In what promises to be the first of four volumes on this important period, Hunt demonstrates that this period was full of high drama as Lee and Meade sought to repair the damage done to their armies at Gettysburg, cope with an epidemic of desertions and home front disenchantment, and a host of logistical and strategic dilemmas. The Gettysburg Campaign, argues Hunt, did not end until late July, and included the fighting at Shepherdstown and Manassas Gap. Meade and Lee After Gettysburg also details how Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and their senior commanders coped with the strategic dilemmas they faced once the battle lines had been reestablished along the Rappahannock River, and how each side sought an opening to resume the offensive, the efforts triggering a series of bloody clashes at Brandy Station, Culpeper Courthouse, and Jack’s Shop.
Hunt’s work is based upon years of archival research and scores of firsthand accounts, newspapers, diaries, letter collections, and a firm understanding of the terrain of northern Virginia. Together with its photos, maps, and invaluable footnotes, Meade and Lee After Gettysburg offers a significant contribution to the Civil War literature.
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About the Author
At both the Texas Military Forces Museum and the Admiral Nimitz Museum he has organized and conducted hundreds of living history programs for the general public. He is a veteran reenactor of the War Between the States as well as the War of 1812, the Texas Revolution, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. He is a frequent speaker for a wide variety of organizations as well as documentaries and news programs.
Mr. Hunt’s writing credits include his book, The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch, and contributions to Essential Civil War Curriculum, the Revised Handbook of Texas and the Gale Library of Daily Life: American Civil War.
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"The War Will Be Prolonged Indefinitely"
The Retreat from Gettysburg — Meade's Hesitation — Lee's Escape — President Lincoln's Disappointment — Meade Retains Command — the War Continues
THE battle of Gettysburg was the largest fought in the war thus far. For three bloody days, Union and Confederate armies contested the hills and woods near that little Pennsylvania town. The Rebels came close to winning the struggle, but in the end the advantage rested with the Federals. General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, forced into a rare admission of defeat, abandoned the field of battle and withdrew toward Virginia. As the Rebels retreated from Pennsylvania, the last Confederate bastions on the Mississippi River — Vicksburg and Port Hudson — surrendered, giving the North complete control over the great waterway and cutting the Southern Confederacy in two.
Such Union victories in the Western Theater were not uncommon, although they had been few and far between since the beginning of 1863. In the Eastern Theater, however, it had been a long time since the Army of the Potomac had bested the Rebels. In fact, many questioned whether the Federals in Virginia had ever really beaten the Confederates. First Bull Run, the Peninsula campaign and Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Second Winchester were among the more prominent names on the list of Union disasters. Only Antietam had provided relief from the procession of defeats. Unfortunately, its long casualty list and Major General George B. McClellan's failure to follow up on General Lee's subsequent withdrawal lessened the public impact of what was a strategic achievement.
Gettysburg, on the other hand, was an unquestioned tactical and strategic triumph. The Army of the Potomac, seemingly poorly led and chronically unlucky, often derided in the press, had finally, decisively, whipped the Army of Northern Virginia. Accustomed to the defeat of their Eastern army, Northerners were overjoyed, and perhaps a bit surprised, by Major General George Meade's upset victory. Headlines announcing the Confederate defeat proclaimed the battle the greatest military success in history. Relief and glee over Lee's defeat morphed into euphoria when the news from Vicksburg multiplied Northern joy.
Captain William T. Lusk, stationed in Wilmington, Delaware, personified the depth of Yankee ecstasy. Feeling the Union had survived its "dark hour," Lusk exclaimed, "the dawn is broken, and the collapsed confederacy has no place where it can hide its head." Amid the "patriotic clamor" of ringing church bells and celebratory cannon fire, people were grinning "at one another with fairly idiotic delight," he wrote, explaining that the news from Gettysburg and Vicksburg combined was "a little too much happiness for poor mortal men."
In Pennsylvania, the men who made up the Army of the Potomac were justly proud of their triumph. Letters penned soon after the battle were full of proclamations about the nature of the Federal victory. The triumph was gratifying in many ways, not least in that it provided a ready answer to critics of the Eastern army and those who compared its disappointing record to victories won by Union forces under Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William S. Rosecrans.
