‘Anxiously Endeavoring to See My Way Clear’ – Meade Searches for Holes in Lee’s Defenses

November 4, 1863 (Wednesday)

Just fire me.
Just fire me.

As it had been seen, on the first of this month, General George Meade wrote to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck proposing two designs for attacking General Lee’s Army now arrayed along the south bank of the Rappahannock. The first was by his right flank, but it was a route he did not favor, as it would cause him to abandon his lines of supply. The second, while necessarily more hazardous, involved moving his base of operation to Aquia Creek. There, he would take Fredericksburg by surprise and fall upon Lee’s right flank.

But when General Halleck received Meade’s letter, he shared it with President Lincoln. “He does not see that the proposed change of base,” relayed Halleck, “is likely to produce any favorable result, while its disadvantages are manifest.”

This manifestation was, of course, still fresh in his head. The year before, he approved a similar course for the army while under the helm of Ambrose Burnside. Its failure was evident from the start, but culminated in the bloody battle of Fredericksburg.

In conclusion, neither Lincoln nor Halleck would tell Meade which course to pursue as long as it didn’t involve a change a base – the course Meade wished most to pursue.

Meade replied on this date, but had little to say. “Your disapproval of the proposed attempt to secure a lodgment on the Fredericksburg heights of course caused an immediate abandonment of the plan,” wrote Meade to Halleck. “I have been since anxiously endeavoring to see my way clear to make some movement, which, by tactical maneuver on the enemy’s flank, would bring my army in contact with his, with giving him all the advantage of defense and position.”

That was, in the end, the rub. Meade could certainly, and without much effort, move on either of Lee’s flanks, but any move he considered seemed to tilt the advantage to the Southern army. “As yet,” he continued, “I have not been able to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion, though most earnestly anxious to bring matters to termination.”

Matters as they were, however, were little changed over the breadth of the week. Neither his army, nor Lee’s, had made any major changes. There was a slight cavalry flair up involving some of Jeb Stuart’s troopers crossing the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. Meade dispatched Judson Kilpatrick’s Division, still recovering from their tangle at Bristoe Station, and by evening they were driving the Rebels back. But this was of hardly any consequence, and certainly shown no light upon Meade’s indecision.

How are you, railroad?
How are you, railroad?

Interestingly enough, Stuart’s troopers were near Fredericksburg to tear up the railroad to the supply depot Meade wanted to use. Even if he had been allowed to move his base of operations, in all likelihood, he would have had to rebuilt the railroad. In the time that undertaking would consume, the Rebels would have, no doubt, made their own way to Fredericksburg. The scene very well could have mirrored that of the year before.

It was at this point when Meade began to again consider leaving the army. He was sanguine of success, but only by way of Fredericksburg. When he learned of Halleck’s disapproval, to his wife he wrote: “Now I have clearly indicated what I thought feasible and practicable and my plan is disapproved. I think under these circumstances justice to me and the true interests of the country justify their selecting some one else to command.”

The general was understandably frustrated, but knew that he could not simply resign. But he did believe and wish that he would be let go. To an aide he confided, perhaps in a spat of anger, that he wished “the Administration would get mad at me, and relieve me.” These feelings were with him in the days to come, when he wrote Winfield Scott Hancock that he expected to be relieved any moment.

And yet, Meade was first a soldier. He knew the duty before him, and though he may have desired to be relieved, he continued to search for a way to get at the enemy.

Very approximate map showing Meade's two options (again).
Very approximate map showing Meade’s two options (again).

General Lee, for his part, had no desire at all to leave his army. In fact, he wanted as much of his army with him as possible. While much of the Southern forces were threatened throughout the various theaters, reinforcements were begged of Lee. Richmond asked for a single South Carolinian regiment for service in that state, which resulted in a long rant from Lee about why he could not release even this.

After suggesting that South Carolina should recruit their own regiment, Lee explained the situation before him:

“Meade is in our front, gradually advancing and repairing the railroad, having already reached Warrenton Junction. His army consisting of five corps of infantry and three divisions of cavalry, had been re-enforced to some extent since its late retreat on Washington, and is variously estimated at from 60,000 to 80,000 effective men. […]

“I believe the troops of this army have been called upon in winter, spring, and summer to do almost as active service as those of any other department, and I do not see that the good of the service will be promoted by scattering its brigades and regiments along all the threatened points of the Confederacy. It is only by the concentration of our troops that we can hope to win any decisive advantage.”

For the time, Lee would swim in the supposition that Meade was lingering and hesitant to attack. Meade, however, had little choice in the matter. President Lincoln demanded an advance, and soon Meade would have to deliver.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p412, 415, 819, 821; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade edited by George Gordon Meade; ” “The Mine Run Campaign – An Operation Analysis” by Kavin L. Coughenour; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert. []
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