Spurring (July 16, 1863)

The magazine that eventually published this Matthew Brady photograph of the Army of the Potomac's crossing at Berlin, Maryland (now Brunswick) called it "Leisurely Pursuit" (Library of Congress).

The magazine that eventually published this Matthew Brady photograph of the Army of the Potomac’s crossing at Berlin, Maryland (now Brunswick) called it “Leisurely Pursuit” (Library of Congress).

Meade was not in a good place when he wrote to his wife on July 16, 1863, from Berlin, Maryland. Lee had escaped and his superiors in Washington had made their displeasure felt. They did not, however, accept Meade’s offer to resign his position.

I wrote to you of the censure put on me by the President, through General Halleck, because I did not bag General Lee, and of the course I took on it. I don’t know whether I informed you of Halleck’s reply, that his telegram was not intended as a censure, but merely “to spur me on to an active pursuit,” which I consider more offensive than the original message; for no man who does his duty, and all that he can do, as I maintain I have done, needs spurring. It is only the laggards and those who fail to do all they can do who require spurring. They have refused to relieve me, but insist on my continuing to try to do what I know in advance it is impossible to do. My army (men and animals) is exhausted; it wants rest and reorganization; it has been greatly reduced and weakened by recent operations, and no reinforcements of any practical value have been sent. Yet, in the face of all these facts, well known to them, I am urged, pushed and spurred to attempting to pursue and destroy an army nearly equal to my own, falling back upon its resources and reinforcements, and increasing its morale daily. This has been the history of all my predecessors, and I clearly saw that in time their fate would be mine. This was the reason I was disinclined to take the command, and it is for this reason I would gladly give it up.

I consider the New York riots very formidable and significant. I have always expected the crisis of this revolution to turn on the attempt to execute the conscription act, and at present things look very unfavorable.

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), p. 135. Available via Google Books.

Lee Escapes (July 14, 1863)

 A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, "On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters" (Library of Congress).


A drawing by Alfred Waud, labeled, “On the Potomac nr. Williamsport. Rebel crossing ; Rebel Pontoons at Falling Waters” (Library of Congress).

July 14, 1863, was not a good day for Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. He and his army had had Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Northern Virginia backed up against the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

The council took place in Meade’s small and crowded tent at Devil’s Backbone. Howard and Maj. Gen. James Wadsworth, who had taken over the I Corps from an ill Newton, voted to attack. The rest of the corps commanders voted to hold off until the army could better investigate Lee’s defenses. Perhaps remembering what had happened at Chancellorsville when Hooker overruled his corps commanders, Meade decided to defer to his generals’ advice. He postponed his attack for a day.

Meade wired Halleck the next day. It was a lengthy message with a slightly defensive tone. “In my dispatch of yesterday I stated that it was my intention to attack the enemy to-day, unless something intervened to prevent it,” he said. “Upon calling my corps commanders together and submitting the question to them, five out of six were unqualifiedly opposed to it. Under these circumstances, in view of the momentous consequences attendant upon a failure to succeed, I did not feel myself authorized to attack until after I had made more careful examination of the enemy’s position, strength, and defensive works. These examinations are now being made. So far as completed, they show the enemy to be strongly intrenched on a ridge running from the rear of Hagerstown past Downsville to the Potomac. I shall continue these reconnaissances with the expectation of finding some weak point, upon which, if I succeed, I shall hazard an attack.”

He received a terse message from Halleck in reply. “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing,” said the general in chief. “Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute your orders. Call no council of war. It is proverbial that councils of war never fight. Re-enforcements are pushed on as rapidly as possible. Do not let the enemy escape.”

On the morning of July 13 war correspondent Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Journal rode over to Meade’s headquarters at Devil’s Backbone. There he found Seth Williams, the army’s adjutant general, in Meade’s tent. Williams told Coffin that Meade was out reconnoitering the rebel lines.

“Do you think that Lee can get across the Potomac?” Coffin asked.

“Impossible!” replied Williams. “The people resident here say that it cannot be forded at this stage of the water. He has no pontoons. We have got him in a tight place. We shall have reinforcements to-morrow, and a great battle will be fought. Lee is encumbered with his teams, and he is short of ammunition.”

