Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mr. Lighthouse takes command

On June 27, 1863, George Gordon Meade went to bed as the leader of the 11,000-man 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On June 28 he awoke to the surprise that his new command comprised 94,000 men. He had been promoted to lead the entire army.

Not only that, but it was an army on the move, headed north to counter Robert E. Lee’s march into Pennsylvania. Meade had been in charge for all of three days when the two armies found each other in Gettysburg.

Carol Reardon, author and professor
At the recent Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Carol Reardon, a Penn State history professor, gave a superb talk on what Meade inherited when he took over. Reardon is the author of several books, including the excellent Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. To the lectern she brings an authoritative voice and a tart sense of humor.

She introduced Meade as Mr. Lighthouse: “You need a lighthouse, he’s your guy.” Indeed, as an army engineer during the 1840s and ’50s, Meade had designed many lighthouses in Florida and New Jersey. A Philadelphian, he was 47 years old when he took command of the Army of the Potomac. He had fought in several battles and been wounded during the Seven Days.

Meade took over an army on the move.
A messenger from Washington informed him of his promotion at 3 a.m.. At first he thought the messenger might be there to arrest him, Reardon said, and “maybe he would have preferred it. . . . Being commander of the Army of the Potomac had not been a next step to anything.” During the first two years of the war, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker had already failed at it.

Reardon described the terms of Meade appointment. All forces were subject to his control, and he would not be interfered with. He could relieve and appoint commanders at will, forming a team he knew and trusted. His No. 1 responsibility of the moment was to protect Washington, Baltimore and other eastern cities from the invading Confederate army.

The heart of Reardon’s talk was an evaluation of the leaders Meade inherited from Hooker. Events would soon make this a critical matter. Whether Meade knew and trusted these men or not, they would hold key jobs at Gettysburg.

Here is how Reardon sized some of them up:

Chief of staff: The man who held this job had to translate ideas into action. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, an officer familiar to Meade from the 5th Corps, held it. Meade believed Butterfield had served Hooker poorly and had no confidence in him.

Chief of engineers: Another 5th Corps brigadier, Gouverneur K. Warren, had just the skills for this position. Meade trusted him and used him as a second set of eyes at Gettysburg. It was Warren who ordered and arranged for the defense of Little Round Top on the battle’s second day.

Henry. J. Hunt
Chief of artillery: Under Hooker, Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt had been what Reardon characterized as “an administrative weenie,” counting cannons but lacking any operational duties. On July 1, Meade gave Hunt a free hand. This was a wise decision: Hunt’s artillery performed admirably at Gettysburg on both July 2 and July 3.

Assistant adjutant general: The task of drafting orders, letters and reports fell to Brig. Gen. Seth Williams. “My original idea was to have a blank there,” Reardon said when a slide of Williams appeared on the screen during her talk. He was “a paperwork mole . . . invisible, but that’s good.”

Rufus Ingalls
Provost marshal: Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick took care of security and order. He had been a Meade classmate at West Point. Reardon called him “one of the scariest men in the Union army” – humorless but effective. At Gettysburg he handled the flood of Confederate prisoners.

Chief quartermaster: Brig. Gen. Rufus Ingalls was in charge of supplies and ammunition. For good reason he held the job from McClellan through Ulysses S. Grant. Ingalls, knowing that the roads of Maryland were macadamized and thus hard on shoes, managed to get 10,000 pairs of socks and shoes delivered to soldiers on their march north. Ingalls,Reardon said, "was one of the unsung heroes of Gettysburg.”

Meade faced challenges with some corps commanders, not least those senior to him, but the army he inherited worked. It was an army on the move, and the first proof that it worked was that the change of command did not slow it down.

The second and ultimate proof came a few days later at Gettysburg.

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