A Civil War Witch Hunt: George Gordon Meade, The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

Part one in a series

Major General George G. Meade
Major General George G. Meade

My two most recent posts dealt with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War’s attempt to crucify George Gordon Meade for allegedly deciding to retreat from the battlefield at Gettysburg. Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles made those allegations in an attempt to deflect criticism from his disobedience to Meade’s orders at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 and also because he was angry at Meade for rebuffing his attempts to return to command of the III Corps in the fall of 1863. Sickles’ disobedience subjected his III Corps to near destruction at the hands of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s sledgehammer attack up the Emmitsburg Road. After days of testimony, Sen. Benjamin Wade, a Radical Republican from Ohio and the chairman of the Joint Committee, was forced to admit that there was insufficient evidence to condemn Meade. Despite that fact, Wade’s clear bias against Meade—whom he thought was too timid—shone through. Wade hoped to find sufficient evidence to force the removal of Meade from command of the Army of the Potomac, and must have been bitterly disappointed about not finding sufficient evidence to support his plan.

Wade, however, was not finished with George Meade. Sounding an all-too-common theme, Wade also accused the commander of the Army of the Potomac of being unduly cautious in his pursuit of the beaten Confederate army after Gettysburg, thereby allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape, rather than attacking it on the north side of the rain-swollen and impassable Potomac River. As we are approaching the anniversary of the events in question, it seems appropriate to examine this question and to determine whether Wade’s report came to the proper conclusion.

After hearing substantial testimony before the Joint Committee on the question of Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the beaten Confederate army, Wade’s lengthy report found:

              All the witnesses but General Meade state that it was very apparent, on the morning of the 4th of July, that the enemy were in full retreat, and Generals Pleasonton, Warren, Birney, and others state that they counseled an immediate pursuit. General Birney says that he asked and obtained permission to make an attack that morning on the enemy as they were crossing a point near him on the pike to Hagerstown; but just as he had commenced the movement to attack, a staff officer rode up with a written order from General Meade not to attack, but to let the enemy go, which was done. General Pleasonton states that when he urged General Meade to order an immediate advance of the army after the enemy, he replied that “he was not sure they might not make another attack on him, and to satisfy himself, he wanted to know first that they were in retreat, and for that reason I was to send the cavalry out to ascertain.” He states that General Gregg, 22 miles on the Chambersburg road, reported at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 4th, “that the road was strewn with wounded and stragglers, ambulances and caissons, and that there was great demoralization and confusion.” This was immediately reported to General Meade, but no pursuit was ordered.  

               But little was done on the 4th of July. General Warren says: “On the morning of the 4th General Meade ordered demonstrations in front of our line, but they were very feebly made. And when the officers met together that evening to report the state of things in their front, there was so little definitely known as to the position and designs of the enemy, that after some consultation they determined, I believe, to try and find out something before they did move.”  

               That night a council of war was held. Its deliberations and results are thus described by General Butterfield, from memoranda taken at the time: “I have here the minutes I kept of the council of the 4th of July. That council was held at the headquarters of General Neal; he gave up his headquarters to General Meade. The council was opened by General Meade explaining his instructions, and asking the corps commanders for their advice as to what course he should pursue.

               “Question. Can you state what General Meade said his instructions were?

               “Answer. I think he said his instructions were to cover Washington and Baltimore. He said he had no knowledge of General Foster’s movements. There was a rumor that General Foster was coming up from Washington with reinforcements. General Meade said he desired the earnest assistance and advice of every corps commander. The corps commanders commenced giving their opinions, beginning with General Slocum and followed by General Sedgwick and General Howard. Their advice, according to my memorandum, was as follows: “General Slocum would move on an interior line as far as Emmettsburg, and then, if the enemy had not gone from Gettysburg, hold on there and push out a force at once with a view of preventing the enemy from crossing the Potomac. “General Sedgwick would wait at Gettysburg until certain that the enemy were moving away.” General Howard would like to remain at Gettysburg and ascertain what the enemy were doing, but thought it would do no harm to send a corps to Emmettsburg.

