A Most Decided Victory (July 5, 1863)

An engraving of Peter Rothermel's 1870 depiction of the fighting on July 3. This shows the climactic struggle at the Angle. Meade appears to the left. When he saw the original painting, Meade complained about the historical inaccuracy of having him on the front lines as his army was repulsing Pickett's charge. Rothermel defended the artistic license Library of Congress).

An engraving of Peter Rothermel’s 1870 depiction of the fighting on July 3. This shows the climactic struggle at the Angle. Meade appears to the left. When he saw the original painting, Meade complained about the historical inaccuracy of having him on the front lines as his army was repulsing Pickett’s charge. Rothermel defended the artistic license (Library of Congress).

The Battle of Gettysburg was over. Now remained the task of pursuing Robert E. Lee’s retreating army. On July 4 Meade issued a circular praising his soldiers for their victory but this seemingly innocuous announcement raised Abraham Lincoln’s ire. This is what Meade issued:

The Commanding General, in behalf of the country, thanks the Army of the Potomac for the glorious result of the recent operations.

An enemy superior in numbers and flushed with the pride of a successful invasion, attempted to overcome and destroy tin’s Army. Utterly baffled and defeated, he has now withdrawn from the contest. The privations and fatigue the Army has endured, and the heroic courage and gallantry it has displayed will be matters of history to be remembered.

Our task is not yet accomplished, and the Commanding General looks to the Army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.

It is right and proper that we should, on all suitable occasions, return our grateful thanks to the Almighty Disposer of events, that in the goodness of His Providence He has thought fit to give victory to the cause of the just.

When President Lincoln read that, he exclaimed, “Drive the invaders from our soil! Great God! Is that all?” To another listener the president complained, “Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.”

On July 5 Meade sent this message to Henry Halleck in Washington:

The enemy retired under cover of the night and heavy rain in the direction of Fairfield and Cashtown. All my available Cavalry are in pursuit on the enemy’s left and rear. My movement will be made at once on his flank via Middletown and South Mountain Pass. I cannot give you the details of our capture in prisoners, colors and arms. Upwards of twenty battle flags will be turned in from one Corps. I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battle field and request that all those arrangements may be made by the Departments. My wounded, with those of the enemy in our hands, will be left at Gettysburg. After burying our own, I am compelled to employ citizens to bury the enemy’s dead. My Head-Quarters will be to-night at Cregerstown. Communication received from Gen. Smith, in command of 3,000 men, on the march from Carlisle towards Cashtown. Field returns last evening give me about 55,000 effectives in the ranks, exclusive of Cavalry, baggage guards, ambulance attendants, etc. Every available reinforcement is required and should be sent to Frederick without delay.

And on July 5 Meade found time to write home to his wife.

I hardly know when I last wrote to you, so many and such stirring events have occurred. I think I have written since the battle, but am not sure. It was a grand battle, and is in my judgment a most decided victory, though I did not annihilate or bag the Confederate Army. This morning they retired in great haste into the mountains, leaving their dead unburied and their wounded on the field. They awaited one day, expecting that, flushed with success, I would attack them when they would play their old game of shooting us from behind breastworks—a game we played this time to their entire satisfaction. The men behaved splendidly; I really think they are becoming soldiers. They endured long marches, short rations, and stood one of the most terrific cannonadings I ever witnessed. Baldy was shot again, and I fear will not get over it. Two horses that George rode were killed, his own and the black mare. I had no time to think of either George or myself, for at one time things looked a little blue; but I managed to get up reinforcements in time to save the day. The army are in the highest spirits, and of course I am a great man. The most difficult part of my work is acting without correct information on which to predicate action.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 122-3 and 125. Available via Google Books.

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