Friday, March 8, 2013

George Gordon Meade: The Unsung Hero of Gettysburg

Batteries are all about us; troops are moving into position;
new lines seem to be forming, or old ones extending. Two or three
general officers, with a retinue of staff and orderlies, come galloping
by. Foremost is the spare and somewhat stooped form of the
Commanding General. He is not cheered, indeed he is scarcely
recognized. He is an approved corps General, but he has not yet
vindicated his right to command the Army of the Potomac.

                                                        —Whitelaw Reid, Cincinnati Gazette 

 Major General George Gordon Meade, illustrated by Ron Cole.

  One of the great unsung heroes of Gettysburg is Major General George Gordon Meade.  In the pre-dawn hours of June 28, 1863, a special messenger reached Meade, who was encamped with the army near Frederick, Maryland. So stunned was Meade, in his sleepy mind, that he thought the officer had come to place him under arrest. Instead he was delivered a letter from General Halleck in which Meade was promoted to command the Army of the Potomac with orders to confront Lee as he invaded Pennsylvania. Unknown to anyone, that confrontation was only three days away.

  Although Meade was known for his temper, nicknamed a damned "goggle-eyed snapping turtle" by some on his staff,  he was an inspired choice by Lincoln. Meade was a proven combat leader, one without political ambitions, and Lincoln knew he could count on Meade to defend his home state of Pennsylvania from Lee’s invasion. Where other generals had shown timidity in opposing Lee aggressively, Meade knew his duty was to seek battle. This was well understood by General Lee, a fellow West Pointer and engineer, who found out Meade had taken command about twenty-four hours later. Lee said to his corps commanders, “General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.”

  Meade also had the confidence of his fellow officers, especially Major Generals John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock. That same trust was returned by Meade giving Reynolds command of the left wing as they advanced towards Gettysburg with authority to act in Meade's stead on the battlefield.  When word of Reynold's death reached Meade, he turned to Hancock to take command of the field and confront Lee until the situation developed. By the time Meade arrived on the battlefield before dawn on July 2, his army was in possession of the high ground from Culp's Hill, along Cemetery Ridge to the Round Tops. Hancock's presence had been a major factor in rallying the survivors of the First Corps and placing reinforcements into line along Cemetery Ridge.

  On the night of June 30, just before the battle, he wrote his wife: “All is going on well. I think I have relieved Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and that Lee has now come to the conclusion that he must attend to other matters. I continue well, but much oppressed with a sense of responsibility and the magnitude of the great interests entrusted to me . . . Pray for me and beseech our heavenly Father to permit me to be an instrument to save my country and advance a just cause.” 

 Commanders of the Army of the Potomac, Gouverneur K. Warren, William H. French, George G. Meade, Henry J. Hunt, Andrew A. Humphreys, and George Sykes in September 1863.

  Meade should be remembered as one of the great Civil War generals. He was one of the few combat leaders who appreciated changes in technology and tactics that made frontal assaults a tragic waste of human lives. At Gettysburg, when the country needed fighting leader, Meade was there. His trust in his subordinates, his careful movement and deployment of vast numbers of men, guns, and supplies to Gettysburg, and his foresight in sensing Lee would attack his center line on July 3, were all marks of a great general. He was one of the few Union generals to face Robert E. Lee in open battle and to defeat him. 

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound.

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