Best Defense

Meade’s missed opportunity to end the Civil War after the battle of Gettysburg

I was reading a Civil War history the other day and was struck by the opportunity that General George Meade had — and blew — after Gettysburg to end the war.

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Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on April 5.

I was reading a Civil War history the other day and was struck by the opportunity that General George Meade had — and blew — after Gettysburg to end the war.

I say that because old Robert E. Lee retreated southwestward from the battlefield to Williamsport, Maryland. But he was unable to cross the Potomac because rains raised the level of the river, leaving his force pinned against its northern bank, stuck in Maryland.

What might have happened had Meade pursued him vigorously there? Meade’s defenders say that attacking Lee would have given the well-entrenched rebels the chance to massacre the Union force. But what if Meade simply had besieged Lee? He could have surrounded him, putting troops around Lee’s works, and also on the south bank of the river. They were on the run and likely wouldn’t have had many days worth of supplies.

I asked a friend who is a Civil War expert. He said it isn’t so simple. But he’s kind of soft on Meade, so I don’t know.

Am I missing something here? Even if you are a Meadeist, feel free to reply.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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