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

Joshism

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In other words, under Reynolds the Confederate Army would have suffered the kind of strategic defeat that would have made Lincoln a very happy man. Reynolds would have closed his fingers whereas Meade would not.
I strongly suspect that if Meade had attacked at Williamsport that Cold Harbor would have happened 11 months early, and in Maryland.
 

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Andy Cardinal

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ambrose-burnside.jpg

In the aftermath of Burnside's replacement of Burnside, Meade objected to the army's line of advance along the Orange and Alexandria railroad. While he was a junior commander in November 1862, these views are pertinent to his command of the Army of the Potomac the next fall as well.

"McClellan has always objected to operating on this line, and insisted on the James River as being the proper base for operations. Halleck, under Washington influence, has been trying to force operations on this line—that is, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Now, this road has but one track, and the distance from Alexandria to Gordonsville is over one hundred and fifty miles. This distance and the known capacity of the road is insufficient by one-third to carry the daily supplies required for this army. This fact to an ordinarily intelligent mind, unbiased by ridiculous fears for the safety of Washington, ought to be conclusive. The next line, and the one Burnside favors as a compromise, is the one from Fredericksburg to Richmond. This is open to the same objection as the other, except it is only seventy-five miles. Still, it will require a larger army to protect these seventy-five miles and keep open our communications than it will to attack Richmond itself."

He added a complaint that put him in the majority with the army's officer corps: "I must confess this interference by politicians with military men, and these personal intrigues and bickerings among military men, make me feel very sad and very doubtful of the future." It was known at the time that Burnside was contemplating a movement to Fredericksburg and that Halleck objected. Meade noted sarcastically, "Generals Halleck and Meigs, as I anticipated, objected to the change of base from the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to the Fredericksburg Railroad, but after discussion yielded their views to those of the general officers in command, and have returned to Washington, to endeavor to obtain the sanction of the still greater general, Stanton."

220px-Edwin_McMasters_Stanton_Secretary_of_War.jpg
 

Andy Cardinal

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In Burnside’s reorganization of the army, Hooker, who had assumed command of the Fifth Corps when Porter had been relieved, was promoted to command the “Center Grand Division.” Hooker’s promotion meant that command of the Fifth Corps was open and Meade, as the senior division commander in the Army of the Potomac, believed that the command was rightfully due to him. Instead, the command went to Daniel Butterfield.

"This places General Butterfield in command of Porter's corps. General Butterfield is my junior, and I am his only senior on duty with this army. I thought that both Stoneman and A. S. Williams had divisions, both of whom are my seniors; but to-day I find Stoneman has a corps and that Williams is not with this army, having been left on the Potomac. Hence I am the only general who is affected by the giving a corps to Butterfield. I saw to-day Franklin and Baldy Smith, who referred to this matter, and said Burnside did not know how to arrange it otherwise, and they thought if I made an application to Burnside and gave him any chance of acting, that he would assign me to the corps." He added, "his command being a corps, and I his senior, in command only of a division, I have a right to complain; just as I did when, in command of a brigade, so many of my juniors were commanding divisions."

Meade went to complain to Burnside, and Burnside told him that "he was until that moment perfectly ignorant that I ranked Butterfield; that he agreed with me in all I said; that he would rather have me in command of the corps; that Butterfield's assignment was only temporary; that he would inquire what probability there was of Sedgwick or any other senior officer being sent, and if there was none, and there was a probability of the position being open for any time, that I should certainly have it, as I was the last man he would set aside or slight in any way." According to Meade, “All he regretted now was that I had not been in command of it,” at Fredericksburg. “More than this I could not ask.”

Burnside took no action before the Battle of Fredericksburg, but a few days after the Battle told Meade he would place him in command of the 5th Corps.

Meade was surprised to hear that Hooker objected. "I expressed great surprise at this, and referred to Hooker having urged my assignment to his corps on the field of battle, and spoke of the letter he had written to Halleck urging my promotion. Burnside said Hooker had explicitly remarked his opposition was not personal to me, for he considered me one of the most splendid soldiers in the army; but it was on the principle of not changing commanders alone that he objected."