               “General Meade then determined to change the manner of procedure in the council, and the following questions were written by his instructions; a portion of these questions are in his handwriting and a portion in mine: “The first question was, ‘Shall this army remain here]’ (That is, at Gettysburg.) “Second. ‘If we remain here, shall we assume the offensive?’ “Third. ‘Do you deem it expedient to move towards Williamsport, through Emmettsburg]’ “Fourth. ‘Shall we pursue the enemy, if he is retreating on his direct line of retreat. “To the first question General Newton answered ‘No;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ and to the third question, ‘Yes.’ “General Slocum answered to the first question.” ‘No;’ the second question was involved in that answer; to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to the fourth question, ‘To pursue on the direct line of retreat with cavalry, moving with the infantry to cut him off.”  

               “General Sedgwick to the first question answered, “Would remain here (at Gettysburg) until positive information concerning their movement;” to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to the fourth question, “Only cavalry.”

              “General Howard to the first question did not exactly say yes, and did not exactlv say no, but would commence a movement to-morrow; to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes;’ to he fourth question, ‘By a show of force.’  

               “General Sykes to the first question, as to remaining at Gettysburg, answered, ‘Until we know where the enemy is gone;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question he made no answer, his answer to the first question involving that; to the fourth question he answered, ‘He would pursue with cavalry only.’  

               ”General Birney to the first question answered, ‘Yes, until we see;’ to the second question, ‘ No ;’ to the fourth question, ‘ He thinks not.’  

               “General Pleasonton to the first question answered ‘No;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Move by that route;’ to the fourth question, ‘Would pursue with infantry and cavalry.’  

               “General Hays answered to the first question, ‘ Yes, until we find out where the enemy are and what they are doing;’ to the second question, ‘No;’ to the third question, ‘Yes, if we move;’ to the fourth question, ‘No, only with cavalry.’

               “General Warren as to the first question, whether we should remain there, answered, ‘Yes, until we see what they are doing;’ to the second question, about assuming the offensive, ‘Not if the enemy remains.’  

               “Those are the questions to the corps commanders and their answers. The summary which I made for General Meade in the council of the answers to the first question, whether we should remain at Gettysburg, was: “Those in favor—Birney, Sedgwick, Sykes, Hays, and Warren.” Opposed—Newton, Pleasonton, and Slocum. “Doubtful–Howard.”

               On the 5th of July the 6th corps commenced to follow the enemy, and on the 6th and 7th the rest of the army moved, going to Frederick rather than directly after the enemy, on account of some apprehensions of the difficulty of following the enemy through the mountain passes, which were reported to be strongly fortified. General Howe states that his division had the lead of the 6th corps, after passing Boonsboro’, but he was directed to move carefully, and not to come in contact with the enemy, as a general engagement was not desired. He states that when near Funkstown, General Buford reported to him that his cavalry held a strong position some distance to the front, which, in his opinion, the enemy should not be allowed to occupy, but that he was pretty hardly engaged there; his ammunition was nearly out, and that he was expected to go further to the right; and asked General Howe to send forward a brigade and hold the position. General Howe applied to General Sedgwick for permission to relieve General Buford, but received in reply the answer, “No; we do not want to bring on a general engagement.” General Buford considered the position of such importance that General Howe applied the second time for permission to occupy it, representing that General Buford would soon be compelled to abandon it, as his ammunition was giving out. To this application he received the reply that he might occupy the position if General Buford left it. General Buford did leave it, and General Howe occupied and held the position. General Pleasonton states that on the morning of the 12th of July the cavalry in front of General Slocum’s command drove the enemy from an important position, and could have held it, but General Slocum ordered it to halt, for fear of bringing on a general engagement, and the enemy afterwards brought a strong force there and held the point.

               In reference to the movement of our army after the battle of Gettysburg, General Warren testifies: ”We commenced the pursuit with the 6th corps on the 5th of July, and on the 6th a large portion of the army moved towards Emmettsburg, and all that was left followed the next day. On July 7 the headquarters were at Frederick; on July 8 headquarters were at Middletown, and nearly all the army was concentrated in the neighborhood of that place and South Mountain. On July 9 headquarters were at South Mountain house, and the advance of the army at Boonsboro’ and Rohrersville. On July 10 the headquarters were moved to Antietam creek; the left of the line crossed the creek, and the right of the line moved up near Funkstown. On the 11th of July the engineers put a new bridge over the Antietam creek; the left of the line advanced to Fairplay and Jones’s crossroads, while the right remained nearly stationary. In my opinion we should have fought the enemy the next morning, July 12.”  

