By Sarah Downum, Intern, Catalog of American Portraits, NPG
The military career of General George Gordon Meade (1815–1872) began when he was admitted into West Point at the age of fifteen. He was not initially interested in joining the army, and he worked as a surveyor while attending school and following his one-year military assignment. He eventually applied for reinstatement in order to work with the military engineers. Initially appointed second lieutenant of topographical engineers in 1842, he continuously rose in position. Meade was eventually placed in command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863.
The most criticized moment in Meade’s career came during the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863. Although his defensive maneuvers eventually proved victorious against General Lee’s army, he was initially criticized for not following up on the victory with an aggressive pursuit of the retreating Confederates, thus allowing Lee’s army to escape. Writing to his wife on July 16, Meade responded to these allegations:
My army (men and animals) is exhausted; it wants rest and reorganization; it has been greatly reduced and weakened by recent operations, and no reinforcements of any practical value have been sent. Yet, in the face of all these facts, well known to them, I am urged, pushed and spurred to attempting to pursue and destroy an army nearly equal to my own.
Meade would outlast the criticism, and when Ulysses Grant took command of all Union armies in March 1864, Meade would serve under him. From May 5 to 6, 1864, the first phase of a large Union offensive against the Confederate capital at Richmond began with fighting at the Wilderness.
This was followed by continued fighting in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, from May 8 through 21, which proved devastating for both sides. As Bruce Catton writes, “If there could be a climax to a battle of this kind it came on May 12 . . . when Grant and Meade ordered a frontal assault on a bulging crescent of Confederate trenches and brought on one of the most terrible fights of the entire war.”
While both sides faced heavy losses after the first battle, it marked the beginning of a long but successful Union campaign. As Meade concluded in a letter of May 13, 1864,
Our losses have been frightful. . . . Those of the enemy fully as great. Our work is not over, but we have the prestige of success, which is everything, and I trust our final success will be assured.
Throughout his career, Meade faced criticism from the press, and his role in the war was largely overshadowed by of Ulysses S. Grant’s victories. However, Meade proved himself to be an honest and relentless leader who, in forcing Lee to retreat and continuing to hold the offensive during the Battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, created a stand for the Union’s victory in the Civil War.
Following the war, Meade continued to serve in the army. He helped foil a planned invasion into Canada by the American Fenian Society in 1866. The Fenians were an American branch of the Irish Fenian Society, which strove for Ireland’s independence from England. Under instruction from Lieutenant General Grant, Meade was able to protect the border at Eastport, Maine. Ultimately, at the end of that same year he commanded the Military Division of the Atlantic in Philadelphia, and it was at this position in Philadelphia that he died of pneumonia on November 6, 1872.
Battle of the Wilderness. (n.d.), History Channel website, accessed March 2014
Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), vol. 3, p. 360.
Freeman Cleaves, Meade of Gettysburg. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960).
Herman Hattaway and Michael D. Smith, George Gordon Meade, American National Biography Online, accessed March 2014
Joseph G. Hopkins, et. al., Concise Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977).
G. G. Meade, ed. The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade (1913; reprint, Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 135, 195.
Alexander S. Webb, “Through the Wilderness,” The Way to Appomattox: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956), vol. 4.