In the spring of 1864, the destiny of a cautious general changed when a new commander with a new philosophy came East and transformed the course of the war.
A cold rain fell on the winter camps of Army of the Potomac on March 10, 1864. During the day, a special train from Washington, D.C., clanged to a halt at Brandy Station, Virginia, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Emerging from a car was the Union’s newly appointed general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant. He had traveled 60-plus miles from the war-weary capital to confer with the army’s commander, Major General George G. Meade.
Meade welcomed his former Mexican War comrade, whom he had not seen in years. From the station, they went to Meade’s headquarters to talk. Befitting the two men, their private conversation was cordial and frank. By the time it was over, Grant and Meade had settled upon a command arrangement that would prove difficult at best for each man and dramatically affect operations in the East during the war’s final 13 months.
For weeks before that meeting, rumors abounded and the press speculated about Grant’s promotion to general-in-chief. From early 1862 through the autumn of 1863, no other Union general could claim a record of success to rival Grant’s. But merit alone did not clinch his promotion. President Abraham Lincoln endorsed the appointment only after receiving assurances that the hero of Fort Donelson and Vicksburg had no presidential ambitions for the 1864 election. Congress reestablished the rank of lieutenant general, and Grant officially received his commission at a White House ceremony on March 9.
Meade had commanded the Army of the Potomac for fewer than nine months. He had been with the army nearly from its inception, rising from brigade to division to corps command until his appointment as army commander a few days before Gettysburg. Meade had kept silent publicly as controversies, political machinations and strategy conflicts engulfed the army and his predecessors—George B. McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker. His fellow corps commanders had endorsed his promotion to command, and he justified that faith by leading them to a dramatic victory at Gettysburg. But the escape of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia back across the Potomac River would lessen Lincoln’s confidence in Meade’s generalship.
After Gettysburg, operations in Virginia remained relatively quiet. When Meade refused to sacrifice his men’s lives in assaults against Lee’s formidable entrenchments during the Mine Run campaign in the late autumn of 1863, he expected that the president would remove him from command. His prudent decision, however, earned him more respect from the army’s rank and file. Lincoln retained Meade despite his inactivity and mounting political pressure to remove the cautious general. A few months later, however, Grant came East.
Prior to Grant’s appointment, Meade’s wife—one of his most trusted confidants throughout the war—asked her husband for his estimation of the Union’s rising star. In Mexico, Meade replied, Grant had been “considered a clever young officer, but nothing extraordinary.” Grant’s “great characteristic,” Meade surmised, “is indomitable energy and great tenacity of purpose.” But he had faced opponents who “have never had in any of their Western armies either the generals or the troops they have had in Virginia, nor has the country been so favorable for them there as here.” Meade conceded, “Grant has undoubtedly shown very superior abilities, and is I think justly entitled to all the honors they propose to bestow upon him.”
It was “all the honors” that brought Grant to Brandy Station on that rainy March day. At his initial meeting with his new superior, Meade offered to step aside, believing that Grant might want “his own man in command.” He added that he would be willing to “serve to the best of his ability wherever placed.” Grant assured Meade that he “had no thought of substituting any one for him,” recounting later that the incident gave him a favorable opinion of Meade.
Upon his appointment, Grant originally had planned to remain in the West. Now, he indicated to Meade, he would maintain his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. He had changed his mind after arriving in Washington and seeing for himself the political interference that had plagued the army since its formation. “It was plain that here was the point for the commanding general to be,” Grant declared later. “No one else could, probably, resist the pressure that would be brought to bear upon him to desist from his own plans and pursue others.”
The arrangement left Meade with tactical control of the army’s units, while Grant formulated the strategic and operational plans. In reality, however, Grant’s presence meant that he, not Meade, would direct its movements. Meade understood the significance of the relationship at once, writing to his wife within days of the meeting, “So that you may look now for the Army of the Potomac putting laurels on the brows of another rather than your husband.” In turn, Grant confessed in his memoirs, “Meade’s position afterward proved embarrassing to me if not to him.”
This arrangement was, in the words of historian Gordon Rhea, “ill-conceived,” with a “cumbersome” chain of command. Then there was the inherent conflict that lay at its heart: two distinctly different philosophies on the nature of warfare and the conduct of operations. As Meade had noted in the letter to his wife, Grant possessed a great tenacity of purpose. He was a relentless opponent, a man who understood and accepted that fighting meant killing. “The art of war is simple enough,” Grant later explained. “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep on moving.”
Grant envisioned a campaign not as a single battle but as a series of engagements that led to an outcome. It meant constant, even implacable, pressure applied to one’s enemy by maneuver. Grant did not seek a campaign marked by one successive bloody battle after another. He preferred to defeat a foe by maneuver, but if the ensuing operations led to fearful bloodshed, so be it. Regardless of the costs or reversals, Grant made it clear there would be no turning back.
