George Meade

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George Meade
George G. Meade Standing.jpg
Meade, portrait by Mathew Brady
Birth name George Gordon Meade
Nickname(s) "Old Snapping Turtle"
Born (1815-12-31)December 31, 1815
Cádiz, Spain
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1835–1836; 1842–1872
Rank Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Major general
Commands held V Corps
Army of the Potomac
Department of the East
Battles/wars Second Seminole War
Mexican-American War
American Civil War

George Gordon Meade (December 31, 1815 – November 6, 1872) was a career United States Army officer and civil engineer involved in the coastal construction of several lighthouses. He fought with distinction in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. During the American Civil War he served as a Union general, rising from command of a brigade to the Army of the Potomac. He is best known for defeating Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Meade's Civil War combat experience started as a brigade commander in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles, including the Battle of Glendale, where he was wounded severely. As a division commander, he had notable success at the Battle of South Mountain and assumed temporary corps command at the Battle of Antietam. His division was arguably the most successful during the assaults at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, he was appointed to command the Army of the Potomac just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, but was able to organize his forces to fight a successful defensive battle against Robert E. Lee. This victory was marred by his ineffective pursuit during the Retreat from Gettysburg, by the inconclusive campaigns in the fall of 1863, and by intense political rivalries within the Army, notably with Daniel Sickles.

In 1864–65, Meade continued to command the Army of the Potomac through the Overland Campaign, the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, and the Appomattox Campaign, but he was overshadowed by the direct supervision of the general in chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who accompanied him throughout these campaigns. He also suffered from a reputation as a man of short, violent temper who was hostile toward the press and received hostility in return. After the war, he commanded several important departments during Reconstruction.

Early life and education

Meade was born in 1815 in Cádiz, Spain, the eighth of eleven children of Richard Worsam Meade (1778–1828) and Margaret Coats Butler (1782–1852). His father, a wealthy Philadelphian merchant, was serving in Spain as a naval agent for the U.S. government. He was ruined financially because of his support of Spain in the Napoleonic Wars and died in 1828 when Meade was not yet a teenager. His family returned to the United States in 1817, in precarious financial straits. Young George attended the Mount Hope Institution in Baltimore and entered the United States Military Academy (West Point) in 1831, chosen primarily for financial reasons. He graduated 19th in his class of 56 cadets in 1835. His brother, Richard Worsam Meade II, became a naval officer.

For a year, he served with the 3rd U.S. Artillery in Florida, fighting against the Seminole Indians, before resigning from the Army, a career he had not intended to pursue, even while attending West Point. He worked as a civil engineer for the Alabama, Georgia, and Florida Railroad and for the War Department.

On December 31, 1840, he married Margaretta Sergeant, daughter of John Sergeant, running mate of Henry Clay in the 1832 presidential election. They had seven children together (John Sergeant Meade, George Meade (who became a colonel in the US Army), Margaret Butler Meade, Spencer Meade, Sarah Wise Meade, Henrietta Meade, and William Meade).


Finding steady civilian employment was difficult for the newly married man, so he reentered the army in 1842 as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers.[1] Meade served in the Mexican-American War, assigned to the staffs of Generals Zachary Taylor, William J. Worth, and Robert Patterson, and was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterrey.

After that war he was chiefly involved in lighthouse and breakwater construction and coastal surveying in Florida and New Jersey. He designed Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island, Absecon Light in Atlantic City, Cape May Light in Cape May, Jupiter Inlet Light in Jupiter, Florida, and Sombrero Key Light in the Florida Keys.[2] He also designed a hydraulic lamp that was adopted by the Lighthouse Board for use in American lighthouses. He was promoted to captain in 1856.[3]

In 1857, Meade relieved Lt. Col. James Kearney on the Lakes Survey mission of the Great Lakes. Completion of the survey of Lake Huron and extension of the surveys of Lake Michigan down to Grand and Little Traverse Bays were done under his command. Prior to Captain Meade's command, Great Lakes' water level readings were taken locally with temporary gauges; a uniform plane of reference had not been established. In 1858, based on his recommendation, instrumentation was set in place for the tabulation of records across the basin. In 1860, the first detailed report of Great Lakes was published.[4] Meade stayed with the Lakes Survey until the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War.

