Defense (July 21, 1863)

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. He defended Meade in a letter to President Lincoln (Library of Congress).

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. He defended Meade in a letter to President Lincoln (Library of Congress).

When Meade wrote to his wife on July 21 he was still steaming over the reaction from Washington to Robert E. Lee’s escape to Virginia. Apparently, President Lincoln’s attitude had softened somewhat over the ensuing week. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard had written a letter to the president defending Meade (for the full text of the letter, scroll down) and on July 21 Lincoln replied. “I was deeply mortified by the escape of Lee across the Potomac, because the substantial destruction of his army would have ended the war, and because I believed such destruction was perfectly easy—believed that General Meade and his noble army had expended all the skill and toil and blood up to the ripe harvest, and then let the crop go to waste,” Lincoln wrote Howard. “A few days having passed I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done. General Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer and a true man.”

Your indignation at the manner in which I was treated on Lee’s escape is not only natural, but was and is fully shared by me. I did think at one time writing frankly to the President, informing him I never desired the command, and would be most glad at any time to be relieved, and that, as he had expressed dissatisfaction at my course, I thought it was his duty, independent of any personal consideration, to remove me. After reflection, however, I came to the conclusion to take no further action in the matter, and leave it entirely with them. I took the command from a sense of duty. I shall continue to exercise it, to the best of my humble capacity, in the same spirit. I have no ambition or ulterior views, and whatever be my fate, I shall try to preserve a clear conscience. I have received very handsome letters, both from Generals McClellan and Pope, which I enclose for your perusal and preservation. I have answered them both in the same spirit as appears to have dictated them.

This is what McClellan wrote to Meade:

My Dear General: I have abstained from writing to you simply because I hear that you have no time to read letters—but I will say a word now, anyhow.

I wish to offer you my sincere and heartfelt congratulations upon the glorious victory you have achieved, and the splendid way in which you assumed control of our noble old army under such trying circumstances.

You have done all that could be done and the Army of the Potomac has supported you nobly. I don’t know that, situated as I am, my opinion is worth much to any of you—but I can trust saying that I feel very proud of you and my old Army. I don’t flatter myself that your work is over—I believe that you have another severe battle to fight, but I am confident that you will win. That God may bless you and your army in its future conflicts is the prayer of

Your sincere friend


This is the letter Howard wrote to Lincoln. (From Official Records, Series I, Volume 27, Part 1, p. 700.)


Having noticed in the newspapers certain statements bearing upon the battle of Gettysburg and subsequent operations, which I deem calculated to convey a wrong impression to your mind, I wish to submit a few statements.

The successful issue of the battle of Gettysburg was due mainly to the energetic operations of our present commanding general prior to the engagement, and to the manner in which he handled his troops on the field. The reserves have never before during this war been thrown in at just the right moment. In many cases when points were just being carried by the enemy, a regiment or brigade appeared to stop his progress and hurl him back. Moreover, I have never seen a more hearty co-operation on the part of general officers than since General Meade took the command.

As to not attacking the enemy prior to leaving his stronghold beyond the Antietam, it is by no means certain that the repulse of Gettysburg might not have been turned upon us. At any rate, the commanding general was in favor of an immediate attack, but with the evident difficulties in our way, the uncertainty of a success, and the strong conviction of our best military minds against the risk, I must say that I think the general acted wisely. As to my request to make a reconnaissance on the morning of the 14th, which the papers state was refused, the facts are, that the general had required me to reconnoiter the evening before, and give my opinion as to the practicability of making a lodgment on the enemy’s left, and his answer to my subsequent request was that the movements he had already ordered would serve the same purpose. We have, if I may be allowed to say it, a commanding general in whom all the officers with whom I have come in contact express complete confidence.

I have said this much because of the censure and of the misrepresentations which have grown out of the escape of Lee’s army. Very respectfully, your obedient servant.

Major- General

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. 136 and 312. Available via Google Books.

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