previous next

General Meade's temper.

Its peculiarities made him an enigma.

What Dana wrote about It—a note from Mr. LincolnGeneral Halleck and the Testy Commander—Took his own course.

The late Federal General Meade's peculiarities of temper, to draw it mildly, were such as to make him something of an enigma, even to his closest associates in the Army of the Potomac, which he commanded from Gettysburg to the close of the war. He was a singularly fretful man—a most trying characteristic always—and especially in one occuping a high command—and often indulged on the slightest provocation in very unpalatable language toward those with whom he came in contact. This irascibility of temper made him many enemies in the army. It is generally understood that at one period personal dislike of General Meade was almost universal [248] among the officers of higher rank. Hon. Charles A. Dana, who as Assistant-Secretary of War was with the army during the early days at Petersburg, in one of his reports to Secretary Stanton, made the following vigorous statements concerning General Meade's faults of temper:

City Point, Va., July 7th, 1864.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War.
A change in the commander of the Army of the Potomac now seems probable. Grant has great confidence in Meade, and is much attached to him personally, but the almost universal dislike of Meade which prevails among the officers of every rank who come in contact with him, and the difficulty of doing business with him felt by every one except Grant himself, so greatly impair his capacities for usefulness and render success under his command so doubtful that Grant seems to be coming to the conviction that he must be relieved. * * I have long known Meade to be a man of the worst possible temper, especially toward his subordinates. I do not think he has a friend in the whole army. No man, no matter what his business or his service, approaches him without being insulted in one way or another, and his own staff-officers do not dare to speak to him unless first spoken to, for fear of either sneers or curses. The latter, however, I have never heard him indulge in very violently, but he is said to apply them often without occasion and without reason. * * *

Toward the end there is a discernible modification of the better feeling against Meade; nevertheless, it is certain that he never became a popular commander, either with the officers or men of his army, though his military capacity was recognized and respected by all.

While Mr. Dana's characterization of General Meade's dictatorial manners undoubtedly conveyed the truth to the Secretary of War, and accurately diagnosed the feeling toward him in the army, it yet appears that in carrying forward his military operations this hotheaded commander, so quick at trigger in personal matters, never acted upon impulse, and never lost his equipoise; every movement in important or dangerous crisis seems to have been dictated only by the most cool and dispassionate judgment. So tenacious and clear of purpose was he that no amount of pressure or nagging from his superiors could sway General Meade to act against his judgment of the necessities of a given military situation. [249]

This surprising characteristic in so irritable and passionate a man had two remarkable illustrations during General Lee's mystifying flank movement from the Rapidan toward Washington in the fall of 1863. General Meade, finding the Confederates on his right flank, and threatening his communications with Washington, fell back rapidly from the line of the Rapidan, first to the Rappahannock, and ultimately behind Bull Run, concentrating his army in the vicinity of Centreville. It was then well known that General Lee had recently detached Longstreet to the assistance of Bragg at Chattanooga, and that consequently he was still probably inferior in strength to the Union army, although that also had been reduced by two corps, sent to reinforce Rosecrans, after the Battle of Chickamauga. The Washington authorities, therefore, correctly viewed General Lee's advance as a big ‘bluff,’ which ought to be ‘called,’ and constantly urged General Meade to make a stand and fight.

Lincoln's note.

In a short note to General Halleck, the Federal general-in-chief, dated October 16, 1863, President Lincoln, touching upon the situation as he understood it, and pointing out the probability of General Lee's inferiority of numbers, closes with the following eminently Lincolnian suggestion:

* * * If General Meade can now attack him (Lee) on a field no more than equal for us, and do so with all the skill and courage which he, his officers, and men possess, the honor will be his if he succeeds, and the blame may be mine if he fails.

Yours truly,

In deep anxiety to impress General Meade with the importance of immediately attacking General Lee, the President's letter was transmitted by Halleck to the front by special messenger, Colonel Cutts, of his staff. As the President and his military advisers at Washington could have had but little accurate knowledge of what was passing with great rapidity from hour to hour at the front, and hence were in a measure incapable of judging of the chances of success in a collision; and, therefore, declined to assume the responsibility of making a direct order for an attack, this urgency on the part of his superiors must have been excessively exasperating to the Union commander, the more so because it was his distinct purpose to deliver battle upon the first favorable opportunity. But General Lee had projected his movement so unexpectedly and prosecuted it with such energy and [250] rapidity as to leave General Meade for a time in almost complete darkness as to his enemy's whereabouts and ultimate purpose. He was unwilling, therefore, through undue precipitation, to take any chances of repeating the appalling Federal blunders and disasters of the preceding year on this very ground.

The war records make it perfectly clear now that General Meade lost a great opportunity in this short campaign, for it appears that General Lee was far inferior in strength to the Union army. The very boldness of his movements was calculated to conceal his numerical weakness. But with the meagre knowledge Meade possessed of Lee's movements he was undoubtedly justified in a line of action which had the appearance of timidity. If General Pope, in the campaign of 1862, also several days in ignorance of his enemy's whereabouts and intentions, had followed the wise policy of General Meade and fallen back behind Bull Run, there safely awaiting the development of General Lee's purpose, it is unquestionable that he could have received the Confederate attack on his own ground with a force nearly double his enemy, for in that campaign Lee was on the offensive in dead earnest. The result would, doubtless, have been very much more favorable to the Federal cause, as well as to General Pope's personal fortunes.

