Was George Meade the best man to command the Army of the Potomac?

Andy Cardinal

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#1
54f6e0cb4cb722e8a39ae0f3824cd8c1.jpg

I have been interested in Meade since my first trip to Gettysburg in 1988. I noted even then, as a relatively uninformed student of the battle, that the victor of Gettysburg was greatly overshadowed by Robert E. Lee. In the old Visitor's Center bookstore I found multiple titles devoted to Lee, but only 1 about Meade, which I bought -- With Meade at Gettysburg by his son.

Meade has been discussed often on this forum. Where does Meade rank among Union commanders? What were his real intentions at Gettysburg? Should Hooker have been removed and replaced by Meade? Why was Meade chosen to replace Hooker? How much was the victory at Gettysburg due to Meade? Or, as Butterfield and (especially) Sickles later claimed, in spite of Meade? Should Meade have ordered an attack at Williamsport?

I hope in a series of posts to shed some light on Meade, why he was chosen to assume command of the Army of the Potomac, and why I believe he was the best man for the job at the time (and incidentally the best man for job once Grant came East).

Opinions expressed are obviously mine. Please comment, add to, contradict, challenge as you see fit.


George Gordon Meade did not have the appearance of a victorious commanding general. He did not possess the charisma or magnetism that endeared other commanders to their men. He was tall, thin, balding, wore glasses, and possessed a temper that was well-known in the army. One soldier wrote that Meade “might have been taken as a Presbyterian clergyman, unless one approached him when he was mad.” James F. Rusling, a Third Corps staff officer at the time of Meade’s appointment, described the new commander as “tall and slender, gaunt and sad of visage, with iron gray hair and beard, ensconced behind a pair of spectacles, and with few popular traits around him, but with a keen and well-disciplined intellect, a cool and sound judgment, and by both education and temperament was every inch a soldier.” Meade, Rusling wrote, was “a conscientious and hard worker; as a rule, rising early and retiring late.” His “sense of humor was not large, but he was keen and intelligent, his mind worked and comprehensively, his patriotism was perfect, his sense of duty intense; and he would willingly have laid down his life at any time had our cause required it. In manner he was often sharp and peremptory, but this was because of his utter absorption in great affairs.”

He was a capable and reliable professional soldier who rose to command on the strength of a solid if unspectacular combat record and, more importantly, an ability to successfully navigate the political infighting that characterized the Army of the Potomac. He was noted for his courage under fire. Years later, Joseph Hayes described Meade as “Tall, spare, nervous and excitable; with elegant manners and a patrician aspect; large, bulging, brilliant eyes and a hawk nose,” and remembered that “when he turned his hat around, with the acorns and scrolls behind -- we knew there was hot work before us…. He was a slasher -- a fiery fellow.” He was considered a fighting general, and D. H. Hill, a division commander in Lee's army during the Maryland Campaign of 1862, later wrote: "Meade was one of our most dreaded foes. He was always in deadly earnest, and eschewed all trifling." In January 1863, Meade and his staff were dining at the Willard’s Hotel in Washington as the general was travelling back to the army after a short time home in Philadelphia. Two men observed the unpretentious general as he ate his dinner. “What Major General is that?” one of the men asked. “Meade,” the other answered. “Who is that?” the first man asked. “I never saw him before.” “No that is very likely,” the second replied, “for he is one of our fighting Generals, is always in the field and does not spend his time in Washington hotels.” The exchange pleased Meade greatly, and he proudly recounted the episode to his wife.

