How would you like to be awakened suddenly and be informed that you’re now the commander of an army that has never had a real and decisive victory? Oh, and it’s expected that your army will fight a battle within the week…a battle that could change the course of the war and history!
Feeling a little overwhelmed just by that scenario?
Well, for a certain Union general it wasn’t imaginary. Meet General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.
George Meade was born on December 31, 1815…and his family lived in Cadiz, Spain. Mr. Meade, Sr. was a wealthy American merchant in the foreign markets, but unfortunately he had lost his fortune by siding with Napoleon in the Spanish Peninsular conflict. The family returned to the United States when George was two and they faced years of financial difficulty.
George attended a military prep school in Baltimore, Maryland, and was accepted to West Point Military Academy in 1831. Four years later he graduated 19th in a class of 56 students.
He fought in the Indian Wars in Florida, but disliked the military and resigned in 1836, planning to start a career in civil engineering. In December 1840, he married Margaretta Sergeant; they would eventually have seven children. By 1842, George realized it was difficult to support a family with his civil engineering job and he re-entered the army.
During the next two decades, George Meade fought in the Mexican War (1846-1848) and then employed his engineering skills to design / build lighthouses and survey American coasts and lakeshores.
When the Civil War began in 1861, George was given command of a volunteer brigade from Pennsylvania and the rank of brigadier general. Fighting (or at least present) at many of the major battles in Virginia during 1862, he gained a reputation for bravery and good leadership. In 1863 he was a major general.
The Union Army of the Potomac had been through a revolving door of generals – political appointees, brilliant thinkers with no military backbone, arrogant jerks, and a couple that seemed plain stupid in military strategy. Thus, President Lincoln was left in a real hard spot when boastful Joseph Hooker sent in his command resignation during a campaign.
George Meade was fairly well-liked by his peers; most importantly, he had few enemies in the “generals’ community.” And…he would probably obey Lincoln’s “suggestions.” Thus on June 28, 1863 (just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg), George Meade was awakened and informed he was the new commander. Yikes!
It might be argued that Gettysburg was not Meade’s battle, even though he was the commander. He didn’t chose the battle ground. He didn’t lead any charges. He wasn’t very visible near the fighting.
However, I would argue that for the situation he was placed in, George Meade did the best he could. Sensibly, he sent a trusted commander to pick the battle ground and oversee initial troop placement, while he sorted out the confusing marching lines of troops strung out all over Maryland and Pennsylvania. Significantly, Meade made the decision to stay at Gettysburg. By choosing to stay and trusting his generals’ defensive ability, Meade won Gettysburg.
Of course you can’t do everything right – especially if Lincoln’s the president. George Meade didn’t follow the retreating Confederates fast enough to please the president or strike another decisive blow…and the Rebels escaped…again.
The Mine Run Campaign of 1863 didn’t accomplish much, but the following spring George Meade commanded an army under General Grant and fought through the Overland Campaign, Petersburg Siege, and Appomattox Campaign.
Grant wrote “Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and [William T. Sherman] are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with.” That’s high praise!
Unfortunately, the press and many of the soldiers were not as fond of Meade and he has become one of the “almost forgotten” generals of the Civil War.
After the war, he served as commander of a few military districts in the South and was given several awards by patriotic Northerners. George Meade died on November 6, 1872.
One of the most important lessons to learn from George Meade is to surround yourself with people you trust…and trust them. Meade couldn’t leave his headquarters to dash off to Gettysburg on July 1st, but he sent a general he trusted. On the night of July 2nd, he asked all his generals’ opinions on the situation at Gettysburg before making his final decision to stay and hold the ground for one more day.
Meade’s experience and actions at Gettysburg reminds me of the Scripture verse: “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” (Proverbs 13:20, NKJV)
This Gettysburg general had watched too many fools slaughter armies in the last two years because they were “wise in their own eyes.” Meade had the good sense and wisdom to surround himself with knowledgeable men and the humility to listen to their advice to make an informed leadership decision.
P.S. What do you think of Meade’s leadership style at Gettysburg?