September 23, 1863 (Wednesday)
General George Meade arrived in Washington late the previous night. He had been called to the capital by General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, who made the matter seem rather casual. “The business,” wrote Halleck on the 22nd, “is not so pressing as to require your immediate presence if you are wanted there [with the Army of the Potomac].”
Meade had been trying to get someone in Washington to tell him what they wanted his army to do. Was he to attack Lee? Was he to stand still? He was told by Halleck to act in accordance to his own judgment on the matter, which helped him little.
So when he arrived in Washington, he figured he was there to discuss some forward movement. But by the morning of this date, Lincoln and Halleck had already been won over by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who authored the plan to reinforce William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, Tennessee with at least two corps from Meade’s Army of the Potomac.
Going into the meeting, Meade believed that he was about to be chastised for not attacking Lee. In a letter the following day (the 24th), he explains what actually happened.
“I told the President and General Halleck that if they thought I was too slow or prudent, to put some one else in my place. Halleck smiled very significantly, and said he had no doubt I would be rejoiced to be relieved, but there was no such good luck for me.”
Lincoln and Halleck went on to explain that since no offensive seemed to be in the works, the Army of the Potomac was now officially on the defensive. The problem was that it was simply too large a force for such a task, which is when Lincoln proposed to take a portion away from it. To this, Meade raised an understandable objection, giving reasons why it would be an incredibly bad idea.
To Meade, Lincoln seemed satisfied with his reasoning. Perhaps Meade believed that it was a thinly-veiled threat, an attempt to coax him into attacking Lee’s army, which had been weakened by the departure of James Longstreet’s troops.
The meeting broke up at 1pm, and Meade returned to his headquarters along the Rappahannock River and continued to plan some sort of offensive against General Lee. The message had been received, and soon a plan would be in place and his troops would begin moving.
After Meade left town, Secretary of War Stanton called together Secretaries Salmon Chase and William Seward, along with Halleck and Lincoln. It was a continuation of the meeting they had the previous day, but this time all were in agreement.
In the last meeting, Lincoln and Halleck were both against sending troops from Meade’s Army. Now, however, it was a different story. Both had talked to Meade and left the general believing that he had convinced them to let him keep his force in tact, and for the first part of the meeting, they lightly clung to that idea. Washington, after all, had to be protected. The meeting wore on past midnight before anyone came to any sort of agreement.
Finally, Lincoln relented, but only with some kind of compromise. He would allow Stanton to transfer two corps out of Meade’s ranks, but they would have to make do with the XI and XII Corps – the two smallest in the army, numbering around 11,500. Furthermore, they would both be under the command of General Joe Hooker, who had been summarily dismissed right before Gettysburg.
Hooker had gone to Baltimore after being dismissed. Following the battle, Lincoln asked Meade if he would take Hooker as a corps commander. Meade made it clear that he had no interest at all in such a venture. While Hooker languished in Baltimore, Washington tried to figure out what to do with him. Perhaps Fortress Monroe could use a new commander. Maybe the chaotic Department of Missouri would benefit from Hooker’s fine organizational skills. But now things seemed to be falling into place. Hooker could command the XI and XII Corps. Sure, nobody would really want him, but at least it would give him something to do.
And so it was decided. When the meeting broke up, well after midnight, Henry Halleck wired General Meade, who had himself just returned to his army. “Please answer if you have positively determined to make any immediate movement,” began Halleck. “If not, prepare the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps to be sent to Washington, as soon as cars can be sent to you.” The troops should have five days’ cooked provisions. Cars will probably be there by the morning of the 25th.”
Meade received it in the pre-dawn and would reply almost immediately.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p146; Part 2, p220; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 2; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe; The Great Task Remaining by William Marvel; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert. [↩]