Evaluating George Gordon Meade’s Leadership in the Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg – Skill, Vigor, and Wisdom

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

By William J. Toler
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. The argument on this web page was written by Bill Toler, who was one of the debaters. Because of illness, Bill was not able to present his argument at the debate. Lily Korte substituted for Bill, and the information that Bill compiled and organized was used by Lily to present Bill’s argument at the debate. The essay on this web page was written by Bill from that information and presents Bill’s argument as he would have done had he been able to participate in the debate himself.

The question before us this evening is: “Was Meade aggressive enough in chasing Lee after Gettysburg?” How we define “aggressive enough” will certainly matter, and the consideration of “aggressive enough for whom” has mattered since July 1863.

However, the question that truly brings us to a correct understanding of the issue is: “What would ‘too aggressive’ have looked like and meant for George Meade, the Army of the Potomac, and the Union?” It is fairly easy to show that had Meade acted any more aggressively than he did, his actions would have been too aggressive.

The Army of the Potomac had marched 100 miles to Frederick, Maryland beginning on June 25. They marched a further 40 miles to Gettysburg. In the first three days of being ordered to take command of the army, General Meade put in a requisition for 51,000 pairs of shoes and socks, and while we often think of the Confederate armies as ill-supplied, it is possible that half of Meade’s army was shoeless on their way to Gettysburg.

Lily Korte
Because of illness, Bill Toler, who was one of the debaters, was not able to participate in the debate. Lily Korte substituted for Bill and presented Bill’s argument at the debate. The argument that Lily presented came from information that Bill compiled and organized. The essay on this web page presents Bill’s argument and was written by Bill based on the information that he compiled.

Over 30,000 Union casualties were suffered in three days of fighting the largest single battle ever fought on North American soil. That’s one-third of the army. Scores of regiments had been reduced to small companies, companies to a few pitiful survivors, and it would take time to reorganize even with outstanding senior commanders. Many units had no officer to lead them. General Meade did not have outstanding senior commanders. John Reynolds (I Corps) has died. Winfield Scott Hancock (II Corps) is a new corps commander at Gettysburg, and is wounded and replaced. Dan Sickles (III Corps) became a corps commander in February 1863, and is wounded and replaced. George Sykes (V Corps) replaced Meade as corps commander on June 28. John Sedgwick (VI Corps) was corps commander of three different corps since December 1862. Oliver Otis Howard (XI Corps) replaced Franz Sigel in November 1862. Henry Slocum (XII Corps) had been in corps command since December 1862.

Volunteers had dried up; nobody was signing up for the losing Army of the Potomac. In March, Congress instituted a draft to begin July 1. Riots were feared, and pieces of the Army of the Potomac would be peeled away to head to New York to quell outbreaks of violence. Incoming reinforcements were green. General Sedgwick said, “While the veterans of the Army of the Potomac received large numbers of reinforcements during the pursuit of Lee’s army, these men were of dubious value. You will hear of the immense reinforcements that are being sent to this army, and wonder why we do not crush their army. All the troops sent to us are thirty days’ militia and nine months’ volunteers, and are perfectly useless. I am tired of risking my corps in such unequal contests.” (See Wittenberg, Petruzzi, and Nugent’s One Continuous Fight.)

The 60,000 unfed horses and 40,000 unfed mules were perhaps the single biggest obstacle to Meade’s being able to move quickly. They hadn’t been well fed when the army was ordered to Gettysburg. Army regulations require 14 pounds of hay and 14 pounds of oats per day per horse, and 14 pounds of hay and 14 pounds of mixed grain per day per mule. That’s 2.8 million pounds of food each day. A 125-wagon train (ordered by Joseph Hooker), with quartermaster provisions for horses and mules (not just food, but forges and also iron bar and nails for shoes) as well as ammunition and food for the soldiers, arrives just outside Frederick on June 28, where Jeb Stuart, with three cavalry brigades and a battery of artillery, crosses the Potomac at Seneca Falls and seizes the entire train. Stuart also cuts telegraph lines and destroys two bridges on the B&O Railroad. Meade’s chosen supply depot at Westminster was only seven miles from the Pipe Creek line, but 25 miles from Gettysburg. The quartermaster can unload 2,000 tons of supplies daily at Westminster, but getting them to the army was an entirely different matter.

Meade had some direct orders, and the order to keep Baltimore and the nation’s capital covered would be the crucial factor in what options were and were not available to Meade without violating those orders. During the battle, that meant protecting the Baltimore Pike. Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill both cover that road, and had Culp’s Hill fallen at any point, the road to the capital would be left open and vulnerable. But it also meant that the supply operations from Westminster up the Baltimore Pike were suspended while the two hills were being attacked, as Meade could not afford to lose those supplies.

