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

Conclusion of a series

After examining the evidence, it seems clear that Senator Wade’s inflammatory and defamatory statements about Meade’s conduct of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia were simply incorrect. Given the circumstances under which he was forced to operate, the army commander did everything possible. His army had suffered massive losses, had lost its three most aggressive corps commanders, was saddled by constraining operating orders, faced severe logistical challenges, and then had to confront an incredibly strong defensive position under the command of one of the greatest military minds ever born in the North American continent.

“When Lee retreated to the river he selected a splendid position and fortified it strongly,” wisely noted Capt. I. P. Powell of the 146th New York of the V Corps in August 1863. “Soon the two armies were opposite each other…[Lee] had by far the strongest position. To have been defeated would have to lose more, by far, than we had gained. The possibility of such a disaster must not be allowed for a moment. The only course, therefore, was to act on the defensive and wait till a portion of the enemy had crossed the enemy before we attacked him.” Powell concluded, “But it was impossible to tell when this happened. They escaped from us as we had frequently escaped from them. The retreat was in the night and during a heavy rain storm, when it would have been absolutely impossible to have followed them had we known they were going. Gen. Meade acted as any wise General should have.”

 “Meade, no doubt, felt a little like a person often does in pitching quoits,” observed Sgt. Charles A. Frey of the 150th Pennsylvania. “If he makes a ‘ringer’ the first throw, rather than try to make two, and perhaps spoil both, he will throw a cowardly quoit. Meade had made a ‘ringer’ at Gettysburg and the country applauded. Had he made another on the banks of the Potomac, he would have been the greatest general of the war. Had he failed in the second attempt, he would have been denounced the world over.”

 Could Meade have done more? Perhaps. Perhaps he could have ordered the army to pursue Lee sooner than he did. But once the army was put in motion, it moved with alacrity and got into position as quickly as possible under some of the worst possible conditions imaginable for the rapid or efficient movement of a large body of men. However, the more important question is whether the men could have done more. “Our troops require rest, shoes, and clothing,” observed Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, who commanded a division of the XII Corps, on July 16. “They have been some five weeks on the march. None but veteran troops could stand it, especially as we have not had a dry day for nearly three weeks. It is pouring down in torrents today, but I think the Army of the Potomac is simmered down to the very sublimation of human strength and endurance.” Men and animals were at the limits of their endurance, and it simply was not reasonable to expect any more of them than they had already sacrificed. Hence, the stars were aligned against George Gordon Meade, and he made the only choice that he could have made under the circumstances.

 It is simple enough for an armchair quarterback with no understanding of the vicissitudes of command and with an obviously biased agenda like Ben Wade to level criticisms against Meade’s conduct of the pursuit. However, the burden of command weighs heavy, and only those who actually are tasked with making the life and death decisions—rather than criticizing them after the fact—can truly understand the dilemma faced by George Gordon Meade as he looked across the fields at Lee’s defensive position at Williamsport. With all of the factors stacked up against him, Meade made the only decisions that made any sense, and then the fates robbed him of his opportunity to fight a decisive battle on the banks of the Potomac River. With the benefit of full knowledge, it seems difficult indeed to criticize either the decisions made by Meade, or his conduct of the 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.
This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns, Civil War Events, Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Memory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Pingback: Rantings of a Civil War Historian » A Civil War Witch Hunt: George Gordon Meade, the Retreat from Gettysburg, and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

  2. Pingback: 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. I am glad to see some positive notes on Meade. I believe he has been criticized too harshly for his role following Gettysburg.

  4. Rob Wilson says:

    A well-researched look– from multiple angles and viewpoints– at the politicized, grudge-settling process of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, at the pursuit of Lee and at Meade’s actions and decisions during the pursuit. Collectively and individually all of these topics have been and forever will continue to be scrutinized and debated. As Eric noted in his respond to a reader’s comment to Part I of the series, “these are extremely complex issues and there is no simple answer.” While agreeing with that, I’d add that the series examined the issues and the debate with a comprehensive, straightforward and logical approach that helped me to better understand those complex issues, and why there is no “simple answer.” Thank you Eric.

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