Was Meade at fault for not catching Lee after Gettysburg?

An American Civil War question…

The Battle of Gettysburg raged from July 1-3, 1863. Lee finally withdrew, defeated, towards Virginia. “Push forward,” Halleck wired Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, “and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac.” Soon after Halleck wrote to Meade, “The President is urgent and anxious that your army should move against Lee by forced marches.” Meade’s Union troops chased Lee, sort of, but did not force another battle. By July 14 Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the river and was safely in Confederate territory, licking its wounds.

Lincoln was anguished. He told his secretary, John Hay, “We had them within our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the army move.”

It seems to me that Grant, Sherman or Sheridan would have been much more aggressive in pursuing Lee. If Lee’s army had been captured or destroyed in late 1863, the war could have been ended much sooner and thousands of lives saved. A few years ago, I had occasion to separately ask noted Civil War historians James McPherson and Shelby Foote if Meade was blameworthy for his decisions from July 4-14. McPherson said yes; Foote said no.

What do you think?

Can you elaborate on the reasons given by each of those scholars for their disparate answers? I would find that interesting.

Was Meade slow to move? Yes. That’s why he eventually lost command of the Army of the Potomac. Indeed, all commanders of that army found it hard to motivate it to actual activity. Even Grant had his difficulties with it.

Would it have shortened the war? Doubtful. The war pretty much dragged on through 1864 into 1865 because that’s how long it took to mop up in the South and move the armies there northward, to strangle Virginia. Now, if Lee had been captured or killed, THAT might be a more interesting debate… :eek:

We didn’t have time to go into at length. In a nutshell, though, McPherson thought that Meade got “the slows,” as McClelland had before him, could have done more but made excuses instead. On the other hand, Foote noted that Meade had been in overall command for only a few weeks at that point, was exhausted, had just been through the biggest battle of his career, and was understandably cautious in the aftermath.

Lincloln thought so. He remarked that Meade’s pursuit of Lee across the Patomac resembled “an old woman trying to shoo her goose across the creek.”

Grant, however had enough confidence in Meade’s ability, with Grant there to push him along, that he left Meade in command of the Army of The Patomac until the end of the war.

I see that DSYoungEsq states that Meade lost command of the Army of The Patomac. I believe this is incorrect. Meade reatained that command. Grant was commander of all US armies and traveled with Meade’s army but didn’t command it directly.

Correct. Meade offered to resign as commander of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant refused to accept it. Grant commanded the Army of the Potomac indirectly, as Meade’s superior as general-in-chief of all US armies. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war.

Yes, but.

At that time the idea of winning a battle was to be the last army on the field. Meade did that at Gettysburg, so he won. In a European context, the Confederacy might have surrendered at that point. But of course war had changed again, before the mindset of the people fighting it.

No matter how educated and socially liberal Southerners are now, some of us are still only two or three generations removed from the Confederate soldiers. It would not surprise me if Shelby Foote’s grandfather fought in that war as did mine. When you speak of destroying lives to save lives, you are speaking of destroying our families.

I do not defend anything that the Confederate Army stood for and I doubt that Shelby Foote did. But he might be looking at your question through a different lens than the decendents of the victors who lived far away from the battlefields, reconstruction areas and post-reconstruction economy. Maybe Shelby Foote would have given credit to General Lee rather than blame to Meade.

I certainly envy you for having met Shelby Foote. He had the most soothing voice that I can recall. My husband is sometimes mistaken for him (Even some of Mr. Foote’s younger photographs are like him.) We are quite flattered. I don’t know much about McPherson except for his Pulitzer for his book on the Civil War.
(I’m not an historian.)

Meade suffered from the same mindset as McClellan, in that they did not understand Lincoln’s overall strategy for ending the war, which was to destroy Lee’s army. Meade cabeled Lincoln after Gettysburg, announcing that “We have driven the enemy from our soil.” This drove Lincoln nuts, since he considered ALL of the United States to be “our soil”.

Perhaps it’s just as well. If the CSA’s main conventional army had been annihilated, but its economy not yet as bad as it would be after nineteen grinding months, the possibility of the South taking recourse of guerrilla war might have been stronger.

And McClellan’s dragging out the war through half-hearted tactics probably killed a lot more Southerners than had he crushed them. And frankly, my ancestors came from Indiana. Who knows how many of my relatives would have lived had the Confederacy died faster.


Meade may have been (too) wary of stepping into an ambush from the retreating Rebs.

Meade may have thought that it was more important to keep his army between Lee’s army and Washington DC instead of inteposing himself across Lee’s retreat path.

Another factor rarely mentioned is that Meade might not have been able to catch Lee. Immediately after the battle, Pennsylvania and Maryland had a week of some of the worst weather seen in years. Having no option, the Confederates marched through it in retreat back to Virginia. The Union forces didn’t have to march and used the time to restore their army.

For the record, I did not say Grant had the direct command of the Army of the Potomac. I said that Grant had trouble with the Army of the Potomac. Grant, as the general in chief had indirect command, as someone has pointed out. And he did have trouble with it; it was a bitch to get it to get up and go all through the war.

I think Meade gets too much credit for winning at Gettysburg. The South could have won, but made some critical mistakes. First off, A.P. Hill bumped into a smallish patrol, but he thought he’d found the Army of the Potomac. Instead of blowing right through them to take the high ground on Cemetary Ridge, he bogged down. The Army of the Potomac doesn’t come in until later…I think that night…but they got the high ground.

Lee failed to bracket his artillery, and thus wasted considerable firepower. He also ordered Pickett’s Charge. I think I understand why he did it, but it was a mistake.

