George Meade: Early Life and Military Career
George Gordon Meade was born on December 31, 1815, in Cadiz, Spain, where his father worked as a U.S. naval officer. Following his father’s death in 1828, Meade’s family found itself on the brink of financial ruin and returned to the United States to settle in Pennsylvania. In 1831 Meade entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, in part because of his family’s tenuous financial situation. He graduated four years later, finishing 19th in a class of 56.
Meade initially had little desire for a military career, and he resigned from the army in 1836 after briefly serving in Massachusetts and Florida. For the next several years he pursued a civilian career in civil engineering, working for railroads and the U.S. War Department. In 1840 he married Margaretta Sergeant, the daughter of prominent politician John Sergeant, and the two eventually had seven children.
In 1842 Meade reenlisted in the Army and served as a junior officer in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). He spent the 1850s in the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers building lighthouses and breakwaters on the Atlantic coast, and also helped conduct the first geodetic survey of the Great Lakes.
George Meade: The Civil War
At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Meade was made a brigadier general of Pennsylvania volunteers after receiving a glowing recommendation letter from the state’s governor. Meade’s first experience as a combat commander came during General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in the spring and summer of 1862, when the Union Army of the Potomac attempted to move on the Confederate capital of Richmond. During the campaign’s culmination at the Seven Days Battles, Meade was badly wounded amid intense fighting at the Battle of Glendale. Although only partially recovered, he returned to action during the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. He was given command of a division shortly thereafter, and served with distinction at the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of South Mountain during the Maryland Campaign.
One of Meade’s brightest moments came during the otherwise disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. During a large-scale offensive, Meade’s division was one of the only Union units to breach the Confederate’s well-fortified lines, earning him a promotion to major general of volunteers. He went on to command the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps under General Joseph Hooker during the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
George Meade: The Battle of Gettysburg
Meade was unexpectedly placed in charge of the Union Army of the Potomac in late June 1863 after Hooker resigned his post. Only three days into his new command, Meade was confronted near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by Robert E. Lee’s forces, which had marched into the North in an attempt to shift the focus of combat away from war-ravaged Virginia.
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1, 1863), Meade’s army suffered heavy casualties, including the death of respected Major General John Reynolds. Despite these losses, Meade was able to maneuver his army into secure defensive positions, which he held during repeated Confederate offensives on the second day of the battle. On the battle’s third day, Meade’s tactical positioning and marshaling of his forces proved invaluable when the Army of the Potomac repelled a massive attack on the center of its lines during “Pickett’s Charge.” This failed Confederate offensive resulted in massive casualties, and led to an immediate Confederate retreat from the North.
Despite having won the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, Meade immediately came under harsh criticism—in particular from President Abraham Lincoln—for what was seen as his failure to destroy Lee’s battered army, which had escaped across the Potomac River before it could be intercepted. Meade even offered his resignation as a consolation, but it was denied. He continued to operate as commander of the Army of the Potomac for the rest of 1863 in spite of constant attacks—both in the Northern media and by his own subordinates—concerning his conduct at Gettysburg.
George Meade: Post-Gettysburg Civil War Service
Following the uneventful campaigns of Bristoe and Mine Run in late 1863, in the spring of 1864 Meade’s authority was superseded by the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief of all Union armies. Although he was still technically the commander of the Army of the Potomac, for the rest of the war Meade acted as Grant’s subordinate.
In this capacity, Meade participated in Grant’s aggressive Overland Campaign of 1864, in which the Union army absorbed staggering casualties during a dogged march toward Richmond. Meade took part in in the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor throughout 1864, earning a promotion to the rank of major general. He was also instrumental in the prolonged Siege of Petersburg (June 1864-March 1865), which was launched after Meade’s early assaults on the city resulted in heavy Union casualties.
Due to his brusque personality and quick temper, Meade was never a popular figure with the media, and his contributions to later battles and the eventual Union victory were often downplayed in the Northern press. Despite his crucial role in cornering the Confederate Amy, Meade was not present during Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, and most of the credit for winning the war was given to Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman.
George Meade: Post-Civil War Career
Meade remained in the U.S. Army after the end of the Civil War and served as the commanding officer of the Division of the Atlantic, headquartered in Pennsylvania. In 1868 Meade briefly served in Atlanta as the governor of the Third Military District, a temporary government that controlled Georgia, Alabama and Florida during Reconstruction. Meade spent most of his later life in Philadelphia, where he served as commissioner of the Fairmount Park Art Association. Having long suffered from complications caused by his war wounds, Meade died in 1872 at the age of 56 following a bout with pneumonia.