previous next

General Meade at Gettysburg.

Colonel James C. Biddle.
In order to understand fully the battle of Gettysburg, and to appreciate General Meade's services on that occasion, it will be necessary to refer briefly to some of the preceeding events. Two great battles had been recently fought between the contending forces in Virginia-at Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville-both resulting in the defeat of the Army of the Potomac. At Fredericksburg, that army, under the command of General Burnside, assaulted the enemy in a position naturally strong and thoroughly fortified, and was repulsed with heavy loss. General Meade, in this action, won great distinction. Holding the left of our line with his noble division, the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, he made an impetuous assault on the enemy's right, broke into his lines, and drove him from his works for over a half mile, capturing over two hundred prisoners, and several standards. In this advanced position, in which General Meade was left without support, he encountered heavy reinforcements of the enemy, who poured into his lines a destructive fire of infantry and artillery, not only in front but also on both flanks. Meade, unwilling to abandon the advantage he had gained, called repeatedly and earnestly for reinforcements, but in vain, and after a loss of nearly forty per cent. of his command, he was compelled to fall back, which he did without confusion. The history of the war does not contain the record of a more gallant assault, and by his brilliant conduct on this occasion, General Meade added to his already high reputation in the army. Soon after, in the latter part of December, 1862, he was promoted to the command of the Fifth Army Corps. [206]

In the following May was fought the battle of Chancellorsville, the result of which caused the most universal gloom and depression. We cannot here enter, at any length, into the history of that battle. It will be sufficient to call to mind how the Army of the Potomac, reorganized and reinforced, in the best of spirits, and confident of victory, led by General Hooker, who enjoyed its confidence to a very high degree, went forth to meet its old antagonist, the Army of Northern Virginia. It was again doomed to disappointment, and after a short and unsuccessful campaign, it recrossed the Rappahannock, disheartened — not demoralized — for it is the crowning glory of the Army of the Potomac that it never faltered under misfortunes which would have been fatal to the efficiency of most armies. It has been well said: “Not the Army of the Potomac was beaten at Chancellorsville, but its commander;” for the truth is, that the army, as a whole, did not fight in that battle, but the different corps were attacked by Lee and beaten in detail. The Eleventh Corps, badly posted, was surprised by superior numbers, and routed. The Third Corps, which had been sent out to follow the enemy, who was supposed to be in retreat, was cut off from the rest of the army by the rout of the Eleventh Corps, and was compelled to sustain alone, and for several hours, the attack of Lee's whole force, until it fell back, gallantly fighting, upon the rest of the army — the First, Second, Fifth, and Twelfth Corps, only parts of some of these corps being engaged. Lee then turned upon Sedgwick, who was advancing from Fredericksburg, and drove him across the Rappahannock. This was on the 5th of May, and the same night the whole army recrossed the river, the Fifth Corps, under General Meade, covering the retreat. In this battle Lee had sixty thousand men, Longstreet's Corps having been sent to operate south of the James river; Hooker had not less than ninety thousand men.

Lee's successes at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, necessarily dispiriting to our troops, had a contrary effect upon the Army of Northern Virginia, whose morale was thereby raised to the highest pitch, and who became inspired with the belief that it could defeat the Army of the Potomac under any circumstances. Colonel Freemantle, of the British service, who was with General Lee at Gettysburg, in writing of that battle, says: “The staff officers spoke of the coming battle as a certainty, and the universal feeling was one of profound contempt for an enemy whom they have beaten so constantly, and under so many disadvantages.” Lee himself was emboldened by these victories; and induced, as he says, by “important considerations,” doubtless under the conviction, too; that the Army [207] of the Potomac would be handled in Pennsylvania as at Chancellorsville, he determined upon an offensive campaign, the object of which was the capture of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. The end he hoped to attain was the long coveted recognition by foreign powers of the Southern Confederacy, its consequent successful establishment, and the complete humiliation of the Union cause. Accordingly, on the 22d of June, after a series of bold movements in Virginia, he ordered the advance of his army, under Ewell, into Maryland; and on the 24th and 25th, his two remaining corps, under Longstreet and Hill, crossed the Potomac at Williamsport and Shepherdstown, and followed Ewell, who had already advanced into Pennsylvania as far as Chambersburg. The Army of the Potomac crossed on the 25th and 26th, at Edwards' Ferry, and was concentrated in the neighborhood of Frederick, Maryland.

