George Gordon Meade was born on December 31, 1815, in Cadiz, Spain. Meade was the eighth of eleven children of Richard Worsam Meade and Margaret Coats Butler Meade. Meade’s father was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who was serving as an agent for the U.S. Navy at the time of Meade’s birth.
When Meade’s family returned from Spain, he attended Mt. Airy School in Philadelphia, until serious family financial problems forced him to withdraw. Meade subsequently attended various schools as his family moved several times.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Meade’s aspirations of attending a private school ended when his father died while Meade was a teenager, leaving the family challenged financially. Instead, Meade accepted an appointment in 1831 to the United States Military Academy. Although he did not relish military life, Meade performed well academically and graduated in 1835, nineteenth in his class of fifty-six cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduation, the army brevetted Meade as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery and sent him to Florida, where he took part in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). While in Florida, Meade contracted a prolonged fever, and the army transferred him to the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts to recover.
While convalescing, Meade resigned his commission on October 26, 1836, to pursue a civilian engineering career with a railroad company.
In 1840, Meade’s job duties brought him to Washington, DC, where he met Margaretta Sergeant, the daughter of U.S. Congressman John Sergeant. After a brief courtship, the couple married on December 31, 1840, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Return to Army Life
In 1842, Meade returned to the army as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He served in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterrey. After the Mexican-American War, Meade remained in the military working as an engineer on the East Coast, in Florida, and in the Great Lakes areas. On May 19, 1856, the army promoted Meade to captain.
Union Army Officer
When the American Civil War began, the War Department promoted Meade to brigadier general of volunteers and gave him command of the second brigade of Pennsylvania troops on August 31, 1861. For the next several months, Meade worked on constructing the defenses around Washington, DC.
Seriously Wounded During Peninsula Campaign
In March 1862, army officials attached Meade’s command to the Army of the Potomac, and they took part in Major General George B. McClellan‘s Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. During the Battle of Glendale (June 30, 1862), a musket ball struck Meade above his hip, nicked his liver, and just missed his spine as it passed through his body. Meade spent the next two months recovering in a Philadelphia hospital.
Northern Virginia Campaign
Meade returned to action on August 26, 1862, in time to lead a brigade of the Army of Virginia that performed admirably at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28-30, 1862) during the Northern Virginia Campaign.
During the Maryland Campaign, on September 12, 1862, army officials promoted Meade to a divisional command with the Army of the Potomac. His division performed well at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862) and at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). At Antietam, McClellan chose Meade to command the Union 1st Corps temporarily after Major General Joseph Hooker‘s injury. Meade proved equal to the task, but he too was injured during the battle.
Battle of Fredericksburg
Three months after Antietam, Meade’s division created a gap in Confederate General Stonewall Jackson‘s line at the otherwise disastrous Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862). For that accomplishment, the War Department promoted Meade to major general of volunteers, effective November 29, 1862, and placed him in command of the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Battle of Chancellorsville
At the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), commanding General Joseph Hooker left Meade’s corps in reserve throughout the engagement, contributing to another federal defeat.
Army of the Potomac Commander
Following the loss at Chancellorsville, Hooker resigned his command and President Abraham Lincoln placed Meade in charge of the Army of the Potomac on June 27, 1863.
Only six days later, Meade’s army defeated General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863) in what many believe was the turning point of the Civil War. Despite the victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln criticized Meade for not pursuing Lee’s army as it retreated to Virginia. Nevertheless, officials promoted Meade to brigadier general in the regular army and he received the Thanks of Congress on January 28, 1864.
On March 12, 1864, Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Meade remained in command of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant traveled with him, thus limiting Meade’s independence as a field commander.
Understandably, Meade chafed at Grant’s close supervision. In addition, Meade expressed private reservations about fighting a war of attrition, and the unprecedented casualty totals Grant was amassing. Still, he served Grant dutifully and performed effectively, throughout the rest of the war. In return, Grant recommended Meade’s promotion to major general in the regular army on August 18, 1864 – the rank he held at the war’s conclusion.
After the Civil War, Meade remained in the regular army. Living in Philadelphia, he commanded the Military Division of the Atlantic until August 1866, when he took command of the Department of the East. During that time, officials selected Meade as a commissioner of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, a position he held until his death. On January 10, 1868, Meade replaced Major General John Pope as governor of the Reconstruction Third Military District, comprising Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, with headquarters at Atlanta. In 1869, Meade returned to Philadelphia, where he lived for three more years.
Meade died from pneumonia at age fifty-seven, on November 6, 1872, in Philadelphia. Meade’s grave is in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.