December 12, 1863 (Saturday)
Union General George Meade was nearly certain that he would be soon replaced. Though he had defeated General Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, his progress since had been seen by many in Washington as slow and lacking in definition. His move north to Manassas during the Bristoe Station Campaign was said to be a retreat, and his most recent attempt at an offensive – the Mine Run Campaign – showed, perhaps, a lack of willingness to fight.
Since the late campaign, Meade had heard little from Washington, and nothing of importance. From officers returning after visiting the capital, he heard only rumors. But these rumors were believable. It was said that he was to be replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Some spoke of Joseph Hooker, while still others mentioned George Thomas, who was heralded as the Rock of Chickamauga and now led the Army of the Cumberland. Meade himself believed the latter.
In the past, Washington had kept such information away from the commanders. For instance, George McClellan learned that he was no longer the General-in-Chief not from the War Department, but from the morning newspaper. And that is exactly how General Meade learned his fate.
According to the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, he was not, in fact, to be replaced at all. This was a notion that left Meade shocked, but certain. “As this paper is edited by [John W.] Forney, who is supposed to have confidential relations with the Administration,” he wrote his wife on this date, “I presume this announcement may be considered semi-official.”
And in that, he was not mistaken. John Forney had, before the war, been a Buchanan man, even running his campaign. He got the man elected, but was not rewarded with a cabinet seat, and his bid for office of any kind was a failure. At the coming of the conflict, his support for Buchanan quickly waned, and he found himself pitching in to help the budding Republican Party. Now quite solidly a Lincoln man, Forney gave up his Philadelphia newspaper to become the organ for the administration. The Chronicle began its life as a weekly, but before long, and due to the request of President Lincoln himself, it was published daily.
Lincoln bade Forney to do so, voicing his displeasure with how Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune was portraying the administration. Such writing, especially from someone as influential as Greeley, might have ill effects upon the soldiers. Once the Chronicle was up and running, at least 10,000 copies – fully one-third of its print run – were shipped to the Army of the Potomac each day. This guaranteed readership made the paper every bit as influential as Greeley.
And so it was of little surprise that Meade learned from Forney’s Chronicle that he was to be sustained, and also that he took it to be as official a notice as he was likely to receive. In light of this news, Meade at once began to think toward the future.
This same day, he wrote to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. “I have already reported that in my judgment nothing more can be done this season,” dashed Meade to Halleck. However, he was concerned that General Lee might not feel the same way. “The present position of the army,” he continued, “invites an advance from the enemy in case he deems one justifiable.” Meade reminded Halleck that to properly attack Lee, he would have to run a detour of fifty miles. But for Lee to attack him, the Rebels had but ten miles to cover. Meade would have to abandon his supply line and communications, while Lee could keep his own in tact.
“In this view,” he closed, “I should not like to weaken myself…, but would rather propose taking up the line of the Warrenton Railroad, holding in force the covering of the Rappahannock at the railroad bridge.” This would allow his troops to be resupplied from the railroad depots and avoid the winter roads.
What Meade was actually proposing was going into winter quarters. He was fairly hopeful that Lee had done as much, and now wished to rest and resupply his own army for the coming spring campaign. General Halleck would not reply until the 17th. It would be the first communication concerning strategy since before the close of the Mine Run Campaign, on November 30th.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p556-557, 565; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade by George Gordon Meade; Lincoln and the Press by Robert S. Harper. [↩]