Thursday, September 2, 2021

Review - "Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command" by Kent Masterson Brown

[Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Hardcover, 13 maps, photos, illustration, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:375/488. ISBN:9781469661995. $35]

Having the benefit of expansive knowledge gained from an all-embracing and continually revised Gettysburg literature, today's Civil War students reserve nearly universal praise for how General George Gordon Meade conducted himself over the short week between his appointment to command the Army of the Potomac and the final repulse of the enemy on the third and final day of the great battle. At the time, however, views on the campaign's results as a whole were mixed and the honeymoon afforded Meade by his Gettysburg victory was very short lived. Lincoln himself made no effort to conceal his dismay over the pursuit from Gettysburg not resulting in the capture or destruction of most of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Meade's star faded further over the next six months, as the series of campaigns fought in Virginia between the two main armies over that period failed to net any further progress toward Union victory in the East. Never fully trusted by the administration, Meade would remain in command of the Army of the Potomac, but he would be placed under Grant's direct supervision during the subsequent Overland and Richmond-Petersburg campaigns of 1864-65. Unfortunately for Meade, the exalted outcomes of that long and bloody string of events (the capture of Richmond and the surrender of Lee's army at Appomattox) were popularly attributed to Grant and Meade's own key role further pushed into the shadows.

However, over the past few decades a number of book-length studies of military operations from Gettysburg through Appomattox have significantly enhanced our knowledge of Meade's direction of the war's principal Union army from mid-1863 onward through the end of the conflict. The effect has been a fairly significant raising of Meade's command profile along with greater appreciation of the full scope and range of his accomplishments. The latest contribution to that growing body of literature is Kent Masterson Brown's impressive Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command, a new tome that exhaustively details and analyzes the general's operational and tactical-level judgment and actions during the 1863 Pennsylvania Campaign.

As every student of the campaign knows, Meade originally intended for his army to occupy the strong natural line around Pipe Creek that fulfilled the requirements of his orders to cover Washington and Baltimore, and all of his logistical arrangements were devoted to that, but historiographical controversy still surrounds assignment of credit or blame for how and why the main fighting instead took place well to the north at Gettysburg. Brown disagrees with both Edwin Coddington and Harry Pfanz that Meade left it up to Reynolds whether to bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. He also takes issue with Stephen Sears over the matter of Reynolds not receiving instructions (he clearly did) and finds baseless what he sees as Allen Guelzo's characterization of Reynolds as being "reckless and insubordinate" (pg. 101) in forcing a fight at Gettysburg. The author most completely aligns himself with Meade scholar John Selby's contention that the First Corps movement to Gettysburg was primarily an information gathering mission seeking to find answers to questions regarding the current locations of Lee's corps and what their aims might be. All of the evidence presented in the book closely supports that most highly persuasive interpretation of what Meade intended Reynolds to do, act as an advance guard to force Lee to reveal his cards.

The debate over General Daniel Sickles's controversial decision to advance his Third Corps all the way to the Emmitsburg Road has raged ever since July 2, and Sickles has defenders on the matter. Brown shares the position of those who maintain that the move was both inadvisable and a clear act of insubordination. However one sees the effect of the Peach Orchard salient fighting—as needless sacrifice or, on the other extreme, taking the steam out of Longstreet's assault and even saving the Union left—the forward repositioning of Third Corps is generally considered to have exceeded the traditional latitude given corps commanders. In the author's view, as well as that of many others, Sickles disobeyed the substance and spirit of Meade's order to form a line with the Third Corps right connected to the Second Corps left and the Third Corps left anchored on Little Round Top. Sickles's final line fulfilled neither directive (though one might tortuously argue that each flank of Sickles's meandering salient ended at least in the general neighborhood of where Meade directed).

While Meade displayed considerable operational skill under pressure during the time between his appointment to command and the outbreak of battle at Gettysburg, he also, according to Brown, exhibited a high level of tactical ability on July 2, when he personally guided the army's response to the heavy Confederate attack that crushed the Third Corps's exposed salient. Unlike previous Army of the Potomac commanders, Meade gambled heavily in stripping other threatened parts of the field (arguably he risked too much on the far right and ended up owing much to General George Greene's determined defense of Culp's Hill against heavy odds for staving off disaster) to quash Longstreet's attack through sheer weight of men and guns. Meade's personal direction of the fight on the left, where he ordered into action elements of every corps in the army, saved the day in Brown's view, albeit at an unavoidably horrendous human cost.

With the knowledge that Lee's lines of communication and supply were far longer than Meade's and infinitely more precarious, many readers can be forgiven for scoffing at the author's assessment of the severity of Meade's supply situation when viewed relative to the enemy's. However, as exhaustively detailed in Brown's earlier book, Lee's army, through its thorough foraging efforts throughout the campaign, was abundantly supplied with food and animal fodder in comparison to Meade's men and horses, who were receiving inadequate amounts of both by the July 1-3 fighting. The condition of the animals was most concerning. This was due to roads south from Gettysburg being deemed insecure as well as the supply depots at Westminster, which were served by the Western Maryland Railroad and designed to supply the nearer Pipe Creek Line not the forward position at Gettysburg, being inadequate to the task until a herculean effort by military railroad chief Herman Haupt and others finally managed to push an influx of food and forage on to Gettysburg by July 4.