Meade took command from an angry Butterfield on December 25. "After the first ice was broken, Butterfield was very civil. He insisted on me eating my Christmas dinner with him, and really had a very handsome entertainment, at which were present all the division and brigade commanders of the corps. After dinner, when they had all left, to give Butterfield a chance, I told him I considered he was fully justified in being disappointed and put out; that if I had been assigned to a corps in disregard of the rank of others, been retained there for a month, gone through a battle and then removed on account of rank, I should myself, as I had experienced in a similar instance, feel very much annoyed and disgusted, and that I considered such feelings natural. Poor Butterfield then opened his heart, I having hit the nail on the head, and told me that when first assigned he went to Burnside and asked whether it was a temporary affair, or not, as he should arrange matters somewhat differently if he was only to hold the position till some senior brigadier or major general came along, and that Burnside assured him positively and distinctly that it was permanent, and that he should not be disturbed. I said certainly that aggravated the matter, but that he should not hold me responsible; that the mistake and misfortune resulted from the injustice that was done me when he was first assigned, and that General Burnside had told me, per contra, that he was ignorant at the time that I ranked him (Butterfield). So to-day I have been installed, and the affair appears to be definitely and satisfactorily settled."

Unfortunately for Meade, while matters were settled to his satisfaction, they were not to Butterfield's. “Have I any friends in Washington?” he wrote to one of Meade's enemies, Zachariah Chandler.

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Zechariah Chandler​
 
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Andy Cardinal

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Is that where Butterfield's and Meade's later difficulties arose from? It certainly would explain them.
I think that's a part of it, plus Hooker and Butterfield were friends.

The Army of the Potomac's officers was divided into pro-McClellan (Reynolds, Hancock, Gibbon, Sedgwick, Franklin, Baldy Smith, Hunt, Warren) and anti-McClellan (Hooker, Butterfield, Sickles, Pleasonton) groups. Meade was associated with the pro-McClellan's and therefore his appointment to 5th Corps command was seen as a pro-McClellan victory and Butterfield's removal an anti-McClellan defeat.
 
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Dom71

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Is that where Butterfield's and Meade's later difficulties arose from? It certainly would explain them.
Battlefield being friends with Hooker had something to do with it. Remember Meade retained Butterfield as chief of staff when he took command. Meade wanted to replace him with Humphreys, but he turned it down. So with the enemy on the move Meade decided it was best to keep him in that position for the time being.

Andy, am I correct that Butterfield was wounded during the cannonade?
 

Andy Cardinal

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He was wounded and left the Army of the Potomac a few days later. I'm not sure how much was the wound and how much was some screwups Meade called him out on. On July 1 according to Weld Meade "****ed the chief of staff freely" for his slowness issuing orders (Pipe Creek Circular) and there was also an issue with orders issued for the pursuit after the battle.

Butterfield is an interesting guy in that he rose quickly, especially since he was not a professional officer. It was said he liked to play with fire when younger, in addition to the other character flaws he was notorious for later. However, he seems to have been a fairly competent chief of staff, at least while working for Hooker. He is best remembered (if at all) for writing Taps. I also believe he was largely responsible for the corps badges.

There has not been much written about him, but he is a very fascinating guy. His JCCW testimony about Gettysburg makes for some very interesting reading.
 

Dom71

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He was wounded and left the Army of the Potomac a few days later. I'm not sure how much was the wound and how much was some screwups Meade called him out on. On July 1 according to Weld Meade "****ed the chief of staff freely" for his slowness issuing orders (Pipe Creek Circular) and there was also an issue with orders issued for the pursuit after the battle.

Butterfield is an interesting guy in that he rose quickly, especially since he was not a professional officer. It was said he liked to play with fire when younger, in addition to the other character flaws he was notorious for later. However, he seems to have been a fairly competent chief of staff, at least while working for Hooker. He is best remembered (if at all) for writing Taps. I also believe he was largely responsible for the corps badges.

There has not been much written about him, but he is a very fascinating guy. His JCCW testimony about Gettysburg makes for some very interesting reading.
Yes I remember the corps. Badges, it seems Meade maybe took advantage of the founding to get rid of him, same as dirty Dan.
 

