Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

GEORGE GORDON MEADE
(December 31, 1815–November 6, 1872)

Jon L. Wakelyn

That taciturn Philadelphia gentleman commanded at the brigade level or above in every battle the Army of the Potomac fought, save its very earliest. Meade also held the post as the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac for the longest period of any Union general officer. From George B. McClellan’s (q.v.) Peninsula Campaign through Appomattox Court House, he led and fought bravely and usually expertly, often in the front lines alongside his troops. If he does not rank with the greatest of Union officers, such as Ulysses Grant (q.v.) and William T. Sherman (q.v.), surely his wartime career equaled or surpassed any other. Yet Meade has never had a major biographer—the last rather superficial one appeared in 1960—and for many scholars today, he is remembered only for Gettysburg. Even with all his splendid effort at Gettysburg, he gained the reputation of excessive caution there and after. Accused of having failed to destroy Robert E. Lee (q.v.) and the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg and later in the autumn of 1863 in Virginia, he has come down in history as General Grant’s factotum during the crucial last year of the war.

Why has one of the Union’s most significant commanders been relegated to the back bench of the officer corps? Why has he been so neglected by those who study that great war? Some have said that Meade’s horrible and uncontrollable temper, often directed at politicians and the Northern press corps, left his reputation in shreds. But that is again the problem for those who have allowed personality to get in the way of the art of the military possible and the true accomplishments of the important commanders. Perhaps another look at Meade’s life in full with concentration in particular on his wartime career will explain the reasons for his neglect and contribute to the revision of his place in that war and in this country’s military history.

It is possible that Meade’s own family’s past figures large in why historians have treated him so poorly. He descended from some of those who held important place and position in the country’s history, and thus from his privileged

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