Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 5, 2013

“Your golden opportunity is gone”: Lincoln and the Confederate Retreat from Gettysburg

Michael Burlingame has a post on whether Lincoln ordered an attack on the rebel army retreating from Gettysburg:

When news reached Washington that Lee was defeated and withdrawing from Gettysburg, Lincoln believed that General George G. Meade could deliver the coup de grâce to the Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped across the Potomac. According to presidential secretary John Hay, Lincoln “watched the progress of the Army with growing impatience, hopes struggling with fear,” as heavy rains delayed Lee’s progress.

In desperation, Lincoln apparently issued an order that has been the subject of some historiographical debate. In 1885, his son Robert recollected that the president “summoned Gen. [Herman] Haupt, in whom he had great Confidence as a bridge builder, and asked him how long in view of the materials which might be . . . available under Lee, would it take him to devise the means and get his army across the river.” According to Robert Lincoln, Haupt estimated that it would require at most twenty-four hours. The president “at once sent an order to Gen. Meade,” a document that has not survived but was probably carried north by Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, “directing him to attack Lee’s army with all his force immediately, and that if he was successful in the attack he might destroy the order but if he was unsuccessful he might preserve it for his vindication”…

In any event, Meade did not attack, and Lee’s army did retreat to Virginia. Lincoln was disappointed, and Meade’s failure to pursue the retreating rebels led Lincoln to write a letter to Meade (I quote from Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography [1952], pp. 388-89):

When Lincoln learned that Meade has congratulated his army on “driving the enemy from our soil,” he shook his head in discouragement. “This is a dreadful reminiscence of McClellan,” he complained; “it is the same spirit that moved him to claim a great victory because ‘Pennsylvania and Maryland were safe.’ Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.”

Halleck telegraphed Meade: “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.” Meade asked to be relieved of his command. Lincoln wrote him a long letter of explanation: he was grateful for Meade’s “magnificent success,” and sorry to cause him the slightest pain, but he was in such deep distress himself that he could not restrain some expression of it. Meade had fought and beaten the enemy. Losses had been equally severe. Lee’s retreat had been halted by a flood. Meade had been reinforced, while Lee could not possibly have received a single new recruit; yet Meade had waited for the river to subside, for bridges to be built, and for Lee to withdraw at his leisure. “Again, my dear general,” wrote the President, “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. If you could not safely attack Lee last monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river…? 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 prossecution [sic] or persection of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.”

Then Lincoln thought of Meade’s magnificent fight at Gettysburg, and of how the general had dutifully taken command at a critical time. Perhaps the President remembered that there is no such thing as certainty in war – that it was too much to say that an attack was sure to succeed. His letter would probably cost the services of a conscientious general. Lincoln folded it and placed it in an envelope on which he wrote: “To Gen. Meade, never sent or signed.”

I think that has to be one of the best unsent letters ever written.

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