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.