American Civil War: Meade’s Position and the Battle of Virginia

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The year 1863 brought major success to the North, including wins in Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Tullahoma campaign. There were also some relatively quiescent fronts along the Mississippi River and in Virginia. Let’s examine the situation in Virginia.

General Meade with other generals and staff officers at Brandy station.
In the battle of Virginia, the Federals were not able to plan any kind of decisive action. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

Union Failure to Follow-up on Victories

It looked like the tide had decisively swung against the South. It seemed that what Abraham Lincoln and his planner needed to do was to think of some kind of strategy so that they could build on the success they had achieved in the North and then possibly the war could be brought to an end within a few months. However, eventually, it didn’t happen that way.

In the battle of Virginia, the Federals were not able to plan any kind of decisive action, they were actually unable to arrive at a decision on a quick target out in the far Western Theater. The battle in Tennessee/North Georgia—the only battle that took place in the Middle Theater—became a very big disappointment for the North.

Learn more about the crisis at Fort Sumter.

Lincoln’s Disappointment in Meade

In the wake of Gettysburg, when Lincoln and Henry W. Halleck looked at the map during the battle of Virginia, Lincoln became more and more disillusioned with George Gordon Meade. Lincoln had hoped that the success of the Union Army in Gettysburg would be followed-up rapidly.

Lincoln had hoped that somehow Meade would force Robert Lee to come to a showdown battle, and probably it should have happened before Lee was able to get back across the Potomac River.

A portrait of George Meade.
Despite his earlier heroics, General George G. Meade could not do much in the battle of Virginia. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

Meade’s Reasoning

Meade’s reasoning was that Lee had strong defensive positions near the river. Perhaps it was a good move on Meade’s part because he had a fear that it was like fighting Gettysburg in reverse.

The Confederates were in strong defensive positions, and if the Federals tried to carry those positions, they would be slaughtered. But even then, it would have been wise on the part of Meade to have attempted to and applied some kind of pressure on Lee.

After Gettysburg, the river was rising, and for sometime Lee was effectively trapped in the north of Potomac River. It looked that there was a great opportunity for Meade to attack Lee. However, in the end, Meade did not attack Lee, who was able to dig along the river that enabled the Confederates to escape. 

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Everything Quiet in the Eastern Theater

Portrait of Robert Lee.
After Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army dug along the Potomac River and escaped to Virginia. (Image: Julian Vannerson/Public domain)

The crippled army of Lee had somehow managed to limp back to Virginia. And what ultimately happened was that in the Eastern Theater, there was a period when the armies settled into keeping a cautious watch over each other along that military frontier.

Lincoln had probably given up the hope that he would get any dramatic results in the battle of Virginia. At this juncture, Lincoln’s confidence in Meade was going down fast. Therefore, he decided to not ask much about Meade during the battle of Virginia.

Lincoln Loses Interest in Virginia

Lincoln asked Meade to just keep a watch on Lee and not to push for any kind of dramatic showdown with the army of Northern Virginia. He advised Meade that he should make sure that Lee did not make any operation that would affect the chances of Federals elsewhere. Lincoln’s thinking was that if Meade could not attack Lee when right after Gettysburg the army of Northern Virginia was in a precarious position, there was a much lesser chance that Meade would be able to achieve anything substantial now that Lee had got in a strong position in Virginia.

Perhaps that might have been an overreaction on Lincon’s part in response to Meade’s earlier failures but what it implied was that the Union planning for the battle of Virginia became secondary to the Union planning in the west. There was no expectation on Lincon’s part that the war would be won or it would even go much far in the east.

Learn more about the attitudes of England and France toward the conflict.

The Confederate Plan

Meade did finally show interest in taking the attack to Lee. However, Lincoln did not agree to his plan. He told him to keep up a threatening attitude but to not move forward.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, the Confederate planners made a decision to detach two divisions from the army of Northern Virginia: Those under Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood. They decided to reinforce the army of Braxton Bragg in Northern Georgia by shifting these divisions westward.

This planning was perhaps an an indication that the battle of Virginia had gone down to a level where it was thought of being less important than what was going on in the west. Both sides had the same thinking, and ultimately not much happened in the battle of Virginia.

Common Questions about the Battle of Virginia

Q: What was Abraham Lincoln’s attitude toward George Meade after Gettysburg?

Abraham Lincoln was disappointed in George Meade after Gettysburg. Lincoln wanted him to attack Robert Lee, who was then able to escape to Virginia.

Q: What was Abraham Lincoln’s plan for George Meade for Virginia?

Abraham Lincoln asked George Meade to just keep a watch and not push for any kind of dramatic showdown with the army of Northern Virginia.

Q: What was the Confederate plan for the army of Northern Virginia?

The Confederate planners decided to detach two divisions from the army of Northern Virginia to reinforce the army of Braxton Bragg in Northern Georgia.

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