American Civil War

Early commands

General Meade's horse, Old Baldy.

Meade was promoted from captain to brigadier general of volunteers on August 31, 1861, a few months after the start of the Civil War, based on the strong recommendation of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. He was assigned command of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited early in the war, which he led competently, initially in the construction of defenses around Washington, D.C. His brigade joined Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac for the Peninsula Campaign. At the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles, Meade was severely wounded in the arm, back, and side. He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, then assigned to Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell's corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army. At the start of the Maryland Campaign a few days later, he received command of the 3rd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, and distinguished himself during the Battle of South Mountain. When Meade's brigade stormed the heights at South Mountain, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, his corps commander, was heard to exclaim, "Look at Meade! Why, with troops like those, led in that way, I can win anything!" In the Battle of Antietam, Meade replaced the wounded Hooker in command of I Corps, selected personally by McClellan over other generals his superior in rank. He performed well at Antietam, but was wounded in the thigh.[5]

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade's division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862. However, his attack was not reinforced, resulting in the loss of much of his division. After the battle, he received command of V Corps, which he led in the Battle of Chancellorsville the following spring. General Hooker, then commanding the Army of the Potomac, had grand, aggressive plans for the campaign, but was too timid in execution, allowing the Confederates to seize the initiative. Meade's corps was left in reserve for most of the battle, contributing to the Union defeat. Afterward, Meade argued strongly with Hooker for resuming the attack against Lee, but to no avail.[6]

Army of the Potomac and Gettysburg

Commanders of the Army of the Potomac, Gouverneur K. Warren, William H. French, George G. Meade, Henry J. Hunt, Andrew A. Humphreys, and George Sykes in September 1863.

Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac while pursuing Lee in the Gettysburg Campaign.[7] In the early morning hours of June 28, 1863, a messenger from President Abraham Lincoln arrived to inform Meade of his appointment as Hooker's replacement. Meade was taken by surprise and later wrote to his wife that when the officer entered his tent to wake him, he assumed that Army politics had caught up with him and he was being arrested. He had not actively sought command and was not the president's first choice. John F. Reynolds, one of four major generals who outranked Meade in the Army of the Potomac, had earlier turned down the president's suggestion that he take over.[8]

General Meade's headquarters, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Meade assumed command at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Maryland.[9] Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was invading Pennsylvania and, as a former corps commander, Meade had little knowledge of the disposition of the rest of his new army. Only three days later he confronted Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1 to 3, 1863, when he won the battle that is considered a turning point of the war. The battle began almost by accident, as the result of a chance meeting engagement between Confederate infantry and Union cavalry in Gettysburg on July 1. By the end of the first day, two Union infantry corps had been almost destroyed, but had taken up positions on favorable ground. Meade rushed the remainder of his army to Gettysburg and skillfully deployed his forces for a defensive battle, reacting swiftly to fierce assaults on his line's left, right, and center, culminating in Lee's disastrous assault on the center, known as Pickett's Charge.[10]

During the three days, Meade made excellent use of capable subordinates, such as Maj. Gens. John F. Reynolds and Winfield S. Hancock, to whom he delegated great responsibilities. Unfortunately for Meade's reputation, he did not skillfully manage the political manipulators he inherited from Hooker. Maj. Gens. Daniel Sickles, III Corps commander, and Daniel Butterfield, Meade's chief of staff, caused him difficulty later in the war, questioning his command decisions and courage. Sickles had developed a personal vendetta against Meade because of Sickles's allegiance to Joseph Hooker, whom Meade replaced, and because of controversial disagreements at Gettysburg. (Sickles had either mistakenly or deliberately disregarded Meade's orders about placing his corps in the defensive line, which led to that corps' destruction and placed the entire army at risk on the second day of battle.) Radical Republicans (some of whom like Thaddeus Stevens were former Know Nothings and hostile to Irish Catholics like Meade's family) in the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War suspected that Meade was a Copperhead and tried in vain to relieve him from command.[11]

Engraving by James E. Kelly of George G. Meade and the Council of War at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863.