Andy Cardinal

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At Fredericksburg, Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves spearheaded the Federal attack on the left. The division advanced more than 600 yards, penetrating a gap between two brigades of A. P. Hill's division and bringing the Federals their only real success of the day. Meade sent three requests back to Birney, whose Third Corps division had been sent to support the First Corps, for help, but before support could arrive Meade's division was driven back. Meade rode to the rear and unleashed his temper at Birney. A lieutenant described Meade’s profanity at Fredericksburg as “a barrage of profanity ‘almost making the stone creep."

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David Birney​

Despite Meade's displeasure, Reynolds praised Birney in his report of the battle, crediting Birney with saving the artillery, which was not supported. Meade wrote that Birney “might have come up sooner than it did" and criticized Reynolds to his wife. Birney maintained that he had done “well and thoroughly all that I was ordered to do" (His claim was supported by Franklin's, Stoneman's and Reynolds's reports) and argued he had not done more “because all of us were under the supervision of officers who would not permit it.” This incident would impair Meade's relationship with Birney long after the battle was over. As Meade wrote to his wife months later, the two would “always have Fredricksburg between us.”

Following the battle, Meade wrote his wife: "Burnside, I presume, is a dead cock in the pit, and your friend Joe Hooker (fighting Joe) is the next on the list...." "God only knows what is to become of us and what will be done," he wrote just after New Years. "No one in Washington has the courage to say or do anything beyond hampering and obstructing us. Burnside is in favor of advancing, but he is opposed by his principal generals —Sumner, Franklin and Hooker. I had a long talk with Franklin yesterday, who is very positive in his opinion that we cannot go to Richmond on this line, and hence there is no object in our attempting to move on it. I agreed with him on the impracticability of this line, but I did not think for that reason we ought to stand still, because we must move some time or other in some direction, and we are every day growing weaker, without any hope of reinforcements in future."

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War launched an investigation into the Fredericksburg debacle. After testifying, Meade wrote to his wife: “My conversations with … Wade satisfied me that Franklin was to be made responsible for the failure at Fredericksburgh, and the committee are calling all the testimony they can procure to substantiate this theory of theirs. I sometimes feel very nervous about my position, they are knocking over Generals at such a rate."

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William B. Franklin
On January 25, Hooker replaced Burnside in command of the army. Sumner and Franklin were also relieved of command. Baldy Smith was relieved of command of the 6th Corps a few days later. The removal of Franklin and Smith meant that the last of McClellan’s most conspicuous friends and allies no longer served with the Army of the Potomac. Franklin and Smith were relieved, in part, because of their vocal advocacy of returning the Army of the Potomac to the James Rivers and, more significantly, their refusal to support Burnside’s operations. While Meade agreed with Franklin and Smith that the James was the proper line of operations, he kept these views largely to himself, expressing his opinions, for the most part, only to his wife. “I agreed with Franklin that the James River was our proper and only base, but as they determined in Washn. we should not go there, I thought rather than stand still we ought to attempt a practicable tho’ less desirable line."
 

WJC

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Had Meade been killed on the morning of July 1 and Reynolds somehow wound up in command of the AoP, I think that the battle would have been won tactically but that the conclusion of the battle would have been a Confederate Army trapped by a rising Potomac with an aggressive Reynolds pushing them into the rising waters. In other words, under Reynolds the Confederate Army would have suffered the kind of strategic defeat that would have made Lincoln a very happy man. Reynolds would have closed his fingers whereas Meade would not.
Unfortunately, Reynolds was killed on July 1, 1863, and we'll never know how he might have contributed had he lived a long life. On the other hand, Meade served with honor and distinction throughout the war. The criticism that he somehow complacently allowed Lee to escape is, I think easily disproven when one considers the condition of his army- hungry, lacking shoes and socks, and horses, with a shattered command structure) and reads the communications he had with Halleck and the orders he issued in the aftermath of his victory. In short, Halleck's direction was confusing, insisting that he pursue Lee but postpone a general battle while at the same time, insisting Meade defend Washington.
Meade made mistakes to be sure. But if one is looking for someone to blame for Lee's escape, a good place to start is Pleasonton. But that, as they say, is a story for another time....
 

