Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Booknotes: Meade at Gettysburg

New Arrival:
Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (UNC Press, 2021).

George Gordon Meade's reputation, a mixed one historically, has enjoyed an unparalleled uptick in recent times. Always believing himself unfairly maligned and overlooked, the old snapping turtle would have loved to see this twenty-first century treatment back when he was still alive. His actions and accomplishments while leading the Army of the Potomac from mid-1863 through the end of the war, as discussed among numerous books now, have at this point received abundant attention (much of it favorable) and discussion of his 1864-65 tenure as army commander has largely emerged out of Grant's deep shadow. Of course, achieving victory in a war's signature battle will earn a commander a lot of good will in the historiography, and Meade's winning performance on July 1-3 was unquestionably the general's career highlight and something his admirers can always hang their hat upon. The latest deep dive into the topic of Meade's army leadership capabilities is Kent Masterson Brown's Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command.

From the description: Brown "draws on an expansive archive to reappraise Meade's leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg. Using Meade's published and unpublished papers alongside diaries, letters, and memoirs of fellow officers and enlisted men, Brown highlights how Meade's rapid advance of the army to Gettysburg on July 1, his tactical control and coordination of the army in the desperate fighting on July 2, and his determination to hold his positions on July 3 insured victory."

For a long time, Meade detractors, many undoubtedly taking their cue from Lincoln himself, have alleged that the general conducted an overcautious pursuit that allowed Lee's vulnerable army to escape destruction. However, that popular opinion has largely dissipated in strength after the publication of multiple book-length retreat studies since 2005 that have collectively found less fault with Meade's pursuit. More from the description: "Brown argues that supply deficiencies, brought about by the army's unexpected need to advance to Gettysburg, were crippling. In spite of that, Meade pursued Lee's retreating army rapidly, and his decision not to blindly attack Lee's formidable defenses near Williamsport on July 13 was entirely correct in spite of subsequent harsh criticism."

The book's nearly 400-page narrative examines at great length Meade's decisions and actions from the moment of his appointment mid-campaign to command the Army of the Potomac to the ultimate escape of Lee's defeated army back home to Virginia. Providing visual reinforcement to all that text, maps, photos, and other illustrations are sprinkled throughout the volume in large numbers. In the end, Meade at Gettysburg "deepens our understanding of the Army of the Potomac as well as the machinations of the Gettysburg Campaign, restoring Meade to his rightful place in the Gettysburg narrative."

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