After a series of failed commanders the Army of the Potomac finally was given a commander who would remain with the Army through the end of the war. His name was George Gordon Meade and he was probably the least likely to succeed as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. But succeed he did with the help of talented subordinates and a superior General-in-Chief, Ulysses S. Grant.
Meade was a career professional soldier and civil engineer who had worked on both coastal defenses and several lighthouses. He graduated from West Point in 1935 in the upper half of his class. He served with distinction in both the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War.
After that war he was chiefly involved in lighthouse and breakwater construction and coastal surveying in Florida and New Jersey. He designed Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island, Absecon Light in Atlantic City, Cape May Light in Cape May, Jupiter Inlet Light in Jupiter, Florida, and Sombrero Key Light in the Florida Keys. He also designed a hydraulic lamp that was adopted by the Lighthouse Board for use in American lighthouses. He was also in command of the Great Lakes survey from 1857 until the start of the war.
Meade started the war as a captain in the regular army but by mid-August 1861 he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers as the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves. At the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles, Meade was severely wounded in the arm, back, and side.
He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, then assigned to Maj. Gen.Irvin McDowell‘s corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army.
At the start of the Maryland Campaign he was promoted to the command of the 3rd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, and distinguished himself during the Battle of South Mountain. During the following the Battle of Antietam he replaced the wounded Joe Hooker who was in command of I Corps. He was wounded once again, this time in the thigh.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade’s division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862. His attack was not supported which resulted in the loss of much of his division.
Following Fredericksburg he was given command of V Corps which he led at the Battle of Chancellorsville but they were left in reserve for much of the battle. Meade had argued strenuously for the Army to resume the attack but Hooker, the army commander, chose to withdraw.
Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac while pursuing Lee in the Gettysburg Campaign. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1863, a messenger from President Abraham Lincoln arrived to inform Meade of his appointment as Hooker’s replacement. Meade was taken by surprise and later wrote to his wife that when the officer entered his tent to wake him, he assumed that Army politics had caught up with him and he was being arrested.
He had not actively sought command and was not the president’s first choice. John F. Reynolds, one of four major generals who outranked Meade in the Army of the Potomac, had earlier turned down the president’s suggestion that he take over. Reynolds was later killed on the first day of the battle.
Meade, with little knowledge of the army’s dispositions much less the enemies, took over the Army of the Potomac at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Maryland. Three days later he commanded the Union forces that defeated Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. The battle was climaxed by Pickett’s Charge at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.
Both armies suffered fearful casualties and as Lee retreated Meade only sent cavalry to harass the retreating Confederates. Lee was able to set up a strong defensive positions to hold off the Union attackers while he moved his army across the rain-swollen Potomac River. Meade was heavily criticized by President Lincoln and other Washington politicians.
Nonetheless, Meade received a promotion to brigadier general in the regular army and the Thanks of Congress, which commended Meade “… and the officers and soldiers of [the Army of the Potomac], for the skill and heroic valor which at Gettysburg repulsed, defeated, and drove back, broken and dispirited, beyond the Rappahannock, the veteran army of the rebellion.”
After the Gettysburg Campaign Meade led the Army through two campaigns, the Bristoe Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign, which featured rather minor and inconclusive battles due to Meade’s reluctance to attack prepared defensive positions.
A London newspaperman described Meade:
“He is a very remarkable looking man—tall, spare, of a commanding figure in presence, his manner pleasant and easy but having much dignity. His head is partially bald and is small and compact, but the forehead is high. He has the late Duke of Wellington class of nose, and his eyes, which have a serious and almost sad expression, are rather sunken, or appear so from the prominence of the curve nasal appearance. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance.”
Meade’s short temper earned him notoriety, and while he was respected by most of his peers, he was not well loved by his army. Some referred to him as “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”
In March of 1864 Ulysses S. Grant was appointed as the General-in-Chief of all of the Union armies. Meade offered to resign and let Grant choose his own man but Grant told him that he had no intention of replacing him. Grant did choose to travel with the Army of the Potomac since it was the prime weapon that he would use to bring Lee to bay.
Meade chafed at Grant’s close supervision. In June of 1864 Meade ran afoul of the press when he disciplined a reporter from from The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for an unfavorable article. All of the press assigned to his army agreed to mention Meade only in conjunction with setbacks. Meade apparently knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade.
Grant’s strategy called for all of the Union armies to make simultaneous attacks across the South. This prevented to Confederates from shifting troops from one location to another. It proved to be the winning strategy of the war. The Army of the Potomac’s assignment called for it to attempt to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia by attrition.
Meade had become a more cautious commander and did not like to send his troops against fixed defensive positions. On the other hand, Grant was willing to sacrifice soldiers knowing that he had reinforcements available.
During the Overland Campaign and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign most of the bloody frontal assaults were ordered by Grant. Meade was also frustrated by the preferential treatment that Grant sometimes gave to subordinates that had come with the General-in-Chief from the Western Theater. The latitude that he allowed Gen. Philip Sheridan with regards to his use of the Cavalry Corps was one such instance.
Meade preferred to have the cavalry perform traditional cavalry functions of reconnaissance, screening, and guarding the army’s trains, but Sheridan objected and told Meade that he could “whip Stuart” if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”
Meade deferred to Grant’s judgment and issued orders to Sheridan to “proceed against the enemy’s cavalry” and from May 9 through May 24, sent him on a raid toward Richmond, directly challenging the Confederate cavalry. It was during this foray that J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.
In the early part of the siege of Petersburg, Meade ordered several assaults without proper reconnaissance. This resulted in high casualties, like those suffered at the Battle of Cold Harbor. He also failed to coordinate the attacks by his corps which allowed the Confederates to reinforce his defensive lines and prolong the siege.
He also not only ordered the digging of the mine under the Confederate lines by troops from Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Corps but he also changed Burnside’s plan to lead the attack with a well-trained African-American division that was highly drilled just for this action. He instructed him to take a politically less risky course and substitute an untrained and poorly led white division. But the resulting Battle of the Crater was one of the great fiascoes of the war.
Meade continued in command of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war. He held various military commands, including the Military Division of the Atlantic, the Department of the East, and the Department of the South. He replaced Major General John Pope as governor of the Reconstruction Third Military District in Atlanta on January 10, 1868.
George Gordon Meade died in Philadelphia, while still on active duty, from complications of his old wounds, combined with pneumonia, on November 6, 1872. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.