14 July 2015 by Published in: General musings 2 comments

Conclusion of a series.

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

After examining the evidence, it seems clear that Senator Wade’s inflammatory and defamatory statements about Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia were simply incorrect. Given the circumstances under which he was forced to operate, the army commander did everything possible. His army had suffered massive losses, had lost its three most aggressive corps commanders, was saddled by constraining operating orders, faced severe logistical challenges, and then had to confront an incredibly strong defensive position under the command of one of the greatest military minds ever born in the North American continent.

“When Lee retreated to the river he selected a splendid position and fortified it strongly,” wisely noted Capt. I. P. Powell of the 146th New York of the V Corps in August 1863. “Soon the two armies were opposite each other…[Lee] had by far the strongest position. To have been defeated would have to lose more, by far, than we had gained. The possibility of such a disaster must not be allowed for a moment. The only course, therefore, was to act on the defensive and wait till a portion of the enemy had crossed the enemy before we attacked him.” Powell concluded, “But it was impossible to tell when this happened. They escaped from us as we had frequently escaped from them. The retreat was in the night and during a heavy rain storm, when it would have been absolutely impossible to have followed them had we known they were going. Gen. Meade acted as any wise General should have.”

“Meade, no doubt, felt a little like a person often does in pitching quoits,” observed Sgt. Charles A. Frey of the 150th Pennsylvania. “If he makes a ‘ringer’ the first throw, rather than try to make two, and perhaps spoil both, he will throw a cowardly quoit. Meade had made a ‘ringer’ at Gettysburg and the country applauded. Had he made another on the banks of the Potomac, he would have been the greatest general of the war. Had he failed in the second attempt, he would have been denounced the world over.”

Could Meade have done more? Perhaps. Perhaps he could have ordered the army to pursue Lee sooner than he did. But once the army was put in motion, it moved with alacrity and got into position as quickly as possible under some of the worst possible conditions imaginable for the rapid or efficient movement of a large body of men. However, the more important question is whether the men could have done more. “Our troops require rest, shoes, and clothing,” observed Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, who commanded a division of the XII Corps, on July 16. “They have been some five weeks on the march. None but veteran troops could stand it, especially as we have not had a dry day for nearly three weeks. It is pouring down in torrents today, but I think the Army of the Potomac is simmered down to the very sublimation of human strength and endurance.” Men and animals were at the limits of their endurance, and it simply was not reasonable to expect any more of them than they had already sacrificed. Hence, the stars were aligned against George Gordon Meade, and he made the only choice that he could have made under the circumstances.

It is simple enough for an armchair quarterback with no understanding of the vicissitudes of command and with an obviously biased agenda like Ben Wade to level criticisms against Meade’s conduct of the pursuit. However, the burden of command weighs heavy, and only those who actually are tasked with making the life and death decisions—rather than criticizing them after the fact—can truly understand the dilemma faced by George Gordon Meade as he looked across the fields at Lee’s defensive position at Williamsport. With all of the factors stacked up against him, Meade made the only decisions that made any sense, and then the fates robbed him of his opportunity to fight a decisive battle on the banks of the Potomac River. With the benefit of full knowledge, it seems difficult indeed to criticize either the decisions made by Meade, or his conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.

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  1. Kevin Campbell
    Mon 20th Jul 2015 at 11:40 pm

    I was on vacation last week and finally had some time to sit down and read your Pipe Creek and Retreat posts.
    I have always been of the impression that Meade received the short end of the stick regarding his performance not only for his work at Gettysburg but for his body of work during the war. For instance, timely support at Fredericksburg may have saved Burnside’s bacon. It’s nice to see an articulate defense of Meade presented so well. The next person who tells me Sickles saved the day at Gettysburg by moving forward and engaging Longstreet along the Emmitsburg Road is gonna get an earful.

  2. Kevin Campbell
    Tue 22nd Sep 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Was able to review all six of your blog posts on the Meade “witch hunt” on my way out to the east coast. I think your spot on regarding the committee’s bias. Bureaucrats, at least in my opinion, are the worst kind of evil. They promote their opinions, without objective thought, for their own political aspirations and Wade was no exception. I don’t know that much about him politically other than he was a radical Repub. Was he possibly a Hooker or McClellan supporter and trying to injure Lincoln for a previous general’s dismissal? Whatever the reason, he defiantly tried to give Meade the proverbial short end of the stick.
    I think that the Pleasonton factor cannot be overstated. I’m sure he spent his short time as chief-of-staff trying to figure out how he could advance his career (Did in mention I am not a big Pleasonton supporter). He was ineffective on a tactical level, unproductive regarding intelligence gathering and, at least in my opinion, willing to forgo his own responsibilities if it meant getting a leg-up with the promotions board. Even in cased where it was widely known that his reports and/or information were unclear or flat out wrong he never, at least that I can find, ever corrected the record or admitted he was incorrect. The fable of him ordering the charge of the 8th PA cav. at Chancellorsville is a good example. Even after Huey called him on it he still continued to spin the yarn. And I have never been able to understand why he never recalled Gregg? It makes no sense to me.
    Butterfield was also another fly in the ointment. He was close to Hooker throughout June and saw up close the difficulties his friend was experiencing with Washington. He did not like Meade in the first place but is it possible he worked to undermine Meade in order to make his friend and former boss look good? I just finished putting together a first draft of a chapter covering the dysfunctional communications between Washington and AotP headquarters from 10 to 18 June. It’s unreal how noncommittal Halleck was, except when someone else tried to take the initiative. Hooker was trying to do what he thought was right and wanted but seemed to get stymied at every turn. Butterfield experienced all this as well. Could he have been trying to make Meade look bad so that Washington would be questioned for letting Hooker go? Just a though?
    I also agree with your premise regarding supply. Both armies had spent three day trying to kill each other. Neither could continue unless they had something to shoot at each other. Lee, by moving toward the Potomac, is shortening his supply line. He is moving toward his supply base. Meade, if he immediately pursues and takes the same course is moving away from his. His supply line is lengthening and his ammunition has to catch up with him. While the Sixth Corps was still in decent shape, the remainder of the army was pretty much dry of ammunition. An immediate push by the Federals along the same line of march could have put Meade face to face with Lee with nothing to shoot awhile his adversary had restocked his limbers, caissons and cartridge pouches. Just my opinion.
    From the common soldiers standpoint many were disappointed that Meade did not attack on the 13th. I’m sure they would have felt differently if the attack had been ordered and Longstreet had been given another chance to “kill them all.”
    A couple of years back I found a letter written on 17 July from Israel Thicksun, a private in the 83rd PA, to his brother expressing disappointment that Meade did not attack. I believe the original is in the Thicksun Family Papers at the USAHEC. There is a transcribed copy in the vertical files at the GNMP Library. Thicksum wrote “there was a great deal of dissatisfaction throughout the army because Meade failed to attack the rebs at Williamsport, but as it is said that he held a council of war in which Gens. Sedgwick French Sykes and Slocum opposed an attack no one seems to find fault with Gen Meade except for holding a council of war at all.”
    I believe that Meade made the correct decision on 13 July. But, it would not have mattered what he did, some bureaucrat in Washington would have demanded his head.

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