Meade: “A Great Deal Too Much Fuss”
On the afternoon of July 7, 1863, George Gordon Meade arrived in Frederick, Maryland, as his army marched in pursuit of the retreating Army of Northern Virginia. Word of his major victory at Gettysburg had already circulated widely, and Meade found, to his surprise, the people of Frederick making a huge-to-do over him. To escape, he eventually retired to the United States Hotel, which he’d made his headquarters, and in the early morning hours of July 8, he penned a letter about the experience to his wife.
“The people in this place have made a great fuss with me,” he wrote. A deputation of ladies had presented him with wreaths and bouquets “in most complimentary terms” and, he wrote, “The street has been crowded with people, staring at me, and, much to my astonishment, I find myself a lion.”
Had Meade been George B. McClellan, he might have taken all that huzzahing as his due. McClellan was always glad for the opportunity to bask in adulation that, as a matter of course, should have come his way.
But Meade was no McClellan. “I cannot say I appreciate all this honor,” he wrote his wife, “because I feel certain it is undeserved, and would like people to wait a little while.”
Meade’s wife, Margaretta, had been enjoying the refracted glory of her husband’s success. The general adored her, and so he was pleased that she could enjoy some sort of benefit. “I . . . am truly rejoiced that you are treated with such distinction on account of my humble services,” he told her. But otherwise, Meade was quick to downplay all the attention. “[T]he papers,” he told her, “are making a great deal too much fuss about me.”
I claim no extraordinary merit for this last battle, and would prefer waiting a little while to see what my career is to be before making any pretensions. I did and shall continue to do my duty to the best of my abilities, and that no man of sense will say in advance what their result will be, I will to be careful in not bragging before the right time.
It wasn’t the Meade didn’t have an ego. He’d just seen too many men rise and, even as adoring cheers rang in their ears, fall flat on their faces (McClellan as Exhibit #1 on that point). Or, they let all the adulation cloud their vision and good sense.
Meade also had a good hard dose of strong reality soaking into his bones by the early morning hours of July 8. He was, he admitted, “a good deal fatigued by our recent operations.” As he told his wife:
From the time I took command till to-day, now over ten days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest, and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety. Indeed, I have lived as much in this time as in the last thirty years.
The Army of the Potomac was equally exhausted. Some corps had marched more than 30 miles already in pursuit of the Confederates—in the pouring rain, along muddy roads and a swollen countryside. Many of the men were shoeless. Rations were slow in getting to them. The army was short on horses, and the horses they did have were alarmingly underfed and fatigued. Supplies for man and beast were running low and behind schedule.
It’s little wonder Meade had little appetite for cheers and adulation. He was still in the thick of it. Gettysburg was over, but he expected another battle looming on the near horizon, and he had considerable obstacles to overcome to ensure his army would be able to fight it.
If Meade found himself a lion, he did not want to be one with too much pride.
Excerpts from Meade’s letter “To Mrs. George C. Meade,” 8 July 1863, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. II, 132, 134.
26 Responses to Meade: “A Great Deal Too Much Fuss”
The people who criticize Meade for not cutting off Lee after Gettysburg forget that the Army of the Potomac suffered significant casualties and had supply problems during the campaign. It reminds me of a defensive back in football who lays out a wide receiver, but also injures himself.
I think Meade’s supply issues have been severely underestimated. I understand Lincoln’s frustration on a gut level, but Lincoln completely misunderstood the state of Meade’s army.
Chris: That’s a good point. In addition, losing three of your seven corps commanders and numerous officers at lower levels creates significant hurdles for effective command and control. And it’s not completely offset by saying “the ANV lost officers, too”.
The ANV also suffered significant casualties, had supply problems and lost regimental and brigade commanders. Yet they were able to march with alacrity. Plus, the Confederate cavalry performed brilliantly on the retreat.
It’s pretty hard to conduct a retreat when the 6th Corps had both hands tied behind their backs…they were ordered not to bring on an engagement and to make sure, their ammunition trains were with-held from them.
I will admit that once the AoP started marching, they too marched with alacrity. But they still allowed the ANV enough time to construct what many Union officers thought to be the best field fortifications encountered thus far in the East.
What upset Lincoln was Meade’s congratulatory order to the AoP “to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.”. Lincoln expressed to John Hay that the “whole country was our soil”
===========================================================================Gottfired has a book out, “Lee invades the North”; A Comparison of the Antietam and Gettysburg Campaigns. Like many of you, I have it on my night-stand, along with host of other books I need to read.
I am hoping he takes into account the aggression of McClellan advancing towards the invading foreign army , and Meade’s Pipe Creek line, basically waiting for the foreign invading army to attack him.
Good points, Giant, but I think we need to remember that, unless I am mistaken (which I frequently am according to my lovely wife), no Union or Confederate Army bagged their retreating foe following a major battle damaging both armies. Appomattox may be the sole exception – though the Union Army was certainly not badly damaged at the breakthrough on April 2, 1865, which hardly qualifies as a major battle. A retreating army certainly has a higher motivation to move faster facing an existential threat to its very existence.
John, It’s my belief that a United States Army has a higher motivation to attack and capture an invading foreign army on American soil.
Grant understood that and so did McClellan. I don’t believe Meade did, based on Brown’s book Meade at Gettysburg and the Pipe Creek line.
No one has been able to demonstrate what did Meade see 2 months after Chancellorsville that showed Meade that Lee was now going to do what Meade intended Lee to do?
There’s a distinct difference, though, between the supply issues faced by the AoP and the ANV. Lee had been foraging on his way north and so had plenty of supplies on hand; Meade, meanwhile, had been stretched well beyond his supply base, which was being set up to support Pipe Creek, so it wasn’t even in an ideal location. As Meade advanced after Lee, he got closer to his supplies, but Lee could already travel with his.
Of particular importance was the lack of forage for the AoP’s horses, which created a major issue for moving them with necessary speed. Meade’s men were also underfed and had been for days. I don’t think people appreciate just how shaky the AoP was, supply wise, when it got sucked into battle in Gettysburg.
It is my impression that most of what the ANV had foraged, had been sent South and back into Virginia. Wagon trains were removing wounded to Westminster and provided supplies to the AoP.
If the South could retreat, the North could advance.
We are going to have to agree to disagree on this.
As far as the AoP being sucked into battle….Thank God they did! A foreign army on American soil should have been attacked.
Great post. Meade was like Sherman in his overt distaste for puffery. In his excellent response, NYGiant makes a good point up until the Pipe Creek remark. Defensive positions can serve offensive purposes, especially in terms of counterattacks. And McClellan only really got his gittyup going after being gifted with the lost orders. However, his post Antietam pursuit was not as lethargic as legend has it.
As far as the Gettysburg pursuit, I always think the loss of the three most aggressive corps commanders in the Union Army was the crucial factor.
Actually John, if you look at the miles marched by McClellan, the AoP more pretty briskly towards the ANV. Lee did not expect that. Thats NOT correct about McClellan moving fast after he found the lost orders, according to Taken at the Flood, by Joe Harsh, and
Too Useful to S Sacrifice by Steven Stotelmyer. The 16th CT marched 19 miles on Sept.9 On Sept 11, the 50th NY marched 15 miles and the next day marched 10 more miles. On the same day Phelp’s Brigade marched 18 miles. Note the dates, all before the finding of the Lost Orders. So, your comment about McClellan is just plain wrong, according to the facts.
No one has ever answered my previous question…..In the 2 months after Chancellorsville, what did Meade now see that made hm believe that, NOW, Lee would do what the AoP intended Lee to do?
McClellan marched toward the invading foreign army on American soil. Meade was willing to protect DC and Baltimore at the Pipe Creek line, while Lee consolidated the ANV.
Since when does the US Government allow a foreign arm y on American soil….free reign?
John, In addition to the above comment, one must take into consideration the road network in Maryland in 1862. Going West towards Antietam Creek, all roads converge Frederick MD, and leave Frederick Maryland, creating a bottleneck. Just look at a map of Maryland from 1862! That was something not considered when talking about how “slow” the AoP marched. The streets of Frederick were not built to handle such large numbers of soldiers.
I got all this from Too Useful to Sacrifice by Steven Stotlemeyer
Armies march on roads.
Logistics!! Amateurs fight battles tactically. Professionals fight battles logistically.
You wrote: “what did Meade now see that made hm believe that, NOW, Lee would do what the AoP intended Lee to do?”
I agree with you in that I don’t think Lee would have accommodated Meade quite so smoothly. As Lee demonstrated at Chancellorsville, just because Hooker chose a position didn’t mean Lee was going to attack the way Hooker wanted him to.
