by Kent Masterson Brown
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Pp. xi, 476.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 1469661993
Reassessing Meade at his Greatest Battle
The author of a number books on the Civil War, Kent Masterson Brown here undertakes the first comprehensive analysis of George Meade’s generalship as commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Gettysburg Campaign (June 28 to July 17, 1863). He examines how Meade and his troops defeated Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and the price paid for that victory in casualties. In addition, he makes a good case that despite the widespread belief that he missed a chance to destroy his opponent during Lee’s retreat, an attempt to do so would have led to the defeat of Meade’s depleted army, overshadowing its significant victory at Gettysburg.
Brown makes a good case that Meade should have received more credit for the Union victory at Gettysburg. He offers numerous examples of Meade visiting various points on the battlefield, repositioning troops and conferring with many senior officers to strengthen the army’s lines against Confederate attack. Additionally, Brown stresses how Meade dealt with each crisis, rather than, as has often been asserted, not being very involved in managing the battle, which was won by others. Brown feels that some of the views of historians such as Coddington, Pfanz, Sears, and Guelzo are based on the general’s perceived failure in the pursuit of Lee’s troops following the battle, and his lack of popularity in the army during the war and afterwards. Brown demonstrates that he followed accepted ideas of strategy in moving his troops parallel to those of the enemy during the retreat, and was correct in not attacking Lee’s formidable defenses near Williamsport on July 13th.
Brown has made use of some previously neglected evidence, notably a letter that was taken off the body of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds following his death on July 1st, which embodied Meade’s instructions for conducting battle on first encountering the enemy, which counters the idea that Reynolds’ orders that day were made entirely on his own.
Brown also argues that Lincoln and his administration incorrectly assumed Meade would be able to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before it crossed the Potomac. Having been appointed to command of the Army of the Potomac while already on the march only three days before the start of the biggest battle of the war, he had won the confidence of many of his corps commanders, notably including Reynolds, Sykes, Hancock, and Slocum. Meade had followed his orders from Henry Halleck to protect the nation’s capital and Baltimore, fought a defensive battle on ground more or less of his own choice, while demonstrating considerable flexibility (since he had thought to fight along Big Pipe Creek ), won his battle, and kept his army together and in supply, all in a period of less than two weeks.
Lincoln had many unfortunate experiences with earlier commanders of the Army of the Potomac, notably George McClellan, and that may have affected his dealings with and his expectations for Meade, particularly after the battle and during his pursuit. After the war, although Meade had criticized him following the battle, the army’s former chief of artillery, Henry Hunt, despite having every reason to be bitter, wrote that Meade had accomplished great things in that July of 1863, but did not – for several reasons – have the opportunity to accomplish what Lincoln had hoped, destroying Lee’s army.
Brown has thrown new light on what Meade accomplished, and supported his arguments based on excellent use of primary sources.
Meade at Gettysburg, a volume in the UNC series “Civil War America”, is very readable and even handed, and will be most valuable for students of the battle of Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac, and generalship in the Civil War.
Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews include The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, An Environmental History of the Civil War, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, Arguing until Doomsday, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign, Defending the Arteries of Rebellion, A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated, and A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans.
Note: Meade at Gettysburg is also available in several e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (www.nymas.org)