‘My Conscious is Clear. I Did the Best I Could’ – Meade Withdraws His Army

December 1, 1863 (Tuesday)

General Meade did his best.
General Meade did his best.

Once again the morning was defined by bitter cold, and though the ground was frozen, the wind had calmed and a stillness fell across Mine Run – the gulf between the Union and Confederate armies. General Meade had weighed his options, of which he had several.

He could attack General Lee’s Army in a frontal assault, but due to how well the Rebel Army had entrenched, he viewed success as impossible. The previous day, he had tried to attack Lee’s right flank, but General Gouverneur K. Warren, leading the assault, called it off fearing it too was impossible. Warren had suggested bringing the entire army into the flank attack, but Meade declined as it would have cut his own supply line.

From the start, Meade had wanted to base the Army of the Potomac out of Fredericksburg. Now that it was clear he was to retreat, he only wished that it could be in that direction, where he saw “substantial advantages” for his army. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, however, would have none of it, and so that was also rendered impossible. Lastly, he could simply withdraw to his former position on the other side of the Rapidan River and go into winter quarters. Perhaps in the Spring, things might look a bit better. And so it was decided.

“I am free to admit that the movement across the Rapidan was a failure,” wrote Meade in his official report of the entire Mine Run Campaign, “but I respectfully submit that the causes of this failure… were beyond my control.”

This was more or less true in a limited sense. Even before stepping off, Halleck had put restrictions upon Meade by disallowing him use of Fredericksburg. Others in Washington, including President Lincoln, had demanded that Meade make a move even though Meade himself doubted its usefulness. Additionally, several corps commanders under Meade had blatantly failed in their duty on several fairly crucial moments.

Meade, however, did very little of his own reconnaissance. This oversight led to several unfortunate instances when his orders were far removed from any semblance of reality. “It is impossible [that] a commanding general can reconnoiter in person a line over 7 miles in extent, and act on his own judgment as to the expediency of attack or not,” Meade countered in his report. He was willing to accept the overall blame, but wanted it to be known that his corps commanders and even Halleck were equally responsible.

Finally, under the cover of the early darkness, Meade began to march his army back across the Rapidan River. This move was undertaken without General Lee being any the wiser. General Jubal Early, commanding the Confederate right, noticed only that the Federal guns in his front were gone. Deciding it was due to a perceived attack upon the left, he mostly ignored it.


The only thing on Lee’s mind was the fact that Meade had not attacked. This, he found incredibly strange. All that time and effort waisted, and for what? But by this date, Lee had had enough. Early’s suspicions must have been brought to Lee’s attention, as he too perceived that a Union attack was imminent upon his right flank. He went so far as to name the Federal VI Corps, commanded by John Sedgwick, as the spearhead. This was impossible, as Sedgwick “remained in position” for the entire day.

Through the day, Lee too stood still. “Preferring to receive and attack rather than assume the offensive,” he reported, “our army remained in its position all day.” Finally, since it appeared unlikely that Meade would attack as was wanted, Lee decided it was time to bring on a battle. He ordered two divisions from Early’s troops on the left to add to A.P. Hill’s troops on the right.

Early gave his own explanation of the move: “Having waited in vain for the enemy to attack us, the commanding general [Lee] determined to take the initiative, and for that purpose directed me on the afternoon of the 1st to extend my line during the night to the right as far as the plank road, so as to enable two divisions to be withdrawn from General Hill’s part of the line, for the purpose of attacking the enemy’s left next morning.”

And Lee was a bit too late.
And Lee was a bit too late.

By the next morning, of course, Meade’s Army was long gone. Lee would give a slow chase, but the Federals would be across the Rapidan before they could catch more than a handful of stragglers.

General Meade saw only one reasonable choice before him – to retire back across the river. He fully believed that his failure would mean his removal. After describing the past week in a letter to his wife, Meade concluded that his “fate as settled,” adding, “I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and I am willing to stand or fall by it at all hazards.”

He also sent word to Washington, but would be met with only silence. “As it is,” he concluded, “my conscience is clear. I did the best I could.” 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p17-18, 797, 826, 835, 896; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade Vol. 1; From Gettysburg to the Rapidan by Andrew Atkinson Humphreys; “The Mine Run Campaign – An Operational Analysis of General George G. Meade” by Kavin L. Coughenour. []
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