Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

General George Gordon Meade (1815–1872) may be best known as the commander of the victorious Army of the Potomac that defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, the eighth of eleven children. His father, Richard Worsam Meade (1778–1828), a native of Chester County, was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant serving the United States government as a naval agent in Spain. His support of Spain in the Napoleonic Wars ruined him financially and his wife, Margaret Coats Butler Meade, returned to her native Philadelphia with their children in 1817 while her husband was imprisoned. Released from prison the following year, Meade moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he was unsuccessful in recovering money he claimed the federal government owed him.

George G. Meade was educated at private schools in Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore, but after his father died and family finances worsened, his mother obtained an appointment for him to attend the U.S. Military Academy. He was just fifteen when he arrived at West Point in 1831. Meade’s record at West Point was not particularly noteworthy and he did not intend to pursue a career in the military. Following graduation in 1835, Lieutenant Meade was sent to Fort Brooke at Tampa, Florida, where the Second Seminole War had just broken out. Florida’s high heat and humidity affected his health and the army ordered him to escort peaceful Seminoles to resettlement lands in Oklahoma. Officers then assigned him to arsenal duty in Massachusetts until October 1836 when he completed his one year of obligatory post-West Point military duty.

Meade’s peacetime career had begun in 1835 during his academy graduation furlough when he worked with a railroad survey team, which earned him enough money to purchase his officer’s wardrobe. He was next hired to work in Pensacola, Florida, surveying railroad lines, but the Panic of 1837 ended the project, and he found work as a civilian member of the Army Topographical Bureau. In 1839, he returned to Philadelphia where he met Margaretta Sergeant (1814–1886), daughter of John Sergeant, a prominent politician. During a break from a boundary survey of Maine in winter 1840, Meade married Margaretta Sergeant and they raised seven children.

Congress in 1842 barred civilians from working with military engineers, and the army reinstated Meade as a second lieutenant which allowed him to complete his work in Maine. He designed lighthouses for installation on the Delaware Bay, after which the army assigned him to General Zachary Taylor in Corpus Christi, Texas. During the Mexican War, Meade faced his first significant combat. He successfully led an assault in 1846 on a Mexican defensive position overlooking the city of Monterrey, earning him promotion to first lieutenant.

General Winfield Scott — the “Grand Old Man of the Army” — invaded Veracruz in March 1847, but it was apparent that too many military officers were involved, so Meade resumed engineering duties on the Delaware Bay. He then returned to Florida and spent fourteen years on survey assignments and designed several more lighthouses. He was transferred to Detroit, where he supervised the Great Lakes geodetic survey. The army promoted Meade to the rank of captain in 1856.

Shortly after the Civil War broke out, Meade was commissioned a brigadier general on August 31, 1861. As commander of a brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, his troops set up defenses in 1862 near Washington, D.C., and fought in Virginia at Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, and Glendale. During the battle at Glendale, Meade was wounded twice, putting him out of action for six weeks. He returned to duty and led a division through several engagements that included securing enemy heights during the battle of South Mountain, Maryland, and fighting in the Battle of Antietam.

At Antietam, 87,000 Union soldiers faced 40,000 Confederate troops, but the battle proved inconclusive. General Lee retreated, but at a cost of 12,400 Northern and 10,320 Southern casualties — a total of 3,650 killed in action. Meade temporarily replaced General Joseph Hooker, wounded at Antietam, in charge of the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He then returned to divisional command, and was promoted to the rank of major general on November 29, 1862. Not long after his soldiers broke through Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s position at Hamilton’s Crossing in Virginia in mid-December, General Ambrose Burnside assigned Meade to command the Fifth Corps.

General Lee crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, intent on capturing Harrisburg. Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin and Major General Darius N. Couch begged President Abraham Lincoln to replace General Hooker with Meade. Hooker’s subordinates had chafed under his command and loudly complained about his leadership, prompting him to tender his resignation which the president swiftly accepted. Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863 — just three days before the epic Battle of Gettysburg. He cautiously moved the army toward the Susquehanna River to assume defensive positions between General Lee and the cities of Washington and Baltimore. Lee decided against attacking Harrisburg and turned his troops south, intending to crush Meade’s troops and win a decisive battle. The outcome after colliding at Gettysburg during the first three days of July proved otherwise.

Meade’s victory at Gettysburg brought him a promotion to brigadier general in the regular army, but Grant’s appointment as general-in-chief in March 1864 overshadowed
his achievements. Meade had Grant’s support, but a number of historians believe the press unfairly criticized Meade’s post-Gettysburg strategy, primarily for allowing Lee to escape to Virginia to fight again. While Meade worked well under Grant, his temper, hostility toward newspaper correspondents, and criticism of published reports, led reporters to credit Grant for positive war news and denigrate Meade by failing to mention him — unless the military suffered a setback.

After the war, Meade’s luster dimmed as he slipped from the lime-light to fill administrative posts. In 1866, however, he helped halt the Irish-American Fenian Brotherhood’s scheme to invade Canada. The radical organization had intended to spark a war between the United States and Great Britain to promote Ireland’s interests. That same year he became the commander of the Military Division of the Atlantic, headquartered in Philadelphia. He also became a commissioner of Fairmount Park, offering technical advice and engineering assistance for its design. From January 1868 to March 1869, he served as governor of reconstruction for Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.

The American Philosophical Society and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences honored Meade for his surveys and cartography, and Harvard University recognized his accomplishments with an honorary degree. Weakened by injuries sustained in warfare, Meade died of pneumonia on November 6, 1872, at the age of fifty-six in Philadelphia and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. In 1999, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a state historical marker honoring Meade on Delancey Street near his last residence.