It was under these circumstances that, at two A. M. of June 28th, General Meade, still in command of the Fifth Corps, received from General Hardie, of the War Department, the order of the President placing him in command of the Army of the Potomac. This order was a complete surprise to General Meade, and it is not too much to say that by it he was suddenly called to a position in which, for a time, the fate of the country was in his hands. One false step now, and the Union cause was lost; for if Lee had succeeded in his plans for this campaign, the capture of Vicksburg, and other victories in the West, would have been of little avail. General Meade was as modest as he was brave, and while he never sought promotion, he never shrank from the responsibility which it brought. We shall see that he bore himself so well in this grave crisis, that within six days after he assumed command, by his rare energy and skill, he accomplished a difficult march, and fought successfully, with an army inferior in numbers to that of his adversary, the greatest battle of the war.

Immediately after receiving the order placing him in command, General Meade sought an interview with General Hooker, and used every effort to obtain information concerning the strength and position of the different corps of our army, and the movements of the enemy. General Meade, in his evidence before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, says: “My predecessor, General Hooker, left the camp in a very few hours after I relieved him. I received from him no intimation of any plan, or any views that he may have had up to that moment, and I am not aware that he had any, but was waiting for the exigencies of the occasion to govern him, just as I had to do subsequently.” [208]

On assuming command, General Meade addressed his army in the following characteristic order:

By direction of the President of the United States, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac. As a soldier, in obeying this order — an order totally unexpected and unsolicited — I have no promises or pledges to make. The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a hostile invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view constantly the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest. It is with just diffidence that I relieve in the command of this army an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must ever appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements; but I rely upon the hearty support of my companions in arms to assist me in the discharge of the important trust which has been confided to me.

Our army at this time consisted of the First Corps, General Reynolds; Second, General Hancock; Third, General Sickles; Fifth, General Sykes (who succeeded General Meade); Sixth, General Sedgwick; Eleventh, General Howard, and Twelfth, General Slocum; the cavalry under General Pleasonton, and the artillery under General Hunt, the Chief of Artillery. Nothing was known of General Lee excepting that he was north of us threatening Harrisburg. It should be mentioned here that we had been reduced in material strength by the expiration of the term of service of many of the two years and nine months regiments, while the enemy had been reinforced by the return of Longstreet's Corps. Two corps of our army were on the north side of the Sharp Mountain, separated from the main column by the ridge. General Meade ordered these corps to recross the ridge, and on the morning of June 29th, put his whole force in motion, his right flank covering Baltimore, and his left opposing Lee's right. General Meade says of his own intentions in this movement: “My object being, at all hazards, to compel the enemy to loose his hold on the Susquehanna, and meet me in battle at some point. It was my firm determination, never for an instant deviated from, to give battle wherever and as soon as I could possibly find the enemy.” On the night of June 29th, Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac, which he thought was still in Virginia, was advancing northward, threatening his communications. He therefore suspended the movement on Harrisburg, which he had ordered, and directed Longstreet, Hill, and Ewell to concentrate at Gettysburg. On the night of the 30th, after the Army of the Potomac had made two days marches, General Meade heard that Lee was concentrating his army to meet him, and being entirely ignorant of the nature of the country in front of him, he at once instructed his engineers to [209] select some ground having a general reference to the existing position of the army, which he might occupy by rapid movement of concentration, and thus give battle on his own terms, in case the enemy should advance across the South Mountain. The general line of Pipe Clay creek was selected, and a preliminary order of instructions issued to the corps commanders, informing them of this fact, and explaining how they might move their corps and concentrate in a good position along this line. This measure was made the ground of an accusation that General Meade had ordered a retreat. The mere statement of the nature of the order is of itself a sufficient refutation of the charge. General Humphreys, one of the ablest officers in our army, in speaking on this subject, says: “These instructions stated, ‘Developments may cause the commanding general to assume the offensive from his present positions.’ Not many hours after, new developments did cause him to change his plans, but these instructions evince that foresight which proves his (Meade's) ability to command an army. In similar circumstances, the agreement between Wellington and Blucher to concentrate their two armies-nearly double the number of Napoleon-far to the rear, in the vicinity of Waterloo, has been esteemed a proof of their great ability.”

