Over the next six years he worked as a surveyor and engineer, before rejoining in 1842, again for financial reasons. On his return to the army, he was appointed a second lieutenant of Topographical Engineers. During the Mexican War he served first with Taylor, taking part in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and then under Scott at the siege of Vera Cruz. He did not accompany the army to Mexico City, instead being sent back to Philadelphia. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Meade remained in the army between the Mexican War and the outbreak of the Civil War – there was always interesting work for an engineer in the army. In those years he was involved in lighthouse building, saw active service in Florida, and from 1857 was in charge of the Northern Lake Surveys.
At the outbreak of the civil war, he was promoted to brigadier-general of volunteers (although his regular rank was only captain), and given command of a brigade of Pennsylvania troops. This was the first time in his entire military career that he had command of a combat unit, and he performed well in the new role. His brigade served in the defence of Washington, in the Shenandoah Valley and on the Peninsula campaign under McClellan. He was badly wounded at the battle of Glendale (30 June 1862), but was determined to return to action, getting back just in time for the defeat at Second Bull Run (29-30 August 1862).
Meade had now earned himself an impressive reputation. During the Antietam campaign he was twice given important temporary commands, of Reynolds’ division at South Mountain (14 September 1862), and of the entire I Corps after Hooker was wounded at Antietam (16-17 September). When Reynolds was promoted to command the I Corps, Meade was given command of his division, and promoted to major-general of volunteers.
After the battle of Fredericksburg he was promoted to command of the V Corps (25 December 1862). Between January 26 and 5 February 1863 he had command of the Center Grand Division (III and VI Corps) under Burnside, before returning to the V Corps when Hooker abolished the Grand Divisions. In that capacity he took part in the battle of Chancellorsville (2-5 May 1863), emerging from the defeat with his reputation intact.
He was about to be promoted once again. After Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee launched his invasion of Pennsylvania. Hooker set off in pursuit, while also conducting an argument with Washington. On 28 June Hooker resigned, and Meade was appointed to command the Army of the Potomac. His appointment could hardly have come at a worse time, in the middle of the biggest Confederate invasion of the north and after two major defeats.
The two armies came together at Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863), only three days after Meade’s promotion. Meade worked well with his subordinates. The Union army took up a strong position, and over three days held off Lee’s army of veterans. Gettysburg was the high-point of Meade’s career. After the battle he missed a chance to catch Lee before he could cross back into Virginia. His Rapidan campaign in the autumn of 1863 was entirely inconclusive, although at least he avoided any disasters.
After Gettysburg Meade was finally promoted to brigadier-general in the regular army. He retained command of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war. However, U.S. Grant, who had been promoted to Lieutenant-General, and placed in command of all Union forces on 12 March 1864, decided to accompany the Army of the Potomac on the overland campaign against Richmond. This placed Meade in the awkward position of having his superior officer peering over his shoulder at all times. Grant maintained the formalities of command, normally issuing his orders for the Army of the Potomac to Meade. However, with Grant so close at hand, those orders were rather more detailed than normal – Meade merely had to carry them out. Despite some inevitable tension, this arrangement normally worked well, although it may have been responsible for a missed change to capture Petersburg (15-18 June 1864), when orders to Hancock’s corps did not arrive in time.
Meade’s background as a topographical engineer may have played a major role in his success at Gettysburg. U.S. Grant rated him highly as an officer who could see any advantages to be gained from the terrain in front of him, sometimes even to the extent where he would attempt to take advantage of the terrain even if that didn’t entirely fit with the overall intentions of the army. However, at Gettysburg, where the main intention was to stand on the defensive, that ability to judge terrain was a great strength. His later career in command suggests that he was not quite so able when on the attack, but for the last year of the war he was serving under U.S. Grant, where his ability to carry out other people’s plans with enthusiasm was invaluable.
After the war he serviced in command of the Military District of the Atlantic, then of the East, before being appointed to command of the third military district of the South (Georgia, Alabama and Florida) from 2 January 1868 to 12 March 1869. There he was in charge of the reconstruction effort, performing a decent job in very difficult circumstances. His final appointment was a return to the Department of the Atlantic. He was still serving in that role at the time of his death, on 6 November 1872. His determined defence at Gettysburg was crucial for the Union, ending as it did Robert E. Lee’s best and last chance of winning a major victory on northern soil.