In the words of Carl von Clausewitz, “War is … a continuation of political activity by other means.” Following the defeat of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at Gettysburg in July 1863, President Abraham Lincoln visualized an end to the rebellion of Southern slave states and restoration of the Union.
To achieve that political objective, he urged Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to pursue Lee’s army vigorously and destroy it before it reached safety across the Potomac River. Meade, however, viewed the situation through a different lens and reckoned expulsion from “our soil,” rather than further confrontation, to be the best tactic. (See Coastal Point, July 11, 2014.)
When the rain-swollen Potomac prevented his passage to safety, Lee built a line of fortifications at Williamsport, Md. He expected Meade would attack when he arrived on his front on July 11. Instead, the defensive-minded Meade ordered his troops to dig fortifications for fear the ever-aggressive Lee would attack him.
During Meade’s march away from Gettysburg, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck wired him, “The opportunity to attack [Lee] should not be lost. The President is urgent and anxious [about this].” On the 12th, Meade informed Halleck, “It is my intention to attack them to-morrow.” But portentously added, “unless something intervenes to prevent it.”
Across the separation between their lines, Lee was grateful for the delay. He informed his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, a reconnaissance indicates Meade will “attack early to-morrow morning.”
Despite Meade’s stated intention to strike Lee, he decided to call a meeting of his corps commanders. When a majority voiced opposition to the idea, Meade postponed the attack in favor of a reconnaissance.
When Meade reported this to Halleck the next day, the response was couched in no uncertain terms: “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing. Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute your orders.”
This admonition would prove to be too late. That evening of the 13th, Lee ordered a withdrawal across a newly constructed pontoon bridge and the receding Potomac waters.
Meanwhile, Meade scrutinized the Rebel lines before ordering four of his corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force on the morning of the 14th. He did not instruct them to attack, but rather to “hold their troops under arms in readiness for a general engagement, should the enemy offer one.”
This proved too little too late, because Lee’s army had safely crossed the Potomac, to fight another day. The somber mood of the Rebels, however, was captured by one of Lee’s troops, who compared the great confidence they had during the march northward with being chased by the enemy during the retreat: “True we are not whipped. … But … the contrast is a sad one.”
When the news of Lee’s escape reached Washington, Lincoln was despondent. He expressed his feelings in a letter to Meade, saying, “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape.” He concluded, “Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.” Having vented his chagrin, the president decided not to send the letter.
When Meade learned from Halleck about Lincoln’s angst, he offered his resignation, which was refused. Later, Meade wrote an emotional letter to his wife and injected politics into the situation, “The proper policy for the Government would have been to be contented with driving Lee out of Maryland, and not to have advanced till this army was largely reinforced and reorganized.”
Meade added, “This has been the history of all my predecessors, and I clearly saw that in time their fate would be mine.” Ironically, he had made reference to Gens. McClellan, Burnside and Hooker, all of whom failed in their efforts to defeat Lee on the battlefield.
Lee, his age and health taking its toll, also submitted his resignation to President Jefferson Davis after his defeat at Gettysburg. Davis dismissed his request by saying, “To ask me to substitute you by some one … fit to command … is deemed an impossibility.”
The patient Lincoln kept Meade in command, but, by 1864, with Meade unable to follow through, Lincoln brought Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant from the western front to the east. His mission, which he would accomplish over the next year, was to track down Lee and defeat his army.
Meade’s shining hour as army commander came when he defeated Lee at Gettysburg. With that he at least assured himself a place in history.
(Primary source — War of the Rebellion Official Records.)
Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at email@example.com.