George Gordon Meade was born on December 31, 1815, in Cádiz, Spain, to American parents, Richard W. Meade, an agent for the U.S. Navy, and Margaret Coates Meade. He was raised mostly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, though he also lived in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. He was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1835 (finishing nineteenth in his class), saw service in the Mexican War (1846–1848), and spent several years prior to the Civil War in charge of lighthouse construction and surveying the Great Lakes.
In 1861, he was given command of a brigade of Pennsylvania troops, with whom he first saw action at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill in June 1862. Meade was seriously wounded on June 30, 1862, at the Battle of Glendale in Henrico County, but returned to duty with remarkable alacrity to participate in the Second Manassas Campaign (1862). Promoted to division command at the outset of the Maryland Campaign in September 1862, Meade performed well at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam and exercised temporary command of a corps during the latter engagement.
A few months later, Meade’s division achieved the only significant tactical success the Army of the Potomac achieved at the otherwise disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg (1862), which was followed shortly thereafter by his promotion to command of the Fifth Corps. Meade proved an effective corps commander during the Chancellorsville Campaign (1863) and opening stages of the Gettysburg Campaign (1863). Consequently, his appointment to command the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, met with approval from nearly every member of the army’s high command.
The Army of the Potomac was in turmoil. Lincoln had long bemoaned George B. McClellan‘s lack of aggressiveness in the Virginia campaigns of 1862. When McClellan was able to achieve only a limited victory over Lee’s army at Antietam and failed to undertake active operations immediately after the battle, he was replaced first by Ambrose E. Burnside, who led the army to stunning defeat at Fredericksburg, and then by Joseph Hooker, who lost at Chancellorsville despite the fact that his forces had heavily outnumbered those of the Confederates.
Enter Meade, who demonstrated characteristic skill and determination in defeating Lee at Gettysburg. As the Army of Northern Virginia retreated back to Virginia, Meade pursued with a proper degree of prudence, but was not aggressive enough for Lincoln, who believed Meade had missed a golden opportunity to destroy Lee’s army.
Meade spent the autumn of 1863 engaged in a series of maneuvers that produced minor battles at Bristoe Station, Rappahannock Station, Kelly’s Ford, and Mine Run, but no truly significant or decisive engagements. During this time, Meade was also forced to counter unwarranted charges leveled against him by disgruntled subordinates over his conduct at Gettysburg, a development that further soured his relations with Washington.
Meade offered to step down as commander of the Army of the Potomac during his first meeting with new Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant in March 1864, but his offer was declined. Grant, however, did accompany the Army of the Potomac throughout the Overland Campaign of 1864 and ended up making all the important decisions as to its movements, leaving their execution largely to Meade. Due to the expansion of Grant’s immediate scope of command—a consequence of the Army of the Potomac linking up with the Army of the James to operate against Richmond and Petersburg during the summer of 1864—Meade’s role in planning operations increased somewhat. Still, he would never again enjoy a level of independent authority that he deemed satisfactory.
Meade participated in the Appomattox Campaign that followed the fall of Richmond and Petersburg in 1865, but his role was a secondary one; he was not present at the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House when Grant accepted Lee’s surrender. Meade spent his remaining years in the army and was commanding the Military Division of the Atlantic when he died of pneumonia in Philadelphia on November 6, 1872.
Like most of his predecessors in command of the main Union army in Virginia, Meade approached the war with the mind-set of an operational and tactical commander and focused his thinking exclusively on the task of maneuvering against and engaging Lee’s army. Thus, he never undertook—indeed he never seems to have even considered undertaking—the sort of operations targeting Virginia’s resources and its civilian population that became a prominent feature of the Union war effort after Grant’s arrival. Consequently, as long as Meade was in command the war in Virginia was almost exclusively one between armies rather than populations. That such an approach appeared inadequate to the task of achieving ultimate victory in what Lincoln proclaimed to be a “people’s contest” was perhaps the most compelling rationale for the “hard war” Grant brought to Virginia in 1864 and 1865.