General George G. Meade: Hero Of Gettysburg or Goat?

By winning the Battle of Gettysburg, General George Gordon Meade made a monumental contribution to preserving the Union and dooming the Confederacy’s bid for independence. But by only wounding Robert E. Lee’s army and not destroying it before it could retreat back to Virginia, Meade broke Abraham Lincoln’s heart. As a result of Meade’s failure to prevent Lee’s escape, the war continued for another two bloody years.

But should Meade really be blamed?

A smashing victory for Meade

Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had invaded Pennsylvania in the hope of possibly ending the Civil War by defeating the Union’s main army on its own territory. But when the two forces met at the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, Meade’s Army of the Potomac emerged victorious, forcing Lee to retreat.

Meade had scored a magnificent triumph, both military and personal.

Having been suddenly and unexpectedly appointed to replace Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac after the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania was already under way, George Meade had quickly organized his force, moved it to the scene of battle, successfully countered every move the Confederates attempted, and inflicted on the Southern army a smashing defeat. Now, throughout the North Meade would be acclaimed, and rightly so, as the hero of Gettysburg.

General George Gordon Meade
General George Gordon Meade | Source

President Lincoln pushes Meade to destroy Lee’s army

But President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t satisfied. He wasn’t just looking to send the Confederates packing back south of the Mason-Dixon line. He saw Lee’s defeat on Northern territory as a unique opportunity to not just repel, but destroy the greatest fighting force of the Confederacy. It was Lincoln’s conviction that if Lee’s army could be cut off and effectively dismantled before it could retreat from Pennsylvania, that event, along with General Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, would effectively end the war. All that was required was for General Meade to vigorously pursue Lee and attack him before he could get his shattered army reorganized and resupplied.

Through his general-in-chief, Henry Halleck, Lincoln sent message after message to Meade urging him, imploring him, almost pleading with him to go after Lee before the Confederate force could escape back across the Potomac River.

Lee’s army was vulnerable

With the Confederates having lost more men at Gettysburg than the Union army did, Meade now enjoyed a significant advantage in numbers. And even during the battle, the Southern army had run out of artillery ammunition. Now, with a number of its generals dead or severely wounded, and faced with the necessity of beginning an immediate retreat with no time to reorganize, the effectiveness of the Army of Northern Virginia as a fighting force had to be at its low point. Everything seemed to line up for Meade to successfully attack, defeat, and perhaps destroy the South’s main army.

Even the weather seemed to work for Meade. As the Army of Northern Virginia slowly gathered itself together and began its retreat, the rains came. Lee’s army found itself trapped on the wrong side of a surging Potomac River, with no way to cross until the water level began to recede. If attacked in that position, it could not retreat, and would have to fight, with no hope of reinforcement or resupply. Had Meade forced that battle, with Lee’s army at its most vulnerable, the Army of Northern Virginia might have been prevented from ever getting back to its namesake state. And without Robert E. Lee and his army, the Confederacy simply could not survive.

Meade delays his attack as Lee retreats

But it didn’t happen. Realizing that his own army had become almost as disorganized in victory as Lee’s had in defeat, Meade believed that the immediate, vigorous push Lincoln urged him to make was unwise. His army needed rest and reorganization before it could take the offensive.

So from the afternoon of July 3 when, in the aftermath of the disastrous defeat the Confederates suffered with the failure of Pickett’s charge, through the night of July 13, when Lee’s army was trapped with its back against the Potomac, Meade waited. He followed and reconnoitered and probed, but never launched the all-out attack Lincoln pleaded for.

And in the end, Lincoln’s greatest fear came true. By the time Meade finally felt he was ready to move against Lee on July 14, there was no army there for him to attack. The waters of the Potomac had receded to the point that the Confederates were able to build pontoon bridges, and Lee had gotten his troops across during the night. The Southern army had made a successful and practically unopposed retreat, and was soon back home in Virginia.

And Abraham Lincoln was devastated by the lost opportunity.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln | Source

Lincoln, in despair over Lee's escape, writes Meade a painful letter

That same day, July 14, 1863, President Lincoln sat down to write what he intended to be an encouraging letter to General Meade, thanking him for the great victory at Gettysburg. But in the course of his writing, the President’s feelings began to overflow, and his bitter disappointment found its way into the words his pen set on paper.