Meade’s dominant personal characteristic was an overriding sense of duty. “For myself, I am here from a sense of duty,” he wrote to his wife, “because I could not with honor be away, and whatever befalls me, those of my blood who survive me can say, I trust, that I did my duty.” This sense of duty made him a highly successful and reliable subordinate, as Horace Porter (one of Ulysses S. Grant's staff officers, who got to know Meade well during the Overland Campaign of 1864) later noted. “Meade was a most accomplished soldier,” Porter wrote. “He had been thoroughly educated in his profession, and had a complete knowledge of both the science and the art of war in all its branches…. He was a disciplinarian to the point of severity, was entirely subordinate to his superiors, and no one was more prompt than he to obey orders to the letter.” Meade was “full of a sense of responsibility” which contributed to perhaps his worst personality flaw -- a volcanic temper which he was at times completely unable to control. Theodore Lyman, who served on Meade’s staff from September 1863 until the end of the war, wrote that “I never knew a man in my life who was characterized by straightforward truthfulness as he is. He will pitch into himself in a moment, if he thinks he has done wrong; and woe to those, no matter who they are, who do not do right! 'Sir, it was your duty and you haven't done it; now go back and do it at once,' he will suddenly remark to some astonished general.'” Lyman also described Meade as a “slasher” who “cuts people up without much mercy. His family is celebrated for fierceness of temper and a sardonic sort of way that makes them uncomfortable people; but the General is the best of them, and exhausts his temper in saying sharp things. Alexander Webb, a man closer to Meade than many, later wrote: “I never knew a man who could make so many enemies through his ‘righteous dealing’ with unworthy generals as did Genl. George Gordon Meade.” This characteristic would create many problems for Meade as time went on.
 

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WJC

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#2
Of the available candidates willing to take the job, I most certainly believe he was the right choice. I believe he has been unfairly criticized, thanks to Dan Sickles and his political allies, for not destroying the ANV immediately following his victory at Gettysburg. He also suffered in being in the awkward position of heading the AOP against Lee with his boss always nearby: try that in your job!
What I find most interesting about Meade is that, in spite of criticism by politicians, the American public held him in very high esteem during the remainder of his lifetime. It seems that only with the passage of time has he, along with Thomas, lost credit while Sherman and Sheridan seem to have become more revered. Perhaps this was because both Sherman and Sheridan enjoyed long post-war military careers....
 

Andy Cardinal

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#5
The irony is that Meade never wanted to be a soldier (a point emphasized by Alan Guzelo in his history of the Gettysburg Campaign). Born on December 31, 1815, in Cadiz, Spain, Meade father was a prominent American merchant from Philadelphia.

Not to be overdramatic, but in a sense the adult Meade was haunted by the ghost of failure. His grandfather, “Honest” George Meade was a Philadelphia merchant who had supported the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. Although family stories of Honest George's participation with the Continental Army may be overblown, he did partner with Thomas FitzSimons, who later served as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and signed the Constitution. Unfortunately, Honest George became involved on land speculation and went bankrupt in the 1790s. Honest George's son, Richard Worsam Meade, rebuilt the business and apparently the family name until he ran afoul of Spanish authorities during the Napoleonic Wars and was imprisoned. The Meade family returned to Philadelphia, where young George was raised.

220px-Richard_Worsam_Meade_by_Vicente_Lopez.jpg

Richard Worsam Meade
George Meade was the product of his patrician, “blue-blooded,” Philadelphia Whig background, with the point of view those terms imply (there is some good scholarship about this; for example, Rafuse's book about McClellan). Meade's greatest ambition in life was to be considered a gentleman, once writing, “if there is any reputation I aspire to, it is that of a gentleman.”

Meade attended prestigious schools as a youth. One of these was the American Classical and Miliary Academy in Mt. Airy. According to Meade's son: “The principals of the school were M. Constant and A. L. Roumfort, the latter a graduate of the Military Academy at West Point. They were both men of marked ability and were assisted by a corps of excellent instructors. Among those constituting the board of examiners were General Cadwalader, General Bernard, U. S. Engineers; Dr. Chapman, Joseph Hopkinson, Charles J. Ingersoll, Nicholas Biddle, Thomas Camac, and Richard Worsam Meade, the father of George. The institution was modelled upon West Point, the boys being instructed in the manual of arms and in company drill, and at certain times they performed sentry duty.” Students studied English, French, Latin, Greek, arithmetic, and algebra.

