Pursuing Lee: Meade After Gettysburg

There’s been a good deal of debate over the years as to the performance of George G. Meade between July 3 and July 13, 1863.  Should Meade have been more aggressive?  Should he have counterattacked on July 3?  Should he have attacked Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Williamsport?  Did Meade let slip an opportunity to win the war outright in the summer of 1863?

I don’t think so.  I believe it would have been difficult to mount a counterattack on July 3, especially as no preparations were made for one until after the repulse of the Confederate assault against the Union center earlier that afternoon.  While I think that Meade might have been too restrained in the days immediately after the battle, which made easier Lee’s efforts at disengagement and retreat, I’m well aware that with the losses suffered by his own army and the tattered command situation that moving forward effectively would have posed a challenge.  Whatever was to be done at Williamsport would have to have been done quickly, and by the time Meade was ready to consider an attack, the Confederates welcomed that opportunity.  Absent the ability to pin Lee in place while severing his route of retreat across the Potomac, I think Lee could have bloodied Meade’s nose significantly (much as Lee himself proved fortunate when Hooker’s decision to withdraw after Chancellorsville deprived Lee of the chance to assault a well-fortified Union position).

I also don’t believe that the Army of the Potomac was the sort of army to do things quickly and without hesitation.  Certainly its record in this regard was mixed, and Meade had not been on command long enough to change that army’s culture.  Absent Reynolds and Hancock, Meade’s corps commanders were a mixed lot, although one could argue that in that sense the absence of Dan Sickles made up for some of that.  Emerging for three days of hard fighting, it was asking a lot of this lot to launch another offensive that would have resulted in much more than another bloodletting.

And that’s for starters …

But you may feel differently.