Meade takes army's reins Union general 'will make no blunder on my front,' Lee says

Revisiting Gettysburg

June 25, 1998|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,SUN STAFF

Spectators at next week's re-enactment of the battle of Gettysburg can hear the Union commander, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, confidently explain the battle at Meade's

headquarters at 10 a.m. and at 1 p.m. July 3 and at 1 p.m. July 4.

The confidence with which the Meade re-enactor will handle the situation will mirror the steadiness with which the original Meade handled the battle, belying the fact that he had had command of the army for only a few days when the shooting started.

On June 25-27, 1863, the Union army crossed the Potomac River at Edwards Ferry, near Poolesville and concentrated at Frederick.

Early in June, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, then commander of the Army of the Potomac, had represented in strong terms the necessity of having one commander for all the troops whose operations would have an influence on those of Gen. Robert E. Lee's army. In reply he was informed by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, President Lincoln's top military adviser, that any movements he might suggest for other commands than his own would be ordered if practical.

As soon as his army crossed the Potomac, Hooker ordered the 12th Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum, to march to Harpers Ferry. Hooker wanted the 10,000-man garrison at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to withdraw from its position at Maryland Heights and join Slocum in an attack on the rear of Lee's army as it marched north in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. Hooker believed that the combined force would be strong enough to cut Lee's communications with Virginia.

Halleck objected to the abandonment of Harpers Ferry and countermanded the order: "Maryland Heights have always been regarded as an important point to be held by us, and much expense and labor [have been] incurred in fortifying them. I cannot approve their abandonment except in case of absolute necessity."

Hooker replied: "I have received your telegram in regard to Harpers Ferry. I find 10,000 men here, in condition to take the field. Here they are of no earthly account. They cannot defend a ford of the river, and so far as Harpers Ferry is concerned, there is nothing of it."

Five minutes later, Hooker sent Halleck this additional message: "My original instructions require me to cover Harpers Ferry and Washington. I have now imposed upon me, in addition, an enemy in my front of more than my number. I beg to be understood, respectfully but firmly, that I am unable to comply with this condition with the means at my disposal, and earnestly request that I may be at once relieved from the position I occupy."

Hooker's request was quickly accepted, and on June 28, three days before the first shots were exchanged at Gettysburg, Meade, 47, commander of the 5th Corps, was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, the fifth change of commanders for that army in 10 months.

Meade remained in command of the Army of the Potomac until the close of the war. He was born Dec. 31, 1815, in Cadiz, Spain, where his father was a naval agent for the United States. He graduated from West Point in 1835 and served in the Seminole War as an artillery officer and later in the Mexican War. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on Nov. 29, 1862.

When Lee heard the news that Meade had replaced Hooker, he said, "General Meade will make no blunder on my front, and if I make one, he will make haste to take advantage of it."

In his report on Gettysburg, Meade notes that he immediately ordered the abandonment of Harpers Ferry that had been denied to Hooker: Orders were given on June 28 to Maj. Gen. William Henry French, commanding at Harpers Ferry, "to move with 7,000 men of his command to occupy Frederick and the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and, with the balance of his force, estimated at 4,000, to remove and escort the public property to Washington."

Despite his earlier objection to this move, Halleck was silent when Meade ordered the evacuation. Meade was the general Halleck wanted to command the Army of the Potomac. Hooker was not.

On June 29, Meade put his army in motion, and on the evening of that day was in position, the left flank at Emmittsburg and the right flank at New Windsor, Meade reports, Buford's division of cavalry was in the left flank with the advance force at Gettysburg. Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's cavalry division was in the front at Hanover, Pa., where he encountered this day Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry, which had crossed the Potomac at Seneca Creek, and, passing Meade's right flank, was making its way toward Carlisle, Pa.

Meade, who had established his headquarters near Taneytown, had some expectation of bringing on the great battle at Big Pipe Creek in Carroll County, where he marked out a good defensive line, about 25 miles long, from Manchester to Middleburg.

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