Evaluating George Gordon Meade’s Leadership in the Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg – Caution, Hesitancy, and Timidity

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

By Gary W. Taylor
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.

Meade’s cautious pursuit of Lee instantly and energetically following the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 was one of the greatest errors and misfortunes of the Civil War. Let’s consider some facts following Meade’s successful defense of Cemetery Ridge on July 3rd:

  • Meade’s strength was approximately 56,000 troops including 22,000 fresh troops from his 6th and 12th Corps. Later reinforcements increased his strength upward to 80,000, while Lee’s battered army stood at approximately 37,000.

  • Meade possessed 79 more pieces of artillery than his Confederate counterpart.

  • Lee’s army followed a direct line of retreat 30 to 35 miles west to Williamsport on the Potomac River on the Maryland-Virginia border, while Meade followed an eastern route toward Emmitsburg, 50 to 55 miles around South Mountain, or a distance 1.5 times further than Lee’s forces.

  • Lee’s army was fronted by the Potomac River which he needed to cross to reach the relative safety of Virginia, plus ambulance and supply trains extending approximately 20 miles.

  • Over the course of the ten-day retreat, there were 22 skirmishes and engagements, predominately by Meade’s cavalry, with almost little to no use of his infantry.

  • Finally, Meade resorted to holding numerous conferences of war with his general staff and always deferred to their hesitation and caution.
Gary Taylor

The above logistics and facts are not intended to take away from Meade’s performance at Gettysburg, as the nation was indebted to him for what could have been a disaster if the Battle of Gettysburg was lost. Yet Meade’s excessive timidity to pursue, and attack Lee’s army nearly 20 miles long, with little ammunition, almost no shoes and food, limping for ten days through mud, and crossing the bridgeless Potomac River unmolested would dim the eyes of many of his soldiers of their great victory and allow the war to continue for another 21 months.

Carl Von Clausewitz, the 19th century great writer on the subject of war, held several Principles of War that are appropriate in the case of Meade’s pursuit of Lee and include the following:

  • No military leader has ever become great without audacity.

  • Only when we cut off the enemy’s line of retreat are we assured of great success in victory.

  • An indecisive victory can be changed into a decisive one through energetic pursuit of the enemy.

  • Use your entire force with the utmost energy. Any moderation shown will leave you short of your aim.

  • And finally, follow up your success with the utmost energy.

The evidence will show that Meade ,who led a strong defense during the three days of battle at Gettysburg, failed to recognize Clausewitz’s principals in his pursuit of Lee’s army, allowing it to survive and continue the bloodshed of this terrible war.

Following the battle on July 3rd, there was no provision for launching an offensive and no substantial force was amassed and ready to move on Lee’s decimated troops. A severely wounded General Winfield Scott Hancock being removed from the field at Cemetery Ridge following Confederate General George Pickett’s attack, scribbled a note to Meade urging a counterattack. Federal artillery chief Alfred Pleasanton confronted Meade and exclaimed, “General, I will give you an hour to show yourself a great general.” Meade replied, “We have done enough.” In addition, Colonel Patrick Guiney of the 9th Massachusetts would later write his wife, “Gettysburg on the evening of July 3rd was the time and place to ruin Lee’s army, it had flown the field, broken, beaten, and terrified, but Meade allowed it to pass.”

In the early morning hours of July 4th, Lee began his retreat from Gettysburg over the Cashtown and Fairfield Roads with most of his infantry heading toward the mountain passes at Fairfield. It never occurred to Meade to quickly send an infantry and cavalry force to Fairfield and seize the gaps in nearby South Mountain. Federal occupation of Fairfield before Lee had gotten his army underway might have given him a real opportunity to cripple if not destroy Lee’s army. Instead, Meade spent most of July 4th immersed in military housekeeping, much of which could have been performed by subordinates, while giving little thought toward his course of action.

Meade learned of Lee’s departure from Gettysburg on the evening of July 4th. But instead of pursuing Lee, and against President Lincoln and Army Chief Henry Halleck’s directive, Meade called a conference with his generals and following their input remained in place. Finally, on the morning of July 5th, almost 24 hours later, Meade cautiously began his pursuit of Lee’s army on the opposite side of South Mountain. Federal Construction Corps General Herman Haupt concluded, “Meade had a rare opportunity to crush Lee if he would only follow up his advantage.” By July 6th Meade, enjoying a hot bath at the U.S. Hotel in Frederick, had abandoned any thoughts of pursuing Lee’s infantry via Fairfield.

Meade’s best chance to catch Lee before he was able to dig in at Williamsport was to rendezvous on July 7th at Middletown, 18 miles from Williamsport, but only one federal corps had reached that far. One or two of Meade’s corps might have broken through and reached the rebel’s incomplete works. By July 8th both the First and Second Corps had caught up with Lee’s forces and were likely candidates for the advance, but their movement was slow and deliberate. By July 9th the bulk of Lee’s army was now between Hagerstown and Williamsport, where he would stop due the flooded condition of the Potomac River. For the next three days, Meade carefully maneuvered his forces while Lee awaited an assault. By then Lee abandoned Hagerstown.

Meade gropingly brought his forces toward Williamsport on July 12th, intending an assault on Lee the next morning. Instead, he called another conference with his generals that evening and once again deferred to the majority by delaying an attack on July 13th. Meanwhile Lee, awaiting an attack from Meade on July 13th, grew impatient and began his crossing of the Potomac River, telling staff, “This is too long for me, I cannot wait, those people have too little courage.” By the morning of July 14th, Meade, having learned of Lee’s evacuation from Williamsport and Falling Waters, ordered an assault, but it was too little, too late. Lee’s army had slipped across the Potomac. Meade’s delay in committing his forces in pursuit of Lee hours after they had crossed the Potomac was puzzling to say the least. No doubt, John Reynolds was turning over in his grave and Winfield Scott Hancock on his hospital cot.

A Connecticut soldier wrote, “We move upon the enemy’s works and find him sitting on the other side of the river, performing various gyrations with his fingers, thumb on his nose.” The chaplain of the 145th Pennsylvania, John Stuckenberg, wrote of Meade’s pursuit of Lee, “It makes me think of a squirrel, catch it by the tip of the tail and a few hairs remain while the squirrel runs briskly away.” Confederate artillery chief Porter Alexander described Meade’s pursuit as a “mule chasing a grizzly bear, as if catching up was the last thing the mule wanted.” Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana later wrote, “Meade seemed to lack the boldness necessary to bring the war to a close and lacked the tenacity that Grant had attained.” Finally, a gravely saddened and disappointed Lincoln told his secretary, John Hay, “We had them in our grasp, we had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours.”

Northern reaction to Lee escaping unmolested ranged from bitter disappointment to unmitigated outrage. Union Colonel David Strother observed from Washington on July 15th, “The particulars of Lee’s escape are confirmed, this is about the meanest and most humiliating incident of the war.” It appeared to many that Meade was content in driving Lee from northern soil instead of capturing and destroying Lee’s army, while Meade’s caution, hesitancy, and timidity draw a parallel to George McClellan’s performance following Antietam.

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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.)

Edwin Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (1963).

Glenn Tucker, High Tide at Gettysburg: The Campaign in Pennsylvania (1958).

Stephen Sears, Gettysburg (2005).

A. Wilson Greene, “Meade’s Pursuit of Lee” in The Third Day at Gettysburg & Beyond, edited by Gary Gallagher (1994).

Thomas Ryan and Richard Schaus, “Lee is Trapped and Must be Taken”: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863 (2019).

Eric Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael Nugent, One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 (2008).