Not another book on Gettysburg!” I hear you cry, ah, but this one is different and well worth the reading no matter how much of a Gettysburg junkie you are. There can’t be many of you out there that don’t know the basic facts regarding George Gordon Meade at Gettysburg. Forced to take command of the Army of the Potomac by Lincoln because everyone else qualified had refused, he was only in command of this poison chalice three days before the massive three day battle of Gettysburg began. After that point most histories focus on what was happening at the pointy end rather than with the army’s commander. Kent Masterson Brown’s new book puts that omission to rights with a detailed analysis of every decision Meade made between taking command and the Army of Northern Virginia’s escape at Williamsport. This is not a biography as it only covers the period immediately before, during and after Gettysburg.
I don’t want to give too much away regarding Kent Masterson Brown’s analysis or conclusions but, one thing that is plain is the huge factor that logistics and supplies played in this whole story. For Meade to do what he did, with the men and supplies available to him, was quite remarkable. The book also looks at those people around Meade and how they helped or hindered the army’s new General in Chief. Of course, a fair amount of time is spent on a certain General Dan Sickles, someone who is certainly not on my Christmas Card list. If anything, the evidence here is even more damming to that man’s reputation and shows the results of his clear and open disobedience to Meade’s orders that resulted in the destruction of his 3rd Corps and almost giving the Round Tops to the Confederacy. In any other circumstance Sickles would probably face a court-martial but, how can you Court-martial a man who has just lost his leg for his cause? For years I have read Gettysburg histories that complain mightily that Meade should have counterattacked after Pickett’s Charge on 4th day of the encounter. “If only the war had been shorter and thousands of lives would have been saved.”
After reading this book I fully understand why he didn’t! A worn-out army with no or very few supplies, including unwounded men, ammunition, horses and mules, prevented such a reaction. Lincoln’s remark that “you had only to stretch out your hand and take Lee’s army” shows he had no conception of the reality of commanding an army after a major battle. The weather also played a huge part in the pursuit of the AONV as it did in so many other Civil War campaigns.
After finishing this book Meade has risen in my estimation considerably whilst Lincoln has taken a bit of a knock and has enforced my view that politicians should not attempt to be armchair generals! I highly recommend this book especially if you have an interest in the Battle of Gettysburg. After this period Meade fades a bit into the background as he had the he unenviable situation of having his boss (US Grant) looking over his shoulder 24/7. His reputation doesn’t fare that well in the Overland Campaign but then neither do many of his contemporaries battering Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into finanal surrender. The gleam and glamour of war was far behind them and replaced by unimaginable death tolls, slaughter and destruction that wore down, mentally and physically, even the most determined and patriotic soldier.
Colin E Wilks June 2021