With the Union’s Army of the Potomac finally defeating Robert E. Lee, you’d think the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg would have elated Abraham Lincoln. Instead, for him, the battle produced a harvest of bitterness and disappointment. Lamont Wood, whose book Lincoln's Planner: A Unique Look at the Civil War Through the President's Daily Activities (Amazon US | Amazon UK) was recently published, explains why this American Civil War battle produced such feelings.
After two years of indecisive yet bloody warfare, Lincoln glimpsed victory in July 1863. Out West, a Union army was besieging Vicksburg and it looked like the Union would soon control the Mississippi River. Another Union army was advancing in central Tennessee, while on the coast the Union siege of Charleston looked promising. With the addition of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, surely victory was within grasp.
But there was no follow-through.
As reflected in his collected wartime papers (and recounted in “Lincoln’s Planner”), as the battle unfolded on July 1 and 2, 1863, the president spent a lot of his time in the War Department’s telegraph office, reading dispatches from the front as they arrived.
On July 4, Independence Day, a Saturday, and the day after Pickett’s Charge, both sides at Gettysburg stood in place during the morning, Lincoln put out a press release congratulating his army, asking that, “He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.” That night he helped mount a fireworks display at the White House.
But that was as upbeat as things got.
Meanwhile, torrential rains began falling at Gettysburg and Lee began pulling his army out of Pennsylvania. From out of left field, the Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens showed up under a flag of truce at Fortress Monroe, asking to come to Washington to talk to Lincoln, supposedly to discuss prisoner exchanges. (Presumably, Stephens’ real motivation was to be on hand should the Administration become favorable to peace negotiations following Confederate successes in Pennsylvania.)
On July 5 (Sunday) Lincoln attended a Cabinet meeting where they discussed Stephens’ request, which Lincoln discounted. Lincoln (accompanied by his 10-year-old son Tad) then visited wounded general (and Republican friend and all-round scandal magnet) Dan Sickles, who had been evacuated to Washington after losing a leg at Gettysburg.
Back at the telegraph office, Lincoln saw a report about a Union cavalry raid the previous day that destroyed a Confederate pontoon bridge across the Potomac at Falling Waters, West Virginia. Lincoln bypassed the chain of command and directly telegraphed Gen. William French asking if the rain-swollen Potomac could be forded. The answer: no.
The enticing implication was that Lee was stuck on the north side of the Potomac, unable to retreat to Virginia, and subject to momentary destruction by the pursuing Federals – a development that could wrap up the war.
Too Quiet on the Potomac
The next day (Monday, July 6) Lincoln attended a morning Cabinet meeting and convinced them to ignore Stephens—if the Confederate vice president really wanted to talk about prisoner exchanges, there were existing channels for that.
And then Lincoln’s hopes were shattered by the arrival of Gen. Herman Haupt, the chief railroad engineer of the Union army, who pulled into town from Gettysburg on one of his trains and rushed to the White House. He told Lincoln that he feared Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was going to let Lee get away. Haupt had spoken with Meade Saturday and heard Meade say that his army had nearly been defeated and needed rest. Meade noted that since Lee did not have a pontoon train his army would be stuck on the north side of the Potomac, implying that an immediate pursuit wasn’t necessary. Haupt told him that the Confederates could throw together a temporary bridge by tearing down buildings for lumber, but Meade wasn’t impressed.
Lincoln then spent the afternoon back in the telegraph office, and what he saw confirmed the fears raised by Gen. Haupt. He returned to the White House about 7 and wrote to Gen. Henry Halleck, his chief of staff, complaining that the messages he saw indicated a policy of herding the enemy forces across the river rather than trapping and destroying them. “You know I did not like the phrase… ‘Drive the invaders from our soil,’” Lincoln said.
The next morning (Tuesday, July 7) Gen. Meade finally had his infantry march in pursuit of Lee. Lincoln was back in the telegraph office when notice arrived from Vicksburg of the Confederate surrender there on July 4. (Grant’s army did not have a direct telegraph connection with Washington.)
The city erupted into celebration and a crowd eventually gathered outside the White House demanding a speech. Lincoln made his longest-known off-the-cuff address, with themes he would re-use in the speech he gave four months later at Gettysburg, such as, “On the 4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal turned tail and run.”
The day after (Wednesday, July 8) Gen. Meade’s infantry caught up with Lee’s cornered army, but there was no major action. Lincoln was heard to complain that Gen. Meade is “as likely to capture the Man-in-the-Moon, as any part of Lee’s army.”
Thursday was equally frustrating, as Lincoln returned to the tasks of the Executive Branch, while things remained all quiet on the Potomac. Friday, the opposing armies probed each other, while Lincoln sent a telegram to an old friend back in Illinois, saying that the rumors were true and Lee had indeed been defeated at Gettysburg.
Saturday (July 11) Gen. Meade reported that he had decided to attack the trapped Confederates, and Lincoln’s mood was seen to improve.
Then, Sunday, Gen. Meade pushed the attack back a day, saying he needed time for reconnaissance. “Too late!” Lincoln groaned when he read the message.
On Monday, July 13, Lincoln sent a thank you letter to Gen. Grant for his recent victory at Vicksburg, noting that he had been worried about Grant’s plan to operate away from the Mississippi and take the city from the land side, but “you were right and I was wrong.” (Grant took a month to respond.)
That night, Lee’s army slipped across the falling Potomac.
The next day, Lincoln wrote a thank you letter to Gen. Meade, as he had done to Gen. Grant. But the tone was radically different. “I am very – very – grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country… I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely... Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
He filed the letter away, and never sent it.
As Lincoln feared, the war did drag on, lasting nearly two more years. The main impact of Gettysburg was that Lee would never again launch a major offensive.
What do you think of this article? Let us know below.
Lamont Wood is a journalist and history writer. He has been freelancing for more than three decades in the history, high-tech, and industrial fields. He has sold more than six hundred magazine feature articles and twelve books. He and his wife, Dr. Louise O’Donnell, reside in San Antonio, Texas. His book, Lincoln's Planner: A Unique Look at the Civil War Through the President's Daily Activities (Amazon US | Amazon UK), is available here.