After briefly speaking of his gratitude for Meade’s Gettysburg victory, the President couldn’t help expressing his distress that far from seeking to immediately confront Lee’s fleeing army, Meade and his generals seemed to be, as Lincoln put it, “trying to get him across the river without another battle.” The president wrote:

The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him…

Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

As it turned out, this is perhaps the most famous letter in American history that was never sent. Upon rereading what he had written, the president realized that far from being encouraging to Meade, it would devastate him. His own feelings somewhat relieved by expressing them on paper, Lincoln didn’t send the letter, but put it away in an envelope labeled “To Gen. Meade, never sent or signed.”

Lincoln was certainly correct about one thing. Meade would never again be able to “effect much” against Robert E. Lee. It would not be until Ulysses S. Grant became the Commanding General of all US forces, and effectively took personal control of the Army of the Potomac, that Lee would finally be vigorously pressed and brought to bay.

But was the President right about Meade having missed a golden opportunity to end the war in 1863, rather than after an additional two years of bloody fighting?

Dr. Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College criticizes Meade’s failure to pursue Lee

Should Meade be blamed for not destroying Lee’s army?

Is it really true that Meade could have, and should have, staged a vigorous pursuit of Lee’s retreating army, and brought it to battle before it could retreat back across the Potomac? Or was Meade correct in his belief that making such an attempt would have been extremely dangerous, and would have run the risk of turning the great victory at Gettysburg into a disheartening and disastrous defeat?

General Meade laid out his reasoning for not immediately pursuing Lee in his testimony to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War on March 5, 1864:

Having, however, been in command of the army not more than twelve or fourteen days, and in view of the important and tremendous issues involved in the result, knowing that if I were defeated the whole question would be reversed, the road to Washington and to the north open, and all the fruits of my victory at Gettysburg dissipated, I did not feel that I would be right in assuming the responsibility of blindly attacking the enemy without any knowledge of his position...

It is proper I should say that an examination of the enemy's lines, and of the defenses which he had made - of which I now have a map from an accurate survey, which can be laid before your committee - brings me clearly to the opinion that an attack, under the circumstances in which I had proposed to make it, would have resulted disastrously to our arms.

Battle of Gettysburg
Battle of Gettysburg | Source

Valid reasons for Meade’s reluctance to pursue Lee

As his testimony indicates, Meade had some undeniably compelling reasons for caution:

  • He was entirely new to command. Although he had a good record as a corps commander, prior to his appointment just a few days earlier as head of the Army of the Potomac, Meade had never exercised independent command. Compared to his opponent, the masterful Robert E. Lee, Meade still had a lot to learn.
  • Three of Meade’s seven corps commanders had been put out of action at Gettysburg: Reynolds killed; Hancock and Sickles severely wounded. In addition, when Meade moved up to army command, he himself had to be replaced as commander of his old Corps. So, more than half of the second highest tier of leadership in the army were new in their positions.
  • The Army of the Potomac had suffered very high losses. Of the 83,289 men with which it began the battle of Gettysburg, 17,684, or 21.2 percent, were listed as killed, wounded or missing. It may not have been immediately apparent to Meade that the Confederates had suffered an even higher level of casualties (30.2 percent).
  • Once Lee got a head start by moving quickly to begin his retreat on July 5, he would likely be able to choose the ground on which any battle would be fought if Meade caught up to him. Engaging the Army of Northern Virginia when they were dug in and expecting a fight was sure to result in a very high casualty count.
  • Probably the biggest factor in Meade’s reluctance, though he might not have admitted it in so many words, was Robert E. Lee. As Ulysses Grant would later discover, Lee had almost as high a reputation among the Army of the Potomac as he did with the Army of Northern Virginia. He had proved adept at making unwary Northern commanders who thought they had him in a box pay for that misapprehension. Meade had no wish to add himself to the list of Lee's foes, including McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker, that the wily Confederate had out-generaled and humiliated.

Lincoln’s Perspective: anything Lee could do, Meade could do better

I think President Lincoln understood Meade’s difficulties. But he also knew that Lee was confronted to an even greater degree with similar issues. In every way that mattered, Meade’s army was in better shape than Lee’s. If battle were joined, Meade would have the advantage.

Lincoln might well have asked Meade the question he asked General McClellan when, after forcing Lee to retreat at the battle of Antietam in 1862, McClellan, too, had failed to pursue and destroy his formidable but outnumbered adversary.

“Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing?” the President had demanded of McClellan. Now, watching Meade list reasons for not attacking, just as McClellan had done, I’m sure Lincoln had a discouraging sense of déjà vu.

Should Meade be blamed for not destroying Lee's army?