On June 30th, General Meade had sent General Reynolds, who commanded the left wing of our army, to Gettysburg, with orders to report to him concerning the character of the ground there, at the same time ordering General Humphreys to examine the ground in the vicinity of Emmetsburg. But while thus active in his endeavors to ascertain the nature of the several positions where he could fight Lee, he, at the same time, continued to press forward his army, and concentrate it so that he could with ease move it toward any point. On the morning of July 1st, our advance, consisting of the First and Eleventh Corps, under General Reynolds, arrived at Gettysburg, and there found Buford's Division of cavalry already engaged with the enemy. Reynolds, with that quickness of perception, which was one of his most marked characteristics, saw at a glance that here was the ground on which the great contest must be fought out. In the language of General Meade: “He immediately moved around the town of Gettysburg, and advanced on the Cashtown road, and, without a moment's hesitation, deployed his advanced division, and attacked the enemy, at the same time sending orders for the Eleventh Corps, General Howard, to advance as promptly as possible.” . Then it was that Reynolds fell, the greatest soldier the Army of the Potomac ever lost in battle. We have seen, with regret, a statement recently made that General Meade had failed to [210] do justice to his services and to his memory. This statement does injustice to General Meade, between whom and General Reynolds existed a strong personal friendship, and we feel sure that both these gallant soldiers, now in their graves, would disapprove of the publication of anything calculated to convey so wrong an impression. The above quotation from Meade's official report is proof that he appreciated General Reynolds' action on the first day at Gettysburg, and, subsequently, on the occasion of the presentation to him of a sword by the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, he thus spoke, in words that express most eloquently the regret and admiration with which he cherished the memory of his fallen comrade and friend: “This reunion awakens in my heart a new sorrow for an officer whom it vividly recalls to my mind, for he commanded the division when I commanded one of the brigades. He was the noblest as well as the bravest gentleman in the army. I refer to John F. Reynolds. I cannot receive this sword without thinking of that officer. When he fell at Gettysburg, leading the advance, I lost not only a lieutenant of the utmost importance to me, but, I may say, that I lost a friend, aye, even a brother.”

While the contest was going on between the enemy and our advance, General Meade was at Taneytown, about thirteen miles distant, in the centre of his army. Owing — to the direction of the wind, the sound of Reynolds' guns did not reach his headquarters, and he did not hear until one P. M. of the same day that a portion of our troops had met the enemy, and that Reynolds had fallen. General Meade at once sent General Hancock to Gettysburg, with orders to assume command of all the troops, and to report to him concerning the practicability of fighting a battle there. General Meade has been criticised for sending General Hancock to command officers who were his superiors in rank, but that he was justified in doing so is made apparent by the following extract from a dispatch from General Buford, an able and distinguished officer, received by General Meade after Hancock had gone to the front:

headquarters First cavalry Division, July 1st, 1863-3.20 P. M.
* * * General Reynolds was killed early this morning. In my opinion there seems to be no directing person.