More importantly, the Pennsylvania victory allowed many to believe the end of the war might be in sight. Thomas Carpenter, a clerk at army headquarters, thought the "fourth of July morning that saw Lee's shattered army retreat and Vicksburg surrender ... will date as the downfall of the Rebellion." Carpenter's sentiments were echoed in hundreds, perhaps thousands of letters written by Union troops after the battle. Joy and optimism seem to pervade every piece of correspondence. "I really begin to think now that we are soon to see the end of the war," wrote one Federal, while another admitted he was "in great hopes of the war coming to a close soon." Samuel Cormany, a sergeant in the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, thought likewise, telling his diary the Confederacy was a "waning cause tottering on its last legs."
The Northern press agreed. Anticipating the complete and rapid destruction of the rebellion, it heaped scorn on the retreating Confederates. Noting that Southern papers never tired of proclaiming the military genius of Robert E. Lee, Harper's Weekly admitted "it has not been unfashionable, even among loyal men," to believe the Confederate general far superior to his Union counterparts. The triumph in Pennsylvania, however, spelled the end of the Rebel's supposed dominance. Lee's reputation as a great general, Harper's Weekly assured its readers, "begins and ends at Gettysburg."
While denigrating Lee, Northern papers were quick to praise the leadership of General Meade, who had been appointed to the thankless task of leading the Army of the Potomac just days before the Pennsylvania victory. Even in far-off London, the Federal general received plaudits for his handling of the battle. Everywhere editors proclaimed Meade the best general to have ever led the Army of the Potomac, and the man apt to end the war by destroying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Many of Meade's troops cautiously concurred with that appraisal. Thomas Carpenter felt Meade had "shown a skill and judgment in the Gettysburg battle that cannot be too highly commended." The victory created hope that the North had found the man capable of crushing Lee and his army. "If Meade holds out as well as he has begun," Carpenter continued, "he will make his name famous and beloved for more than one generation." After seeing so many generals show much early promise, only to disappoint in the end, however, Carpenter hedged his bet on Meade: "I would not swear by him because he has won one battle, yet I think he will do."
Major Henry L. Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts was also uncertain how much faith to put in the army's new commander. Describing the general as "tall, thin, lantern-jawed, [and] respectable," Abbott thought Meade's spectacles made him look the part of a good "family doctor" more than a triumphant warrior. Appearances notwithstanding, he felt the general was "an extremely good officer, with no vanity or nonsense of any kind," and applauded his leadership at Gettysburg where Meade had seemed to know "exactly what he could do & what he couldn't."
Nonetheless, Abbot, like Carpenter and many others, could not quite bring himself to wholeheartedly invest faith in Meade. He wondered whether the determination of Union troops and the fact that they had occupied eminently defensible terrain on their own soil, meant that the common soldiers "deserve fully as much credit as the generalship of Meade" for Gettysburg. For now he felt "great confidence" in the general, "though no enthusiasm."
One reason George Meade failed to incite passion was that he was virtually unknown outside the V Corps until his appointment as commander of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863. His relative anonymity wasn't because he had not been in the thick of the fighting. Meade established a solid reputation leading a brigade on the Virginia Peninsula until he was wounded in the hip and arm at White Oak Swamp on June 30, 1862. He remained on the field until loss of blood and pain forced him to seek medical attention. After a brief convalesce, Meade returned to duty in time to take part in the battles of Second Bull Run, and then lead a division at South Mountain, Antietam (where he held temporary corps command), and Fredericksburg, where his division turned in what was arguably the best performance on a disastrous day. In each engagement he received plaudits for his coolness and courage under fire as well as his aggressiveness — all of which helped propel him from brigadier to major general, to date from November 29, 1862. He led the V Corps in the Chancellorsville campaign, during which he expressed dismay at Major General Joseph Hooker's decision to abandon the battle and retreat across the Rapidan.
The 47-year-old Meade was highly regarded by his peers. Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter, who would get to know the general well during the last year of the war, described him as "a most accomplished officer [who had] a complete knowledge of both the science and the art of war." Porter also wrote that that Meade "was well read, possessed of a vast amount of interesting information, had cultivated his mind as a linguist, and spoke French with fluency." When foreign military observers visited the army, explained Porter, "they were invariably charmed."
