George G. Meade
Meade, portrait by Mathew Brady
|Birth name||George Gordon Meade|
|Nickname(s)||"Old Snapping Turtle"|
|Born||December 31, 1815|
|Died||November 6, 1872 (aged 56)|
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/||United States Army|
|Years of service||1835-1836|
|Rank||Major General (USA)|
|Commands held||V Corps|
Army of the Potomac
Department of the East
|Battles/wars||Second Seminole War|
American Civil War
George Gordon Meade (December 31, 1815 - November 6, 1872) was a career United States Army officer and civil engineer best known for decisively defeating Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. He previously fought with distinction in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. During the Civil War, he served as a Union general, rising from command of a brigade to that of the Army of the Potomac. Earlier in his career, he was an engineer and was involved in the coastal construction of several lighthouses.
Meade's Civil War combat experience started as a brigade commander in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles. He was severely wounded while leading his brigade at the Battle of Glendale. As a division commander, he had notable success at the Battle of South Mountain and assumed temporary corps command at the Battle of Antietam. Meade's division was arguably the most successful of any at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. It was part of a force charged with driving the Confederate troops under Stonewall Jackson back from their position on Prospect Hill. The division made it further than any other, but was forced to turn back due to a lack of reinforcements. Meade was promoted to commander of the V Corps, which he led during the Battle of Chancellorsville.
During the Gettysburg Campaign, he was appointed to command the Army of the Potomac just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg. Arriving on the field after the first day's action on July 1, Meade organized his army on favorable ground to fight an effective defensive battle against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, repelling a series of massive assaults throughout the next two days. Lee was forced to retreat to Virginia, ending his hope of winning the war through a successful invasion of the North. This victory was marred by Meade's ineffective pursuit during the retreat, allowing Lee and his army to escape instead of completely destroying them. The Union Army also failed to follow up on its success during the Bristoe Campaign and Battle of Mine Run that fall, which ended inconclusively. Meade suffered from intense political rivalries within the Army, notably with Daniel Sickles, who tried to discredit his role in the victory at Gettysburg.
In 1864-65, Meade continued to command the Army of the Potomac through the Overland Campaign, the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, and the Appomattox Campaign, but he was overshadowed by the direct supervision of the general-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who accompanied him throughout these campaigns. Grant conducted most of the strategy during these campaigns, leaving Meade with significantly less influence than before. His image was harmed by his notoriously short temper and disdain for the press. After the war, he commanded several important departments during Reconstruction.
George Gordon Meade was born on December 31, 1815 in Cádiz, Spain, the eighth of eleven children of Richard Worsam Meade and Margaret Coats Butler. His father, of a Philadelphia merchant family, had become wealthy in the American-Spanish trade and was appointed U.S. naval agent. He was ruined financially because of his support of Spain in the Peninsular War; his family returned to the United States in 1817, in precarious financial straits. He died in 1828 when Meade was not yet a teenager.
His elder brother Richard Worsam Meade II became a naval officer, primarily for financial reasons, while several sisters married military men. Likewise young George attended the American Classical and Military Lyceum in Philadelphia, the Mount Hope Institution in Baltimore and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1831. He graduated 19th in his class of 56 cadets in 1835. Meade was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 3rd US Artillery, his first assignment being in Florida, fighting against the Seminole Indians. He became a full second lieutenant by year's end, and in the fall of 1836, he resigned from the army, a career he had not intended to pursue, even while attending West Point. He worked as a civil engineer for the Alabama, Georgia, and Florida Railroad and for the War Department.
On December 31, 1840 (his birthday), he married Margaretta Sergeant, daughter of John Sergeant, running mate of Henry Clay in the 1832 presidential election. They had seven children together: John Sergeant Meade; George Meade (who became a colonel in the US Army); Margaret Butler Meade; Spencer Meade; Sarah Wise Meade; Henrietta Meade; and William Meade.
Finding steady civilian employment was difficult for the newly married man, so he reentered the army in 1842 as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Meade served in the Mexican-American War, assigned to the staffs of Generals Zachary Taylor, William J. Worth, and Robert Patterson. He was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterrey.
After that war he was chiefly involved in lighthouse and breakwater construction and coastal surveying in Florida and New Jersey. He designed Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island, Absecon Light in Atlantic City, Cape May Light in Cape May, Jupiter Inlet Light in Jupiter, Florida, and Sombrero Key Light in the Florida Keys. He also designed a hydraulic lamp that was adopted by the Lighthouse Board for use in American lighthouses. Meade received an official promotion to first lieutenant in 1851, and to captain in 1856.
