July 14, 1863: Letter to Meade

On July 4, 1863 General Meade sent out this order to the victorious Army of the Potomac:

The Commanding General, in behalf of the country, thanks the Army of the Potomac for the glorious result of the recent operations.

An enemy superior in numbers and flushed with the pride of a successful invasion, attempted to overcome and destroy tin’s Army. Utterly baffled and defeated, he has now withdrawn from the contest. The privations and fatigue the Army has endured, and the heroic courage and gallantry it has displayed will be matters of history to be remembered.

Our task is not yet accomplished, and the Commanding General looks to the Army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.

It is right and proper that we should, on all suitable occasions, return our grateful thanks to the Almighty Disposer of events, that in the goodness of His Providence He has thought fit to give victory to the cause of the just.

The order set Lincoln’s teeth on edge when he read it.  Making, among other comments:

” Drive the invaders from our soil! Great God! Is that all?” 

“Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.”

Meade’s lackluster and desultory pursuit of Lee tossed away a golden opportunity to achieve a truly decisive victory over Lee.  In partial defense of Meade, the Army of the Potomac wasn’t in that much better shape than the Army of Northern Virginia after the three terrible days of Gettysburg, but the strategic position of the Confederates north of the Potomac was much worse, with Meade having access to substantial reinforcements, supplies and ordinance, all of which Lee lacked.  That Lee was able to get his army, laden with a wagon train of wounded that stretch seventeen miles across the Potomac on July 13, 1863 with Meade and the Army of the Potomac standing by on the defensive  nearby, says much that is bad about Meade’s generalship.  Lincoln summed up the situation well:  , “We had them within our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the Army move.”

Meade, hearing of Lincoln’s frustration during the slow motion pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia, had offered to General in Chief Halleck to resign.  I believe that Lincoln should have immediately accepted and brought Grant to the East to replace Meade.  Instead Lincoln wrote the letter below.  He never sent it, but it spelled out his frustrations with Meade.  I suspect that Lincoln would have replaced Meade, but for his fear of the impact on Northern morale of such a replacement of yet another commander of the Army of the Potomac, especially in the wake of what was being hailed in the North as a great Union victory.  Here is the text of the letter:

Executive Mansion,

Washington, July 14, 1863.

Major General Meade

 I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very–very–grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it.  I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him.  You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive. At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fifty five miles, if so much. And Couch’s movement was very little different.

 Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

Yours very truly,

A Lincoln

Published in: on July 14, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on July 14, 1863: Letter to Meade  
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