July 14, 1863: Lincoln Chides Meade

Executive Mansion,
Washington, July 14, 1863.
Major General Meade

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.

(taken from here; for the original, look here)

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.


18 thoughts on “July 14, 1863: Lincoln Chides Meade

  1. John Foskett July 14, 2013 / 12:46 pm

    What a tangled web this all was. There’s no question that Libcoln’s dealings with the A of the P command were complicated and often infected by his own hash of military inexperience and political priorities. Here we see him feeding into Dirty Dan’s blatant fingerpointing and undermining of Meade, no doubt in part because Meade’s cautious post-Gettysburg moves and attitude resembled (at least superficially) similar moves and attitude of you-know-who during 1862. The cherry on the sundae may have been the seemingly identical inaction of the Army after Antietam. The fact that Meade (as Guelzo hammers in his new book) was closely aligned politically with the “McClellan Crowd” could hardly have helped. The problem is that criticizing Lincoln for his treatment and evaluation of Meade must avoid placing Meade and McClellan in the same victim basket. Simply put, IMHO Lincoln had the Great Base Changer’s character nailed but may – may – have been unfair to Meade because of the superficial similarities. He should have seen the difference between the extensive track record which McClellan compiled over 14 months against 1 week-10 days for Meade but perhaps it was a case of “fool me once….”. And in the end, regardless of who was “conspiring” against Meade here, I’m not convinced that the “big picture” conclusion was wrong. As for Halleck, that’s a “target rich environment”.

    • Tony July 14, 2013 / 2:09 pm

      “There’s no question that Lincoln’s dealing with the A of the P …”

      That sentence is five words too long. These two letters underscore the value of Grant ascending to command: he was the only man capable of winning in spite of Lincoln’s dealings.

  2. ian duncanson July 14, 2013 / 1:02 pm

    All the more respect for George Meade since his promotion to commander of the AOP.

  3. jfepperson July 14, 2013 / 2:45 pm

    I think Meade made a number of mistakes which contributed to Lee’s escape. Some were no doubt due to his being new to command, as well as the loss of some good subordinates. But he still seems not to have understood the risk/reward parameters in getting some force between Lee and the south bank of the Potomac. I agree that there was no profit in an attack on Lee’s final line, but a more aggressive and watchful attitude might have made Lee’s withdrawal more costly. And putting even a couple of regiments, with some artillery, on the south bank of the river would have paid huge dividends.

    • David Tolleris July 15, 2013 / 8:47 am

      I dint get your comment. IF Meade’s order was to protect DC and BAL and defeat Lee’s army in battle…all of which he had dome… and if as you say “there was no profit in an attack on Lee’s final line”… what EXACTLY did Meade do wrong?

      • jfepperson July 15, 2013 / 9:41 am

        He failed to trap Lee’s army north of the river and compel its surrender or destruction. Was it a sure thing? No, of course not. But Meade had troops he could have put south of the river to dispute a crossing. He could have maintained a more aggressive stance in front of Lee’s final line, probing and skirmishing, which would have made it possible to detect the Confederate withdrawal as it happened, potentially resulting in cutting off part of Lee’s army before it could cross.

  4. rcocean July 15, 2013 / 2:04 am

    If Lincoln really thought destroying Lee’s army “would end the war”, then he should have brought some of the 250,000 troops in the West to the Eastern Theater. Instead, after Vicksburg, Grants army seems to have broken up and the occupation of East Tennessee made the Number 1 priority. Lincoln was constantly telling his generals to be aggressive and fight, then firing them when they lost a battle. He was an awful C-in-C

  5. David Tolleris July 15, 2013 / 8:51 am

    I think it was / is very Ironic that the Lincoln wants to fire or at least was thinking about firing Meade … the ONLY general to decisively defeat Bobby Lee in Battle before 1865. Think about it… in the overland campaign Grant never dealt LEE such a defeat

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 15, 2013 / 9:22 am

      I don’t see Gettysburg as more decisive than Antietam. Nor do I see it as a decisive victory, period. Things went back to where they were in early 1863, and in fact Meade failed to bring Lee to a decisive confrontation for the remainder of 1863. In 1864 Meade was still in command of the Army of the Potomac, and the first battle where he claimed he had control of the filed was Cold Harbor.

      As Lincoln just months before was contemplating removing Grant, Meade was in good company.

