UNION ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
360 guns/90,840 men
MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE GORDON MEADE
Before sunrise on June 28, 1863, three days before the opening shots of the crucial battle of the war, a messenger woke George Meade in his tent and informed him that he was now commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade was so surprised by the visit that when he first awoke to find the man in his tent, his first thought was that he was being placed under arrest, and he tried foggily to remember what he could have possibly done to deserve it. He tried to decline the promotion, but was told that it was impossible--the army was now his whether he liked it or not.
The common response among the men, when they heard the news, was "What's Meade ever done?" On horseback, he was not a figure that brought forth wild waves of cheering. He was utterly lacking in charisma, incapable of arousing men's enthusiasm by his mere presence as McClellan and Hooker had done; even the incompetent Burnside looked downright Napoleonic next to Meade. He gave more the impression of a dried-up professor than the leader of a volunteer army. Tall and thin, near-sighted and rather ungainly, at age forty-seven he looked considerably older. He was thin-faced with a "small and compact" balding head, a grizzled beard, large pouches under bespectacled blue eyes that were "serious, almost sad," a great hawkish nose, and a broad high forehead. The total effect was thoughtful and patrician.
And Meade was patrician, in a nineteenth-century Philadelphia sort of way. Born in Cadiz, Spain of a prominent Philadelphia family with international mercantile interests, he attended West Point, graduating in 1832 in the upper third. On his twenty-fifth birthday he married Margaretta Sergeant, daughter of John Sergeant, running mate of Henry Clay in the 1832 presidential election. Meade was, however, a completely unassuming man. Col. Philip DeTrobriand, a brigade commander in the III Corps, wrote that he "was more reserved than audacious, more modest than presumptuous, on which account he treated his corps commanders more as friends than as inferiors." Gen. Henry J. Hunt, his chief of artillery, though never his close friend, was pleased to have him as a commander because, in Hunt's opinion, Meade was a gentleman. There was no trace of self-seeking in Meade's letters to his wife, such as one written shortly before his promotion to command of the army. In it he soberly analyzed his chances for appointment, and concluded, "I do not . . . stand any chance, because have no friends, political or others, who press or advance my claims or pretensions, and there are so many others who are pressed by influential politicians that it is folly to think I stand any chance upon mere merit alone. Besides, I have not the vanity to think my capacity so pre-eminent, and I know there are plenty of other equally competent with myself, though their names may not have been so much mentioned."
One of Meade's qualifications was coolness under fire. On one occasion, mounted with his staff, he surveyed the situation through field glasses, while Rebel bullets whizzed and buzzed all around and the staff wished he would find what he was looking for so they could all scramble back to safety. He lowered his glasses slowly at last, and looked around at his nervous staff, and remarked dryly that perhaps they had better retire: "This is pretty hot; it may kill some of our horses." His fearlessness had resulted in being wounded twice almost simultaneously at the Battle of Glendale during the Peninsula campaign, once in the fleshy part of the forearm, the other by a bullet which entered his right side and exited an inch from his spine, just above the hip. At Fredericksburg two bullets pierced his hat. At South Mountain, a spent grapeshot badly bruised his thigh. His horse, "Old Baldy," was wounded under him at 2nd Bull Run and again at Antietam.
In his letters to his wife Meade showed a willingness to comment frankly on every facet of the war effort. This love of truth and dedication to duty may help explain an element of his nature which was universally remarked upon by his contemporaries--his temper. An energetic, exacting man, Meade was well known for his violent impatience with stupidity, negligence, or laziness. He would erupt quickly in outbursts of rage or annoyance, especially under the stress of active campaigning or a pitched battle. As his aide Theodore Lyman expressed it: "I don't know any thin old gentleman . . . who, when he is wrathy, exercises less of Christian charity than my well-beloved chief!" Another who worked with him put it this way: "I never saw a man in my life who was so characterized by straightforward truthfulness as he is. . . and woe to those, no matter who they are, who do not do it right!" Though irritable and peppery under stress, his decisions were "always founded in good reason," and while his manner was hard on people, it did get results. Lyman wrote that Meade was "always stirring up somebody. But by worrying, and flaring out unexpectedly on various officers, he does manage to have things pretty shipshape."
