Meade submits the reorganization plan: Army of the Potomac down to three corps

On this day (March 4) in 1864, Major-General George Meade submitted this request to Army Headquarters in Washington:

Washington, D.C., March 4, 1864.
Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,
General-in- Chief:

Sir: I beg leave to submit for your consideration and that of the honorable Secretary of War the following plan for the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac:

I propose to reduce the number of corps, now five, to three. In doing this I propose to retain the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Corps, educing the three divisions now in each to two divisions. I then propose to consolidate the two divisions of the Third Corps (constituting the old corps) into one division and transfer it temporarily to the Fifth Corps; this division to retain its corps badges and other distinctive marks, and having understood that when the accession of recruits shall justify the organization of another corps, this division shall resume its position as the Third Corps with such additions as can be made.

In the same manner I propose to consolidate the First Corps into a division, and, with its distinctive marks, &c., assign it to the Second Corps. This would leave the Third Division of the Third Corps, which did not belong to the original corps, but joined after Gettysburg, under Major-General French, which I propose to transfer to the Sixth Corps.

The Second and Sixth Corps, being now commanded by officers assigned by the President of the United States, will continue to be so commanded. The Fifth Corps I propose to have commanded by Major-General Warren, by the assignment of the President.

Of the two corps temporarily broken up, I propose to assign the officers of the general staff to vacancies that may exist in the other corps.

After the above general organization is decided on, general officers will be assigned to divisions and brigades on consultation with corps commanders. The present temporary commanders of the First, Third, and Fifth Corps, it is understood, the Department has decided to relieve. A list of general officers whom in my judgment it is expedient to relieve is herewith furnished, viz: Brig. Gen. J. R. Kenly, Brig. Gen. F. B. Spinola, Brig. Gen. Sol. Meredith.

I should be glad, if this organization is decided upon, that those general officers belonging to the Army of the Potomac and now absent on detached duty be ordered to rejoin, as well as such forces as may have been detached for special purposes.

Respectfully, yours,
Geo. G. Meade, Major-General, Commanding, Army of the Potomac.

From the pure military perspective, the consolidations made sense.  On the battlefield (or even in garrison), the smaller number of subordinate headquarters allowed for simplified control and communication.  Instead of dispatching five sets of orders, Meade could get away with only three.  And much easier to track the progress of three corps when the shooting started.

We also see Meade’s deft handling of personnel matters here (or maybe “command arrangements” would be a better way to put it).  He easily rid himself of some troublesome senior leaders, just by re-arranging the chairs.  Major-Generals John Newton and George Sykes?  Gone, along with three brigadiers.  And so long as the President assigned Major-General Gouverneur Warren to the Fifth Corps post, Dan Sickles … a.k.a. Historicus… was left to pen letters to the newspaper.

Though unlikely, the wording of Meade’s submission allowed for reconstitution of the First and Third Corps.  The men even kept their original badges for symbolic purposes.  Again, shrewd positioning by Meade.  With the leadership at the head of the U.S. Army changing, such allowed the facility to expand the Army of the Potomac.  At the same time, leaders in Washington would find it difficult to pull troops from the Army of the Potomac short of removing an entire Corps.

On the same day, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton inquired if Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock was ready to resume his duties leading the Second Corps.  Hancock responded, “I consider myself able to take the field when ordered,” though he related that his wound had not completely healed.  With Hancock returning, Warren to be assigned permanently to  Fifth Corps, and steady Major-General John Sedgwick leading the Sixth Corps, Meade had three solid corps commanders and a favorable command climate.

One other change was taking place that day.  Major-General Ulysses S. Grant sent a telegraph from Nashville, Tennessee indicating, “I will leave Louisville on Monday for Washington.”  Congress had already approved Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant-General and overall command of the Federal armies.  The pieces for the 1864 campaign season were falling into place.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 638-40.)

