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A Great Battlefield

Gettysburg: an epic tale of not quite enough and just in time

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The other, of course, was battle. As he told one of his generals, he had once again outmaneuvered the enemy and now expected the Army of the Potomac to pursue, “broken down with hunger and hard marching, strung out on a long line and much demoralized. When they come into Pennsylvania, I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, then follow up this success, drive one corps back on another .  .  . create a panic and virtually destroy the army.”

Lee then laid his hand on a map, over Gettysburg, and said, “Hereabout we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”

There were generals on both sides, and plenty of them, who were given to bold talk and bluster. But Lee was not among them. He had, in fact, made fools of several of the braggarts, including George McClellan, John Pope, and, most recently, Joe Hooker. So these were not idle words.

Furthermore, Lee enjoyed the confidence of his government, his lieutenants, and his troops. Especially his troops​—​perhaps because their leader gave them victories and because he believed so plainly in them. As he was fond of saying, “With such men, anything is possible.” And to them, he was the next closest thing to a deity. When he rode past on his big, gray horse, they would take off their hats and stare at him in some blend of adoration and wonder.

Lee’s opponent enjoyed no such confidence. Not from his government, his lieutenants, or his troops. Hooker, in fact, was unceremoniously relieved of his command while his army was on the march, a scant four days before the first shots were fired in the battle of Gettysburg. Hooker’s dismissal was no surprise. But the name of his replacement was. Even to the replacement himself.

When awakened in his tent at 3 a.m., George Meade thought, as he later wrote to his wife, that “it was either to relieve or arrest me.”

This was not without cause. Meade had been nearly insubordinate in his criticisms of Hooker after Chancellorsville, and his politics were suspect among the Republicans in Washington. Told that he was to assume command of the Army of the Potomac, Meade protested that others were more deserving and better qualified than he. Why, he didn’t even know the dispositions of the army’s various corps, other than his own.

Washington, he was told, had already taken that into account.

“Well,” Meade said, “I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing. And I suppose I shall have to go to execution.”

The best anyone might have said of General Meade before Gettysburg was that he was an “able” general. He had performed well in the Peninsula Campaign, adequately at Antietam, and more successfully than any other Union division commander in the disaster at Fredericksburg.

But he was not a figure who inspired awe or the kind of fierce emotional loyalty that soldiers and many senior officers in the Army of the Potomac felt for George McClellan, his mentor. Meade was a pedestrian figure, neither striking in looks nor eloquent in speech. He had a temper and protruding eyes, leading one soldier to describe him as a “goddamned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

Still, he would have to do.

Lee learned of Meade’s promotion the same way he learned that the Army of the Potomac was not still down in Virginia but in Maryland, between his forces and Washington. A spy told him. 


The man was actually called an “agent,” but if he’d been captured he’d have been hanged as a spy, making the semantic distinction irrelevant. The man’s name was Harrison and he was attached, more or less, to General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps. When he brought information that he had gleaned in his clandestine travels to Washington and other points to corps headquarters, it was considered of sufficient importance that Lee himself should listen. This, in spite of the fact that Lee found the business of agents slightly distasteful. 

Still, he listened. And he believed what Harrison was telling him.

Of his new opponent, he said, “General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I commit one, he will make haste to take advantage of it.”

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