- Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865by John G. Selby
Major General George Gordon Meade, the longest-tenured commander of the Army of the Potomac, has remained an inscrutable figure in Civil War historiography. Esteemed by many specialists for his overall contribution to Federal success—and most particularly as the victor of Gettysburg—Meade is, nevertheless, quite as likely to incur reproach within the Civil War canon from those who claim that he fumbled the Union's finest chance to destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the weeks after that battle. Moreover, the general's mixed operational performance through the balance of 1863, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's controlling presence over Meade's army during the war's final year, Meade's moderate-to-conservative political/military outlook, and his preternaturally combustible temper also have contributed to a tangled scholarly legacy. At the very least, a lack of academic consensus ensures an enduring and lively dialogue. Whether that debate has moved beyond criticism of Meade's performance or, reflexively, the publication of monographs and essays defending the general is another matter. Indeed, the latter approach has had notable traction within Meade studies for more than a half century.
It is within this niche that John G. Selby's Meade: The Price of Command, 1863–1865ultimately falls. The author, lamenting straightaway that the general "has not been treated kindly by history," sets out to rehabilitate Meade's reputation by crafting a Civil War narrative that is as familiar as it is competent (p. xi). Selby consults a well-known and acceptable collection of both primary sources and secondary works, employing them in appraisal of Meade's two-year command tenure. The author emphasizes above all the general's strengths as a military leader, including Meade's possession of personal nerve and moral courage, his skill at managing a large combined-arms force in wartime, and his ability to encourage unity of effort among chief subordinates at key points.
Yet the reader searches without success for the kind of analysis that acknowledges in more than a passing way the above characteristics. Moreover, a thorough and contextual deliberation on the relationship between Meade and his policy-making superiors after Gettysburg—that is, within the controlling themes of nineteenth-century civil-military relations and, subordinately, competing theories of the proper Federal operational course in Virginia—is largely ignored within the text. So, too, is incisive discussion that might shed additional light on the problematic, if ultimately triumphant, Meade-Grant association. But the volume's most important shortcoming is its persistent lack of objectivity. Selby paddles hard against the current to diminish many, if not [End Page 707]all, of the general's personal, leadership, and command shortcomings. Meade's often rancorous relationship with his juniors is, for example, deconstructed curiously: the author suggests simply that "Meade's bark was worse than his bite," offering the observation that Meade chose not to dismiss from command those who had incurred his wrath (p. 298). In making this claim, Selby fails to note that Meade, his powers constrained within a Union organizational milieu that was as much inspired by political as military considerations, was not at all times empowered to take unilateral action in such personnel questions.
Selby's book fails to transcend its narrative aspects to offer a deeper understanding of either the general or the army that he led. As well, in its goal to assign due credit to an enigmatic Union leader, Selby's work comes up short as a Civil War redemption story.