Best Defense

Why Gen. Meade was right to stop after Gettysburg and not pursue Gen. Lee

The real issue here is leadership.



By Don Thieme
Best Defense guest respondent

The real issue here is leadership.

A comparison may be of some value. In the summer of 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee has been in command for roughly two years and has his veteran Gen. James Longstreet with a new command structure after the Battle of Chancellorsville. While he is still working out the kinks, he has veteran commanders in place who know him, the terrain, their troops, and the enemy. They want to win, they know how to fight, and they want the fight out of Virginia.

On the Union side, you have Gen. George Meade, who has been in command roughly one week. He does not know his forces or his command structure nearly as well as he knows that he ought to, and furthermore he knows that Lee has this advantage over him. Even in victory, Meade has lost Gen. John F. Reynolds and three other generals, and many other commanders are seriously wounded as well.

In the annals of recorded history, there has never been a “high-end combat” battle that lasted more than 96 hours — that is simply the limit of human endurance. Absent fresh reserves to commit — and reserves who know what they are doing rather than anyone quickly thrown into the fray — it is almost impossible to transition from the defense to the offense and pursuit at the end of a battle like this one. A perfect example is Napoleon’s failure at Austerlitz to pursue beyond Stara Posta at the end of the day. Even his hardened forces of the Grand Armée of 1805 simply could not muster the energy to pursue after the climactic battle itself.

Lastly, while the Union held at Gettysburg, a pursuit is a far trickier operation, especially after a battle as bloody as the three days of Gettysburg. It is relatively easy for us to sit here (or in the Visitor Center at Gettysburg) and comment that Meade should have more vigorously pursued Lee all the way back to Virginia. It is an interesting idea, though, to see what would happen if we tried to recreate the July 5-14 piece as its own war game, and see what that might reveal.

At any rate, I think you raise a good question that our leaders — middle to senior level military officers as well as civilian officials — ought to ponder. Meade was a very good general — but I am willing to bet that after the notification of command (June 28), the approach to Gettysburg, and the close possibility of victory, that he slept more than he might have liked on the night of July 4. It is not just the grognards on the front lines who are exhausted after such a battle — everyone is. Pete Owen published a book several years ago about 2d Battalion 6th Marines at Belleau Wood called To the Limit of Endurance, in which he covered exactly this fatigue factor and how it eviscerates even elite units. (Roughly two thirds of the marines at Belleau Wood were college graduates or students and had been collegiate athletes and then had nearly a year to train before this battle.)

Finally, while Meade knew he had won, I am not sure that he knew, the next morning, just how decisively he had won and how battered Lee’s forces were. Considering the almost unbroken string of defeats and setbacks the Army of the Potomac had suffered from 1861 until Gettysburg, he would have been reticent to push his luck — and while we with the benefit of hindsight know that Lee was, put simply, whupped, it would have been very hard for Meade to know what we know today. As one French historian once put it, “To understand history most fully, it is necessary to forget the results that we know, but that the participants did not.” (I may have the words off slightly here, but you get the gist.) This is where a historical war game would not only interestingly explore alternative outcomes, but also educate leaders in the essence of decision in circumstances of unknowingness.

Many historians criticize Meade, but if he had attacked, and Lee and Longstreet had executed a smart pivot defense in place (it is worth remembering that Lee’s nickname was the “Ace of Spades” for his ability to very quickly dig in) and destroyed Meade’s attacking forces, we would be having a very different discussion.

Don Thieme is a retired Marine Infantry Officer, Olmsted Scholar, and SAW graduate who has led multiple Infantry units, served as a Plans Chief, two tours as an Attaché and concluded his career as a Military Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. He works in the Wargaming Department in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies in Newport, Rhode Island. In his spare time, he is completing a PhD in philosophy, focusing on the relationship between the modern state and biotechnology. He is married to a former Navy nurse and served overseas for more than 14 years in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Disclaimer: The views here are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Naval War College, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense. 

Photo credit: ALEXANDER GARDNER/U.S. Library of Congress

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola