The Gettysburg Campaign   Leave a comment

No Civil War blog would be complete without an entry on Gettysburg. Why? Because of all the battles of this war, Gettysburg seems to stand alone in the collective and popular historical memory of the American people. If the Civil War was America’s “Iliad,” then Gettysburg is perceived as our Troy, a titanic struggle that determined the nation’s fate.

Like many historians, I do not see the battle as the ultimate turning point of the war, although, had things gone differently, it might well have been a shattering defeat for the Union, and one from which the North might never have recovered. Still, however, Gettysburg holds a tremendous fascination, even for the most jaundiced of Civil War historians. I think that is because this battle, perhaps above all others, so strongly reflects the human element of warfare. There were good command decisions and bad ones, many of which are still the topic of great debate. Further, there was the incredible tenacity of the common soldier, where, despite command decisions, the battle simply came down to fierce combat among soldiers; a battle where the plans and decisions of generals mattered little because the struggle became purely a “soldier’s fights.” Finally, there is also the element of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln chose this one battle to symbolize the nature of the war and its ultimate goal of a “new birth of freedom,” forever cementing Gettysburg’s place in American culture.

The Opening Movements

Gen. Robert E. LeeAs the Gettysburg campaign unfolded in June 1863, the two opposing armies and their commanders were a study in contrast. Two years of war and, especially, the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863, had resulted in two armies that seemed, on the surface at least, to be going in opposite directions. The differences were not so much those dictated by numbers of available combatants or by equipment because, by the time the two armies met in Pennsylvania, both were remarkably equivalent in those aspects of relative military strength. Instead, the differences were all closely related and were based upon morale, psychology, and, perhaps most importantly, perception. As such, they would impact the opening days of the campaign as well as its eventual outcome.

The aftermath of the Battle of Chancellorsville found the Army of Northern Virginia slightly bruised and battered but with its morale high, supremely confidant in themselves and their leaders. While the loss of General Stonewall Jackson had been painful, the results of the battle gave them an even more unshakable faith in their commander, Robert E. Lee. At Chancellorsville, Lee committed a military sin when he, first, divided his army in the face of a superior enemy, assaulting him on two fronts. He then compounded his “sin” by further dividing his force in order to have Jackson march through the tangled terrain of the Wilderness to attack the Army of the Potomac on its exposed right flank. The result was a stunning victory and, in the minds of his men, Lee was a master who could lead them to victory anywhere, anytime.

Photo-1For his part, Lee seemed to believe his army and his beloved men could do anything. Eight months previously, they had performed spectacularly in his Maryland campaign, where he pushed them almost to the breaking point with forced marches, and, at Chancellorsville, they had again done whatever he asked, even when it seemed impossible. The adoration between the soldiers and their general was mutual, complete, and, perhaps, dangerously so. In many soldiers’ minds, Lee could do no wrong and their opponent was seen as weak and unworthy. At the same time, in Lee’s mind, his faith in his army’s ability to do the impossible may have reached a point where his military judgment and strategic and tactical decision-making were actually clouded by excessive confidence and unrealistic expectations.

At the same time, all was not well in the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia. The loss of Stonewall Jackson was deep in a very real and military sense, perhaps more so than anyone truly realized at the time. Jackson was eccentric, aggressive, and, at times, even brilliant in the field. For Lee, who clearly favored bold tactics and a “hit them hard” approach, Jackson was the favored executor of those tactics and his right arm. Now, that important element was gone.

In the wake of Jackson’s loss, Lee was left with General James Longstreet, the steady but cautious commander of the First Corps, and a collection of other officers who, while seemingly competent, had never commanded a corps and were certainly not as brilliantly aggressive as Jackson. Plus, the two corps that made up the Army of Northern Virginia were larger than usual for the era. Therefore, Lee decided to reorganize the army into three corps of three divisions each and assigned them Generals Longstreet, Ewell, and A.P. Hill, respectively. Ewell and Hill had proven to be able division commanders, but now they would be asked to command a corps in a major campaign.  Further, it is important to note that Confederate losses in terms of officers and, in particular, regiment commanders had been high at Chancellorsville. This, combined with Lee’s reorganization, resulted in a command structure that was filled with new faces from top to bottom. Therefore, as the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to move north, it was reorganized, had many new commanders, but was reasonably well equipped, and, most of all, it was very confident.  As historian Edwin Coddington points out, it had become “convinced of its invincibility,” and had developed “the attitude that breeds overconfidence, which in turn leads to mistakes when the foe proves worthy of his mettle.”

Lee's Corps Commanders

That foe, meanwhile, was something of a contrast with the Army of Northern Virginia in the days following Chancellorsville. The men of the Army of the Potomac were confident in themselves as soldiers, and their commanding officers from the regiment to corps level knew their men could fight and fight well. They were well-fed, well-trained, and well-equipped. The men had shown themselves to be hardy, brave, and even courageous fighters. But neither the men nor most of their immediate commanders had any faith or confidence in their commanding general, Joseph Hooker.

Gen. Joe HookerFor the Chancellorsville campaign, Hooker had devised a brilliant turning maneuver that he and his army executed flawlessly. However, when the fighting began, the usually exuberant and flamboyant Hooker became fearful, cautious, and completely unable to effectively command the army. Essentially, Hooker suffered from an inability to fight a battle “on the map.” In other words, while he had proven himself to be an able tactical commander in the field at the division and corps level, where he could see all his men and see the enemy, he could not seem to command an entire army spread across a larger area where he physically could not see them. Plus, as the battle unfolded, he became gripped with a fear of failure. Finally, when his opponent, Robert E. Lee, did not behave as planned and responded with unconventional tactics, Hooker not only froze, he panicked. Even after his army had been flanked and the XI Corps sent reeling from Jackson’s sudden attack on the right flank, Hooker’s force was still intact and capable of punishing the enemy. But, Hooker did not seem to know how to adapt his plan, regroup, and regain the initiative he had surrendered. Therefore, he elected to withdraw and add another defeat to the growing list of losses for the Army of the Potomac.

Gen. John BufordAs Lee planned and organized for his campaign, Hooker did little planning and simply went into a reactive posture, which remained the case until he resigned from command weeks later. In addition, the only major change he made organizationally involved the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. Prior to Chancellorsville, Hooker placed the cavalry into an independent corps. This would allow them to be commanded by a cavalry officer and, hopefully, to be used far more effectively. However, he was still disappointed in how that arm had performed during the campaign and, he relieved General George Stoneman of command, dispersing some of his key lieutenants, such as General William Averell, to other commands outside the Army of the Potomac. In his place, Hooker appointed General Alfred Pleasanton based solely on seniority, which was a procedural problem that had long plagued the Union armies. General John Buford, a talented, seasoned cavalry veteran, was probably a better choice than Pleasanton, but he lacked seniority by a mere eleven days.  This too, however, would prove to be somewhat providential for the Union forces since Buford, who would now commanded the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps, would perform brilliantly in the coming campaign and play a crucial tactical role in the early hours of the fighting at Gettysburg.

The commanders of Hooker’s infantry corps, meanwhile, were a mixed bag. Overall, however, they were a solid group. George Meade, commanding V Corps, was competent, reliable, and steady, as was  John Sedgwick, who led VI Corps. John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock, who commanded I and II Corps, respectively, were both men who shared a talent for tactics that bordered on the brilliant. They also were men who had the ability to inspire all around them when under fire, especially Hancock. Unfortunately, after these four officers, there was a steep drop in talent.  General Oliver Howard of XI Corps and Henry Slocum of XII were both very ordinary as corps commanders. Plus, Howard carried the stigma of having had his corps break and run under the onslaught of Jackson’s flanking attack at Chancellorsville and, as a result, his men, many of whom were of German origin, earned the dubious nickname of being the “Flying Dutchmen.” Finally, there was General Daniel Sickles, commander of III Corps.  Sickles was a New York politician, a Democrat, and a man seemingly without any military talents except his personal bravery. Other than that, he specialized in conspiracy, cronyism, and always making sure his mistakes could be blamed on the failures of another officer. His sole claim to fame was that he murdered his wife’s lover and, in the ensuing trial, became the first man in American history that was cleared because he found to be temporarily insane.

Union Corps Commanders

All in all, the Army of the Potomac was actually a first class fighting machine. While their morale was low following Chancellorsville, the fighting ability of its officers and men was unquestioned. They merely needed the leadership of a good commander to bring them victory and make them the great army they were waiting to become. As Coddington points out, “To call them hirelings, foreign mercenaries, scum of the cities, and the poorer classes of the country, terms used in derision and contempt by the Southern press and some Confederate officers, reveals a fatal delusion.”

