“If You Have Any Orders to Give Me, I am Prepared to Receive and Obey Them”: The Command Struggles of Gen. George Meade, September 1863-March 1864 (part II)

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

The second in a two-part series

During the Bristoe Station Campaign, George Gordon Meade believed that Lee had been the superior general. “I am free to admit that in the playing of it he has got the advantage of me,” Meade wrote to his wife. He wasn’t the only one frustrated. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote about Lincoln’s frustration with Meade and his former counterparts “What can I do with Generals such as we have?”

Though Lincoln was frustrated, he never accepted the various times that Meade offered his resignation. Meade again offered his resignation at the end of the Bristoe Campaign in writing to Halleck “I take this occasion to repeat what I have before stated…that if my course, based on my own judgment, does not meet with approval, I ought to be, and I desire to be, relieved from command.” Again, Halleck and Lincoln refused Meade’s request, but only three months after Meade’s victory at Gettysburg, the Federal commander did not have the confidence of his military and political superiors.

As Lee pulled back to the Rappahannock River in late October, Meade slowly followed him, rebuilding the Orange and Alexandria railroad as he went. Lincoln continuously pushed Meade to be aggressive and attack Lee. The president, believing Meade was afraid of the fallout if he failed in battle against Lee, tried to exonerate Meade of any responsibility of a future failure. Lincoln wrote to Halleck “the honor will be his if he succeeds, and the blame may be mine if he fails.” Meade argued he was looking for an “equal” field of battle. As Meade approached the Confederates along the Rappahannock in November, he saw an opportunity to be aggressive. The Union commander ordered an attack on a bridgehead at dusk that Lee established on the north side of the Rappahannock, while the bulk of his army was south of the river.  In less than 30 minutes, Meade captured nearly 1,600 men.

The next day, Lee pulled back—and Meade was criticized for not taking advantage of his victory. One of Meade’s biggest detractors, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, refused to accept the captured Confederate battle flags that Meade sent him. Even in victory, Meade had not pleased his superiors in Washington.

Following the Stanton affair, Meade decided to go to Washington to discuss strategy. It was mid-November, and many believed it would be the end of the campaign season, but Meade knew differently.  Little is known about this November meeting, but one thing was made clear: Meade had to keep up the offensive along the same line (along the railroad).

Meade determined to again try to take the offensive against Lee’s army entrenched along the Rapidan River. Known as the Mine Run campaign, Meade’s army moved slowly around Lee’s right flank and after minor fighting, faced off with Lee’s entrenched army behind Mine Run. After ordering a massive assault on the Confederate line, Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren convinced Meade to call off the attack. Politically this was unpopular, but many Union men believed Meade had saved them from useless slaughter. Though Meade did not dislodge Lee, he was still in a good position to start the spring campaign if he could switch his base of supply to the Fredericksburg area. This idea was denied to him again by Halleck and Lincoln, and because of that, Meade marched back to his encampments around Culpeper.

With the end of the Mine Run campaign, active campaigning for Meade and the Army of Potomac was over. The army went into winter quarters spread over Culpeper County. Stanton, Halleck and Meade turned to the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac. The intent was to combine smaller corps and to remove officers who had shown their ineptitude in the fall campaigns. Stanton, who had just recently rebuffed Meade when presented with captured flags, tried to ease Meade’s fears of being removed from command. Meade quoted Stanton in a letter to his wife: “There was no officer in command who had to so great a degree the implicit confidence of all parties as myself.” Whether Stanton was being sincere or just trying to put Meade at ease is unknown.

As the new year began, Meade took opportunities to travel home to assist in recruiting for his army and visiting family. He also visited Washington to discuss future strategy for the upcoming year. Soon, Meade realized that more trouble for his command was ahead. He first learned that on a visit to Washington that one of his cavalry commanders had met personally with Lincoln and convinced him to sign off on a daring raid to Richmond. Much disputed in history today, the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid was an utter failure. Meade had misgivings about it, but since it was personally ordered by Lincoln, there was nothing he could do. Lincoln again had ignored the chain of command and put Meade in an uneasy and untenable situation, leading to a mild disaster for the Union cavalry.

