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

rpkennedy

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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.
The episode with Reynolds occurred after Chancellorsville but before Hooker resigned his command. I think that it's fair to say that Lincoln was testing the waters about a potential change in command. Reynolds was pretty clear that he didn't want the command but recommended Meade if Lincoln was to get rid of Hooker. In addition, both Sedgwick and Slocum also recommended Meade to Lincoln and states outright that they would be glad to serve under him despite their seniority.

Ryan
 

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Deleted User CS

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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.
Stephen Weld, was an aide on the staff of General Reynolds prior to Gettysburg, he published a diary of his war service entitled: "War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld: 1861-1865." On page 227, Weld states in a footnote attached to a diary entry of June 28, 1863 as follows: "I was with General Reynolds when he received the order appointing Meade to the command of the Army. He said he was very glad of it and he spoke most highly of Meade. He then told me, confidentially, that the command had been offered to him, but that he had refused it." Every serious historian and author of any Gettysburg tome will use Weld as a source of information in their bibliography. I trust Weld as a very reliable and competent historical source. The idea of not accepting a source because of it being twenty or fifty years old does not bother me as a historian. For example, I know World War II veterans who can recite chapter and verse on many aspects of their particular service and when compared with the historical record more often than not are very accurate and true in every detail. David.
 

leftyhunter

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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.
Who is being an arm chair general? Who has claimed they would of done a better job as a commander of the AoP?
Leftyhunter
 

Andy Cardinal

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Stephen Weld, was an aide on the staff of General Reynolds prior to Gettysburg, he published a diary of his war service entitled: "War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld: 1861-1865." On page 227, Weld states in a footnote attached to a diary entry of June 28, 1863 as follows: "I was with General Reynolds when he received the order appointing Meade to the command of the Army. He said he was very glad of it and he spoke most highly of Meade. He then told me, confidentially, that the command had been offered to him, but that he had refused it." Every serious historian and author of any Gettysburg tome will use Weld as a source of information in their bibliography. I trust Weld as a very reliable and competent historical source. The idea of not accepting a source because of it being twenty or fifty years old does not bother me as a historian. For example, I know World War II veterans who can recite chapter and verse on many aspects of their particular service and when compared with the historical record more often than not are very accurate and true in every detail. David.
Thanks -- I had forgotten about Weld's diary.
 

Drew

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Who is being an arm chair general? Who has claimed they would of done a better job as a commander of the AoP?
Leftyhunter
Hi Lefty

The OP is armchair generalship and everyone else has taken the bait. I guess I did, too.

It's realy boring. You have a nice evening.
 

leftyhunter

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Hi Lefty

The OP is armchair generalship and everyone else has taken the bait. I guess I did, too.

It's realy boring. You have a nice evening.
Your absolutely wrong .@Andy Cardinal has provided interesting information about an important but not well known ACW figure. Not sure what the nature of your complaint is.
Leftyhunter
 
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Andy Cardinal

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Meade had never really wanted to be a soldier, and after graduating from West Point he served out his required time before resigning his commission the next year. He worked as a civil engineer but found it hard to make a living. During this time, his future nephew Richard Bache described the future general: "He wore his hair down to the nape of the neck, as was the fashion of the day, and long afterwards, and that being the fashion, did not, of course attract my attention; but what did attract and fix it was the new experience to me of a man with long ringlets, looking as to his head like a cavalier of the time of Charles I. He was, in a word, a dandy, to which I had seen of the same order of being in Philadelphia was only the faintest approach. Without being particularly good looking in face and figure, he was tall and slender and graceful with an air of higher breeding. But beyond this there was something which engaged my attention, and but for which I should doubtless, from my rude, boyish point of view, have regarded him with contempt, as a young man of twenty-two who had curls. The circumstance was his demeanor to his mother. As I have said, he sat to his mother's right at breakfast, and then, and whenever he occupied that place, his air of tenderness to her was so blended with indescribable deference and courtesy, that had she been a queen-mother, instead of the widow of a citizen of a democratic-republic, her son could not have shown her more princely respect. Not unused as I was to see courtesy in the family life of the society in which I moved, this I recognized as beyond anything I had ever witnessed, nor have I to this day ever again seen its like; and such as it was when I first saw it, it endured to the day of his mother's death." This description of a “dandy” does not fit our notions about Meade and it is interesting to see the young Meade in this light.

Meade courted and eventually married Margaretta Sergeant, the daughter of the prominent Whig congressman John Sergeant (Sergeant was also Henry Clay's running mate in 1832). They were married on December 31, 1840 -- Meade's 25th birthday. Meade's marriage into the Sergeant family was a boost to the young man's social standing, devastated as it had been by his father's and grandfather's financial woes.

