Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain to an American family. At the time, his father had run into financial and legal difficulties due in part to the Napoleonic Wars. Meade graduated from the United States Military Academy (West Point) in 1835. For a year, he served with the 3rd Artillery in Florida, fighting against the Seminole Native Americans, before resigning to become a civil engineer. He was also a railroad constructor, and worked for the Department of War for some time. However, after finding civilian employment difficult, he reentered the army in 1842. He was commissioned a second lieutenant, and assigned to the corps of topographical engineers.
He was assigned to Mexico during the Mexican War, assigned to the staffs of Generals Zachary Taylor, William J. Worth, and Robert Patterson, and was brevetted for gallant conduct at the Monterey. His military career was uneventful, mainly as an engineer associated with lighthouses, until 1861, when the Civil War erupted.
Civil War career
Meade was appointed a brigadier general of Volunteers a few months after the start of the Civil War. He was assigned command of a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves, which he led competently. During the Seven Days' Battles, Meade received a severe wound (specifically at the Battle of Fraziers' Farm). He recovered in time for the Second Battle of Bull Run, after which he received a divisional command. Meade distinguished himself during the Battle of Antietam and its precursor, South Mountain. In the former, he replaced the wounded Major General Joseph Hooker in command of I Corps, performing well.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade's division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a weak portion of General "Stonewall" Jackson's lines. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of Volunteers. However, he was unsupported, losing much of his division. After the battle, he received command of V Corps, and during the short tenure of the system of Grand Divisions after Fredericksburg, Meade commanded the Centre Grand Division. General Hooker, like one of Meade's previous superiors, Major General George B. McClellan, was too timid in his force deployment, leaving Meade's effective division in reserve for most of the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
After Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac, Meade replaced him three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, where he succeeded in driving General Robert E. Lee's army back into Virginia, but was criticized for not actively pursuing the Confederates during their retreat (at one point, they were extremely vulnerable with their backs to the almost uncrossable Potomac River). Nonetheless, he received the Thanks of Congress and a belated promotion to brigadier general of Regulars (which was separate from his promotions in the Volunteer army).
When General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of the Union forces, Meade became subordinate to him. During the Battle of Bristoe Station and the Mine Run Campaign, Meade performed unspectacularly. Interestingly, after Grant made his headquarters in 1864 with Meade, there was an arrangement to mention Meade only in setbacks, because of his well-known fiery temper, especially toward reporters. Most certainly, Meade knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters apparently giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade. He fought effectively during the Overland Campaign (including the Battle of the Wilderness), and the Battle 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 General Philip Sheridan received most of the credit. He commanded the Army of the Potomac until the Union victory in 1865.
General 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 (LL.D.) from Harvard University, and his scientific achivements were recognized by various institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.
Meade died in Philadelphia on November 6, 1872, due to complications from his old wounds, combined with pneumonia. There are various statues of him throughout Pennsylvania, including a few in Gettysburg. Also, the US Army installation Fort George G. Meade in Fort Meade, Maryland is named for him.