Stuart didn’t even get there until Sunday, I think. His cavalry could have caused problems for the Union rear if he was there.

I’ve wargamed this battle several times, and never lost. If the South is gonna win, they’ve got to do it fast, before Union reinforcements arrive. If they can reach Cemetary Ridge before nightfall on the first day, the Union fishook defense never forms, and it’s the Union Army trying to advance uphill from the far side.

To give George Meade his due:

Meade had been in command of the Army of the Potomac for only two or three days before the battle opened. When he was awaken in the middle of the night to be told he had been appointed to command his first reaction was that he was being arrested. He was working with Joe Hooker’s chief of staff, Dan Butterfield, who was probably resentful that Meade had replaced Hooker as the army commander. Butterfield certainly did Meade no favors during the Meade-Sickles controversy.

Gettysburg was a classic meeting engagement where element of the opposing forces blundered into each other and everyone else then piled in as fast as they could. In the face of that and in the face of Dan Sickles going off on a frolic of his own to the endangerment of the Little Round Top - Cemetery Hill position on the second day, he kept his head and managed the battle and the army better than any commander had up until that time.

Between dead, wounded, captured and men who had simply been knocked lose from their units Meade had probably lost a third of his force by the time the three day fight was over. Of the seven army corps of the A of P two were no longer effective (First and Third) and three more had been badly beaten up (Second, Fifth and Eleventh). Only one, the Sixth was fully effective. Of his seven corps commanders, Reynolds was dead and Hancock and Sickles were dreadfully wounded. The A of P was badly beaten up – admittedly not as badly as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but still in sorry shape.

By holding position on the fourth day Lee was able to give his logistical trains a 24 hour lead when Lee did begin his retreat into Maryland.

The weather and the unpaved roads conspired against Meade and significantly hampered his pursuit. When the A of P marched south from Gettysburg it was the fourth army to use those roads and to a great extent thy had been turned into bogs. When an army consisted of several scores of thousands of men walking with their weapons, ammunition, rations and water carried on the person bad roads counted for a lot and significantly restricted how far the army could travel in any 24 hour period.

Meade did catch up with Lee’s main force At Falling Waters, Maryland, as Lee was attempting to ford the Potomac some 10 days later but declined the opportunity to make a frontal assault on prepared positions. The memory of Fredericksburg was too fresh.

I suppose that had Meade been prepared to risk everything on one great attack at Falling Waters the war could have ended then and there. His corps commanders, however, advised against it, Meade was new in command and the risk was substantial that if the attack failed the A of P would dissolve right there.

As others have pointed out, Lincoln and Grant retained sufficient confidence in Meade that he retained command of the A of P , albeit under Grant’s immediate observation, for the rest of the war.
But Meade was the commander. He gets the credit for winning at Gettysburg so he also gets the blame for not destroying Lee’s army and ending the war in mid-July 1863.

Also, destroying Lee’s army would not have immediately ended the war. Grant took Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, but Johnston had a force in the area. Forrest was still active with his cavalry. Bragg was still around with his Army of Tennessee–think Forrest was under him, and I’m sure there were others I can’t remember at the moment.

I doubt that. So did Lincoln and Stanton.

With Pemberton’s Army of Mississippi gobbled up at Vicksburg and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia disbursed / destroyed/ captured at Falling Waters, the Confederacy’s military strength would have been gutted. There would have been no chance of holding on to Richmond, Jefferson Davis’s government would have become fugitives lurking in the pinny woods, the South’s principal arsenal would have been lost and the rebellion bankrupt.

It is hard to thing that hapless Bragg, who had just been maneuvered out of Chattanooga, or Uncle Joe Johnson, who was ineffectively flapping around in Alabama, would have been in any position to carry on the war except as an exercise in bushwhacking. Bragg needed most of Longstreet’s Corps from Lee’s army to face Rosecrans at Chickamauga and then need an astounding bit of luck to succeed. Faced with the combined strength of Rosecrans’ Army of the Ohio / Army of the Cumberland reenforced with Sherman’s or MacPherson’s corps from Grant’s army, Bragg, even with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s help, would not have lasted 30 days.

The loss of three major armies in the summer of 1863 would have been a blow the Confederacy could not survive. The best that could have been hoped for would be a prolonged guerilla campaign. Such an eventuality would have made Sherman’s March to the Sea and Reconstruction look like a Sunday school picnic. Atlanta would still be smoking and Richmond, like ancient Carthage, would have been obliterated and the ground sown with salt. Lee, Joe Johnson, Jefferson Davis and nearly every other Confederate leader would have been hung. The South would have been turned into a depopulated howling wilderness – just as the Republican radicals in Congress hoped.

I understand your point, but do you understand mine? I was trying to explain one of the reasons why Shelby Foote’s viewpoint might have been different.

When you speak of “your relatives,” are you speaking of people that raised your father or your mother? Do you or members of your family live on a battlefield? Is that where you have Thanksgiving?

I don’t know if Mr. Foote managed to have a more detached perspective. I am not sentimental about war and reinactments. It was a terrible waste of human life for both sides.

I am certainly in awe of those of you who know the history so well. My father heard it as a child from his aging father and his uncles as they relived it. The realities terrified him. Granddaddy had been a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas.

I saw my father cry as a grown man for the Papa he missed. Some of us cannot yet talk about these men as if they were “collateral damage.” Is that the right term?

My father became a pacifist and so am I. That’s my legacy from the Civil War. My grandfather died before I was born. He would have been 99 if he had stayed around. My father is gone too. He would be 100 if he were alive. I’m 63 and tonight I miss absent friends.

Sorry for the hijack and the chip on my shoulder. I won’t distract from this thread anymore.