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George G. Meade


TO achieve success where all before him had failed, to retain command where, from unreadiness, incapacity, or lack of skill and foresight, all his predecessors had been compelled to relinquish it, and without extraordinary brilliancy or genius, still, by his soldier-like bearing and his manly and irreproachable conduct, to win the esteem and respect of all who were under his command, such are the claims which the last commander of the army of the Potomac presents to our regard. 

GEORGE GORDON MEADE was born in 1815, during the temporary residence of his parents at Cadiz, in Spain. His father, Richard W. Meade, was a citizen of Philadelphia, and, while engaged in mercantile pursuits in Spain, was intrusted by the United States Government with the adjustment of certain claims against that country. He filled the offices of Consul and Navy Agent of the United States most creditably, and the cession of Florida—to prevent whose secession the son subsequently contributed so much—was the result mainly of his efforts. Shortly after his birth, the parents of young Meade returned to Philadelphia, where his youthful clays were spent. When a boy, he attended the school at Georgetown, taught by the present Chief Justice Chase. The parents, having two sons, Richard W. and the subject of this sketch, determined to devote them to the service of their country. The elder was, therefore educated for the Navy, which he entered in 1826, while George was destined for the Army, and accordingly entered the Military Academy, near Philadelphia, and, in 1831, the Academy at West Point, whence he graduated with honor in 1835. 

The same year we find him a second lieutenant in the third artillery, in Florida, in the Seminole war. The state of his health induced him to resign his commission in 1836, and he became engaged in civil engineering; but, in 1842, he again entered the service as second lieutenant in the corps of Topographical Engineers, and in that capacity served in the Mexican war. During this campaign he served on the staff of General Taylor, and afterward on that of General Scott, distinguishing himself at Palo Alto and Monterey, and receiving, as an acknowledgment of his gallantry, a brevet of first lieutenant, dating from September 23, 1846; and also, upon his return to Philadelphia, a splendid sword from his townsmen. During the interval between the Mexican war and the rebellion, having been promoted to a full first lieutenancy in August, 1851, and to a captaincy of engineers in May, 1856, he was engaged with the particular duties of his department, more especially in the survey of the northern lakes; but upon the call to arms in 1861, he was ordered east, and upon the organization of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, under the three years' call, Captain Meade was made a brigadier-general of volunteers, and placed in command of the second brigade, with General McCall as division-general, his commission dating August 31, 1861. After wintering with the division at Tenallytown, and helping to erect Fort Pennsylvania, they crossed the Potomac into Virginia during the early part of 1862, and became a portion of the Army of the Potomac. When this army began to move upon Manassas, during March of that year, General Meade's brigade formed a portion of the second division if McDowell's first army corps, and with this corps he remained after that general was made commander of the Department of the Shenandoah. On the 18th of June, 1862, General Meade's rank in the regular army was advanced to that of major of topographical engineers, and subsequently he was confirmed with the same rank in the newly organized engineer corps of the United States army. About this time the division of Pennsylvania Reserves was added to the Army of the Potomac, on the Peninsula. General Meade took part in the battle of Mechanicsville, June 26, 1862, and in the battle of Gaines' Mills, June 27, he fought so bravely as to be nominated for a brevet of lieutenant-colonel of the regular army for his distinguished services. After the capture of Generals McCall and Reynolds, he took charge of the division. In the battle of New Market Cross Roads, June 30, General Meade was struck by a ball in his side, inflicting a painful wound; but quickly rose from his bed of suffering, and was again at the head of his division. During the Maryland campaign he also distinguished himself at the head of the Pennsylvania Reserves. At Antietam, when General Hooker was wounded, General Meade took charge of a corps, and fought bravely the remainder of the day, receiving a slight wound and having two horses killed under him. During the fearful battle of Fredericksburg, he held charge of the second division of the first army corps, and fought in Franklin's left wing. He led his men boldly up to the rebel works, and doubtless would have captured them had he been properly supported; but after losing his brigade commanders, several of his field and line officers, and fifteen hundred men, he, with the rest of the army, was obliged to retire to the other side of the river. Two days after this eventful battle, General Meade superseded General Butterfield in the command of the fifth army corps. To enable him to hold this, he was promoted to be a major-general of volunteers, with rank and commission from Nov. 29, 1862. In the second day of the action at Chancellorsville, the corps of Meade and Reynolds were held in reserve by General Hooker, and on them he relied for covering the crossing of the Rapidan, when it was finally decided to withdraw to the north bank. They performed their part admirably and with but little loss. Lee's army, now re-inforced and flushed with recent victories easily achieved, took the offensive once more, and speedily made its way into Maryland and Pennsylvania, followed by Hooker. On the 28th of June, 1863, the Army of the Potomac was in the vicinity of Frederick, in Maryland, when a messenger arrived from Washington, relieving General Hooker, and investing General Meade with the command of the army. Selected thus suddenly, without solicitation on his own part, and by the unanimous desire of the other corps commanders, he assumed command with a deep sense of the responsibilities thrust upon him, and made the best disposition of his troops in his power for the speedily impending battle. The following is a copy of his general order issued upon this occasion:


"June 28, 1863. 

"General Order, No. 66.

"By direction of the President of the United States, I hereby assume the command of the Army of the Potomac. As a soldier, in obeying this order, an order totally unexpected and unsolicited, I have no promises or pledges to make. The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a hostile invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view constantly the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest. It is with just diffidence that I relieve, in the command of this army, an eminent and accomplished soldier, whose name must ever appear conspicuous in the history of its achievements; but I rely upon the hearty support of my companions in arms to assist me in the discharge of the duties of the important trust which has been confided to me.

"Major-general Commanding 
"S. F. BARSTOW Assistant Adjutant-general"

General Meade at once put his columns in motion, and in three days his advance and that of the enemy met at Gettysburg, and commenced the conflict. The meeting at that place was by accident., but the advantages of the position were such, that instead of withdrawing his advance, upon meeting the enemy, he ordered his whole army up to their support. Three days of terrible warfare, and great loss of life upon both sides, resulted in the defeat of the enemy, and the abandonment of the northern invasion. It was the first substantial victory gained by the Army of the Potomac, and though the editors of the northern papers, and some of the impatient members of the Government, were inclined to blame General Meade for not making more ardent pursuit, and falling upon the foe, who was represented, as usual, as thoroughly demoralized, subsequent events have shown that, in this case, "discretion was the better part of valor." Pursuit, vigorous and effective pursuit, was made, and a considerable portion of the enemy's train was captured, but his retreat had been at the same time swift and orderly, and so thoroughly disciplined were the rebel troops, that an attack upon them by any pursuing force which could be brought up promptly, must inevitably have resulted in a disastrous repulse. The problem whether the attack should have been made, however, is one of a tactical nature, requiring for its solution special and professional knowledge. It is, therefore, one of those questions regarding which public opinion is necessarily worthless. One thing is certain, the emphasis with which the corps commanders pronounced against the assault, should carry with it great weight, understanding, as they did, the relative situations of the opposing forces.

After Lee had crossed the Potomac, General Meade hoped to bring him to battle before he should pass the mountains, but at Manassas gap, where an excellent opportunity occurred,- his plans were frustrated by the dilatory movements of a corps commander, who had the advance. For some time after this, the opposing armies lay in a state of inactivity, near the Rapidan, from the necessity of heavy detachments being drawn off to other points. In October, Lee attempted, by a flank movement, to sever Meade's communications ; but the latter was too quick for him. Making a retrograde movement as far as Centreville, to meet this effort, he followed Lee in return, and thus the two armies resumed nearly the same position as before the movement commenced. In the fighting accompanying these operations, the Union army had the advantage, and at Bristow station, the rear-guard, under Warren, by a rapid movement won the field, and defeated the enemy. Late in November, Meade undertook the boldest move that the Army of the Potomac had ever yet made. Leaving his base, with ten days' rations, he crossed the river, hoping to interpose between the wings of Lee's army, now in winter quarters, and stretched over a wide extent of country. The enemy, however, was found to present so formidable a front at Mine Run, behind intrenchments, that it was thought best to forego the contemplated attack, and our forces were again withdrawn to the north bank, and went into cantonments for the season. When General Grant, as lieutenant-general, assumed the direction of all the forces, his headquarters were with the Army of the Potomac. General Meade retained the immediate command of that army, and during the severe campaigns of 1864-5, led it on the bloody fields or the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the region round about Petersburg and Richmond, winning the approval of Lieutenant-General Grant, who in recommending his confirmation as a major-general in the regular army, spoke of him in these emphatic words:

"General Meade is one of our truest men, and ablest officers. He has been constantly with the Army of the Potomac, confronting the strongest, best appointed, and most confident army of the south. He, therefore, has not had the same opportunity of winning laurels so distinctly marked, as have fallen to the lot of other generals. But I defy any man to name a commander who would do more than Meade has done, with the same chances. General Meade was appointed at my solicitation, after a campaign the most protracted, and covering more severely contested battles than any of which we have any account in history. I have been with General Meade through the whole campaign; and I not only made the recommendation upon a conviction that this recognition of his services was fully won, but that he was eminently qualified for the command such rank would entitle him to."

Congress confirmed the appointment, dating his commission from August 18th, 1864. At the close of the war General Meade returned for a brief season to his home in Philadelphia, where he was received with the highest honors. He was soon after appointed to the command of the military division of the Atlantic, in which were included all the States on the Atlantic coast, and which was perhaps the most important of the military departments. His management of this department was able and judicious, but without many events of note. He acted promptly and wisely. under the direction of the Lieutenant general, in suppressing the Fenian movement for the invasion of Canada. When, in the autumn of 1867, President Johnson having become dissatisfied with General Pope's administration in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, in consequence of that general's furthering rather than hindering the enforcement of the congressional plan of reconstruction, he removed him and transferred General Meade to the command of that military district, he mistook as he had so often done before, his man. 

General Meade is thoroughly loyal, and obedient to the laws, and finding that the congressional plan was the law of the land, he obeyed it as strictly, and promptly, as his predecessor had done; even taking measures, such as the removal of the State provisional officers of Georgia for contumacy and insubordination, at which General Pope had hesitated. He has maintained a dignified and honorable course in regard to the Constitutional Conventions of the States of his district, and whatever may be his own political views, he has sought only to administer the laws faithfully, without fear or favor. The Constitutional Convention of Florida, which at one time was on the point of breaking into two impotent factions, was, by his counsels and efforts, harmonized, and the successful future of the re-organized State assured.

In July, 1868, the "Department of the South " was reconstructed, and General Meade placed in command of it. He retained this position until March, 1869, when President Grant made a new and better distribution of the army commands, and assigned General Meade to the command of the Military Division of the Atlantic, embracing the Department of the East, and that of the Lakes; his headquarters were to be at Philadelphia. This command the general still retains, though from the subsequent discontinuance of the Division of the South and its consolidation with the other divisions, the territory under his charge has been considerably increased.

General Meade is a scholarly and accomplished officer, somewhat cold and quiet in his manner, usually cautious and slow in his movements, never assuming or boastful; sometimes inclined to severity, and not very tolerant of commanding officers who were not educated at West Point; but a just and fair man, and one governed by principle. He is not a general who would rouse his troops to the highest enthusiasm by his personal magnetism, but one who would win their high respect and esteem. One of the best descriptions of his personal appearance we have seen is that given by an English writer, who was introduced to him soon after the battle of Gettysburg. " He is a very remarkable-looking man—tall, spare, of a commanding figure and presence; his manners easy and pleasant, 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 curved nasal development. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance. I had some conversation with him, and of his recent achievements he spoke in a modest and natural way. He said that he had been very 'fortunate;' but was most especially anxious not to arrogate to himself any credit which he did not deserve. He said that the triumph of the Federal arms was due to the splendid courage of the Union troops, and also to the bad strategy, and rash and mad attacks made by the enemy. He said that his health was remarkably good and that he could bear almost any amount of physical fatigue. "What he complained of was the intense mental anxiety occasioned by the great responsibility of his position."

General Meade, in 1840, married a daughter of Hon. John Sergeant, of Philadelphia, and has a large family.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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