Following their severe losses at Gettysburg, General Lee's army retreated back to Virginia. Meade was criticized by President Lincoln and others for not aggressively pursuing the Confederates during their retreat. At one point, the Army of Northern Virginia was extremely vulnerable with their backs to the rain-swollen, almost impassable Potomac River, but was able to erect strong defensive positions before Meade could organize an effective attack. Lincoln believed that this wasted an opportunity to end the war. Nonetheless, Meade received a promotion to brigadier general in the regular army and the Thanks of Congress, which commended Meade "... and the officers and soldiers of [the Army of the Potomac], for the skill and heroic valor which at Gettysburg repulsed, defeated, and drove back, broken and dispirited, beyond the Rappahannock, the veteran army of the rebellion."[12] Meade wrote the following to his wife after meeting President Lincoln:

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Yesterday I received an order to repair to Washington, to see the President. ... The President was, as he always is, very considerate and kind. He found no fault with my operations, although it was very evident he was disappointed that I had not got a battle out of Lee. He coincided with me that there was not much to be gained by any farther advance; but General Halleck was very urgent that something should be done, but what that something was he did not define. As the Secretary of War was absent in Tennessee, final action was postponed till his return.[13]

— General Meade

For the remainder of the fall campaigning season in 1863, hobbled by the transfer of his XI and XII Corps to the western theatre, during both the Bristoe Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign, Meade outmaneuvered Lee in the Bristoe Campaign and failed to win a decisive victory against Lee during the Mine Run Campaign because of General French and the Third Corps. .[14]

Meade was a competent and outwardly modest man, although correspondence with his wife throughout the war suggests he was disguising his ego and ambition. A London newspaperman described Meade: "He is a very remarkable looking man—tall, spare, of a commanding figure in presence, his manner pleasant and easy but having much dignity. His head is partially bald and is small and compact, but the forehead is high. He has the late Duke of Wellington class of nose, and his eyes, which have a serious and almost sad expression, are rather sunken, or appear so from the prominence of the curve nasal appearance. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance." Meade's short temper earned him notoriety, and while he was respected by most of his peers, he was not well loved by his army. Some referred to him as "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle."[15]

Meade and Grant

General Meade's headquarters, Culpeper, Virginia.
Horse artillery headquarters in Brandy Station, Virginia, February 1864. Meade stands at the far right with Generals John Sedgwick and Alfred Torbert, along with staff officers.

When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union armies in March 1864, Meade offered to resign. He stated the task at hand was of such importance that he would not stand in the way of Grant choosing the right man for the job and offered to serve wherever placed. Grant assured Meade he had no intentions of replacing him. Grant later wrote that this incident gave him a more favorable opinion of Meade than the great victory at Gettysburg.[16]

Grant made his headquarters with Meade for the remainder of the war, which caused Meade to chafe at the close supervision he received. Following an incident in June 1864, in which Meade disciplined reporter Edward Cropsey from The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for an unfavorable article, all of the press assigned to his army agreed to mention Meade only in conjunction with setbacks. Meade apparently knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade.[17]

Additional differences caused further friction between Grant and Meade. Waging a war of attrition in his Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee, Grant was willing to suffer previously unacceptable losses with the knowledge that the Union Army had replacement soldiers available, whereas the Confederates did not. Meade, despite his aggressive performance in lesser commands in 1862, had become a more cautious general and more concerned about the futility of attacking entrenched positions. Most of the bloody repulses his army suffered in the Overland Campaign were ordered by Grant, although the aggressive maneuvering that eventually cornered Lee in the trenches around Petersburg were Grant's initiative as well. Meade was additionally frustrated by the manner in which Grant sometimes gave preferable treatment to subordinates that he brought with him from the Western Theater. A primary example of this was Grant's interference with Meade's direction of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's Cavalry Corps. Meade had insisted that Sheridan's troopers perform traditional cavalry functions of reconnaissance, screening, and guarding the army's trains, but Sheridan objected and told Meade that he could "whip Stuart" if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it." Meade deferred to Grant's judgment and issued orders to Sheridan to "proceed against the enemy's cavalry" and from May 9 through May 24, sent him on a raid toward Richmond, directly challenging the Confederate cavalry.[18]

Generals George G. Meade, Andrew A. Humphreys and staff in Culpeper, Virginia outside Meade's headquarters, 1863.