Even before the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee had wanted to take the offensive and seize the initiative before Hooker could mount a summer campaign. However, Hooker was able to briefly throw Lee’s plans off track when he moved his army against Lee at Chancellorsville. Lee, therefore, temporarily postponed his plans to deal with Hooker and, following the defeat of the Union forces, he again resumed his plans for an offensive. For this summer campaign, Lee proposed a new invasion of the North. In many ways, his goals for the campaign were similar to those he espoused in 1862 following his defeat of Union’s Army of Virginia at Second Manassas. First, by moving north across the Potomac, he could get the Army of the Potomac out of Virginia. This would remove the immediate danger to Richmond, and allow Virginia’s farmers to harvest their crops unmolested by Federal forces, enabling them to provide those crops to Lee’s army. Second, by going north, Lee could also strip Maryland and Pennsylvania of much needed food and supplies for his army. Third, Lee could also maneuver so as to keep the Army of the Potomac off balance and, while hopefully avoiding a general engagement, fight it and defeat it piecemeal. This, Lee predicted, might gain political advantage to the Peace Democrats in the North and force a negotiated end to the war on Southern terms.

While all these reasons for the campaign were virtually identical to those he used in 1862, he added one more. Lee defended his plans to President Davis by reasoning that, if he could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and, especially, Washington, the Lincoln administration would be forced to withdraw forces from the West to defend against attack, thus lessening Grant’s stranglehold on Vicksburg. In all likelihood, this argument was as insincere as it was illogical. Throughout the war, Lee repeatedly demonstrated that he either did not understood or cared little for any aspect of the war outside of Virginia. However, he was probably politically astute enough to know how much the fate of Vicksburg meant to Jefferson Davis. While in hindsight it would seem unlikely that anything Lee did would influence Grant’s operations around Vicksburg, Davis was probably ready to grasp at any straw that might save that key city from capture. While there was some initial political maneuvering and misunderstanding of Lee’s objectives, Davis finally gave his consent to Lee’s plan.

Routes to GettysburgLee’s plans for the movement of his army were both sound and relatively simple. He would quietly disengage from the Union forces at his front along the Rappahannock River, and then move his army down the Shenandoah Valley, keeping the Blue Ridge Mountains between himself and Hooker’s army. Using J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry to screen his movements and keep the passes into the Shenandoah blocked, he would move steadily northward and cross the Potomac into Maryland before proceeding into Pennsylvania. Finally, when Hooker actually realized what was happening, Lee would be far to the north, maneuvering at will, raising havoc, and threatening the Federal capitol.

For his part, Hooker seemingly did not have a strategy except to be reactive. He had surrendered the initiative to Lee at Chancellorsville and had no plans to recapture it. When his intelligence indicated movements by the Confederate forces, he was unsure what to make of them. At first, he thought perhaps Stuart was going to attempt another large cavalry raid on the Federal rear. To counter that possibility, he ordered General Pleasanton to take his cavalry, along with some supporting infantry, and attack Stuart’s forces in the Culpeper area. This led to the battle at Brandy Station, which, while it did not break up Stuart’s forces, demonstrated that the Federal cavalry was gaining on its Southern foe in quality and fighting abilities.

As evidence mounted indicating there was more happening here than a mere cavalry raid, Hooker seemed unable to properly analyze his opponent’s actions and formulate a countermove. Even when he seemingly knew Lee’s army was stretched vulnerably along the Shenandoah Valley, he proposed that he attack Lee’s remaining forces at Fredericksburg and thus threaten the Confederate capitol at Richmond. President Lincoln turned this idea down without hesitation and there ensued a continuous series of harsh, combative communications between Hooker and Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and General Halleck. Lincoln urged an attack on Lee’s exposed army as it transited the Shenandoah, but it was to no avail. Hooker was more concerned about again being made the fool in Lee’s game than in countering his opponent’s thrust into the North. Hooker was paralyzed by a fear of what Lee might do. He was so concerned that Lee might again do something unconventional, he could apparently do nothing but attempt to shadow his enemy and move roughly parallel to him.

