On July 14, 1863,
after the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River to safety, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck telegraphed Major General
George G. Meade with a comment that would lead to Meade angrily tendering his resignation. General Halleck would say in part, "The
enemy should be pursued and cut up...I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created
great dissatisfaction in the mind of the president." Within hours, Meade responded, "Having performed my duty conscientiously
and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so
undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army." His
resignation was refused.
However, Lincoln remained upset
at what he saw as a tremendous opportunity lost to end this already long and bloody war. Taking pen to paper, Lincoln would begin to
write his thoughts to the victor at Gettysburg who now saw Lee's Army from the opposite side of the Potomac River.
Washington, July 14, 1863.
Major General Meade
I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine-- I am
very -- very -- grateful to you for the magnificient success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be
the author of the slightest pain to you-- But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it-- I
had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that your self, and Gen. Couch, and
Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What
these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is
this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours-- He retreated;
and you did not; as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were
again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting
distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit;
and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And
Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg;
but he did not arrive-- More at the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from
Carlisle, which is not an inch over fifty-five miles, if so much. And Couch's movement was very little different--
Again, 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 the our other late successes, have ended the war-- As it is, the war
will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when
you can take with you very few more then two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do
not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it--
I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself-- As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have
thought it best to kindly tell you why."
The letter was never sent. Stuffed in an envelope, the cover read, "To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed."
Of his actions after the battle while Lee entrenched with his back to the Potomac River, Meade would write, "Had I attacked Lee
the day I proposed to do so, and in the ignorance that then existed of his position, I have every reason to believe the attack would
have been unsuccessful and would have resulted disastrously. This opinion is founded on the judgment of numerous distinguished
officers after inspecting Lee’s vacated works and position"
After hearing of
Lincoln's displeasure with his immediate superior, Major General Oliver Otis Howard wrote to the President in defense of Meade. The
President responded with a letter very much like that which he opted not to send his wounded Commanding General.
"Washington, July 21, 1863.
My dear General Howard
Your letter of the 18th is received-- I was deeply mortified by the escape of Lee across the Potomac, because the substantial
destruction of his army would have ended the war, and because I believed, such destruction was perfectly easy -- believed that Gen.
Meade and his noble army had expended all the skill, and toil, and blood, up to the ripe harvest, and then let the crop go to waste--
Perhaps my mortification was partly heightened because I had always believed -- making my belief a hobby possibly -- that the main
rebel army going North of the Potomac, could never return, if well attended to; and because I was so greatly flattered in this belief,
by the operations at Gettysburg-- A few days having passed, I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what
was not done-- Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.
Yours very truly
George Gordon Meade was not the only commanding
General to find the time after Gettysburg trying. Confederate General Robert E. Lee would also offer to resign his post as the head
of his army. Despondent after the tremendous loss of life, the army's repulse at Gettysburg, and the expanding criticism from the
Confederate press, General Lee would write to his President.
August 8, 1863.
Your letters of July 28th and August 2d have been received, and I have waited for a leisure hour to reply, but I fear that will never
come. I am extremely obliged to you for the attention given to the wants of this army, and the efforts made to supply them. Our
absentees are returning, and I hope the earnest and beautiful appeal made to the country in your proclamation may stir up the whole
people, and that they may see their duty and perform it. Nothing is wanted but that their fortitude should equal their bravery, to
insure the success of our cause. We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth
greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true and united, to bear manfully
the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.
I know how prone we are to censure, and how ready to blame others for the non-fulfillment of our expectations. This is unbecoming in
a generous people, and I grieve to see its expression. The general remedy for the want of success in a military commander is his
removal. This is natural, and in many instances proper. For, no matter what may be the ability of the officer, if he loses the
confidence of his troops, disaster must sooner or later ensue.
I have been prompted by these reflections more than once, since my return from Pennsylvania, to propose to your Excellency the
propriety of selecting another commander for this army. I have seen and heard of expressions of discontent in the public journals at
the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this feeling extends in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report
it, and so far the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. It is fair, however, to suppose that it does exist, and success is so
necessary to us that nothing should be risked to secure it. I therefore, in all sincerity, request your Excellency to take measures to
supply my place. I do this with the more earnestness because no one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my
position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others? In addition, I sensibly feel
the growing failure of my bodily strength. I have not yet recovered from the attack I experienced the past spring. I am becoming more
and more incapable of exertion, and am thus prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the personal supervision to the
operations in the field which I feel to be necessary. I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled.
Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander, and I the more anxiously urge the matter upon your
Excellency, from my belief that a younger and abler man than myself can readily be obtained. I know that he will have as gallant and
brave an army as ever existed to second his efforts, and it would be the happiest day of my life to see at its head a worthy leader;
one that would accomplish more than I could perform, and all that I have wished. I hope your Excellency will attribute my request to
the true reason, the desire to serve my country, and to do all in my power to insure the success of her righteous cause.
I have no complaints to make of anyone but myself. I have received nothing but kindness from those above me, and the most considerate
attention from my comrades and companions in arms. To your Excellency I am specially indebted for uniform kindness and consideration.
You have done everything in your power to aid me in the work committed to my charge, without omitting anything to promote the general
welfare. I pray that your efforts may at length be crowned with success, and that you may long live to enjoy the thanks of a grateful
With sentiments of great esteem, I am very respectfully and truly yours,
R. E. Lee,
Davis would of course also not accept the resignation of his valued friend. With great respect, he would offer in return,
GENERAL R. E. LEE,
Commanding Army of Northern Virginia.
GENERAL : Yours of the 8th instant has been received. I am glad that you concur so entirely with me as to the wants of our country in
this trying hour, and am happy to add that, after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have
appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.
It well became Sidney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit, and yet
there is nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce
everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their
own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions, that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his
position changed, whatever may be his ability; but when I read the sentence, I was not at all prepared for the application you were
about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of an army. I wish it
were otherwise, even though all the abuse of myself should be accepted as the results of honest observation.
Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations and
seek to exalt you for what you have not done, rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject
of history, and object of the world's admiration for generations to come.
I am truly sorry to know that you still feel the effects of the illness you suffered last spring, and can readily understand the
embarrassments you experience in using the eyes of others, having been so much accustomed to make your own reconnoissances. Practice
will, however, do much to relieve that embarrassment, and the minute knowledge of the country which you have acquired will render you
less dependent for topographical information.
But suppose, my dear friend, that I were to admit, with all their implications, the points which you present, where am I to find that
new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required? I do not doubt the readiness with which you would
give way to one who could accomplish all that you have wished, and you will do me the justice to believe that, if Providence should
kindly offer such a person for our use, I would not hesitate to avail of his services.
My sight is not sufficiently penetrating to discover such hidden merit, if it exists, and I have but used to you the language of sober
earnestness, when I have impressed upon you the propriety of avoiding all unnecessary exposure to danger, because I felt your country
could not bear to lose you. To ask me to substitute you by someone in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of
the confidence of the army, or of reflecting men in the country, is to demand an impossibility.
It only remains for me to hope that you will take all possible care of yourself, that your health and strength may be entirely
restored, and that the Lord will preserve you for the important duties devolved upon you in the struggle of our suffering country for
the independence of which we have engaged in war to maintain.
As ever, very respectfully and truly,