Monday, October 8, 2018

Author Q&A: John Selby and "Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865"

John G. Selby is a professor of history at Roanoke College and the author of Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans (2012) and Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates (2002). His latest book is Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865 (KSU Press, 2018), which seeks to challenge the prevailing view of George Gordon Meade by offering readers a fresh reevaluation of the general's lengthy tenure at the head of the Army of the Potomac.

DW: Thanks for coming on CWBA to talk about Meade. Resistance remains but appreciation of General Meade’s contributions to Union victory seems to have risen in recent times, at least within the ranks of those that study the Civil War closely. Do you get the sense that the Civil War audience in general feels the same way?

JS: No, I don’t. Meade remains a minor and neglected Union general and still receives a heavy dose of criticism from historians like Guelzo, Greene, and Rhea.

DW: I never did get around to reading Guelzo's Gettysburg book. Was there anything in particular about how Meade has been treated in the literature that inspired you to write this book?

JS: It actually began with me questioning the central premise of most of the literature on the war in the East; namely, that the commanders of the Army of the Potomac could never have defeated Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia without the firm and relentless leadership of Ulysses S. Grant. I felt that did a disservice to the Army of the Potomac. As I dug deeper, I found that the criticism of the Army of the Potomac remained fairly constant in themes from McClellan to Meade. But didn’t Meade win at Gettysburg? And push Lee’s army back from northern Virginia to Richmond-Petersburg? And defeat Lee in 1865? There had to be more to Meade’s leadership than was usually stated.

DW: What do you see as Meade’s primary strengths as an army commander?

JS: Executive abilities such as organization, logistics, and planning. He led subordinates by example; he usually assessed situations accurately and shared that knowledge with subordinates; and he had solid tactical ideas and successful strategic goals (though Grant procured permission from Washington to pursue those goals). He was personally brave and a man of integrity.

DW: What about weaknesses?

JS: Quite cautious at times, hesitating to strike unless the odds for success were decidedly in his favor. Never learned how to work with the politicians in Washington and never fully trusted the press. His quick temper is usually cited as his biggest weakness, but I argue it was not. His extreme reluctance to dismiss his top lieutenants when they failed to carry out his orders was his greatest weakness as an army commander.

DW: Everyone knows Meade as the acclaimed victor of Gettysburg, but what are some lesser-known achievements that you believe deserve wider recognition?

JS: He kept Lee from launching another offensive or starting a major battle in the fall of 1863. He worked hand-in-hand with Grant during the strategically successful Overland Campaign and faithfully kept up the pressure on Lee’s extended line from Richmond to Petersburg from the summer of 1864 to the spring of 1865. He led his army to victory over Lee in the final weeks of the war.

DW: I think the great majority of readers of your book will be a bit taken aback by your ranking Meade as one of the top 3 Union generals. How did you arrive at that bold assertion?

JS: I took my cue from Ulysses S. Grant. In May of 1864 he recommended Sherman and Meade be promoted to the rank of major general in the regular army because they were the “fittest officers for large commands” he had met. Grant never rescinded his recommendation nor did he replace Meade with another general. Their professional relationship was shaky at times, and in time Grant did favor Sherman over Meade, but he kept him in command of the Army of the Potomac—and supported him—until the end of the war.

DW: Citing Meade’s failure to crush Lee north of the Potomac after Gettysburg and his inability to force the Army of Northern Virginia into a major battle on favorable terms during the rest of 1863, many have concluded that Meade did not have the killer instinct (or whatever you want to call it) needed to achieve ultimate victory in the East. Beyond it being an entirely untestable hypothesis, how would you counter that argument?

JS: I would say it is a false hypothesis. Meade ordered attacks at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, the Crater, and several other times in the summer and fall of 1864. He also oversaw the attacks on Petersburg at the end of the war and the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of Lee in April 1865. Some of these attacks saw a great loss of life on the Union side, which disproves a corollary of the untestable hypothesis: that Meade was unwilling to sustain large casualties in the service of a larger strategic goal. What is clear, though, from Meade’s record, is that he always wanted to be thoroughly prepared before battle, and if he felt that the odds of success were slim he would not order an assault simply to prove he could.

DW: Recently, A. Wilson Greene, in the first volume of his Petersburg Campaign trilogy, expressed the opinion that Meade, by thoroughly alienating his principal subordinates during the Overland Campaign and the early stages of the Petersburg operation, had already outlived his usefulness by the end of July 1864 [add. 12/16/18: it should be mentioned that the author objects to this summarization. See here for more]. How would you respond to that?

