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

Part two in a series

In the first installment of this series, we reviewed the findings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War with respect to the conduct of the pursuit of the defeated Army of Northern Virginia by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Specifically, the Joint Committee’s report, penned by Radical Republican Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, condemned Meade’s conduct of the pursuit. Wade claimed that the army commander’s pursuit was conducted too timidly and too slowly, thereby allowing the defeated Confederate army to escape. This article will examine how the heavy casualties among the Army of the Potomac’s command structure severely inhibited its ability to fight another decisive battle.

As an initial point, it bears noting that Meade had been in command of the Army of the Potomac for a mere five days when the Battle of Gettysburg ended. He obviously was very inexperienced as an army commander, but in spite of that inexperience, he fought a great defensive battle and did what his predecessors had been unable to do: defeat Robert E. Lee on the field of battle. But he also had never managed a large-scale pursuit of a defeated enemy, and had to do so under some really terrible conditions and circumstances.

Due to the exigencies of changing commanders on the eve of a great battle, Meade was stuck with Joseph Hooker’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield. Meade despised Butterfield, and Butterfield in turn returned the sentiment. They barely tolerated each other. Butterfield was wounded during the artillery barrage before Pickett’s Charge, leaving Meade without a chief of staff until his friend Andrew A. Humphreys became chief of staff on July 10, 1863. For that week, his de facto chief of staff was Cavalry Corps commander Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who simply did not have either the bandwidth or the talent to perform both roles at the same time. That, in turn, badly affected the efficiency of both the Army of the Potomac’s staff AND the Cavalry Corps, which had a leadership vacuum when it most needed firm and attentive leadership.

As one example, Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division briefly pursued the Confederate wagon train of wounded when it left Gettysburg, including fighting a rear guard action near Caledonia Furnace. Once that wagon train of wounded reached the Mason-Dixon Line, Gregg had no orders to go further, and his division went into camp near Chambersburg, effectively out of the war for a week. Nothing further is heard from any of Gregg’s three brigades until July 15, AFTER the Army of Northern Virginia had made its way across the Potomac River to safety. Further, Pleasonton’s inattentiveness and inefficiency meant that there was no coordination whatsoever between the activities of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s First Cavalry Division and Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division other than the attempts to coordinate made on an ad hoc basis by Buford and Kilpatrick on the night of July 5, and then again on July 8 during the Battle of Boonsboro.

However, the failure of Buford and Kilpatrick to coordinate their attacks allowed at least an entire division (Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s Third Corps) to escape at Falling Waters on July 14. A coordinated attack by two full divisions of cavalry may well have bagged Heth’s entire command on the north side of the Potomac River. Instead, the disjointed and uncoordinated attacks of Buford and Kilpatrick, while they led to the mortal wounding of Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew and the capture of a good number of prisoners, did not accomplish anything close to what more coordinated and better-timed efforts would have. Pleasonton’s preoccupation with serving as chief of staff meant that numerous opportunities were lost, assets were not utilized properly, and without adequate leadership. That the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps performed as well as it did during the pursuit is a credit to Buford and Kilpatrick.

In addition, Meade lost three of his seven infantry corps commanders. Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, a fellow Pennsylvania and career Regular with whom Meade was close, was his principal subordinate, and the one upon whom Meade had relied most heavily. Reynolds, who had reportedly turned down command of the army, was a wing commander at the time he was killed, responsible for more than half of the Army of the Potomac (the I, III, and XI Corps). Reynolds was also very aggressive, and when he fell, Maj. Gen. John Newton replaced him. Newton was a capable professional soldier, but he was brand new to corps command—he had never commanded a corps before July 1, 1863—and was naturally cautious as a result. Further, the I Corps took very heavy losses on July 1, and was a shadow of its former self as a result. Meade simply could not rely upon Newton to be aggressive.