616x510.jpg

The family had never recovered from Richard Meade's financial and legal problems. When Richard died in 1828 the family was nearly destitute. Meade was no longer able to attend Mt. Airy, and when Meade's mother moved to Washington Meade attended a school run by future Secretary of the Treasury and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.

Meade's ambition was to study law, but he ended up at West Point because the education was free. He was an average student and graduated 19th out of 56 in the class of 1835. According to his son, “He was naturally studious and found no difficulty in maintaining in his studies the stand which he had taken among his fellow-cadets, but he regarded the military exercises as such mechanical work that this part of the course was very distasteful to him, and his not taking a higher stand is attributed to his lack of interest in the monotonous guard-mounting, drill, and the endless minutiae of routine.” One of Meade's closest friends while at West Point was fellow Philadelphian John C. Pemberton, the future defender of Vicksburg.

john-pemberton_0.jpg

John C. Pemberton​
 

Joshism

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#6
Who else could reasonably contend as AOTP commander in June 1863 after Hooker?

I see four possibilities:
Sedgwick
Reynolds
Meade
Hancock

Sedgwick was the epitome of AOTP mediocrity.

Reynolds turned the job down.

Was Hancock ever up for consideration or was he too far down the seniority list?
 

Andy Cardinal

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#8
Hancock claimed he was considered but I find that far-fetched. He had never commanded a corps prior to Gettysburg.

Are we sure Reynolds was actually offered command? The actual evidence is thin. One of 2 pieces of documentary evidence is a letter written by Meade on June 13: "He told me that being informed by a friend in Washington, that he was talked of for the command of this army, he immediately went to the President and told him he did not want the command and would not take it. He spoke, he says, very freely to the President about Hooker, but the President said he was not disposed to throw away a gun because it missed fire once; that he would pick the lock and try it again." This account implies that no actual offer was made, but Reynolds went to Washington to preempt a potential offer.

Couch could have been offered command. Slocum, Reynolds, and Sedgwick all outranked Meade. Sickles was also talked about as a possibility (!), although apparently no one except the New York papers took that possibility seriously.

Importantly, Meade was not offered command but was ordered to take command. Also, the order was not made on the basis of seniority. Therefore, Lincoln could have ordered Reynolds, Sedgwick, or anyone else to assume command.
 

FZ11

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#9
I think Reynolds was offered but couldn't agree on command authority that he,Reynolds,required. Reynolds then recommended Meade. Whatever the exact case,Meade turned in a brilliant performance at Gettysburg.
 

jackt62

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#10
In retrospect, despite Lincoln's initial displeasure in the aftermath of Gettysburg, Meade was retrained by Grant, and remained in command of the AOTP until the end of the war, which ended in a successfully. So from a historical perspective, we have to give Meade credit for that.
 
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#12
Who else could reasonably contend as AOTP commander in June 1863 after Hooker?

I see four possibilities:
Sedgwick
Reynolds
Meade
Hancock

Sedgwick was the epitome of AOTP mediocrity.

Reynolds turned the job down.

Was Hancock ever up for consideration or was he too far down the seniority list?
Hancock told his wife that he was not interested in being the commander of the Army of the Potomac under any circumstances. (pages 94 and 95 of "Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock" by his wife) Hancock states in that book that he was approached several times to become commander of the army but refused because he "did not belong to that class of generals whom the Republicans care to bolster up. I should be sacrificed." On June 2, 1863, General Reynolds was summoned to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Lincoln about the commander's job. He also refused because he wanted full autonomy from the auspices of Halleck, Stanton and Lincoln himself. Lincoln told Reynolds that his conditions were not acceptable. As a result, Reynolds highly recommended to Lincoln that he should give a lot of consideration in appointing General Meade as Commander of the Army of the Potomac which he ultimately did on June 28, 1863. David.
 
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#13
It seems that Lincoln was very limited in his choice to replace Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. There were some soldiers who wanted Lincoln to reappoint McClellan as commander, which Lincoln would not have done under any circumstances. I believe he made a strong choice in Meade who was a proven fighter and good commander. He did defeat Lee and save the republic from the clutches of the invading Confederate Army. Meade only failure was not completely destroying Lee's Army before it re crossed the Potomac River. David.
 
