Murray on Brown, 'Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command'

Kent Masterson Brown
Jennifer Murray

Kent Masterson Brown. Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command. Civil War America Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 488 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6199-5

Reviewed by Jennifer Murray (Oklahoma State University) Published on H-CivWar (November, 2021) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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Scholars have devoted more attention to the Gettysburg Campaign than any other battle in American history. Approximately eighteen thousand full-length monographs have been written on the Battle of Gettysburg, evaluating, dissecting, or reevaluating the three-day (July 1-3, 1863) battle between Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Although it would be tempting to argue that scholars have seemingly explored every facet, sometimes in excruciating detail, of Gettysburg, crucial gaps in the battle’s narrative and historiography remain. In Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command, Kent Masterson Brown offers the first comprehensive study of General Meade’s leadership during the Gettysburg Campaign, June 28-July 14, 1863, and rightfully inserts Meade’s role in Union victory.

Indeed, history has not been kind to Meade. Although he commanded the Army of the Potomac longer than any other general and led the army to its first victory at Gettysburg, Meade came to be overshadowed by his contemporaries, namely, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, and has been too often neglected by Civil War historians. In 1960, Freeman Cleaves produced the first modern full-length biography of Meade, titled Meade of Gettysburg. Since then, a few additional Meade works have been published, including Ethan Rafuse’s George Gordon Meade and the War in the East (2003), Tom Huntington’s Searching For George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg (2013), and John Selby’s Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865 (2018), which explores the general’s tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac. As the title suggests, Brown’s book is not a comprehensive treatment of Meade’s Civil War career but a study of his leadership during the Gettysburg Campaign, the general’s signature victory.

Brown devotes ten of his nineteen chapters to the campaign and opening day of the battle. In these chapters, he addresses some of the most popular canards of Meade’s generalship, including the controversial Pipe Creek Circular and the purpose of Major General John F. Reynolds’s advance on the morning of July 1. Reynolds, Brown asserts, was to “advance on Gettysburg” but was not ordered to occupy the town (p. 97). Instead, Meade envisioned Reynolds, then in command of the army’s left wing, which constituted three infantry corps, to lure Lee’s forces back to Emmitsburg, Maryland, approximately ten miles south of Gettysburg. There, Meade could establish a defensive position along the Pipe Creek line and fight Lee on the ground of his choosing.

Brown’s Meade was a thoughtful disciple of nineteenth-century military theorists, particularly Carl von Clausewitz and West Point’s Dennis Hart Mahan. This is most apparent in Brown’s interpretation of Meade’s command on June 30 and July 1. Reynolds’s purpose on July 1 was a reconnaissance-in-force. “Meade’s operational plan for the left wing of the army was straight out of Clausewitz’s treatise and from the tutelage of Meade’s and Reynolds’s professor Dennis Hart Mahan; it was the classic operational use of an advance corps” (p. 105). Considering that military historians have questioned, if not downplayed, the influence of Clausewitz or France’s Antoine-Henri Jomini’s philosophies on the Civil War, some readers might find these efforts to contextualize Meade’s operational planning less convincing. Ultimately, because of Reynolds’s “impulsive judgment,” Meade’s intentions to use an advance corps to lure Lee into a more favorable position to offer battle failed and left two of the army’s corps (the First and Eleventh) shattered (p. 149).

Readers interested in the famous Meade-Sickles controversy will find a sympathetic interpretation of Meade’s role in the events on the afternoon of July 2. Major General Daniel “Sickles had been given plenty of explicit orders,” Brown concludes, “but in a startling exhibition of insubordination, he refused to obey them.” Indeed, Sickles had received multiple orders to post his Third Corps along Cemetery Ridge, with his left flank to anchor near Little Round Top, but finding this position untenable, he moved his corps forward. Brown exonerated Meade for not more closely monitoring his subaltern, even when Meade knew that Sickles was confused (or willingly defiant) over the placement of his corps. “Likely, not even Meade’s personal inspection of the positions of the Third Corps, before it moved forward, would have mattered,” Brown speculates (p. 220).

In defeating Lee’s army at Gettysburg, Meade had accomplished what no previous commander of the Army of the Potomac had been able to. But Meade’s inability to destroy Lee’s forces during the pursuit to the Potomac cast a lingering shadow on the Union victory. The final four chapters of Meade at Gettysburg addresses the general’s leadership from July 4 through July 14. Brown has established himself as a leading authority on logistics during the campaign with the publication of Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign (2005). Drawing on exhaustive primary research, including the little-used Quartermaster Files in the National Archives, Brown highlights the multitude of logistical problems that plagued the Army of the Potomac in the wake of their victory. In granular detail, Brown chronicles the shortages of food and various supplies, perhaps most importantly shoes, as well as the desperate condition of thousands of horses and mules that beset the army. And although he had caught up with Lee’s army around Williamsport, Maryland, contrary to President Abraham Lincoln’s assertion, Meade “had no ‘golden opportunity’” to destroy his adversary (p. 369).

Brown has done much to rehabilitate Meade’s reputation. Whereas Allen Guelzo claimed that the Army of the Potomac won at Gettysburg despite Meade’s incompetent leadership, Brown establishes Meade as an effective operational and tactical commander, playing a central role in the army’s victory. While many students of the Battle of Gettysburg will enthusiastically echo Brown’s conclusions, at times his depiction of Meade reads as an attorney’s defense of his client. Brown’s Meade emerges as a near-flawless commander who committed no blunders or errors in his inaugural campaign as the army’s commander. Surely Meade stumbled at times (arguably in his handling of Sickles on July 2) and more objectivity would offer nuance to Meade’s command. Notwithstanding, Meade at Gettysburg is beautifully written and exhaustively researched and offers a much-needed assessment of Meade’s leadership of the Army of the Potomac during the Gettysburg Campaign.

Citation: Jennifer Murray. Review of Brown, Kent Masterson, Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL:

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