May 1864 was a frustrating month for George Gordon Meade. Still the commander of the Army of the Potomac, he had growled as Ulysses S. Grant intervened more and more in the army’s operations. Nor was he pleased with the performance of Ambrose Burnside, who headed the independent Ninth Corps under Grant’s direction as a sop to Burnside’s seniority. Thus far Burnside has proved a disappointment in the field. Meade had predicted that if things went well, the press would laud Grant, while if things went badly, it would be Meade’s fault.
It was at the North Anna that matters came to a head. When Charles A. Dana, the assistant secretary of war, read a telegram from William T. Sherman expressing the hope that Meade’s army would achieve the same successes thus far enjoyed by Sherman, Meade snapped. Sherman’s missive, he fumed, was an insult to his men and himself: the Army of the Potomac needed no one to tell it how to fight.
Grant had noted Meade’s temper and his frustration with his situation and several of his subordinates. However, he had fended off suggestions from his staff that he should dispose of Meade altogether. Meade still knew best the strengths and weaknesses of his command and its commanders, he reasoned, and Grant would find it too hard to run the Army of the Potomac while supervising operations elsewhere, especially as other aspects of his overall plan of operations in Virginia began to unravel in the Shenandoah Valley and by the James River.
Thus, on May 24, Grant altered the chain of command. Burnside would now report to Meade: gone was the cumbersome arrangement of the previous three weeks. Moreover, when Grant, Meade, and their generals discussed whether to continue to move around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia or swing around its left for once, Grant deferred to Meade’s preference to continue as before. In short, Grant was going to allow Meade to direct the operations of his army, as originally intended. Meade had won this round.
June 3 was ten days away.