Although Meade generally performed effectively under Grant's supervision in the Overland Campaign and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, a few instances of bad judgment marred his legacy. During the Battle of Cold Harbor, Meade inadequately supervised his corps commanders and did not insist they perform reconnaissance before their disastrous frontal assault. Inexplicably, Meade wrote to his wife immediately after the attack and expressed pride that it was he who ordered the attack. During the initial assaults on Petersburg, Meade again failed to coordinate the attacks of his corps before General Lee could reinforce the line, resulting in the ten-month stalemate, the Siege of Petersburg. He approved the plan of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to plant explosives in a mine shaft dug underneath the Confederate line east of Petersburg, but at the last minute he changed Burnside's plan to lead the attack with a well-trained African-American division that was highly drilled just for this action, instructing him to take a politically less risky course and substitute an untrained and poorly led white division. The resulting Battle of the Crater was one of the great fiascoes of the war. In all of these cases, Grant bears some of the responsibility for approving Meade's plans, but Meade's performance was not at the same level of competence he displayed on other occasions.[19]

General Meade and other generals of Army of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., June 1865.

After Spotsylvania, Grant requested that Meade be promoted to major general of the regular army. In a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on May 13, 1864, Grant stated that "Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and [William T.] Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with."[20] Meade felt slighted that his well-deserved promotion was processed after that of Sherman and Philip Sheridan, the latter his subordinate.[21] However, his date of rank meant that he was outranked at the end of the war only by Grant, Halleck, and Sherman.[22] Although he fought during the Appomattox Campaign, Grant and Sheridan received most of the credit. He was not present when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.[17]

General George G. Meade and staff in Washington, D.C. in June 1865.

Command decisions

Meade's decisions in command of the Army of the Potomac have been the focus of controversy. He has been accused of not being aggressive enough in pursuit of Confederate forces, and being reluctant to attack on occasion. His reputation among the public and 19th century historians suffered as a result of his short temper, his bad relationship with the press, his place in the shadow of the victorious Grant, and particularly the damaging fallout from the controversies with Dan Sickles. Recent historical works have portrayed him in a more positive light. They have acknowledged that Meade displayed and acted upon an understanding of the necessary changes in tactics brought about by improvements in weapons technology, such as his decisions to entrench when practicable and not to launch frontal assaults on fortified positions.[23]

Later life and death

In 1865, Meade was admitted as an honorary member of the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati.

Meade was a commissioner of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia from 1866 until his death. The people of Philadelphia gave his widow a house at 1836 Delancey Place, where he lived. The house still has the word "Meade" over the door, but it is now used as apartments. He also held various military commands, including the Military Division of the Atlantic, the Department of the East, and the Department of the South. He replaced Major General John Pope as governor of the Reconstruction Third Military District in Atlanta on January 10, 1868.

Meade received an honorary doctorate in law (LL.D.) from Harvard University, and his scientific achievements were recognized by various institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.[24]

Memorials to George G. Meade

Meade died in Philadelphia, while still on active duty, from complications of his old wounds, combined with pneumonia, on November 6, 1872. He was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.[25]


There are statues memorializing Meade throughout Pennsylvania, including statues at Gettysburg National Military Park and one in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia by Alexander Milne Calder. The United States Army's Fort George G. Meade in Fort Meade, Maryland, is named for him, as are Meade County, Kansas, and Meade County, South Dakota. The Old Baldy Civil War Round Table in Philadelphia is named in honor of Meade's horse during the war. In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS George G. Meade was named in his honor.

One-thousand-dollar Treasury notes, also called Coin notes, of the Series 1890 and 1891, feature portraits of Meade on the obverse. The 1890 Series note is called the Grand Watermelon Note by collectors, because the large zeroes on the reverse resemble the pattern on a watermelon.

In 2015 General Meade was elected posthumously as a companion of the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). During his life, Meade was invited to join MOLLUS but refused.

The General Meade Society of Philadelphia

The General Meade Society of Philadelphia gathers annually on December 31 to celebrate the anniversary of the general's birth. Since 2001, the Society has sponsored activities that include tours of Meade-related sites in Philadelphia; seminars with speakers on the theme of Meade's life, services, and career; adoption and maintenance of the Meade Monument and headquarters site at Gettysburg; a scholarship drive for the General George G. Meade school in Philadelphia; a project to issue a commemorative stamp; and an annual birthday commemoration at his gravesite in Philadelphia's historic Laurel Hill Cemetery.[26]

Notable descendants

In popular culture

In the film Gettysburg, an adaptation of Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels, Meade is portrayed by Richard Anderson. Other film, television, music, and video appearances:

Meade is a character in the alternate history novel Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War, written by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen.

