George Gordon Meade (December 31, 1815 - November 6, 1872) was an American military officer during the American Civil War. He is best known for defeating the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Meade was born to American parents in Cádiz, Spain. At the time, his father had run into financial and legal difficulties due in part to the Napoleonic Wars. Meade graduated from the United States Military Academy (West Point) in 1835. For a year, he served with the 3rd Artillery in Florida, fighting against the Seminole Native Americans, before resigning. He was a civil engineer for the Alabama, Georgia, and Florida Railroad and for the Department of War. Finding steady civilian employment was difficult, so he reentered the army in 1842 as a Second Lieutenant in the corps of topographical engineers.
Meade served in the Mexican 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. His military career was uneventful, mainly as an engineer associated with lighthouse construction in Florida and New Jersey, until 1861, when the Civil War erupted.
Civil War career
Meade was appointed a Brigadier General of Volunteers a few months after the start of the Civil War. He was assigned command of a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves, which he led competently. During the Seven Days Campaign, Meade was severely wounded at the Battle of Glendale. He recovered in time for the Second Battle of Bull Run, after which he received a divisional command. Meade distinguished himself during the Battle of Antietam and its precursor, South Mountain. In the former, he replaced the wounded Major General Joseph Hooker in command of I Corps, performing well.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade's division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in General "Stonewall" Jackson's lines. For this action, Meade was promoted to Major General of Volunteers. However, his attack was not reinforced, resulting in the loss of much of his division. After the battle, he received command of V Corps, and during the short tenure of the system of Grand Divisions after Fredericksburg, Meade commanded the Center Grand Division. General Hooker, like one of Meade's previous superiors, Major General George B. McClellan, was too timid in his force deployment, leaving Meade's effective division in reserve for most of the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
After Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac, Meade replaced him on June 28, 1863, three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, where he won the battle that is considered a turning point of the war. Meade skillfully deployed his forces in a defensive battle, reacting swiftly to fierce assaults on his line's left, right, and center. Following his severe losses in Pickett's Charge, General Robert E. Lee's army retreated back into Virginia. Meade was criticized by President Abraham 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 almost impassable Potomac River, but they were 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 the Thanks of Congress and a belated promotion to Brigadier General of Regulars (which was separate from his promotions in the Volunteer army). During the Bristoe Station Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign, Meade's command fought two inconclusive battles due to Meade's refusal to attack an entrenched position.
When Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union forces in 1864, Meade and the Army of the Potomac became subordinate to him. Grant made his headquarters with Meade for the remainder of the war. Following an incident in June, 1864, in which Meade disciplined a reporter 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. Most certainly, Meade knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters apparently giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade. He fought effectively during the Overland Campaign (including the Battle of the Wilderness), and the Battle of Petersburg, after which Grant requested that he be promoted to Major General of the Regular Army. Although he fought during the Appomattox Campaign, he felt slighted that Grant and cavalry commander Major General Philip Sheridan received most of the credit. He commanded the Army of the Potomac until the Union victory in 1865.
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. (It should be noted that Meade never badly lost a battle he initiated himself. Most of the bloody repulses his army suffered in the Overland Campaign were ordered by Grant.) Meade's short temper earned him infamy, 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". But most damaging was Daniel Sickles' vicious postwar campaign against Meade's character. Sickles had developed a personal vendetta against Meade due to his allegiance to Joseph Hooker, whom Meade replaced, and because of violent disagreements at Gettysburg. (Sickles' grossly insubordinate actions as the commander of the III Corps almost lost the battle, and perhaps the war, for the Union.) Meade's reputation among the public and nineteenth century historians suffered as a result. Recent historical works have portrayed him in a better-deserved 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. His decisions to entrench when practicable and not launch frontal assaults on entrenched positions should have been more carefully studied; they were lessons that could have been used to great effect on the Western Front during World War I.
A monument to Meade on the Gettysburg Battlefield, located close to the point where Pickett's Charge was repelled.
General Meade was the commissioner of Fairmount Park in Pennsylvania from 1866 until his death. He also held various military commands, including the Military Division of the Atlantic, the Department of the East, the 3rd Military District (including Georgia and Alabama), and the Department of the South. He 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.
Meade died in Philadelphia on November 6, 1872, due to complications from his old wounds, combined with pneumonia, and is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. There are various statues of him throughout Pennsylvania, including a few in Gettysburg. Also, the US Army installation Fort George G. Meade in Fort Meade, Maryland is named for him.