Lincoln's Impact on Gettysburg

01 Jul 2024 9:04 PM | Therese Orr (Administrator)

This article originally appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg Times, June of 2024. It was penned by Rev. Stephen Herr of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of sharing the work the Fellowship does.

When we think of Abraham Lincoln and Gettysburg, our thoughts often turn to his famous address delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.  To be sure, Lincoln’s speech remains his enduring legacy at Gettysburg.  Yet, Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief contributed in important ways to the Gettysburg Campaign throughout June and July of 1863. Although he was not physically present in Gettysburg during this time, his impact was still felt.

                Most significantly, on June 28, Lincoln appointed General George Gordon Meade to serve as the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac. The President and  Secretary of  War, Edwin Stanton selected Meade, and, unlike General John Fulton Reynolds who had been offered the position and turned it down, Meade had no choice.  Meade’s selection proved to be a good one.  The new commanding general immediately began studying the locations of both the Army of Northern Virginia and his own army.  Lincoln, along with General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck made it clear that Meade and his army were to stay between the southern army and the cities of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.  Meade also began preparing his army for battle.

Though often overlooked, Lincoln’s restraint during the battle of Gettysburg in allowing Meade to fight the battle on his terms had a significant effect on the way the battle played out.  Lincoln remained in Washington, D.C. and often visited the War Department telegraph office for updates and news.  The President displayed mature leadership by resisting the urge to send communications to Meade on how to conduct the battle, and thus let Meade’s responses to the ebb and flow of combat, rather than executive orders from afar, dictate the fighting.  His address to the press and others on the Fourth of July noted that the laudable results of the battle were such “as to cover the Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union and to claim the condolence for all of the many gallant fallen.”

Following the battle, Lincoln expected Meade to aggressively pursue a crippled Confederate army.  However, Meade was forced to navigate between healing his own badly beaten-up army and maintaining a position that still protected Washington.  As a result, he was slow in pursuing Lee, much to the chagrin of Lincoln.  After more than two years of war, Lincoln had come to the realization that driving the southern army from the field no longer would secure an end to the war; the Army of Northern Virginia, he believed, must be so heavily pummeled that it would eliminate the Confederates’ capacity to continue the struggle. 

Lincoln conferred with his cabinet and General Halleck about a more aggressive pursuit of Lee by Meade.  By July 14, Lee had escaped across the Potomac River and was back in Virginia.  Meade received a message from Halleck indicating that Lee’s escape had “created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President.”  Meade responded by offering his resignation. Interestingly, throughout this closing portion of the campaign Lincoln did not communicate directly with Meade.  On July 14, he penned a letter to Meade, both expressing gratitude for his victory at Gettysburg, and outlining his rationale for his frustration and anger at the missed opportunity to end the war; however, Lincoln never signed or sent the letter. Though we will never know for sure, it is possible that, had Lincoln decided to send his letter, and had he communicated more frequently and directly with Meade throughout the battle itself, he might have seen strikingly different results from the campaign, and from the war itself. Thus, Lincoln’s overall absence from the battle just may have been his most significant contribution to it—for better or for worse.

What is certain is that Lincoln’s greatest contribution to the enduring legacy of Gettysburg was his few appropriate remarks delivered four months later, in November. However, we cannot forget that his selection of Meade and his decisions both during and after the battle contributed in no small way to the military campaign itself.

Throughout the summer the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania remembers the sacrifice of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg and the enduring legacy of Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address.  Join us each night through Labor Day at the Gettysburg National Cemetery for 100 Nights of Taps Gettysburg, 2024.  This educational opportunity, in partnership with the National Park Service, begins at 7:00 p.m.

Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 Organization
P. O. Box 3372, Gettysburg, PA  17325


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