George Gordon Meade was one of 11 children and was born on December 31, 1815 of American Parents then living in Cadiz, Spain. His father, Richard Worsam Meade, a wealthy merchant, ran into financial and legal difficulties there as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, (1804-1815). After returning to Pennsylvania, he went to school at Mount Hope Institution in Baltimore, Maryland. On September 1, 1831, at the age of 16, he entered the US Military Academy. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the Academy, he did well, graduating four years later, ranking 19th in a class of 56 members.

On a brief leave, after graduation, he aided in the survey for the Long Island Railroad. Upon returning to duty he was at once sent to Florida as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 3rd Artillery for service in the Seminole Wars (1834-1842). After contracting a fever he was assigned to ordnance duty at the Watertown, Mass. Arsenal. At this time he had no desire to remain in the army and so he resigned on October 26, 1836 to pursue a career in civil engineering, engaging in work on the Alabama/Georgia/Florida Railroad; then survey work on the Mississippi/Texas border. On December 31, 1840, he was married to Margaretta Sergeant. They had two children: a son, George, born on November 2, 1843; and a daughter Sarah, born on September 26, 1851. After some difficulty in finding employment, he reentered the army on May 18, 1842 as a Second Lieutenant in the topographical engineers. In 1843 he was assigned to North east border survey, and later to work on lighthouse construction in the Delaware Bay until his transfer to Texas for the Mexican War.

He served in the Mexican War (1846-1848) where he was present at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma and Monterey, and was brevetted to First Lieutenant for his service there. After the war, until 1861, he continued in the construction of several lighthouses and breakwaters and in coastal and geodetic survey work, being promoted to Captain on May 19, 1856.