Though too sparing of in his praise of the work of his subordinates--partly out of a reluctance to show his feelings and partly out of an Old Army sense that total effort was each man's duty in such times--there were signs of a pleasanter side. When not absorbed with his work, Meade was a different person, telling funny stories with "great fluency and . . . elegant language," and on occasion would sit by the campfire "talking familiarly with the aides." However, he usually kept himself apart and made no effort to make himself popular. He made it a rule not to speak to members of the press, and in retaliation journalists agreed among themselves not to mention him in dispatches except in reference to setbacks.
Soldiers depended on the newspapers for news as much as anybody, so his blacklisting by the reporters probably explains why Meade's ascension to command came as such a surprise to the rank and file. Their superior officers, however, were better acquainted with Meade's record:
In the first months of the war he was named brigadier general of volunteers and given a brigade in the Pennsylvania Reserve division.
In the Army of the Potomac's first action on the Peninsula in the summer of 1862, his Pennsylvania Reserves saw more action than any other division in the army, and he rendered heroic service and was twice wounded amid the hottest of the fighting, returning to duty forty- two days later before he had fully recovered his strength.
At the end of that summer, he was again commanding his brigade at the Second Battle of Bull Run, where the Pennsylvania Reserves had been one of the few formations which kept their discipline in the disastrous loss, and, in a heroic stand on Henry Hill, provided a rear guard which protected the army against Confederate pursuit.
In September he was in command of the division when it stormed the heights at South Mountain, so exciting the admiration of his corps commander that the man was heard to exclaim, "Look at Meade! Why, with troops like those, led in that way, I can whip anything!" A few days later at the battle of Antietam, General McClellan himself had selected Meade, in preference to others who were superior in rank, to replace Joe Hooker, his wounded corps commander. After the battle, President Lincoln and his entourage rode over the field with a dozen generals, including Meade. While they rode, General McClellan described the battle for Lincoln, according to Meade in a letter to his wife, "saying it was here that Meade did this and here that Meade did that. It was very gratifying." It acquainted the Commander in Chief with him, probably for the first time.
The next December, at Fredericksburg, Meade at the head of his division had provided the only success of the day for the army, briefly breaking through the Confederate line before he was forced back for want of reinforcements. This famous exploit on the worst day in the history of the Army of the Potomac certainly further recommended Meade to Lincoln.
Finally, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Meade was the general who argued most vigorously for an attack when Hooker convened his meeting of generals; Col. Alexander Webb of Meade's staff reported, "I have never known anyone so vehemently to advise an attack on the field of battle." Meade was very assertive (as Reynolds put it) "in favor of an advance in the direction of Fredericksburg at daylight the next morning. . . ." Meade thought the issue of Washington's safety had become a cliche for this army, and "threw that out of the question altogether." Commanding general Joe Hooker lacked the nerve to make the attack, and subsequently forfeited the battle.
Much of the talk in the officers' tents after the disappointment at Chancellorsville, then, revolved around Meade. Three corps commanders who were senior to Meade in rank--Generals Couch, Slocum, and Sedgwick--all sent word to him that they were willing to serve under his leadership. Couch, who was actively seeking the replacement of Hooker, mentioned only Meade for the post when questioned by an official from Washington. Sedgwick was also heard to say, when interviewed, "Why, Meade is the proper one to command this army." Finally, the able General John Reynolds, also an early commander of the Pennsylvania Reserves, when asked after Chancellorsville if he would command the army, declined and suggested Meade as the best fitted for the command. At this point Meade's lack of flamboyance was undoubtedly in his favor, after the failure of a string of prima donnas. The President was also swayed by the fact that Meade made his home in Philadelphia, thinking that as a Pennsylvanian he would "fight well on his own dunghill." Thus it was that the early-morning messenger from Washington appeared suddenly in Meade's tent.
