Meade of Gettysburg

GGMeadeAs we approach the 150th anniversary of the reason there are ghost tours and souvenir/t-shirt shops at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, many people will rehash the performance of several key Civil War generals there. We might as well join in the fun. First up … George Gordon Meade, who assumed command of the Army of the Potomac days before the battle itself.

Meade’s performance at Gettysburg had come under scrutiny recently. Allen Guelzo’s new book has some harsh things to say about the general, although the criticisms are familiar to students of the battle. My own take is that scholars rarely take into account the pressures of command and how only a few truly great commanders dealt with those pressures. People like Grant and Lee were great in part because they were so rare: it’s so much easier to sit back in the quiet of one’s own study or look out over a nicely manicured field and say what someone should have done (I see the same characteristics in sports fans, who seem better able to give advice on what players should do the farther away they sit from the field of play). Yet one can go too much in the other direction. After the battle Meade was irritated by suggestions that he had contemplated retreating from Gettysburg several times during July 2: I would think it perfectly understandable that he did so, in part because Lee’s failure to renew offensive operations for much of the day gave Meade a lot of time to think. I also think Meade’s reoccupation with his right and his neglect of his left contributed to how that day’s events unfolded, although no one should read that as an effort to get Daniel Sickles off the hook.

I’m less harsh on Meade’s failure to pursue. I don’t think a counterattack on July 3 would have been a good idea. I do think he could have been more aggressive in seeking ways to obstruct Lee’s withdrawal to Williamsport. Once the Confederates had taken up position at Williamsport, I believe that Meade was right not to attack, because I think he would have been defeated … but he might have contemplated ways to pin Lee in place while looking for an opening to cross the Potomac and cut off his retreat into Virginia (after all, if Lee could cross the river, so could Meade). But I admit there’s hindsight and perhaps wishful thinking there.

What do you make of Meade at Gettysburg?

31 thoughts on “Meade of Gettysburg

  1. jfepperson June 22, 2013 / 9:35 am

    I generally (sorry) agree with you, although a tad more harshly, about his conduct of the pursuit. I think he made a number of fundamental mistakes, many of which can be only partly excused on the grounds of his newness to command. He did not anticipate that he might win, and therefore did not plan for a possible pursuit. But his conduct of the battle was largely very good.

  2. Jerry Desko June 22, 2013 / 10:49 am

    Under the circumstances I think Meade performed beyond expectations. Imagine the pressure to be put in charge of an army fraught with intrigue and jealousy within its highest ranks not to mention the political pressure from President Lincoln and finally, public opinion.

    And then of course, there was the Army of Northern Virginia to contend with. Lincoln should have been satisfied with Meade’s performance compared to Hooker’s and in light of Grant’s victory at Vicksburg.

    We all sit back and are perfectly correct in our criticisms ensconced in 100% hindsight from information we think is 100% accurate. Criticism should be given of Meade and for that matter Sickles, with a grain of salt.

    I have several criticisms of Meade, but they pale in comparison to what Meade was able to accomplish in such a short time under more pressure than most people can stand.

    All hail George Gordon Meade, a truly great Spaniard and American military hero.

    (I must give the guppies something to feed on.)

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 22, 2013 / 11:08 am

      To say that someone performed “beyond expectations” sets aside what those expectations might be (and who sets them).

      • Jerry Desko June 22, 2013 / 11:56 am

        I have always had the feeling that Lincoln and Stanton wanted just someone other than Hooker in charge on this new adventure. As he ordered Meade rather than ask him to take command shows he didn’t think anymore of Reynolds than any other general in the east. Time dedicated the new commander had to be in the Army of the Potomac or within easy reach of the Army.

        I think both public opinion and executive branch opinion put no eastern union general on a pedestal. Mead was as good as any and reality showed he was up to the challenge and handled things very well and I would say beyond the expectations of most who closely watched the war in the east.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 22, 2013 / 11:36 am

      I think Lee underestimated Meade. For all that talk about how Meade “will commit no blunder in my front,” Lee sure acted as if Meade was a blunderer.

      • Rob Baker June 22, 2013 / 11:56 am

        ABSOLUTELY! Seers does a great job of citing Lee’s downfalls in his study of the campaign. One of those downfalls that he spends some time on, is Lee’s arrogance going into the battle. Lee built up a disdain for Union leadership. His comments and actions seem to dictate that Lee found “Yankees” to be inadequate due to the political nature of the army.

        • Rob Baker June 22, 2013 / 11:56 am

          And like an idiot I keep spelling Sears, “Seers.” Apologies.

