Gettysburg – fought between July 1st to July 3rd 1863 – has a strong claim to be the decisive battle of the American Civil War. It certainly marked the high-water mark of the Confederacy; after it they would always be on the defensive. Gettysburg was also an uncharacteristic lapse in the generalship of Robert E. Lee; the decisions he took in the battle were distinctly below his usual standard. His opponent – George Meade – on the other hand, had to learn rapidly on the job. Appointed to command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28th, just a few days before the battle, Meade had little choice but to respond to events. In the end, by standing on the defensive, he frustrated Lee.
- John William Hunt
After Lee’s narrow defeat at Gettysburg, his battered Army of North Virginia fell back by stages until it was behind the Potomac river again by 14th July. Meade’s equally battered Army of the Potomac followed Lee to the Potomac, but did not succeed in forcing another battle on him. At this point most histories of the Civil War gloss over the weeks that followed and pick up the story again when Grant assumed overall command of the Union armies in March 1864 and Meade became subordinate to him.
In fact, the skirmishing between the two armies continued for some months. This period provides the sole opportunity to assess the generalship of Meade before he came under the overall command of Grant. This book is one of a trilogy that will cover his attempts to corner and force another battle upon Lee’s Army of North Virginia.
It covers the period July 14th - July 31st 1863. During that time, Lee schemed to get his army behind the Rappahannock river and Meade manoeuvred to try and cut him off and either defeat him in detail or force another full-scale battle on ground of Meade’s choosing. Unfortunately for Meade, Lees’ generalship was back to its usual standard and for most of the time, he stayed a step ahead of the more cautious Meade.
For Meade to trap Lee, he had to gain detailed knowledge of the route and dispositions of Lee’s army. And for that he relied on small bodies of cavalry, while sending forces to try and block some of Lee’s anticipated escape routes. The result was a series of small skirmishes, some fights between significant numbers of infantry that never escalated into a full-scale battle and one substantial but inconclusive engagement between two strong forces of cavalry.
This book – and indeed the two yet to come – are the first to cover this period in such detail. It is extremely well researched from original source documents and manages to cover a lot of ground without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Meade’s problem was that Lee was the better general. Although Meade had the stronger force, he remained wary of a counter-stroke from his opponent. And with incomplete intelligence of Lee’s intentions, that counter-stroke was an ever-present risk.
This book is a study of how knowledge of what was ‘on the other side of the hill’ affected battles. Meade had to feel his way forward, never committing himself to a course of action until he was sure of Lee’s position or intentions. And for that he was dependent on scouts, the Mark 1 human eyeball and intelligence moving at the speed of a horse. On occasion Meade halted his army for as long as 36 hours while he tried to fathom out what Lee was up to. Ultimately, that caution would prevent him from trapping Lee, the more decisive of the two commanders.
The result is a book that is interesting for anyone interested in the practicalities of large scale command: the problems faced by both armies are clearly explained, along with what each commander knew at the time. From that perspective it is an absorbing read. The practical problem for the more general reader is that there are no really dramatic events – no full-scale battles. And therefore, no obvious climax for the book, possibly a reason why this period has not been covered in such detail before.
That caveat aside, I would still recommend this book to anyone interested in the American Civil War. It breaks new ground, covers in detail a dozen skirmishes that might have been dismissed in a couple of sentences in more general histories and does lay out clearly the problems faced by both generals and the courses of action they chose. And makes you realise how difficult command is with only fragmentary information and an opponent liable to seize on any misstep.