In 1864–65, Meade continued to command the Army of the Potomac through the Overland Campaign, the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, and the Appomattox Campaign, but he was overshadowed by the direct supervision of the general in chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Meade served in the Mexican-American War, assigned to the staffs of Generals Zachary Taylor, William J. Worth, and Robert Patterson, and was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterrey. After that war he was chiefly involved in lighthouse and breakwater construction and coastal surveying in Florida and New Jersey. He designed Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island, Absecon Light in Atlantic City, Cape May Light in Cape May, Jupiter Inlet Light in Jupiter, Florida, and Sombrero Key Light in the Florida Keys. He also designed a hydraulic lamp that was adopted by the Lighthouse Board for use in American lighthouses. He was promoted to captain in 1856.
In 1857, Meade relieved Lt. Col. James Kearney on the Lakes Survey mission of the Great Lakes. Completion of the survey of Lake Huron and extension of the surveys of Lake Michigan down to Grand and Little Traverse Bays were done under his command. Prior to Captain Meade's command, Great Lakes' water level readings were taken locally with temporary gauges; a uniform plane of reference had not been established. In 1858, based on his recommendation, instrumentation was set in place for the tabulation of records across the basin. In 1860, the first detailed report of Great Lakes was published.. Meade stayed with the Lakes Survey until the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War.
Meade was promoted from captain to brigadier general of volunteers on August 31, 1861, a few months after the start of the Civil War, based on the strong recommendation of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. He was assigned command of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited early in the war, which he led competently, initially in the construction of defenses around Washington, D.C. His brigade joined Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac for the Peninsula Campaign. At the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles, Meade was severely wounded in the arm, back, and side. He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, now assigned to Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell's corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army. At the start of the Maryland Campaign a few days later, he received command of the 3rd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, and distinguished himself during the Battle of South Mountain. When Meade's brigade stormed the heights at South Mountain, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, his corps commander, was heard to exclaim, "Look at Meade! Why, with troops like those, led in that way, I can win anything!" In the Battle of Antietam, Meade replaced the wounded Hooker in command of I Corps, selected personally by McClellan over other generals his superior in rank. He performed well at Antietam, but was wounded in the thigh.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade's division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862. However, his attack was not reinforced, resulting in the loss of much of his division. After the battle, he received command of V Corps, which he led in the Battle of Chancellorsville the following spring. General Hooker, then commanding the Army of the Potomac, had grand, aggressive plans for the campaign, but was too timid in execution, allowing the Confederates to seize the initiative. Meade's corps was left in reserve for most of the battle, contributing to the Union defeat. Afterwards, Meade argued strongly with Hooker for resuming the attack against Lee, but to no avail.
Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac while pursuing Lee in the Gettysburg Campaign. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1863, a messenger from President Abraham Lincoln arrived to inform Meade of his appointment as Hooker's replacement. Meade was taken by surprise and later wrote to his wife that when the officer entered his tent to wake him, he assumed that Army politics had caught up with him and he was being arrested. He had not actively sought command and was not the president's first choice. John F. Reynolds, one of four major generals who outranked Meade in the Army of the Potomac, had earlier turned down the president's suggestion that he take over. Reynolds later died on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Meade assumed command at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Maryland.. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was invading Pennsylvania and, as a former corps commander, Meade had little knowledge of the disposition of the rest of his new army. Only three days later he confronted Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1 to July 3, 1863, where he won the battle that is considered a turning point of the war. The battle began almost by accident, as the result of a chance meeting engagement between Confederate infantry and Union cavalry in Gettysburg on July 1. By the end of the first day, two Union infantry corps had been almost destroyed, but had taken up positions on favorable ground. Meade rushed the remainder of his Army to Gettysburg and skillfully deployed his forces for a defensive battle, reacting swiftly to fierce assaults on his line's left, right, and center, culminating in Lee's disastrous assault on the center, known as Pickett's Charge.
During the three days, Meade made excellent use of capable subordinates, such as Maj. Gens. John F. Reynolds and Winfield S. Hancock, to whom he delegated great responsibilities. Unfortunately for Meade's reputation, he did not skillfully manage the political manipulators he inherited from Hooker. Maj. Gens. Daniel Sickles, III Corps commander, and Daniel Butterfield, Meade's chief of staff, caused him difficulty later in the war, questioning his command decisions and courage. Sickles had developed a personal vendetta against Meade because of Sickles's allegiance to Joseph Hooker, whom Meade replaced, and because of violent disagreements at Gettysburg. (Sickles's grossly insubordinate actions as the commander of the III Corps almost lost the battle, and by extension almost the war, for the Union.) Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War suspected that Meade was a copperhead and tried in vain to relieve him from command.
Following their severe losses at Gettysburg, General Lee's army retreated back to Virginia. Meade was criticized by President Lincoln and others for not aggressively pursuing the Confederates during their retreat. At one point, the Army of Northern Virginia was extremely vulnerable with their backs to the rain-swollen, almost impassable Potomac River, but they were able to erect strong defensive positions before Meade could organize an effective attack. Lincoln believed that this wasted an opportunity to end the war. Nonetheless, Meade received a promotion to brigadier general in the regular army and the Thanks of Congress, which commended Meade "... and the officers and soldiers of [the Army of the Potomac], for the skill and heroic valor which at Gettysburg repulsed, defeated, and drove back, broken and dispirited, beyond the Rappahannock, the veteran army of the rebellion.
For the remainder of the fall campaigning season in 1863, during both the Bristoe Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign, Meade was outmaneuvered by Lee and withdrew after fighting minor, inconclusive battles, because of his reluctance to attack entrenched positions.
Meade was a competent and outwardly modest man, although correspondence with his wife throughout the war suggests he was disguising his ego and ambition. A London newspaperman described Meade: "He is a very remarkable looking man—tall, spare, of a commanding figure in presence, his manner pleasant and easy but having much dignity. His head is partially bald and is small and compact, but the forehead is high. He has the late Duke of Wellington class of nose, and his eyes, which have a serious and almost sad expression, are rather sunken, or appear so from the prominence of the curve nasal appearance. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance." Meade's short temper earned him notoriety, and while he was respected by most of his peers, he was not well-loved by his army. Some referred to him as "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.
When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union armies in March 1864, Meade offered to resign, but Grant refused and Meade and the Army of the Potomac became subordinate to him. Grant made his headquarters with Meade for the remainder of the war, which caused Meade to chafe at the close supervision he received. Following an incident in June 1864, in which Meade disciplined reporter Edward Cropsey from The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for an unfavorable article, all of the press assigned to his army agreed to mention Meade only in conjunction with setbacks. Meade apparently knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade.
Meade and Grant had various differences that caused additional friction between them. Grant was waging a war of attrition in his Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee, willing to suffer previously unacceptable losses with the knowledge that the Union Army had replacement soldiers available, whereas the Confederates did not. Meade, despite his aggressive performance in lesser commands in 1862, had become a more cautious general and more concerned about the futility of attacking entrenched positions. Most of the bloody repulses his army suffered in the Overland Campaign were ordered by Grant, although the aggressive maneuvering that eventually cornered Lee in the trenches around Petersburg were Grant's initiative as well. An additional frustration for Meade was the manner in which Grant sometimes gave preferable treatment to subordinates that he brought with him from the Western Theater. A primary example of this was Grant's interference with Meade's direction of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's Cavalry Corps. Meade had insisted that Sheridan's troopers perform traditional cavalry functions of reconnaissance, screening, and guarding the Army's trains, but Sheridan went directly to Grant and obtained permission to conduct a strategic raid against the Confederate cavalry and Richmond.
Although Meade generally performed effectively under Grant's supervision in the Overland Campaign and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, a few instances of bad judgment marred his legacy. During the Battle of Cold Harbor, Meade inadequately supervised his corps commanders and did not insist they perform reconnaissance before their disastrous frontal assault. Inexplicably, Meade wrote to his wife immediately after the attack and expressed pride that it was he who ordered the attack. During the initial assaults on Petersburg, Meade again failed to coordinate the attacks of his corps before General Lee could reinforce the line, resulting in the ten-month stalemate, the Siege of Petersburg. He approved the plan of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to plant explosives in a mine shaft dug underneath the Confederate line east of Petersburg, but at the last minute he changed Burnside's plan to lead the attack with a well-trained African-American division that was highly drilled just for this action, instructing him to take a politically less risky course and substitute an untrained and poorly led white division. The resulting Battle of the Crater was one of the great fiascoes of the war. In all of these cases, Grant bears some of the responsibility for approving Meade's plans, but Meade was not performing to the level of competence he displayed at Gettysburg.
After Spotsylvania, Grant requested that Meade be promoted to major general of the regular army. In a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on May 13, 1864, Grant stated that "Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and [[William Tecumseh Sherman| [William T.] Sherman]] are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with. Meade felt slighted that his well-deserved promotion was processed after that of Sherman and Philip Sheridan, the latter his subordinate. However, his date of rank meant that he was outranked at the end of the war only by Grant, Halleck, and Sherman. Although he fought during the Appomattox Campaign, Grant and Sheridan received most of the credit. He was not present when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
Meade died in Philadelphia from complications of his old wounds, combined with pneumonia, and is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. There are statues of him throughout Pennsylvania, including a few in Gettysburg National Military Park. The United States Army's Fort George G. Meade in Fort Meade, Maryland, is named for him, as are Meade County, Kansas, and Meade County, South Dakota. The Old Baldy Civil War Round Table in Philadelphia is named in honor of Meade's horse during the war.
One-thousand-dollar Treasury notes, also called Coin notes, of the Series 1890 and 1891, feature portraits of Meade on the obverse. The 1890 Series note is called the Grand Watermelon Note by collectors, because the large zeroes on the reverse resemble the pattern on a watermelon.
DROPPING IN: George Meade, the pilot for radio station WOR's traffic helicopter, landing in Glen Rock's Wilde Memorial Park Thursday morning. The station's "Rambling with Gambling" show was broadcast
May 15, 1992; The Record (Bergen County, NJ) 05-15-1992 DROPPING IN: George Meade, the pilot for radio station WOR's traffic helicopter,landing...