Evaluating George Gordon Meade’s Leadership in the Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg – A Letdown to the Army, to the Country, and to George Meade

Was George Gordon Meade aggressive enough in chasing Robert E. Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg? No

By Steve Pettyjohn
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Memorial Debate at the January 2024 Roundtable meeting was: “Was George Gordon Meade aggressive enough in chasing Robert E. Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations.

While not trying to be anti-climactic, the title of this debate suggests the answer. If Meade had been aggressive enough, we probably would be having a far different topic for our debate. Perhaps the topic would be something along the lines of “was poor U.S. Grant the forgotten hero of the Civil War?” We would be discussing the question of whether Grant’s contributions in the West were far overshadowed by “MEADE OF GETTYSBURG!” We would note that Meade eclipsed all other Civil War generals. We would laud Meade and praise how he had conducted a very skillful defense at Gettysburg for three days and then followed up with a series of counterattacks and overall pursuit of Lee’s army that resulted in Lee being trapped against the raging floodwaters of the Potomac River a week later. We would be celebrating Meade and the Army of the Potomac’s twin victories at Williamsport and Falling Waters, where the Army of Northern Viriginia was crushed and crippled as it attempted to cross the Potomac and flee into western Maryland. This would be followed by Meade’s triumphant march to Richmond where he ended the rebellion.

Why didn’t this happen?

Steve Pettyjohn

During the late afternoon and early evening of July 3, 1863, General George Gordon Meade stood on Cemetery Ridge with the figurative doorway to the hallowed hall of history in front of him, where he could join the great captains of military history. He could join the likes of Napoleon, Wellington, Washington, Frederick the Great, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, and others. All he had to do was reach out and open that door, but as he did so he was struck down by the vile virus that afflicted so many officers in the Army of the Potomac: “McClellanitis.” Yes, that disease first diagnosed in General George McClellan had continued to infect the officer corps of the Army of the Potomac and had now hit Meade. The symptoms of McClellanitis included schizophrenia, paranoia, fear and forgetfulness, insomnia and indigestion, along with paralysis and general debilitation of the victim.

It also appears that this virus was coupled with “Rosecrans Syndrome,” which afflicted General William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, in September 1863. Rosecrans went several days before and during the Battle of Chickamauga, where he suffered from insomnia and lack of sleep, to the point where he issued orders that led to disaster for his army. The U.S. Army created the “Rosecrans Rule” as part of officer education, indicating that an officer’s first duty is to take care of himself so that he can make good decisions. By Meade’s own admission in letters to his family, he suffered from an acute lack of sleep, food, and maybe even hydration during the first two weeks of July that affected his overall well-being and without doubt his decision-making ability.

How do we see these symptoms manifested during the period of July 3 to July 14?

The most obvious examples of these symptoms are evidenced in Meade’s several pronouncements to attack the enemy, usually the next day, and then nothing happens. This is an ongoing pattern during the “pursuit” phase of the campaign. But it started right after the Confederate charge of July 3 collapsed. Several officers urged a counterattack as soon as possible. The wounded Winfield Scott Hancock sent Meade a note to bring up the V and VI Corps and “press” the enemy. Where that attack should have been made is open to debate, but there is evidence of the potential for success.

Meade did order Crawford’s 3,500-man division of the V Corps to perform a reconnaissance in force from the Round Tops to Seminary Ridge. Crawford collected over 200 Confederate prisoners, mainly from their skirmish line, and pushed on until he ran into the main Confederate line that had withdrawn to Seminary Ridge. An observation: Crawford took a huge toll of prisoners from the rebel skirmish line from Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions, supposedly the crack assault units of Lee’s army. Was this not a reflection on a poor state of morale in those units at that time? Second, Meade now had solid information regarding the condition of Lee’s right flank that could be used in future operations.

Meade could have attacked Lee’s right flank on July 4, which had the potential to cut him off from the easiest escape route. Many historians have written that another viable alternative was to send a strong task force based around the VI Corps with elements of the V and XII Corps along with a large contingent of the over 15,000-strong cavalry corps available to block access to the Fairfield gap.

Later, on July 4 and through July 5, Meade was informed that Lee’s army was retreating, but he acted in a very hesitant way throughout those days. Finally, on July 7, Meade ordered his army to concentrate at Middletown. This would position him to attack Lee’s potential points to cross the Potomac, which was impassable for two reasons. Torrential rain made using the fords impossible, and Lee’s only pontoon bridge had been burned by a detachment from the Harpers Ferry garrison. The Army of the Potomac concentrated at Middletown by marching through downpours and muddy roads. Meade thought it would take two or three days to achieve what his army did in one day with most units covering 15 to 20 miles, the XII Corps doing 28 miles, and the much maligned XI Corps covering 32 to 34 miles.

