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.
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.
The 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?
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