Being satisfied, from the reports of officers returning from the field, that General Lee was about to concentrate his whole army there, General Meade, without waiting to hear from Hancock, issued orders to the Fifth and Twelfth Corps to proceed to the scene of action. At 6.30 P. M. he received the first report from General [211] Hancock, in which that officer said: “We can fight here, as the ground appears not unfavorable, with good troops.” General Meade at once issued orders to all his corps commanders to move to Gettysburg, broke up his headquarters at Taneytown, and proceeded himself to the field, arriving there at one A. M. of the 2d. He was occupied during the night in directing the movements of the troops, and as soon as it was daylight, he proceeded to inspect the position occupied, and to make arrangements for posting the several corps as they should arrive. By seven A. M. the Second and Fifth Corps, with the rest of the Third, had reached the ground, and soon after the whole army was in position, with the exception of the Sixth Corps, which arrived at two P. M. after a long and fatiguing march. General Sedgwick says, in relation to this march: “I arrived at Gettysburg at about two o'clock in the afternoon of July 2d, having marched thirty-five miles from seven o'clock the evening previous. I received, on the way, frequent messages from General Meade to push forward my corps as rapidly as possible. I received no less than three Messages, by his aides, urging me on.”

As soon as the Sixth Corps had arrived, General Meade left his headquarters, and proceeded to the extreme left, to attend to the posting of the Fifth Corps, which he had ordered over from the right, and also to inspect the position of the Third Corps, about which he was in doubt. When he arrived on the ground, at about four P. M., he found that General Sickles, instead of connecting his right with the left of General Hancock, as he had been ordered to do, had thrown forward his line three-quarters of a mile in front of the Second Corps, leaving Little Round Top unprotected, and was, technically speaking, “in air” --without support on either flank. General Meade at once saw this mistake, and General Sickles promptly offered to withdraw to the line he had been intended to occupy, but General Meade replied: “You cannot do it. The enemy will not let you get away without a fight.” Before he had finished the sentence, his prediction was fulfilled. The enemy opened with artillery from the woods on our left, and the action was begun. Soon large masses of infantry from Longstreet's Corps were thrown upon Sickles, the enemy at the same time sending a heavy force toward Little Round Top, the key to the whole position. General Warren, Meade's chief engineer, was holding this important point, with a few men whom he had collected together. General Meade sent several staff officers to urge forward the column under General Sykes, which was coming up with all possible speed, and which fortunately soon arrived. General Sykes at once threw a [212] strong force upon Round Top, and succeeded in holding it against the enemy's assaults, after a fearful struggle.

In the meantime, the attack upon General Sickles was continued with great fury, and after a stubborn and gallant resistance, during which General Sickles was wounded, the Third Corps was compelled to fall back, shattered and broken, and to re-form behind the line originally intended to be held. Caldwell's Division of the Second Corps was sent by General Hancock to assist in checking the advance of the enemy, but after a severe struggle, in which Caldwell lost one-half of his command, the enemy enveloped his right and forced him back. The division of General Ayres was then struck on the right and rear, but with great courage it fought its way back through the enemy to its original line. General Humphreys, with his division, held the right of the line of the Third Corps. Although severely pressed by the enemy, he did not retire until ordered to do so, and then, judging that a rapid backward movement would demoralize his men, and make it difficult to rally them on the crest, he determined to withdraw slowly. He succeeded in this difficult movement, but with the loss of nearly one-half of his division. At length, when the enemy made a last furious charge on the crest, they were met by fresh troops, which had been sent by General Meade from other portions of the line, and were repulsed. General Meade, during this encounter, brought forward in person a brigade of the Twelfth Corps, and in the early part of the action his horse was shot under him. Finally, about sunset, a counter charge was made by our troops, in which the remnants of Humphrey's Division joined, and had the satisfaction of bringing back the guns they had previously lost. The division of Regulars, under General Ayres, led the assault on the right of the Fifth Corps, and pressed the enemy on the centre, but on the left they were outflanked and driven back. General Sykes at once ordered forward the Pennsylvania Reserves, who, led by General Crawford, made a gallant charge, and, after a sharp contest, the enemy retired. This ended the action on our left, but at eight P. M. it was suddenly renewed on our right by General Ewell, who made a powerful attack on our lines with the divisions of General Early and General Johnson, the former at Cemetery Hill and the latter at Culp's Hill. General Howard, who held the ground at Cemetery Hill, succeeded in repulsing the enemy, with the assistance of Carroll's Brigade of the Second Corps, which had been sent to his support by General Hancock. At Culp's Hill, the extreme right was held by only one brigade of the Twelfth Corps, the remainder of that corps not having yet returned from the left. [213] This brigade, commanded by General Greene, resisted the assault with great firmness, and, aided by Wadsworth's Division of the First Corps, finally succeeded in repulsing the enemy, who, however, advanced and occupied the breastworks on our furthest right, vacated by Geary's Division of the Twelfth Corps, which position they held during the night.