Meade was also mentioned in the alternate history novel The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.

See also


  1. Tagg, p. 1; Warner, p. 315; Sauers, p. 1295; Eicher, p. 384; Hunt, p. 22; Huntington, p. 12;; Baltzell, Edward Digby, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958, ISBN 978-0-88738-789-0, p. 142.
  2. Dean, Love, Reef Lights: Seaswept Lighthouses of the Florida Keys, The Historic Key West Preservation Board, 1982, ISBN 0-943528-03-8. McCarthy, Kevin M., Florida Lighthouses. University of Florida Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8130-0993-6.
  3. Eicher, p. 385;; Cape May Lighthouse history
  4. Woodford, Arthur, Charting the Inland Seas: A History of the U.S. Lakes Survey, Wayne State University Press, 1994, ISBN 978-0-8143-2499-8.
  5. Tagg, pp. 2-3; Eicher, p. 385; Warner, p. 316.
  6. Sauers, p. 1295; Eicher, p. 385; Tagg, p. 3.
  7. Coddington, p. 216. Hooker was disputing troop dispositions with General in Chief Henry W. Halleck and offered his resignation as a protest. Halleck and President Lincoln, dissatisfied with Hooker's performance at Chancellorsville and his lackluster pursuit of Lee in the current campaign, seized upon this opportunity and accepted his resignation.
  8. Coddington, pp. 37, 209.
  9. Historical marker website
  10. Tagg, pp. 4-6.
  11. Sears, pp. 215-22; Sauers, p. 1296.
  12. Warner, pp. 316-17; Eicher, p. 385; Sauers, p. 1295.
  13. The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), p. 154.
  14. Sauers, pp. 1295-96.
  15. Tagg, pp. 1-4; Sauers, pp. 1295.
  16. Grant, chap. XLVI (vol. II, p. 117).
  17. 17.0 17.1 Sauers, p. 1296.
  18. Jaynes, pp. 114-15. Sauers, p. 1296; Rhea, pp. 60-64.
  19. Jaynes, pp. 156-69; Davis, pp. 39-52, 64-88.
  20. Grant, chapter LII (vol. II, p. 235). He further stated that "I would not like to see one of these promotions at this time without seeing both."
  21. Eicher, p. 703; Warner, p. 644. Sherman was appointed on August 12, 1864, and confirmed on December 12 with date of rank August 12. Sheridan was appointed November 14 with date of rank November 8. Meade was not appointed until November 26, although his date of rank was established as August 18, meaning he technically outranked Sheridan, but was embarrassed that his name was not put forward first. The U.S. Senate confirmed Sherman and Sheridan on January 13, 1865, Meade on February 1. Subsequently, Sheridan was promoted to lieutenant general over Meade on March 4, 1869, after Grant became president and Sherman became the commanding general of the U.S. Army.
  22. Eicher, pp. 701-02.
  23. See, for example, Gallagher, essay by Richard A. Sauers, pp. 231-44.
  24. Eicher, p. 385; Sauers, p. 1296;;
  25. Eicher, p. 384; Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  26. General Meade Society
  27. "Visitors didn't stand a 'ghost of a chance': George G. Meade Easby, a one-of-a-kind Hiller", Chestnut Hill Local, December 15, 2005.
  28. Matthew Fox genealogy
  29. Meade's Army Album


Further reading

External links

Military offices
Preceded by Commander of the First Army Corps
September 17, 1862 – September 29, 1862
Succeeded by
John F. Reynolds
Preceded by Commander of the Fifth Army Corps
December 25, 1862 – January 26, 1863
Succeeded by
Charles Griffin
Preceded by Commander of the Fifth Army Corps
February 5, 1863 – February 16, 1863
Succeeded by
Andrew A. Humphreys
Preceded by Commander of the Fifth Army Corps
February 28, 1863 – June 28, 1863
Succeeded by
George Sykes
Preceded by Commander of the Army of the Potomac
June 28, 1863 – June 28, 1865
Succeeded by
(none, end of Civil War)