A London reporter interviewed the general during the summer of 1863 and came away quite flattered. "He is a very remarkable looking man — tall, spare, of a commanding figure and presence, his manner pleasant and easy but having much dignity," explained the foreign writer. "His head is partially bald and is small and compact, but the forehead is high. He has the late Duke of Wellington class of nose, and his eyes, which have a serious and almost sad expression, are rather sunken, or appear so from the prominence of the curved nasal development. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance."
When he wasn't entertaining the foreign press, however, Meade looked anything but distinguished. One officer quipped that "his habitual personal appearance is quite careless, and it would be rather difficult to make him look well dressed." That appraisal was accentuated by the general's tall cavalry boots and well-weathered "slouched hat with a conical crown and a turned-down rim" that gave him the kind of rough and ready look that soldiers approved.
Although everyone seemed to admire his bravery and patriotism, the impression Meade made on his equals and the press did not translate easily to junior officers or the rank and file. Meade "was a disciplinarian to the point of severity," thought Colonel Porter, and "in his intercourse with his officers the bluntness of the soldier was always conspicuous, and he never took pains to smooth anyone's ruffled feelings." Indeed, Meade's most remarked-upon trait was his volatile temper. The 1835 West Point graduate, veteran of the Seminole Wars, and father of seven did not suffer fools gladly or incompetence lightly, and during active operations throughout the Civil War was quick to snap at anyone who failed to meet his exacting standard of performance or duty. The harshness with which the general lashed out was extraordinary, and often made him seem heartless, demeaning, or cruel. His soldiers called him "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle"— an unflattering description of which Meade was fully aware. But if his temper could erupt suddenly and violently, it also relieved some of the general's frustrations and tension. On occasion he softened his outbursts with kind words or humor. "Meade does not mean to be ugly," wrote Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, commander of the I Corps' artillery, "but he cannot control his infernal temper."
Whether or not Meade was the man who would win the war, there was no mistaking that "the tide of success" seemed to be flowing in favor of the Federals, as the Illustrated London News put it. The paper was also quick to point out, however, that the Union victory in Pennsylvania was, as yet, incomplete. The Philadelphia Inquirer's announcement that Gettysburg had eclipsed Waterloo was, to say the least, premature. Waterloo had brought about the final downfall of Napoleon's France. Gettysburg was a long way from achieving similar results against the Southern Confederacy.
Even as the North hailed Gettysburg as a great victory, more thoughtful people in and out of the army realized it was only a beginning. Perhaps the end of the war might well be in sight, but it would take much more than the defensive success of the first three days of July to accomplish the destruction of the rebellion. Major Frederick C. Winkler of the 26th Wisconsin was among the many who understood the need to capitalize on Gettysburg before final victory could be won. In a letter home he expressed hope another battle could be fought north of the Potomac River, where the Union might "give the rebels a blow which will go far to end the war."
In order to complete that task, Meade needed to quickly pursue the retreating Confederate army and destroy it before it could re-cross the Potomac. Just about everyone saw this, and one who saw it with unmistakable clarity was President Abraham Lincoln. After hearing the news from Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, "If General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee's army, the rebellion will be over." Most people thought Meade would do just that. The general's own son, serving with his father as an aide, wrote his mother: "Papa will end the war."
From a distance, the chances of Meade finishing off the Rebels looked very good. Recent heavy rains had swollen the Potomac to flood stage, making it unfordable. Lee had left a pontoon bridge over the river at Williamsport, Maryland, but it had been destroyed by a detachment of Union cavalry on July 3. As a result, when Lee's battered army reached the Potomac along with some 10,000 wounded men and enormous quantities of captured supplies, there was no ready way to get across the angry waters and back to relative safety in Virginia.
While his engineers undertook the construction of a new bridge, Lee was forced to turn and face Meade. The Rebels dug in with speed and skill and were waiting for the Yankees when they began to arrive in strength on July 12. The Army of the Potomac's appearance no doubt came too early for Lee's taste, but as far as the administration in Washington was concerned, Meade was moving with agonizing slowness.
