Washington, July 14, 1863.
I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very—very—grateful to you for the magnificient success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it. I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive. At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fiftyfive miles, if so much. And Couch’s movement was very little different.
Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasureably because of it.
I beg you will not consider this a prossecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.
Although Lincoln never sent this letter, it reflects his state of mind when he learned that Meade had failed to attack Lee at Williamsport.
George G. Meade will always be second-guessed for his performance between July 3 and July 13, 1863. He has his defenders and detractors. But what most people overlook is how Lincoln’s impression of Meade (and Meade’s impression of Lincoln) developed over that period. It never became a bond of respect or trust.
Some of that is due to Lincoln. It appears that Lincoln took the assessments of Herman Haupt and Dan Sickles (who was even then spinning a tall tale) at face value. That meant he saw Meade as cautious and cut from McClellan cloth. In turn that meant that he was primed to read Meade’s congratulatory order, with his phrase about “driving the enemy from our soil,” as he did (although one will recall that one of the reasons Lincoln supposedly named Meade to command the Army of the Potomac was because Pennsylvania was Meade’s soil).
A little of this is due to Meade, whose wording on the order was injudicious. Meade was well aware of Lincoln’s tendency to insert himself in command matters, and he had seen it firsthand that spring during the president’s visits to the Army of the Potomac. A little more caution in one’s choice of words might have been wise.
A great deal of this is due to intermediaries. Sickles’s purpose was obvious: he played the role first performed by Hooker after Antietam. Haupt’s skills were impressive, but it seems he was becoming expert at being an armchair general. aaaaand then there’s Henry W. Halleck. On July 7, as Gideon Welles tells us, Lincoln met with Halleck in an effort to spur Meade into action; Halleck snapped back to the effect that he did not agree … but then prodded Meade, anyway, in two telegrams, the second of which conveyed the news that Lincoln was “urgent and anxious.” In response Meade tried to moderate expectations and informed Halleck that the general in chief was operating on bad intelligence. Halleck took the hint and on July 10 advised Meade to await reinforcements before he attacked.
On July 14 Halleck informed Meade of Lincoln’s “great dissatisfaction” at the news that Lee had recrossed the Potomac. Meade responded by asking to be relieved. Halleck backed away and said that Meade should take his message as encouragement and not a reprimand.
In short, Halleck defended Meade to Lincoln, then fed Meade news about Lincoln’s dissatisfaction … which left Meade wondering what Lincoln wanted him to do. Lincoln seems to have believed that anyone (including himself) could have launched an attack that would have succeeded in destroying Lee and bringing the war to an end, and that the reason this had not happen lay somewhere in the collective mind of the officer corps of the Army of the Potomac not to fight as hard as one might to preserve the chances for an easy peace (a sentiment reinforced by Welles).
Much is made of the fact that Lincoln chose not to send this letter to Meade, but it would not have surprised Meade had he read it, given Halleck’s messages.
Someday folks are going to have to understand that, whatever one makes of the commanders of the Army of the Potomac, it wasn’t all about them.