      • Ethan S. Rafuse July 15, 2013 / 10:28 am

        Define “decisive”. That term is thrown around a lot. Can something be “more” or “less” decisive, or just “decisive”? Better to think of the war as a process in which the ultimate result was a product of the gradual accumulation of developments that brought the country to a point where Southerners were unable to wage the sort of war they were willing to wage to secure independence. Gettysburg was important because the casualties it inflicted on the Confederate army accelerated the process.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 15, 2013 / 2:26 pm

          I didn’t introduce the term. I would use the word “important.” Now the question is whether the losses sustained by Lee at Gettysburg were due to Meade’s great generalship. This is a matter of some discussion.

          • David Tolleris July 15, 2013 / 4:32 pm

            I think that a case can be made that is exactly what happened. Meade response to the JULY 2 attack given how new to command he was .. was exceptional. The fact that guys like Allen Guezlo cannot see this doesn’t change the facts.

            Not only did General Meade correctly anticipate the July 3 infamous Pickett’s charge but the counter attack at Culps Hill at 4am on 3 JULY was in my opinion brilliant and decisive. By securing Culps Hill it secured the Baltimore Pike which was the main supply route for the AofP. If Culps Hill had fallen and / or Baltimore Pike was interdicted as a supply route .. the Aof P would be down to its last road .. (the Taneytown road ) to bring up supplies from the Westminster MD rail head.

            It is been argued by some…. that by seizing Culps Hill and threatening the Baltimore Pike… Meade would be overly focused on retaking that hill and securing his critical supply line . And this in turn would mean Meade would have a a much weaker center to respond to Pickett’s charge. Of course the opposite happened and with Culps Hill fully retaken and secured by the XII corps Meade could — and did — bring all reserves he wanted to crush any charge coming in from Seminary Ridge

      • John Foskett July 15, 2013 / 10:31 am

        i agree. From a military perspective, neither was “decisive” beyond rebuffing an invasion of the “North”. Antietam at least provided an excuse for issuance of the preliminary Proclamation. Gettysburg didn’t even do that. `Then there’s the interesting fact that both camps decided to siphon off troops to Tennessee in September/October while the Virginia theater went semi-active.

      • Steve Keating July 15, 2013 / 10:34 am

        Do you cover the ‘Grant almost getting relieved’ episode in your book on Grant? I remember sometime in the past you had made a reference to this. Just interested in the details. I know it was connected to the Early raid on Washington.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 15, 2013 / 2:29 pm

          Grant nearly lost his command after Fort Donelson, after Shiloh, and things were heading that way before Vicksburg. Lincoln was involved in a negative sense in the dealings after Shiloh and before Vicksburg.

          Grant was not in trouble because of the Early raid. Now, had it become Early’s thrust into Washington, that would have been different, although I believe that Lincoln had decided to ride out 1864 with Grant, period.

      • David Tolleris July 15, 2013 / 4:18 pm

        Professor Simpson

        I have heard that argument made before about Gettysburg and it’s similarities to Antietam . I have never quite understood the reasoning behind this . Gettysburg was the first time the AofP had ever decisively defeated the ANV. Antietam was not remotely the same sort of thing.

        At Gettysburg I believe there were six or seven brigades by the end of 3 JULY in the Aof P which had not yet fired a shot ….whereas at Antietam Mcclellan still had about 34% of the army that was completely unused.

        In addition beause of the three year enlistments in the Aof P expiring that Spring …
        the AofP was the smallest Aof P since 1st Bull Run and the two arimes were the closest in approximate size since JULY 1861 . As we all know that was not the case at all at Antietam where the ANV was vastly outnumbered.

        The fact that the Lincoln and the station was able to use the battle of Antietam for political purposes (and a very important political purposes) does not place Antietam in a military sense above the importance/ significance of Gettysburg ( in my opinion).

        • John Foskett July 16, 2013 / 9:26 am

          Well, McClellan had a substantially higher percentage of troops who were simply raw recruits (many of whom had never fired their Springfields) than did Meade. But that really isn’t the question, IMHO. In addition to Lee (successfuly) retreating after one day, Antietam at least allowed Lincoln to issue the preliminary Proclamation. Other than Lee (successfully) retreating after one day at Gettysburg, what else was accomplished that made it “decisive”? Frankly, both resulted in sending the ANV back to Virguinia but beyond that neither was “decisive” from a military standpoint.

      • Shoshana Bee June 14, 2016 / 11:35 pm

        Quote: Nor do I see it as a decisive victory, period

        To read this is very reassuring. Three months to the day before going to Gettysburg(first time) and this realization has landed with a crashing thud. Now what? All of my previous impressions of Gettysburg has fallen apart, partly due to the fact that I have been studying the damage to the AoP after the battle, and the significance in how the command structure was shaken. I am early on in this reworking of my impression of the Gettysburg campaign, and once again: its ten paces back to unlearn, and five forward to re-learn.

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