Meade’s army was concentrated and ready to go in for the kill. Letters, diaries, and other testimony from that time indicate that the rank and file knew what was at stake and wanted to finish off Lee’s army while it was smarting. Morale was high as indicated by the performance on July 7 with the epic marches. Meanwhile, Lee’s army was suffering from low morale and demoralization. Lee, himself, in a letter to Jefferson Davis, admitted that over 5,000 able-bodied men left their combat units and walked back with the wagon trains to the Potomac. He later wrote that “many thousands” were absent from their units.

Assuming that Meade wanted to use July 8 to let his troops rest and reorganize, what was he doing between July 9 to 12 when he finally moved up to the defensive positions Lee had been building? I call this period a 19th century version of “Tiptoe through the Tulips” with Meade covering 8 miles in 3 days. During this period, Meade constantly complained of a lack of information regarding Lee’s position, but the record also shows that he did not use all of his assets to obtain much-needed information regarding Lee and his army.

For starters, Meade does not appear to have used his cavalry very effectively. They did carry out raids, but did not really appear to be engaged in information-gathering, and there is no evidence that Meade gave firm direction to Alfred Pleasanton, the commander of the cavalry corps, to be more aggressive in that area.

More tragic, Meade seems to have forgotten about the Bureau of Military Information. This organization was established in February 1863 by Joseph Hooker and was officially part of Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick’s command. The commander of the Bureau, Colonel George Sharpe, had recruited an excellent staff and established a very effective system where information from all branches of the army (including a very good spy network) flowed into the Bureau for analysis and for reporting to Chief of Staff Daniel Butterfield. Reports were issued on a daily basis. This constitutes the first really modern intelligence unit in the U.S. Army.

Perhaps the high point of their service was the briefing that Sharpe gave to Meade and his generals on the evening of July 2. Sharpe’s group created a report that identified all Confederate units at division and brigade level that had been involved in the fighting (along with over 100 of the constituent infantry regiments) and their estimated current condition. Based on comparing the records they prepared at that time to post-war records, their report was astonishingly accurate. Their report indicated that only Pickett’s division was not up yet, but prisoner interviews indicated that he was at or close to the battlefield. Sharpe’s briefing ended by indicating that Lee would attack on July 3 with Pickett as the spearhead and that the center of the Union line would be the probable target.

There is little evidence that Meade was interested in subsequent reports from the Bureau of Military Information, and he dismantled the overall system that made it so effective. Instead, he tried incremental probes, mainly by infantry, which did not result in helping his information deficiency. The fate of the Bureau of Military Information is indicative of Meade’s paranoia: first, about all things related to Hooker, and second, his real antipathy toward members of the officer corps who were Republicans, or worse, abolitionists. Meade’s purge of the officer corps started on the evening of July 1 with the replacement of Abner Doubleday as I Corps commander by John Newton. It included the downgrading of Oliver O. Howard by Hancock. Later, it would expand to Daniel Sickles (with good reason), David Birney, Butterfield, and eventually Howard (XI Corps) and Henry Slocum (XII Corps).

Meanwhile, Lee had his engineers, troops, and the over 10,000 slaves that constituted his commissary and quartermaster corps hard at work building a 6-mile-long defensive line. Army of the Potomac officers who examined the works later had mixed reactions to what they saw. Many saw excellent defensive positions, with some officers saying they were the best they had ever seen. Others felt that the positions they examined were weak and poorly designed. Within a 6-mile stretch, it might be safe to say that both groups could be correct. An attack on those positions, especially the strong portions, would be dangerous and could cause serious casualties.
So should Meade have attacked? Based on my analysis as an “arm-chair,” I believe the time he lost between July 9 to 12 was critical. Offensive moves during that time would have caught Lee with his defensive position not fully complete, his army still recovering from defeat and retreat, and dealing with shortages of ammunition and other supplies while saddled with thousands of wounded.

Meade not attacking on July 13 makes more sense, as he did not have a good grasp on the extent of the defenses. However, he was still urged to launch a series of reconnaissance in force operations to obtain more information. In fact, he planned one, but did not launch it. On the evening of July 13, scouts and pickets reported sounds of large wagon trains moving on the Confederate side – a sure sign of a retreat in progress. A more vigorous response would have caught the Confederates in a very awkward position, similar to their predicament in the mule shoe at Spotsylvania in 1864. Attacks were launched later than planned that rounded up 500 Confederate prisoners and resulted in the death of Confederate General Johnston Pettigrew. Unfortunately, the bulk of Lee’s army had escaped.

Beside ignoring the Bureau of Military Information and not using his cavalry effectively, what other assets could Meade have used, especially in the critical days from July 4 to July 12?

For starters, there were over 20,000 militia in Pennsylvania under Generals Darius Couch and “Baldy” Smith along with other forces in western Maryland. Meade ignored them to the point that General Couch went to Meade’s headquarters during the retreat/pursuit and asked for instructions. Meade held a low opinion of the militia, but they might have helped put pressure on Lee’s rear guard and provided valuable information about where Lee’s units were located. While the militia might have been of very poor use in a fight, it should be remembered that George Washington had found good use for them during his war.