In 1857, Meade relieved Lt. Col. James Kearney on the Lakes Survey mission of the Great Lakes. Completion of the survey of Lake Huron and extension of the surveys of Lake Michigan down to Grand and Little Traverse Bays were done under his command. Prior to Captain Meade's command, Great Lakes' water level readings were taken locally with temporary gauges; a uniform plane of reference had not been established. In 1858, based on his recommendation, instrumentation was set in place for the tabulation of records across the basin. In 1860, the first detailed report of Great Lakes was published. Meade stayed with the Lakes Survey until the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War.
Meade was appointed brigadier general of volunteers on August 31, 1861, a few months after the start of the American Civil War, based on the strong recommendation of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. He was assigned command of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited early in the war, which he led competently, initially in the construction of defenses around Washington, D.C. He eventually came to command a brigade in the Pennsylvania Reserves Division of the Army of the Potomac. In early 1862, with the army being reorganized into corps, Meade served as part of the I Corps under Maj. Gen Irvin McDowell. The I Corps was stationed in the Rappahannock area, but in June, the Pennsylvania Reserves were detached and sent to the Peninsula to reinforce the main army. With the onset of the Seven Days Battles on June 25, the Reserves were in the thick of the fighting. At Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill, Meade's brigade was mostly held in reserve, but at Glendale on June 30, it was heavily engaged and Meade was shot three times, in the arm, leg, and back. He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, then assigned to Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell's corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army. At the start of the Maryland Campaign a few days later, he received command of the 3rd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, and distinguished himself during the Battle of South Mountain. When Meade's brigade stormed the heights at South Mountain, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, his corps commander, was heard to exclaim, "Look at Meade! Why, with troops like those, led in that way, I can win anything!" In the Battle of Antietam, Meade replaced the wounded Hooker in command of I Corps, selected personally by McClellan over other generals his superior in rank. He performed well at Antietam, but was wounded in the thigh.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade's division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862, and major in the regular army, to rank from June 18. However, his attack was not reinforced, resulting in the loss of much of his division. After the battle, he was briefly elevated from divisional command to command of the entire Center Grand Division over numerous senior generals, skipping corps command entirely. After Hooker's dissolution of the grand division system, Meade received command of V Corps, which he led in the Battle of Chancellorsville the following spring. General Hooker, then commanding the Army of the Potomac, had grand, aggressive plans for the campaign, but was too timid in execution, allowing the Confederates to seize the initiative. Meade's corps was left in reserve for most of the battle, contributing to the Union defeat. Afterward, Meade argued strongly with Hooker for resuming the attack against Lee, but to no avail.
Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac while pursuing Lee in the Gettysburg Campaign. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1863, a messenger from President Abraham Lincoln arrived to inform Meade of his appointment as Hooker's replacement. Meade was taken by surprise and later wrote to his wife that when the officer entered his tent to wake him, he assumed that Army politics had caught up with him and he was being arrested. He had not actively sought command and was not the president's first choice. John F. Reynolds, one of four major generals who outranked Meade in the Army of the Potomac, had earlier turned down the president's suggestion that he take over.
Meade assumed command at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Maryland. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was invading Pennsylvania and, as a former corps commander, Meade had little knowledge of the disposition of the rest of his new army. . At the same time, having known Meade during the Mexican War, Lee declared that Meade would make no blunders in his front and that if he (Lee) did so, Meade would readily exploit them. Only three days later he confronted Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, when he won the battle that is considered a turning point of the war. The battle began almost by accident, as the result of a chance meeting engagement between Confederate infantry and Union cavalry in Gettysburg on July 1. By the end of the first day, two Union infantry corps had been almost destroyed, but had taken up positions on favorable ground. Meade rushed the remainder of his army to Gettysburg and skillfully deployed his forces for a defensive battle, reacting swiftly to fierce assaults on his line's left, right, and center, culminating in Lee's disastrous assault on the center, known as Pickett's Charge.
During the three days, Meade made excellent use of capable subordinates, such as Maj. Gens. John F. Reynolds and Winfield S. Hancock, to whom he delegated great responsibilities. Unfortunately for Meade's reputation, he did not skillfully manage the political manipulators he inherited from Hooker. Maj. Gens. Daniel Sickles, III Corps commander, and Daniel Butterfield, Meade's chief of staff, caused him difficulty later in the war, questioning his command decisions and courage. Sickles had developed a personal vendetta against Meade because of Sickles's allegiance to Joseph Hooker, whom Meade had replaced, and because of controversial disagreements at Gettysburg. Sickles had either mistakenly or deliberately disregarded Meade's orders about placing his corps in the defensive line, which led to that corps' destruction and placed the entire army at risk on the second day of battle. Radical Republicans, some of whom like Thaddeus Stevens were former Know Nothings and hostile to Irish Catholics like Meade's family, in the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War suspected that Meade was a Copperhead and tried in vain to relieve him from command.