      • Al Mackey June 22, 2013 / 2:30 pm

        I think Lee rather overestimated what his men could do, but not without reason. Carol Reardon made the point today that on July 1 he saw 2 brigades of Pender’s division break the Union line on Seminary Ridge and on July 2 Wright’s Georgians temporarily pierced the Union line on Cemetery Ridge but were too small a force to make a breakthrough. The panel drove home the point that from Gaines Mill on his infantry generally had success in attacking Union positions (Malvern Hill being a notable exception, of course). Based on what he knew at the time, it was reasonable for him to believe his men could do what he asked of them because by and large they had done it against the Army of the Potomac.

        • Buck Buchanan June 24, 2013 / 11:58 am


          I agree with one caveat…what did Malvern Hill have in common with Gettysburg? Magnificent fields of fire for the field artillery of the AOP.

          In many ways that told the difference. In each battle the Union commander had sufficient artillery in reserve to continuously bring fresh batteries into line to halt an onslaught.

          I think that has as much to do with Lee’s successes over the interveaning 12 months.

  3. wgdavis June 22, 2013 / 11:37 am

    I think George Meade was superb at Gettysburg. For someone thrust into command only three short days earlier, he made the decision to trust his subordinates, allowing them to frame the AoP’s context for the battle, how and where it was to be fought [Buford, and approved by Reynolds], Howard early on, and then Hancock. During the move to battle he remained with the bulk of the Army and masterfully directed its movements northward, hedging his bets about the location of the battle by creating the Pipe Creek Plan, and finally came up once Battle had been joined. He aligned the troops much as Hancock had set them based on their arrival times and routes. Once in place he allowed the commanders to do the fighting. And with two exceptions [Howard on the First Day and of course Sickles], his commanders did not really fail him. Meade assumed his role of Army Commander as one of administrator, and thus, he stepped back from the fight and made adjustments to the Battle Line as needed, allowing his commanders to lead their men in the actual fight. Guelzo infers a disconnect when he notes that on arrival at the scene of Pickett’s Charge Meade had no idea that it was over and a great repulse had been made. This is a commander who was working assiduously to ensure his commanders had the troop strength, the weapons, and supplies that were necessary to allow them to attain victory.

    Much has been made of the night-time meeting Meade conducted where he asked his commanders’ advice on whether to stay in place and fight or move to Pipe Creek. I suspect he knew staying in place was the right thing to do and may have been testing his commanders to find a weak link knowing the effort that remaining in place would require. Disengaging from Lee would have been a foolish move at best in my opinion, especially when he held the defensive posture and commanded the high ground.

    Much has also been made of Meade’s actions after the battle. Indeed, he was a commander left with the remains of three days of bloody battle, with many of his units in disarray and his supplies and ammunition running low. And after three days of blood-letting his men and his commanders required some break from it. He took prudent actions like sending the VIth Corps forward in a reconnaissance in force and sending the cavalry out after Lee’s trains.

    While his pursuit of Lee to Williamsport could have been a bit faster, and started a bit sooner, he had the aforementioned problems to deal with and likely was trying to take it a bit easy on the men, who had done hard marching to get to Gettysburg followed by three days of hard fighting.

    I agree with Brooks that an attack at Williamsport would have been foolish as Lee’s defenses were quite well laid. Still, sending some of his men south along the Potomac to another crossing point in anticipation of Lee’s delay at any movement at all, might have allowed him to get several corps and some artillery and cavalry across to provide an opportunity to catch Lee strung out in a line of march in Virginia. But such a crossing would suffer the same delays as Lee was faced with, unless they could find a crossing with a supply of boats.

    One other note about the pursuit. Meade really was faced with a limited selection of routes to take in pursuit of Lee and for a while, Lee filled those roads. And during that time Meade’s cavalry went at the tail end of those trains.

    • M.D. Blough June 22, 2013 / 12:56 pm

      Not only that but look at what he had left in command, Of his two most effective commanders, Reynolds was dead and Hancock was out of action for a prolonged time.

      • wgdavis June 22, 2013 / 8:10 pm

        That’s an excellent point Margaret. Not only were Reynolds and Hancock gone, but so was Sickles, dastardly as he was, he was a superior leader of his troops, and Howard had been show to be wanting of tactical skill in the placement of troops. That leaves the Sykes, Sedgwick and Slocum as the intact commanders, a disgraced Doubleday replaced by the unknown quantity of Newton, and Birney replacing Sickles.

