General George G. Meade (1815-1872)

General george G. Meade

In June 1863, the Union faced its darkest days in the Civil War. The Confederate Army, led by General Robert E Lee, had not lost a battle in two years and was now striking northward into Pennsylvania. The Northern people were panic-stricken. New leadership was needed and on June 28th 1863, President Lincoln appointed General George G Meade commander of the Army of the Potomac, replacing General (Fighting) Joe Hooker.

Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, the son of a United States naval agent. He won an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. in 1831. He graduated in 1835 and was immediately ordered to Florida for service in the Seminole Wars. A year later he resigned from the Army to work as a surveyor. Meade was married in 1840 and returned to the army in 1842 as a second Lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers. He served well in the Mexican War, and when the Civil War broke out, he became a brigadier general of volunteers. At the time of his sudden appointment to lead the Army of the Potomac, he was commander of the V Corps.

A few days after his appointment on July 1st 1863, a surprise encounter plunged his army into the Battle of Gettysburg; the greatest ever fought on American soil. Through three days of terrific fighting, Meade defended the Union position against all Confederate attacks. Lee finally acknowledged defeat by withdrawing from Virginia.

Meade was severely criticised at the time for failing to pursue and crush the shaken Confederates. Nonetheless, he had succeeded in defeating Lee and had broken the string of Confederate victories. In 1864 he received the thanks of Congress and was commissioned a major general in the regular army. He retained his command until the end of the war, but after General Ulysses S Grant took over all Union forces in March 1864, Meade had only nominal leadership of the Army of the Potomac.

After the war, Meade commanded the division of the Atlantic in 1865-66 and the department of the east in 1866-67. In 1868-9, he commanded the military district that included Georgia, Alabama and Florida, where his firm justice helped ease the difficult period of reconstruction.

Meade died in Philadelphia on November 6th 1872.

Alan Grimes, 2nd US Infantry.

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, August 1998