Following their severe losses at Gettysburg, General Lee's army retreated to Virginia. Meade was criticized by President Lincoln and others for not aggressively pursuing the Confederates during their retreat. At one point, the Army of Northern Virginia was extremely vulnerable with its back to the rain-swollen, almost impassable Potomac River, but was able to erect strong defensive positions before Meade, whose army had also been weakened by the fighting, could organize an effective attack. Lincoln believed that this wasted an opportunity to end the war. Nonetheless, Meade was rewarded for his actions at Gettysburg by a promotion to brigadier general in the regular army and the Thanks of Congress, which commended Meade "... and the officers and soldiers of [the Army of the Potomac], for the skill and heroic valor which at Gettysburg repulsed, defeated, and drove back, broken and dispirited, beyond the Rappahannock, the veteran army of the rebellion." Meade wrote the following to his wife after meeting President Lincoln:
Yesterday I received an order to repair to Washington, to see the President. ... The President was, as he always is, very considerate and kind. He found no fault with my operations, although it was very evident he was disappointed that I had not got a battle out of Lee. He coincided with me that there was not much to be gained by any farther advance; but General Halleck was very urgent that something should be done, but what that something was he did not define. As the Secretary of War was absent in Tennessee, final action was postponed till his return.-- General Meade
During the rest of the campaigning season in 1863, Meade was hobbled by the transfer of his XI and XII Corps to the Western Theater. Meade outmaneuvered Lee in the Bristoe Campaign, gaining a small victory. But his Mine Run Campaign failed when General French and the Third Corps bogged down.
Meade was a competent man and outwardly modest, although wartime correspondence with his wife suggests he concealed his ego and ambition. A British reporter described Meade: "He is a very remarkable looking man--tall, spare, of a commanding figure in presence, his manner pleasant and easy but having much dignity. His head is partially bald and is small and compact, but the forehead is high. He has the late Duke of Wellington class of nose, and his eyes, which have a serious and almost sad expression, are rather sunken, or appear so from the prominence of the curve nasal appearance. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance." Meade's short temper earned him notoriety, and while he was respected by most of his peers, he at times was not well loved by his army. Some referred to him as "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle."
When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union armies in March 1864, Meade offered to resign. He stated the task at hand was of such importance that he would not stand in the way of Grant choosing the right man for the job and offered to serve wherever placed. Grant assured Meade he had no intentions of replacing him. Grant later wrote that this incident gave him a more favorable opinion of Meade than the great victory at Gettysburg.
Grant made his headquarters with Meade for the remainder of the war, which caused Meade to chafe at the close supervision he received. Following an incident in June 1864, in which Meade disciplined reporter Edward Cropsey from The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for an unfavorable article, all of the press assigned to his army agreed to mention Meade only in conjunction with setbacks. Meade apparently knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade.
Additional differences caused further friction between Grant and Meade. Waging a war of attrition in his Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee, Grant was willing to suffer previously unacceptable losses with the knowledge that the Union Army had replacement soldiers available, whereas the Confederates did not. Meade, despite his aggressive performance in lesser commands in 1862, had become a more cautious general and more concerned about the futility of attacking entrenched positions. Most of the bloody repulses his army suffered in the Overland Campaign were ordered by Grant, although the aggressive maneuvering that eventually cornered Lee in the trenches around Petersburg were Grant's initiative as well.
Meade was additionally frustrated by the manner in which Grant sometimes gave preferable treatment to subordinates that he had brought with him from the Western Theater. A primary example of this was Grant's interference with Meade's direction of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's Cavalry Corps. The Army of the Potomac had used cavalry for couriers, scouting, and headquarters guards for most of its existence. Only Joe Hooker had contemplated using them in an aggressive fashion, and Meade had largely continued established practice. Sheridan objected and told Meade that he could "whip Stuart" if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it." Meade deferred to Grant's judgment and issued orders to Sheridan to "proceed against the enemy's cavalry" and from May 9 through May 24, sent him on a raid toward Richmond, directly challenging the Confederate cavalry.