As Coffin talked with Williams, Meade entered the tent, dripping wet from the rain. “His countenance was unusually animated,” Coffin wrote. “He had ever been courteous to me, and while usually very reticent of all his intentions or of what was going on, as an officer should be, yet in this instance he broke over his habitual silence, and said, ‘We shall have a great battle to-morrow. The reinforcements are coming up, and as soon as they come we shall pitch in.’”

But when Meade’s soldiers moved forward on July 13 they found that Lee had, in fact, slipped across the river. The next day Meade wrote to his wife:

I found Lee in a very strong position, intrenched. I hesitated to attack him, without some examination of the mode of approaching him. I called my corps commanders together, and they voted against attacking him. This morning, when I advanced to feel his position and seek for a weak point, I found he had retired in the night and was nearly across the river. I immediately started in pursuit, and my cavalry captured two thousand prisoners, two guns, several flags, and killed General Pettigrew. On reporting these facts to General Halleck, he informed me the President was very much dissatisfied at the escape of Lee. I immediately telegraphed I had done my duty to the best of my ability, and that the expressed dissatisfaction of the President I considered undeserved censure, and asked to be immediately relieved. In reply he said it was not intended to censure me, but only to spur me on to an active pursuit, and that it was not deemed sufficient cause for relieving me. This is exactly what I expected; unless I did impracticable things, fault would be found with me. I have ignored the senseless adulation of the public and press, and I am now just as indifferent to the censure bestowed without just cause.

I start to-morrow to run another race with Lee.

In the letter, Meade mentions these exchanges he had with Henry Halleck:

Halleck to Meade, July 14 (in part):

I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.

Meade to Halleck, July 14:

Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p. M. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.

Halleck to Meade July 14:

My telegram stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.

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. 134-5 and 311-12. Available via Google Books.

Back to South Mountain (July 10, 1863)

July 10, 1863, found Meade still in pursuit of the Confederate army. He wrote to his wife from the Mountain House, in South Mountain’s Turner’s Gap. (The building is still there on Alt. Rt. 40 and today operates as the South Mountain Inn.)

I have been so busy I could not write. You must depend on George for letters.

Lee has not crossed and does not intend to cross the river, and I expect in a few days, if not sooner, again to hazard the fortune of war. I know so well that this is a fortune and that accidents, etc., turn the tide of victory, that, until the question is settled, I cannot but be very anxious. If it should please God again to give success to our efforts, then I could be more tranquil. I also see that my success at Gettysburg has deluded the people and the Government with the idea that I must always be victorious, that Lee is demoralized and disorganized, etc., and other delusions which will not only be dissipated by any reverse that I should meet with, but would react in proportion against me. I have already had a very decided correspondence with General Halleck upon this point, he pushing me on, and I informing him I was advancing as fast as I could. The firm stand I took had the result to induce General Halleck to tell me to act according to my judgment. I am of opinion that Lee is in a strong position and determined to fight before he crosses the river. I believe if he had been able to cross when he first fell back, that he would have done so; but his bridges being destroyed, he has been compelled to make a stand, and will of course make a desperate one. The army is in fine spirits, and if I can only manage to keep them together, and not be required to attack a position too strong, I think there is a chance for me. However, it is all in God’s hands. I make but little account of myself, and think only of the country.

The telegram I sent you was because I could not write, and I thought it would make you easy to know we were well. George,1 I suppose, has written you what a narrow escape he had. I never knew of it till last night. His horse was struck with a piece of shell, killing him, and coming so near George as to carry away a part of the back of his saddle. This was on the 3d, just after we had repulsed the last assault, when I rode up to the front, and George was the only officer with me.

Meade and Halleck also kept communicating.

Meade to Halleck, July 10, 1863, 1 P. M.

MeadeThe information received to-day indicates that the enemy occupy positions extending from the Potomac, near Falling Water, through Downsville to Funkstown and to the northeast of Hagerstown, Ewell’s Corps being to the northeast of Hagerstown, Longstreet’s at Funkstown and A. P. Hill’s on their right. These positions they are said to be intrenching.