Lincoln, in particular, was worried. Indeed, his concerns about Meade had begun just two days after Gettysburg when he read the general's congratulatory order to his troops for their victory. After thanking his men for producing the "glorious result of the recent operations," Meade went on to tell his soldiers, "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."
Although the prose read well, it drove the president to heights of discontent. In a war being waged to prove the supremacy of the national government and the indivisible nature of the Federal Union, it did no good to imply the Southern Confederacy was a legitimate nation in its own right. Meade's order did just that. If there was an "our soil" that meant there must be a "their soil." Of course this was the reality of the moment, but it was a reality Federal armies were charged with changing. "Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads?" asked a frustrated Lincoln. "The whole country is our soil."
Some Northern troops were equally unimpressed with Meade's pronouncement. Colonel James Gwyn, commanding the 118th Pennsylvania, had Meade's congratulatory order read before his regiment. Riding out in front of his men at the end of the address, Gwyn exhorted three cheers for General Meade. The soldiers, however, refused to utter a sound. They had seen commanders come and go with great rapidity. Each had promised victory. None had delivered, leaving the troops wary and more than a bit cynical. There would be "no more cheering" for any general.
Whether they liked George Meade or not, few outside the army seemed to recognize the serious difficulties with which he contended. It was easier to focus on the equally difficult (or worse) problems Lee suffered — a reality those in Washington felt Meade was ignoring. Indeed, many in Lincoln's administration were uneasy about the apparent lack of killer instinct in the Union army's pursuit. Meade, naturally, felt differently.
The fact that the battle of Gettysburg had badly damaged Lee's Rebel army was vigorously reported by Northern newspapers. What most overlooked, however, was that the Army of the Potomac was as seriously damaged by its victory as the Army of Northern Virginia was by its defeat. Meade had taken upwards of 88,000 men into the battle. Of that number, 3,155 men were killed, 14,529 wounded, and another 5,365 taken prisoner. Among the Union wounded were two division and two corps commanders. The head of the I Corps, Major General John Reynolds, had been killed and seven brigade commanders killed or mortally wounded. Several more brigadiers were wounded and unable to lead their men. In total, more than 300 Union officers of all ranks were lost during the battle.
A roll call on the morning of July 5, 1863, for example, showed only 47,087 men present for duty. In addition, more than 5,000 unwounded Southern prisoners had to be dealt with, and many thousands more lying in makeshift hospitals. To state the matter plainly, almost the entire Army of the Potomac was exhausted and badly disorganized. The XI and I Corps, severely mauled during the first day of the battle, would never regain their former strength or élan. The III Corps suffered an equal fate on July 2. The cavalry had been heavily engaged and its horses, as well as those in the rest of the army, were in bad shape. Only the VI Corps came out of the battle in fairly good condition, having taken only a small part in the fighting.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Meade and Lee After Gettysburg"
Copyright © 2017 Jeffrey Wm Hunt.
Excerpted by permission of Savas Beatie LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "The War Will Be Prolonged Indefinitely" 1
Chapter 2 "The Maryland Campaign is Ended" 24
Chapter 3 "One of the Hardest Fights the Cavalry Has Ever Been In" 47
Chapter 4 "You Need Have No Fear" 73
Chapter 5 "I Desire to be Cautious" 89
Chapter 6 "What Is Going On We Cannot Tell" 100
Chapter 7 "The Sun … Seemed for Hours to Stand Still in the Sky" 113
Chapter 8 "It Is Not Understood What Meade's Plans Are" 136
Chapter 9 "The Shenandoah Valley … Is Alive With Wagons" 143
Chapter 10 "The Grand Chess Board" 157
Chapter 11 "This Was Precisely the Time to Attack" 169
Chapter 12 "We Resisted Them to the Utmost of Human Capacity" 181
Chapter 13 "The Enemy Has Again Disappeared" 224
Chapter 14 "I Have Had a Very Severe Engagement" 242
Epilogue: An Assessment of Command 267
Appendix 1 Principle Engagements and Casualties: July 14 - July 31, 1863 272