Evaluating George Gordon Meade’s Leadership in the Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg – As Much or More Than Could Be Expected

Was George Gordon Meade aggressive enough in chasing Robert E. Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg? Yes

By Chris Howard
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.

I stand for the proposition that “Meade WAS aggressive enough in pursuing Lee after Gettysburg.” Let me first summarize some key issues, and then I will describe some aspects of Meade’s pursuit of Lee in more detail.

Logistics – During and in the immediate aftermath of the battle, Meade’s supply lines went through Westminster, Maryland, the end of the rail spur from Baltimore. In the days after the battle, his supply line shifted from Westminster back through Baltimore and then along the B&O Railroad to Frederick, Maryland.

Command structure – As of July 4, 1863, Meade had been in command only since June 28, a total of 7 days. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, John Reynolds was replaced by John Newton, Winfield Scott Hancock by William Hays, and Dan Sickles by William French (from Harpers Ferry). Daniel Butterfield, chief of staff under Joseph Hooker and a “Hooker man,” was replaced as well. When Meade assumed command, he left Hooker’s men in place, even though he did not trust them.

In addition, there were many division, brigade, and regimental officers that needed to be replaced after the battle. For example, in III Corps (Sickles’ corps), I counted 46 division, brigade, and regimental officers killed, wounded, or captured.

The weather and the line of march – Meade had approximately twice as much distance to cover as did Lee, and Lee had a slight head start with his column of wounded and supply wagons. Moreover, it began to rain after July 3 and continued for several days. This very much hindered the march of Meade’s army.

Lincoln and the congressional investigation – Abraham Lincoln was frustrated! But in contrast to George McClellan after Antietam, Meade was not replaced in the immediate aftermath of Gettysburg. Only in the spring, when Ulysses Grant came east, was Meade supplanted, but not removed from command.

Congress’ Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War held hearings in March and April of 1864. Prominent among the critics was none other than Dan Sickles and also Dan Butterfield (still smarting from being replaced and always a “Hooker man”). If the primary testimony against Meade was from Dan Sickles, then I think I can rest my case!

More about logistics

I calculate that for the mule teams pulling wagons, the horses required for an artillery battery, and the horses in the cavalry and for mounted officers, Meade would need about 3-4 million pounds of forage for the animals. Also needed were over one million pounds of rations for the troops as well as supplies of clothes, shoes, and blankets. Ammunition re-supply was also required and amounted to several million pounds for the infantry and artillery.

This substantial amount of diverse supplies had to be delivered to the army from a supply base far away in Frederick, Maryland.

The pursuit, itself

In the book One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 by Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael Nugent, the authors describe the military aspects of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg and Meade’s pursuit of Lee’s army. As discussed in that book, there were battles nearly every day during the pursuit.

  • Fairfield late on July 3
  • Monterrey Pass on July 4
  • Smithburg on July 5
  • Granite Hill on July 6
  • Hagerstown on July 7
  • Boonsboro on the National Road on July 8
  • Funkstown on July 10

There would not have been battles so frequently if the pursuit had not been aggressive.

The Confederates began construction of defensive works on July 7 and continued until July 11. These works were four and a half miles long with parapets and interlocking fire for artillery. In other words, the Confederate defenses were very formidable. Meade is often criticized for his council of war on the evening of July 12 and failure to attack at that time. Given the experience of previous battles and of later battles, such as Cold Harbor, attacking those defensive works would have been a potential disaster.

After July 14

Most historians stop at July 14, when Lee “escaped” across the Potomac. But the pursuit actually continued after that date. There was additional fighting at Shepherdstown on July 16 between Stuart and Gregg. Meade crossed on July 17-18. On July 23 a battle was fought at Front Royal near Manassas Gap, and then Lee slipped away into the Luray Valley.

Two major criticisms of Meade

Two major criticisms of Meade have been raised repeatedly. One criticism asserts that Meade delayed before beginning his pursuit of Lee following the Battle at Gettysburg. The second criticism claims that Meade delayed attacking Lee when Lee was backed up to the floodwaters of the Potomac River and unable to cross.

With regard to the first criticism, Meade faced multiple challenges in the immediate aftermath of the battle. He had to first determine what Lee was doing and where he might move. Meade was keenly conscious of a primary responsibility to keep his army between Lee’s army and Washington in order to protect the capital.

Second, the Army of the Potomac had suffered grievously from the battle. In addition to 25,000+ casualties, Meade needed to replace multiple corps commanders, either wounded or killed. Perhaps his two best corps commanders were out of action (Reynolds, who was killed, and Hancock, who was seriously wounded). While Meade was receiving some replacements (primarily 90 militia from Pennsylvania), these troops were of dubious quality. In addition, Meade had entire units that were leaving the army as their enlistment term expired.

Third, as Meade moved his army, there were tremendous logistics challenges involved in shifting his base of supply from Westminster to Hagerstown.

Fourth, the weather made the roads nearly impassable.

Fifth, Meade used his cavalry, as would be expected, to chase after a defeated enemy, harass them, and bring them to battle, if possible. Meade’s aggressive use of his cavalry is what led to the book about Meade’s pursuit having the title One Continuous Fight.

With regard to the second criticism that Meade delayed in attacking Lee when Lee was backed up to the Potomac River and unable to cross, Meade had his engineers lay out a line of defensive works as soon as Lee’s army began to consolidate at Falling Waters (by July 8). This included artillery sighted for overlapping fields of fire. These works were mostly completed by July 11.

When Meade came up on July 11 and 12, he faced a difficult situation. There are those who suggest that Meade should have immediately attacked without reconnaissance. But I believe that Meade was wise not to follow in the footsteps of Lee at Malvern Hill, or of Lee on the third day at Gettysburg, or of Hood at Franklin, or of Grant at Cold Harbor. In all these and in other instances, assaulting strong defensive works proved to be a catastrophic, costly, and bloody debacle. Had Meade done the same at Falling Waters, all of the gains that came from defeating Lee at Gettysburg would have been thrown away with useless charges into Lee’s guns.


It is estimated that Lee lost an additional 5,000 men during Meade’s pursuit, and Meade suffered about 1,000 casualties.


In his pursuit of Lee’s army, Meade did as much or more than could be expected, certainly far, far more than the passive McClellan after Antietam!

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