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Margaretta Sergeant Meade
Meade realized he needed a steadier job to support his growing family. With the help of his brother-in-law, Virginia congressman (and future Governor & Confederate general) Henry Wise, Meade was recommissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers. As such, he served on Zachary Taylor's staff during the Mexican War. On December 18, 1845, Meade reflected on his life in a letter to his wife: “Only think how old, what a dream has the last ten years been to me since I left West Point, what a waste of energy and time! I tremble sometimes when I think what I might have been, and remember what I am, when I reflect on what I might have accomplished if I had devoted all my time and energies to one object, an object where my exertions would have told in my advancement; but, alas, it is useless to speculate on what is passed!”

A few days later, Meade's mother wrote to him on his birthday (and 5th wedding anniversary): “Although in my ignorance I was cruel enough to send you to West Point, an act for which I never shall forgive myself, and never cease to regret, I did not dream that you would enter the army, my dear George. It was the moral standing of the Institution, and the education which you could not escape if you remained there, also the intention of your lamented father, who said your mathematical head fitted you for it, that led me to commit the act; but I was not then as wide-awake as I am now.”

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Zachary Taylor
Meade saw action in the Mexican War, serving on Zachary Taylor's staff. Later, he spent a brief time on Winfield Scott's staff, alongside Robert E. Lee, among others. Although he proved to be competent and reliable, he did not earn any brevets or other recognition during the war, and did not serve during Scott's campaign to take Mexico City.

After the war ended, Meade continued to serve in the army in various engineering capacities, rising to the rank of captain by the time the Civil War broke out.
 
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Dom71

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I recall reading, Meade thought he was being arrested when the orders came to take command of the army. Sears writes in "Lincoln's Lieutenants" Cyrus B. Comstock of Grant's staff wrote that the intension was to replace Meade with Baldy Smith.However after meeting with Meade and surveying the AOP he decided to make no change. Which if believed turned out to be a good decision since I believe Grant relieved Smith later on for being a major pain in the rear.
 

Andy Cardinal

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The outbreak of the war found the 45 year old Captain George Meade stationed in Detroit where he supervised the Great Lakes Commission. On April 20, 1861, six days after Fort Sumter surrendered, city officials, led by Senator Zachariah Chandler, demanded that all Federal officers in the city take a public oath of allegiance to the Union. The 48 year old Chandler was militantly anti-slavery and had helped to organize the Republican party in Michigan during the 1850s. Firmly opposed to any effort to reconcile with the South, Chandler sought, as he stated in his famous “Blood Letter, “no concessions, no compromise; aye, give us strife unto blood before yielding to the demands of traitorous insolence.” Meade met with his subordinates, who agreed that taking the oath was not necessary because they had already done so when they had been commissioned. With this action, Meade made an enemy of Zachariah Chandler, a circumstance that would cause Meade grief later in his career.

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Zechariah Chandler
Meade sought an appointment to active service, but it was not until August 31 that he was summoned east to be commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers and assigned to command the second brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves (3rd, 4th, 7th and 11th Pennsylvania Reserves). The other two brigades commanders in the division were John F. Reynolds and Edward O. C. Ord. All three brigade commanders would either be offered or appointed to army command before the end of the war.

It is recounted that Baldy Smith hosted a luncheon on December 14, which Meade attended along with several other prominent officers, including McClellan, McCall, Fitz John Porter, William B. Franklin, Winfield Scott Hancock, and W. T. H. Brooks. Supposedly, after the meal, the officers discussed the war and how long it might last. “It is my opinion that the war will continue for several years,” Franklin said, “and before the war is over, everyone present, with one exception, will be laid about on the shelf. That exception will be General George G. Meade. He will come out on top at the close of the war.”

Obviously Meade owed his commission in part to the political connections of the Sergeant family and also to McClellan. Like McClellan, Meade was the product of a socially prominent Philadelphia family. Politically and socially of the Whig persuasion (contrary to popular thought, Meade was not a Democrat -- he voted for John Bell in the 1860 election), he agreed with many of McClellan’s conservative views. Like McClellan, he believed the best course was to limit the war to restoring the Union, avoiding the question of slavery altogether, and he believed that radicals on both sides had caused the war. “We at the North should continue the good work of setting aside such men as Fremont and upholding such sentiments as those of Sherman, who declares the private property of the Secessionists must be respected,” he wrote in a November letter to his wife. “Let the ultras on both sides be repudiated and the masses of conservative men may compromise and settle the difficulty.”

