George Meade was born on December 31, 1815 in Cadiz, Spain. His father was a merchant, but had little money because he had lost most of it by supporting Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. His parents were from the United States and returned there shortly after his birth. As a child, Meade studied at the Mount Hope Institution in Baltimore, Maryland.
After graduating, he enrolled at West Point and graduated in 1835. Afterward, he joined the 3rd Artillery of the US Army and went with them to Florida. There, he spent several years fighting the Seminole Indians and resigned as soon as he could.
After leaving the military, Meade found a job as a civil engineer for a railroad company in the southeastern United States. Meade found it difficult to retain a job in the area and eventually decided to once again enlist in the military in 1842. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and assigned to a Corps of topographical engineers.
When the Mexican-American War started in 1846, Meade was assigned to the staff of Zachary Taylor. He spent some time on the front lines, including the Battle of Monterrey, and was promoted to First Lieutenant. When the war ended in 1848, Meade mainly spent his time doing engineering work, constructing lighthouses and breakwaters in Florida. He also invented a type of hydraulic lamp that replaced the earlier design for lamps used in lighthouses.
After the Civil War started, Meade was forced to abandon his engineering projects to help the war effort. On August 31, 1861, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and placed in command of a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserve troops. His first assignment was to build defensive structures around Washington D.C.
When the Peninsula Campaign began, Meade and his brigade joined the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. He was severely wounded in his arm and back during the Battle of Glendale and had to leave the front lines and recover at a field hospital. He was healed by late 1862 and rejoined his brigade for the Second Battle of Bull Run, after which he was given command of a division.
Meade went on to lead his division at the Battle of South Mountain and proved to be a competent commander. In the Battle of Antietam, he was chosen to command Hooker's 1st Corps after he was wounded, but he had to give up his command after he received a wound in his thigh. After Hooker and Meade recovered, Meade returned to command of his division and joined the Union advance towards Richmond.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade led his division in a frontal attack on the Confederate lines and managed to break through, despite the failure of his colleagues. Meade was promoted to the rank of Major General for his success and he was placed in command of the 5th Corps. In the spring of 1863, Meade participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville, but spent much of the remainder of the spring in the rear.
On June 28, 1863, Meade was chosen by Lincoln to replace Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. A few days later, he confronted Lee's forces in Gettysburg and had a decisive victory that is called the turning point of the war. When Lee retreated into Virginia, Meade was reluctant to pursue and was criticized as a result.
Over the rest of 1863, Meade led his forces after Lee, but failed to make any decisive victories. In 1864, he led his troops in the Overland Campaign and the Siege on the city of Petersburg. Later, he participated in the Appomattox Campaign, but began to feel betrayed by Ulysses S. Grant, who never gave him any credit for victories.
After the Civil War, Meade returned to Pennsylvania, where he was made the commissioner of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. He was also made governor of the Third Military District and moved to Atlanta to handle the task in January of 1868. Harvard University also awarded him an honorary doctorate in law.
George Meade died on November 6, 1872 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.