Reorganizing the Army of the Potomac

March 23, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant took up headquarters with the Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia, which was undergoing a massive reorganization.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, had initially thought that Grant would remove him from command. But now he was fairly confident that Grant would keep him on. Meade wrote his wife, “I don’t think I have at any time been in any danger. It would be almost a farce to relieve the man who fought the battle of Gettysburg…”

However, Meade’s superiors at Washington had urged him to reorganize his army because of attrition and, according to Meade, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton told him that “there were several officers in my army that did not have the confidence of the country, and that I was injuring myself by retaining them.” These were mainly anti-administration Democrats.

Meade responded by ordering a massive restructuring of the army. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock returned to active duty after being wounded at Gettysburg and resumed command of II Corps. The former commander, Major General Gouverneur Warren, was placed in charge of V Corps, ousting Major General George Sykes.

Major General Alfred Pleasonton was removed as head of the Cavalry Corps, replaced by Brigadier General David M. Gregg. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton urged Meade to remove Major General John Sedgwick as the head of VI Corps due to his past loyalty to George B. McClellan, but Meade held firm on retaining him.

The hardest blow came with the disbanding of I and III corps under Major Generals John Newton and William French respectively. The troops in these ruined commands could keep their corps insignias, but they would be absorbed into II and V corps. Men of III Corps, still loyal to their former commander, Major General Daniel Sickles, held “indignation” meetings to protest the move.

During this reorganization, Meade came under heavy criticism for his handling of the Battle of Gettysburg; this stemmed mainly from a New York Herald article written by an unknown author named “Historicus.” The article claimed that Meade had planned to retreat after the first day. It also greatly praised Sickles for ignoring orders and marching his III Corps forward from Cemetery Ridge, which somehow saved the Federal army (though it actually decimated the corps and lost Sickles a leg).

Historicus wrote that Sickles’s advance was “made in the very face of the enemy, who were advancing in columns of attack, and Sickles dreaded lest the conflict should open before his dispositions were completed. At this juncture he was summoned to report in person at headquarters, to attend a council of corps commanders.” The article plainly suggested that Sickles sacrificed his men to save Meade from blundering into defeat.

Meade sent the article to President Abraham Lincoln with a letter stating that “the character of the communication enclosed bears such manifest proofs that it was written either by some one present at the battle, or dictated by some one present and having access not only to official documents, but to confidential papers that were never issued to the Army, much less made public.”

Meade charged, “I cannot resist the belief that this letter was either written or dictated by Major General D.E. Sickles,” and he asked for “the interposition of the (War) Department, as I desire to consider the questions raised purely official.” Meade demanded that the department “take steps to ascertain whether Major General Sickles has authorized or endorses this communication, and in the event of his reply in the affirmative I have to request the President of the U.S. a court of inquiry that the whole subject may be thoroughly investigated and the truth made known.”

Meade’s supporters quickly wrote rebuttals to Historicus’s article. Meade wrote his wife, “I think Historicus after awhile will be sick of his only true and authentic account of the battle.” After waiting nearly two weeks, Meade finally received a reply from Lincoln on the matter:

“It is quite natural that you should feel some sensibility on the subject; yet I am not impressed, nor do I think the country is impressed, with the belief that your honor demands, or the public interest demands, such an Inquiry. The country knows that, at all events, you have done good service; and I believe for you to be engaged in trying to do more, than to be diverted, as you necessarily would be, by a Court of Inquiry.”

Meade then asked Stanton to force Sickles to either admit his involvement or repudiate the Historicus article. After receiving Stanton’s response, Meade wrote his wife “that it was concluded submitting the letter to Sickles was only playing into his hands; that a court of inquiry, if called at my request, although it might exonerate me, yet it would not necessarily criminate him; and that, on the whole, it was deemed best not to take any action.” Historicus eventually wrote more articles, leaving no doubt that Sickles was the true author, but Meade ignored them.

The army observed Easter Sunday on the 27th with sermons from renowned Episcopalian Bishop Henry B. Whipple. Meade, who had been married by Whipple, invited him “to celebrate the Holy Communion at his headquarters on the Rapidan.” Meade wrote his wife that the Bishop delivered “two most appropriate and impressive discourses, well adapted to all classes of his hearers.”

In late March, Grant returned to the Army of the Potomac following his Cincinnati conference with Major General William T. Sherman. Grant established headquarters at Culpeper Court House, where he would oversee Meade’s army from this point forward. Meade’s wife criticized the move, but Meade defended it:

“You do not do Grant justice, and I am sorry to see it. You do not make a distinction between his own acts and those forced on him by the Government, Congress and public opinion. If left to himself, I have no doubt Grant would have let me alone; but placed in the position he holds, and with the expectations formed of him, if operations on a great scale are to be carried on here, he could not have kept aloof.

“As yet he had indicated no purpose to interfere with me, on the contrary, acts promptly on all my suggestions, and seems desirous of making his stay here only the means of strengthening and increasing my forces. God knows I shall hail his advent with delight if it results in carrying on operations in the manner I have always desired they should be carried on. Cheerfully will I give him all credit if he can bring the war to a close.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 387-88; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 411-13; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 477-79; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 746-47; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172, 174; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 747

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