General George G. Meade: Hero of Gettysburg or Goat?

By winning the Battle of Gettysburg, General George Gordon Meade made a monumental contribution to preserving the Union and dooming the Confederacy’s bid for independence. But by only wounding Robert E. Lee’s army and not destroying it before it could retreat back to Virginia, Meade broke Abraham Lincoln’s heart. As a result of Meade’s failure to prevent Lee’s escape, the war continued for another two bloody years.

But should Meade really be blamed?

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Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had invaded Pennsylvania in the hope of possibly ending the Civil War by defeating the Union’s main army on its own territory. But when the two forces met at the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, Meade’s Army of the Potomac emerged victorious, forcing Lee to retreat.

Meade had scored a magnificent triumph, both military and personal.

Having been suddenly and unexpectedly appointed to replace Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac after the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania was already under way, George Meade had quickly organized his force, moved it to the scene of battle, successfully countered every move the Confederates attempted, and inflicted on the Southern army a smashing defeat. Now, throughout the North Meade would be acclaimed, and rightly so, as the hero of Gettysburg.

But President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t satisfied. He wasn’t just looking to send the Confederates packing back south of the Mason-Dixon line. He saw Lee’s defeat on Northern territory as a unique opportunity to not just repel, but destroy the greatest fighting force of the Confederacy. It was Lincoln’s conviction that if Lee’s army could be cut off and effectively dismantled before it could retreat from Pennsylvania, that event, along with General Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, would effectively end the war. All that was required was for General Meade to vigorously pursue Lee and attack him before he could get his shattered army reorganized and resupplied.

Through his general-in-chief, Henry Halleck, Lincoln sent message after message to Meade urging him, imploring him, almost pleading with him to go after Lee before the Confederate force could escape back across the Potomac River.

With the Confederates having lost more men at Gettysburg than the Union army did, Meade now enjoyed a significant advantage in numbers. And even during the battle, the Southern army had run out of artillery ammunition. Now, with a number of its generals dead or severely wounded, and faced with the necessity of beginning an immediate retreat with no time to reorganize, the effectiveness of the Army of Northern Virginia as a fighting force had to be at its low point. Everything seemed to line up for Meade to successfully attack, defeat, and perhaps destroy the South’s main army.

Even the weather seemed to work for Meade. As the Army of Northern Virginia slowly gathered itself together and began its retreat, the rains came. Lee’s army found itself trapped on the wrong side of a surging Potomac River, with no way to cross until the water level began to recede. If attacked in that position, it could not retreat, and would have to fight, with no hope of reinforcement or resupply. Had Meade forced that battle, with Lee’s army at its most vulnerable, the Army of Northern Virginia might have been prevented from ever getting back to its namesake state. And without Robert E. Lee and his army, the Confederacy simply could not survive.

But it didn’t happen. Realizing that his own army had become almost as disorganized in victory as Lee’s had in defeat, Meade believed that the immediate, vigorous push Lincoln urged him to make was unwise. His army needed rest and reorganization before it could take the offensive.

So from the afternoon of July 3 when, in the aftermath of the disastrous defeat the Confederates suffered with the failure of Pickett’s charge, through the night of July 13, when Lee’s army was trapped with its back against the Potomac, Meade waited. He followed and reconnoitered and probed, but never launched the all-out attack Lincoln pleaded for.

And in the end, Lincoln’s greatest fear came true. By the time Meade finally felt he was ready to move against Lee on July 14, there was no army there for him to attack. The waters of the Potomac had receded to the point that the Confederates were able to build pontoon bridges, and Lee had gotten his troops across during the night. The Southern army had made a successful and practically unopposed retreat, and was soon back home in Virginia.

And Abraham Lincoln was devastated by the lost opportunity.

That same day, July 14, 1863, President Lincoln sat down to write what he intended to be an encouraging letter to General Meade, thanking him for the great victory at Gettysburg. But in the course of his writing, the President’s feelings began to overflow, and his bitter disappointment found its way into the words his pen set on paper.

