- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

“What does it profit an army to win the battle but lose the campaign?” This sentiment may well have been on President Lincoln’s mind after learning that Gen. Robert E. Lee and his battered Army of Northern Virginia had escaped across the Potomac River in mid-July 1863. The despondent president took pen in hand and vented his disappointment to his Army commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade.

The three-day battle at Gettysburg had ended in an unanticipated defeat for the Confederates and a hard-earned and much-needed victory for the North. As a result, Lincoln had high expectations that the Army of the Potomac would put an end to Lee’s Confederates as a fighting force.

As commander in chief, Lincoln did not hesitate in making his desires perfectly clear. Learning of the dual Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the president sent a note to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, general in chief of the Army, “Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.” Halleck, in turn, forwarded these “orders” to Meade.

The victorious Union commander was slow to respond to the challenge. Having assumed command just a few days before the battle at Gettysburg, Meade preferred rest and recuperation for himself and his Army. His senior officers concurred. In the meantime, the Rebel army was retreating with great haste southwestward toward the Potomac River and the safety of Virginia.

When Lincoln learned that Meade’s congratulatory message to his troops included the phrase “to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the enemy,” he pointedly instructed Halleck that the primary objective was not to drive the enemy away, but “to prevent his crossing [the river] and to destroy him.”

A miscommunication occurred as Halleck translated Lincoln’s uncompromising language into subdued and ambiguous instructions for Meade. “You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow it up, and give him another before he can reach the Potomac. When he crosses, circumstances will determine whether it will be best to pursue him by the Shenandoah Valley or this side of the Blue Ridge.” Lincoln’s “prevent his crossing” had become “when he crosses.”

Except for heavy rains and a swollen Potomac, Lee would have escaped readily. Because the river was not fordable, the Union Army gained an opportunity to confront the Confederates once again. Meade and his commanders, however, believing the Rebel army and its defensive positions were too strong, hesitated long enough for the waters to fall and Lee to reach safety on the other side.

When this devastating news reached the White House, Lincoln was inconsolable. His letter to Meade reflected his mood: “My dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. … Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

Lincoln never signed or sent this letter. Instead, he calmed down in a few days and came to the conclusion that his expectations may have been unrealistic under the circumstances and conditions that Meade confronted.

Nonetheless, Lincoln’s criticisms reached Meade’s ears. Halleck soothed the ruffled general with a complimentary message: “Your fight at Gettysburg met with universal approbation of all military men here … you merit, as you will receive, the confidence of the Government and the gratitude of the country.”

Upon his arrival back in Virginia, the fatigued and defeated Lee tendered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis, suggesting perhaps a younger man would be better suited to lead the army. The Confederate president chose to interpret Lee’s invasion as a victory because several of the main objectives had been achieved. In an affectionate response to Lee, Davis advised him, “To ask of me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command, or would possess more the confidence of the army … is to demand an impossibility.”

Lee had lost the battle but salvaged the campaign. Meade, on the other hand, triumphed at Gettysburg yet could not marshal the wherewithal to capitalize on his victory. Consequently, the war dragged on while Lincoln searched for a general capable of bringing it to a conclusion.

Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is past president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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