  • Yes - he was too cautious
  • No - he was wise to be careful
See results without voting

An evaluation

So, who was right? Was Lincoln right in urging Meade to take the kind of aggressive action that might end the war immediately? Or was Meade right in refusing to pursue a course that, if things went wrong, could result in losing all the fruits of the Gettysburg victory while opening the way for Lee’s army to possibly capture Washington, Philadelphia or Baltimore?

I think both were right.

Lincoln was right to want what he wanted; Meade was right to not attempt it.

Lincoln was right in that he sensed an opportunity to end the war that if missed, could never be reclaimed. The consequence of Meade’s failure to grasp that opportunity was another two years of bloodshed that Lincoln wanted desperately to avoid.

Meade, on the other hand, was also right. Not because Lincoln didn’t have the right strategy; but because he didn’t yet have the right man. One thing every Northern commanding general before Grant had proved was that if a commander didn’t have the killer instinct, he didn’t have it, and there was no way to infuse it into him. Without that quality, if Meade had brought Lee’s army to battle during the retreat from Gettysburg, Meade’s prediction of probable disaster would very likely have come true.

It was not until Ulysses S. Grant became General-In-Chief in 1864 that Lincoln finally found the man who had the killer quality necessary to bring Robert E. Lee to bay, and end the war.

Grant and Meade in 1864
Grant and Meade in 1864 | Source

Grant probably would have done what Meade was incapable of doing

General Grant, who on July 4 was in Mississippi receiving the surrender of Vicksburg, was not yet available to command the Army of the Potomac. It would be eight more months before he was finally in charge. He would then show the aggressiveness and tenacity that Meade seemed to lack, but which was absolutely necessary to having any chance of finishing off Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

But what would Grant have done if he had been in charge of the Army of the Potomac at the end of the Gettysburg battle? I think we can see a clue to how he might have handled that situation in his reaction to a near-disaster the befell him the previous year during his attack on Fort Donelson in Tennessee.

With the Confederate garrison confined within the fort, Grant positioned his forces to block every avenue of escape. That evening he left his army and went to confer with the commander of the Navy gunboat fleet that supported his attack. While he was gone the Confederates attempted to smash their way out of the fort. By the time Grant realized a battle was in progress and hurried back, one wing of his army was in panicked retreat. Not only did Grant quickly organize his force to retake the ground that had been lost, but he saw the Confederate near-breakout as a great opportunity. What he said to a member of his staff shows his attitude when he sensed his opponent was vulnerable:

Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks first now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.

The difference between Meade and Grant

To Meade the fact that both his own and his opponent’s armies had been disordered by battle was a reason to hang back. But for Grant the mutual demoralization of his and the enemy’s forces was a spur to get in the first blow before the opposing army could recover its equilibrium. That, to me, is the difference between the cautious attitude that characterized Meade, and the aggressive, go-for-the-jugular mindset that was typical of Grant. I think that if he had been in charge at Gettysburg, he definitely would have struck a blow at Lee.

E. Porter Alexander
E. Porter Alexander | Source

A Confederate perspective

Confederate colonel (later general) E. Porter Alexander, who was Longstreet’s chief of artillery at Gettysburg, perhaps summed it up best. His memoir Fighting for the Confederacy is considered by historians to be one of the most perceptive and reliable accounts written by any participant in the war. In it Alexander gives us his comparison of Meade, Grant, and Hooker, all of whom he fought against:

But Hooker’s third & last blunder [when Hooker retreated at the battle of Chancellorsville] was the greatest of all. He lost confidence even in being able to repulse Lee with his whole army united behind the short line which any engineer would pronounce impregnable…

Had it been Grant in command he would not have dreamed of giving up the fight. But Grant had been built up by successes in the West, & the Army of the Potomac had never had the luck necessary to properly educate a general. When we come to write of Gettysburg, Meade, too, one of the bravest of men personally, will be found permeated with the same timidity we see here in Hooker.

(Emphasis added).

We should celebrate what Meade did, not criticize what he didn’t do

President Lincoln eventually came to see General Meade in a more charitable light than he did immediately after Lee's escape. In a July 21 letter the president spoke of his change of heart:

A few days having passed, I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done. Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.

At Gettysburg George Gordon Meade met a critical leadership challenge that few men could have handled, and won a decisive victory that was crucial to the final outcome of the war. To demand that he follow up that victory by immediately committing his disorganized force to an attempt to cage and destroy Robert E. Lee’s still-intact and highly dangerous army of seasoned veterans would be to ask of a good man and an excellent general something he simply was not equipped to do.

© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin

More by this Author


MsDora profile image

MsDora 3 years ago from The Caribbean

Voted Up and Useful! Another great history lesson. I like how you include feelings, even yours. Good teacher and writer!

ziyena profile image

ziyena 3 years ago from Southern Colorado

Lincoln didn't have much of a choice it was either trust in Meade or put up with that hooker Joe ... nice HUB Thumbs up

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

MsDora, thanks so much. Taking note of feelings helps keep me conscious that these are real people, not just historical characters.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, ziyena. I think as time went on Lincoln came to appreciate Meade for who he was, as did Grant. That's why Meade was never replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

What a superb article on the subject Reverend Franklin, my hat is off to you. Thank you for including Lincoln's letter to Meade as this was the first time my reading it.

Both armies had really fought three big battles on three consucutive days and Lee and Longsteet both expected a counterattack after the failure of Pickett's Charge, indeed, almost hoped for it.

Your statement that the Union army was almost in as bad a shape in victory as the South's was in defeat truy hits the mark I believe. Perhaps there may have been a chance for some success at the Potomac, as indeed some attempts were made- heavy probes perhaps, witness NC's Pettigrew who led the mostly NCdivisions at P's Charge being mortaly wounded there conducting the defense of these atttacks. Butit's one of that could have well been a diaster too for Meade.

Personally I think the Washington Pol's, but not necissarily Lincoln so much. His disappointment in Lee's successful retreat is understandable.

Enjoyed your Hub ver much and I invite you sir to perhaps read a bit on my website by myself and guest writer Randy Godwin. In fact, I would like you to consider perhaps a guest story of your own sometime in future.

PS- I understand completely should you delete this after reading for the link. Best wishes and thank you again.

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

Pardon the incomplete sentence Reverend. What it meant was I think the Washington authorities came down too hard on Meade but not necessarly Lincoln as his disappointment is understanable with ultimate victory in the war still far from assured.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Alastar. I think Meade doesn't get enough credit. It's interesting that Grant named him as one of two generals he thought most fit for commanding large armies.

Thanks for suggesting that I check out your website. I haven't had a chance yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Farah Kostas profile image

Farah Kostas 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale, Florida

I'm not sure why goat is an option, unless referring to his decision to not "destroy Lee's army" per President Lincoln. I'm not sure that Grant would have chosen to either, given the heavy losses of three days of fighting and the prospect of a reverse Pickett's charge on Seminary ridge. Remember, Reynolds was dead, and Hancock and Sickles were down. (Though Sickles out of the game was probably more of an advantage than not).

The CSA artillery may have overshot and depleted their long range supplies, but there were plenty of guns left with ample canister supplies and excellent artillerists like Porter Alexander to make sure that canister would find it's mark. I would also point out that Longstreet was a formidable foe, especially in a defensive position. The left flank would have been weak, but getting to it would have taken too long and too much fire over open ground.

Long story short, Meade came in at a very difficult time, arranged a strong defense, had the right men in the right places (Pop Greene on Culp's hill, Strong Vincent on Round Top, and Hancock commanding his own corps and supporting Sickle's shattered corps to name but a few).

Grant would of course overshadow him, but Meade was a great commander in his own right.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks for your comment, Farah. You're certainly right that Meade was an excellent commander. I think his problem was that he was up against a man, in Lee, who was on a different level. To my mind the only two Civil War generals who reached that level were Lee and Grant. That's why the Army of the Potomac was never effective on the offense against Lee until Grant was on the scene.

I think the one thing that might have stopped Grant, had he been in command, from pursuing Lee after Gettysburg was the nature of the Army of the Potomac. It certainly would have been Grant's instinct to be aggressive. But given that army's history, I think Grant may not have had confidence in it to carry out difficult coordinated assaults under somewhat disorganized conditions the way he could count on his western armies to do.

stevarino profile image

stevarino 2 years ago from East Central Indiana

Braxton Bragg was also criticized for not following up at Chickamauga. There were many factors involved, I'm sure, that we are not aware of some 150 years after the fact.

Thanks for another great article!

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

You make a great point, stevarino. Our hindsight eyes are able to focus like a laser on what history shows were the relevant factors. The people who actually made those decisions had to do so with the fog of war at its foggiest! Thanks for reading and commenting.

Farah Kostas profile image

Farah Kostas 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale, Florida

We'll never know though, how great Meade could have been. Grant coming east effectively neutered him. We can say, however, that Gettysburg took a huge toll on the Confederate command, and they never recovered from it. Too many key commanders were lost. Doesn't matter how many troops you have (See George Mcclellan), those troops won't be effective without the right leadership, and they didn't have the numbers from jump. IMO, Lee was running on fumes, and Grant slogged away until he ran out of gas. Couple of guys named Sheridan and Sherman had a lot to do with Grant's success. I will admit Grant though not brilliant was extremely effective. Lee was doomed to failure. On a side note since I brought up Uncle Billy, I think that Sherman's letter to the leaders of Atlanta is a far more brilliant piece of writing than the Gettysburg address.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, Farah. You've made some stimulating points. I think Meade was a good army commander (Grant thought so), but nowhere near the level of Grant or Lee. In the 8 months between Gettysburg and Grant becoming Gen-in-Chief in March, 1864, Meade was unable to push Lee at all. When he tried he ended up having to abort his advances. So, IMO Meade had ample opportunity to demonstrate his effectiveness against Lee, but never did. Perhaps part of that was that Meade was a product of the Army of the Potomac and all the futility it had experienced. Grant, on the other hand, was used to success in the Western theater, and was never awed by Lee. He knew what it would take to beat as great a commander as Lee was, and had the grit to do it, knowing the cost would necessarily be great. Lee's ANV still packed a massive punch, but Grant was able to keep it strictly on the defensive. IMO the reason Lee eventually ran out of gas was because Grant manuevered to slowly choke the ANV to death. Sheridan's success in the Valley was part of that strategy. Anyway, I'd better stop or I'll be writing an entire hub in this comment! Thanks for reading and commenting.

Mohammed 22 months ago

As a big fan of history, the American Civil War was one of the dsraekt hours in the country's brief existence. The Battle at Gettysburg defined the war and even though the South lost the battle, it showed both sides what each other was made of. Great story!

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 20 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Mohammed.

Jill Sim 8 months ago

Hello, Mr. Franklin,

Another fine article! I was just reading about General McClellan and his failure to pursue Lee following Antietam. There's that wonderful photo taken of Lincoln and McClellan showing the strain between them, Lincoln's frustration, that McClellan simply would not take on the offensive position Lincoln wanted. There were philosophical differences; I do believe General McClellan may have been in his heart a Southern sympathizer whose great esteem for Lee prevented action. After Antietam, Lincoln redefined the war as a war to end slavery. And he issued the Emancipation Proclamation shortly thereafter. This clarification of the war's objective created divisions between the White House and the Union command going forward. I am not sure about Meade's personal attitudes, will look into it further, especially after reading your piece, but it has been my belief that McClellan, at least, had lost heart, especially seeing so many of his own men die under his command, and may have been suffering from what we now call PTSD, an insecurity and hesitation covered up by a propensity towards grandiloquence, and awe of General Lee, and antipathy towards African Americans and the cause to end slavery, were all components in his failures on the battlefield. Meade and Lee both attended West Point. As has been oft stated, the war was 'between the states' was in many respects between spiritual brothers as well. Lincoln's objective of ending slavery, which threatened to cost him re-election, and thanks in part to Geo McClellan, who ran against him as a "peace" candidate, raised the stakes, and he desperately needed the right general to prosecute the war on the message, and someone who wasn't wonderstruck by General Robert E. Lee. Fascinating stuff. And wonderfully-written.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 8 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, Jill, and many thanks for your kind words about the article.

I think McClellan was a pro-slavery Democrat who actively resisted the idea that ending slavery was a legitimate war aim. I don't know if he was in awe of Lee, or just so risk averse that it really didn't matter who the opposing commander was (Joe Johnston, for example). McClellan was so intimidated by supposed Confederate superiority that his instinct was always to back away rather than fight.

The ironic thing about McClellan was that he did make a major contribution to Union victory by training the Army of the Potomac into a potentially effective fighting force. But his reluctance to actually fight with that army has overshadowed that achievement and defined his historical reputation.

I have no doubt that Meade was absolutely patriotic and, as Grant himself affirmed, an excellent general. But, in terms of aggressiveness, he was no match for Lee. From the Union perspective, Gettysburg was a defensive battle, and in that more passive role Meade shone. But he was never able, as an independent commander, to mount an effective advance against Lee.

Of course Lincoln finally got his general who was not "wonderstruck" by Lee. IMO Ulysses Grant was the greatest military commander of the war.

Jill Sim 8 months ago

Thank you for this response.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    RonElFran profile image

    Ronald E. Franklin (RonElFran)503 Followers
    84 Articles

    Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

    Click to Rate This Article