American Civil War: Major General George G. Meade

George G. Meade, USA
Major General George G. Meade. National Archives & Records Administration

Born at Cádiz, Spain on December 31, 1815, George Gordon Meade was the eighth of eleven children born to Richard Worsam Meade and Margaret Coats Butler. A Philadelphia merchant living in Spain, Meade had been crippled financially during the Napoleonic Wars and was serving a naval agent for the US government in Cádiz. Shortly after his death in 1928, the family returned to the United States and young George was sent to school at Mount Hope College in Baltimore, MD.

West Point

Meade's time at Mount Hope proved brief due to his family's increasingly difficult financial situation. Wishing to continue his education and aid his family, Meade sought an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Securing admission, he entered West Point in 1831. While there his classmates included George W. Morell, Marsena Patrick, Herman Haupt, and future US Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Graduating 19th in a class of 56, Meade was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1835 and assigned to the 3rd US Artillery.

Early Career

Dispatched to Florida to fight the Seminoles, Meade soon fell ill with fever and was transferred to the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts. Having never intended to make the army his career, he resigned in late 1836 after recovering from his sickness. Entering civilian life, Meade sought work as an engineer and had some success surveying new lines for railroad companies as well as working for the War Department. In 1840, Meade married Margaretta Sergeant, the daughter of prominent Pennsylvanian politician John Sergeant. The couple would ultimately have seven children. After his marriage, Meade found steady work increasingly difficult to obtain. In 1842, he elected to re-enter the US Army and was made a lieutenant of topographical engineers.

Mexican-American War

Assigned to Texas in 1845, Meade served as a staff officer in Major General Zachary Taylor's army after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War the following year. Present at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, he was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallantry at the Battle of Monterrey. Meade also served on the staffs of Brigadier General William J. Worth and Major General Robert Patterson.


Returning to Philadelphia after the conflict, Meade spent the bulk of the next decade designing lighthouses and conducting coastal surveys on the East Coast. Among those lighthouses he designed were those at Cape May (NJ), Absecon (NJ), Long Beach Island (NJ), Barnegat (NJ) and Jupiter Inlet (FL). During this time, Meade also devised a hydraulic lamp that was accepted for use by the Lighthouse Board. Promoted to captain in 1856, he was ordered west the following year to oversee a survey of the Great Lakes. Publishing his report in 1860, he remained on the Great Lakes until the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861.

The Civil War Begins

Returning east, Meade was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on August 31 at the recommendation of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and given command of the 2nd Brigade, Pennsylvania Reserves. Initially assigned to Washington, DC, his men built fortifications around the city until being assigned to Major General George McClellan's newly formed Army of the Potomac. Moving south in the spring of 1862, Meade took part in McClellan's Peninsula Campaign until being wounded three times at the Battle of Glendale on June 30. Quickly recovering, he rejoined his men in time for the Second Battle of Manassas in late August.

Rising through the Army

In the course of the fighting, Meade's brigade took part in the vital defense of Henry House Hill which allowed the remainder of the army to escape after the defeat. Shortly after the battle he was given command of the 3rd Division, I Corps. Moving north at the beginning of the Maryland Campaign, he earned praise for his efforts at the Battle of South Mountain and again three days later at Antietam. When his corps commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, was wounded, Meade was selected by McClellan to take over. Leading I Corps for the remainder of the battle, he was wounded in the thigh.

Returning to his division, Meade achieved the only Union success during the Battle of Fredericksburg that December when his men drove back the troops of Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. His success was not exploited and his division was forced to fall back. In recognition for his actions, he was promoted to major general. Given command of V Corps on December 25, he commanded it at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. During the course of the battle, he implored Hooker, now the army commander, to be more aggressive but to no avail.

Taking Command

Following his victory at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee began moving north to invade Pennsylvania with Hooker in pursuit. Arguing with his superiors in Washington, Hooker was relieved on June 28 and command was offered to Major General John Reynolds. When Reynolds declined, it was offered to Meade who accepted. Assuming command of the Army of the Potomac at Prospect Hall near Frederick, MD, Meade continued to move after Lee. Known to his men as "The Old Snapping Turtle," Meade had reputation for a short temper and possessed little patience for the press or civilians.


Three days after taking command, two of Meade's corps, Reynolds' I and Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI, encountered the Confederates at Gettysburg. Opening the Battle of Gettysburg, they were mauled but succeeded in holding favorable ground for the army. Rushing his men to the town, Meade won a decisive victory over the next two days and effectively turned the tide of the war in the East. Though triumphant, he was soon criticized for failing to aggressively pursue Lee's battered army and deliver a war-ending blow. Following the enemy back to Virginia, Meade conducted ineffective campaigns at Bristoe and Mine Run that fall.

Under Grant

In March 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed lead all Union armies. Understanding that Grant would come east and citing the importance of winning the war, Meade offered to resign from his army command if the new commander preferred to appoint someone different. Impressed by Meade's gesture, Grant refused the offer. Though Meade retained command of the Army of the Potomac, Grant made his headquarters with the army for the remainder of the war. This proximity led to a somewhat awkward relationship and command structure.

Overland Campaign

That May, the Army of the Potomac embarked on the Overland Campaign with Grant issuing orders to Meade who in turn issued them to the army. Meade largely performed well as the fighting progressed through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, but chaffed at Grant's interference in the army's matters. He also took issue with Grant's perceived preference for officers who had served with him in the west as well as his willingness to absorb heavy casualties. Conversely, some within Grant's camp felt that Meade was too slow and cautious. As the fighting reached Cold Harbor and Petersburg, Meade's performance began to slip as he did not direct his men to scout properly prior to the former battle and failed to coordinate his corps properly in the opening stages of the latter.

During the siege of Petersburg, Meade again erred altering the attack plan for the Battle of the Crater for political reasons. Remaining in command throughout the siege, he fell ill on the eve of the final breakthrough in April 1865. Unwilling to miss the army's final battles, he led the Army of the Potomac from an army ambulance during the Appomattox Campaign. Though he made his headquarters near Grant's, he did not accompany him to the surrender talks on April 9.

Later Life

With the end of the war, Meade remained in the service and moved through various department commands on the East Coast. In 1868, he took over the Third Military District in Atlanta and oversaw Reconstruction efforts in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Four years later, he was struck by a sharp pain in his side while in Philadelphia. An aggravation of the wound sustained at Glendale, he declined rapidly and contracted pneumonia. After a brief fight, he succumbed on November 7, 1872, and was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George G. Meade." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General George G. Meade. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George G. Meade." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).