               No attack was ordered, but the question was submitted to a council of the corps commanders on the night of the 12th of July. General Meade says: “I represented to those generals, so far as I knew it, the situation of affairs. I told them that I had reason to believe, from all I could ascertain, that General Lee’s position was a very strong one, and that he was prepared to give battle, and defend it if attacked; that it was not in my power, from a want of knowledge of the ground, and from not having had time to make reconnoissances, to indicate any precise mode of attack, or any precise point of attack; that, nevertheless, I was in favor of moving forward and attacking the enemy, and taking the consequences; but that I left it to their judgment, and would not do it unless it met with their approval.”  

               Generals Howard, Pleasonton. and Wadsworth were in favor of attacking the enemy at once. General Warren, who was not then in command of a corps, says: “I do not think I ever saw the principal corps commanders so unanimous in favor of not fighting as on that occasion.” The opinion of the council being strongly against attacking the enemy at that time, the 13th of July was passed in reconnoitering the enemy’s position. But General Meade says that the day was rainy and misty, and not much information was obtained. General Meade, however, ordered an attack to be made at daylight of the 14th; but when the army moved forward it was ascertained that the whole rebel army had crossed the night of the 13th, and had escaped.   General Meade says: “It is proper I should say that an examination of the enemy’s lines, and of the defences which he had made, brings me clearly to the opinion that an attack under the circumstances in which I had proposed to make it would have resulted disastrously to our arms. My opinion is now that General Lee evacuated that position, not from any want of ammunition, or the fear that he would be dislodged by any active operations on my part, but that he was fearful that a force would be sent by Harper’s Ferry to cut off his communications—which I had intended to do, having brought up a bridge from Washington, and sent the cavalry down there—and that he could not have maintained that position probably a day if his communications had been cut. That was what caused him to retire.” This opinion of General Meade is not sustained by that of any other general who has appeared before the committee. Generals Pleasonton, Warren, Birney, Doubleday, and Howe all concur in the opinion that an attack upon the enemy before he recrossed the Potomac would have been most disastrous to him, and have resulted in the dispersion if not the capture of the greater portion of his army.  

               The rebel army moved up the Shenandoah Valley, while our army crossed in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry and followed on this side the mountains. On the 23d of July a column of our troops under General French, entering through Manassas Gap, came in contact with the enemy, but not much injury was inflicted upon him. General Warren says that, in his opinion, had General French made the attack with his whole corps, instead of with a brigade only, a decisive blow would have been inflicted on the enemy. Preparations were made for an attack the next morning, but during the night the enemy again escaped.  

               The enemy continued his retreat until he reached Culpeper, and then took up a position between the Rappahannock and Rapidan.

               Our forces withdrew from Manassas Gap and followed the enemy, reaching Warrenton and the Rappahannock about the 1st of August, when the pursuit ceased. General Meade says that he expressed the opinion to the government that the pursuit should still be continued, inasmuch as he believed our relative forces were more favorable to us than they would be at any subsequent time if the enemy were allowed time to recuperate; but that he was directed by the general-in-chief to take up a threatening attitude on the Rappahannock, but not to advance.  

               Shortly after this a division of troops were detached from General Meade’s command and sent to South Carolina; and other troops were sent to New York to enforce the draft.  

               No active movements of our army took place until about the middle of September, when information was received that Lee’s army had been weakened by the withdrawal of Longstreet’s corps for operations in the southwest. Our cavalry was then sent across the Rappahannock, taking the enemy completely by surprise, but the army did not follow until three days afterwards. General Meade says that upon arriving before the enemy, who had retired behind the Rapidan, he considered his position there so strong, both naturally and artificially, that he deemed it impossible to attack him in front: and that, with the withdrawal of two corps of his troops for operations in Tennessee, led to a suspension of active operations until about the middle of October.  

               At that time General Meade says he regarded himself as about 10,000 men stronger than General Lee, and was contemplating an advance against the enemy. But General Lee made a demonstration upon the right flank of our army, whereupon General Meade determined to fall back, which he did until he finally reached the position of Centreville and Bull Run, destroying the bridge across the Rappahannock and abandoning the railroad communications to the enemy.

               As soon as our army stopped, General Lee began himself to fall back, destroying the railroad, and retiring to the line of the Rappahannock. There seems to be no doubt that the enemy might have been advantageously met at any one of several points between the Rappahannock and Bull Run; but no fighting of importance occurred, except at Bristow station, where the 2d corps, then under the command of General Warren, met the enemy and repulsed them with heavy loss.