Thus ended, at ten P. M., the second day of the battle. Both armies had fought with a desperation which proved that they realized the tremendous issues which hung upon the conflict, but the result was indecisive. Lee had gained what he calls “partial successes,” Longstreet having taken possession of our advanced position on the left, and Ewell had a foothold within our lines on the right. But our main line remained intact, and the army, although wearied by long marches and hard fighting, was ready and anxious to renew the contest. Both officers and men had acquired from this day's experience a firm confidence in their new commander. General Meade's prompt and rapid movement of troops from one part of the line to another, wherever the enemy pressed most heavily, had made them feel that they were under the lead of a general who had the ability to handle the army effectively. Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville had shown how little the valor of the troops could accomplish when incompetently led; at Gettysburg, under a skilful and able leader, their bravery and heroic endurance were rewarded with victory. A Latin proverb says: “Formidabilior cervorum exercitus duce leone, quam leonum, cervo.

The battle was renewed at daylight on the 3d, on our right. During the night, General Meade had returned the portion of the Twelfth Corps, that had been sent over to the left, to its former position, and a terrible struggle took place for the possession of the ground which had been occupied by General Ewell the night before. General Lee had hoped, by holding this ground, to turn our position, but General Geary, with his division, assisted by troops from the Sixth Corps, attacked the enemy, and, after a severe engagement, which lasted five hours, he drove them from our lines with heavy loss. This action terminated at ten A. M., and was followed by several hours of perfect quiet, when, suddenly, the enemy opened upon us a terrific artillery fire, with not less than one hundred and twenty-five guns. Our batteries, which had been posted by General Hunt, the efficient Chief of Artillery, replied with about seventy guns — the nature of the ground not admitting of the use of more. This artillery duel, which lasted an hour and a half, was the most severe experienced anywhere during the war. The air was filled [214] with bursting shells and solid shot, and the very earth shook with the resounding cannon. General Meade well understood that the object of the enemy in this fire was to demoralize our men, preparatory to making a grand assault. He, therefore, directed our artillery to slacken their fire, and, finally, to cease altogether, with the view of making the enemy believe that they had silenced our guns, and thus bring on their assault the sooner. It resulted as he desired. Soon Lee's attacking column, composed of Pickett's Division, supported by Wilcox and Pettigrew, made a most gallant and well-sustained assault on our lines, advancing steadily, under a heavy artillery fire from the guns Lee thought he had silenced, to within musket range of our infantry. Here they were met by a terrible volley from Hays' and Gibbon's divisions, of the Second Corps. Pettigrew's command, composed of raw troops, gave way, and many of them were made prisoners; but Pickett's men, still undaunted, pressed on, and captured some of the intrenchments on our centre, crowding back the advanced portion of Webb's Brigade, which was soon rallied by the personal efforts of its commander. General Meade had ordered up Doubleday's Division and Stannard's Brigade of the First Corps, and, at this critical moment, General Hancock advanced, and Pickett's brave men were driven back with terrible loss. All their brigade commanders had fallen-one of them, General Armistead, being wounded and captured inside of our batteries. No one could have witnessed the conduct of the Southern troops, on this occasion, without a feeling of admiration, mingled with regret that such heroic courage and brave determination had not been displayed in a better cause. On our side the loss was very heavy, General Hancock and General Gibbon being among the wounded. When General Meade heard that Hancock, who had rendered conspicuous service throughout the battle, was wounded, he said to General Mitchell, of Hancock's staff, who had brought him the news: “Say to General Hancock that I thank him in my own name, and I thank him in the name of the country, for all he has done.”