Through it all, George Meade was very much a family man, uneffusively devoted to his wife and seven children. If he was known as "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle" to his men, his temper never appeared in his letters home. Here he is, for instance, in a letter to his daughter in the spring of 1862:
I think a great deal about you, and all the other dear children. I often picture to myself as I last saw you--yourself, Sarah, and Willie lying in bed, crying, because I had to go way, and while I was scolding you for crying, I felt like crying myself. It is very hard to be kept away from you, because there is no man on earth that loves his children more dearly than I do, or whose happiness is more dependent on being with his family. Duty, however, requires me to be here, to do the little I can to defend our old flag, and whatever duty requires us to do, we should all, old and young, do cheerfully, however disagreeable it may be.
His second son, George, was with him as an aide at Gettysburg, having joined his staff one month before.
Having only been in command of the army for only three days when Gettysburg opened, Meade was handicapped by his uncertainty about what it could be realistically called upon to do. This consideration affected his style of command, which, in decided contrast to his opponent Robert E. Lee, was to be actively and directly involved in the events on the battlefield. He had been a division and a corps commander too long and too recently to stand aloof at headquarters while others moved the army's huge formations across the landscape, and his nervous energy required that he be active. He was constantly in the saddle, issuing orders and seeing that they were obeyed.
Haskell, in his Gettysburg sketch of Meade, wrote, "His habitual personal appearance is quite careless, and it would be rather difficult to make him look well dressed." At Gettysburg his dress was perfectly in keeping with his personal lack of airs--he wore the familiar dark blue flannel blouse with two-star shoulder straps, field cap, light blue pantaloons tucked into his high-top boots, an officer's leather belt and the regulation sword.
| A little after midnight on July 1, Meade sent out the day's marching
orders for the Army of the Potomac from his headquarters at Taneytown, 12 miles
south of Gettysburg. Those orders moved the army forward on a broad front, to
prevent Lee from slipping around either flank and threatening Washington or
Baltimore. On the left, Reynolds would advance the First Corps to Gettysburg,
followed closely by the Eleventh, with the Third Corps within supporting
distance at Emmitsburg. In the center, the Twelfth Corps would advance to Two
Taverns (also within supporting distance of Gettysburg), while the Second Corps
would remain in reserve at Taneytown. On the right, the Fifth Corps would move
to Hanover, supported by the Sixth Corps moving to Manchester. Thinking that
Lee slightly outnumbered him, Meade also sent out a second, conditional plan, a
defensive fall-back called the Pipe Creek Circular, before he went to
Meade remained at Taneytown on July 1, and his first news from the front came about 11:30 A.M. This was a message from Reynolds at Gettysburg, informing Meade that the Rebels were advancing in strong force, and he (Reynolds) would do everything possible to keep them from seizing "the heights beyond the town." Meade's first fear was that Reynolds would fail to hold the town, retreat toward Emmitsburg, and uncover the road to Taneytown, exposing the army's center. He thus immediately ordered Hancock to begin marching the Second Corps from Taneytown toward Gettysburg.
At 1:00 P.M., Meade received word of Reynolds's death. Rather than go to the front himself, he preferred to remain in the rear and send his trusted friend Hancock to take command of the fighting. Since this involved placing Hancock over two officers who outranked him--Sickles and Howard, both of whose corps Meade assumed to be on or near the scene--Meade gave Hancock written authority and had him on his way to Gettysburg by 1:30 P.M. At 6:00 that evening, reasoning that two of his corps (the First and Eleventh) were already there on good ground, two more (the Third and Twelfth) were close by, two more (the Second and Fifth) could reach the field by the next day, and believing that the enemy was caught without Longstreet's corps, Meade announced in a telegram to Washington his decision to concentrate the army and fight at Gettysburg. A flurry of orders followed: at 7:00 he ordered Sykes to march the Fifth Corps to Gettysburg, at 7:30 he sent similar orders to Sedgwick (Sixth Corps) and Sickles (Third Corps). Meade's only negligence on July 1 consisted in believing Slocum would be governed by events and move his Twelfth Corps forward the short distance to Gettysburg to reinforce the embattled defenders--this Slocum had, as it turned out, refused to do until after the fighting was over. Meade arranged the movements of the supply train and the artillery reserve during the evening, then headed toward the battlefield at 10:00 P.M. with a small party.
