A Council of War: Meade and his Generals Decide to Stay and Fight at Gettysburg July 2nd 1863

Gettysburg_Council_of_War

“In Mission Command, the commander must understand the problem, envision the end state and visualize the nature and design of the operation…describe the time, space, resources while constantly assessing the process” CJCS Mission Command White Paper, 3 April 2012

While Lee took no counsel and determined to attack on the night of July 2nd little more than two miles away Major General George Meade took no chances. After sending a message to Henry Halleck at 8 PM Meade called his generals together. Unlike Lee who had observed the battle from a distance Meade had been everywhere on the battlefield during the day and had a good idea what his army had suffered and the damage that he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Likewise during the day he had been with the majority of his commanders as opposed to Lee who after issuing orders that morning had remained unengaged.

Meade wired Halleck “The enemy attacked me about 4 P.M. this day…and after one of the severest contests of the war was repulsed at all points.” [1] However Meade, realizing that caution was not a vice still needed to assess the condition of his army, hear his commanders and hear from his intelligence service. He ended his message: “I shall remain in my present position to-morrow, but am not prepared to say until better advised of the condition of the army, whether operations will be of an offensive or a defensive character.” [2]

As he waited for his commanders his caution was apparent. Before the attack on Sickles’ III Corps at the Peach Orchard Meade had asked his Chief of Staff Brigadier General Dan Butterfield to “draw up a contingency plan for withdraw to Pipe Creek.” After that attack Alfred Pleasanton said that Meade ordered him to “gather what cavalry I could, and prepare for the retreat of the army.” [3] Some of his commanders who heard of the contingency plan including John Gibbon and John Sedgwick believed that Meade was “thinking of a retreat.”[4]. Despite his flat assurances to Halleck his position was threatened on both flanks and he “foresaw disaster, and not without cause.” [5]

In assessing Meade’s conduct it has to be concluded that while he had determined to remain, that he was smart enough to plan of the worst and to consult his commanders and staff in making his decision. Meade wrote to his wife that evening “for at one time things looked a little blue,…but I managed to get up reinforcements in time to save the day….The most difficult part of my work is acting without correct information on which to predicate action.” [6]

Meade called Colonel George Sharpe from the Bureau of Military Information to meet with him, Hancock and Slocum at the cottage on the Taneytown Road where he made his headquarters. Sharpe and his aide explained the enemy situation. Sharpe noted that “nearly 100 Confederate regiments in action Wednesday and Thursday” and that “not one of those regiments belonged to Pickett.” He then reported with confidence that indicated that “Pickett’s division has just come up and is bivouac.” [7]

It was the assurance that Meade needed as his commanders came together. When Sharpe concluded his report Hancock exclaimed “General, we have got them nicked.” [8]

About 9 P.M. the generals gathered. Present were Meade, and two of his major staff officers Warren just back from Little Round Top, wounded and tired, and Butterfield his Chief of Staff. Hancock action as a Wing Commander was there with Gibbon now commanding II Corps, Slocum of XII Corps with Williams. John Newton a division commander from VI Corps who had just arrived on the battlefield now commanding I Corps was present along with Oliver Howard of XI Corps, John Sedgwick of VI Corps, George Sykes of V Corps and David Birney, now commanding what was left of the wounded Dan Sickles’ III Corps. Pleasanton was off with the cavalry and Hunt attending to the artillery.

The meeting began and. John Gibbon noted that it “was at first very informal and in the shape of a conversation….” [9] The condition of the army was discussed and it was believed that now only about 58,000 troops available to fight. Birney honestly described the condition of III Corps noting that “his corps was badly chewed up, and that he doubted that it was fit for much more.” [10] Newton who had just arrived was quoted by Gibbon as saying that Gettysburg was “a bad position” and that “Cemetery Hill was no place to fight a battle in.” [11] The remarks sparked a serious discussion with Meade asking the assembled generals “whether our army should remain on that field and continue the battle, or whether we should change to some other position.” [12]

The reactions to the question showed that the army commanders still had plenty of fight in the. Meade listened as his generals discussed the matter. Hancock said he was “puzzled about the practicability of retiring.” [13] Newton later noted that he made his observations about the battlefield based on the danger that Lee might turn the Federal left and impose his army between it and its supplies. He and the other commanders agreed that pulling back “would be a highly dangerous maneuver to attempt in the immediate presence of the enemy.” [14]

Finally Butterfield, no friend of Meade and one of the McClellan and Hooker political cabal who Meade had retained when he took command posed three questions to the assembled generals.

