Feeling Defensive (October 30, 1863)

Meade and his staff pose for a photo  in Culpeper in September 1863 ((Library of Congress).

Meade and his staff pose for a photo in Culpeper in September 1863. That’s Theodore Lyman second from right; Andrew Humphreys is to Meade’s right  ((Library of Congress).

Meade strikes a defensive tone when he writes to his wife on October 30. While he may not consider his move back to Centreville a retreat, many others obviously saw it that way. However, by campaign’s end the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia had regained their former positions. Meade knew, however, that his masters back in Washington wanted to see some offensive action before the end of the campaigning season. Ambrose Burnside had felt the same pressure in the fall of 1862. The result was the debacle at Fredericksburg. How would Meade react?

You seem to be very much puzzled about my retreat, as you misname it. It was not a retreat, but a withdrawal of the army—manoeuvring to get into a proper position to offer battle, and made to prevent Lee from compelling me to fight at a disadvantage. Had I been able to ascertain his movements, I would have given him battle the day Warren was attacked; but I was misled by information which induced me to believe he was farther ahead. As it afterwards turned out, I was ahead of him; which was the object I was trying to attain before fighting. It was greatly to my interest to fight, and I was most anxious to do so, but I would not do so with all the advantages on his side, and the certainty that if the battle went against me I could not extricate the army from its perilous position. I don’t suppose I shall ever get credit for my motives, except with the army. The soldiers realize the necessity of not letting the enemy have the game in their hands entirely; hence they cheerfully submitted to all the hardships, such as night and forced marches, that I was compelled to impose on them.

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. 154-5. Available via Google Books.

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