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Confederate soldiers from Longstreet's corps form a line and volley fire a high angle shot against Union forces on the battlefield as re-enactors from the Confederate and Union armies collide in the fight for McPherson Ridge during events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on June 28. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
FREDERICK, MD. — In his first full day in command of the 95,000-strong Army of the Potomac, Union Maj. Gen. George Meade wasted no time taking his forces on the offensive.
Among his first orders was to push his cavalry forward towards Pennsylvania. Those forces had been covering the Army’s rear as it crossed the Potomac River in pursuit of Confederate forces.
“The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a hostile invasion,” Meade said in his first general order to the troops. “Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view constantly the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.”
Meade replaces Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, who was relieved yesterday after only five months in the job. Sources close to the White House say U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was frustrated with Hooker’s tentative response to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion into Union territory in recent weeks, not to mention the trouncing Federal troops took at the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May.
“I am moving at once against Lee,” said Meade, who learned of his appointment at his command post on the outskirts of Frederick, where he has been serving as the V Corps commander.
Meanwhile, Meade has directed Maj. Gen. Darius Couch, one of his most seasoned corps commanders, to lead the defense of the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, believed to be the next target in Lee’s offensive as his Army of Northern Virginia pours into the Keystone State.
Meade said he hoped Couch “will at least check” Lee for a few days. “If so, a battle will decide the fate of our country and our cause.”
At the start of the war, Meade was a lowly brigade commander, leading a group of Pennsylvania volunteers helping to reinforce the defenses around the Union capital of Washington, D.C. Although is star has risen rapidly in the two years since, he said his new appointment still took him by surprise.
“I was aroused from my sleep by an officer from Washington entering my tent, and after waking me up, saying he had come to give me trouble. At first, I thought it was either to relieve me or arrest me. He then handed me a communication to read; which I found was an order relieving Hooker of command and assigning me to it,” Meade said.
Along with his orders was personal note from Gen. Henry Halleck, the Army’s top commander in Washington.
“Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command,” Halleck told Meade. “Your army is free to act as you may deem proper under the circumstances as they arise. You will, however, keep in view the important fact that the Army of the Potomac is the covering army of Washington, as well as the army of operation against the invading forces of the rebels.
“You will therefore maneuver and fight in such a manner as to cover the Capital and also Baltimore, as far as circumstances will admit. Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him, so as to give him battle.”
Meade said he’ll do his best. “As a soldier, I had nothing to do but accept and exert my utmost abilities to command success.”