Bad Faith Somewhere

Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, was poised to attack the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. The Confederates had their backs to the Potomac River near Williamsport, Maryland, but they were attempting to cross back into Virginia before the Federals could strike.

By dawn on July 14, Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Confederate Second Corps was safely across the Potomac and on Virginia soil. Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps had begun crossing the river at Falling Waters, leaving Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps in the center of the Confederate line alone to fend off a potential Federal attack.

Federal cavalry reported movement within the Confederate defenses at 3 a.m., but Meade ordered no general attack. He instead ordered a cavalry reconnaissance in force to start at 7 a.m. Two cavalry divisions led by Brigadier-Generals John Buford and H. Judson Kilpatrick rode to Williamsport and found the earthworks empty, with trenches guarded by harmless “Quaker guns.”

Meanwhile, Longstreet’s men completed their crossing at Falling Waters, and Hill’s men followed. Two divisions bringing up the rear were still about a mile from the bridge when the Federals slowly approached through the thick mud around 11 a.m.

Buford’s troopers charged from the north while Kilpatrick dispatched just two squadrons to take on Major-General Henry Heth’s division from the east. Heth’s men fended off this limited attack using rifles, axes, fence rails, and anything else they could find. Kilpatrick then sent more men into the fray, and they combined with Buford’s advance to overwhelm the Confederates.

The Federals took 719 prisoners, along with two heavy guns and three battle flags. They also mortally wounded the popular Brigadier-General James J. Pettigrew, who lingered with a stomach wound until succumbing on the 17th. Lee lamented that “the Army has lost a brave soldier and the Confederacy an accomplished officer.”

The Federals sustained 125 casualties (40 killed and 85 wounded). They tended to exaggerate their success in this engagement, possibly to downplay the fact that they failed to prevent the rest of Lee’s army from escaping back into Virginia. The Confederates removed the bridge around 1 p.m. to delay a Federal pursuit.

Meade finally ordered his army to advance, despite urgings from his top generals not to attack. Meade directed four corps to move on Williamsport and two corps to close on Falling Waters. But the Federals found only empty trenches and earthworks. A soldier reported, “At daybreak we give the word to advance along our whole line. We ‘move upon the enemy’s works.’ Works are ours. Enemy, sitting on the other side of the river, performing various gyrations with his fingers, thumb on his nose.”

When Meade reported to his superiors that the Confederates got away, correspondent Noah Brooks noted that President Abraham Lincoln’s “grief and anger were something sorrowful to behold.” Lincoln told his secretary John Hay, “We had them within our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the army move.” The president abruptly ended a cabinet meeting, saying he could no longer concentrate on the topics being discussed. “On only one or two occasions have I ever seen the President so troubled, so dejected and discouraged,” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary. Welles added:

“… He (Lincoln) said, with a voice and countenance which I shall never forget, that he had dreaded yet expected this; that there has seemed to him for a full week a determination that Lee, though we had him in our hands, should escape with his force and plunder. ‘And that, my God, is the last of this Army of the Potomac! There is bad faith somewhere. Meade has been pressed and urged, but only one of his generals was for an immediate attack, was ready to pounce on Lee; the rest held back. What does it mean, Mr. Welles? Great God! what does it mean?’”

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

Welles believed that General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck was partly to blame:

“‘Why,’ said I, ‘he (Halleck) is within four hours of Meade. Is it not strange that he has not been up there to advise and encourage him?’ The President immediately softened his tone and said: ‘Halleck knows better than I what to do. He is a military man, has had a military education. I brought him here to give me military advice. His views and mine are widely different. It is better that I, who am not a military man, should defer to him, rather than he to me.’”

Though Lincoln would not blame Halleck, he did make a point of showing Halleck his dissatisfaction. Halleck in turn wrote to Meade: “I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.”

Meade, already irritated with his superiors for accusing him of not being aggressive enough, snapped, “Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.”

Halleck immediately assured Meade that the original message “was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.” That night, Lincoln wrote a long letter to Meade:

“I have just seen your dispatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very–very–grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it…

“You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least 20,000 veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him…

“Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

“I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.”

Lincoln eventually realized that he had been too hard on Meade. The general had been suddenly put in command of the Potomac army just four days before it fought its greatest battle, with tremendous loss and suffering among the ranks since then. Meade wanted to fight Lee again, but most of his corps commanders firmly opposed it. And they may have been right, because attacking the Confederates while they were strongly entrenched at Williamsport could have met with great disaster. As such, Lincoln never signed or mailed this letter.


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