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#14

I have been interested in Meade since my first trip to Gettysburg in 1988. I noted even then, as a relatively uninformed student of the battle, that the victor of Gettysburg was greatly overshadowed by Robert E. Lee. In the old Visitor's Center bookstore I found multiple titles devoted to Lee, but only 1 about Meade, which I bought -- With Meade at Gettysburg by his son.

Meade has been discussed often on this forum. Where does Meade rank among Union commanders? What were his real intentions at Gettysburg? Should Hooker have been removed and replaced by Meade? Why was Meade chosen to replace Hooker? How much was the victory at Gettysburg due to Meade? Or, as Butterfield and (especially) Sickles later claimed, in spite of Meade? Should Meade have ordered an attack at Williamsport?

I hope in a series of posts to shed some light on Meade, why he was chosen to assume command of the Army of the Potomac, and why I believe he was the best man for the job at the time (and incidentally the best man for job once Grant came East).

Opinions expressed are obviously mine. Please comment, add to, contradict, challenge as you see fit.


George Gordon Meade did not have the appearance of a victorious commanding general. He did not possess the charisma or magnetism that endeared other commanders to their men. He was tall, thin, balding, wore glasses, and possessed a temper that was well-known in the army. One soldier wrote that Meade “might have been taken as a Presbyterian clergyman, unless one approached him when he was mad.” James F. Rusling, a Third Corps staff officer at the time of Meade’s appointment, described the new commander as “tall and slender, gaunt and sad of visage, with iron gray hair and beard, ensconced behind a pair of spectacles, and with few popular traits around him, but with a keen and well-disciplined intellect, a cool and sound judgment, and by both education and temperament was every inch a soldier.” Meade, Rusling wrote, was “a conscientious and hard worker; as a rule, rising early and retiring late.” His “sense of humor was not large, but he was keen and intelligent, his mind worked and comprehensively, his patriotism was perfect, his sense of duty intense; and he would willingly have laid down his life at any time had our cause required it. In manner he was often sharp and peremptory, but this was because of his utter absorption in great affairs.”

He was a capable and reliable professional soldier who rose to command on the strength of a solid if unspectacular combat record and, more importantly, an ability to successfully navigate the political infighting that characterized the Army of the Potomac. He was noted for his courage under fire. Years later, Joseph Hayes described Meade as “Tall, spare, nervous and excitable; with elegant manners and a patrician aspect; large, bulging, brilliant eyes and a hawk nose,” and remembered that “when he turned his hat around, with the acorns and scrolls behind -- we knew there was hot work before us…. He was a slasher -- a fiery fellow.” He was considered a fighting general, and D. H. Hill, a division commander in Lee's army during the Maryland Campaign of 1862, later wrote: "Meade was one of our most dreaded foes. He was always in deadly earnest, and eschewed all trifling." In January 1863, Meade and his staff were dining at the Willard’s Hotel in Washington as the general was travelling back to the army after a short time home in Philadelphia. Two men observed the unpretentious general as he ate his dinner. “What Major General is that?” one of the men asked. “Meade,” the other answered. “Who is that?” the first man asked. “I never saw him before.” “No that is very likely,” the second replied, “for he is one of our fighting Generals, is always in the field and does not spend his time in Washington hotels.” The exchange pleased Meade greatly, and he proudly recounted the episode to his wife.