Even in this, Hooker failed. He grossly underestimated Lee’s rate of movement and soon discovered Lee was already across the Potomac and into northern Maryland. To his credit, however, Hooker did react properly to this threat. He hurried the Army of the Potomac northward with grueling forced marches. In addition, he positioned the army well and placed it such that it could react to any potential move by Lee’s army, and still cover both Washington and Baltimore.

Gen. J.E.B. StuartWhile Hooker was trying to shadow Lee’s army, Lee made his initial error of the campaign by issuing a somewhat unclear order to General Stuart. Lee told Stuart that, if there was no enemy threat at his front, he was to take three of his brigades and move across the Potomac. Then, he was to place himself on Ewell’s right in order to guard the infantry’s flank, watch for enemy movements, and gather supplies. However, the orders offered Stuart some latitude and did not make clear the precise intent of Stuart’s eventual position on Ewell’s right. Unfortunately for Lee, Stuart was the kind of officer who preferred to operate somewhat independently.

In addition, Lee trusted Stuart’s judgment, which is surprising given that Stuart had failed him so miserably on his first invasion of the North in 1862. At that time, Stuart and his command were too busy enjoying the Maryland countryside to monitor McClellan’s movements properly. The result was that Lee, with his army divided, suddenly found the Federal army he assumed to be disorganized and licking its wounds inside the defenses of Washington was, in fact, pressing down on him and placing his army in grave peril. One of the criticisms of Lee has been that he had his favorites and that he failed to properly assess responsibility for what were sometimes grave errors and lapses in judgment. Such was the case with Stuart.

Rather than perceiving the true intent of Lee’s orders, Stuart instead decided to stage a grand raid and ride completely around the Army of the Potomac. This raid, which garnered headlines in the Northern press, was primarily a nuisance to the Federals. Worse, with Stuart out of touch, Lee had no intelligence on the movements of the Army of the Potomac. Late on June 28, with his army spread from Carlisle to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Lee found out through a spy that, not only was the Federal army not still in Virginia, it was, in fact, rapidly approaching Frederick, Maryland. Lee compounded Stuart’s error by not making use of the cavalry he still had on hand to either gather intelligence or screen his army from Federal cavalry. However, when Lee found out the true position of the Army of the Potomac, he began to regroup his forces and move to consolidate them in the face of the newly discovered threat.

Gen. Henry HalleckMeanwhile, command of the Army of the Potomac was in turmoil. Hooker, who had been engaged in a running argument with General Halleck over the need to defend Harper’s Ferry, decided to pay a visit to that garrison on June 27 to determine the situation for himself, firsthand. While there, he and Halleck again exchanged bitter telegrams over the need to defend Harpers Ferry. Suddenly, in one of them, Hooker offered his resignation, stating he could not cover both Harpers Ferry and Washington with the forces at his disposal. Lincoln jumped at the offer and, perhaps much to Hooker’s surprise, accepted Hooker’s resignation.

Within hours, orders from Halleck were delivered to General Meade offering him command of the Army of the Potomac. Meade accepted and immediately began to direct the army’s activities. One of the key elements of Halleck’s instructions to Meade was that he could assign any officer to a post for which he deemed him the best qualified, no matter the seniority of other officers. Meade would make excellent use of this authority during the coming days and it proved to be vital. Meade immediately adjusted the position of the army based on the intelligence he was receiving. He correctly concluded that his greatest threat from Lee was from the left. Therefore, he elected to give command of the left wing of the army and the three corps that comprised it to the very able John Reynolds. Throughout the days leading to the battle, Meade kept a continuous flow of information going to his corps commanders, telling them both what was happening as well as what he expected of them.

Being the cautious and thorough officer that he was, Meade also made contingency plans should he find the need to fall back to a strong defensive position. His engineers found good terrain for such a contingency along Pipe Creek and he issued a circular informing his commanders of the plan. This circular was later misunderstood and used as evidence against Meade, stating that he was overly timid and not sufficiently aggressive. In retrospect, Meade probably should not have disseminated the order so broadly, but he was apparently a strong believer in open communications with his commanders. But, as John Ropes, the distinguished military historian, put it, “In all this, it seems to me that Meade acted with great prudence, and with sufficient boldness.”