As soon as the assault was repulsed, General Meade went to the left of our lines and ordered Crawford's Division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, to advance. This division met a portion of Hood's command and attacked them, capturing many prisoners and seven thousand stand of arms. By this action Crawford regained possession of nearly all the ground lost by Sickles the day before, and rescued our wounded, who had lain for twenty-four hours entirely uncared for. While our artillery and infantry were thus engaged, [215] our cavalry was doing good service on both flanks. General Farnsworth, on our left, with one brigade, made a gallant charge against the enemy's infantry; and, on our right, General Gregg successfully resisted an attempt of General Stuart to pass to our rear while Pickett attacked us in front.

Thus ended, in victory for the Union army, the battle of Gettysburg, one of the greatest battles on record-great in its results, as well as in the skill and valor with which it was fought. Of the private soldiers of the army, who names are unknown to fame, it must be said, that men did never show more courage; more patience, and firm endurance, than did the rank and file of the grand old Army of the Potomac in this battle, and during the trying marches which preceded it. In this imperfect account it has been impossible to do justice to, or even to mention, many who most distinguished themselves in the great contest. All did their duty zealously, some with more, some with less ability. But among the men who will ever be remembered in connection with that proud day in our history, General Meade will stand foremost as the “facillime princeps”, the leader under whose command the glorious result was achieved.

The loss of the Army of the Potomac in this battle was twenty-three thousand--that of the enemy could not have been less than thirty thousand. At the close of the action, General Meade issued the following address to his troops:

The Commanding General, in behalf of the country, thanks the Army of the Potomac for the glorious result of the recent operations.

Our enemy, superior in numbers, and flushed with the pride of a successful invasion, attempted to overcome, or destroy this army. Utterly baffled and defeated, he has now withdrawn from the contest.

The privations and fatigue the army has endured, and the heroic courage and gallantry it has displayed, will be matters of history to be ever remembered. Our task is not yet accomplished, and the Commanding General looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.

It is right and proper that we should, on suitable occasions, return our grateful thanks to the Almighty Disposer of events, that, in the goodness of his Providence, He has thought fit to give voice to the cause of the just.

It had been General Meade's intention to order a general advance from our left, after the close of the action; but, owing to the lateness of the hour, and the wearied condition of the army, with a “wisdom that did guide his valor to act in safety,” he abandoned the movement he had contemplated. For this he has been severely censured. General Howard, in an article in the Atlantic Monthly, of July last, says: “I have thought that the fearful exposure [216] of General Meade's headquarters, where so much havoc was occasioned by the enemy's artillery, had so impressed him that he did not at first realize the victory he had won.” The reverse of this is true. General Meade was not in the least “demoralized” by the enemy's fire, but realized fully the exact condition of affairs. Lee had been repulsed, not routed, and, if Meade had yielded to his own inclination to attack, he would have been repulsed himself, and would thus have thrown away the fruits of his great victory. That this view is correct, is proved beyond all doubt by the following passage, from Mr. William Swinton's “History of the army of the Potomac.” Mr. Swinton says:

I have become convinced, from the testimony of General Longstreet himself, that attack would have resulted disastrously. “I had,” said that officer to the writer, “Hood and McLaws, who had not been engaged; I had a heavy force of artillery; I should have liked nothing better than to have been attacked, and have no doubt that I should have given those who tried as bad a reception as Pickett received.”