JS: Although I have not yet read Greene’s latest book, I could not disagree more strongly with his argument as stated above. Everyone’s nerves were frayed by the end of July 1864, except perhaps those of Grant and his staff. Some of Meade’s corps commanders felt he had pushed them too hard, but he in turn felt that Grant had pushed the Army of the Potomac almost to its breaking point. Furthermore, if the command structure had fallen apart, then the Army of the Potomac could not have fought effectively in four offensives in the fall and early winter of 1864 and three more offensives in February-March-April of 1865.

DW: The awkward high command arrangement in the eastern theater during 1864-65 is almost universally condemned. It is also often seen as a lose-lose situation for Meade personally, with Grant getting all the credit for the army’s successes and Meade left to absorb the political and military heat generated by the many failures. Do you believe it possible to separate their closely-tied roles enough to offer a meaningful independent assessment of Meade’s performance during the Overland and Richmond-Petersburg campaigns?

JS: I believe it is almost impossible to do the separation, and I try to cut that Gordian knot in my book by referring to decisions that can be directly attributed to one general or the other by name, i.e. “Meade ordered” or “Grant wrote.” When there is no clearly evident source for a decision (especially regarding strategy and responses to evolving situations in battle), then I write that “Grant and Meade decided,” or “Meade and Grant agreed,” or something like that. That said, except for some instances (which I detail) when Grant specifically overruled Meade or gave a direct order to units under Meade, I argue that the characterization by one contemporary journalist that “Grant directed the army and Meade commanded the army” is still the best description (especially since Meade agreed with that assessment early in their joint command).

DW: Finally, a major theme of Meade is the “price of command,” the personal and professional toll involved in heading the Union’s principal and most politicized army. Can you end by talking a little about how your book addresses that topic?

JS: Meade was a devoted soldier and a true patriot. He also was ambitious, like just about every general who has ever lived, and always hoped to receive promotions for jobs well done. Though he expressed some concern to his wife and close friends about his ability to manage the army when first appointed, after the Battle of Gettysburg he had no doubt that he could command a large army in the field. At the same time, he worried about the political demands of his position and never fully trusted the press. He had few friends in Washington, and after he threw a correspondent off the battlefield in 1864 he was treated as persona non grata by the press. He was attacked by politicians, the press, and some former subordinates in the winter of 1863-64, and though they never got him dismissed they continued to hound him until the end of the war—and after. Meade zealously guarded his reputation as a forthright man and measured commander, and when these (and other aspects of his leadership) come under withering criticism in the 1863-64 it was a blow to his pride that he never completely recovered from. What Meade discovers is that the top job he sought, commander of the Army of the Potomac, would also wound that which he held most dear, his reputation. George G. Meade paid an enormous personal price to retain his position and help win the war for the Union.

DW: Thanks again for your time, John. Maybe some venue will host a round table debate between you and those most critical of Meade's performance. That would be lively and interesting. Readers, check out Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865, which is already out direct from the publisher and should be widely available very soon.


  1. Intriguing interview! Given Mr. Selby has not read Will Greene's recent book, and has therefore not studied Mr. Greene's reasoning, I find it odd how quick he is to criticize the latter's conclusions. Mr. Selby does strike me a bit as a partisan than a discerning scholar, but then again perhaps Meade is very deserving of a full-throated defense. I will be very interested in your review. Jennifer Murray is also working on a Meade biography. More grist for the mill.

    1. To be fair to Selby, I read his response to Greene's point somewhat differently. He says "I could not disagree more strongly with his argument as stated above." So after making it clear that he has not yet read the book, he's responding to Greene's argument as presented by Drew. I suppose he could have said "I can't respond until I read it" but that would have been a bit silly. Of course, the same criticism could be directed at your labeling him as coming across as "partisan" rather than a "discerning scholar" without having read his book. The Murray book should be interesting, as well, but how much as a biographer she can focus tightly on this narrow issue is questionable.

    2. Hi John S,
      Like John F, I took it as Selby just reacting to my pithy characterization of Greene's argument. In including Greene in the list of prominent Meade critics in his answer to the first question, I assume he's basing that on the author's other writings. Thanks for bringing up Murray, too. I had forgotten that she was working on a Meade bio.


  2. Does anyone know if Jennifer Murray's book is going to be a complete biography of General Meade?


    1. Dr. Murray indicated at the Civil War Institute's summer conference in June that it would be. Her description of the book at the Oklahoma State University website confirms it will examine the Grant-Meade relationship. I look forward to it.

    2. Her choosing Meade to lead her "perfect Civil War army" in the latest issue of CWM practically guaranteed her getting last place from the referees!


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