Meade's father, a wealthy American merchant, was ruined financially due in part to his support of Spain in the Napoleonic Wars. After his family returned to the United States, he attended the Mount Hope Institution in Baltimore, then entered West Point. He graduated in 1835, ranked 19 out of 56 in his class. For a year, he served with the 3rd U.S. Artillery in Florida during the
Seminole War. He contracted a fever and was returned to duty at Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts, where he was engaged in ordnance. He resigned from the army on October 26, 1836. He worked as a civil engineer for the Alabama, Florida, & Georgia Railroad and to work on the survey of the Mississippi and Texas border. Finding steady civilian employment was difficult, so he reentered the army on May 19, 1842, as a 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and was assigned to the northeastern border survey.
Meade served in the Mexican War, assigned to the staffs of Gens. Zachary Taylor, William J. Worth, and Robert Patterson, and was brevetted to 1st lieutenant for gallant conduct at the battle of Monterrey. After that war, he did considerable engineering work on coastal lighthouses and was in charge of the surveys of the Great lakes.
Meade was promoted from captain to Brigadier General of volunteers on August 31, 1861, a few months after the start of the war, based on the strong recommendation of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. He was assigned command of 1 of the 3 brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves recruited early in the war, which he led competently, primarily in the construction of defenses around Washington, D.C., including Fort Pennsylvania. His brigade joined Major Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac for the Peninsula Campaign.
During the Seven Days Battles, Meade took part in Mechanicsville, Gaines' Mill and White Oak Swamp, where he was wounded in the arm, back, and side. He remained in command on the field until he was physically unable to continue. He took a leave to recuperate, but returned before he was fully recovered, in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the 2nd Bull Run. Afterwards, he received a divisional command. Meade distinguished himself at South Mountain. At Antietam, he replaced the wounded Major Gen. Joseph Hooker in command of I Corps, performing well, but Meade was also wounded himself at Antietam, in the thigh. He maintained a brave effort until his troops ran out of ammunition.
Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac while pursuing Lee in the Gettysburg Campaign. President Abraham Lincoln sent a messenger to appoint Meade as his replacement on June 28, 1863. He had not actively sought command and was not the president's first choice. There were 4 other major generals who outranked him in the Army of the Potomac.
Meade assumed his command while Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was invading Pennsylvania and had little knowledge of the disposition of the rest of his army. Only 3 days later, he confronted Lee at Gettysburg, where he won the battle that is considered a turning point of the war. He skillfully deployed his forces in a defensive battle, reacting swiftly to fierce assaults on his line's left, right, and center. He made excellent use of capable subordinates, such as Major Gen. John F. Reynolds and Brigadier Gen. Winfield S. Hancock.
Meade was criticized by Lincoln and others for not aggressively pursuing the Confederates during their retreat. At one point, the Army of Northern Virginia was extremely vulnerable with their backs to the Potomac River, but they were able to build strong defensive positions at Williamsport before he could organize an effective attack. Lincoln believed that this wasted an opportunity to end the war. Nonetheless, he received a promotion to Brigadier General in the Regular Army and the Thanks of Congress.
For the remainder of the fall campaigning season in 1863, during both the Bristoe Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign, Meade was outmaneuvered by Lee and withdrew after fighting minor, inconclusive battles, due to his reluctance to attack entrenched positions.
When Lieutenant Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Union armies in 1864, Meade and the Army of the Potomac became subordinate to him. Grant made his headquarters with him for the remainder of the war. He fought effectively during the Overland Campaign and the Petersburg Campaign, including the Wilderness and the siege of Petersburg, after which Grant requested that he be promoted to major general of the Regular Army. Although he fought during the Appomattox Campaign, he felt slighted that Grant and cavalry commander Major Gen. Philip Sheridan received most of the credit. He commanded the Army of the Potomac until the Union victory in 1865.
Meade's decisions in command of the Army of the Potomac have been the focus of controversy. He has been accused of not being aggressive enough in pursuit of Confederate forces, and being reluctant to attack on occasion. His short temper earned him notoriety, and while he was respected by most of his peers, he was not well-loved by his army. Some referred to him as "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle". But most damaging was Major Gen. Daniel E. Sickles's vicious postwar campaign against Meade's character. His reputation among the public suffered as a result.
Meade was the commissioner of Fairmount Park in Pennsylvania from 1866 until his death. He also held various military commands, including the Military Division of the Atlantic, the Department of the East, the 3rd Military District (including Georgia and Alabama), and the Department of the South. He received an honorary doctorate in law from Harvard University, and his scientific achievements were recognized by various institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.
Meade died due to complications from his old wounds, combined with pneumonia, and is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Brigadier General USV- August 31, 1861
Major General USV- November 29, 1862
Brigadier General USA- July 3, 1863
Major General USA- August 18, 1864
2nd Brigade, McCall's Division, Army of the Potomac (October 3, 1861 - March 13, 1862)
2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac (March 13 - April 4, 1862)
2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, Department of the Rappahannock (April 4 - June 12, 1862)
2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, V Corps, Army of the Potomac June 18-30, 1862)
major, Topographical Engineers (June 18, 1862)
lst Brigade, 3rd Division, III Corps, Army of Virginia (August 26 - September 12, 1862)
3rd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac (September 12-17 and September 29-December 25, 1862)
I Corps (September 17-29, 1862)
V Corps, Army of the Potomac (December 25, 1862 - January 26, 1863 and February 5-16 and February 28- June 28, 1863)
Center Grand Division, Army of the Potomac January 1863)
Army of the Potomac June 28, 1863 - December 30, 1864 and January 11 - June 27, 1865)