As Lee began to consolidate his army in the Gettysburg vicinity, the excellent work of the Federal cavalry came to the forefront. Throughout the campaign, they had done a yeoman’s job of providing intelligence on Lee’s movements, although, at times, General Pleasanton misinterpreted the data when forwarding it. As Meade moved forward, the best information came from John Buford. His reports were always clear, concise, and unambiguous. Luckily for Meade and the Army of the Potomac, Pleasanton had assigned Buford and two of his brigades to cover Reynold’s flank as he moved in the general direction of Gettysburg. This meant that two of Meade’s best were working on the army’s left, where it would soon matter most.

As the opening phase of this great campaign ended, Lee’s army was moving to consolidate against a foe they only knew was nearby, while Meade’s army cautiously positioned itself to engage Lee once the situation dictated. The former was groping in relative darkness, blinded by a lack of intelligence, trying to ensure it was ready once the Federal army’s position became apparent, while the latter was seeking out their opponent, probing and preparing methodically. Both armies were roughly equivalent in strength, and both had seen some turmoil in command and organization. They had moved north stretched out, but now they were consolidating like two great snakes coiling to strike. One army, Lee’s, had long been the defender of its home soil, but now was the invader, while Meade’s army now found themselves defending Union soil for only the second time in the war. All the elements of a historic and inevitable clash were in place, and soon that fight would come.

The Armies Collide

The hours before the opening shots were fired at Gettysburg found the two great armies poised for action, although in slightly different ways. On the one hand, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was consolidating its somewhat scattered forces, unsure of the enemy’s precise location and strength, but knowing it was much nearer than anticipated. As the various corps moved toward the Cashtown area, Lee made it clear to his commanders that he desired to avoid a general engagement until all of the army was gathered. Meade, meanwhile, had ably positioned his forces to respond to Lee along almost any axis of attack the Confederate general might choose. His corps were edging northward, deployed along the region’s road structure in such a fashion that they could quickly move to consolidate and counter Lee’s forces. Unlike Lee, however, Meade had a better feel for his opponent’s position thanks to the able services of his cavalry, especially those provided by General John Buford.

Buford, who had been tasked to support General Reynolds and the left wing of the army, had supplied Reynolds and Meade with good intelligence on Lee’s movements. Ordered to Gettysburg with two of his brigades, Buford arrived there on the morning of July 30. Within hours, Buford was aware that two of Ewell’s divisions were on the roads from York and Carlisle moving towards Heidlersburg, and, most importantly, that Hill’s corps was in the vicinity of Cashtown, probing towards Gettysburg. The latter was ascertained directly when some of Buford’s men encountered Pettigrew’s brigade on the road from Cashtown. After this encounter, Pettigrew withdrew and reported to Hill and Heth that Federal troops, which he believed to be a portion of the Army of the Potomac, were in Gettysburg. This report was received with some disbelief since Hill had just returned from a conference with General Lee at which it was concluded the Federal army was somewhere near Middleburg. Believing Buford’s force to have simply been a reconnaissance element, Heth requested and received permission from Hill to advance his entire division on Gettysburg the next morning.

Buford, meanwhile, took matters far more seriously. In a battle that would hinge on critical decisions, Buford made the first and, perhaps, one of the most important command decisions. After relaying what he had found to Reynolds and Meade, he elected to make preparations for what he later termed as “entertaining” the enemy until Reynolds and the infantry could arrive. These preparations involved the deployment of his men to conduct a defense in depth, designed to slow the enemy’s advance and give Federal infantry time to reach the field. This tactic, which is one of the most difficult of all military operations, would be both planned and executed to near perfection by Buford and his men.

Buford on McPherson's Ridge

While the facts of Buford’s defense on July 1 are well known, there has been a great deal of discussion on why Buford decided to stand and fight at Gettysburg. General Pleasanton would later testify that he ordered Buford to hold Gettysburg at all costs, although that claim is dubious at best as there is no record of that order from Pleasanton. Therefore, it seems Buford may have made this decision on his own. If so, it seems very plausible that, as a skilled and seasoned professional, Buford could see the value of the terrain in the vicinity of Gettysburg. Given the fact that the enemy seemed intent on consolidating his forces in the area, Buford probably decided that, rather than simply reporting what he had seen, he would attempt to hold what he believed to be a critical position.

Buford's Statue at GettysburgIf so, it was a decision that should be noted not only for its value to the eventual outcome of the battle, but also, as I pointed out in an earlier essay, for the exceptional moral courage and decisiveness Buford demonstrated in making it. A lesser officer would probably have simply reported what he had seen and then withdrawn in the face of a vastly superior force. But John Buford, with the skills of a consummate professional, saw the value of the ground he occupied and, rather than making the easy choice, he elected to fight a difficult and dangerous delaying action in the hope of preserving a vital advantage for the Army of the Potomac.

