An unsent letter has plagued the general for more than 150 years.
On July 14, 1863, Abraham Lincoln drafted a letter to Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, whose Army of the Potomac had recently mauled the Army of Northern Virginia in the Battle of Gettysburg. “I am very—very— grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg,” wrote the president, who nonetheless expressed “deep distress” at Robert E. Lee’s successful return to Virginia. “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape,” continued Lincoln, who predicted that Meade’s failure to press the Rebels ruthlessly meant “the war will be prolonged indefinitely.” Lincoln never sent the letter—did not need to send it because earlier that day Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck had conveyed the president’s “great dissatisfaction” with Meade’s lethargic pursuit of Lee. The unsent letter has plagued Meade for more than a century and a half, creating a widely held impression that he bungled a chance to end the war and saddling him with a reputation for indecisiveness.
Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac for the majority of its turbulent history. George B. McClellan christened the army, built it into a formidable force after First Bull Run, led it during the 1862 Richmond and Maryland campaigns, and remained first in the hearts of thousands of its soldiers. Following McClellan’s removal on November 7, 1862, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker presided over defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and Hooker’s problematical actions as Lee marched into Pennsylvania in June 1863 brought his tenure to an end. Meade replaced Hooker on June 28, three days before the Battles of Gettysburg, and retained his position until the war’s end.
Meade’s promotion made sense within the political climate that enveloped the Army of the Potomac. A dependable brigade and division leader in the 1862 campaigns, he led the V Corps after Fredericksburg. At Chancellorsville Meade performed adequately, though Hooker’s inept generalship afforded him and his corps limited opportunity to excel. Why did the Lincoln administration choose a man with modest experience at the corps level to head the army? The absence of enemies in Congress certainly played a role. Unlike McClellan and his Democratic military clique, or the politically active Hooker, Meade had kept a low profile.
News of Meade’s ascension pleased much of the army, though he was largely unknown to many soldiers. Even some who admired him doubted the wisdom of a change during an active campaign. A senior artillery officer, for example, believed Meade had “the longest and clearest head of any officer in this army” but thought the timing “a very dangerous experiment on the eve of a battle.”
Meade turned out to be a competent army commander, but it is hard to construct a scenario, absent Ulysses Grant’s presence, within which he could have delivered ultimate victory over Lee. He inherited the republic’s largest army while Lee and his veteran troops maneuvered on U.S. soil. Then he “commanded” a force most loyal citizens considered Grant’s for the war’s last year. Meade endured undeserved criticism after Gettysburg, watched as Grant received virtually all the credit for winning the war in Virginia, yet went about the daily business of running the army.
His role has inspired a relatively small literature. Freeman Cleaves’ Meade of Gettysburg (1960) remains the most complete biography. Ethan Rafuse’s brief George Gordon Meade and the War in the East (2003) contains useful insights, and Tom Huntington’s Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg (2013) combines scholarship and a travelogue of places associated with Meade. Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman From The Wilderness to Appomattox (1922; paperback edition titled With Grant and Meade From the Wilderness to Appomattox, 1994), edited by George Agassiz, includes a store of observations and anecdotes. Equally valuable is Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (2007), edited by David W. Lowe.
The essential title for any study of Meade is The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, (2 vols., 1913; reprinted 1994), compiled with connecting text by his son George Meade and edited for publication by his grandson. Understandably favorable to its subject and marred by imperfect editing, this set nevertheless offers invaluable evidence about Meade’s personality, his opinions and his wartime service. Meade emerges as an honest, patriotic and sometimes dyspeptic officer increasingly concerned with a lack of public recognition. In a letter to his wife on June 21, 1864, Meade notes that at Petersburg on June 16-18, “I had exclusive command, Grant being all the time at City Point, and coming on the field for only half an hour on the 17th, and yet in Mr. Stanton’s official dispatch he quotes General Grant’s account, and my name is not even mentioned. I cannot imagine why I am thus ignored.” After fate denied Meade a place in Wilmer McLean’s parlor on April 9, he wrote his wife: “I don’t believe the truth ever will be known, and I have a great contempt for History. Only let the war be finished, and I returned to you and the dear children, and I will be satisfied.”
Until we get a biography that exploits the rich store of Meade’s manuscript papers, Life and Letters helps clarify the contributions of one of the Union’s most important soldiers.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.