The Harpers Ferry garrison under General William French, which may have contained up to 11,000 troops, mostly regulars (long-term volunteer enlistees), had provided good service by burning Lee’s bridge over the Potomac. What else could they have done?

Finally, there is the 800-pound gorilla in this story. The Washington garrison of either 23,000 to 40,000 men was sitting behind their entrenchments doing little. Would an appeal from Meade to Halleck or directly to Lincoln have freed up 10,000 or so to help trap Lee?

Many Meade defenders have pointed to the grievous losses suffered by the Army of the Potomac during their heroic three-day stand at Gettysburg. Many units at the regimental and brigade level suffered 50% casualties or more. Key commanders were killed or wounded. However, the epic march of Meade’s army on July 7 provides proof that this army was neither demoralized nor disorganized. If the 34-mile march of the XI Corps on July 7 had been done by the boys in gray, it would be celebrated in legend and song as were Jackson’s march at Second Manassas or A.P. Hill at Antietam. The XI Corps march was forgotten. Why? Because Lee used Jackson’s and Hill’s feats to achieve decisive results. Meade did not.

Others say that Meade did not have enough of a manpower advantage to be more aggressive. Within the Army of the Potomac organization, in the I, II, III, V, VI, XI, and XII Corps, there were 56,000 to 60,000 infantry available for the pursuit. There were an additional 11,000 cavalry plus 4,000 more in units not engaged at Gettysburg but coming up to join the army. Lee had about 45,000 to 52,000 in the ranks. For comparison, Chris Calkins in his book on Appomattox (pages 200-201) provides strength totals of 57,000 for Lee at the start of his retreat from Petersburg to 76,000 Union troops used by Grant in the Appomattox pursuit. (Ironically, Calkins states that Meade does not get enough credit for his handling of the Appomattox pursuit.)

The men of the Army of the Potomac knew that if they did not finish off Lee in July, they would pay the price, with interest, of doing it later. That price was paid with the 55,000 casualties during the Overland Campaign, 42,000 at Petersburg, and another 10,000 during the Appomattox Campaign. Meade let his army down; he let his country down; he let George Meade down.

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Sources (Click any of the book titles to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Bonekemper, Edward H. Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor, Not a Butcher; Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Military Genius. Washington, DC, Regnery Publishing, 2004.

Busey, John W. and David G. Martin. Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg. Hightstown, NJ, Longstreet House, 1986.

Calkins, Chris M. The Appomattox Campaign: March 29-April 9, 1865. Lynchburg, VA, Schroeder Publications, 2015.

Catton, Bruce. The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. New York, Doubleday, 1962.

Catton, Bruce. The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. New York, Doubleday, 1952.

Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. New York, Touchstone, 1968.

Cooling III, Benjamin Franklin and Walton H. Owen. Mr. Lincoln’s Forts. MD, Scarecrow Books, 2009.

Fishel, Edwin C. The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The Third Day at Gettysburg & Beyond. Chapel Hill, NC, The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. New York, Free Press, 2008.

Gottfried, Bradley, M. Brigades of Gettysburg. Cambridge, MA, DaCapo Books, 2002.

Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865. New York, Simon Publications, 2001.

Nofi, Albert A. The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863. Conshohocken, PA, Combined Books, 1986.

Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. New York, Harper Collins, 2002.

Notes on sources

I was something of a late addition to the debate and wasn’t able to hit my Gettysburg bookshelf until after January 1. I started a notebook with information from Busey’s Regimental Strengths and then dipped into Gottfried’s Brigades of Gettysburg. I began to develop a credible theme after reading A. Wilson Greene’s excellent essay on the retreat in Gary Gallagher’s The Third Day at Gettysburg & Beyond. Guelzo’s Gettysburg book offered considerable insights into the politics in both armies including Meade’s moves during the battle and the retreat. Glatthaar’s book on Lee’s army offered valuable information on the state of Confederate morale in July versus accounts written years later. I reread Sears and Trudeau for their accounts of the retreat. Coddington still offers valuable insights and is a masterful account of the campaign. Alfred Nofi’s slim volume is also full of information and useful insights and represents a more modern view of Coddington. Fishel, an amateur historian who discovered the records from the Bureau of Military Information in the attic of the Smithsonian, is a wellspring of information regarding intelligence efforts. Bonekemper provided statistics for all of the Civil War campaigns, and I thought Calkins’ account of Appomattox and the comparable strengths was noteworthy.

Confession: The strength of the US garrison in Washington during June 1863 drove me daffy. I consulted both of Bruce Catton’s books along with Nofi to get some numbers. I finally stumbled across Leech’s and Owen’s books that seemed to offer some credible numbers to go along with the other sources. My final estimate of no less than 23,000 and probably no more than 40,000 is the best I could do. If others have better numbers, please let me know.