Meade’s dominant personal characteristic was an overriding sense of duty. “For myself, I am here from a sense of duty,” he wrote to his wife, “because I could not with honor be away, and whatever befalls me, those of my blood who survive me can say, I trust, that I did my duty.” This sense of duty made him a highly successful and reliable subordinate, as Horace Porter (one of Ulysses S. Grant's staff officers, who got to know Meade well during the Overland Campaign of 1864) later noted. “Meade was a most accomplished soldier,” Porter wrote. “He had been thoroughly educated in his profession, and had a complete knowledge of both the science and the art of war in all its branches…. He was a disciplinarian to the point of severity, was entirely subordinate to his superiors, and no one was more prompt than he to obey orders to the letter.” Meade was “full of a sense of responsibility” which contributed to perhaps his worst personality flaw -- a volcanic temper which he was at times completely unable to control. Theodore Lyman, who served on Meade’s staff from September 1863 until the end of the war, wrote that “I never knew a man in my life who was characterized by straightforward truthfulness as he is. He will pitch into himself in a moment, if he thinks he has done wrong; and woe to those, no matter who they are, who do not do right! 'Sir, it was your duty and you haven't done it; now go back and do it at once,' he will suddenly remark to some astonished general.'” Lyman also described Meade as a “slasher” who “cuts people up without much mercy. His family is celebrated for fierceness of temper and a sardonic sort of way that makes them uncomfortable people; but the General is the best of them, and exhausts his temper in saying sharp things. Alexander Webb, a man closer to Meade than many, later wrote: “I never knew a man who could make so many enemies through his ‘righteous dealing’ with unworthy generals as did Genl. George Gordon Meade.” This characteristic would create many problems for Meade as time went on.
Excellent synopsis if a general who is not unknown but arguably not well known.@Bee had a thread some time back that General Meade was surprisingly favorable to Confederacy Peace Commissioners very late in the war. Perhaps @Bee could bump up that thread for you.
Leftyhunter
 

Andy Cardinal

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#15
Hancock told his wife that he was not interested in being the commander of the Army of the Potomac under any circumstances. (pages 94 and 95 of "Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock" by his wife) Hancock states in that book that he was approached several times to become commander of the army but refused because he "did not belong to that class of generals whom the Republicans care to bolster up. I should be sacrificed." On June 2, 1863, General Reynolds was summoned to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Lincoln about the commander's job. He also refused because he wanted full autonomy from the auspices of Halleck, Stanton and Lincoln himself. Lincoln told Reynolds that his conditions were not acceptable. As a result, Reynolds highly recommended to Lincoln that he should give a lot of consideration in appointing General Meade as Commander of the Army of the Potomac which he ultimately did on June 28, 1863. David.
The documentary evidence that Lincoln actually offered Reynolds the command is very slim. It is based on a letter written by Reynols's sister in 1913: "He told us he had been with the President that day, and that Mr. Lincoln had offered him the command of the Army of the Potomac, which he told the President he would accept, if he was not interfered with from Washington. This the President would not promise him, therefore your Uncle declined the offer." Meade's much more contemporary account (quoted earlier): “He told me that being informed by a friend in Washington, that he was talked of for command of this army, he immediately went to the President and told him he did not want the command and would not take it.” While the sister's account states positively that Reynolds was offered command, the date of the letter, among other factors, at least cause some skepticism as to,it's accuracy. Meade's letter, in contrast, implies that a solid offer was not made, but that Reynolds went to see Lincoln to preempt a possible offer of command. Absent other evidence, I think there is at least room to doubt that Lincoln made an actual offer of command to Reynolds.
 
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#16
Of the available candidates willing to take the job, I most certainly believe he was the right choice. I believe he has been unfairly criticized, thanks to Dan Sickles and his political allies, for not destroying the ANV immediately following his victory at Gettysburg. He also suffered in being in the awkward position of heading the AOP against Lee with his boss always nearby: try that in your job!
What I find most interesting about Meade is that, in spite of criticism by politicians, the American public held him in very high esteem during the remainder of his lifetime. It seems that only with the passage of time has he, along with Thomas, lost credit while Sherman and Sheridan seem to have become more revered. Perhaps this was because both Sherman and Sheridan enjoyed long post-war military careers....
Could that be because Sherman and Sheridan had better people skills or akin to hake fellows well met? Put another way a good general does not necessarily a good politician make?
Leftyhunter
 

WJC

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#17
Could that be because Sherman and Sheridan had better people skills or akin to hake fellows well met? Put another way a good general does not necessarily a good politician make?
Leftyhunter
Thanks for your response.
Certainly Sheridan benefited by being the darling of the media. And unlike Meade, Sherman was miles away from Grant when he made his famous march. There was no way Sherman would be denied credit for his truly audacious campaign.
 
