Reviewed by Doug Crenshaw
A common theme in the voluminous studies of the battle of Gettysburg is that Union General George Meade won a major victory, but squandered a great opportunity to cut off the retreating Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee and destroy it. This, combined with the Union victory at Vicksburg, would have been enough to end the war, or so the Lincoln administration hoped.
Kent Masterson Brown has another take on the subject. After providing necessary background information, Brown picks up the story on June 28, 1863, as General Meade is ordered to take command of the Army of the Potomac. Not only does he not want the position, but he doesn’t know the locations of the other corps of the army, much less that of the invading enemy. What Meade does know is that he must shield Baltimore and Washington, then find and defeat Lee.
Brown is a good storyteller. His prose is engaging, and the book is difficult to put down. He makes good use of footnotes, many of which provide much detail and color, something this reviewer finds appealing.
At first Meade planned to gather his army in Maryland, along the solid defensive position of Pipe Creek. After receiving word that much of Lee’s force was just west of Gettysburg, he ordered General John Reynolds to move his corps in the direction of that town and draw Lee out. Once the Confederates took the bait, Reynolds was to pull back and join the remainder of the army. Of course, things didn’t turn out that way. Reynolds was killed on July 1, and the great battle was fought at Gettysburg, not Pipe Creek.
Brown recognizes the critical importance of logistics, something that is often overlooked in some battle studies. Because the army had been spread out, creating a supply line was challenging. As the troops came together at Gettysburg, it took time to establish a depot and get the shoes, ammunition, food for the men and forage for the horses to the battlefield. Brown says that many of the Union troops were shoeless and very hungry. Horses and men were in danger of breaking down. While his army won a major victory, it was in no condition to pursue the Confederates.
After the failed Confederate attack on July 3, Meade had to determine what Lee would do next. Both armies had suffered severely. If Meade moved south too aggressively, it seemed possible that Lee would sweep back around him and continue his invasion. When it became apparent that Lee was on his way back to Virginia, Meade had to get his army into motion, but first it needed food, shoes and ammunition.
Once Meade had his army on the move and neared the enemy, he found Lee strongly entrenched. Pressure to attack from Washington was intense. Meade hesitated; Lee had attacked the Federal fixed positions at Gettysburg and paid a heavy price. Might Meade waste the benefits of his victory by having his army slaughtered by attacking the entrenched Confederates? He was not willing to risk that. Ultimately Lee escaped, and Meade’s reputation in the administration was seriously tarnished.
Brown’s book offers a solidly researched defense of Meade’s actions at and following Gettysburg. It’s an engaging and interesting work. Ultimately it is up to the reader to decide if he or she accepts the author’s argument. It would be well worth the time spent.