As a past commander of the military installation that bears his name, I am, perhaps, biased. But as I have studied the career and character of Gen. George Gordon Meade, I find him to be a man worthy of honor, a man from whom we can continue to draw inspiration, a man who deserves to be remembered for who he was and what he did.
Meade built a military career that spanned 41 years following his arrival at West Point in 1831. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, he was a captain in the Topographical Corps of Engineers, best known for the work he had done building lighthouses and surveying the Great Lakes.
Unable initially to leave his surveyor’s post, Capt. Meade chafed at missing the opening battles of the war and was chagrined to see his West Point classmates assuming commands in the armies then being raised. So he used his influence in his home state to gain appointment as a brigadier general commanding a brigade of Pennsylvania volunteers.
He rose in rank and responsibility, gaining command first of a division, then a corps, during the series of battles that raged in 1862–63. Meade earned a reputation as a solid, dependable commander who could be relied upon to get the job done. He was not colorful, nor was he glory-seeking; he remained largely unknown outside the Army of the Potomac.
All of that changed after Robert E. Lee led his Army once again across the Potomac. The Union Army commander was slow to respond, and President Lincoln had seen enough. After another Pennsylvanian refused the command, Lincoln turned to Meade. Rarely has anyone so obscure been thrust so quickly into a situation of such gravity; notified of his appointment on June 28, 1863, he found his Army was scattered from Virginia to Pennsylvania, vainly seeking to find Lee’s forces.
Meade quickly moved to take control of the battle, coordinating troop movement, reconnaissance and logistics to carry his Army in pursuit of Lee. On July 1, Union and Confederated forces clashed in Gettysburg. That opened the first of three days of fighting and marked the greatest clash of armies on the American continent. Lee’s Army, coming off a brilliant string of victories, vanquishing one Union general after another, increasingly seemed invulnerable — not only to the wavering population of the north, but to potential allies in Europe.
As the guns fell silent on July 3, however, the news began to go out about the great victory that Meade and his Army had won on the hills around Gettysburg. Meade’s fame was ensured, but his deliberateness in moving against Lee cost him the confidence of Lincoln. Although Meade remained in command of the Army of the Potomac through the surrender at Appomattox, he did so in the uncomfortable position of having General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant accompanying his Army and supervising its movements and campaigns. Meade’s personality became increasingly prickly as he smarted under the real and perceived slights.
Perhaps it is for this reason that he is less remembered today than other great leaders of the war. However, for Americans who waited in July to hear the result of the battle, he would ever remain the hero of Gettysburg, a man who stepped into the breach when his nation most needed him — and most needed a victory.
In those first days of July 1863, Meade was the indispensable man, calmly leading an Army which he had just inherited to victory on its own soil against an enemy that, up to then, seemed invincible. Lee made this assessment after the war: “Meade, in my judgment, had the greatest ability. I feared him more than any man I ever met upon the field of battle.”
The fact that Fort George G. Meade bears his name is one way of assuring that we, as a nation, never forget Meade’s service or what he accomplished at Gettysburg, a little crossroads town in Pennsylvania.
Ken McCreedy, senior executive director at ManTech International Corp.’s Hanover office, is a former garrison commander at Fort Meade.