It was 150 years ago today—June 28—that Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:
Back in Washington on June 27 Col. James A. Hardie of Halleck’s staff received orders to travel to Frederick and find Meade. Hardie looked more like an accountant than a soldier, with straggly side whiskers, hair slicked down and combed back, and pince-nez clamped to his nose. Wearing civilian clothes in case he encountered Confederate raiders, Hardie took a train from Washington to Frederick, where he found the streets thronged with boisterous and drunken soldiers from the Army of the Potomac. He rented a horse and buggy and made his way through the dark night to Meade’s headquarters at Robert McGill’s farm.
Meade was asleep in his tent, unaware of the agent of fate making his inexorable way toward him. Hardie arrived around 3:00 in the morning. He pushed open the tent flaps and rapped on the flagpole to wake the sleeping general. I’ve come to bring you trouble, he told Meade. Meade’s first thought was that he was being either relieved or placed under arrest, which says something about the state of dysfunction, paranoia, and suspicion that plagued the Army of the Potomac. The groggy general told Hardie he had a clear conscience.
Hardie explained the trouble he had brought. He had orders for Meade to take command of the Army of the Potomac. Meade protested. He wasn’t the right man, he said. Reynolds was. Hardie explained that the decision had been made—Meade had no choice but to obey his orders.
“Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution,” said Meade.
Following are Meade’s reply to Henry Halleck and his announcement to his army.
The order placing me in command of this army is received. As a soldier I obey it, and to the utmost of my ability will execute it. Totally unexpected as it has been, and in ignorance of the exact condition of the troops and position of the enemy, I can only now say that it appears to me I must move towards the Susquehanna, keeping Washington and Baltimore well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna, or if he turns towards Baltimore, to give him battle. I would say that I trust that every available man that can be spared will be sent to me, as, from all accounts, the enemy is in strong force. So soon as I can post myself up I will communicate more in detail.
To the Army:
By direction of the President of the United States, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac.
As a soldier, in obeying this order—an order totally unexpected and unsolicited—I have no promises or pledges to make.
The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a foreign invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view, constantly, the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.
It is with great diffidence that I relieve in the command of this army an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must ever appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements; but I rely upon the hearty support of my companions in arms to assist me in the discharge of the duties of the important trust which has been confided to me.