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GEORGE G. MEADE, THE VICTOR AT
On three great days, from the ist to the 3d of July, 1863, the fate of the Confederacy was practically decided. Then, on the field of Gettysburg, the culminating battle of the struggle for the Union was fought and Lee's veteran army was hurled back in defeat. Until then the star of the Confederacy, so far as Virginia was concerned, had been steadily rising. There its decline towards its setting began, and all honor belongs to the man to whom this victory was due, George G. Meade, the commander of the army of the Potomac during that momentous campaign. This was the great event in General Meade's life, the one supreme opportunity to achieve fame. Previously he had played a subordinate part. Afterwards, though in command, he did not add to his brilliant record. Later on he was thrown in the shade by the great figure of Grant. Gettysburg was his one opening for glory and he rose to the level of the occasion.
George Gordon Meade was born at Cadiz, Spain, on the final day of the year 1815. His father was at that time a merchant and the United States consul in that city. The father returned to the United States in 1816, and when his son was of proper age had him entered in the West Point Military Academy, where he graduated in 1835.
From that time forward Meade's career lay in the army. He served for a time in Florida against the
Seminole Indians and was one of those heroes of the Civil War who fought in Mexico, but he was mainly occupied in survey duty and in the construction of lighthouses until the Civil War, doing good work, no doubt, but remaining subordinate. He was promoted captain of engineers in 1856 and did not reach the rank of major in the regular army until 1862, after a year's service in the Civil War.
He held, however, a higher rank in the volunteer army, being made brigadier-general in August, 1861. As such he was under McClellan in the Peninsular campaign and served in the Seven Days' battles, fighting at Gaines's Mill and on July 1 at Malvern Hill, where he was twice struck by bullets and severely wounded. He recovered, however, in time to take par in the hard-fought battle of Antietam, where he commanded a division. He took an active part in the subsequent battles of Fredericksburg under Burnside, and Chancellorsville under Hooker, commanding the Union left in the latter engagement. His division fought well in both battles, but shared in the defeat of the general army.
General Lee's signal success in these two great battles led to the most ambitious move in his career. Now, as after the second battle of Bull Run, he looked about for a hopeful field of operations in which he might win success during the temporary discouragement and disorganization of the Union army. In both cases Washington was secure against a direct attack. In the first instance he had invaded Maryland in the hope of gaining some marked advantage thereby. In the second he decided on an invasion of Pennsylvania, with the hope that, in the event of his defeating the Union army, the great cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington might be taken by his victorious troops.
Lee began his great movement of invasion secretly and shrewdly, and his advance troops were making their way up the Shenandoah Valley for a week before Hooker discovered what was in the wind. Then the Union army was put in the quickest possible motion, and during much of the month of June, 1863, the two powerful armies were racing each other up the two sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hooker diligently seeking to protect Washington while making every effort to unmask the intentions of the foe. Meanwhile, as the news of these movements became divulged, a general alarm spread through the North. Forts were hastily built to protect Philadelphia and other threatened points, brigades from home guards were recruited and sent to the front, money was sent from the Philadelphia banks to places of safety, the drill rooms were crowded with volunteers, and so great was the alarm that even the clergy assembled and to a man offered to drop both preaching and the pen and to take up either musket or spade."
In the midst of this march, after the Union army had crossed the Potomac and was pressing up through Maryland, a critical event took place. A force of eleven thousand men lay at Harper's Ferry, and General Hooker asked the Government to remove the public stores from that place and add these men, useless there, to his army.
This General Halleck, commander-in-chief, refused to do, and Hooker at once resigned. General Meade was immediately appointed in his place.
This change of commanders, in front of a powerful enemy and on the eve of a great battle, was a perilous