The University of North Carolina Press

The general who let Robert E. Lee get away

General Meade’s Union troops routed Lee at Gettysburg, and let the Confederate soldiers retreat to safety. A new book defends his actions. 

In the summer of 1863, Gen. George Gordon Meade faced a task that would have daunted Julius Caesar: He and his army stood as the line of defense against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invading Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. 

In “Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command,” Civil War historian Kent Masterson Brown focuses not on the sweep of Meade’s military record, but just on a handful of days – a mercilessly concentrated juncture that arguably defined his entire career. 

Meade was the victor at the Battle of Gettysburg, although the loser is far more famous. At the climax of the conflict, Lee hurled 12,500 men against heavily fortified high ground held by Meade’s Union forces. The attack was shattered by cannon and artillery, and a diminished Lee began a long, slow retreat from Pennsylvania.

And, infamously, Meade let him go. That will always be his defining moment.

Argument over his decision has raged among armchair tacticians ever since. (Among Meade’s detractors was one of the greatest armchair tacticians of them all, President Abraham Lincoln, who was bitterly disappointed in Meade for allowing Lee’s maimed and demoralized army to escape back over the Potomac River into Confederate territory.) 

Brown leaves no doubt where he stands on the subject: firmly in Meade’s corner. “Lee’s defenses were so thoroughly prepared, and so formidable, and Meade’s army was so depleted and at such a tactical disadvantage,” Brown writes at the start of his book, “that Meade’s corps commanders advised against any attack.” (Not all of his corps commanders agreed, it should be noted, and the decision was ultimately Meade’s.)

Brown’s book is the most thorough and authoritative study of Meade’s generalship to appear in a generation, edging out even John Gregory Selby’s excellent 2018 book “Meade: The Price of Command, 1863-1865” – but that command, at its moment of crisis, is still intensely up for debate.

“Many were the missed opportunities which a resourceful and aggressive army commander would have grasped had he been in Meade’s position,” wrote the former general and military historian Edward Stackpole in his 1956 classic “They Met at Gettysburg,” and he was being typically diplomatic. Lee’s forces began their withdrawal on July 4, and even a week later, they were still stretched out and vulnerable to the range of Meade’s forces – including the Union’s Sixth Corps, which was composed of 15,000 men who had not yet fought. Lee’s back was to the Potomac, and the center of his army was little more than a mile from Union forces that outnumbered him three to one. Calling this a “missed opportunity” is like calling the loss of the Titanic a minor nautical inconvenience.

“By day’s end of 10 July, Meade had positioned his entire army to confront the enemy,” Brown writes. “Given the horrific conditions and impediments he and his troops faced since leaving Gettysburg, Meade’s effort, and that of the army, was nothing short of remarkable.” Remarkable, maybe, but also woefully incomplete: the “impediment” was that some of the men were hungry; the “obstacle” was also known as rain. 

Meade has been criticized for well over a century because he appeared perfectly equipped and positioned to annihilate Lee’s army. But Brown’s deep research has led him to the opposite conclusion. It’s the same one Meade himself reached on the battlefield: that a mid-July attack on Lee would likely have resulted in a catastrophic defeat that would have left Washington itself open to a Southern counter-attack. 

“Sadly,” Brown writes, “the blow to Meade’s reputation leveled by President Lincoln, [Meade’s superior officer General Henry] Halleck, and others is how history has remembered him, even after out-generaling Robert E. Lee to claim a decisive victory in the largest land engagement ever fought on the North American continent and the first victory of the Army of the Potomac since the war began.”

“If we had made the attack, there is no doubt that we should have lost very severely,” pronounced Meade’s chief of staff at Gettysburg, Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. To which Brown simply adds, “That is where the argument should end.” This loses sight of the fact that Gen. Halleck had cabled Meade on July 13 with equal simplicity: “Do not let the enemy escape.” Maybe that’s where the argument should end.

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