July 29, 1863 (Wednesday)
General George Meade was ready to make another move. He thought it a bad idea, of course, but more importantly, he thought it was what Washington had wanted. Since the battle of Gettysburg, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and President Lincoln had both pushed, urged and drove him to attack the retreating Confederates under General Lee before they had the opportunity to slip across the Rappahannock River.
Now that Lee had slipped across, Lincoln had grown less sure. He was bitterly disappointed that Meade did not follow up his victory by destroying the Rebel army, but did not wish to sacrifice the Army of the Potomac in the attempt.
In recent days, General Halleck had laid off the rhetoric pushing Meade forward, saying little more than “Lee’s army is the objective point.” Meade, still figuring that Washington wanted swift action, made plans to “throw over a cavalry force” and “cross the infantry as fast as possible” to the other side of the Rappahannock.
It was the haste that bothered President Lincoln the most. After reading Meade’s plans, he slept on it and woke upon this day with a clear head. Writing to General Halleck, he expressed his thoughts.
Meade’s plan, said Lincoln, “causes me to fear that he supposed the Government here is demanding of him to bring on a general engagement with Lee as soon as possible. I am claiming no such thing of him.”
It’s not incredibly shocking that Meade would think such a thing as he had been told many times over the past few weeks that generally engaging and defeating Lee’s Army was his only goal.
But it was over those few weeks that Lincoln’s opinion had changed. While he would allow Halleck’s thoughts to trump his own, the President cautioned against a hasty attack.
“If he [Meade] could not safely engage Lee at Williamsport,” he mused, “it seems absurd to suppose he can safely engage him now, when he has scarcely more than two-thirds of the force he had at Williamsport, while it must be that Lee has been re-enforced.”
Lincoln, when needed, could play diplomat with surprising skill. Lincoln had chastised Meade after Lee crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, and knew that Meade was hurt by it. With that in mind, he altered a bit of history.
“True,” he wrote, “I desired General Meade to pursue Lee across the Potomac, hoping, as has proved true, that he would thereby clear the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and get some advantage by harassing him on his retreat.”
In saying this, Lincoln completely sidestepped his own disappointment, softening it with a compliment – the railroad had been cleared (which wasn’t even fully true). Halleck had written to Meade following Lee’s crossing at Williamsport, telling him that Lee’s escape had not only “created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President,” but would “require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.”
Though it was in Halleck’s hand, there’s little doubt that it was Lincoln’s heart. Over this, Meade had offered his resignation, which was declined.
With all of this in the past, Lincoln was just as content to forget it (temporarily). “I am unwilling he should now get into a general engagement on the impression that we here are pressing him,” he summed up in conclusion.
General Meade received the message happily and replied the following day [150 years ago, tomorrow]. “The impression of the President is correct,” Meade concurred before nudging the blame upon Halleck. “I have been acting under the belief, from your telegrams, that it was his and your wish that I should pursue Lee and bring him to a general engagement, if practicable.”
Meade also corrected two of Lincoln’s misapprehensions. He did not, as the President claimed, fail to attack Lee at Williamsport. He was about to attack, but Lee slipped across. It was a minor difference, but an important one to the General. Additionally, Meade assured Lincoln that his army was about as large as it had been at Williamsport, not two-thirds its strength.
If Meade could not attack now, he needed to know when was a good time. Other factors were in play, including the idea that Lee had been reinforced and exactly where the enemy was located. But there was another issue.
After Halleck forwarded Lincoln’s message to Meade, the General-in-Chief explained (to Meade) that perhaps maintaining his present position, on the north side of the Rappahannock, was a better idea. The draft riots in New York had died down, but nobody was yet certain they were over. Halleck wanted to sap 2,000 men from the Army of the Potomac for duty up north. For the time being, it might be best to look to that rather than to attacking Lee.
Meade thought differently. For one thing, he did not believe the line on the upper Rappahannock offered “any particular advantage.” It was an easy river to cross, and if Lee assumed the offensive, it would be impossible “to prevent his turning my flanks.”
For another, his army was in a condition to move. Its numbers were good and its spirit was willing. Should troops be sent here and there, it would make an offensive impossible.
In conclusion, Meade put forward his own views. Moving upon the enemy was more important than suppressing the draft riots, and certainly more important than defending the upper Rappahannock. “In my judgment,” he wrote, “if there were no other considerations than the relative strength and position of the two armies, I should favor an advance.”
Lincoln and Halleck, however, were firm in their resolve. Meade’s Army of the Potomac wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p101, 103, 105-107. [↩]