        In essence, perhaps Meade’s command structure had suffered more damage than Lee’s had, losing three Corps Commanders, while Lee’s were still in place [A.P. Hill being in the condition he was].

  4. Alan June 22, 2013 / 12:12 pm

    I am going to threw a big curveball here, and be supportive of one of my favorite Union Generals – the much disliked (especially by Meade – and Edward Longacre) but usually effective Alfred Pleasanton.

    Pleasanton unfortunately (or fortunately to some) was kept close to Meade’s tent during the battle, in part because Meade as a junior officer before the Civil War knew Pleasanton’s father, and disliked him intensely. Meade was an engineer in charge of Lighthouses – and Pleasanton’s father was the government official in charge of building them. Unfortunately Pleasanton’s father did what we might say was a half-assed (typical bureaucrat)job of construction, and there were some terrible accidents for which he was dismissed. Meade placed the sins of the father on the head of the son.

    Now, Pleasanton didn’t exactly make life easy for himself either. He was an extremely effective organizer, an excellent talent scout (note that his more famous successor Sheridan kept most of his men in place when he took over in April 1864), a brave officer, perhaps just as brave as Sheridan. But he was big on self-promotion, often exaggerated combat reports (though it must be said his stand at Hazel Grove probably saved the Army of the Potomac from destruction and contributed indirectly to the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson by his own men), and was so-so on Intel gathering, which was a major role of the Cavalry corps. He also did not have a champion in command who would let him utilize the Cavalry to its full potential. Sheridan had Grant, and Grant overruled the stuffy Meade and let Phil go after Jeb Stuart. Pleasanton was able to place his cavalry in key spots – saving one blunder which was probably Meade’s fault, the failure to keep Buford’s division near the Round Tops the night of July 1st.

    But my bone of contention with Meade is something I did bring up with Jim McPherson back in 1998 – what happened in the immediate repulse of Pickett and the Confederate retreat. Pleasanton rode up, congratulated Meade sincerely and pointed out how the Confederates were streaming away in disarray. He said words to the effect that he could make Meade a great general (probably didn’t stick well with the snapping turtle), give him one hour, send the cavalry down in pursuit, plus bring in the (largely) unaffected corps of Sykes and Sedgwick, and force the destruction of the Confederates, if not Lee’s surrender itself. Lee was definitely low on artillery ammunition, his troops were largely demoralized, they might have stopped Pleasanton’s rash but brilliant idea, and then again, they might NOT have. Yes, they were still in a fighting mood, as witnessed by Kil-Cavalry’s stupid Cavalry charge against entrentched units of Hood’s division, then commanded by Evander Law – entrenched with wood and boulders just south of the Round Tops which resulted in the death of General Elon Farnsworth and much of his cavalry. But even there the cavalry did NOT have the support of Sykes, who was nearby and could have marched in.

    Jim McPherson did agree with me. But Meade did not agree with Pleasanton saying that Lee was hurt, and who knew how badly, and that two of the corps were shattered and one (Sickles) almost completely destroyed. So he declined – like McClellan at Antietam – not only declining but not doing as Brooks would have suggested, or most of us – a strong pursuit – cutting off elements if not the whole army itself. Meade never forgot Pleasanton’s “insubordination” – and after the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren fiasco – which ironically they both opposed, he made sure Grant knew about it. Grant had his own man in mind for the cavalry – and that was the end of Pleasanton. But one wonders what would have happened if Pleasanton was right, got Meade to order a charge of all the Cavalry plus those two or three very intact corps – and plunged down the field.

    I can’t fault Meade on the rest of the battle – but definitely on the conclusion.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 22, 2013 / 12:39 pm

      Here’s the one problem with that idea: the condition (and location) of Sykes and Sedgwick’s corps. Very intact? I’m not so sure.

      The V Corps had done a lot of fighting on July 2. Two brigades had defended Little Round Top. The divisions to which those brigades had been attached fought in the Wheatfield and the Rose Woods, and had been roughly handled. Crawford’s division, the freshest of the bunch, had also fought during the evening of July 2. They are not deployed on July 3 in such a way as to mount an attack against anyone but the folks to their front, who are in fine shape.

      The VI Corps is scattered all over the place. At best it was nicked a bit on July 2, but it was in the best condition of any corps under Meade at the time. Still, Meade would have had some work to do to bring the entire corps together to mount an attack (as opposed to stop a breakthrough along Cemetery Ridge).

      So I’m not sure the infantry support was as some would have it. Meade went to Little Round Top on the afternoon of July 3 and decided to be cautious. Maybe he was wrong, but maybe the question is whether he really could have mounted the attack envisioned by Pleasanton.