During the dark night ride on the Taneytown Road, Meade's glasses were swept from his face by a low-hanging branch and lost; fortunately, he had another pair. After an hour, the party reached the bivouac of the Second Corps, where Meade stopped briefly and gave orders to push it forward at daylight. Continuing, Meade arrived on Cemetery Hill about 11:30 P.M., greeted the assembled generals, and informed them that the rest of the army was moving up and that it would fight there. He then made a walking survey of the Union position in the moonlight. Just before dawn, he mounted and rode south along the line of Cemetery Ridge, then to Culp's Hill, making sketches of the terrain and indicating the positions he wished each corps to take. He then established his headquarters in a farmhouse centrally located on the Taneytown Road, eight hundred feet in the rear of Cemetery Hill.
All morning of July 2 there was a flow of orderlies and aides through the farmhouse dashing up with reports and off with orders in preparation for a major battle. Meade, despite his lack of sleep, was alert, and firm and pleasant in his manner. By noon the corps were all present (except the Sixth Corps, still marching hard) and in their positions, from left to right: Third Corps on the southern half of Cemetery Ridge near Little Round Top, Second Corps on the northern half of Cemetery Ridge, Eleventh Corps on Cemetery Hill with remnants of the First Corps immediately behind in reserve, and Twelfth Corps on Culp's Hill. The Fifth Corps had just arrived and was resting in the rear near Power's Hill.
Although Meade was expecting an attack on his right where the enemy was visible, he had trouble on his left in the form of General Sickles, who in the early afternoon had expressed agitation about where, exactly, he should put his corps. Staff members had shuttled back and forth--at one point Sickles himself appeared at headquarters for clarification. Meade's attention was drawn to the other flank, however. In mid-afternoon, as soon as received word that the Sixth Corps was approaching the field, he dispatched orders to the Fifth Corps to move to the left to support Sickles, but it was not until around 4:00 in the afternoon that Meade rode in person to the left to examine Sickles's position for himself. Here he made the jaw-dropping discovery that Sickles had, without permission or even informing anyone else, advanced his line a full mile to the high ground along the Emmitsburg Road. Before any remedy could be considered, the boom of cannon announced the beginning of Longstreet's attack on Sickles's exposed line. Sickles would have to remain where he was.
Recognizing Little Round Top, which was uncovered by Sickles's advance, as the key to the Union left, Meade sent General Warren to the hill to investigate the situation. When Warren sent back word that there were no troops there, Meade ordered Sykes to throw his Fifth Corps immediately in that direction. This was the first in a series of improvisations Meade ordered by the Third, Fifth, and Second Corps on the afternoon of July 2. Meade was near the battle line the whole afternoon, so near that his horse was badly wounded. At one point he rode forward with the skirmish line, waving his hat and yelling "Come on, gentlemen!" He timed his orders for reinforcements precisely; hard-pressed units consistently received support at just the right moments. In the end, Longstreet's all-out assault was turned back, but at the cost of thirteen of Meade's brigades badly battered, some shattered so completely they could not be used again. Meade had gone to the extent of pulling the Twelfth Corps off Culp's Hill to reinforce the left, a questionable decision which resulted in the capture of friendly lines on Culp's Hill when Johnson's Confederate brigades attacked there later in the evening. At the end of the day, however, even with his left battered and his right partially in enemy hands, Meade could take satisfaction in the first success the Army of the Potomac had enjoyed against Lee since Malvern Hill a year earlier. At 9:00 that evening until midnight Meade met in his cramped headquarters with eleven of his top generals, who echoed Meade's resolve to "stay and fight it out."
Meade rose before dawn on July 3. At daybreak, heavy fighting broke out on Culp's Hill. Meade had confidence in the ability of Twelfth Corps leaders Slocum and Williams, and did not go in person to supervise their conduct of the battle, but sent a fresh Sixth Corps brigade to Culp's Hill as a reinforcement, and advised Howard on nearby Cemetery Hill to have his men stand by to be ready to move there. The battle raged all morning until 11:00 A.M., when the last of the Confederates on the hill had successfully been driven off, and it provided a backdrop to Meade's activities that morning. Witnesses described Meade as appearing confident, "more the General, less the student" than before, but retaining his "quick and nervous" manner. After the fighting ceased on Culp's Hill, Meade accepted Gibbon's invitation for lunch, seating himself on an empty cracker box in the company of some of his fellow generals. About noon, he rode along the length of Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, then returned to headquarters.
When the roar of the 150-gun Confederate cannonade started around 1:00 P.M., Meade's headquarters, situated directly behind Cemetery Ridge (which was the target of the Rebel guns), became a very dangerous place to be. Shells hit the house numerous times; a fragment wounded Meade's chief of staff. Sixteen horses were killed while tied to the fence rail in the yard. Nevertheless, Meade was reluctant to move, afraid couriers with important news would be unable to locate him if he shifted his headquarters. He eventually relented and briefly rode to Slocum's headquarters on Power's Hill, then changed his mind and returned. Meanwhile, receiving reports that his own artillery was doing the enemy little harm, Meade ordered the Union guns to cease fire, hoping their Rebel counterparts would follow suit and let the smoke clear so that enemy infantry could not approach unseen.
When the long ranks of Pickett's Charge appeared around 3:00 and headed toward the Clump of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, Meade did not react quickly to the danger, and though he eventually busied himself sending for supporting columns from other parts of the line, they arrived too late to help. The thin blue line on the ridge, outnumbered two to one, beat back this desperate assault--the grandest attack in the history of the war--by themselves. When Meade rode up to the ridgeline in the swirling smoke and was told the enemy had been turned, he said simply "Thank God." A second later, he made a motion as if to take off his hat and wave it in the air, but he remembered himself, and merely waved his hand and cried, "Hurrah." He then spurred his horse and made a triumphal ride along the ridge all the way to Little Round Top.
All eyes were now turned to Meade to see if he would attempt a war-winning counterattack. He did not. The lateness in the day, the absence of the wounded Hancock, the fatigue of the men, the disorganized patchwork quilt of command that existed after three days of carnage, the long casualty lists, and the still-fearsome reputation of Lee all militated against a bold move at that hour. Meade had won the crucial contest in Pennsylvania and saved the country; he now prudently refused to jeopardize that victory.
For that hesitation, and for allowing Lee's bloodied army to escape across the Potomac in the following days, Lincoln never forgave Meade. Although he continued to command the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war, Meade, after March 1864, would labor in the shadow of the killer-arithmetician who Lincoln found to make the brutal decisions necessary to crush the rebellion--U.S. Grant.
For further reading:
Bache, Richard M. Life of General George Gordon Meade. Philadelphia, 1897
Coddington, Edwin, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. New York, 1968
Cleaves, Freeman, Meade of Gettysburg. Norman, 1960
Lyman, Theodore. With Grant and Meade from the Wilderness to Appomattox. Lincoln, 1994
Meade George G. Jr. The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade. 2 Vols. New York, 1913
Pennypacker, Isaac R. General Meade. New York, 1901
Trudeau, Noah A. "I Have a Great Contempt for History." Civil War Times Illustrated, Sept/Oct 1991