After briefly speaking of his gratitude for Meade’s Gettysburg victory, the President couldn’t help expressing his distress that far from seeking to immediately confront Lee’s fleeing army, Meade and his generals seemed to be, as Lincoln put it, “trying to get him across the river without another battle.” The president wrote:

The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him…

Again, my dear general, 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. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

As it turned out, this is perhaps the most famous letter in American history that was never sent. Upon rereading what he had written, the president realized that far from being encouraging to Meade, it would devastate him. His own feelings somewhat relieved by expressing them on paper, Lincoln didn’t send the letter, but put it away in an envelope labeled “To Gen. Meade, never sent or signed.”

Lincoln was certainly correct about one thing. Meade would never again be able to “effect much” against Robert E. Lee. It would not be until Ulysses S. Grant became the Commanding General of all US forces, and effectively took personal control of the Army of the Potomac, that Lee would finally be vigorously pressed and brought to bay.

But was the President right about Meade having missed a golden opportunity to end the war in 1863, rather than after an additional two years of bloody fighting?

Is it really true that Meade could have, and should have, staged a vigorous pursuit of Lee’s retreating army, and brought it to battle before it could retreat back across the Potomac? Or was Meade correct in his belief that making such an attempt would have been extremely dangerous, and would have run the risk of turning the great victory at Gettysburg into a disheartening and disastrous defeat?

General Meade laid out his reasoning for not immediately pursuing Lee in his testimony to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War on March 5, 1864:

Having, however, been in command of the army not more than twelve or fourteen days, and in view of the important and tremendous issues involved in the result, knowing that if I were defeated the whole question would be reversed, the road to Washington and to the north open, and all the fruits of my victory at Gettysburg dissipated, I did not feel that I would be right in assuming the responsibility of blindly attacking the enemy without any knowledge of his position…

It is proper I should say that an examination of the enemy’s lines, and of the defenses which he had made – of which I now have a map from an accurate survey, which can be laid before your committee – brings me clearly to the opinion that an attack, under the circumstances in which I had proposed to make it, would have resulted disastrously to our arms.

As his testimony indicates, Meade had some undeniably compelling reasons for caution:

  • He was entirely new to command. Although he had a good record as a corps commander, prior to his appointment just a few days earlier as head of the Army of the Potomac, Meade had never exercised independent command. Compared to his opponent, the masterful Robert E. Lee, Meade still had a lot to learn.
  • Three of Meade’s seven corps commanders had been put out of action at Gettysburg: Reynolds killed; Hancock and Sickles severely wounded. In addition, when Meade moved up to army command, he himself had to be replaced as commander of his old Corps. So, more than half of the second highest tier of leadership in the army were new in their positions.
  • The Army of the Potomac had suffered very high losses. Of the 93,921 men with which it began the battle of Gettysburg, 23,049, or 24.5 percent, were listed as killed, wounded or missing. It may not have been immediately apparent to Meade that the Confederates had suffered even higher losses: of the 71,699 men Robert E. Lee brought to the battlefield, 28,063 (39.1 percent) became casualties.
  • Once Lee got a head start by moving quickly to begin his retreat on July 5, he would likely be able to choose the ground on which any battle would be fought if Meade caught up to him. Engaging the Army of Northern Virginia when they were dug in and expecting a fight was sure to result in a very high casualty count.
  • Probably the biggest factor in Meade’s reluctance, though he might not have admitted it in so many words, was Robert E. Lee. As Ulysses Grant would later discover, Lee had almost as high a reputation among the Army of the Potomac as he did with the Army of Northern Virginia. He had proved adept at making unwary Northern commanders who thought they had him in a box pay for that misapprehension. Meade had no wish to add himself to the list of Lee’s foes, including McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker, that the wily Confederate had out-generaled and humiliated.

I think President Lincoln understood Meade’s difficulties. But he also knew that Lee was confronted to an even greater degree with similar issues. In every way that mattered, Meade’s army was in better shape than Lee’s. If battle were joined, Meade would have the advantage.

Lincoln might well have asked Meade the question he asked General McClellan when, after forcing Lee to retreat at the battle of Antietam in 1862, McClellan, too, had failed to pursue and destroy his formidable but outnumbered adversary.

“Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing?” the President had demanded of McClellan. Now, watching Meade list reasons for not attacking, just as McClellan had done, I’m sure Lincoln had a discouraging sense of déjà vu.

