Author Interview--John G. Selby (Meade) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature John G. Selby to talk about his book, Meade: The Price of Command, 1863-1865, published by Kent State University Press in October 2018.

John G. Selby is professor of history at Roanoke College and the former holder of the John R. Turbyfill Chair in History. He received his Ph.D. from Duke University. Selby has previously published Virginians at War: The Civil War Experiences of Seven Young Confederates and co-edited Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans.

John, to start, how did you become interested in writing a biographical account of George Gordon Meade that focused on his time as commander of the Army of the Potomac?

JGS: It began with a questioning of much of the literature I had read over the years on fighting in the East.  A central premise seemed to be that the commanders of the Army of the Potomac could never have defeated Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia without the firm and relentless leadership of Ulysses S. Grant.  I felt that did a disservice to the foot soldiers and the officers of the Army of the Potomac.  As I dug deeper, I found that the themes of the criticism of the leadership of the Army of the Potomac remained fairly constant from McClellan to Meade.  But didn’t Meade win the Battle of Gettysburg?  Push Lee’s army back from northern Virginia to Richmond-Petersburg?  And defeat Lee’s army in 1865?

Given that Meade was the longest serving commander of the Army of the Potomac, and had a record of success, he seemed to be the ideal lenses through which I could call into question some of the long-standing views and criticisms of command leadership in the Army of the Potomac. 

What do you argue in your book?

JGS: Meade needs to be given his due as one of the top three Union commanders of the war.  Not only did he perform well as a division and corps commander, but as the longest-serving commander of the largest army of the war, he won the largest battle of the war, and through two years of horrendous fighting finally forced the Army of Northern Virginia to surrender in 1865.  Furthermore, my ranking of Meade is not novel or an academic exercise in the 21st century; it was Grant himself who recommended Sherman and Meade for the rank of major general in the regular army in 1864 because they were the “fittest officers for large commands.”  Though Grant never pursued this recommendation with the vigor he gave to Sherman’s promotion, he never wavered from it either.  

Before we get into the book, one aspect that caught my eye was sources. You did a critical rereading of available source material, how did you approach compilations like the O.R. and archival material? Also, it seems there were days with dozens of messages, how do you make sense of a battle day with so much correspondence?

JGS: Not only days with dozens of messages, but one must make very detailed timelines of when messages were sent, and to whom, to understand why a decision say at 1:00 pm might be based on information received that morning, but already rendered problematic by another message sent by a general at 12:45 pm that had yet to reach headquarters.  That said, I strongly argue that historians must carefully read and time the messages to get a minute sense of the ebb and flow of the battle and the decision making. Also, I would be the first to say that I wish we had some way of knowing all that was said, as opposed to what was strictly written down.  We must rely on the letters, diaries, and memoirs of individuals for those bits of information, which by their very nature are fragmentary and shaped to convey a certain narrative. For example, how often did Meade and his chief of staff at Gettysburg, Daniel Butterfield, discuss information that was flowing in from all directions on the days of the battle?  Critical information was noted and sent out, but the decisions affecting that information, which sometimes might have been in shorthand conversations, was not recorded.  So, as the old saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Still, you have to work with the information that is available.  Not only were the rich records of the OR (and other collections) indispensable to my research, but the signal fact that Mrs. Margaretta (“Margaret”) Meade saved all (or at least we think all) of her husband’s wartime letters, is a godsend to historians.  Meade wrote to his wife nearly every day in the war, and if a historian can read the unedited letters found in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, an unvarnished view of a complicated man emerges. What we do not have are her daily letters to him, which would have opened up brand new insights into their lives.  Just by reading Meade’s responses to his wife’s questions you can tell that she is a shrewd observer of people and politics. 

Meade is a very different commander from his predecessors at the Army of the Potomac, what do you see as his most important characteristics that allowed him to stay in command longer than anybody else commanding the Army of the Potomac?

JSG: Meade was a team player.  He got along with most of his fellow generals in the Army of the Potomac, and his competency and executive abilities were noted by his superiors and peers.  Furthermore, though he enjoyed hearing Army gossip as much as the next officer, he was not constantly politicking, nor publicly proclaiming his views on the war.  Some of his predecessors did both. In fact, one of his pluses, according to Lincoln and Stanton, was that he was largely apolitical (which I argue was simultaneously one of his great weaknesses). As commander of the Army of the Potomac he got dragged into politics several times, but when that happened, he was quickly admonished by Halleck, and then he retreated back to his apolitical shell. 

Meade was an Army man, through and through.  By that I mean he believed in the chain of command, and acted within it.  He never challenged his superiors in a public manner, nor did he work political channels behinds their back.  He also gave great loyalty to the generals who served under him, especially those he had promoted.  His executive skills were widely acknowledged, and no one would ever accuse him of lack of preparation and planning.  By and large he was not a risk taker, which pleased some, and disappointed others.

He also had considerable “people skills” and a good sense of survival.  Who else would have been able to swallow his ego enough to work side-by-side with his boss for 13 months during some of the most horrific months of the war, never losing command of his army though many in Grant’s circle wanted him gone?  Even though he was unhappy during most of those months, feeling stifled and unappreciated, he knew that the alternative—exile to a non-command in his home state—would be an even worse fate.  So he kept his mouth shut (except in letters to his wife and friends), and did his job.  

Your answer sort of leads to another question. You say he was a people person and team player, but sometimes that did not work in his favor and all I am going to say to get you going is: G. K. Warren.

JGS: Thanks for this question, I think.  I so wish I could go back in time and have a series of interviews with Meade to see why he propped up Warren for so long.  My theory is he saw in Warren a protégé.  Warren had been a first-rate topographical engineer in the old Army, then advanced quickly through the ranks in the early years of the war.  His keen eye for terrain and fast response helped saved Meade’s army at Gettysburg, and for his vital role, Meade promoted him to corps commander. Warren was energetic, tireless, and bursting with self-confidence.  He could deliver the detail that Meade sought in a telegraphic style, which a busy commander would appreciate.  He always had five plans to everyone else’s three plans, and thus it was no surprise that when he found a softness in Lee’s hastily-built defenses at Mine Run he asked for half of Meade’s army—and got it.  But when he made the decision not to attack, (on his own), he shook Meade to his core.  So much so that for one of only two times in his two years as commander Meade blamed Warren (and others) for the failure to attack at Mine Run in his official report.  Still, he cooled off in the winter months, kept Warren on as corps commander, and when Warren refused to attack at Spotsylvania Court House and at Petersburg, Meade wrote out in detail his charges against Warren—but never filed them.  He noted in the unsent letter that he had tried to “reform” Warren, but failed.  Moreover, he let him keep his command (though he had Grant’s permission to relieve him).  Warren retained the command of the 5th Corps until the final days of the war, when a Western general, Philip H. Sheridan, no stranger to controversy and ego, fired Warren on the spot at the end of the Battle of Five Forks.  Meade could do nothing for Warren at that moment except protest, because Grant had told Sheridan to fire Warren if he felt another general would do a better job.  Meade even tried to have Warren re-instated to his old command after the surrender of Lee’s army, but Grant ordered Warren to head west to command the Department of Mississippi.

So why had Meade stood loyally by Warren through all of his failures, including his verbal confrontation with Meade in June 1864?  Besides his early fondness for Warren, his hopes of reforming Warren, and his respect for Warren’s talents, the answer seems to lie in what I argue is Meade’s greatest fault as a commander:  his reluctance to dismiss troublesome subordinates.