Andy Cardinal

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Command of the Army of the Potomac now fell to “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Meade believed that he held “a more favorable” opinion of Hooker than many of the other officers in the army. He also believed Hooker “is a very good soldier”, but he doubted Hooker possessed the qualities necessary to successfully command an army. “If fighting … is all that is necessary to make a General, he will certainly distinguish himself.”

Joseph-Hooker.jpg

Hooker surprised Meade with his organizational and administrative skills. Meade did express some dissatisfaction with the new commander, however. “He is remarkably reticent of his ( it- information). I really know nothing of what he intends to do or when or where he proposes doing any thing.” “All I ask & pray for,” he added, “is to be told explicitly & clearly what I am expected to do, and then I shall try to the best of my ability to accomplish the task set before me.

I believe this is a revealing line about the commander both Horace Porter and U. S. Grant later characterized as "perfectly subordinate," and is a key to his success as well as to his weaknesses as a commander. It also fits his concept of duty -- to the best of his ability carry out his assignment. When his assignment was clear, he was a very effective commander. He was obedient ("subordinate") and even aggressive (The opposite of how he is normally portrayed). He was less effective, or one may say more cautious, when his assignment was unclear. When ordered to take command of the Army of the Potomac in June 1863, his assignment (as explained in Halleck's letter) was clear and he executed that assignment. That is also why we generally worked well and effectively after Grant came East (although there was tension between the two at times). Meade functioned best when he had clear orders to follow. It was perhaps both his greatest strength and greatest weakness as a commander.
 

Dom71

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Meade functioned best when he had clear orders to follow. It was perhaps both his greatest strength and greatest weakness as a commander.
I have always felt this was a reason his already legendary temper seemed to get worse during the Overland campaign. He would issue orders to his corps. Commanders of which some would not move with quickness, or their would be some mistake, a wrong road , a bad map, anything to delay moving forward. With the General-in-Chief standing in his back pocket watching everything over his shoulder. the pressure at times to complete his daily mission must have been nerve racking.
 

Dom71

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Here is an excerpt from "Searching for George Gordon Meade: The forgotten Victor of Gettysburg" It shows Meades perfect subordination, while also the awkwardness of the command structure under Grant.

The VI Corps’ John Sedgwick found Meade at army headquarters shortly afterward. “Sedgwick, I am short of staff officers,” said Meade. “Will you lend me one?” Sedgwick beckoned to Maj. Thomas Hyde. Meade directed the young major to ride back to Grant and tell him Lee was advancing and that Meade had sent the V and VI Corps forward to meet him. Hyde found Grant about four miles back and returned to Meade's headquarters with his party. Meade briefed Grant on the situation. “That is all right,” Hyde heard Grant say. Then the general in chief sat down by a tree, lit a cigar, and started to whittle.
Meade next dispatched Hyde with a message to Burnside. When the major returned, Meade sent him with orders to Brig. Gen. James Ricketts, the man Meade had leapfrogged over to take command of the I Corps at Antietam. Ricketts now commanded a division of the VI Corps. When Hyde reached Ricketts he found that an aide from Grant was already there with contradictory instructions. Hyde suggested that Ricketts follow Meade's orders, and then galloped back to explain the situation to the army's commander. “You did right, sir, but go back as soon as possible and tell General Ricketts to obey General Grant's order,” Meade told him.
 

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I've always wondered what would have happened at Gettysburg had Joseph Hooker had still been in command.
Hooker's strategy at Chancellorsville had been what ended up happening at Gettysburg - take a strong defensive position and let the Confederates beat themselves up attacking. Also like C'ville, Lee tried to get around his opponent's flanks(s), but this time without success.
 

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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.
Interesting though that as late as the actual battle itself and while it was underway a rumor was purposely started and spread in order to "inspire" the troops that Little Mac was indeed back as the commander of the army !
 

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… 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.
Those generals need to take a bus tour with @Eric Wittenberg sometime!
 



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