Meade and Gettysburg

On July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, General George Gordon Meade led the Union Army of the Potomac to victory at the battle of Gettysburg. 

Meade was born in Spain in 1815, but the family returned to Philadelphia and Meade called the city home ever since his childhood. He attended The Mount Airy Seminary in Germantown, a school known for its classical approach to education as well as an avenue for admission to West Point. Meade entered West Point in 1831 and graduated in 1835. He served in the ante-bellum army and rose to the rank of Captain. 

When the Civil War came, Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin recommended Meade and he received a promotion to brigadier general as well as an assignment to command state reserve units. As the war progressed, Meade found himself in command of troops in the field, and during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, suffered a serious wound forcing him back to Philadelphia to recuperate. Returning to service, he received a promotion and saw action at Antietam. The battle prompted a fellow officer to note: “Look at Meade! Why with troops . . . led in that way I can win anything.” 

Meade received a promotion to Major General in November 1862, and one month later, at the battle of Fredericksburg, led the only division to break Stonewall Jackson’s line. Left unsupported, he was forced to fall back.

Thus, and deservedly so, after serving with distinction in the first two years of the Civil War, Meade had been offered, and had accepted command of the Army of the Potomac. The offer came just three days before the epic battle of Gettysburg, and when Abraham Lincoln approved Meade’s appointment, the President quipped that this Pennsylvanian “will fight well for his own dunghill.” 

Meade did fight for Pennsylvania — and for the Union cause — and two of his fellow Pennsylvanians also played key roles during the battle. 

On June 30, the Army of the Potomac was situated south and east of Gettysburg. On the morning of July 1, upon learning of a Confederate presence to the north and west, Meade ordered General John F. Reynolds to move toward Gettysburg. 

To Meade, Reynolds was both a friend and a colleague whom he respected, admired, and trusted. He was also a fellow Pennsylvanian and native of nearby Lancaster. 

Arriving in town during heavy skirmishing between US cavalry and Confederate infantry, Reynolds led his corps into battle along McPhearson’s Ridge, west of town. 

Ironically, after Lincoln decided to replace General Joseph Hooker, Reynolds had been the President’s first choice to command the Army of the Potomac. Reynolds declined after expressing concerns over political interference from Washington. Nonetheless, he commanded a “wing” of Meade’s army and remained respected among fellow officers, as well as an inspiration to his men. 

Upon arriving at Gettysburg, Reynolds assessed the situation clearly. As Confederate forces advanced east along the Cashtown road and swarmed over Herr’s ridge, he personally led his men into position to thwart the attack. Reynolds paid for his gallantry with his life and was killed in action on the morning of July 1. 

As the fight unfolded, Meade learned that Reynolds had been killed and promptly directed General Winfield Scott Hancock, a native of Norristown, to go to Gettysburg. Hancock was to assess the situation and recommend a course of action. Meade and Hancock were not only friends, but the latter had earned the sobriquet “Hancock the Superb,” and enjoyed tremendous popularity among both regular army personnel and civilian soldiers. 

Upon his arrival that afternoon, Hancock found Union forces in retreat and gathering southeast of town atop Cemetery Hill. They were under the direction of General Oliver O. Howard, the commanding general on the field — who hailed from Maine and sought to advance both theological and abolitionist views. Although Howard, like Hancock and Meade, was an experienced West Pointer, he did not possess the admiration and respect of his men or of many fellow officers. 

Howard declared openly that he went “forth to battle without flinching” knowing that God was directing his every move. In this case, however, it was Hancock, acting as a surrogate for Meade, who was directing him and Howard protested. 

Technically, Howard outranked Hancock and the fact that Meade had sent Hancock to take control of the crisis at Gettysburg rankled Howard. The two set aside their differences and agreed that Cemetery Hill, and Cemetery Ridge that ran east of town to the south, was an ideal position. They notified Meade and the commanding general rode to Gettysburg, arriving on Cemetery Hill sometime after midnight.

Some six months after the battle, Congress passed a resolution that honored Howard for his selection of Cemetery Hill as the key terrain that led to victory at Gettysburg. There was no mention of Hancock. There is some indication that the senator from Maine, James G. Blaine, may have influenced this decree as he congratulated Howard as the “hero of the great battle of Gettysburgh [sic].”

A letter to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin from “Military,” published February 8, 1864, condemned the resolution as political in nature (both Howard and Blaine were Republicans while Meade, Hancock, and Reynolds were Democrats). The letter pointed to Hancock’s demeanor and professionalism at the battle, while castigating Howard for his intransigence, obstinacy, and overall lack of military acumen. 

During the battle on July 2 and 3, Meade made his presence known to soldiers in the line of fire, riding from location to location to analyze terrain, assess the enemy positions, confer with officers, and direct troop movements. His strategic approach and tactical decisions, including his open solicitation of advice and opinions of subordinates, played a significant role in winning the largest battle of the Civil War against the Confederacy’s most potent army and most skilled commander. 

Yet, in the Northern media and in Washington, Meade’s feat was overshadowed by Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Vicksburg on July 4. To some degree that is understandable as nobody knew at the time that Gettysburg would be the largest battle of the war. Moreover, Vicksburg was the last rebel stronghold on the Mississippi River and capturing the place gave Union forces control of a key terrain feature. “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” wrote Lincoln and control of the Mississippi cut the Confederacy in two.

For Meade and the Army of the Potomac, however, on July 4 there remained the issue of Lee’s defeat and the subsequent vanquishing of the army of Northern Virginia. The retreat lasted for ten days and it is during those ten days that judgment of Meade’s victory at Gettysburg as complete often comes under scrutiny.  Indeed, upon accepting command of the army of the Potomac Meade wrote his wife that the assignment was “more likely to destroy one’s reputation than to add to it.”

Jeffery S. Prushankin holds a Masters in History from Villanova University and a Doctorate in History from the University of Arkansas. He taught U.S. History at Penn State Abington and Millersville University. Prushankin currently works at Central Bucks South High School.

2 thoughts on “Meade and Gettysburg”

  1. Very well-researched, and very interesting to me as a Pennsylvanian. Thank you Dr. Prushankin.

  2. This is such a timely and wonderful piece. Thank you to Dr. Prushankin for writing it and Broad and Liberty for printing it.

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