On whether Lincoln ordered an attack on the retreating Lee

Guest post by Michael Burlingame

When news reached Washington that Lee was defeated and withdrawing from Gettysburg, Lincoln believed that General George G. Meade could deliver the coup de grâce to the Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped across the Potomac. According to presidential secretary John Hay, Lincoln “watched the progress of the Army with growing impatience, hopes struggling with fear,” as heavy rains delayed Lee’s progress.

In the days following the battle, Lincoln spent much time at the War Department, where telegrapher Albert B. Chandler observed him closely. The president’s “anxiety seemed as great as it had been during the battle itself,” Chandler recalled; Lincoln “walked up and down the floor, his face grave and anxious, wringing his hands and showing every sign of deep solicitude. As the telegrams came in, he traced the positions of the two armies on the map, and several times called me up to point out their location, seeming to feel the need of talking to some one. Finally, a telegram came from Meade saying that under such and such circumstances he would engage the enemy at such and such a time. ‘Yes,’ said the president bitterly, ‘he will be ready to fight a magnificent battle when there is no enemy there to fight!’ ”

On July 7, the “much discouraged” president, “with a countenance indicating sadness and despondency,” told his cabinet that General Meade “still lingered at Gettysburg, when he should have been at Hagerstown or near the Potomac, to cut off the retreating army of Lee. While unwilling to complain and willing and anxious to give all praise to the general for the great battle and victory, he feared the old idea of driving the Rebels out of Pennsylvania and Maryland, instead of capturing them, was still prevalent among the officers. He hoped this was not so” and “said he had spoken to [General-in- Chief Henry W.] Halleck and urged that the right tone and spirit should be infused into officers and men,” and that Meade “especially should be reminded of his . . . wishes.” When Halleck demurred with “a short and curt reply,” Lincoln said: “I drop the subject.”

In desperation, Lincoln apparently issued an order that has been the subject of some historiographical debate. In 1885, his son Robert recollected that the president “summoned Gen. [Herman] Haupt, in whom he had great Confidence as a bridge builder, and asked him how long in view of the materials which might be . . . available under Lee, would it take him to devise the means and get his army across the river.” According to Robert Lincoln, Haupt estimated that it would require at most twenty-four hours. The president “at once sent an order to Gen. Meade,” a document that has not survived but was probably carried north by Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, “directing him to attack Lee’s army with all his force immediately, and that if he was successful in the attack he might destroy the order but if he was unsuccessful he might preserve it for his vindication” (Robert Todd Lincoln interviewed by John G. Nicolay, 5 January 1885, in Michael Burlingame, ed., An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996], 88-89).

Haupt recalled the incident somewhat differently: “At the celebration of the opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad [in 1884], of which I was at that time the general manager, two of the guests present were President Chester A. Arthur and Secretary of War Robert Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln sent for me with a request for a brief interview, and stated that he desired information upon a subject that had elicited much discussion, and upon which a careful examination of the war records, both of telegrams and letters, failed to throw any light. He said that upon entering his father’s room one morning, just after the battle of Gettysburg, he found him in great distress, and upon inquiring the cause, the President stated that information had just been received from General Haupt that General Meade had no intention immediately of following up his advantage; that he intended to rest for several days; that without an immediate movement of the army the enemy would be permitted to cross the Potomac and escape; that the fruits of victory would be lost and the war indefinitely prolonged. He asked if I had sent any letters, telegrams, or other communications in which this information had been given. I replied that I had communicated such information either to the President or to General Halleck. . . . I left Meade on Sunday, July 5, about noon, and the next morning . . . I was in Washington and had a personal interview with General Halleck, in which the situation was fully explained” (Herman Haupt, “The Crisis of the Civil War,” The Century Magazine 44  [September 1892]: 794).

In 1872, Rush C. Hawkins recorded a conversation he had apparently just had with Robert Todd Lincoln, who related an account similar to the one he gave to Nicolay in 1885. According to Hawkins, Lincoln’s telegram to Meade “read as follows: ‘To Major General Mead[e] Commanding the Army of the Potomac: You will follow up and attack Genl. Lee as soon as possible before he can cross the river. If you fail this dispatch will clear you from all responsibility and if you succeed you may destroy it’ ” (Memorandum by Hawkins, Hambourg-les-Bains, Prussia, 17 August 1872, Hawkins Papers, Brown University).

Robert Lincoln told a similar story to several others, including Isaac N. Arnold, Isaac Markens, John G. Nicolay, and Helen Nicolay.

A Lincoln collector in Seattle allegedly purchased a copy of Lincoln’s order to Meade, which read more or less as follows: “This is your order to pursue the retreating army and annihilate them. If you succeed you may keep this order and take the credit. If you fail, destroy this order and I will take the blame” (Roger L. Scaife to Albert J. Beveridge, Boston, 17 April 1925, enclosing a letter from “H. L.” to Scaife, Seattle, n.d., Beveridge Papers, Library of Congress).

On July 18, 1863, the New-York Tribune reported that Lincoln “sent two dispatches to Gen. Meade a day or two before the escape of the enemy across the river, in both of which he urged the necessity of an immediate attack. In one of these dispatches he said he thought all the appearances indicated that no other occasion would speedily arise offering circumstances so favorable to us and so unfavorable to the enemy. He therefore wished a battle to be delivered at once.”

Because no such missives appear in Lincoln’s Collected Works, some historians have doubted that Lincoln issued those instructions to Meade. Critics argue that Robert Todd Lincoln was probably thinking of the October 1863 message that Lincoln sent to Meade through Halleck: “If Gen. Meade can now attack him [Lee] on a field no worse than equal for us, and will do so with all the skill and courage, which he, his officers and men possess, the honor will be his if he succeeds, and the blame may be mine if he fails” (Basler, ed., Collected Works of Lincoln, 6:518.).

But the evidence cited here seems to confirm that Lincoln shortly after the battle of Gettysburg did urge Meade to attack and that he (the president) would accept responsibility in case he was defeated and that the general could take all the credit if he succeeded. The most recent scholarly account of the battle accepts Robert Todd Lincoln’s account (Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion [New York:  Knopf, 2013], 447).

Michael Burlingame is Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author or editor of several books about Lincoln, including the award-winning, multi-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life.