I am advancing on a line perpendicular to the line from Hagerstown to Williamsport, and the Army will this evening occupy a position extending from the Boonsboro and Hagerstown road, at a point one mile beyond Beaver Creek, to Bakersville, near the Potomac. Our cavalry advance this morning drove the enemy’s cavalry, on the Boonsboro pike, to within a mile of Funkstown, when the enemy deployed a large force and opened a fire from heavy guns (20-pounders).

I shall advance cautiously on the same line to-morrow until I can develop more fully the enemy’s position and force, upon which my future operations will depend.

General Smith is still at Waynesboro; a dispatch was received from him at that place, this morning. Instructions similar to those of yesterday were sent to him.

Halleck to Meade: July 10, 9 P. M.

halleckI think it will be best for you to postpone a general battle till you can concentrate all your forces and get up your reserve and reinforcements. I will push on the troops as fast as they arrive. It would be well to have staff officers at the Monocacy to direct the troops arriving where to go and see that they are properly fitted out. They should join you by forced marches. Beware of partial combats, bring up and hurl upon the enemy all your forces, good and bad.

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. 133-4 and 311. Available via Google Books.

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.

The Second Day (July 2, 1863)

General Meade reached the Gettysburg battlefield sometime around midnight on July 1-2. On July 2 he sent the following message to Henry Halleck:

I have concentrated my army at this place to-day. The Sixth Corps is just coming in, very much worn out, having been marching since 9 p. M. last night.

The army is fatigued. I have to-day, up to this hour, awaited the attack of the enemy, I having a strong position for defensive. I am not determined on attacking him till his position is more developed. He has been moving on both my flanks apparently, but it is difficult to tell exactly his movements. I have delayed attacking to allow the Sixth Corps and parts of other corps to reach this place and rest the men. Expecting a battle, I ordered all my trains to the rear. If not attacked, and I can get any positive information of the position of the enemy which will justify me in so doing, I shall attack. If I find it hazardous to do so, or am satisfied the enemy is endeavoring to move to my rear and interpose between me and Washington, I shall fall back to my supplies at Westminster. I will endeavor to advise you as often as possible. In the engagement yesterday the enemy concentrated more rapidly than we could, and towards evening, owing to the superiority of numbers, compelled the Eleventh and First Corps to fall back from the town to the heights this side, on which I am now posted. I feel fully the responsibility resting on me, but will endeavor to act with caution.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 72. Available via Google Books.

150 Years Ago (June 28, 1863)

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

Major General George Gordon Meade (lLibrary of Congress).

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.

To Halleck:

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.

Orders (June 27, 1863)

Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, a.k.a. "Old Brains." His orders placed Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, a.k.a. “Old Brains.” His orders placed Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

Major General George Gordon Meade had reached the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland, on June 27, 1863. Meade established his headquarters on land owned by Robert McGill near Ballenger Creek. You can see the farm today next to modern Rt. 85, just south of town. Back in Washington, general-in-chief Henry Halleck prepared the orders that would put Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac. Col. James Hardie left the capital that day on a train to Frederick. Here are the orders he carried:

Headquarters Of The Army, Washington, D. C., June 27, 1863. Major General G. G. Meade,

Army of the Potomac. General:

You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac. Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you.

You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters. Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington, as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels. You will therefore manoeuvre and fight in such a manner as to cover the Capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit. Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him, so as to give him battle.

All forces within the sphere of your operations will be held subject to your orders.

Harper’s Ferry and its garrison are under your direct orders.

You are authorized to remove from command and send from your army any officer or other person you may deem proper; and to appoint to command as you may deem expedient.

In fine, General, you are intrusted with all the power and authority which the President, the Secretary of War, or the General-inChief can confer on you, and you may rely on our full support.

You will keep me fully informed of all your movements and the positions of your own troops and those of the enemy, so far as known.

I shall always be ready to advise and assist you to the utmost of my ability.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,
H. W. Halleck

A modern view of Arcadia, the farm owned by Robert McGill where Meade established V Corps headquarters on June 27, 1863.

A modern view of Arcadia, the farm owned by Robert McGill where Meade established V Corps headquarters on June 27, 1863.