As opposed to the command failures that Robert E. Lee suffered at Gettysburg, GEN George G. Meade had a relatively easy time of it. Meade had been handed command of the Army of the Potomac just days before this epic clash occurred. He was mired in sorting out the situation that departing GEN Hooker has left for him. He had two major concerns: In response to the tactical situation, Hooker had spread his forces over a vast distance west to east in northern Maryland. Also, Meade did not yet know where the main Rebel force was located. They had crossed the Potomac and then the narrow neck of Western Maryland and into Pennsylvania. But because they were using the mountains as a shield and cutting telegraph lines as they moved, Meade could not pin point them.
Hooker had moved the bulk of the Army of the Potomac north out of the Balto-Wash area and had chosen a bluff astride a place called Pipe’s Creek as his strong-hold. He was in the process of establishing a defensive blocking position about 15 miles south of Gettysburg along Lee’s most likely route of advance towards Baltimore. The reports of Rebel troops farther east near York had prompted him to send several thousand men east to protect York if necessary. Hooker had also placed 3 Union Corps in and around the city of Emmittsburg to the west. To simplify, his chain of command, Meade had placed LTG Reynolds in charge of those three Corps (First, Eleventh & Third). On the morning of 30 June, Reynolds had dispatched BG Buford’s Cavalry Division with orders to find Lee’s main force.
As was the case with Lee, Meade played no direct role in the first day’s clash at Gettysburg. Late in the day of 30 June he had received the dispatches from Buford describing the terrain and Buford’s plan to ambush the lead element of Lee’s main body. Those dispatches also contained a plea for reinforcements to be sent to relieve his Cavalry before they could be overrun since they would be heavily outnumbered. Meade tasked Reynolds to provide those reinforcements since his group were the closet to Gettysburg. That was the extent of his involvement in the first day of battle.
Meade was still not convinced that Gettysburg was the place to confront Lee. It wasn’t until he received more messages from LTG Hancock on the afternoon of 1 July that he ordered his entire command to converge there. He, himself, did not arrive until the wee hours of the morning of 2 July. His first action was to have Hancock provide him a tour of the defenses. They started to the right flank on Culp’s Hill and made their way around past the Union strong-point at the cemetery and then rode down along the low stone wall that ran the length of Cemetery Ridge. Meade immediately recognized the weakness of this left flank and left orders that the next arriving unit be positioned to extend that flank onto Little Round Top.
As luck would have it, around 3AM, the unit that was placed there was the Third Union Corps under the command of LTG Sickles. He had his men bed-down on the inner slopes of Little Round Top after their long march and did nothing to prepare any defensive positions. At dawn, as Sickles got a look at the terrain in front of him, he didn’t like what he saw. About a half-mile to the west overlooking the Emmitsburg Road, was a wooded knoll. Sickles recognized that if the Rebels occupied that hill with artillery, they could bombard his position with deadly accuracy. Without orders and without informing anyone much less GEN Meade, Sickles moved his entire Corps forward and occupied what was to be known as the Peach Orchard. He had positioned a portion of his Corps on his left flank facing south, but between his right flank in the orchard and the end of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge there was an undefended half-mile gap.
Later that same morning, under orders from Meade, his chief Engineer, BG G. K. Warren, was conducting a survey of the defenses. When he reached the end of Cemetery Ridge, he found no one there. He reported this to Meade who mounted his horse and set of in search of Sickles. He found him at his HQ in a farm house not far forward of Cemetery Ridge. After admonishing him for his insubordination, Meade was about to order him to move his Corps back to Little Round Top when the roar of cannon fire announced the beginning of Lee’s attack from the south.
Meade spent the remainder of the day riding back and forth within his defensive line pulling selected regiments out of that line and sending them south to support Sickles’ Corps. He was careful not to remove so many troops from any portion of the line so as to significantly weaken it. This was the pinnacle of Meade’s involvement in the Battle of Gettysburg.
It took until about noon on Day 3 to get all the Union troops re-aligned back into their original positions. Fortunately, Lee’s attack of Day 3 did not begin until after noon. Meade spent the entirely of Day 3 receiving reports from his subordinate commanders as to the status of the battle, but he played essentially no role in directing the Union defense. His most significant action came when shells from the Confederate artillery were overshooting the Union line and landing near his HQ. His staff had to practically force him to move east out of artillery range. But leery that the messengers wouldn’t be able to find him, he returned to his original HQ as soon as the bombardment ceased.
Meade’s major decisions at Gettysburg came after the battle was finished. Having defeated Pickett’s attempt to pierce the Union line, some of his commanders urged him to counter-attack across that same no-man’s-land that was strewn with Pickett’s dead and wounded. Meade took a vote and the majority rejected that idea. Late of the 4th of July, when it became clear that Lee was withdrawing from the area, Meade needed to formulate his response.
He was reluctant to divide his Army. Some of his commanders wanted to move swiftly in parallel to Lee’s Army and try to prevent him from crossing back into Virginia. A smaller portion of the Union Army would directly follow Lee’s retreating column to force them to make a fighting withdraw. Meade thought that it was too risky and too much of a burden on his troops to send them on another long march after three days of heavy fighting. His response was to dispatch his fast-moving cavalry to interdict Lee’s crossing of the Potomac. This force included Buford’s depleted division and they succeeded in forcing Lee to leave a significant number of troops in Maryland to cover his crossing. All of these were eventually killed, wounded or captured.
In contrast to Lee’s bold failed, but tactically sound, attacks at Gettysburg, Meade was much more reactionary. He allowed Lee to call the shots then he reacted. It can truly be said that Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg more so than to say that Meade won it!