General Meade Goes to Washington

October 22, 1863 (Thursday)

Lincoln sees exactly what Meade is saying.
Lincoln sees exactly what Meade is saying.

General George Meade, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, had been the previous day called to Washington. This came about after claiming he could do little more against General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The trip from Centreville to the capital was a short one, and he arrived around 2pm.

Upon his arrival, he found President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck waiting for him. Though Lincoln, of course, wanted Meade to attack Lee at once, he sympathized with the army commander’s plight. Meade’s supply line, the Orange & Alexander Railroad, lay in complete ruin, systematically destroyed and dismantled by Lee’s forces from Bristoe Station south to the Rappahannock River. Also, the land along the destroyed rail line was a desolation, picked clean by three years of almost constant fighting, especially this most recent campaign.

To Meade, Lincoln was “considerate and kind,” as the President almost always was in these situations. “He found no fault with my operations,” wrote Meade to his wife, “although it was very evident he was disappointed that I had not got a battle out of Lee.” Most importantly, Lincoln agreed with Meade that “there was not much to be gained by any farther advance.”

General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, on the other hand, was a different matter. A rift had formed between him and Meade and more recently they had exchanged terse words which ended in Meade offering to resign and Halleck almost apologizing. Halleck believed there was an absolute necessity for something to be done, though he couldn’t say just what it was.

Meade had a suggestion, one that he hinted upon the day before. If the army could get to Fredericksburg, establishing control of the railroad running from the supply depot at Aquia Creek, he might be able to outflank Lee. Time was important. As soon as the Confederates caught wind that the Federal Army was moving on Fredericksburg again, they’d destroy the Aquia line, leaving Meade in the same predicament in which he now found himself. Halleck did not at all like this idea.

Toward the end of the meeting, two messages arrived in Washington, which no doubt forced the small gathering to continue on. The first was a statement made by a spy named William Arndoff from Jefferson County, which had been recently invaded by John Imboden’s Rebel Cavalry. They took Charlestown and managed to convince Halleck that Harpers Ferry was under threat.

Here's today's approximate map.
Here’s today’s approximate map.

Apparently, Mr. Arndoff was talking with a neighbor who was a staunch Rebel and who believed him (Arndoff) to be the same. Among his jabberings, the neighbor believed that Lee was about to cross the Potomac with “the largest and finest army he has ever had.” Lincoln, Halleck and Meade all knew this was untrue. Nearly all of James Longstreet’s corps had left for the west over a month ago, greatly reducing Lee’s forces. This was mere fantastic speculation. But of the other items, there was something to ponder.

The Rebel neighbor also claimed that Imboden’s Confederates had fallen back to Front Royal. He believed it was to regroup for another attack and to join with Albert Jenkins’ Cavalry, but Lincoln, Halleck and Meade probably dismissed the latter part.

Another message arrived around the same time. This was from General John Foster, commanding at Fortress Monroe. He had received Richmond newspapers from the 19th, 20th, and 21st. They spoke of “Lee’s intention to retire to a position near Richmond, having failed to bring General Meade to battle.” So far this was exactly what Meade suspected. But the papers also noted that “all interest is now centered in the operations of the armies at Chattanooga.”

This was something that all had suspected might come from Lee’s failed offensive. Longstreet’s corps had left, so next might be Richard Ewell’s. Meade had suggested as much, even going as far as to offer to send more of his forces west in response.

Halleck is growing bored. He wants to do something, but doesn't know what. Not Fredericksburg though.
Halleck is growing bored. He wants to do something, but doesn’t know what. Not Fredericksburg though.

Overall, nothing really came from this meeting. It did, however, plant some seeds in the minds of Lincoln and Halleck. The time had slid by and Meade decided to stay the night in Washington.

Probably after the meeting had broken up (but possibly not), Meade received a message from the front. Written around 6pm, it detailed the events of the day. Basically, Federal cavalry had pursued the line of the Rebel march, south toward the Rappahannock. They encountered strong Confederate pickets and skirmishers at Bealeton Station, but even stronger just north of Rappahannock Station. This was absolute evidence that Lee had retreated south of the Rappahannock, but held a strong bridgehead on the north bank.

Still, nothing could be decided. Meade would return the next morning, leaving Lincoln and Halleck to ponder the possibilities.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p10-11; Part 2, p368, 369-370; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade. []
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