Born of American parents in Cadiz, Spain, December 31, 1815 while his father served there as American consul and merchant, Meade returned to his ancestral home in Philadelphia with his family at an early age and was raised and educated in the “City of Brotherly Love.”
Meade entered the US Military Academy at West Point graduating in the class of 1835, demonstrating high aptitude for academic pursuits, especially in science and mathematics. He was assigned to the 3rd US Artillery then serving in Florida fighting the Seminole Indians.
After a year of service, Meade resigned to pursue a career in civil engineering and service with the U.S. Coastal Survey. He became a noted expert in lighthouse construction and boundary and coastal surveys.
In 1842 he re‑applied for, and was awarded a commission in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and continued his distinguished career in the Coastal Survey, interrupted only by the Mexican War.
Meade was assigned to the staff of Gen. Zachary Taylor, where he was the only topographical engineer, and saw service in a number of battles. He was promoted for gallantry at the Battle of Monterey. Later, assigned to Gen. Winfield Scott’s command, he took part in the siege of Vera Cruz.
He was relieved in 1847 and returned to Philadelphia to resume his engineering duties. He was honored for his service in the Mexican War with the presentation of a bejeweled sword by the city.
With his assignment as superintendent of the Geodetic Survey of the Great Lakes and promotion to Captain in 1856, Meade seemed to have reached a high point of his long and distinguished career. But greater feats awaited this remarkable, though humble man.
At the outbreak of the Rebellion, Meade was promoted Brigadier General of Volunteers and assigned to command of the 2nd Brigade of the “Pennsylvania Reserves”, an entire division of Pennsylvania volunteers destined for hard fighting in many eastern battles, and a glorious record of bravery and devotion to duty.
Gen. Meade saw his first major action in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 where he gave exemplary service at Mechanicsville and Gaines’ Mill and was severely wounded (almost mortally) at Glendale. He recovered quickly from his wound and in a brief time returned to the army in time to lead his men with distinction at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run.
Quickly afterwards followed the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam, where Meade successfully commanded the division of Pennsylvania Reserves and the 1st Corps replacing Gen. Hooker on the field when Hooker was wounded.
In December, 1862 at Fredericksburg, Meade led his Pennsylvania Reserves into the teeth of Rebel resistance and remarkably was able to make a breakthrough, though unsupported, resulting in a forced retreat, but after having broken the enemy lines, achieving the only success the Union Army would enjoy that bitter day. As a reward for his gallantry, and superb leadership, Meade was promoted to command the 5th Corps.
Meade’s Corps was chosen by the army commander, Hooker to lead his assault at Chancellorsville in May, 1863. Despite a demoralizing loss there, Meade was outstanding in his efforts to defeat the enemy.
After Chancellorsville, Lee and his Confederate army invaded Pennsylvania. The Union Army of the Potomac followed several days behind. On June 27, 1863, Gen. Hooker resigned his command, and much to his surprise and against his wishes, Gen. Meade was promoted to command of the army on the very eve of the most critical battle of the war, and indeed of American history.
Under Meade’s inspirational leadership, the Army of the Potomac defeated Lee in three of the bloodiest days of the war and turned aside any Southern dreams of independence, thus saving the Union from division.
After Gettysburg, Meade continued in command of the army even to the end of the war. He was superseded in command in the spring of 1864, when the new General‑In‑Chief, Grant chose to place his headquarters with Meade’s army in the field.
Though still in tactical control, Meade was never‑the‑ less relegated to a secondary position, while still performing the role of commander of the premier Army of the Potomac.
Meade was present at Appomattox, and was largely responsible for cornering Lee there, but was not invited to the surrender ceremony.
After the Grand Review in Washington, May 23- 24, 1865, Meade oversaw the disbanding of his army, and was then assigned to command of the Department of the Atlantic headquartered in Philadelphia, where at his own request he could remain with his family in his native city, while overseeing all military affairs.
Meade was called upon several times in the post‑war period to quell disturbances and soothe the transition to peace in Canada and in the Deep South, for example. He also was quite active in Civic Affairs in Philadelphia overseeing Fairmount Park as one of its first Commissioners, founding and presidency of a noted school, the Lincoln Institution for the orphans of his veterans, charity work and service to veterans, their widows and orphans. Meade was an admired and esteemed citizen of his native city, occupying a high place in the social circles of Philadelphia.
For distinguished service in the Civil War, Meade was promoted to Major General in the regular army ranked third in seniority, received a gold medal from Congress and a Doctor of Law’s degree from Harvard. He was also active in the Military Order of the Loyal Legion serving as its 2nd commander, and many other awards were conferred upon him.
George G. Meade, scientist, inventor, scholar, warrior, diplomat, gentleman of highest virtue, a true patriot and hero of his country died of pneumonia brought on by the lingering effects of that wound on November 6, 1872, and passed to his reward. He was still serving on active duty with the Army.
He was laid to rest with much fanfare in Laurel Hill Cemetery in his beloved Philadelphia among his family. In attendance were the President (Ulysses S. Grant), his cabinet, numerous dignitaries from civil and military spheres as well as the ordinary citizens who loved and admired him, as well as the veterans, his old comrades who valued him most.
His grave is marked by a small, unobtrusive stone of simple white marble inscribed with the essence of this remarkable, though humble man:
“He did his work well, and is at rest”
Anthony Waskie, Ph.D.
Andy Waskie is a Professor at Temple University and re-enacts as General George Gordon Meade. He and his wife live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.