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George G. Meade

George G. Meade

Born December 31, 1815
Cádiz, Spain
Died November 6, 1872
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Union general

Led Northern forces to victory
at the Battle of Gettysburg

General George G. Meade will always be best remembered for his involvement in the famous Battle of Gettysburg. During this mid-1863 battle in the Pennsylvania countryside, Meade guided the Union's Army of the Potomac to a smashing victory over the South's Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry). This Union victory is often cited as a major reason why the North eventually was able to win the war.

But despite his role in this important Northern triumph, Meade has received less praise for his performance than a number of other Civil War generals. His cautious pursuit of Lee's battered army after Gettysburg has been criticized by many historians. In addition, the decision of General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) to take personal command of the Army of the Potomac in 1864 put Meade in Grant's shadow for the remainder of the war. Nonetheless, Meade's triumph at Gettysburg has assured him a prominent place in Civil War history.

Early career in engineering

George Gordon Meade was born in Spain on New Year's Eve, 1815. His father, Richard Worsam Meade, was stationed in Spain as a naval agent for the United States government. The Meade family lived comfortably during young George's first years, but mounting debts gradually began to threaten their economic well-being. Richard Meade brought his family back to the United States in an effort to regain his financial footing. He died a short time later, however, leaving his family deeply in debt. The family's strained financial circumstances forced young George to withdraw from a public school in Philadelphia that he had been attending.

In 1831, Meade managed to gain admission into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. He did not have a driving desire to build a career for himself in the army. He studied hard, though, because he knew that a good performance at the academy would aid him in whatever career he decided to pursue. Meade graduated from the academy in 1835. One year later he resigned from the army and took a series of jobs in the area of civil engineering (design and construction of bridges, canals, forts, and other public works).

Meade's civil engineering career took him all around the country in the late 1830s and early 1840s. He performed engineering work for Southern railroad lines and assisted in surveying (determining the boundaries of) the Mississippi and Texas border. As time passed, however, he realized that much of the engineering work taking place across the nation was being handled by the U.S. Army. He decided to return to active military duty, and on May 19, 1842, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the army's Corps of Topographical Engineers.

Meade spent most of the next two decades working on various engineering projects along the eastern seaboard and the Great Lakes coastlines. These projects ranged from conducting surveys of the Great Lakes boundaries to design work on coastal lighthouses. His only break from engineering work during this time came during the late 1840s, when he fought in the Mexican War (1846–48).

Tough Civil War soldier

Meade's career as an army engineer came to an end in April 1861, when hostilities between America's Northern and Southern states erupted into war. These two regions had long been angry with one another over the issue of slavery. The Northern states thought slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish it. But the agriculture-based Southern economy had grown dependent on slavery, and white Southerners worried that their way of life would collapse if slavery was abolished (eliminated). As Northern calls to end slavery persisted, Southerners became increasingly resentful and defensive. The two sides finally went to war when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.

When the Civil War began, Meade was promoted to brigadier general in the Union reserve army. Commanding a brigade of Pennsylvania soldiers, he helped build defenses around Washington, D.C. In June 1862, he was assigned to the Union's Army of the Potomac, commanded by Union general George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry). The Army of the Potomac was the Union's largest army in the war's eastern theater (the region of the country east of the Appalachian Mountains), so Meade knew that his new assignment meant that he would likely see a great deal of combat.

Meade's instincts were right. Over the course of the following year, he repeatedly found himself pitted against Confederate forces on battlefields throughout Virginia and southern Maryland. Leading commands in both minor skirmishes and major battles (Seven Days' Campaign [June 1862], Second Bull Run [August 1862], Antietam [September 1862], Fredericksburg [December 1862], and Chancellorsville [May 1863]), Meade acquired a reputation as a tough and steady officer. By mid-1863, his battlefield courage and aggressive style had captured the attention of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) and his advisors.

Takes command of Army of the Potomac

Ever since the Civil War started back in 1861, Lincoln had been dissatisfied with the performance of the generals leading the Army of the Potomac. The president felt that the army's first commander, General George B. McClellan had been too cautious in confronting the Confederate enemy. Lincoln thus fired McClellan, only to watch in dismay as his successors—Ambrose Burnside (1824–1881; see entry) and Joseph Hooker (1814–1879)—suffered costly defeats at the hands of General Robert E. Lee and his rebel (Confederate) Army of Northern Virginia.

When Lee launched a daring invasion of Northern territory in June 1863, Lincoln decided to replace Hooker with Meade. The president knew that if Lee's invasion was successful, pressure to negotiate an end to the war would increase throughout the North. If these calls became loud enough, he would have no choice but to negotiate a peace agreement with the South that would grant the secessionist states their independence.

When Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, he knew that the entire course of the war might rest on his ability to beat back Lee's advance. He concentrated his army of ninety thousand troops together in the vicinity of a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg to prepare for the arrival of the Confederate Army.

Battle of Gettysburg

The two armies met outside of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. During the battle's first day, Lee's seventy-five thousand–troop force pushed hard against Meade's defensive lines. But Meade had selected his position well, and Lee's forces were unable to dislodge the Federal Army. The following day, Lee launched a second major assault on the Army of the Potomac in hopes of breaking Meade's army and moving deeper into Union territory. Once again, however, the Army of the Potomac held its ground, delivering punishing blows of its own on the rebel army.

On July 3, the fighting resumed. As the battle wore on, it became clear to Lee that he would not be able to defeat Meade using ordinary measures. He gambled that a full frontal assault on the center of the Union's defenses might cripple the Northern army. He ordered fifteen thousand troops under the command of James J. Pettigrew (1828–1863) and George E. Pickett (1825–1875) to rush Cemetery Ridge, the heart of the Northern defenses. Some of Lee's officers urged him to abandon the plan, but the Confederate general refused to change his strategy.

This assault on Cemetery Ridge—commonly known as "Pickett's Charge"—ended in disaster for Lee's army. As Pettigrew and Pickett urged their troops on across the open ground that separated the two armies, Union artillery destroyed the advance with deadly cannon fire. Stunned by this disastrous turn of events, Lee gathered his battered army together and retreated back to Virginia.

The Battle of Gettysburg took a terrible toll on both armies. Meade's Army of the Potomac sustained more than twenty-three thousand casualties in the three days of fighting, while the Confederates lost approximately twenty-eight thousand troops. But while both sides suffered enormous losses in the clash, it was clear that the Union had won a major victory. Meade's triumph ended Lee's dreams of forcing a peace treaty and showed the North that the Confederate general could be defeated. As Northern writer George Templeton Strong exclaimed, "The results of this victory are priceless. . . . The charm of Robert Lee's invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures. . . . Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad."

Everyone in the North reacted with excitement to news of Meade's great victory. But his cautious pursuit of Lee's bloodied army disappointed some observers, including Lincoln. These critics felt that if Meade had acted aggressively, he might have been able to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia completely and bring the war to an end. Today, some historians continue to criticize Meade for letting Lee get away. But others point out that a continuation of the fighting might not have ended in a Union victory, for Lee still had thousands of veteran troops at his disposal. "A heavy load of responsibility weighed on Meade's shoulders [at Gettysburg]," explained James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. "He had been in command only six days. For three of them his army had been fighting for the nation's life, as he saw the matter, and had narrowly saved it. Meade could not yet know how badly the enemy was hurt, or that their artillery was low on ammunition."

Grant takes over

On July 3, 1863, Meade was promoted to brigadier general in the regular Union Army. He continued to lead the Army of the Potomac throughout the fall and winter of that year. In the spring of 1864, however, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant decided to accompany the Army of the Potomac. As the chief of all Union forces, Grant assumed leadership of the army. His arrival dropped Meade to second in command. But the hero of Gettysburg handled the new arrangement with dignity. He carried out Grant's orders with efficiency, and in August 1864, Grant arranged Meade's promotion to the rank of major general.

During the final months of the war, Meade assisted Grant as he slowly squeezed the life out of the disintegrating Confederate armies. He fought with distinction in several battles. In addition, he helped Grant develop the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, a maneuver that trapped Lee's army in the city for months. By the spring of 1865, it was clear that the Confederacy was on the verge of collapse. In April 1865, General Lee finally surrendered the battered remains of his army to Grant, bringing the war to a close.

After the war, Meade spent two years as commander of the Military Division of the Atlantic and the Department of the East in Philadelphia. In January 1868, he was reassigned to Atlanta, Georgia, where he enforced federal Reconstruction policies in a fair and reasonable manner (Reconstruction was the period in American history immediately following the Civil War when the nation struggled to resolve its differences and readmit the Southern states into the Union). He died in Philadelphia on November 6, 1872, as a result of pneumonia and the lingering effects of old war wounds.

Where to Learn More

Cleaves, Freeman. Meade of Gettysburg. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

Lyman, Theodore. With Grant and Meade from the Wilderness to Appomattox. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

The Meade Archive. [Online] http://adams.patriot.net/~jcampi/welcome.htm (accessed on October 15, 1999).

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