Likewise, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the II Corps, was badly wounded during the repulse of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack on July 3. After Reynolds fell, Meade sent Hancock to Gettysburg to take command of the field and to determine whether it was a good place for the army to stand and fight. Hancock had been magnificent throughout the entire Battle of Gettysburg, and his loss was immeasurable. Again, he was an extremely aggressive soldier who vigorously advocated a counterattack after the repulse of Pickett’s attack. When Hancock went down with his wound, Brig. Gen. William Hays took his place. Hays, recently exchanged after being captured at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, had never commanded a division previously, let alone a corps. A West Pointer and career artillerist, Hays had no experience with commanding such a large body of men and was also very cautious as a result of his inexperience.

Finally, Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, the commander of the III Corps, while an amateur soldier, was nothing if not aggressive. Sickles had no formal military training and held his lofty position as a result of his having been an influential Democratic Congressman from New York. His aggressive movement of his entire corps forward to a plateau along the Emmitsburg Road caught the brunt of the furious Confederate attack on July 2, 1863, and Sickles had a leg taken off by a Confederate cannonball. Brig. Gen. David Birney, another officer with no formal military training, temporarily assumed command of III Corps by virtue of being its senior division commander. Then, on July 10, Maj. Gen. William H. French assumed command of III Corps when his division was incorporated into the corps. French, a West Point-trained career artillerist, was a hard-drinking professional soldier who had washed out of division command with the Army of the Potomac once before. French was not known for being aggressive—it’s entirely likely that the most aggressive move that Old Blinky, as he was known the men in the ranks for the frenzied way he fluttered his eyes when he talked, ever made was on a bottle of whiskey. During the winter of 1863-1864, the III Corps was dissolved just so that the Army of the Potomac could be rid of French.

The remaining corps commanders were Maj. Gen. George Sykes (V Corps), Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick (VI Corps), Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard (XI Corps), and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum (XII Corps), with Slocum being the most senior at eight months. Slocum, known for being exceedingly cautious and by the book, had the unflattering nickname of “Slow Come”, and had refused to come to the field and take command on July 1 after Reynolds fell. Sedgwick, in command of the VI Corps for about six months, was capable and popular with the men, but was not known for aggressiveness either. Howard had performed wretchedly at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and, while more aggressive than the others, was largely incompetent as a corps commander. And Sykes, another career Regular who carried the descriptive moniker of “Tardy George”, had only been promoted to corps command when Meade was ordered to assume command of the army on June 28. He was inexperienced in corps command and was also not known for aggressiveness.

Thus, having lost his most aggressive commanders and saddled with very inexperienced corps commander, Meade had nobody to advocate really aggressive activity. Further, he lost the two subordinates he most trusted and depended on most heavily in Reynolds and Hancock, and instead had to rely upon four inexperienced temporary corps commanders in Newton, Hays, Birney and French. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Army of the Potomac did not rashly pitch into the Army of Northern Virginia’s positions along the Potomac River.

The Army of the Potomac’s strength on June 30, 1863 was approximately 93,000 men. It suffered more than 23,000 casualties, or losses of about 25%, at Gettysburg. It also suffered heavy losses among its brigade commanders. These heavy losses, combined with the casualties sustained in the high command of the army, their replacement with officers who were far less aggressive, and the inattentiveness and inefficiency of Alfred Pleasonton, all conspired against Meade.

In the next installment, we will examine the operating orders and environment that governed most of Meade’s actions and which hindered his ability to act freely in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.

About Eric J. Wittenberg

Award-winning Civil War historian Eric J. Wittenberg focuses on cavalry operations in the Civil War.
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3 Responses to Civil War Witch Hunt: George Gordon Meade, The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

  1. Meg Thompson says:

    When viewed from the point of view of the orders given Meade’s Medical Director, Jonathan Letterman, charges that Meade chose not to pursue Lee seem baseless. The medical resources were divided between Gettysburg (to care for wounded there, from both sides) and the Army of the Potomac. Letterman even accompanied Meade, leaving behind a chaotic nightmare of wounded men, but preparing to care for even more. This sounds like fighting to me . . .

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

  3. Sam Watson says:

    We should further note that Lee himself never managed a seriously damaging pursuit–after Second Manassas, after Chancellorsville, or indeed during the Seven Days. Nor did Grant after Shiloh (to say nothing of Halleck to Corinth, a distinct matter that would have been more of an advance than a pursuit). I would say, though, that McClellan did beat Lee at Antietam.

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