The first of a two-part series
As the Army of the Potomac went into winter quarters in Culpeper County in 1863, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade could say without a doubt that he was the most successful commander of the Army of the Potomac thus far during the war. He had thwarted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion in Pennsylvania, successfully met the Confederate thrust northward during the Bristoe campaign, and dealt Lee two severe blows on the battlefield at the battles of Bristoe Station and Rappahannock Station, respectively. The Mine Run campaign did not go as planned, but Meade did not suffer any military setbacks during the campaign that altered the strategic situation in Virginia. Lee’s army was weaker than it was in July 1863 and now was facing shortages of men, food, and supplies. Also, Meade had Lee forced back to the line of the Rapidan River, out of northern Virginia and closer to Richmond than he had wintered before.
Even with these accolades, Meade was not the man that President Abraham Lincoln believed could deal Lee a severe blow. In Meade’s defense, he was one of the few army commanders that did not seek the post he held. Despite Meade’s remarkable achievements in 1863, Lincoln remained dissatisfied with his performance. A close examination of Meade’s struggles in 1863 provides deep insights into Lincoln’s determination to seek another general to strike the decisive blow against R. E. Lee.
Officials in Washington interfered directly with the commanders of the Army of the Potomac. By 1863, the command structure was no better than it had been in 1861. There were three different officials that Meade was responsible to. Lincoln, the President and Commander in Chief, took an active role in the day to day operations of his armies and strategy. Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was a master organizer and had effectively organized the Union war effort. Stanton also tried to micromanage military strategy and policy. Time would tell that he was a not a big fan of Meade’s abilities. Finally, Meade had to report to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, general-in-chief of all Union armies since July 1862. Halleck was tasked with organizing military strategy and coordinating the various army commanders in the field. The problem with this organization was that each man in many ways played the same role and interfered with each other’s authority. Halleck summed up his role perfectly when he wrote “I am simply a military advisor of the Secretary of War and the President, and must obey and carry out what they decide upon, whether I concur in their decisions or not.” Meade had three supervisors to deal with–plus all the politicians that buzzed around Washington, D.C.
Lincoln’s frustration with Meade’s lack of pursuit of the Confederate army after Gettysburg is well documented. Though Meade was victorious at Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac had fought its largest battle to date and had suffered heavily. Meade was new to army command, and it was asking a lot for him to fight a major battle and then hotly pursue a still dangerous enemy that was determined to retreat back to Virginia. After Lee re-crossed the Potomac at Falling Waters, skeptics in Washington and within the Army of the Potomac became more vocal of Meade’s abilities. Lincoln, using his usual wit, compared Meade’s pursuit of Lee to “an old woman shooing geese across a creek.” Halleck wired Meade about the “great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President.“ Meade, with his typical peppery personality, responded: “the censure of the President…in my judgment, [is] so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectively to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.” Halleck backed down, but the stage was set for a rough relationship. History has been less harsh on Meade’s pursuit after Gettysburg, but in 1863 Lincoln thought that the best opportunity to destroy Lee’s army had passed for his new cautious general.
As Lee and Meade settled in central Virginia in late summer 1863, Lincoln and Halleck returned to their continual prodding of Meade to take the offensive. Meade, typically cautious, sought to change his base of supplies from the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to Aquia on the Potomac River. Meade argued the railroad was over taxed and hard to protect against Confederate guerillas. Lincoln, with the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg fresh in his mind, refused Meade’s request. Surprisingly, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant made this same change of base in the spring of 1864 to his advantage. Meade scouted and made plans, but delayed due to his diligence in looking for the perfect opportunity. With the Confederate victory in the west at Chickamauga, Lincoln and Halleck determined to call Meade to Washington to talk strategy. At this meeting, it was determined to transfer two corps (the Tenth and Eleventh) west from the Army of the Potomac. Meade believed this would lower the number of men in his army to be even with Lee. He feared the odds may even favor Lee despite the information that Longstreet’s men participated in the Battle of Chickamauga. Meade argued that he could not go on the offensive with these two corps removed from his army. He was also unsure of how the recent recruits and draftees, new to his army, would handle battle. As Meade fretted, Lee received reports of Meade’s hesitations and decided to go on the offensive, initiating the Bristoe Station Campaign.
The Bristoe campaign was one of many maneuvers over a very large area, but with little combat. Lee attempted several times to outflank Meade on his western flank; each time Meade successfully thwarted Lee’s attempt to get between him and Washington. Unlike Maj. Gen. John Pope in 1862, Meade was superb in his withdrawal. Meade made a severe miscalculation during the campaign, however, following in McClellan’s 1862 footsteps by inflating Lee’s numbers to 80,000 men. Lincoln reminded Meade that with Longstreet out west, Lee could not exceed 45,000 (a very accurate supposition). Halleck wrote to Meade, “Lee is unquestionably bullying you.” Meade snapped back a quick rebuke of Halleck, tensions obviously high. Lincoln found it inconceivable that only three months after the decisive defeat of Lee at Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia was back on the doorstep of the Union capital. Lincoln, through Halleck, instructed Meade “instead of retreating, I think you ought to give him battle. From all the information I can get, his force is very much inferior to yours.”
Lee caught up with Meade’s rear guard about thirty miles outside of Washington at Bristoe Station. This short but decisive fight saw the Union Second Corps issue a bloody repulse to Confederates under Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. Though Meade had successfully blocked Lee, his superiors were far from happy. Meade continued his deliberate retreat in front of Lee until the Confederate commander decided to return south of the Rappahannock River. The administration’s patience with Meade was wearing thin.