Most writers who have examined the post-battle situation and pursuit are satisfied with Meade spending the rainy 4th resting and refitting his army and then pausing to see what Lee's next move would be. If Lee embarked on a general retreat (an action Meade needed to know, not assume, was happening), Meade would, as best practices dictated, pursue on a parallel path as a direct pursuit through the mountains would achieve little. Brown's excuses for Meade's operational starts and stops during the pursuit, which revolve around the author's determination that Meade needed to make sure his movements still covered Baltimore and Washington in a way that ensured that Lee could not effectively double back and advantageously regain the offensive, will not entirely convince every reader to have been a necessary precaution. On the other hand, the author's confident conclusion that an all-out assault on the Williamsport defenses had only the barest chance of success and high probability of disaster is entirely persuasive. In fact, the substance of that view, in direct opposition to the Lincoln administration assertion at the time that success was practically ensured if only the army attacked, is the current consensus.

Meade critics have frequently latched onto the general's series of high command meetings as evidence of weakness and indecision, but Brown raises several relevant objections to the most uncharitable characterizations. As Brown observes, Meade was thrust into army command unexpectedly and at midstream, so it is reasonable that he would consult with his top generals with some frequency during those critical two weeks of marching, battle, and pursuit. The author's suggestion that Meade, after already having a course of action in mind, used those meetings more as an effective way to gauge how much enthusiasm and teamwork he could expect from his corps commanders seems like a valid piece of the puzzle. Brown's portrayal in the book of the character of Meade's war councils is often more fair-minded and nuanced than others that have gained prominence in the literature.

Brown frequently analyzes Meade's decision making in the context of the influential writings of Carl von Clausewitz (and to a lesser extent Baron Jomini's). This is done effectively (perhaps best during the discussion of Meade's deployment of First Corps toward Gettysburg as his advance guard) and mainly to show how often Meade's actions were driven by classic tenets of that western military tradition as taught by West Point theoretical successor Dennis Hart Mahan. Meade clearly paid attention in class more than some other Civil War generals.

The author is evidently a great admirer of Meade's character and generalship as displayed during the Gettysburg campaign, and in the book he is distinctly unafraid to challenge a host of more negative assessments that exist in the historiography. Refreshingly, Brown's aggressive, yet still respectful, objections to many of the critical opinions and interpretations contained in major popular works are discussed in the main text rather than being relegated to footnote commentary. Employing reasoned interpretation backed up by primary evidence, Brown's generally favorable defense of Meade's actions offers strong counterpoints to both long-accepted dogma and more recent critiques.

Centered on exhaustive description and analysis based on intensive primary source research, the picture that emerges in Meade at Gettysburg is of an army commander highly skilled in both the operational art of war (the primary sphere of the army commander) and tactical-level battlefield management. Immediately thrust into army command during the middle of a major campaign, Meade, by instinct and training, calmly sifted through intelligence reports and confidently managed his new command's marching orders while also displaying remarkable powers of adaptation when his initial plan of operations was ruined by events at Gettysburg outside his control. During the July 2 fighting, Meade skillfully and decisively shifted forces across the battlefield, often risking the safety of one part of his line to ensure that a critical breakthrough was avoided on another. This was yet another display of the general's powers of improvisation under pressure when the actions of a key subordinate (in this case Sickles on the left) upset his carefully arranged dispositions. Notably, during the course of the battle he also put all of his corps into the fight, leaving no questions to posterity regarding the holding back of reserves. Finally, his army crippled by casualties, suffering from shortages of food and forage, and still bound by previous orders to cover the capital, gamely pursued the enemy's retreating army. In the end, Meade's decision to not risk the moral and military gains from his recent Gettysburg victory by launching his army across open ground against Lee's formidable line of fortifications covering Williamsport and Falling Waters was, with the benefit of modern knowledge and hindsight, undoubtedly the correct course of action.

While the book presents a strong argument for renewed appreciation of Meade's command leadership during the Gettysburg Campaign, how high Meade ranks among Civil War army commanders as whole remains as issue much more open for debate. Though constrained by administration limits as to possible lines of advance, the only opportunity Meade had to independently conduct his own campaign from start to finish—the season of fall operations in Virginia that spanned the period between the end of the Gettysburg Campaign and the winter encampment preceding the Overland Campaign—lacked any distinguished accomplishments (although Jeffrey Hunt's recent multi-volume history of those events does finds much that is positive in Meade's generalship). How Meade would have fared without Grant's oversight of the reorganized and replenished Potomac army during the 1864-65 campaigns is a grand question mark that no one can answer with any degree of certainty. Opinions likely differ, but even Meade-friendly readers of modern studies of the war's post-Gettysburg campaigns in the East can still certainly be left with the overall impression that the general was perhaps not up to the job of dealing the finishing stroke to enemy resistance in the theater. What is less open to debate, not least due to fine studies like this one from Kent Masterson Brown, is that the great victory at Gettysburg was a timeless achievement that will forever be associated with George Meade and that came at a momentous point in the war.


  1. Good see this in-depth review Drew. Kent is an old friend and I knew his book would be a substantial contribution to the literature. -- Ted Savas

    1. Hopefully, he will revisit CW Kentucky some day. Hard to believe it's been over 20 years since you published the essay collection he edited.


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