Meade preferred a conciliatory approach toward the Southerners (it should be remembered as well that Meade’s brother-in-law was former Virginia Governor and current Confederate general Henry A. Wise, also two of his sisters married Southerners. His sister Charlotte had of her sons killed fighting for the Confederacy, and her plantation was plundered). A view like this was in direct conflict with those of the Radical Republicans who were gaining increasing influence over the war effort. Led by Senators Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan. the Radicals moved to create the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in December 1861. The committee’s stated purpose was to investigate “the causes of the disasters that have attended the public arms.” Although the Committee lacked any real authority, it would use its investigative power to intimidate generals and at times influence Lincoln. The Radicals scorned any effort at reconciliation and sought to crush the rebellion and the Southern slave power with it. They viewed with suspicion any one who did not share that point of view. They had little to no knowledge of military matters, and they judged a general’s competence according to his political beliefs. Their views were characterized by a strong suspicion, bordering at times on a pathological hatred, of West Pointers. For the Radicals, the war was an existential battle between the aristocratic, slave-holding South and the free-labor North. They could not understand the professional soldier’s preoccupation with logistics, and they did not appreciate the power of the defense in battle. The Committee would make life very difficult for those commanders who did not, in their view, hold the right political views.

In large part due to the Committee, the Army of the Potomac would be subjected to more scrutiny, not only by politicians but also in the press, than any other army in American history. Often this scrutiny was hostile, questioning not only the competence but also the patriotism of its officers. This fact, more than anything else, shaped the culture of the army’s officer corps. Believing that all that was necessary was “the proper martial spirit,” the Radicals expected the war to be won in a single, climactic, grand battle -- a stirring attack that would destroy the Rebel army and end the war. Meade was “dismayed at the arrogance of the fire-eaters, to whom Southern secession seemed like a simple Riot which would be suppressed by the mere appearance of Federal troops.”
 

Andy Cardinal

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I recall reading, Meade thought he was being arrested when the orders came to take command of the army. Sears writes in "Lincoln's Lieutenants" Cyrus B. Comstock of Grant's staff wrote that the intension was to replace Meade with Baldy Smith.However after meeting with Meade and surveying the AOP he decided to make no change. Which if believed turned out to be a good decision since I believe Grant relieved Smith later on for being a major pain in the rear.
I have often wondered about Smith's role in all this. Grant was impressed with Smith at Chattenooga. However, it is hard for me to believe Lincoln was comfortable with Smith given his involvement in the Army of the Potomac's political intrigue after Fredericksburg. However, to be fair, Lincoln did not remove Smirh corps command after Fredericksburg; Hooker did (replacing him with Sedgwick).
 

Dom71

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Me too Andy, that's why I said if believed. I have read several accounts of that first meeting with Meade and that was the first I ever heard that Smith was to be his replacement. If it is in Comstock's diary I guess their is truth to it. Perhaps others have not felt it to be an important fact. Multiple books I have read have Smith constantly conspiring against Meade until his dismissal, so who can say.
 

Andy Cardinal

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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
Yes he was a reluctant soldier and entered the army twice due to economic necessity. As a reluctant soldier, I get the impression he was not particularly a student of military science. This is not a prerequisite for successful generalship (I don't believe Grant was particularly a student of military science either, for example). But Meade was definitely not called to the military life as some are. For example, both Reynolds and Sedgwick loved being soldiers. Meade stayed in the army after the Mexican War, but I think this was mainly because he loved being an engineer. In fact, he later said his greatest accomplishment in life were some of the lighthouses he built.
 
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Andy Cardinal

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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.
The other option of course was not to replace Hooker. However it seems obvious to me that Lincoln had grown disillusioned with Hooker. We all know about the Halleck's antipathy toward Hooker, and the feeling was mutual. However, the most interesting part for me of Hooker's tenure in command is that Lincoln basically allowed him a free hand to handle the army without Halkeck's oversight (or interference if you prefer) from his appointment on January 25 until June 16. On that date Lincoln wrote Hooker: "To remove all misunderstanding, I now place you in the strict military relation to General Halleck of a commander of one of the armies to the general-in-chief of all the armies." Clearly, Hooker's relationship with his superiors changed with this notice. Hooker found the necessity of being subordinate to Halleck intolerable.
 

Andy Cardinal

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Hancock bragged to his wife that he was, but I've never seen any proof that he really was. Lincoln didn't have to dig that deep.
I don't believe so either, at least not at that point in time. Just as I don't believe that either Reynolds or Meade was considered when Burnside was replaced, although Charles Benjamin claims so in his Battles and Leaders article.
 

Drew

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Are you referring to a different Sherman? William Tecumseh Sherman had his flaws, but a lack of charisma was not one of them.
Your opinion is noted. That he was 1,000 miles away from the Army of the Potomac at the time is the truth.

I am not aware Sherman was on Lincoln's radar in early 1863. You may certainly educate me if I am mistaken.
 


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