Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Philadelphia general George Meade commanded the defense of the commonwealth at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Born in 1815, George Gordon Meade was one of the generals who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. However, most people don’t recall him easily, and he is not usually associated with the other more famous generals of the times, such as Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Meade received his education at West Point. He was involved in the Seminole Wars in Florida, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Meade’s life was filled with action, adventure, exploration, love, and loss. Meade died in 1872.
George Gordon Meade was born on December 31, 1815, in Cadiz, Spain, where his father was serving as an agent for the United States Navy. Later, the family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is where Meade attended Mt. Airy School. He was forced to withdraw when the family suffered financial problems. In the years that followed, the family moved between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C., where Meade attended several different schools. Meade had plans to attend a traditional college; however, he also applied to West Point Military Academy and became a cadet in 1831. Although he did not really like military life, he performed well and graduated nineteenth in the class of 1835.
At the rank of lieutenant, Meade was appointed to the 3rd U.S. Artillery and was transferred to Florida about the time of the Seminole Wars. He became ill while in Florida and was reassigned to the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts for administrative duties. Within the year Meade resigned his commission, and he went to work for a railroad company as an engineer. In 1840, while Meade was in Washington, D.C., he met and later married Margaretta Sergeant. He wanted to earn more income for his new family, so he reapplied for military service in 1842 and was appointed to 2nd Lieutenant in the topographical engineers. In 1845, while in Texas, he was assigned to Winfield Scott’s Army during the War with Mexico. After the war, Meade moved back to Philadelphia, where he worked on lighthouses around Delaware Bay. Meade was eventually promoted to captain and spent time designing lighthouses on the East Coast. In the latter part of the 1850s, Meade participated in a survey of the Great Lakes and surrounding waterways.
At the onset of the Civil War, Meade once again returned to Pennsylvania and offered his services. He was appointed to a unit of volunteers as a brigadier general. During his unit’s build up of the defenses of Washington, D.C., Meade earned his nickname “The Old Snapping Turtle” due to being short tempered with both junior officers and superiors. In March 1862 Meade’s command was assigned to the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign. Meade was seriously wounded in the fighting around Glendale, Virginia. He recovered from his wounds in a Philadelphia hospital, and in early September he left to rejoin his troops in the field. Meade then was given a command Pennsylvania Reserves to pursue General Robert E. Lee’s troops, which had invaded Maryland. In mid June 1863, Lee again tried to invade the north. On June 28, around Frederick, Maryland, Meade was chosen to relieve General Joseph Hooker and was then given command of the Army of the Potomac. A few days later, the Battle of Gettysburg began.
With the defeat of the northern invasion, Lee was forced to withdraw on July 4. Meade pursued the following day, but no other significant fighting occurred. Meade was criticized excercising caution in following Lee. The controversy did not diminish the victory at Gettysburg, although General Ulysses S. Grant’s subsequent victory at Vicksburg overshadowed Meade’s victory at Gettysburg, which could be why he is not normally ranked among the great generals of the war. On January 28, 1864, Meade received Congress’s thanks for his service in defeating the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.
Later that winter, Grant became commander of all Union forces and Meade’s superior. Meade worked diligently carrying out Grant’s orders. For his services, Meade was promoted to major general in the regular army in August 1864. Meade’s army and the rest of the union forces pursued Lee’s army to the eventual surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.
After the close of the war, General Meade was placed in charge of Reconstruction efforts in the South as part of the regular army. In 1866, he became commissioner of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, a post he held until his death. He lived with his wife and family in Philadelphia until October 31, 1872, when he was struck down by a violent pain in his side. His old wound from the Battle of Glendale had generated internal problems and soon pneumonia set in. Meade rapidly faded and died on November 7, 1872. He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In an article written on November 12, 1872, the New York Times wrote about Meade’s funeral procession and wrote that Philadelphia had “never witnessed such a representation of the power and greatness and genius of the nation, as that which assembled within its limits today, to pay the last tribute of honor and respect to the memory of Major-Gen. George Gordon Meade. The solemn ceremonials, the impressive display, the gathering of thousands from all portions of the country, were well worthy the patriotism, the distinguished services, and the general excellence of character of the departed hero.”
The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
Bache, Richard Meade. Life of General George Gordon Meade: Commander of th Army of the Potomac. Philadelphia: H.T. Coates & Co, 1897.
Cleaves, Freeman. Meade of Gettysburg. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1960.
George Gordon Meade. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 440-441. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 Sep. 2011. New citation.