The Great Debate of 2024: Opening Remarks

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

By William F.B. Vodrey – debate moderator
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 the opening remarks made by the moderator of the debate.

We’re here tonight for the annual Dick Crews Memorial Debate, named after Dick Crews, my longtime predecessor as moderator. Dick once told me that the debate got its start as a Roundtable tradition because of the difficulty of finding speakers who were willing to travel to Cleveland in January. In moderating again tonight for, God help me, my 20th year, I stand on the shoulders of giants, including Dick.

Dick was one of the first people to welcome me to the Roundtable, and I always enjoyed his company. We sometimes disagreed on points of history, but hardly ever on politics. Not long after I joined the Roundtable, he recruited me for a debate on the most important battle of the Civil War, and I’m still grateful. I chose the 1862 Battle of New Orleans, which I think surprised him. I certainly miss him, as I know many of you do, too.

We are honored to have Dick’s son Clay here with us again, up from North Carolina.

William Vodrey

Our topic this year is: “Was George Gordon Meade aggressive enough in chasing Robert E. Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg?” The topic was selected by our president, Bob Pence, a privilege of office as is customary for the Roundtable’s leader in any given year.

Meade was criticized, including by President Abraham Lincoln, for not closing with and defeating Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia once and for all, after the battle in that previously obscure little Pennsylvania crossroads town. Could Meade have done more? Should he, under the circumstances?

In response to an audience question while appearing at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland in April 2000, Professor James McPherson of Princeton University, the Pulitzer-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, said that General Meade did not do enough in the aftermath of the battle to win a decisive victory over General Lee and that Meade satisfied himself with forcing Lee and his army from the North. Meade could have thrown the virtually unbloodied Sixth Corps against Lee’s battered army, McPherson argued. He said he understood Meade’s hesitancy, having been in command of the Army of the Potomac for only a few days at the time that he cautiously guided it to victory over Lee at Gettysburg. “But Grant or Sheridan, in Meade’s position, would have done more,” McPherson said, and thereby possibly shortened the war by months or years. I would add: so, too, might Sherman or Thomas.

The late great Shelby Foote, it should be noted, disagreed with McPherson on this point when he spoke from the same podium in September of that year. In coming to different conclusions, our debaters on each side of the issue tonight are thus in excellent company.

These are our debaters tonight. By random draw earlier this evening, they will speak in this order:

1. Gary Taylor (critical of Meade)
2. Bill Toler (defending Meade)
3. Steve Pettyjohn (critical of Meade)
4. Chris Howard (defending Meade)

Bill Toler is ill and unfortunately cannot attend tonight. Lily Korte, a past president of the Roundtable, very kindly agreed to appear for Bill tonight, and has the benefit of his notes and research. Many thanks, Lily!

Each debater will speak for six minutes. Each will then take questions from those here for another six minutes. After each debater has had a turn answering questions, there will be a brief group discussion and opportunity for rebuttal (also known as “the scrum”). The assembled members and guests will then vote to choose the winner, who will, of course, receive fabulous prizes. Your vote should be for the person who made, in your opinion, the most persuasive argument.

I strongly encouraged each debater to check the length of time required to present the argument while practicing at home. In past years, some debaters have been surprised and even irritated by how quickly their time passes. I hate to cut anyone off, but I will when I must, to be fair to the other debaters.

You will have noticed that all of our debaters tonight are men (other than Lily, who is appearing for Bill Toler, as you know). I was turned down repeatedly by the women whom I approached (which took me back to my college days). I’m grateful that these gentlemen agreed to debate, and I’m sure they’ll do a fine job. But I think it’s unfortunate that no women of the Roundtable volunteered to debate, and none of those women whom I asked agreed to do so. I will say again, as I’ve said in years past, that all are welcome – and encouraged – to participate as debaters, regardless of gender, age, historical expertise, or length of Roundtable membership. We don’t expect anyone to be an absolute expert on the Civil War, and diversity among our debaters is certainly something I always strive for.

And now, let us begin!

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