Although Meade generally performed effectively under Grant's supervision in the Overland Campaign and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, a few instances of bad judgment marred his legacy. During the Battle of Cold Harbor, Meade inadequately supervised his corps commanders and did not insist they perform reconnaissance before their disastrous frontal assault. Inexplicably, Meade wrote to his wife immediately after the attack and expressed pride that it was he who had ordered the attack. During the initial assaults on Petersburg, Meade again failed to coordinate the attacks of his corps before General Lee could reinforce the line, resulting in the ten-month stalemate, the Siege of Petersburg. He approved the plan of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to plant explosives in a mine shaft dug underneath the Confederate line east of Petersburg, but at the last minute he changed Burnside's plan to lead the attack with a well-trained African-American division that was highly drilled just for this action, instructing him to take a politically less risky course and substitute an untrained and poorly led white division. The resulting Battle of the Crater was one of the great fiascoes of the war. In all of these cases, Grant bears some of the responsibility for approving Meade's plans, but Meade's performance was not at the same level of competence he displayed on other occasions.
After Spotsylvania, Grant requested that Meade be promoted to major general of the regular army. In a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on May 13, 1864, Grant stated that "Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and [William T.] Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with." Meade felt slighted that his promotion was processed after that of Sherman and Philip Sheridan, the latter his subordinate. However, his date of rank meant that he was outranked at the end of the war only by Grant, Halleck, and Sherman. Although he fought during the Appomattox Campaign, Grant and Sheridan received most of the credit. He was not present when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
Meade's decisions in command of the Army of the Potomac have been the focus of controversy. He has been accused of not being aggressive enough in pursuit of Confederate forces, and being reluctant to attack on occasion. His reputation among the public and 19th century historians suffered as a result of his short temper, his bad relationship with the press, his place in the shadow of the victorious Grant, and particularly the damaging fallout from the controversies with Dan Sickles. Recent historical works have portrayed him in a more positive light. They have acknowledged that Meade displayed and acted upon an understanding of the necessary changes in tactics brought about by improvements in weapons technology, such as his decisions to entrench when practicable and not to launch frontal assaults on fortified positions. In addition, the Army of the Potomac had suffered very heavily at Gettysburg, with over 20,000 casualties and the loss of many of its best officers and enlisted men, including three corps commanders, and Meade may have been fully justified in not attempting a rapid pursuit with his army in such a battered condition.
Meade was a commissioner of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia from 1866 until his death. The people of Philadelphia gave his widow a house at 1836 Delancey Place, where he lived. The house still has the word "Meade" over the door, but it is now used as apartments. He also held various military commands, including the Military Division of the Atlantic, the Department of the East, and the Department of the South. He replaced Major General John Pope as governor of the Reconstruction Third Military District in Atlanta on January 10, 1868.
Meade received an honorary doctorate in law (LL.D.) from Harvard University, and his scientific achievements were recognized by various institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.
Having long suffered from complications caused by his war wounds, Meade died on November 6, 1872 at the age of 56, still on active duty, following a battle with pneumonia. He was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
|Memorials to George G. Meade|
There are statues memorializing Meade throughout the United States, including statues at Gettysburg National Military Park, the George Gordon Meade Memorial statue by Charles Grafly, in Washington DC, and one atop the Smith Memorial Arch in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia by Daniel Chester French. The United States Army's Fort George G. Meade in Fort Meade, Maryland, is named for him, as are Meade County, Kansas, and Meade County, South Dakota. The Old Baldy Civil War Round Table in Philadelphia is named in honor of Meade's horse during the war. In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS George G. Meade was named in his honor.
One-thousand-dollar Treasury notes, also called Coin notes, of the Series 1890 and 1891, feature portraits of Meade on the obverse. The 1890 Series note is called the Grand Watermelon Note by collectors, because the large zeroes on the reverse resemble the pattern on a watermelon.
In 2015 General Meade was elected posthumously as a companion of the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). During his life, Meade was invited to join MOLLUS but refused.
| Commander of the I Corps (Army of the Potomac)
September 17, 1862 - September 29, 1862
John F. Reynolds
| Commander of the Fifth Army Corps
December 25, 1862 - January 26, 1863
| Commander of the Fifth Army Corps
February 5, 1863 - February 16, 1863
Andrew A. Humphreys
Andrew A. Humphreys
| Commander of the Fifth Army Corps
February 28, 1863 - June 28, 1863
| Commander of the Army of the Potomac
June 28, 1863 - June 28, 1865
(none, end of Civil War)