George Gordon Meade
By Tyler Howat
George Gordon Meadewas born on December 31, 1815 in the city of Cadiz, Spain to Richard W. Meade and Margaret Coates Meade who were in Spain on long-term business. "The family now consisted of ten children-seven daughters and three sons...Of these children,
George Gordon Meadewas the eighth child and second son" (Meade 7). Upon their departure from Europe in 1820, the Meade family settled in Washington D.C. and in 1826 George was sent to a military boarding school in Germantown, Pennsylvania called Mount Airy Seminary-which was later dubbed the American Classical and Military Lyceum (Baumer, Meade). The school was modeled after West Point as the boys were trained in the use of weaponry and military discipline "[seeking] to instill a high sense of honor into the performance of...duties" (Meade 8).
Early Military Career
George G. Meadetook the lessons he learned at Mount Airy to heart and applied to West Point, which accepted him in 1831. In 1835, Meade finished his studies at West Point, placing nineteenth out of fifty-six students in his graduating class. He attended West Point with many notable generals such as Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, John Pemberton, Pierre Beauregard, and Joseph Hooker. He took his assignment with the Third United States Artillery and participating in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) in Florida. Following a year in the military, after serving in Florida and in the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts, he resigned and pursued a career in civil engineering working as a surveyor for railroad lines.
Newly married to Margaretta Sergeant in 1840,
George G. Meadeonce again became disillusioned with his occupation, and desired to start a new life. His hiatus from the military lasted for six years, as he rejoined the army as a Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He thrived in this new pursuit, and found himself assigned to Texas during the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1845 under the command of General Winfield Scott. Following that conflict, having earned the rank of first lieutenant, he returned north and worked to construct lighthouses as well as geodetic and coastal surveying. Meade was promoted to captain and was temporarily reassigned to Florida during the Third Seminole War which lasted from 1855-1858.
The Civil War
In late August of 1861, just after the outbreak of the Civil War,
George G. Meadereturned to Pennsylvania and was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, commanding the Second Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves and establishing the defensive fortifications around Maryland and Washington D.C. It was at this time when Meade became friends with John Reynolds, a notable general during the war. Meade also acquired the nickname "Old Snapping Turtle," as he had a notoriously short fuse with those around him, both military and civilian alike.
In March of 1862, his brigade was placed under the command of Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac in which he served during the Peninsula Campaign in southeastern Virginia. During this campaign there was a succession of six battles in seven days-called the Seven Days Battles, from June 25 to July 1, 1862-of which
George G. Meadeparticipated in three: Mechanicsville, Gaines' Mill and Glendale. At the Battle of Glendale, Meade received multiple wounds in his arm, back, and side. "A musket ball struck him above his hip, clipped his liver, and just missed his spine as it passed through his body. Another bullet struck his arm, but the feisty general stuck to his horse and continued to direct his troops. It was only after a heavy loss of blood that he was forced to leave the field" (http://www.nps.gov/archive/gett/getttour/sidebar/meadebio.htm).
After recovering in Philadelphia, he rejoined his command in September, ready to continue their campaign. After the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland,
George G. Meadecommanded some of his Pennsylvania reserves to impede the incursion and was involved in the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28-30, 1862) and the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862) under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker, who noticed Meade's distinguished actions on the battlefield. Three days after the Battle of South Mountain, Meade led the First Pennsylvania Brigade in the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862; also called the Battle of Sharpsburg), further earning commendation when Hooker was wounded in the foot by a sharpshooter and Meade took over command of I Corps even though he was lower in rank than other officers present-he was also wounded at Antietam, in the thigh.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862),
George G. Meade'sdivision was the only one to pierce the "Stone Wall" of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's line, and gave the Federal troops some hope despite the ultimate outcome of the battle. After the battle, Meade received a promotion to major general of volunteers and command of the Fifth Corps (V Corps), replacing General Butterfield, which he led into the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863)-Hooker "considered [Meade] to be one of the most splendid soldiers in the army" (Meade 339). Again, though the Army of the Potomac lost that battle, Meade demonstrated great abilities in leadership, which did not go unnoticed.
On June 28, 1863, just days before the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), upon the resignation of General Hooker,
George G. Meadereceived word that he was to command the Army of the Potomac, above the heads of many senior officers-who, it turned out, gave their full support when it came to the choice.
The Battle of Gettysburg ensued on the first of July, and Meade immediately received word of the death of Major General John Reynolds, his old friend. Meade then decided that a defensive battle must be fought, finally winning the battle in spite of some of the most brutal fighting of the war. Following Gettysburg, Meade pursued Lee's army into Virginia, though many criticized him for his apparent cautiousness.
Upon Ulysses S. Grant's ascension to the command of the Union army, and he resided with the Army of the Potomac-an awkward arrangement because
George G. Meaderemained in charge of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant was his superior.
A series of campaigns followed, as well as a war of attrition-the continuous wearing down of the enemy by overwhelming force, even at the cost of major losses on both sides-through the Overland Campaign (May-June 1864) and the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond (June 15, 1864-March 25, 1865). A small series of tactical errors during the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12 1864), as well as the poorly executed Battle of the Crater in the midst of storming Petersburg slightly marred
George G. Meade'sperformance during the war, though Grant recognized Meade's work and promoted him to Major General of the Regular Army in August of 1864.
In the early months of 1865,
George G. Meadewas taken ill by bouts of nausea and fever, though he continued to command his troops. He eventually set up command headquarters near Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 and took ill again while Grant left for the Court House and accepted Lee's surrender. Meade was able, however, to declare the good news to his men.
After the Civil War came to an end
George G. Meadewas placed in command of military districts along the east coast, as well as the Military Division of the Atlantic. He lived in Philadelphia with his family until he succumbed to pneumonia on October 31, 1872 and eventually passed away on November 7, 1872.
He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Baumer, William Henry. Not All Warriors; Portraits of 19th century West Pointers Who Gained Fame in Other Than Military Fields. Freeport, NY: Ayer Co Pub, 1941.
Meade, George Gordon. The Life and Letters of New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913.
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