Until that time, Meade and his fellow generals in the Army of the Potomac had experienced the war from a fundamentally different perspective, given that the army’s primary mission had been the security of the Federal capital. That burden, imposed by the Lincoln administration and entangled with politics, required the army to follow a defensive strategy that began on July 25, 1861, with the appointment of George McClellan to command. The safety of Washington would continually hamper McClellan and his successors while planning and conducting campaigns. When Lincoln concluded that “Little Mac” had left the capital vulnerable during the Peninsula campaign in the spring of 1862, it ignited a festering dispute between the president and the army commander.
McClellan’s tenure ended in November 1862, but the shadow he cast upon the army was long. The commanders who followed him would act cautiously when confronting Lee’s army and tended to see the conflict within a narrow framework. They would conduct operations for limited results, lacking the strategic vision to see beyond the battle at hand. That approach had crippled the army in the past and would continue to do so unless it adopted a different strategic direction.
Consequently, as Grant and Meade readied the army for the spring 1864 campaign, the two men held disparate views on the path it should follow. Grant’s orders to Meade for the forthcoming operations were blunt: “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Meade complied willingly with those instructions and lived up to the words he had written earlier to his wife about Grant, saying, “I intend to give him heartiest co-operation.”
The Overland campaign began on May 4, with the Federals marching south across the Rapidan River, beyond Lee’s right flank. Grant intended for the army to clear the Wilderness that first day, but he allowed Meade to halt the march in the forbidding terrain near Chancellorsville. That proved to be an unwise decision by Meade. The Confederates struck the Union columns the next day, before they had passed through the heavily forested area— which the numerically inferior Rebels were able to use to their advantage in a fierce but inconclusive engagement.
The struggle in the Wilderness demonstrated to Grant that Meade and the army’s senior leadership continued to lack the necessary aggressiveness in battle, which had again resulted in missed opportunities to further damage Lee’s army.
That night the general-in-chief began to bend the army to his will. He ordered an offensive along the entire Union line for the next morning, May 6, though he delegated the tactical details to Meade and the corps commanders.
The blue-coated infantry rolled forward in a powerful assault, shredding Lee’s right flank and jeopardizing the Southerners’ entire line. A Confederate counterattack stopped the Union onslaught and shoved the Yankees rearward. More Rebel charges followed, resulting in fearful slaughter. The Federal ranks held, and darkness ended the fury. The opponents had suffered combined casualties of more than 28,000.
In Grant’s judgment, vacillating leadership had once again squandered favorable tactical opportunities. The army’s ranking generals still seemed intent on avoiding defeat instead of seeking victory. The corps commanders in particular, Maj. Gens. Gouverneur K. Warren, John Sedgwick and Ambrose Burnside, had been found wanting, allowing Lee to dictate the fighting. The shadow of McClellan, it seemed, still hovered over the army.
An illustrative incident occurred that night. One of the army’s generals visited headquarters to warn Grant and Meade that the wily Lee would try to outflank the Yankees and cut them off from the Rapidan fords. Grant heard the officer out, then shot back: “I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”
Grant believed that the most effective way for him to change the army’s mind-set would be to assume more direct control of operations—and diminish Meade’s role. The two days of combat in the Wilderness had revealed the basic flaw in their command arrangement. Placed in a difficult position, Meade had tried to impose Grant’s aggressive strategy on a cautious army without success. On the night of May 6, the Army of the Potomac still belonged to Meade. By the next morning, it belonged to Grant.
That day the general-in-chief issued orders through Meade for an advance south toward Spotsylvania Court House— a move that brought heartfelt cheers from the rank and file. There would be no retreat to heal wounds and reorganize, as the army had done so many times before. As Grant famously wrote prior to opening the campaign, “I…propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” As the army turned south, it abandoned its past and marched toward an uncertain future.
Major General Philip H. Sheridan represented further proof of Grant’s imposition of authority. Before the campaign had begun, Grant ordered Sheridan east to command the army’s cavalry corps, hoping to instill combativeness into the mounted units. Meade and Sheridan were both men of volcanic tempers, and they clashed from the moment Sheridan arrived. The cavalry commander chafed under Meade’s restrictions on his command. When Meade encountered him on May 8, he blamed Sheridan’s troopers for impeding the infantry’s march. Sheridan reacted furiously, allegedly firing back at Meade that if he could have matters his own way, he “would concentrate all the cavalry, move out in force against [J.E.B.] Stuart’s command, and whip it.”
Meade recounted to Grant the angry exchange and Sheridan’s words. “Did Sheridan say that?” Grant inquired. “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.” If Meade had expected Grant’s support, he learned otherwise. He had no choice but to issue the orders to Sheridan.
While the Union cavalry moved against Stuart’s horsemen, Meade’s and Lee’s armies bloodied each other during the Battle of Spotsylvania. Grant ordered a series of assaults on Lee’s extensive fieldworks, which climaxed in a massive attack on the “Mule Shoe” on May 12. Piles of dead and wounded Federals lay before the extensive fieldworks. The army’s rank and file recoiled at the slaughter, with some units advancing only a few paces before lying down under the withering enemy fire. Meade and his senior generals shared their men’s disquiet with Grant’s offensive tactics.