At this same time in March, a serious political threat to Meade’s reputation and position arose. Meade had to appear in front of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concerning the Battle of Gettysburg. The Committee, formed in 1861, was created to review military matters and quickly became an albatross for army commanders. Meade’s critics used the hearings as a way to undermine Meade’s rank as commander of the Army of the Potomac. One of these critics was Daniel Butterfield, who had served as Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker’s chief of staff when Hooker commanded the Army of the Potomac. Meade distrusted Butterfield but retained him on his staff, mainly due to the imminent threat of a looming battle. Meade would use Butterfield’s wounding at Gettysburg as a way to remove him.

Butterfield found powerful allies in his treachery, the controversial but powerful Maj. Gens. Daniel Sickles and the somewhat hapless Abner Doubleday. These men had wanted earlier that fall to see the return of Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac. Though Hooker was transferred west, they still wanted to see Meade removed from command and used the Congressional Joint Committee as their platform. They testified that Meade wanted to retreat from Gettysburg the evening of July 2 and only a war council convinced him otherwise. Meade found himself on the defensive for his actions and for his job.

Initially taking the high road in his testimonies, Meade waited to see what, if any, fall out came of the hearings. More negative and false testimonies were given against him and he became more agitated and defensive. He wrote to his wife, “it is a melancholy state of affairs, however, when persons like Sickles and Doubleday can, by distorting and twisting facts…take away the character of a man.” Meade had no doubt as to who was behind the witch hunt. Meade continued to defend his name and his decision at Gettysburg through April. Ultimately the testimonies did not lead to his removal from command. When the Committee issued its final report in 1865, it criticized Meade for his lack of aggressiveness in pursuing Lee after Gettysburg. This rankled him the rest of his life.

With the controversies of the winter of 1864, combined with Meade’s inability to strike Lee a blow and three years of overall disappointment in the east, President Lincoln looked elsewhere for overall leadership. He needed someone to clean up the mess of the eastern generals–someone who was aggressive, who understood how to conduct the war, who could be someone Lincoln could trust (a trust Meade never held). Lincoln would give him full command of all the United States armies at the highest rank since George Washington, but expected him to come east to deal with Lee.

That man arrived in Virginia in March, making his headquarters in the field beside Gen. George Meade, creating another complicated field command structure for the upcoming spring campaign season. In retrospect, Meade must have been somewhat relieved. He would have to take orders from just one man and that made life for Meade, finally, much easier and less political.

Upcoming 1863-64 Winter Encampment Event

The Friends of the Wilderness and the Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield have combined forces to offer a great one day symposium on the Union winter encampment in 1863-64. The symposium will take place on March 22. Speakers include Clark “Bud” Hall, Angie Atkinson, Eric Wittenberg, Greg Mertz and others. Visit friendsofcedarmountain.org for more information.

4 Responses to “If You Have Any Orders to Give Me, I am Prepared to Receive and Obey Them”: The Command Struggles of Gen. George Meade, September 1863-March 1864 (part II)

  1. I have found Meade’s letters to his wife particularly insightful and articulate, judging from the excerpts I have read in books on other subjects. Have his letters been published in a book, or is there a good, in-depth biography that provides a good portion of them?

  2. Amanda – Agreed, the letters between Meade and his wife provide great insight into Meade’s thoughts and his true feeling about his contemporaries. This is true of many Civil War generals (McClellan’s letters to his wife probably being the most notable). If you are interested in a book on Meade’s letters, the best one has been reprinted by several sources “George Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, George Gordon Meade, Ed. ” This does not include all of his letters, but a good majority of them. You should be able to find several versions of the reprint on book selling websites.

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