Is George Gordon Meade’s prestige as the “Victor of Gettysburg” at stake?

Without a doubt, George Gordon Meade had one of the toughest assignments of the war- take command of an army in the middle of a critical campaign with the objective of thwarting the invasion of Pennsylvania and Maryland by Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. It was a daunting task and one few men would have relished, considering the history of command failures in the past and the prowess of a southern general who successively had met and defeated the Army of the Potomac. It was not just the order to command an army and send it hither and yon to find Lee, but to also answer to the chiefs in Washington at the War Department and the White House, as well as his counterparts commanding divisions, corps and even departments. Meade dutifully accepted the appointment knowing full well his assignment meant more than his personal reputation.

Five days later as evening night fell on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Meade had to be relieved that his first major test had been a victory. Lee was stopped and it appeared that the Army of the Potomac had scored a decisive victory. Even those who doubted Meade’s abilities expressed some admiration for him, but that respect soon faded as the guns fell silent and subsequent campaigns during the fall months only proved to some that Meade was indeed, not suited for the job. Lincoln, the man who appointed Meade to the position, felt different.

Meade and corps commanders

Meade with his corps commanders, Army of the Potomac in 1865. (Library of Congress)


Historians have preiodically debated the merits of this cantankerous general and whether the selection of army command at this crucial moment of the war was sound judgment on Lincoln’s part.  For all of the high opinions that fellow officers and enlisted men had of him- “elegant”, “thoughtful and silent”, “neatly uniformed and dignified”, and “man of high character”, he was also subject of ridicule and even humor for his temperamental outbursts directed at anyone who failed to fulfill their duties. To many an enlisted man, Meade appeared to be nothing more than the “goggle-eyed snapping turtle”, a nickname that has unfortunately followed him to this very day, who seemingly cared little for the condition and comfort of the rank and file. The person inside the uniform was more complicated than what people saw on the outside and what may have been his greatest fault- rather a personal obstacle, was overwhelming anxiety, which is often today’s diagnosis for sleeplessness and a sharp temper.  With high command thrust upon his shoulders on June 28, 1863, it was only natural that his level of anxiety would rise to near critical levels. Fortunately, it seems Meade’s anxiety did not cloud his judgment at Gettysburg where he had a treasure trove of good officers to depend upon while those who could not be trusted or performed poorly could be eventually pushed out of the army. He also relied heavily upon his corps commanders and junior officers whose skills and abilities worked toward the ultimate victory.  It was in the aftermath of the battle when both supporters and critics leapt into the debate of Meade’s merits. The Comte de Paris in his early history of the Battle of Gettysburg was critical of Meade’s generalship, more for his choices of where to be rather than the decisions made.

Gettysburg The Last InvasionThe arguments and discussion did not end there and have even been passed into recent scholarship, most notably the 2013 book Gettysburg, The Last Invasion (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013) by Dr. Allen Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Civil War Studies and Director of Civil War studies at Gettysburg College. Dr. Guelzo’s discussion of Meade focuses on ties the general had with former commander and soon to be Democratic nominee to the presidency, George McClellan, (though Meade had distinctly distanced himself from McClellan by 1863) while also stating the political woes Meade had with both generals and influential politicians that directed so much of his behavior as well as his mistakes, a number of which occurred long after the Gettysburg Campaign had ended. “Meade had his admirers over the years,” Guelzo acknowledges, “but much of the admiration is dutiful rather than enthusiastic, almost forced.” As to the Union victory at Gettysburg, “winning the battle had less to do with Meade that it did with a bevy of otherwise minor characters…who stepped out for a moment and turned a corner at some inexpressibly right instant.” (Guelzo, p. 462)

There are numerous cases at Gettysburg where Dr. Guelzo is right. Union generals, colonels, lt. colonels, captains and even sergeants and privates stepped forward at the right moment at the right time to do what needed to be done and it was not necessary for the commanding general to be present. But was it the influence of the new army commander that guided these soldiers or was it simply that this army did not have the opportunity for them to shine prior to Gettysburg?

Meade & the Quartermaster

General Meade as many soldiers preferred to remember him, displaying his legendary temper. (Charles Reed – Hardtack & Coffee)

George Meade was not the beau ideal of a top ranking general, a “star” in army command. He was tough, irascible, strict and at times aloof; as difficult a man to understand in 1863 as he is today. His cautious approach, which is very apparent after Gettysburg through the Mine Run Campaign and the opening days of the Overland Campaign, may have found its root in the anxiety he suffered with but was also influenced by his concern for the personnel of the army he commanded in battlefield situations where any mistake, no matter how small, cost lives. In that respect, Meade’s choice of action, or inaction, was perfect fodder for his critics then and now when death on the battlefield is merely considered to be a statistical exercise. What is refreshing is how Meade’s counterpart viewed the general, not as another soldiers with faults both good and bad, but as an adversary who’s strategy would be difficult to comprehend . Ten years after the war had ended, Confederate veteran George Cary Eggleston wrote of General Lee’s opinion in the summer of 1863, of the newest and final commander of the Army of the Potomac:

“General Lee had a sententious way of saying things which made all his utterances peculiarly forceful. His language was always happily chosen, and a single sentence from his lips often left nothing more to be said. As good an example of this as any, perhaps, was his comment upon the military genius of General Meade. Not very long after that officer took command of the Army of the Potomac, a skirmish occurred, and none of General Lee’s staff officers being present, an acquaintance of mine was detailed as his personal aid for the day, and I am indebted to him for the anecdote. Someone asked our chief what he thought of the new leader on the other side, and in reply Lee said:’ General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I commit one he will make haste to take advantage of it.’ It is difficult to see what more he could have said on the subject.” – (George Cary Eggleston, A Rebel’s Recollections, Civil War Centennial Series, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1875, pp. 129-130.)

Was Lee, the most respected of southern commanders, right or wrong in his estimation of Meade? The debate still continues.

-John Heiser, Gettysburg NMP

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15 Responses to Is George Gordon Meade’s prestige as the “Victor of Gettysburg” at stake?

  1. emskadittle says:

    so if a leader isn’t a micro manager then he doesn’t get the credit he deserves? However Mead commanded at Gettysburg, it worked out much better than all of the previous encounters with the Army of Northern Virginia

  2. I believe that Winfield Scott Hancock was the true force behind Meade’s victory at Gettysburg. His presence on all three days, the shifting of troops and meeting all threats on the tactical level provided the key to victory. I suggest reading “Hancock the Superb”. Meade entrusted the bulk of the Army of Potomac to Hancock during the critical fighting. After Gettysburg, Hancock was considered the hammer of the Army of the Potomac. Grant entrusted him with troops over Meade. Eventually Hancock was displeased with Grants bleeding of the army.

  3. John Baniszewski says:

    The appointment of Meade was one of the best decisions Lincoln ever made. In the weeks after Chancellorsville, the senior leadership team of the Army of the Potomac was in turmoil, and a parade of Union generals visited Washington to tell Lincoln that Joe Hooker must be fired. Meade turned that team around (with the exception of its worst member, Dan Sickles) and brought it the leadership it needed. I think that the opinion of someone who was there sums it up nicely – Oliver Howard wrote to Lincoln not long after the battle “The successful issue of the battle of Gettysburg was due mainly to the energetic operations of our present commanding General prior to the engagement and to the manner in which he handled his troops on the field. The reserves have never before during the war been thrown in at just the right moment. . . . Moreover I have never seen a more hearty co-operation on the part of General officers as since General Meade took the command. We have, if I may be allowed to say it, a Commanding General in whom all the officers, with whom I have come in contact, express complete confidence”

  4. GK Warren says:

    Guelzo’s work is disappointing. Most recent works on Gettysburg or Meade are laudatory of the commanding general. For Guelzo to claim otherwise is false. He falls into the trap of all Lincoln historians: He places far too much emphasis on Lincoln’s words themselves, and not enough emphasis on the forces which shaped Lincoln’s opinions. Meade ran afoul of several powerful forces as the war dragged from 1863 into 1864. Dan Sickles rallied as many political allies as he could to attack Meade in retaliation for Meade’s negative reviews of Sickles’ performance during the battle. This included a visit to Abraham Lincoln to plant seeds of doubt about Meade. Radical Republicans attacked Meade in fear of a Democrat getting too much credit for the Union’s signal victory. Finally, the press turned against Meade after he expelled Edward Cropsey, a reporter tasked with reporting on the Army of the Potomac. Anyone who seeks to examine Meade should be aware of these issues, which have led to many mistaken impressions being written about Meade.

  5. Bryan Trent says:

    Mead was a strict General he went by the book

  6. William Hewitt says:

    As John correctly points out, Meade was thrown into the fray with a “team” of folks, many of which he had little use for. He relied on Reynolds then Hancock to control less capable commanders, extending his reach beyond corps. He fought his army as a unit, rather than a series of corps engagements, finally bringing a larger portion of his numeric superiority to bear. He did have a temper, but it was always delivered in response to poor performance, rather than undeserving soldiers.— not altogether a bad habit. He was a bit too meticulous in planning but in execution he excelled (2 July) where almost 90% of the army shifted to meet a series of threats. If he were as bad as his critics say, Guelzo included, Grant must have seen something we do not. And I would suggest Grant’s opinion is far more relevant than ours. Was he perfect? no. could he have been better in the offense? yes. But he could move his army and get his men into the fight– all in all a more than credible performance. His problem was his own modesty.

  7. wgdavis says:

    Col. Hewitt is correct about Grant. In essence, the description of Meade could also be applied to Grant…perhaps that is why Grant kept him in command of the AoP.

    Meade allowed his subordinates – Buford and Reynolds to set up the battle, and pick the ground, trusting their skills. The strategy developed by Buford and reinforced by Reynolds was absolutely correct, something that completely escaped Lee and just about the rest of the ANV except for Longstreet. They never really recovered.

    I cannot think how Grant would have handled it any differently.

  8. Ron Sanko says:

    It is interesting how Lee’s style of generalship – bring the right forces to the right position and allow the subordinate commanders to excuse the general plan is highly regarded as a positive. While when Meade does the same thing at Gettysburg so many find fault with it.

  9. Frank says:

    We tend to think that the ultimate result of a battle is due to some human factor because, after all, the players (ie. soldiers and commanders) are the ones who are involved in the contest. But in the case of General Meade at Gettysburg, he really did not have to assume an active role as overall commander because he had the advantage of best position. If the battle was not won by Meade, it was lost by Lee who, despite the Meade’s strong position, opted for the offensive against it. Meade elected to assume the defensive in a strong position which is really all he had to do. Why be offensive and leave an opening for the enemy to exploit? Unlike other AOP commanders, Meade lacked hubris. He had nothing to gain by attacking Lee at Gettysburg and more to lose. Therefore, he played a smart game, and Lee played right into it. It is true that Meade’s subordinates distinguished themselves and the soldiers fought hard in individual situations, but that does not take away from Meade’s role in this battle to simply stay put and let Lee destroy himself. What more would one expect of him? Now regarding what he did after Lee withdrew is yet another story…

  10. John Baniszewski says:

    I have to disagree with the statement “he really did not have to assume an active role as overall commander because he had the advantage of best position”. It was his active role in the two days preceding the battle that enabled him to get six of his seven corps to Gettysburg with incredible speed, giving him enough troops to grab and occupy that position. It was his personal surveillance of the field in the early hours of July 2 that identified the good position. On Day 2, the “Incredible” Dan Sickles disobeyed orders and abandoned the strong position Meade put him in. It was Meade’s active and energetic movement of troops (Fifth Corp to Little Round Top, Caldwell to the Wheatfield, Twelfth Corp and First Corp to Cemetery Ridge) that enabled the Union Army to survive Sickle’s stupidity, as well as Meade’s use of his best generals (Warren and Hancock) to manage the action on the ground while he managed the total picture. Meade’s personal conduct of the Day Two battle was one of the best one-day performances of any general during the Civil War. It was only on Day Three that the Union Army was able to sit in a defensive position, and even on that day, Meade was actively directing the movement of reserve infantry and artillery that turned out to be not needed. The Battle of Gettysburg was won on July 2.

