1: Eleven days after the Union victory at Gettysburg and ten days after General Ulysses S. Grant’s crucial triumph at Vicksburg, Abraham Lincoln suffered what was likely his most gut-wrenching setback as commander-in-chief during the Civil War.
At Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee “had been forced to relinquish the battlefield for the first time, his Army of Northern Virginia reduced by almost twenty-three thousand men,” write Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in their excellent book Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.
“At that moment Lee was more vulnerable than ever before. Heading south on the evening of July 3rd, just hours after the final, shattering failure of Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s remaining troops were in enemy country, disoriented by defeat, and without reinforcements or ammunition to fight anything near a sustained battle,” the authors write.
Meanwhile, George Meade, the Union’s commanding general, followed behind with his “exhausted but more numerous troops.” Lee was headed toward a Confederate pontoon bridge at Williamsport, Maryland. His soldiers would cross the Potomac River into the refuge of Virginia. Union cavalry, however, would destroy the bridge long before Lee arrived there, and an unrelenting summer rain would continue for nearly ten days.
When Lee and his troops reached the Potomac, the river was not passable, even its shallowest parts now surging with brown waters. Lee and his depleted army would be trapped there for more than a week.
Abe “immediately grasped the opportunity before him. Meade’s forces had surrounded Lee’s in a semicircle at the water’s edge,” Raymond and Mike write. “Coming close on the heels of Grant’s capture of an entire Confederate army in the West—more than thirty thousand men—the destruction of Lee’s army in the East could end the war at a single stroke.”
President Lincoln sensed the incredible opportunity afoot for the Union army. Since the start of the war, he “had borne the pain of hundreds of thousands of men killed and maimed, and of even more parents and widows and orphans bereaved—all of it caused by a war that Lincoln himself insisted must continue. Now, with Lee trapped, Lincoln saw a Providential opportunity to bring the nation’s suffering, and his own, to an abrupt end.”
2: But Meade hesitated.
Abe telegraphed General Meade if he could complete “the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s Army, the rebellion will be over.”
For several days, however, Meade did not take action. Instead, he telegraphed reports “about mud, his men’s exhaustion, and the strength of Lee’s defenses,” the authors write. “During this time, according to the telegraph officer in the War Department, Lincoln’s ‘anxiety seemed as great as it had been during the battle itself.” He “walked up and down the floor, his face grave and anxious, wringing his hands and showing every sign of deep solicitude.'”
Abe tried a different approach. He sent Meade an “off-the-record dispatch (never found, but attested to by Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, among others), which stated: ‘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.'”
The President’s spirits rose briefly on July 11th: his private secretary John Hay wrote in his diary: “the President seemed in a specially good humor today, as he had pretty good evidence that the enemy were still on the North side of the Potomac and Meade had announced his intention of attacking them in the morning.”
But Meade did not attack on the twelfth. Or the thirteenth. Finally, on July 14th, General Meade and his army moved forward to begin the climactic battle. Only to learn Lee’s army had crossed the river just hours before.
“By all accounts, the effect upon Lincoln was devastating,” the authors write. “Hay wrote that day that ‘the Prest was deeply grieved.’ A journalist who saw him that afternoon said that Lincoln’s ‘grief and anger were sorrowful to behold.’
“To his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, Lincoln exclaimed: ‘What does it mean, Mr. Welles? Great God! What does it mean?’ Welles added in his diary that day: ‘On only one or two occasions have I ever seen the President so troubled, so dejected, and discouraged.'”
3: And yet, just five days later, on July 19th, Hay wrote in his diary: “The Tycoon [i.e., Lincoln] was in very good humour.” He felt good enough to “compose a lighthearted doggerel that morning about how Lee had ‘skedaddled back’ to Virginia.”
Given the magnitude of the setback Lincoln had just experienced, how did he recover his emotional balance so quickly?
Reflection: Think back on a time when I received terrible news. How did I handle the situation? Looking back, what did I learn? Would I change anything about how I responded?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.