On July 4th, Lee, during a heavy storm, withdrew from our front, and on the 11th took up a position at Williamsport, on the Potomac. He was closely followed by Meade, who came up with him on the 12th, and who found him in a position naturally almost impregnable, and strongly fortified. Meade's impulse was to attack at once, but, after consultation with his corps commanders, he abstained from ordering an assault until he could more fully reconnoitre the enemy's position. On the morning of the 14th, a reconnoissance in force, supported by the whole army, was made at daylight; but, on the night of the 13th, Lee had recrossed the Potomac. There was a great deal of clamor at the time, because Meade did not destroy or capture Lee's army at Williamsport; but Meade, conscious that he had acted wisely, always felt that history would do him justice. Had he assaulted, he would certainly have been defeated, and the result would have been disastrous not only to the army, but to the country, for a defeat to our army there would have opened the road to Washington and the North, and all the fruits of Gettysburg would have been dissipated. A brief reference to the subsequent experience of the Army of the Potomac will confirm the truth of this assertion. In May, 1864, we began the campaign with one hundred and fifteen thousand men, and after Spottsylvania Court-House were constantly receiving heavy reinforcements. General Lee had about sixty thousand men. And yet, with this great preponderance of strength, we assaulted the enemy again and again, in positions not so strong as the one held at Williamsport, always without [217] success and with terrible loss. From the crossing of the Rapidan, on May 5th, to the unsuccessful assault on the enemy's works at Petersburg, June 18th, a period of about six weeks, the Army of the Potomac lost not less than seventy thousand men. In the battles between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, in no case was a direct assault upon an intrenched position successful.

There is evidence that the enemy were anxious to be attacked at Williamsport. In the “History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps,” by Mr. J. R. Sypher, a letter is quoted from the Rev. Dr. Falk, who was in the enemy's lines at that place. Dr. Falk says:

I was at the College of St. James, to which, on account of its commanding position, very many officers of the highest rank came to reconnoitre Meade's lines. From the conversation of these officers among themselves, and with us, it was evident that they most ardently desired to be attacked. “Now we have Meade where we want him.” “If he attacks us here, we will pay him back for Gettysburg.” “But the old fox is too cunning.” These and similar expressions showed clearly that they believed their position strong enough to hold it against any attacking force.

The country has never realized how much it owes to General Meade's moral firmness in resisting his strong desire to attack the enemy here and at Gettysburg, and in view of the vital issues depending upon his action on these occasions, it may be said of him, as truly as it was said of Fabius:

Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem;
Non ponebat enim rumores ante salutem.

(One man by delay restored to us the State, for he preferred the public safety to his own fame.)

Although General Meade needs no eulogy, his great deeds speaking for him more eloquently than any words, it may not be out of place to say something concerning his character as a soldier and as a man. As a soldier he was singularly modest and unassuming. He did his duty always in a quiet and undemonstrative way, and was entirely free from what may be called the tricks of popularity. He never claimed credit for services rendered by others, nor did he exaggerate those rendered by himself. On the night of July 3d, at Gettysburg, after the final repulse of the enemy, when every man in the army felt elated with the great victory, he prepared a dispatch to the General-in-chief so moderate in tone that one of his staff officers said to him: “You ought to boast a little more, General, for the country will not appreciate what you have done, unless you do so.” General Meade replied: “I would rather understate our success than claim greater results than I have accomplished,” and the dispatch [218] was sent as he had written it. General Meade gave to the country his best energies from the beginning to the end of the war, and from July, 1863, until the final mustering out of our armies, as commander of the Army of the Potomac, he held a position not second in importance to that occupied by any other officer. Not only is there an entire absence of undue boasting in his dispatches and orders during all this period, but he was ready at all times to speak in words of praise of other generals, some of whom had received honors which his friends believed rightfully to belong to him.

As the commander of an army, General Meade was prompt to plan, and quick to execute; always ready for every possible movement of the enemy; fertile in expedients to meet unlooked-for emergencies; full of vigor, but not rash; firm, patient, and self-reliant. He showed these great qualities, not only in the campaign through which we have followed him, but in many others; and we may say here that, if the true history of the campaigns in Virginia, from the Wilderness to Appomattox Court-House, shall ever be written, the country will be surprised to hear how much was done by one whose name is hardly connected in the public mind with these achievements. The more General Meade's career is studied, the greater does his ability as a soldier appear; and lest we should seem to over-estimate him, we give the opinion of General Lee, the man of all others best qualified to judge of the skill of our generals. In an article written by Colonel J. Esten Cooke, who served in the Southern army, on the staff of General J. E. B. Stuart, that officer says:

General Lee esteemed the late General Meade very highly as a soldier, declaring that he was the best officer in the Federal army, and had “given him more trouble than any of them.”