However, I do think Meade had a decent plan to engage Lee and TRY to draw him back toward Maryland through the use of Reynolds as a recon in force. Meade does seem to think he’d be able to draw Lee 13 miles south. I see lots of opportunity there for things to go off the rails, though!
The ANV faced the same problems the AoP faced. Loss of regimental and brigade commanders, and faced the same supply problems as the AoP…..especially shoes.
The AoP had a railroad line to allow re-supply. The ANV was miles away from its railhead in Staunton VA.
The ANV was able to retreat.
Last couple years I’ve started to feel that Lincoln’s unsent letter to Meade after Gettysburg should have been addressed and delivered to the next level higher than Meade, the General In Chief. I’m sure its been looked at but could not Old Brains have ordered General French to take Williamsport, or the Virginia side of it, while the invasion was underway? Upon learning Lee was in retreat why not ship some of the DC protecting heavies by rail towards French as reinforcements with the goal of engaging the enemy and supporting the AOP. Could such a force have bought time for the AOP to come up and reduced the ANV ability to defend. Maybe in that day it wasn’t possible, but if its someone’s fault Bobby Lee escaped, I vote that its Old Brains fault more than Goggle Eyes.
Chris, Thanks for agreeing with me regarding Lee accommodating Meade. No one seems to be able to tell me what Meade saw that now Lee would do what the Union commanders intended Lee to do.
The guy who was 2nd in his 1829 graduating class at West Point, and the guy who was offered the command of the Union Army certainly had the smarts and the experience not to be tricked into attacking a dominating piece of terrain. Lee recalled the Union attacks at Fredericksburg.
IMHO, the conversation between Buford and Reynolds at the Lutheran Seminary decided where the fighting was going to occur.
Now…a good question for us to contemplate at the beginning a a week….who was the more aggressive commander facing an invading enemy foreign army…McClellan or Meade?…or maybe Lew Wallace?
I read Eric Wittenberg et. al.’s book “One Continuous Fight” on the difficulties facing Meade in his pursuit of Lee. Horrible weather, lack of supplies and exhausted troops presented horrendous obstacles to overcome. This story of July7-8 in Frederick highlights Meade’s humility — his realistic assessment of the difficulty he and the AOP faced. Good story to consider. Thanks, Chris.
Didn’t the ANV face the same weather? same lack of supplies? same exhausted troops? The ANV was carrying their wounded too.
AND, they were on foreign soil.
IMHO, just because the ANV was also exhausted, short of supplies, and subjected to terrible weather, did not make it any easier for Meade and the Army of the Potomac. It just makes it easier for armchair historians such as ourselves to assert what armies and commanders should have done.
Apologies. Some here are accredited historians. I meant to say “armchair generals” which category I am sure would include me at times.
well of course we’re monday morning quarterbacking here — that’s what we do … Lincoln, however, was not playing the arm-chair general … he was the commander-in-chief and, by 1863, developed a great sense of what the art of the militarily possible was … he clearly, and correctly, believed that Meade missed an opportunity by not pursuing Lee with celerity.
we can all offer excuses about shoes, being tired, et al … however, recall that Meade still had the 6th Corps that was fresh, he had an opponent that was on the ropes and far from his home turf, and he had the momentum.
finally, and in keeping with our “what if” discussion in the past weeks, one need only ask what Grant would have done had he been in Meade’s position … it’s not beyond the pale to assume that Grant would have given the ANV a further shellacking on their way back to VA … and without any complaints about shoes! 🙂
PS — that said, however, major props to MG Meade’s conduct between 28 June thru 3 July … he completed his mission — find and fight Lee’s Army, protect Baltimore and DC.
good points in the AOP’s favor
Armchair Generals……does that include President Lincoln, the Commandeering Chief?
I look at it more as the amateurs here discuss the battles tactically. The professionals among us study the battles logistically.
Lincoln was president. We are not.
How military leaders deal with concerns and demands of political leaders can make a huge difference in a war.
I agree with your strategy vs. logistics point. It has been made most recently with respect to the first months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Actually, I see you referred to tactics. Certainly tactics are a point of the discussion. However, I believe the common statement is something like, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.”
Thanks Taylor. US Grant is a perfect example.
And Grant apparently knew how to work with Lincoln too.
An example of a political leader fatally interfering in military matters is Hitler. Think of Stalingrad, Normandy, the ME262, etc.