Was there an opportunity to counterattack at the end of Pickett’s Charge? Perhaps, and NPS Gettysburg Ranger Troy Harmon convincingly argues that Meade began a counteroffensive by issuing orders to a “left wing” at the southern end of the battlefield. One only issues orders to a “wing” formation in these circumstances because one is ready to counterattack. But the Army of Northern Virginia recovered a defensive position on Seminary Ridge very quickly.

Scholar A. Wilson Greene argues in his essay in Gary Gallagher’s Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond that “Meade was game” for counterattack, “but the Army of Northern Virginia recovered from its failure on Cemetery Ridge with exemplary speed…there can be no greater tribute to the discipline and morale of Lee’s soldiers than their steadfastness following the army’s most infamous tactical defeat.” The largely unused VI Corps was the best choice for a counteroffensive, but five of its eight brigades were dispersed across the line at places other than the Round Tops, which is where the counterattack was to begin. As Henry Hunt remarked, “I did not see a disposable force sufficiently large, immediately on the ground, to attack the enemy in position, where I knew, from my experience on that day, that they had more than one hundred guns in position, a much larger force of artillery than we could bring to bear against them.”

Once Robert E. Lee had his wounded army back in position on Seminary Ridge, he remained on the battlefield hoping for an attack. An attack is exactly what Lee wanted July 4 and 5, which offers easy proof that it would’ve been too aggressive for Meade to do what his enemy wanted him to do.

No competent commander follows directly behind a retreating force into mountains, and virtually every commander on the ground (on both sides) agreed that Meade’s decision to follow the parallel course east of South Mountain was the only legitimate option. To do otherwise would be to not keep the Army of the Potomac between Lee and Washington, and it would have meant sending a wounded army up against strong defensive posts.

Confederate General John B. Gordon would write, “One of the wisest adages in war is to avoid doing what your antagonist desires, and it is beyond dispute that, from General Lee down through all the ranks, there was a readiness if not a desire to meet General Meade should he advance upon us. Meade’s policy after the Confederate repulse at Gettysburg did not differ materially from that of Lee after the Union repulse at Fredericksburg” (from One Continuous Fight).

Meade’s new Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys stated, “A careful survey of the intrenched position of the enemy was made, and showed that an assault upon it would have resulted disastrously to us…On the other hand, General Burnside was severely criticized for attacking at Marye’s Heights, Fredericksburg, where the intrenchments were not more formidable than those of Williamsport” (from One Continuous Fight).

The criticism that has come down through the ages, which even the famed Edwin Cottington could see, came from those who disliked Meade, namely, rear-echelon military officers who weren’t present and civilian leadership. When Lincoln issues comments like “he had only to stretch out his hand to crush the enemy” and “a golden opportunity was squandered” and then becomes the martyred president, very few are willing to contradict his words, even though they completely fail to realize the situation on the ground. July 4 and 5 were spent feeding horses and then men.

Meade pursued Lee as hard as he could, and his letters indicated he wanted to give battle and attack Lee. During the Gettysburg Campaign, the Army of the Potomac lost 14,000 horses. Of these, 1,900 fell during the fighting of those three days. That means that 12,000 were lost during Meade’s pursuit of Lee. Isn’t that “aggressive enough”? Should he have become like Rommel’s Third Army that ran out of fuel? Horses move Civil War armies, and the horses and mules paid a dear price during this campaign. Moreover, Lee retreated along his own supply lines; Meade had supply issues throughout.

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with the words of General Henry Hunt, publicly no fan of Meade. He would write, “as I’ve studied this battle – because I’ve written about it and had to study it – Meade has grown and grown upon me. Meade was suddenly placed in command. From that moment, all his acts and intentions, as far as I could judge them, were just what they ought to have been, except perhaps his order to attack at Falling Waters on the morning of the 13th and especially on the 14th of July when his corps commanders reported against it. As I was then in favor of the attack, I can’t blame him. He was right in his orders as to Pipe Creek; right in his determination under certain circumstances to fall back to it; right in pushing up to Gettysburg after the battle commenced; right in remaining there; right in making his battle a purely defensive one; right, therefore, in taking the line he did; right in not attempting to counterattack at any stage of the battle; right as to his pursuit of Lee. Rarely has more skill, vigor, or wisdom been shown under such circumstances as he was placed in.”

Was Meade aggressive enough in pursing Lee? You bet he was!

Go back to the first argument >>
Continue to the third argument >>

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 B. Coddington; The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (1968)

Gary W. Gallagher (ed.); The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond (1998)

Kent Masterson Brown; Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command (2021)

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