By the end of the clash at Spotsylvania, the command relationship between Grant and Meade had changed unalterably. The strain between them had become so evident that members of each man’s staff refused to speak to their counterparts. Meade attributed the situation to “the force of circumstances.” In reality, it was more than that. Nearly three weeks of unending campaigning had revealed that one of them was a remorseless warrior; the other was not. Grant had reduced Meade’s role to that of an executive officer or chief of staff.
The diminishment of Meade’s control over operations was probably inevitable. Grant appreciated his subordinate’s ability to handle the army and its departments, but defeating an opponent as able as Lee required a steeliness that Meade did not possess. Grant had imposed the arrangement upon Meade, and by his own admission, was embarrassed by it. To his credit, Meade continued to perform his duty, although he surely must have seethed with anger beneath the surface.
As the campaign shifted farther south to the North Anna River and then to Cold Harbor on the Virginia Peninsula, Meade retained tactical control of the army’s corps. Grant issued orders to Meade, who transmitted them to subordinates. The Union assault at Cold Harbor on June 3 was executed by Meade but ordered by Grant, who ultimately would have to accept responsibility for the bloody repulse. Grant had concluded, mistakenly, that Lee’s army was “really whipped” by then.
From Cold Harbor, Grant led the army across the James River in a brilliantly executed movement. The men’s exhaustion and some uninspired leadership further down the chain of command, however, denied the Federals an opportunity to seize Petersburg before Lee’s veterans arrived to secure the vital railroad center. With the failure of the Federal assaults, the Petersburg campaign settled into what would be a 10-month siege.
At this time Meade’s letters to his wife were filled with discussion of his reduced role and Grant’s tactics. In one letter he wrote, “I think Grant has had his eyes opened and is willing to admit now Virginia and Lee’s army is not Tennessee and Bragg’s army.” But in another letter he indicated that he shared Grant’s determination to see the war through to the end. “It is a question of tenacity and nerve,” Meade wrote, “and it won’t do to look behind, or to calculate the cost in blood and treasure; if we do we are lost and our enemies succeed.”
During these weeks, Meade’s volatile temper boiled over more frequently, indicative of his frustration with his position. He heatedly clashed with Warren and Burnside. Staff officers scattered before the general’s outbursts. Only II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock seemed to be spared his wrath.
Meade’s dissatisfaction compelled him to approach Grant and express his willingness to accept a transfer to another command. On July 31, Grant met with Lincoln, who had requested a personal conference because of recent events in the Shenandoah Valley. In the preceding weeks, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early had led a force down the Valley, across the Potomac River and to the outskirts of the Federal capital. The raid had embarrassed the administration, whose prospects in the upcoming presidential election appeared dim. The situation worsened on July 30, when Southern cavalrymen burned more than 400 homes, stores and other buildings in Chambersburg, Pa.
Lincoln wanted Grant to appoint a commander to the region and send a force large enough to defeat the Rebels. Grant proposed Meade for the post. The president refused, telling Grant that he had been resisting efforts to have Meade removed from the army’s command for months. If he agreed to Meade’s reassignment, it would appear that he had given in to political pressure. Lincoln and Grant could not reach a resolution.
On August 3, Grant informed the president that he had selected Sheridan for the command. Grant’s decision not only disappointed Meade, it undoubtedly galled him. Grant explained to Meade, who demanded to know why he had not been chosen, that it had been Lincoln who had not approved of his transfer. The president, Grant said, believed that if he removed Meade from command of the Army of the Potomac, it would be viewed as a disapproval of Meade’s performance. Meade confided to his wife, “I believe Grant is honest and would not deceive me, but I think there is something more than is acknowledged.”
Lincoln’s approval of Sheridan’s appointment settled the matter of Meade’s potential transfer. While Sheridan won a string of battlefield victories in the Shenandoah and became a Union hero, Meade continued as the army’s titular commander, toiling in Grant’s shadow. At Petersburg the general-in-chief ordered a series of offensive strikes, leaving the tactical details to Meade. Grateful for Meade’s devotion to duty and abilities, Grant recommended the subordinate for a major generalcy in the Regular Army. Months later, the Senate approved the appointment.
The siege of Petersburg ended with a massive Union assault on April 2, 1865. During Lee’s retreat from Petersburg to Appomattox, Meade was stricken with an illness that required him to ride with the army’s rear units and miss the surrender ceremonies in the parlor of the Wilmer McLean home. His rightful place was beside Grant, but it was not to be. As he rode forward on April 9, 1865, his veterans “yelled and screamed” his name, according to an aide, “in a way I never dreamt any man’s could be.”
George Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac longer than any other general, but “all the honors” would go to the man with whom he had been forced to share command—an arrangement doomed to failure from the outset. It could not have been otherwise. Meade, historian Richard J. Sommers has argued, “would never have lost the war in Virginia, but, unaided, he would never have won it, either.” The Union cause demanded a general to match Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant proved to be that man. But to achieve victory and end the war, Grant the warrior had to seize command—and make the army his own.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.