General Grant, too, has put on record his estimate of Meade's ability. Writing not long before the closing campaign of the war, he said:

General Meade is one of our truest men, and ablest officers. He has been constantly with the Army of the Potomac, confronting the strongest, best appointed, and most confident army of the South. He therefore has not had the opportunity of winning laurels so distinctly marked as have fallen to the lot of other generals. But I defy any man to name a commander who would do more than Meade has done, with the same chances. General Meade was appointed [Major General in the Regular army] at my solicitation, after a campaign of most protracted, and covering more severely-contested battles than any of which we have any account in history. I have been with General Meade through the whole campaign, and I not only made the recommendation upon a conviction that this recognition of his [219] services was fully won, but that he was eminently qualified for the command such rank would entitle him to.1

General Meade was emphatically a Christian soldier, and never forgot his responsibility to a higher power. Caring more for the approval of his conscience than for the applause of his countrymen, no consideration could ever swerve him from the course he knew to be right; and on more than one occasion he deliberately chose to endanger his own reputation, rather than risk unnecessarily the lives of his men. For he was a man who “gained strength by prayer, and knew no guide but duty.” In speaking of him in this respect, we cannot better conclude than by quoting the following extract from the address delivered at his funeral, by Bishop Whipple, of Minnesota:

If I asked any of you to describe our brother's character, you would tell me that he had a woman's gentleness, with the strength of a great-hearted man. I believe it was the lessons of Christian faith, inwrought into a soldier's life, which made him know no guide but duty, which made him so kind to the helpless, which placed him foremost in all public works, and made his name a household wold in all your homes. During the dark days of our civil war, I happened to be in Washington. He telegraphed me to come and celebrate Easter in his camp, with the Holy Communion. It was a strange place for Easter flowers and Easter songs, and the story of the Resurrection, but I do not recall a sweeter service, nor one more redolent of the peace of heaven. Of the bronzed veterans who knelt beside the Lord's table, some, like Williams and Meade, are sleeping with the dead; others are scattered far, and busy in life's work. That day I knew that we had in our camp centurions who feared God and prayed always. The world loves to tell other stories of public men; and, perhaps, no eye but God's sees the record of the conflict of human souls in the battle of life. Death came suddenly, without the sound of a footfall; there were a few days when friends waited on medical skill, but his heart was in the country whither he was going. He looked to the Savior, the only one in heaven or earth who could help him. He asked for the Holy Communion, and by the Lord's table gathered manna for the journey; the words of penitence, and the look of faith, were blended with his dying prayers, and he fell asleep.

Our country had no greater soldier, no truer man, than George G. Meade, the skilful general, the incorruptible patriot, the pure, honorable, chivalrous, Christian gentleman. We need such men in the army and in the State, always and everywhere. Long may we cherish his memory, and honor his virtues.

1 General Grant subsequently, when he became President of the United States, overslaughed General Meade by appointing to the vacant Lieutenant Generalship General Sheridan, Meade's junior in rank. This was unjust, not only to General Meade, but to the Army of the Potomac, which had displayed such wonderful fortitude and courage during the protracted and bloody campaign of which General Grant speaks, and which deserved that, by the promotion of its commander to this high rank, the government should recognize the paramount importance of its services in bringing the war to a successful end. It is far from our intention to say anything in disparagement of General Sheridan, who was a brave and able officer, but as General Grant “defies any man” to name an abler commander than Meade. and as Meade ranked Sheridan, the injustice is apparent.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
June 29th (2)
May 5th (2)
May, 1864 AD (1)
July 1st, 1863 AD (1)
July, 1863 AD (1)
December, 1862 AD (1)
July 4th (1)
July 3rd (1)
July 2nd (1)
July 1st (1)
July (1)
June 30th (1)
June 28th (1)
June 22nd (1)
June 18th (1)
May (1)
30th (1)
14th (1)
13th (1)
12th (1)
3rd (1)
2nd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: