Meade at Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Meade at Gettysburg
A Study in Command
by Kent Masterson Brown
University of North Carolina Press, 488 pp., hardcover $35

In Meade at Gettysburg, Kent Masterson Brown breaks new ground on a topic that is well-trodden. The Battle of Gettysburg has rightfully taken pride of place as a watershed moment in American history and is among the most studied events of the Civil War. Despite our familiarity though, Brown has dissected the summer of 1863 in a masterful fashion and offers a new interpretation of the event by focusing on the actions and decisions of one of the Army of the Potomac’s most overlooked commanders. George Gordon Meade was almost an afterthought in his own time, as well as in the modern era. As Brown shows, Meade’s commands were critical in the Gettysburg victory and irreplaceable during Lee’s subsequent retreat south.

Throughout the book, Brown uses Meade’s own words and descriptions to reveal his character during high-pressure situations. He was a stoic man, unexcitable and mild. He seemed to envision the war in a manageable and personable way. His sisters lived in Mississippi and South Carolina and were ardent Confederates; two of his own nephews were killed in battle for the rebel cause. Despite these complex family ties, Meade never wavered in his service to the Union. These stories dug up by Brown add valuable context to Meade and his decision-making process. In the book, Brown builds a familiar narrative of the Gettysburg Campaign and offers an hourly account of the battle from Meade’s oft-overlooked perspective.

The greatest contribution of Meade at Gettysburg comes from Brown’s analysis of the logistical challenges of the Army of the Potomac. Using a wealth of primary sources, Brown reveals that the Union Army entered the Battle of Gettysburg hobbled by a supply shortage and won in spite of it. In the aftermath of the battle, Meade became a scapegoat in northern newspapers for allowing Lee to escape back across the Mason-Dixon Line. Brown redeems Meade by arguing that those same supply deficiencies greatly hampered the Army’s ability to compete and states that allowing Lee to retreat was the proper decision. Though President Abraham Lincoln believed that “we had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours,” Kent Masterson Brown and George Gordon Meade saw the situation very differently.

Brady J. Crytzer
Robert Morris University