Lee Must Retreat or Surrender – Meade’s Army Stirs to Moving

May 3, 1864 (Tuesday)

Meade's Headquarters at Culpeper.
Meade’s Headquarters at Culpeper.

“To-morrow we move,” wrote George Meade to his wife. “I hope and trust we will be successful, and so decidedly successful as to bring about a termination of this war. If hard fighting will do it, I am sure I can rely on my men. They are in fine condition and in most excellent spirits, and will do all that men can do to accomplish the object.”

General Meade’s Army of the Potomac had been set into motion by General Grant, now making his headquarters next door to Meade’s own. The orders issued the day previous were now making their way across the entire command, as was an address written by Meade to be read to the regiments:


Again you are called upon to advance on the enemies of your country. The time and the occasion are deemed opportune by your Commanding General to address you a few words of confidence and caution.

You have been re-organized, strengthened and fully equipped in every respect. You form a part of the several armies of your country, the whole under the direction of an able and distinguished General, who enjoys the confidence of the government, the people and the army. Your movement being in co-operation with others, it is of the utmost importance that no effort should be left unspared to make it successful.

Soldiers! the eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms.

Remember your homes, your wives and children, and bear in mind that the sooner your enemies are overcome, the sooner you will be returned to enjoy the benefits and blessings of peace. Bear with patience the hardships and sacrifices you will be called upon to endure. Have confidence in your officers and in each other. Keep your ranks on the march and on the battlefield, and let each man earnestly implore God’s blessing and endeavor by his thoughts and actions to render himself worthy of the favor he seeks. With clear consciences and strong arms, actuated by a high sense of duty, fighting to preserve the Government and the institutions handed down to us by our forefathers—if true to ourselves—victory, under God’s blessing, must and will attend our efforts.

To Meade, this did not at all seem like empty rhetoric. Continuing the letter to his wife, Meade admitted that just as his own army had been reinforced, so too had the Confederates. “This is all the better for us, if we succeed, as it will make the battle and victory more decisive,” he wrote.

And as he gave his men words to embolden and encourage them, he too had words for his wife, to comfort and sooth.

“I beg of you to be calm and resigned, to place full trust in the mercy of our heavenly Father, who has up to this time so signally favored us, and the continuance of whose blessing we should earnestly pray for. Do not fret, but be cheerful, and go about and do just as if nothing was going on, and above all things don’t anticipate evil; it will come time enough. Give my love to all the dear children. I shall think a great deal of you and them, notwithstanding the excitement of my duties. I feel quiet and determined, satisfied I have ever striven to do my duty to the best of my ability, and believing that in time posterity will do justice to my career.”

Meade’s career since taking over the Army of the Potomac had received anything but justice. He had been massacred in the press for allowing Lee to slip away after Gettysburg, been maligned for his seeming retreat to Bristoe Station, and lambasted for his failure to attack the Rebels at Mine Run. Now was his chance to show the nation that he truly was the general who defeated Robert E. Lee.

The Halt  by T.H. O'Sullivan  taken May 1864
The Halt by T.H. O’Sullivan taken May 1864

Though the Confederate armies had been beaten back in the West, in the East, they were still the stuff of romance and legend, even in the North, and even to General Meade’s own son. With the same letter, Meade enclosed a gift for his son. “I send herewith original letter recently received from General Lee, which you can give to Pennie,” wrote Meade of Spencer, his son, “as it has General Lee’s autograph, and on the envelope an original endorsement by Jeb Stuart, the great reb. cavalry general.”

The Southern officers arrayed against Meade’s army were almost myths. Lee could have been King Arthur, and Stuart, a gallant nobleman, and perhaps even John Singleton Mosby as a knight-errant. He was simply George Meade, the man Washington would replace if there were another man unfortunate enough to replace him. Instead, there was Grant, a general so unassuming and shy that he could not even fill the role of Lee’s foil.

By evening, the army was again coming to life. Grant’s headquarters held a strange place in the Army of the Potomac. Grant was not its commander any more than he was the commander of the Army of the Cumberland or the Army of the Ohio. He could, of course, issue orders to General Meade, but in the end, at least officially, this was Meade’s ordeal.

Still, the plan had been Grant’s. By this day, there was little he could do to alter it. As he gathered his staff around him in his headquarters, he talked openly about the next phase.
Grant had weighed carefully the move to Lee’s right. Had he gone left, the Army of the Potomac would be confined to land, as Lee would necessarily be between them and the rivers. This shortened his lines of supply and lessened the number of men detailed to guard those lines.

Map drawn by Lt. Col. Theordore Lyman of the crossings.
Map drawn by Lt. Col. Theordore Lyman of the crossings.

“I shall not give my attention so much to Richmond as to Lee’s army,” he continued, “and I want all commanders to feel that hostile armies, and not cities, are to be their objective points.” This echoed the sentiment given to Meade a fortnight past: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.”

Where Lee would go, however, was also a predrawn conclusion. If Meade were victorious, Lee would fall back into the defenses of Richmond. Grant stood, then walked to a map pinned to the wall of the cabin serving as his headquarters. With finger extended and for effect, he roughly outlined the fortifications of Richmond and Petersburg. “When my troops are there,” he concluded, “Richmond is mine. Lee must retreat or surrender.”

And it was shortly after midnight they began. Three corps roused by bugles from their half-sleeps, filed into column and through the dark they marched. The night would give Meade a six hour head start on Lee.

The roads to the crossings of the Rapidan were many, and the varying divisions used parallel routes, making their way to pontoon bridges already in place. Grant worried long into the night that Lee might make some early move to contest the crossing. But this was for naught. Though he had predicted the exact crossings Grant would use, Lee did nothing about it. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was posted, to be sure, but they were only to report back should the Federals span the river.

It was midnight when they were spotted. A Confederate signalman posted atop Clark’s Mountain espied the host through his telescope. Lit with only the stars in the clear sky, he saw flickers. There was movements, but their direction could not be discerned through the inky black.

The message was filtered to General Lee, who sent back a message for Richard Ewell, commanding the nearest corps: “Have your command ready to move by daylight.”1

  1. Sources: Life and Letters by George Meade – the address to the troops was dated May 4, 1864, but was delivered to the ranks on this date (according to both Meade and Theodore Lyman, of Meade’s staff); Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea. []
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Lee Must Retreat or Surrender – Meade’s Army Stirs to Moving by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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