      • Alan June 22, 2013 / 12:52 pm

        I know this is definitely armchair generalship but one has to ask why Meade would NOT even allow a limited feint by Pleasanton. The Union artillery still had plenty of ammunition, the cavalry was close enough, and even with partial infantry support Pleasanton could at least have found out how secure Lee was – or wasn’t. We know now that Lee wasn’t not very secure, low on ammo, low on food, the men not directly affected still had fighting spirit to be sure. But what if Pleasanton, supported by Sedgwick – and perhaps somewhat by Sykes – Sykes could have tied Law’s division down to be sure – had gone in.

        Meade was not in the same position McClellan was at Antietam when he, confronted by Porter’s assertion that he commanded the last reserves of the Army of the Potomac, back down from a possibly decisive charge. He had some solid options, if not to push a full charge, then to feint and wreck Lee some more if the Confederates were still in somewhat good shape.

        Something we will never know. Pleasanton was definitely NOT as bad as Longacre and others point him out to be, and Meade was NOT as good as his supporters claim.

        • Bryn Monnery June 23, 2013 / 2:26 am

          I’m afraid the logistics situation was pretty terrible. In the aftermath of the repulse of Pickett’s charge there was very little ammunition left (about 6,000 rounds actually with the army from the simple maths they had 42,000 rounds and expended 36,000 of them already, another 54,000 rounds in the various trains are parked near Winchester and aren’t up until the 6th). In small arms ammunition and rations the situation was even worse (as there was no Hunt stashing spares).

          Meade cut away from his trains to get to Gettysburg, and this seriously impacted his operations. Not to make excuses for his Falling Waters fizzle.

      • wgdavis June 22, 2013 / 8:30 pm

        Additionally, where was this cavalry that Pleasonton offered? To my knowledge, Gregg was otherwise engaged a few miles east, while Killcavalry was earning his nickname down below the Round Tops, while Buford was in Maryland.

        • Alan June 22, 2013 / 11:26 pm

          I thought about that myself. The cavalry battle on East Cavalry Field, Rummel Farm, had drawn to a conclusion hours before. Stuart had already pulled back. Pleasanton could have sent messengers to tell McGregg (and Custer) to move forward, and other messengers down to Buford at Westminster to come up. Granted Kil-Calvary was in no shape to move, having destroyed Farnsworth’s brigade – and Farnsworth too. But Merritt was still in the area (now, how he could get up to the Union center is a good question with both Law and that terrain in the way) – still, he could have kept astride the Emmitsburg road, waited for Buford to come up, and with Gregg’s cavalry, bruised but not knocked out (Custer as always was spoiling for a fight), still could have moved forward in support of Sedgwick and the available forces of Sykes. Difficult but not impossible, and as said before, if a full-scale attack was out of the question, a feint could easily have been accomplished. That feint could have kept Lee occupied on the move back – because as we do know Buford, Kilpatrick, and the then sober French (ordered up by Meade to delay Lee) did follow Lee – and if they had the infantry support might have inflicted great damage – or more – before Lee escaped into Virginia. With no feint, and obviously a half-hearted follow up – Lee was able to escape fairly intact, and the killing would go on for almost 2 more years.

          • wgdavis June 23, 2013 / 11:30 pm

            I think you may have the timing backwards. The fighting was still going on at East Cavalry Field after the Johnnies retreated from Cemetery Ridge, The Cavalry actions on the south end [Farnsworth, Merritt, Kilpatrick et all] were happening about the same time as Pickett’s charge, and in addition to Buford being in Maryland, there were two other cavalry brigades off on independent duty…one of Merrit’s regular brigades around Fairfield???

            So, regardless of the time, the two closest cavalry forces upon which Pleasonton could call [Kirkpatrick and Gregg] were also chewed up after their respective fights.

            I suspect this is Pleasonton blowing his own horn, which is a shame as his men all did excellent service during the campaign, with the exception of Kilpatrick, who wasted the better parts of two brigades on infantry fighting behind rock walls, and in terrain that was miserable for Cavalry to start with.

      • Buck Buchanan June 24, 2013 / 12:04 pm

        Brooks, to the point about the VIth Corps…by the night of 2 July the VIth Corps held both the right and the left of the Union line. The Vermont brigade was atop Big Round Top and the 3rd Brigade, 2d Division was atop Wolf’s Hill above Spangler’s Spring.

        • Brooks D. Simpson June 24, 2013 / 2:27 pm

          As you go up the north summit of Culp’s Hill after the traverse, you’ll see a good number of VI Corps monuments. You’ll also see them southeast/east of Little Round Top. So it was scattered piecemeal at certain times.