“Under existing circumstances, is it advisable for this army to remain in its present position, or retire to another nearer its base of supplies?”

It being determined to remain in present position, shall the army attack or wait the attack of the enemy?

If we wait attack, how long?” [15]

Gibbon as the junior officer present said “Correct the position of the army…but do not retreat.” Williams counselled “stay,” as did Birney and Sykes, and Newton after briefly arguing the dangers finally agreed. Howard not only recommended remaining but “even urged an attack if the Confederates stayed their hand.” Hancock who earlier voiced his opinion to Meade that “we have them nicked” added “with a touch of anger, “Let us have no more retreats. The Army of the Potomac has had too many retreats….Let this be our last retreat.” Sedgwick of VI Corps voted “remain” and finally Slocum uttered just three words “stay and fight.” [16]

None counselled an immediate attack; all recommended remaining at least another day. When the discussion concluded Meade told his generals “Well gentlemen…the question is settled. We remain here.” [17]

Some present believed that Meade was looking for a way to retreat to a stronger position, that he had been rattled by the events of the day. Slocum believed that “but for the decision of his corps commanders” that Meade and the Army of the Potomac “would have been in full retreat…on the third of July.” [18] Meade would deny such accusations before Congressional committees the following year.

Much of the criticism of his command decisions during the battle were made by political partisans associated with the military cabal of Hooker, Butterfield and Sickles as well as Radical Republicans who believed that Meade was a Copperhead. Both Butterfield and Birney accused Meade before the committee of wanting to retreat and “put the worst possible interpretation on Meade’s assumed lack of self-confidence without offering any real evidence to substantiate it.” Edwin Coddington notes “that Meade, other than contemplating a slight withdraw to straighten his lines, wanted no retreat from Gettysburg.” [19]

Alpheus Williams wrote to his daughters on July 6th “I heard no expression from him which led me to think that he was in favor of withdrawing the army from before Gettysburg.” [20] Likewise the message sent by Meade to Halleck indicates a confidence in the upcoming battle of July 3rd. If Meade had some reservations during the day, as he mentioned in the letter to his wife they certainly were gone by the time he received the intelligence report from Sharpe and heard Hancock’s bold assertion that the enemy was “nicked.”

As the meeting broke up after shortly after midnight and the generals returned to their commands Meade pulled Gibbon aside. Gibbon with II Corps held the Federal center on Cemetery Ridge. Meade told him “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.” Gibbon queried as to why Meade thought this and Meade continued “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed,…and if he concludes to try it again it will be on our center.” Gibbon wrote years later “I expressed the hope that he would, and told General Meade with confidence, that if he did we would defeat him.” [21]

If some generals believed Meade to be a defeatist it was not present in his private correspondence. He wrote to his wife early in the morning of July 3rd displaying a private confidence that speaks volumes:

“Dearest love, All well and going on well in the Army. We had a great fight yesterday, the enemy attacking & we completely repulsing them- both armies shattered….Army in fine spirits & every one determined to do or die.” [22]

Meade did what Lee should have done, he had been active on the battlefield, he consulted his intelligence service and he consulted his commanders on the options available to him. Lee remained away from the action on July 2nd he failed to consult his commanders. He failed to gain accurate intelligence on the Federal forces facing him and he failed to fully take into account his losses. Meade better demonstrated the principles of what we now call “mission command.”

 

[1] [1] Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 pp.341-342

[2] Ibid. p.342

[3] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.355

[4] Ibid.

[5] Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.524

[6] Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.413

[7] Ibid. Sears p.342

[8] Ibid. Trudeau p.413

[9] Ibid. Sears

[10] Ibid. Trudeau p.415

[11] Ibid. Guelzo p.556.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. Sears p.343

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. Trudeau p.415

[16] Ibid. Guelzo p.556

[17] Ibid. Foote p.525

[18] Ibid. Guelzo

[19] [19] Coddinton, Edwin Gettysburg, A Study in Command Simon and Schuster New York 1968 pp.451-452

[20] Ibid. p.452

[21] Ibid. Foote p.525

[22] Ibid. Trudeau p.345

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Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military

One response to “A Council of War: Meade and his Generals Decide to Stay and Fight at Gettysburg July 2nd 1863

  1. Pingback: What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been: This Navy Chaplain’s Work Becomes Part of an Army Operational Manual | Padre Steve's World: Resist the Beginning, Consider the End

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