The midnight silence was broken by the sound of a horse and rider approaching. It was early in the morning of June 28, 1863, Major General George Gordon Meade had been asleep in his tent when the messenger arrived. His aide tried to stop the messenger and asked him to come back after sunrise, but he said he was here from Washington DC and needed to speak to Meade at once.
“Come in,” Meade said as he sat up in bed.
“Sir, you have a messenger from Washington,” his aide said sheepishly.
Meade thought at first that the messenger was coming to let him know he was in trouble and would be going to prison over some political disagreement. He hated the politics of the army. It seemed to be particularly chaotic because of the Civil War they were fighting. President Lincoln had already appointed three commanding generals over the Army of the Potomac in the 12 months. They had just suffered two major defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Whenever there are defeats there are always lots of pointing fingers. Maybe this messenger was here to notify him of some congressional action or military court hearing.
It didn’t take long for the messenger to explain his business. But once he was finished, Meade and the messenger were silent for a long time.
“President Lincoln wants to appoint me to be commanding general of the Army of the Potomac?” Meade asked in disbelief. He was still reeling from the shock. “There are at least four other generals that out rank me and a few of them would do a respectable job.”
“The President is aware of those men and while appreciative of their service, he is asking you to take the lead,” the messenger said. “Some of them have refused to take the commission. And he thinks that because you are from Pennsylvania, you will fight hard to save it from the enemy.”
“We’ve been conveniently distanced from Lee’s army for three weeks now, as they have marched north,” Meade huffed. “Major General Joseph Hooker has feigned protecting Washington, but he was afraid of fighting Lee again. He was humiliated at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.”
“That’s true,” the messenger agreed. “We need to take action, and General Hooker was not interested in taking action. What should I tell the President?”
Meade took a few more minutes to consider. Then said, “Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to the execution. I accept.”
Later that day, Meade wrote his first official order. In part, he wrote, “… 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 immediately put his army into action and began to pursue the Confederate Army which was already invading Pennsylvania. He immediately cracked down on poor discipline and didn’t allow bad weather to stop his plans either as they had to march through rain storms to try to intercept Lee’s advance. Meade thought the Rebels were going to attack Harrisburg, the state’s capital, or other pivotal army supply stations. Lee’s army had already destroyed various public properties to hinder the Union war machine. Meade sent his Calvary ahead to keep an eye on their movements.
Just two days later, the Calvary would spot a detachment of Lee’s army near Gettysburg, PA. On July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg began with a small skirmish between 3,000 Union cavalry and a battalion of Confederate soldiers. By the end of that day, the bulk of the Union and Confederate army had joined the battle. By the end of July 3, more than 28,000 Confederate soldiers were dead or wounded and the Union army suffered 22,000 casualties. It was the biggest and deadliest conflict that had ever been fought during the war. Lee was forced to retreat back down to Virginia, and the Southern states never again invaded the North. Gettysburg was a pivotal battle on the eve of our nation’s Independence Day.
Could you imagine being woke up from your sleep and given command of nearly 100,000 men? He was already a commander, but this was a big change for Meade – though not a dream job. He could have refused like other generals had. He could have decided to accept the position, and wait until he felt comfortable with his role. But he didn’t. He seized the day and moved without delay.
We don’t always get to decide when the opportunities come, but we can decide to take advantage of them when they arrive. Meade wasn’t the most outstanding choice, or the most obvious. You may not feel like the best person for the job or the most capable of achieving your goal, but action is a major part of success.
Choose to take advantage of the opportunities you are given to achieve your goal. Consider your options now, and consider whether or not you are missing an opportunity now. It could be your Gettysburg and the turning point in your journey.