Followed his own judgment.

So, notwithstanding his President's evident willingness to shoulder the blame for a possible failure, General Meade imperturably followed his own judgment regarding such movements as the military situation seemed to require. He contented himself with calmly replying to the President, through General Halleck, that it was, and had been, his intention to attack when the whereabouts of the enemy was discovered; that only lack of information on this head and fear of jeopardizing his communications with the capital had prevented his doing so thus far. And that was all.

But the pressure from Washington continued, and resulted in the second episode to which I have alluded, two days later. On the 18th of October, from the vicinity of Centerville, General Meade telegraphed Halleck asking for information of General Lee's movements, and announcing that ‘it is impossible to move this army until I know something more definite of the movements of the enemy.’ Everything indicated that the Confederate army was between Bull Run and the Rappahannock, but a rumor had reached [251] General Meade that its head had appeared again in the lower Shenandoah Valley. Upon this, General Halleck, seemingly having lost all patience with his subordinate's ignorance of the situation in which he was a chief factor, and manifest inability to procure accurate information of General Lee's movements, or divine his intentions, answered him in the following tart strain:

war Department, Washington, October 18, 1893.
Major-General Meade, Army of the Potomac.
The attack on Charlestown was not in great force. Enemy finally repulsed. General Sullivan had promised details, but none received. Lee is unquestionably bullying you. If you cannot ascertain his movements, I certainly cannot. If you pursue and fight him, I think you will find out where he is. I know of no other way.

H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief.

The sneering tone of this dispatch was of itself sufficient to arouse the temper of a much more placid man than General Meade under normal circumstances; but at this juncture there were two extraordinary considerations which made it to him peculiarly aggravating. As shown above, the peppery Union commander was already chafing under the knowledge that his movements of the previous ten days had been unsatisfactory to his superiors, and that his falling back upon Washington before an inferior enemy, with whom he had been seeking a general engagement ever since Gettysburg, had caused distrust of his capacity, as well as desire to again meet his able Confederate antagonist; secondly, Halleck, of all the others, had been most urgent for an offensive stand against General Lee from the inception of his movement, as well as a covert critic from day to day of the continued retreat of the Federal army from the Rapidan.

Meades reply.

General Meade was not a man to tamely submit to bullying, even from a superior, and one cannot help admiring the warm spirit with which he now resented Halleck's attitude, as well as the manner of it. This was his quick retort: [252]

headquarters army of the Potomac, October 18, 1863—8.30 P. M.
MajorGeneral Halleck.
Your telegram of 7 P. M. just received. If you have any orders to give me, I am prepared to receive and obey them; but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in the guise of opinions as you have recently honored me with, particularly as they have not been asked for. I take this occasion to repeat what I have before stated — that if my course, based on my own judgment, does not meet with approval, I ought to be, and I desire to be, relieved from command.

George G. Meade, Major-General Commanding.

General Halleck was undoubtedly an able, clear-headed adviser to his government. The one blot upon the character of this accomplished man was an inherent disposition to browbeat subordinates—an overbearing habit that had its first public illustration in his treatment of the modest, unassuming Grant early in 1862, and, subsequently Sherman, at the close of the war. But when, in turn, he met a bulldozer like General Meade, he seemed to lack the necessary moral courage to carry the game through with a high hand. He weakened.

On the next day, on the excuse that his ‘truisms’ were merely telegraphed as the best mode of conveying to the general in the field the ‘wishes of the government,’ Halleck apologized to Meade in the most handsome manner, if his language had ‘unintentionally given offence.’ And in a spirit that showed him to be a true soldier and a gentleman, Meade replied: ‘Your explanation of your intentions is accepted, and I thank you for it.’

A word more. General Meade doggedly persisted in his policy of circumspection, and was henceforward left to his own devices in the conduct of the campaign without suggestion or comment from Washington. General Lee, his purpose accomplished, slowly retired to the Rappahannock, behind which he prepared to go into winter-quarters, General Meade cautiously following, watching closely for a favorable opportunity to deliver battle. On November 7th he suddenly and unexpectedly attacked a Confederate redoubt at Rappahannock Station, with overwhelming numbers, making considerable captures, and successfully forcing a passage of the river. [253] This compelled a change of plan of General Lee's part, and he retired still further behind the Rapidan again. This event demonstrated that General Meade no more lacked the nerve to take the offensive under favorable circumstances, when his judgment dictated it, than to resent the unjustifiable bullying of Halleck.

Leslie J. Perry. Washington, November 12, 1895.

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 Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
George G. Meade (31)
R. E. Lee (17)
H. W. Halleck (13)
James H. Grant (4)
A. Lincoln (3)
Charles A. Dana (3)
E. M. Stanton (2)
Pope (2)
Sullivan (1)
Sherman (1)
W. S. Rosecrans (1)
Leslie J. Perry (1)
Meades (1)
James Longstreet (1)
Abraham Lincoln (1)
C. A. Dana (1)
Cutts (1)
Bragg (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: