Reviewed by David Lady, Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table
If I have ever read a “Seinfeld” history, it is this history. I am not criticizing the author, but rather observing how very little occurred over those two weeks in 1863; at least from the point of view of the Lincoln administration. This is a well-researched and written book about “nothing.”
Jeffrey William Hunt is the Director of the Texas Military Forces Museum located in Austin, TX. He is also an Adjunct Professor of History at Austin Community College, and the author of The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch. Meade and Lee is the first volume of a projected three-volume set, covering the war in Central Virginia during the late summer and autumn of 1863. The other two volumes will cover the campaign of Bristoe Station and the abortive campaign of Mine Run.
This work provides a detailed account of the movements, skirmishes, and other small actions that occurred immediately after Lee’s Army had retreated across the Potomac into Virginia. Initially, General Lee rested The Army of Northern Virginia in the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley, while General Meade’s Army crossed the Potomac into the Loudon Valley; east of the Shenandoah and separated from it by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Jeff Hunt’s major theme of the entire series is the generalship of George Meade as an independent commander. President Lincoln expected General Meade to pursue and inflict serious damage, if not destruction, on the defeated Confederate army. Meade conformed to his orders to pursue Lee’s army, but he also conformed to earlier orders that the Federal army remain between Washington and the Confederate Army and defend against any Confederate offensive. Meade was a reluctant pursuer, very conscious of his weaknesses: new and mediocre commanders in place of wounded Gettysburg leaders, few reinforcements and those of untried quality, no working railroad to supply his army. His caution increased when the Union cavalry was unable to penetrate the Confederate cavalry screen and identify enemy locations. Unable to learn much about Lee’s position west of the Blue Ridge, he fell prey to his wariness of Lee’s habitual audacity and the many conflicting rumors about Confederate intentions and plans. Meade spread his forces out to cover many contingencies and then shifted his men very deliberately to block the passes through the Blue Ridge, particularly Manassas Gap. When Meade finally began to concentrate his infantry Corps for a major thrust against the Gap, his lead commander was so wary of the Confederate defenders that a vastly outnumbered Confederate brigade easily parried the probe until reinforcements arrived to stalemate the situation.
Another theme of Hunt’s narrative is that the defeat at Gettysburg did not severely dispirit General Lee and his generals. They were still capable of quick decision and commendable initiative, and their rapid marches and spirited delaying actions showed the Federals that the Army of Northern Virginia remained a very formidable foe. General Lee grasped the tentative nature of Meade’s movements and then quickly moved his infantry to back-stop the cavalry and prevent Federal interference with his marching units and wagon trains. With minimal interference and no significant delays, The Army of Northern Virginia was moved to the southern bank of the Rappahannock River, finally ending the Gettysburg Campaign not far from where it began in early June.
The author has done a fine job of analyzing these two weeks from the strategic as well as tactical perspectives. Excellent maps clearly illustrate the positions of both armies and are placed to be of real use to the reader. Contemporary sources are relied on and compared. I recommend this book to those already very well versed in Civil War history, or to readers seeking to complete one of the few remaining gaps in Gettysburg Campaign coverage.