Abraham Lincoln vs. General George Meade
Episode 1 – A West Point War
It was a hot and steamy 4th of July in the rolling hills of South-Central Pennsylvania. Indeed, it was one of the hottest days of the year. With torrential downpours continuing to fall, the ground was saturated with rain and blood. The body count tallies streamed into each of the commanding generals’ posts, shattering all prior records for daily death tolls. That summer day in 1863, the casualties tallied over 51,000, which included 46,000 men and over 5,000 horses and mules.
General George Meade, in command of the Union Army for only three days, sat with eleven of his officers in a tiny smoke-filled farmhouse on a hilltop looking down over the battlefield, littered with Confederate and Union casualties who would be left for the people of Gettysburg to bury. Meade had convened a council of war to discuss their next steps. The question before them that day was whether to follow President Lincoln’s orders to press onward with the attack and pursue General Lee and his army before they crossed the Potomac, or to hold their ground, fortify their position, and reconstitute their strength. They held in their hands that day not only the welfare of their remaining troops, but the fate of a nation – one that had grown weary of war.
Meade’s decision to allow his subordinate commanders to have a vote in this weighty matter was grounded in his training as an officer. The Civil War was prosecuted, on both sides, by West Point graduates. Most of these men had been Meade’s classmates, and all were used to listening to a general rather than a president about how to prosecute a war. At that time, the President of the United States had not yet assumed the mantle of Commander in Chief. Officers loathed the idea of politicians involving themselves in matters of war and peace. Presidents were considered to be mere administrative functionaries, existing in their own discreet bubble. They were lawyers or scholars, with no knowledge of combat, who had no place on the battlefield.
When they received Lincoln’s orders to advance, Meade and his officers were perplexed. They thought that Lincoln had either gone crazy or, at a minimum, was displaying blatant political overreach, not to mention appallingly bad manners. When President Lincoln famously sent word to his commander, Gen. George McClellan that he’d like to “borrow” the army if the general wasn’t planning on using it, McClellan, wrote home about it, referring to Lincoln as “a well-meaning idiot and a “baboon.” So, these generals thought little of ignoring the President’s orders.
Meade had taken command of the Army of the Potomac under duress. He was fourth in a line of generals who had all resigned or been asked to resign under Lincoln’s administration. All of them had come in promising the president that they would win the war, and all of them had failed to deliver. Lincoln blamed his generals for being too afraid to advance on the enemy. The generals thought Lincoln was a strategic illiterate with no situational awareness of war. That day, Lincoln was ordering General Meade to take bolder action, annihilate the enemy, and achieve total victory, regardless of the cost in blood or treasure. General Meade wasn’t sure if that was the right answer.
Over the past three days, the explosive sounds of gun and cannon fire and the screams of men and horses had filled the air throughout the day and continued into the dark of night. The Union troops were exhausted, starving, and some were even barefooted. The rain had made roads impassable, and the artillery and wagons were stalled. And so, although General Meade and the Army of the Potomac had delivered a victory for the North that day, and won the day at Gettysburg, Meade and his generals were inclined to hold their ground.
Two schools of thought were battling for control of the nation that morning in a smoke-filled farmhouse at Gettysburg. To Meade and his generation of commanders, war was still a gentleman’s game, prosecuted by men from the same class, according to the Napoleonic tradition. These officers had no appetite for all-out war, no stomach for mounting casualties. They did not eviscerate the enemy, they gained ground, and held it. And they were often within shouting distance of a supply depot. War was a carefully choreographed dance, fought between professionals and engineers like Meade, over territory rather than ideology. The Civil War, however, was not a gentleman’s war. New strategies were called for, yet both armies continued to fight a modern war with antique rules, and the conflict that divided the nation, dragged on.
What would General Meade decide that day at Gettysburg, and what would it mean for the country, and for the evolution of leadership in America?
Find out next week in Episode 2: A New Leader for an Expanding Nation