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#18
The irony is that Meade never wanted to be a soldier (a point emphasized by Alan Guzelo in his history of the Gettysburg Campaign). Born on December 31, 1815, in Cadiz, Spain, Meade father was a prominent American merchant from Philadelphia.

Not to be overdramatic, but in a sense the adult Meade was haunted by the ghost of failure. His grandfather, “Honest” George Meade was a Philadelphia merchant who had supported the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. Although family stories of Honest George's participation with the Continental Army may be overblown, he did partner with Thomas FitzSimons, who later served as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and signed the Constitution. Unfortunately, Honest George became involved on land speculation and went bankrupt in the 1790s. Honest George's son, Richard Worsam Meade, rebuilt the business and apparently the family name until he ran afoul of Spanish authorities during the Napoleonic Wars and was imprisoned. The Meade family returned to Philadelphia, where young George was raised.

View attachment 293911
Richard Worsam Meade
George Meade was the product of his patrician, “blue-blooded,” Philadelphia Whig background, with the point of view those terms imply (there is some good scholarship about this; for example, Rafuse's book about McClellan). Meade's greatest ambition in life was to be considered a gentleman, once writing, “if there is any reputation I aspire to, it is that of a gentleman.”

Meade attended prestigious schools as a youth. One of these was the American Classical and Miliary Academy in Mt. Airy. According to Meade's son: “The principals of the school were M. Constant and A. L. Roumfort, the latter a graduate of the Military Academy at West Point. They were both men of marked ability and were assisted by a corps of excellent instructors. Among those constituting the board of examiners were General Cadwalader, General Bernard, U. S. Engineers; Dr. Chapman, Joseph Hopkinson, Charles J. Ingersoll, Nicholas Biddle, Thomas Camac, and Richard Worsam Meade, the father of George. The institution was modelled upon West Point, the boys being instructed in the manual of arms and in company drill, and at certain times they performed sentry duty.” Students studied English, French, Latin, Greek, arithmetic, and algebra.

The family had never recovered from Richard Meade's financial and legal problems. When Richard died in 1828 the family was nearly destitute. Meade was no longer able to attend Mt. Airy, and when Meade's mother moved to Washington Meade attended a school run by future Secretary of the Treasury and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.

Meade's ambition was to study law, but he ended up at West Point because the education was free. He was an average student and graduated 19th out of 56 in the class of 1835. According to his son, “He was naturally studious and found no difficulty in maintaining in his studies the stand which he had taken among his fellow-cadets, but he regarded the military exercises as such mechanical work that this part of the course was very distasteful to him, and his not taking a higher stand is attributed to his lack of interest in the monotonous guard-mounting, drill, and the endless minutiae of routine.” One of Meade's closest friends while at West Point was fellow Philadelphian John C. Pemberton, the future defender of Vicksburg.

View attachment 293914
John C. Pemberton​
Very interesting that but for economic hardship Meade was not interested in a military career but did well vs others who did seek a military career.
Leftyhunter
 
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#19
Thanks for your response.
Certainly Sheridan benefited by being the darling of the media. And unlike Meade, Sherman was miles away from Grant when he made his famous march. There was no way Sherman would be denied credit for his truly audacious campaign.
Were Sheridan and Sherman arguably more charismatic then Meade? Charisma may not be a fair advantage but it is an advantage.
Leftyhunter
 
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#20
Sheridan had no charisma and Sherman not much more. The latter was 1,000 miles away.

Meade was the only guy available and his problem has been that his name is not Ulysses Grant, our hero.

Meade was supposed to destroy Lee's Army after Gettysburg? Really?

Tens of thousands of casualties to look after, never mind the Army of Northern Virginia's entrenched and nearly impregnable position against the Potomac River in Maryland. Good luck with that, armchair Generals.
 

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