    • wgdavis says:

      While I generally agree with you and whole heartedly endorse your comments on Meade, I have a minor quibble. I have long been of the opinion that the battle was won on June 30th by John Buford, when he surveyed the ground and developed a strategy to allow the army time to get into position on that remarkably favorable ground. I think Meade, or any general, really, would have had to work overtime in the stupid locker to lose the battle from that position. [Yes, Sickles almost did that, but even his blunder so disrupted the attack on July 2 as Lee envisioned it, that Longstreet’s assault was doomed from the start. Pete knew it, so did Hood, and McLaws.] That high ground Buford placed under reserved parking was backed by a road network already adapted to moving troops quickly inside the interior lines of communication. Buford saw it on the 30th, Reynolds and Hanclck saw it on the 1st. All Meade really had to do was follow the script and make adjustments as Lee demanded with his assaults. As an experienced topographical engineer, Lee should have seen it. Even more amazing is that Lee never made use of the man who made the map, and who had ridden over the Union held ground before the war. Hotchkiss could have told him, as even he had his doubts about Lee’s July 2 attack plan.

      • John Baniszewski says:

        It is not clear Hotchkiss knew the terrain. Much of his famous map was the result of him purchasing existing county maps. There is no documentation, to my knowledge, that he ever spent time in the Gettysburg area. He also provided no information in his map about terrain features. Hancock was also lukewarm about the terrain – late in the day July 1, he reported that the immediate ground was good, but that the position was “easily turned”.

  11. Frank says:

    John is correct that Meade did a lot to bring up his corps several days before the battle was fought, particularly since he was just appointed commander of the AOP. But when most people evaluate his performance in the campaign, they tend to look at what he did during the actual battle and not what preceded it or what he might have failed to do thereafter once Lee withdrew (the latter being the most controversial part of his performance). In terms of the actual battle, I think that the July 2 outcome was due more to the efforts of his subordinates who took it upon themselves to improvise to meet changing conditions. Men such as Hancock (sending in the 1st Minn. at the last minute), Strong Vincent (directing his brigade to Little Round Top without direct orders), Chamberlain (for his tenacity and bending his line to meet a Confederate flank attack), and McGilvery (sacrificing Biglow’s Battery to stop Barksdale until the Federal line was shorn up) come to mind. The battle on that day was very fluid. One of the criticisms of Meade was that he did NOT personally explore the field as he should have done on that day (it was awhile before he personally arrived to admonish Sickles after having sent out others to check up on him earlier). Of course, he ordered various corps to shore up weak points, but that part of his job was easier because of his great position. Interior lines with better communications enabled him to accomplish this with little effort as conditions developed. Again, this is not taking anything away from Meade in his conduct of the actual battle. What more would one have expected of him, unless, of course, one might want to fault him for not checking out Sickles advanced position personally earlier in the day? Meade is one of my favorite generals as is Longstreet–competent but not flashy.

  12. ThoDan says:

    These Leadership reads like Mission tactic,I expect from Unit commanders to act accordingly to Goal and situation.

    Moltke the Elder led in this style, ist called Mission tactic

    I don´t expect from a Commanding Generals to take Company or Regimental Commanders by the Hand and Show them what to do.
    This i would consider a great failure to command,
    Hancock was AFAIK the first day the highest ranking and best Commanding Officer on the line after Reynolds dead.

    As Moshe Dayan said in this case, the command, authority was Hancocks(he was at the line and Meade was and could not be there), and without dire Need(Dan Sickles/ tactical necessity/practicality) or a good opportunity no Commander should interfere with the command of a subordinate Commanding Officer.

    And that didn´t take into account, the infighting and intrigues of the AOP command rooster, the beatings Lee ´d inflicted on the AOP

  13. S says:

    Also important, I believe, is the Cult of Robert E. Lee. It became blasphemy to say anyone could out-general Lee. Grant just “beat him through attrition.” Meade “just had subordinates who didn’t let him down.” But the truth seems to be closer to this: Lee consistently displayed a penchant for frontal assaults that often drove the Union Army from the field but were indecisive, at the same time bleeding his army dry.

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