Army of the Potomac Reorganized – Three Corps Commanders Axed

March 23, 1864 (Wednesday)

Meade and his staff, summer 1864
Meade and his staff, summer 1864

On the surface, the reorganization of an army seems like a mostly dull affair – a regiment or two are combined, a brigade is moved, and an officer or two are out of job. When this army is the Army of the Potomac, however, things tend to be a bit more dramatic.

By this point in the year, General George Meade was under much criticism. He had testified before the Joint Committee for the Conduct of the War concerning his actions during the Gettysburg Campaign, and been met with many stinging questions as to why and how Lee’s army was seemingly allowed to escape. In the press, he was mercilessly crucified, with man rallying behind General Dan Sickles, who somehow claimed to be the true victor of the battle. After weeks upon weeks of such trials, Meade was wearing thin.

“It is hard that I am to suffer from the malice of such men as Sickles and [Dan] Butterfield,” wrote Meade to his wife on the 20th. Many Radical Republican senators were calling for Meade’s dismissal, accusing him of stacking the army with Democrats (a charge that wasn’t too difficult to sustain). Through it all, however, Meade was almost certain he would not be relieved of duty. “I don’t think I have at any time been in any danger,” he continued to his wife. “It would be almost a farce to relieve the man who fought the battle of Gettysburg….”

The reorganization was urged, at least in part, by such criticisms. In mid-February, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reassured Meade that he would be keeping his job, but explained, according to Meade, that “there were several officers in my army that did not have the confidence of the country, and that I was injuring myself by retaining them.” After much hemming, hawing and hacking, on this date, the reorganization was announced.

It would be a huge change, reflecting not only the removal of unwanted officers, but the depletion of troops from the Gettysburg Campaign. The two corps hit hardest during the battle were John Reynold’s First Corps and Dan Sickles Third Corps. As of this date, both corps were eliminated. They were not folded into each other, but simply dispersed among the other corps – the Second, Fifth, and Sixth. As a small concession, the troops from the First and Third were allowed to keep “their badges and distinctive marks.” And so troops from the First Corps were permitted to bear their famed red, white or blue circle upon their hats, while the Third kept its similarly-colored diamonds.

With the men in the ranks dispersed, the two corps commanders, John Newton and William French were simply removed. Newton had been personally selected by Meade over the more obvious (and more Republican) choice of Abner Doubleday. French, a career military man, had been shifted for command of the Third Corps over the abolitionist David Birney, who, by rank, was to succeed Sickles. More than likely, it was Newton and French who did not have the country’s confidence, at least according to Stanton.

Newton, French, and Sykes - long gone.
Newton, French, and Sykes – long gone.

The same could probably not be said for George Sykes, commander of the Fifth Corps. Sykes, also a career military man, was an able commander. Though he had some more recent health problems, there was seemingly no reason why he was replaced by Gouverneur K. Warren, another reported savior of Gettysburg. He had been commanding the Second Corps while Winfield Hancock recovered, but now that Hancock was back, Warren needed a home and Sykes was out.

Stanton had personally selected John Sedgwick, commanding the Sixth Corps, for removal. Being a Democrat, Meade objected and, though a bit of compromise, Sedgwick, still a McClellan man, was allowed to stay.

The same could not be said for Cavalry commander Alfred Pleasonton, whose underlings had greatly outshown him during the past summer’s campaign. Both Stanton and General Grant specifically requested his removal. Pleasonton would be asked to leave in a couple of days, and in less than two week’s time, Philip Sheridan, an infantry corps commander from the Knoxville Campaign, would take his place. Sheridan was highly valued by Grant, and since the General-in-Chief would be with the Army of the Potomac, he wanted Sheridan with him too, calling him “the very man I want.”

The changes would take some time to effect, and the troops most effected – the First and Third Corps – expressed it in differing ways. While the First seemed to mostly accept the change, the Third, highly protective of their General Sickles, held what they termed as an “indignation meeting,” to express their disgust over what they believed was Meade’s slight against their commander.

By this time, General Grant had arrived in Washington, and would be with Meade and the Army of the Potomac the following day.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p717-718; Life and Letters by George Meade; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert. []
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