So, who was right? Was Lincoln right in urging Meade to take the kind of aggressive action that might end the war immediately? Or was Meade right in refusing to pursue a course that, if things went wrong, could result in losing all the fruits of the Gettysburg victory while opening the way for Lee’s army to possibly capture Washington, Philadelphia or Baltimore?

I think both were right.

Lincoln was right to want what he wanted; Meade was right to not attempt it.

Lincoln was right in that he sensed an opportunity to end the war that if missed, could never be reclaimed. The consequence of Meade’s failure to grasp that opportunity was another two years of bloodshed that Lincoln wanted desperately to avoid.

Meade, on the other hand, was also right. Not because Lincoln didn’t have the right strategy; but because he didn’t yet have the right man. One thing every Northern commanding general before Grant had proved was that if a commander didn’t have the killer instinct, he didn’t have it, and there was no way to infuse it into him. Without that quality, if Meade had brought Lee’s army to battle during the retreat from Gettysburg, Meade’s prediction of probable disaster would very likely have come true.

It was not until Ulysses S. Grant became General-In-Chief in 1864 that Lincoln finally found the man who had the killer quality necessary to bring Robert E. Lee to bay, and end the war.

General Grant, who on July 4 was in Mississippi receiving the surrender of Vicksburg, was not yet available to command the Army of the Potomac. It would be eight more months before he was finally in charge. He would then show the aggressiveness and tenacity that Meade seemed to lack, but which was absolutely necessary to having any chance of finishing off Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

But what would Grant have done if he had been in charge of the Army of the Potomac at the end of the Gettysburg battle? I think we can see a clue to how he might have handled that situation in his reaction to a near-disaster the befell him the previous year during his attack on Fort Donelson in Tennessee.

With the Confederate garrison confined within the fort, Grant positioned his forces to block every avenue of escape. That evening he left his army and went to confer with the commander of the Navy gunboat fleet that supported his attack. While he was gone the Confederates attempted to smash their way out of the fort. By the time Grant realized a battle was in progress and hurried back, one wing of his army was in panicked retreat. Not only did Grant quickly organize his force to retake the ground that had been lost, but he saw the Confederate near-breakout as a great opportunity. What he said to a member of his staff shows his attitude when he sensed his opponent was vulnerable:

Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks first now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.

To Meade the fact that both his own and his opponent’s armies had been disordered by battle was a reason to hang back. But for Grant the mutual demoralization of his and the enemy’s forces was a spur to get in the first blow before the opposing army could recover its equilibrium. That, to me, is the difference between the cautious attitude that characterized Meade, and the aggressive, go-for-the-jugular mindset that was typical of Grant. I think that if he had been in charge at Gettysburg, he definitely would have struck a blow at Lee.

Confederate colonel (later general) E. Porter Alexander, who was Longstreet’s chief of artillery at Gettysburg, perhaps summed it up best. His memoir Fighting for the Confederacy is considered by historians to be one of the most perceptive and reliable accounts written by any participant in the war. In it Alexander gives us his comparison of Meade, Grant, and Hooker, all of whom he fought against:

But Hooker’s third & last blunder [when Hooker retreated at the battle of Chancellorsville] was the greatest of all. He lost confidence even in being able to repulse Lee with his whole army united behind the short line which any engineer would pronounce impregnable…

Had it been Grant in command he would not have dreamed of giving up the fight. But Grant had been built up by successes in the West, & the Army of the Potomac had never had the luck necessary to properly educate a general. When we come to write of Gettysburg, Meade, too, one of the bravest of men personally, will be found permeated with the same timidity we see here in Hooker.

(Emphasis added).

President Lincoln eventually came to see General Meade in a more charitable light than he did immediately after Lee’s escape. In a July 21 letter the president spoke of his change of heart:

A few days having passed, I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done. Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.

At Gettysburg George Gordon Meade met a critical leadership challenge that few men could have handled, and won a decisive victory that was crucial to the final outcome of the war. To demand that he follow up that victory by immediately committing his disorganized force to an attempt to cage and destroy Robert E. Lee’s still-intact and highly dangerous army of seasoned veterans would be to ask of a good man and an excellent general something he simply was not equipped to do.