General George Gordon Meade

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General George Gordon Meade
Commander, Army of the Potomac

General George Gordon Meade
General George Gordon Meade.jpg
Union General George Meade

George Gordon Meade

The son of Richard W. Meade and Margaret Coates Meade, George Gordon Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain on December 31, 1815, where his father was serving as an agent for the United States Navy. The family moved to Philadelphia where George Meade attended Mt. Airy School but had to withdraw when his father suffered financial problems. For the next few years, the Meades moved between Baltimore and Washington, and George attended several different schools. Though he wanted to attend a regular college, Meade applied for West Point and became a cadet in 1831. Meade did not particularly relish military life; however, he performed well as a student and graduated nineteenth in his class of 1835. Lieutenant Meade was appointed to the 3rd U.S. Artillery and transferred to Florida at the beginning of the Seminole Wars.

Meade became ill with fever while in Florida and was reassigned to the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts for administrative duties. His term at Watertown helped him recover from his feverish bouts, but he was very disillusioned with the army and prospects of a military career. Meade resigned his commission in 1836 and went to work for a railroad company as an engineer to survey territory for new rail lines. In 1840, he found himself in Washington where he met and later married Margaretta Sergeant. Determined to give his new bride a higher standard of living, Meade re-applied for military service in 1842 and was appointed a 2nd lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers. His military assignments relocated him to Texas in 1845 where he was later assigned to General Winfield Scott's Army during the Mexican-American War. After the Mexican-American War, he returned to Philadelphia where he continued work on building lighthouses for the Delaware Bay. Lieutenant Meade was eventually promoted to captain and for the next ten years conducted surveying and design work for lighthouses on the east coast. He had a brief assignment with the army in Florida during the 1850's campaign against the Seminole Indians. Soon after, Captain Meade participated in the survey of the Great Lakes and tributaries.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Captain Meade offered his services to Pennsylvania and was appointed as a brigadier general of volunteers. Like many American families during the Civil War, Meade's was also touched personally by sectional strife. His wife's sister was married to Governor Wise of Virginia who later became a brigadier general in the Confederate army.

Meade was assigned to command a brigade of Pennsylvania volunteers and it was during this time that he began a friendship with John Reynolds who was from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. General Meade and his Pennsylvanians built fortifications near Tenallytown, Maryland, which were part of the defenses of Washington. Nicknamed, "The Old Snapping Turtle", Meade gained a reputation for being short-tempered and obstinate with junior and superior officers alike. He especially disdained civilians and newspapermen. In March 1862, his command was assigned to the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula, southeast of Richmond. His troops saw hard fighting at the battles of MechanicsvilleGaines' Mill and at Glendale where he was seriously wounded. A musket ball struck him above his hip, clipped his liver, and just missed his spine as it passed through his body. Another bullet struck his arm, but the feisty general stuck to his horse and continued to direct his troops. It was only after a heavy loss of blood that he was forced to leave the field.

Meade recovered from his wounds in a Philadelphia hospital, but early in September he left the facility to rejoin his troops in the field. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac River to invade Maryland. Meade was placed in command of a division of the "Pennsylvania Reserves" and led them at the Battle of South Mountain and then at the Battle of Antietam (aka Battle of Sharpsburg) on September 17, 1862. When the First Corps commander was wounded at Antietam, Meade assumed temporary command. He stayed with the army through the late fall and participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862. Soon after Fredericksburg, Meade was assigned to command the Fifth Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. His assignment as a corps commander advanced him through the fiery trial at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Though the army had been soundly defeated at Chancellorsville, Meade handled his corps with great skill and protected the important fords on the Rappahannock River.

In mid-June, the army moved north and across the Potomac River in pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. It was while the Army of the Potomac concentrated around Frederick, Maryland, that he received the assignment of army commander on June 28, 1863. Though surprised at his selection for the position, Meade realized that he had close support from many of the army's corps commanders including his old friend John Reynolds who commanded the First Corps. The following day, Meade issued orders to continue the army's pursuit of Lee.

The Battle of Gettysburg occurred just three days after General Meade's appointment to command. Using the most qualified of his corps commanders to act for him in the field, Meade arrived on the battleground late on July 1st where he learned the details of the death of his friend and mentor Reynolds. He decided to fight a defensive battle; the following day witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting of the war as Lee's army attacked both flanks of Meade's line, but the determined Union veterans held the ground. That evening, Meade eagerly sought the advice of his most trusted officers during a "Council of War" at his headquarters. The officers encouraged him to stay and fight the battle to its conclusion. The last day of the battle may have been Meade's finest hour when an aggressive Union defense thwarted the last Confederate hopes for victory. Beginning on July 5, Meade ordered his exhausted army southward in pursuit of Lee's army, which was in retreat back to Virginia. Despite the possible entrapment of Lee near the Potomac River, no further significant fighting occurred and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia retreated into Virginia.

Gen. Meade
Meade in 1864.jpg
Miller's History

Despite the decisive results of the campaign, Meade was criticized for the caution he exercised in following Lee's retreat back to Virginia. Some controversial commanders accused Meade of wishing to retreat from the field of Gettysburg (a charge totally unfounded) while others said he was too cautious in following Lee to the Potomac. Yet the controversy did not diminish the significance of the victory at Gettysburg, and President Lincoln expressed the gratitude of the nation for the victory. That fall, Meade led the Army of the Potomac through an endless, meandering series of skirmishes, later called the Mine Run Campaign, trying to outflank Lee's position in north central Virginia. Despite the best efforts of corps commanders and their commands, Meade was unable to get around Lee or bring him to a major battle. The army went into winter quarters along the Rapidan River and on January 28, 1864, General Meade received the 'official thanks of congress' for his service in defeating Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.

General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union forces that same winter and he decided to accompany the Army of the Potomac in the opening of the spring campaign. As the Wilderness Campaign continued, Meade's control of the army was curtailed by the presence and directions of his superior officer. However, he worked diligently in carrying out General Grant's orders and directives. He advanced the army where Grant desired and issued the orders Grant issued. For his services, Meade was promoted to major general in the regular army in August 1864.

Meade's Monument at Gettysburg.jpg
Gettysburg National Military Park

(Left) Photo of the equestrian monument dedicated to General George Gordon Meade at Gettysburg.

Meade's promotion arrived while the army was embroiled in the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond, which lasted through the fall of 1864 until April 1865. Then, Lee ordered the defenses abandoned and his army to retreat to Danville. By Grant's directive, Meade set his army in motion to corral the Confederate forces, aided by General E.O.C. Ord's Army of the James. Despite nausea and a high fever, Meade insisted that he continue to command the army in what was to be the final campaign and accompanied his troops in an army ambulance.
 
On April 9, 1865, Meade's headquarters was established several miles outside of Appomattox Court House (near General Grant's headquarters). That afternoon, while Grant and his staff rode to the court house, Meade once again took to his ambulance with a headache and fever. When the news of Lee's surrender arrived, Meade was uncharacteristically elated. Despite his illness, Meade rode his favorite horse "Baldy" up to the front to announce the surrender to the troops.

After the close of the war, General Meade was placed in command of military districts on the east coast. He lived with his wife and family in Philadelphia until October 31, 1872, when he was struck down by a violent pain in his side. His old wound from the Battle of Glendale had reactivated internal problems and pneumonia set in. Meade rapidly faded and died on November 6, 1872. The tenacious general is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. (See General George Gordon Meade: Biography and Compiled Military Service Record.)

Sources: Gettysburg National Military Park; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; National Archives; Library of Congress

Recommended Reading: George Gordon Meade and the War in the East (Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series) (Hardcover). Description: Even though he defeated Robert E. Lee in the Civil War's greatest battle, George Gordon Meade has never enjoyed a prominent place in the pantheon of Union war heroes. To most students of the Civil War, he is merely the man who was lucky enough to benefit from Confederate mistakes at Gettysburg, but whose shortcomings as a commander compelled Abraham Lincoln to bring in Ulysses S. Grant from the West to “achieve victory.” Continued below.

In this, the first book-length study of the general to appear in a generation, Ethan S. Rafuse challenges the notion that Meade was simply the last in a long line of failed Union commanders in the East. Instead, George Gordon Meade and the War in the East offer a balanced, informative, and complete, yet concise, reconsideration of the general's life and career. It also provides keen analysis of the military and political factors that shaped operations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and delineates the sources of tension between Washington and the Army of the Potomac high command that played such an important role in shaping the war in the Eastern Theater. This study will appeal to anyone with an interest in Meade, American history, and the politics of command in the Civil War, and encourage reconsideration of traditional interpretations of the Union war effort in the East.

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Recommended Reading: The Union Generals Speak: The Meade Hearings on the Battle of Gettysburg (Hardcover). From Publishers Weekly: Remembered now as a grand patriotic epic, the Battle of Gettysburg was a source of disappointment and controversy in the North because of the Union army's failure to head off and destroy Lee's army in the wake of the clash. This superbly edited collection of transcripts from the ensuing Congressional hearings sheds fascinating light on the conduct of the battle and the convoluted politics of the war in the North. Continued below.

