that certainly was not a flattering description, what the army needed was a calm and skilled leader, which was exactly what Meade would provide. Lieutenant Franklin Haskell had total confidence that Meade was a good choice: “I now felt that we had a clear-headed, honest soldier, to command the army, who would do his best always-that there would be no repetition of Chancellorsville.” Meade’s personal control and his tactical skills, including the effective use of terrain and reserves, would play a pivotal role in the coming battle.

When the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the Northern Virginia clashed at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863, Meade was only in his forth day of command. On the eve of the greatest battle of the war, he had been placed in the ultimate position of responsibility. The fate of the country rested on Meade’s shoulders, and he did not flinch. General Meade directed a skillful defense against repeated Confederate attacks and inflicted a punishing defeat on Lee’s army. The three-day battle cost the Army of Northern Virginia at least one-third its numbers and Meade’s army lost one-fourth of its manpower. With an estimated 51,000 casualties across both sides, Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the entire war. Under Meade’s guidance, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac achieved a victory that when combined with General Ulysses S. Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg, turned the tide of the war in the Union’s favor.

Late at night on July 2, 1863, after the brutal fighting of the second day had come to an end, General Meade held a council of war in his farmhouse headquarters. Here it was agreed that the army should hold its ground and repel the final assault that Lee would inevitably make the next day. Meade correctly anticipated that Lee’s last assault would target the Union center. On the afternoon of July 3, a Confederate assault force spearheaded by General George Pickett’s division struck the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. The attack was repulsed and barely half of the Confederates who made the assault survived. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The victory at Gettysburg boosted morale and reenergized people in the North. In New York a lawyer wrote in his diary, “The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures.”

A few days after the battle, Meade indulged himself in the luxury of a hot bath in a hotel and put on fresh clothes for the first time in ten days. “From the time I took command till today,” he wrote his wife,” I. . . have not had a regular night’s rest, and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a state of mental anxiety. Indeed, I think I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years.” Despite the exhaustion that he shared with his soldiers, Meade and his army still had a job to do. “Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously begun so far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army,” said President Lincoln, “the rebellion will be over.”

President Abraham Lincoln. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When the Army of Northern Virginia began its retreat on July 4, a drenching rain began to fall and continued much of the time for the next ten days. Union cavalry was able to destroy the Confederate pontoon bridge over the Potomac River near Williamsport, Maryland, and the rising waters made the ford there impassable. Until his engineers could rebuild a pontoon bridge, Lee’s army was trapped. General Lee fortified a defensive perimeter at Williamsport, with both flanks protected by the river. While the Army of Northern Virginia awaited attack, Lee’s engineer corps frantically tore down buildings to construct a new set of pontoons to bridge the raging Potomac. When the Army of the Potomac went forward to attack on July 14, it found nothing but a rearguard. General Lee and his army had escaped.

“Great God!” exclaimed Lincoln when he heard that Lee’s army had escaped. “We had them in our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours. Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and would not close it.” President Lincoln’s disappointment was understandable, but in truth, it was not that easy. Meade’s pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg was not executed with great speed, but his men were exhausted from lack of sleep and endless quagmires called roads. General Meade was prepared to attack Lee at Williamsport, but after calling his seven senior generals into a council of war, the majority voted to postpone the attack and instead to search for a possible weak spot in the enemy’s line. When the Army of the Potomac was finally ready to attack and went forward on July 14, Lee’s army was gone.

Although some felt that the Army of the Potomac had allowed Lee to escape, stout fighters like Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes were not of the same mind. Dawes examined the Confederate defenses at Williamsport and found them very strong: “I think General Meade would have certainly failed to carry them by direct assault,” he later wrote. “Both flanks of the works were on the Potomac river. We had no other alternative than direct assault.” Dawes acknowledged that Lee’s army was just as tired as the Army of the Potomac, but wrote that the enemy’s “cartridge boxes had plenty of ammunition, and they would have quietly lain their rifle pits and shot us down with the same coolness and desperation they showed at Gettysburg.” A Michigan man agreed with Dawes’ assessment and perhaps put it best: “Our victory had cost us too dearly to be rash.”

Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes led the 6th Wisconsin Infantry of the Iron Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When General Meade learned of Lincoln’s dissatisfaction, he offered his resignation. Despite his caution and slowness in pursuing Lee, Meade had rightfully won public acclaim for his victory at Gettysburg. Lincoln could not afford to fire the man who had led the Army of the Potomac during its finest hour and he refused to accept the general’s resignation. Lincoln attempted to write Meade a soothing letter, expressing that Gettysburg was a “magnificent success” for which he was “very-very-grateful to you.” But, “my dear General,” the president continued, “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.” When he reread these words, Lincoln knew that the letter would hardly soothe Meade’s feelings. The president filed the message away in his papers and never sent it.

Robert E. Lee’s army did escape, but the Army of Northern Virginia entered the Battle of Gettysburg at the height of its power. If Lee had succeeded at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would have achieved a victory that changed the course of the war. Because of General Meade, that did not happen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North had failed, once and for all. When the moment mattered most, the Army of the Potomac finally had the leader that it needed. History will forever remember the victor of the Battle of Gettysburg, General George Gordon Meade.

After Gettysburg, the war still raged on for another twenty-one months. When General Ulysses S. Grant became general-in-chief of all Union forces in 1864, he made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. Although Grant made the strategic decisions, he kept Meade as that army’s commander for the duration of the war. The two generals forged an important relationship that played a major role in the Union’s ultimate victory.

A monument to General Meade at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Sources

Gettysburg: A Lovely Summer Morning by Frank A. Haskell.

Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson.

Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign by Shelby Foote.

The Civil War: A Concise History by Louis P. Masur.

Those Damned Black Hats!: The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign by Lance J. Herdegen.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.

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