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Part 5. narrative of the battle of Gettysburg

I: the March to Gettysburg

On the afternoon of the same day on which this last letter was written, June 25, General Meade received the order of march for the following day, which was to bring his corps to Frederick City, Maryland. Accordingly, early in the morning of June 26, the corps started en route for that place, and going by way of Carter's Mill1 and Leesburg, crossed the Potomac at the upper pontoon bridge, at Edwards's Ferry, and proceeded to within four miles of the Monocacy, where it encamped for the night. Resuming its march, early on the 27th, it forded the Monocacy near its mouth, and arrived toward afternoon at Ballinger's Creek, just outside of Frederick City.

After making proper dispositions for the encampment of the corps, General Meade rode into Frederick City with one or two of his staff, hoping to meet there General Hooker, whom he had not seen since breaking camp near Banks's Ford, on the Rappahannock, on the 13th of June, and to gain some information as to the plans and supposed whereabouts of the enemy; in which hope he was disappointed, General Hooker not having yet arrived.

Returned to camp, ignorant of a great change which had been decided upon and impended over him and the army, General Meade lay quietly asleep in his tent at three o'clock of the morning of June 28, when he was aroused by hearing on the outside an inquiry for his tent, by a person who claimed to be the bearer of important despatches to him. This proved to be Colonel James A. Hardie, of General Halleck's staff, who entered General Meade's tent and executed his mission.

What this mission might have been was the occasion of agitated comment among several of General Meade's aides, who, their tents [2] being in the immediate vicinity, were awakened by the stir in camp at that hour. That it had been executed in the dead of night, by an officer direct from the general-in-chief at the War Department, proved it to be of the last importance; but that was the only thing evident. What it portended, whether good or ill, to their general, no one could pretend to say. Enough, however, of the misunderstandings and difficulties with which he lately had had to contend was known to that little band to make some apprehensive that all was not well. The details of the interview between General Meade and Colonel Hardie will be left for the general himself to relate in the next letter to his wife.

General Meade soon appeared from his tent, and designating one of his aides as the only officer, besides Colonel Hardie, to accompany him, just as the day was faintly dawning he mounted and set out with his two companions for the Headquarters of the army. The little party rode silently along, the conversation almost restricted to a few questions asked by General Meade, who seemed deeply absorbed in his own thoughts, until, Headquarters being reached just after daylight, he was ushered into the tent of General Hooker, who was apparently ready to receive him. The interview between Generals Hooker and Meade lasted for some time, when the latter issued from the tent and called to his aide, who had been patiently waiting outside, still uninformed as to what was taking place, but with a vague impression that the fate of his general was not to be that predicted by his brother aides-de-camp. Although, as he answered the general's summons, he could not fail to observe that the general continued very grave, he also perceived a familiar twinkle of the eye, denoting the anticipation of surprise at information to be imparted, the effect of which he was curious to see; and so, when he at last quietly said, ‘Well, George, I am in command of the Army of the Potomac,’ his hearer was not, after all, very much surprised.

Giving immediate directions for his other aides-de-camp to join him at Headquarters, and for having personal effects brought over from the Headquarters of the Fifth Corps, the general retired into one of the tents, and in his consummate manner, in which all his powers were at his disposal at a moment's notice, at once bent his mind and energies to the task before him. The magnitude of this task may be faintly imagined but cannot be realized. It must be remembered that a change of commanders had been made in an army, not when, the preliminary manoeuvres having been executed, it awaited or was engaged in battle, where, in either case, a change [3] of commanders is an ordinary incident of war, but that the change had been made in an army on the march, with its corps necessarily distributed over a great extent of territory, advancing to intercept and concentrate against an army of supposably equal or superior numbers, the whereabouts of which was not accurately known, led by the ablest general of the enemy.

General Hooker, at the interview which had taken place between him and his successor, relieved it of all embarrassment by the extreme courtesy of his demeanor, expressing his gratification at the choice which had been made for his successor. General Meade responded in the same spirit, and assured General Hooker that the selection had been made without any action or even knowledge on his part; that it was against his personal inclinations; but that, as a soldier, subject to authority, he felt bound to obey orders.

Within a few hours after being relieved of the command of the army, General Hooker took his departure for Baltimore, the post designated in his orders. General Meade received no intimation from him of any plan that he had formed, or of any views that he held, and therefore naturally presumed that he had had no definite plans, but that he had been, up to that moment, as he himself was subsequently obliged to be, governed by developments.

It seems that the final disagreement between General Hooker and the general-in-chief, General Halleck, was with reference to the post and garrison of Harper's Ferry. General Hooker had visited Harper's Ferry on the 27th, and thence addressed a recommendation to General Halleck to abandon the post and order the garrison to join the Army of the Potomac. General Halleck declined to consent to this, and General Hooker, in consequence of this action, feeling aggrieved, requested to be relieved from the command of the army. His request being complied with, soon after the arrival of General Meade he bade farewell to the army in a general order.

With the order placing General Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac came the following letter from General Halleck:

Headquarters of the army, Washington, D. C., June 27, 1863.
Major General G. G. Meade, Army of the Potomac.

You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac. Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I [4] cannot doubt that you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you.

You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters. Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington, as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels. You will therefore manoeuvre and fight in such a manner as to cover the Capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit. Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him, so as to give him battle.

All forces within the sphere of your operations will be held subject to your orders.

Harper's Ferry and its garrison are under your direct orders.

You are authorized to remove from command and send from your army any officer or other person you may deem proper; and to appoint to command as you may deem expedient.

In fine, General, you are intrusted with all the power and authority which the President, the Secretary of War, or the General-in-Chief can confer on you, and you may rely on our full support.

You will keep me fully informed of all your movements and the positions of your own troops and those of the enemy, so far as known.

I shall always be ready to advise and assist you to the utmost of my ability.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

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

Soon after his interview with General Hooker, General Meade telegraphed to the general-in-chief as follows:

Frederick, Md., 7 A. M., June 28, 1863.
H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief:
The order placing me in command of this army is received. As a soldier I obey it, and to the utmost of my ability will execute it. Totally unexpected as it has been, and in ignorance of the exact condition of the troops and position of the enemy, I can only now say [5] that it appears to me I must move towards the Susquehanna, keeping Washington and Baltimore well covered, and if the enemy is checked in his attempt to cross the Susquehanna, or if he turns towards Baltimore, to give him battle. I would say that I trust that every available man that can be spared will be sent to me, as, from all accounts, the enemy is in strong force. So soon as I can post myself up I will communicate more in detail.

George G. Meade, Major General.

The general then at once issued his order assuming the command of the army.

Headquarters army of the Potomac, June 28, 1863.

General orders, no. 67.

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 foreign 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 great 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 duties of the important trust which has been confided to me.

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