Major General Joseph Hooker, a man who turned the defeated and demoralized army around following the disastrous tenure of Ambrose Burnside, only to lead the army to another failure at Chancellorsville, submitted his resignation as commander of that force to President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck on June 27. With Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on the doorstep of Harrisburg that very day, Hooker wanted complete control over all the Union soldiers in his vicinity to deal with the Confederate invasion. Specifically, Hooker was requesting the authority over some 10,000 Union soldiers stationed at Harpers Ferry. Halleck had denied Hooker this authority, leading to his resignation. Lincoln and Halleck, wanting someone new to take the reins of the army, accepted the resignation. They had already tried offering command of the Army of the Potomac to John F. Reynolds, who had decline the responsiblity. Now, news was being sent to the next possible choice, another man who called Pennsylvania his home. That man was George Gordon Meade.
At roughly 3:00 am on June 28, 1863, George Meade's life changed forever. No doubt, that morning Meade would have preferred to simply remain asleep. Yet, when a messenger came into camp with news for him, Meade awoke to meet Captain James Hardie, sent directly by Halleck himself. The message that was handed to Meade during those early, predawn hours on June 28, 1863, changed the course of American history. It read, in part:
General: You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac. Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you (OR, Vol. 27, pt 3, 369).
In his orders, Halleck told Meade he was free to act as he saw fit. The only specification was a reminder that the Army of the Potomac was to defend Washington D.C. and Baltimore, both major cities threatened by Lee's invasion. Meade was also given the authority to remove any officer from command and appoint any officer to any post as necessary. This last classification would become extremely important as the fight at Gettysburg began on July 1, just a few days later. It gave Meade the authority to send Winfield Scott Hancock to Gettysburg as his deputy to assess the situation, despite Hancock being outranked by Oliver O. Howard, who was already on the field that day.
Upon seeing Captain Hardie that morning, Meade initially thought he was being placed under arrest. His initial reaction to the news speaks to this, as he stated, "Well, I've been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution". Meade's official response to Halleck was considerably more measured, telegraphing the General-in-Chief that he would accept his new task: "As a soldier, I obey it, and to the utmost of my ability will execute it." (OR, Vol 27, pt 1, 61)
Meade would soon issue General Orders Number 67, proclaiming to the army that he was in command, and informing them of the gravity of the hour. At that moment, the fate of the nation hung in the balance. The fighting to the west around Vicksburg has slowed to a siege, and Union forces were on the verge of taking the crucial Mississippi River town. It had been over half a year since Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Union armies occupied vast portions of the South. Yet, Southern victory was still possible. Confederate soldiers were on Pennsylvania soil, looking for a dashing military victory. Should Lee and his army crush the Army of the Potomac, on Pennsylvania soil no less, Lee would have the North at his mercy, and could move against a major Northern city. This would give the Northern peace movement overwhelming support, and it could potentially cripple and destroy the Lincoln administration and, along with it, the United States itself. At this crucial hour, Meade rose to the task at hand, recognizing the historic importance of the moment:
The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a foreign invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view, constantly, the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.
At the time of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had been in command of the Army of Northern Virginia for over one full year. He had led that army in numerous battles, and achieved numerous victories. Lee believed, as he wrote to John Bell Hood that May, that the Confederate army was "invincible" if it was properly led. Lee was, in seemingly every way, the hands on favorite to win the campaign in Pennsylvania. He had only been stopped once before by George McClellan at Antietam. Now, Lee was trying his bold offensive strategy once again. This time, Lee would be met in battle not by the "Young Napoleon," but by a man who had only been in command of the Union army for three days before the engagement began. 150 years ago today, George Meade had lots of work to do, and very little time to do it.