               General Warren says that he thinks General Meade supposed that the enemy intended to fight him when he made his advance, and therefore General Meade desired to select the best position for that purpose: that General Meade had no idea that Lee would go off without attacking him. General Warren also says that General Meade was very much misinformed as to what was going on; and that some of his officers failed him in spirit. By this retreat and the destruction of our lines of communication with the Rappahannock, the remainder of the fall season was lost for active operations.

               Our committee could not forbear asking the witnesses before them, if the army, after all these indecisive advances and retrograde movements, still retained confidence in its commanding general.   Various answers were returned to this inquiry, all, however, tending to establish the fact that much discouragement had been felt by the army at these ineffective operations, and that but for the highly intelligent character of the rank and file it could never have retained even its then effective condition. General Pleasonton states that the cavalry under his command did not retain confidence in the military ability of General Meade. General Birney states the same about his corps, stating that while General Meade was rather liked as a man, he was not regarded as a man of resolution, or one who is willing to assume that responsibility required by the position he occupies. General Howe states that, in his opinion, the rank and file of the army do not regard General Meade as possessed of that zeal, activity, and energy necessary to carry on an offensive warfare generally, but he admits that the most of the corps commanders would probably say that General Meade was eminently qualified for the command he now holds. That opinion General Howe qualifies, however, by stating that so far as he has observed, the most of the principal officers of the army of the Potomac, including its commanding general, are governed by the same sympathies, feelings, and considerations which were infused into the army by its commander during the Peninsular campaign. General Birney says that many of the principal officers believed that General McClellan was the only general who should command this army; although there is not as much of that feeling now as formerly. General Doubleday bluntly says: “There has always been a great deal of favoritism in the army of the Potomac. No man who is an anti-slavery man or an anti-McClellan man can expect decent treatment in that army as at present constituted.” General Warren states that after the battle of Gettysburg the army was deprived of many of its best corps commanders, General Reynolds having been killed, Generals Sickles and Hancock wounded, and General Meade made commander of the army; that since that time the corps commanders have not been all equal to their position, and consequently the army had been less effective in its operations.

Wade’s bias against Meade comes through loudly and clearly in his condemnation of the army commander’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia in the days after the Battle of Gettysburg. The question is whether those findings were supported by the actual facts. The next five articles will examine those questions in detail. In the next part of this series, I will examine that question and will discuss how the casualties in the Army of the Potomac’s command structure inhibited its ability to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia.

5 Responses to A Civil War Witch Hunt: George Gordon Meade, The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

  1. Was Meade under any obligation to attend to the mass casualties at Gettysburg? Was it sufficient to leave the battlefield to the hospital corps and go chase Lee?

    Several generals suggested waiting to see where Lee had gone. Where could Lee have gone if not back to the river? Did Meade comprehend the bloody nose he had given Lee?

    I have always liked the idea of taking troops from around Washington and advancing up the VA side of the Potomac to cut off Lee. I don’t know if there were any field troops available to do that or if everyone in the DC area was tied to their forts and certainly the folks in DC would be leary of letting go their defences. Meade has good communications east of the mountains but to the West Lee was certainly operating a rear guard and very concerned about the Union getting in his rear. Lee got to the Potomac by July 5th and has the opportunity to dig in making it tough to be dislodged. Anyone that could raise a rifle was fighting for their lives with their back against the river. No one was ready to give up. It would be a fight for their

  2. Of course, it’s a commander’s responsibility to see to his troops.

    Where else could Lee have gone? He could have holed up in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, dug in, and waited for Meade to attack him. He could have moved on Baltimore or Washington.

    Meade understood that Lee’s army had suffered casualties, but he also knew that he still had a very dangerous enemy in front of him.

    Moving troops from the defenses of Washington and crossing the Potomac with them was NEVER, EVER going to happen. There are no circumstances under which Lincoln would have permitted that–it was politically impossible. And the river was just as flooded downstream. If Lee couldn’t cross it, what makes you think it would have been any easier for Union troops to do so? Further, Lee had left troops on the south side of the Potomac to guard his lines of supply, communication and retreat. Assuming that Lincoln would have allowed it, and assuming that there was a way to get troops across the river, they then would have had to contend with the rear guard. It’s not so easy.

    As I have tried to point out from the very beginning, these are extremely complex issues and there is no simple answer. Anyone who thinks there was is a moron.

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