The following is a guest blog post by Kent Masterson Brown, author of Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command. Commentators often dismiss Meade when discussing the great leaders of the Civil War. But in this long-anticipated book, Kent Masterson Brown draws on an expansive archive to reappraise Meade’s leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Over the years, General George Gordon Meade has suffered unfair criticism for his performance during the Gettysburg campaign. Only his son, Captain George Meade, who served on the General’s staff, was willing to promote his father as a hero in a book he wrote after the war entitled, “With Meade at Gettysburg.” Now, 158 years after the battle, evidence reveals that that General Meade is indeed the great unsung hero of the battle, the largest land engagement ever to have taken place on the North American continent.
In the words of today’s Meade scholars, a great “Meade rehabilitation,” or “Meade renaissance,” has begun.
General Meade was ordered –not asked — to take command of the Army of the Potomac, on June 28, 1863. His command succeeded a string of failed commanders, and President Lincoln feared that if he asked General Meade – as he had asked others, and been rebuffed – that Meade would, like others, reject the command. Thus, Meade dutifully accepted President Lincoln’s order to command an army that had yet to win even a single engagement in the more than two years that it had been grappling with Confederate forces, across the fields of Virginia, since the Civil War began.
Meade’s military genius is revealed in his quiet, tenacious manner as he attempts to balance the wishes of President Lincoln that he protect Baltimore and Washington, DC, with the necessity of determining the location and strength of Lee’s army as it was advancing into Pennsylvania. Without any topographical maps of the area, Meade musters all the residential maps he can in order to identify his and the enemy’s locations. Those maps, of course, while helpful, do not adequately reveal the terrain. After establishing a supply base at Westminster, Maryland, and a nearby defense line at Big Pipe Creek, Meade was confronted with the sudden urgency of an unplanned engagement at Gettysburg, where General John Reynolds was killed leading his First Corps against a Confederate force on July 1. Thus began the Battle of Gettysburg, despite General Meade’s best efforts to control the time and place of an engagement.
Critically, the battle was fought at a place twenty-two miles from Meade’s supply base at Westminster, and, throughout the battle, Meade’s supply line, the Baltimore Pike, was shut down due to enemy attacks against Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill.
Throughout the battle, General Meade copes with inadequate information, communications interruptions, supply shortages, hungry and barefoot troops, and unfed and overworked horses and mules, yet manages to rally his forces, and lead by example. He counsels with his corps commanders to earn their trust. He is saddled with one commander whose politics, not skill, have placed him in command of a corps. In spite of all that, Meade wins a stunning victory at Gettysburg. Meade is a quintessential soldier who serves his country with focus, determination, great study, and skill.
Despite the unforeseen nature of the beginning of the battle, Meade, as the tactical commander on the battlefield, ably, and competently, confronted Lee’s army decidedly, by bringing to the front no fewer than six divisions from no fewer than five different corps, crushing the Confederate attacks on the second day of the battle. After the third day, Lee’s army began its retreat back to Virginia. Meade began his parallel pursuit, as he was trained and advised by military science to do, but the pursuit was hampered with the problem of his horses and mules breaking down by the thousands, due to lack of forage, and his men too weak and lame due to the lack of food and shoes.
In fact, Meade did all that a general could have, and should have, done to commit his army to pursuing Lee on the retreat, but that, ultimately, the challenges of supplying the pursuing army, combined with the terrain, the forces of friction, and the unassailable position held by the enemy near the Potomac River, made it impossible for him to bring Lee’s army to a complete halt.
Meade emerges from this study as a fine soldier whose reputation was undermined by the President and his confidants in Washington. The political story has wormed its way into historical accounts, and even fictional accounts of the battle. Now we know the truth: Meade is the unheralded, yet worthy hero of the battle of Gettysburg.
Kent Masterson Brown is the author of Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command and Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign. He is the President and Content Developer for www.witnessinghistory.org, a nonprofit foundation that produces American history documentaries for public television.