The Radical Republicans in Congress used the hearings to attack their political enemies in the army, pressing allegations of faint-heartedness and pro-Southern sympathies on the part of Union commander George Meade and the Democrats and West Pointers in the officer corps. Meanwhile, the Union generals who testified brought their own faulty memories and hidden agendas to the hearings, using them to play up their roles in the battle and settle scores with rivals. The picture that emerges is of an army beset by personal vendettas, factional infighting, resentments between political appointees and professional soldiers and rancorous divisions over military policy. Hyde, an amateur Civil War historian, annotates the transcripts with engaging background material on the personalities, careers and machinations of the participants and a running commentary that corrects and analyzes the many errors, deceptions and obfuscations of the raw testimony. The result is a highly detailed, often vivid account of the high points of the battle and its aftermath, one that eschews the typical Gettysburg hagiography and points up the blunders, miscommunication and character flaws of the principals. Although a little arcane for casual readers, Civil War buffs will find it an engrossing supplement to Gettysburg lore.

 

Recommended Reading: Meade's Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (Civil War in the North) (Hardcover: 518 pages) (Kent State University Press) (May 30, 2007). Description: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman is perhaps the most valuable insight into General Meade, because Lyman, without any reservation, “freely expresses his beliefs, thoughts, and observations from the pen to the paper.” Continued below.

Meade's Army is more that just an edited version of Theodore Lyman's experience with the Army of the Potomac. As one glides through the pages of Lyman's journal and flips back to the accompanying footnotes, one begins to appreciate the relationship between the editor and Lyman. While Lyman provides astute observations on everything from the flora and fauna of the battlefield to the chaos of fighting, the editor's annotations serve to link Lyman back to his social milieu. Classmates, relatives, and the social elite of Harvard University and Boston all meet at various times during the war and even on the battlefield. And the editor reminds the reader that Lyman is a product of his era--the social status which colors his observations. Such insights provide a deeper contextual layer to what is already a fascinating real-time account of the war.  

 

Recommended Reading: With Grant and Meade from the Wilderness to Appomattox. Description: The letters of Theodore Lyman, an aide-de-camp to General George Meade, offer a witty and penetrating inside view of the Civil War. Scholar and Boston Brahmin, Lyman volunteered for service following the battle at Gettysburg. From September 1863 to the end of the war, he wrote letters almost daily to his wife. Colonel Lyman’s early letters describe life in winter quarters. Those written after General Grant assumes command chronicle the Army of the Potomac’s long-awaited move against the Army of Northern Virginia. Lyman covered the field, delivering messages. Continued below.

As a general’s aide, he was privy to headquarters planning, gossip, and politics. No one escaped his discerning eye—neither "the flaxen Custer" nor Abraham Lincoln, who struck him as "a highly intellectual and benevolent Satyr." After capably serving General Meade ("Old Peppery"), Lyman accompanied him to Appomattox Court House and there observed the dignified, defeated General Lee.

 

Recommended Reading: Meade's Reprise (Hardcover). From Publishers Weekly: Merriam rewrites the ending to the Civil War in his vividly imaged debut novel, which elevates Union Maj. Gen. George Meade to the status of military genius after his trouncing of Lee at Gettysburg. In Merriam's revisionist history, Meade is ably assisted by a pair of Negro spies, Henry Prediger and Josephus Alexander, who provide Meade with so much advance notice about Confederate strategy that Meade is able to outflank Lee at every turn. Continued below.

Nevertheless, Meade's conquest of Richmond proves to be a debacle, with Lincoln pushing to end the war and several of Meade's military colleagues seeking to undermine Meade's ongoing efforts. Merriam puts his impeccable research to good use, offering impressive portraits of Lincoln, and Generals Longstreet and Sickles. He also brings the war and military intrigue to life, although Lee's military talent is noticeably shortchanged. Even given the license of speculative fiction, however, Merriam pushes the bounds of credibility in two important ways. His account of the ease with which Prediger and Alexander gain access to Meade to funnel information seems unimaginable, and his investment of Meade with the personal brilliance to match his military acumen goes against most portrayals of the leader, which found him overwhelmed and out of his element in the political arena. Moreover, Merriam's account of the efforts to put African-Americans on equal footing with whites smacks of modern-day political correctness, and he conveniently ignores much of the vitriol that plunged the South into chaos after the war. This volume presents some compelling historical material, but the unfettered nature of the speculation undermines the storytelling.

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