12 thoughts on “Meade submits the reorganization plan: Army of the Potomac down to three corps

  1. As we can imagine, the sweeping reorganization was not a popular decision with many of the rank and file in the army as most soldiers viewed their unit identification “as a sacred thing.” Captain Henry Blake of the 11th Massachusetts in fact described the reorganization of the army as resembling the “breaking up of a family.” Some officers and men indeed made their official displeasure known to the army’s leadership, and consequences of their vehement protest were soon visited upon them.

    For more detail regarding the reorganization, and specifically how a group of III Corps officers reacted to the elimination of their “fighting corps,” Fred Arner’s superbly-reserarched book, “The Mutiny at Brandy Station” can be consulted.

  2. I always found it ironic that after this major reorganization, none of it mattered when the AoP fought at the Wilderness. The army’s command structure on May 5 and 6 was in utter confusion. Hancock commanded nearly half of the entire army–about 40-50,000 men–and elements of the four corps in the Brock Road sector. Corps commanders were irrelevant in this battle. Meade might has well have created two massive corps – one under Hancock and the other under Sedgwick (this was how the battle was fought anyway). It would have prevented much confusion.

    And the decision to keep Burnside’s 9th Corps separate from Meade probably was one of the worst command decisions of the war. Grant should have known better to allow it.


    • Todd, valid points.

      To me, Burnside is a prime example where the military customs, particularly where date-of-rank and other paper measures of seniority, run against the object most desired. But how to separate Burnside from the Ninth Corps?

  3. To paraphrase Gordon Rhea, the Union Army (at the Wilderness) lacked the firm, guiding hand necessary to defeat Lee. As Meade and Burnside were independent of one another, there’s only one person being criticized in that passage.

  4. Craig, there is no need to separate Burnside from the 9th Corps in March 1864, although I would have done so in a perfect world. Burnside needed to swallow his pride and serve under Meade who was junior to him. There were plenty of instances of general officers serving under other general officers who were junior to them. Slocum and Sedgwick, for example, were both senior to Meade, yet they served under Meade at Gettysburg. And Reynolds was Meade’s boss at Fredericksburg and was promoted to BG before Meade, yet Reynolds somehow served under Meade. Burnside finally did swallow his pride 20 days into the Overland Campaign.

    The tangled undergrowth at the Wilderness was plenty enough to confuse the armies. What an organizational mess it must have been for Hancock to command his own corps, and elements of the 5th, 6th, and 9th Corps. There is the well known story of James Wadsworth, division commander in the 5th Corps, ordering the 20th Mass Infantry forward on May 6th. The commander of the 20th Mass–George Macy–proceeded to argue with General Wadsworth about who was allowed to order his regiment to do anything. Certainly not some general from the 5th Corps!!

    • Todd, to ask Burnside to “swallow his pride” in March 1864 would be to stand at odds with military protocol. I’m not sure Grant could do that successfully without causing a dispute he could ill afford as a “new” commander of all forces.

      Meade’s rise to command was under different circumstances – presidential action where others had already declined. Likewise, 20 days into the Overland Campaign was also a different situation.

    • Who had declined prior to Meade? No offer was made to Reynolds, though he is supposed to have proactively gone to Lincoln to “feel him out,” to which the president responded he was not prone to throw away the musket due to a misfire, and would rather pick the lock first. Unlike what certain Lincoln scholars may believe and as Frank O’Reilly has persuasively argued, Meade was probably at the top of AL’s list due to his performances at Fredericksburg and particularly Chancellorsville. The fallout from the COW was no small matter. Reynolds was a non-factor in both campaigns, while Meade stood out.

      And as someone recently pointed out, Grant knew what he was getting with Burnside. And so should have known that he required supervision and prodding. Organizationally, there was only one person who could provide that.

    • Harry, I’m definitely not referring to Reynolds. But I’d rather not discuss a point that is not on topic here. Perhaps off line. For now please read “others were reluctant” where “others had already declined” which may be a better way to put it.

      As for Grant and Burnside, again even the most novice armchair general can reach the conclusion that Burnside should have been replaced, or at least subordinated to Meade.

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