  5. James F. Epperson June 22, 2013 / 12:35 pm

    I won’t speak to Lee underestimating Meade, but I have long thought that the seeds of defeat in Pennsylvania were planted at Chancellorsville: Lee had no business winning that fight, and when he did his modesty prevented him from concluding that he won because he was better than Hooker, so he concluded that his *men* were better than those in the AotP. That was a fatal miscalculation. But this is off-topic, as it is assessing Lee and not Meade, which is what Brooks wanted, and for that I apologize.

    • Mark June 24, 2013 / 9:33 am

      >> Lee had no business winning that fight, and when he did his modesty prevented him from concluding that he won because he was better than Hooker, so he concluded that his *men* were better than those in the AotP.

      That’s an interesting point James. Do you think this idea about Lee’s interpretation of the outcome comes from personal letters, or is it more speculative? I’d love to learn more about this.

  6. Al Mackey June 22, 2013 / 2:32 pm

    One of the Federal soldiers described the Army of the Potomac as an army of lions led by jackasses. Carol Reardon said that at Gettysburg there were a lot fewer jackasses.

    • Buck Buchanan June 24, 2013 / 12:06 pm

      I wish there was a Like button!

  7. TF Smith June 24, 2013 / 9:25 am

    Late to the question, and the best points have already been made, but it seems a fair assesment that Meade not only won his battle, but won it decisively – which is certainly more than McDowell, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Buckner, and AS Johnston could say…arguably, Rosecrans and JE Johnston, as well.

    And, as others have said, against the most formidable opposing commander in the field.

    Granted, it was a defensive battle, and he did not do everything possible in the pursuit, but still – Meade was a member in very good standing of a pretty small club.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 24, 2013 / 9:53 am

      As the the pursuit, I think Meade might have been more aggressive, but I’m not sure how much faster he should have been in the early days of the pursuit, before he had a good idea of what Lee’s intentions were. He did move the XI Corps rather quickly once he had a better idea of what was going on. We tend to underestimate the factors of fatigue, burden-bearing, and uncertainty when we see things in hindsight.

      • TF Smith June 24, 2013 / 4:56 pm

        Very true.

        Trying to come up with a 20th Century “Western” equivalent, and 1st Alamein/Alam Halfa sort of come to mind – the difference between those two and Gettysburg is that Lee was smart enough to withdraw after being defeated, and Davis was smart enough to let him.


  8. Joshism June 24, 2013 / 1:52 pm

    July 4th. Meade has been on the job less than a week, has fought an expected grueling 3-day battle against Lee’s army. According to Meade’s intel reports from BMI he faced an opponent of equal size who had suffered no defeats during the last year. The weather turned from hot and humid to hot and rainy. His supply line was weak.

    He only has one mostly fresh corps (VI); one is wrecked (III) and four others are worn out from one or more days of fighting. One corps isn’t even considered reliable by most of his army (XI).

    His Chief of Staff is wounded. His most trusted corps commander is dead (Reynolds); his second most trusted corps commander is wounded (Hancock). The two senior corps commanders are overly cautious (Slocum and Sedgwick).

    5 of his 7 corps command are in bad shape:
    I – Reynolds dead; Newton in command (unfamiliar with corps having comg over from VI)
    II – Hancock wounded, Gibbon wounded, Hays now in command
    III – Sickles wounded, Birney now in command but would be replaced by French in a few days
    V – Sykes replaced Meade less than a week ago
    XI – Meade doesn’t have confidence in Howard

    Meade probably could have done better (his move from Gettysburg to South Mountain was quick, but his move from South Mountain to opposite Lee’s lines at Falling Waters was slow) but things did not look good for him.

    Maybe a better question about Meade would be about his maneuvering with Lee later in 1863 where he managed to get chased almost back to Washington at one point and never properly fought Lee’s army.

    • TF Smith June 24, 2013 / 5:04 pm

      Nice summing up of “Meade’s Command Problems”…

      Considering an ACW corps as roughly equivalent to a WW II division in terms of personnel, interesting point on the attrition of the senior commanders. Five of seven in the space of (roughly) two weeks – I can’t think of a comparable rate in a 20th Century campaign or battle involving the US Army.

      Even given the number of losses and dismissals in 1st Army in 1944, it does not compare. Probably the only campaign that would come close is Luzon in 1941-42, and the unusual aspects of the US/Philippine command organization are so far afield from standard practice it makes it unique in US history.


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