As Heth’s division moved towards Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, they were so confident they would meet little or no resistance, they did not even deploy skirmishers. Buford, who had planned for successive lines of defense, placed small picket or vidette posts in an arc to the west and north of Gettysburg to provide initial warning of the enemy’s advance. When the first of these encountered Heth’s men coming east on the road from Cashtown, they fired the initial shots of the battle and warned Buford of the enemy’s arrival. With this encounter, Heth’s forces deployed skirmishers and, eventually, as additional resistance was encountered, Heth was forced to deploy from column into line of battle, which took time, valuable time for the Federal forces. Buford’s men fell back to Herr Ridge and, finally, McPherson’s Ridge, fighting a continuing battle of delay. Buford made able use of his artillery, spreading them out so as to give the impression there was greater artillery strength than he actually possessed. As stated earlier, his tactics were nearly perfect and they achieved the desired results, buying nearly three hours of time for Reynold’s to advance his infantry to Gettysburg.

Heth assaults I CorpsAs the infantry of I Corps took their positions on McPherson’s Ridge, relieving Buford’s men, they took up positions south and north on the Chambersburg Pike, and were able to blunt the initial assaults of Archer and Davis’ brigades. However, not long after their arrival, I Corps lost General Reynolds, who was killed by enemy fire, and command of the corps fell to the far less able General Doubleday. Over the next few hours, however, I Corps ably defended its ground, stopping attack after attack. However, it was fighting a protracted battle of attrition. As their casualties mounted and more of Hill’s corps reached the field, much of the fighting shifted north of the Chambersburg Pike and I Corps’ position steadily weakened. However, the difficult, violent, and valiant defense of the terrain west of Gettysburg by I Corps, as with Buford’s men earlier, served a vital purpose by buying time for the remainder of the army to move to Gettysburg.

As word of the fighting reached Meade, he hurried the remainder of the army towards Gettysburg. The second major unit to arrive on the field was XI Corps under the command of General Howard. As the ranking officer on the field, Howard assumed overall command, placed his reserves on Cemetery Hill, and established his headquarters there. As the bulk of his corps arrived, Howard turned command of XI Corps over to General Schurz, and deployed his men north of the town on the right flank of I Corps to counter the approach of Ewell’s corps. However, the deployment of XI Corps would turn out to be haphazard and poorly conceived. They were poorly positioned to support one another’s flanks and, while they would put up a fight as best they could, their leadership failed them by placing them in exposed and untenable positions.

Further, Howard’s decision to command from so far to the rear in such a dynamic battlefield situation proved to be costly. Had he moved forward and remained more mobile, where he could observe events first-hand, he might have seen the need to reposition the units of XI Corps to better support one another as the Confederate strength on the battlefield increased. Instead, with the exception of a brief trip to Seminary Ridge to confer with Doubleday, he seems to have remained to the rear, relying on communications from his subordinates to give him a picture of the battlefield. As a result, his moves were entirely reactive and, as I Corps weakened and XI Corps quickly collapsed, the Federals were forced into an orderly retreat to Cemetery Hill. In retrospect, Howard’s decision to place his reserves on Cemetery Hill, thus providing a strong point for the rallying of the retreating units from I Corps and XI Corps along with newly arriving Union forces, was, perhaps, his only positive contribution to the eventual Federal success at Gettysburg.

I and XI Corps retreatAt this point late in the afternoon of July 1, the Confederate forces followed the retreat of I and XI Corps through Gettysburg, but paused upon confronting the new Federal positions on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. The town itself had slowed their pursuit of the Union forces and now, Ewell and Hill faced a decision on what to do next. While they had won a tactical victory, they also became involved in the sort of general engagement Lee had advised them to avoid. For his part, Hill had suffered significant losses in his fight with I Corps and was content with what had been gained. Ewell, meanwhile, expressed the opinion that he had brought his troops to Gettysburg as instructed and did not feel he should continue his advance without further instructions. Therefore, he conferred with his staff and exchanged messages with Lee on what was to be done next.

For his part, Lee was justifiably cautious, electing to leave the decision on further action to General Ewell. Lee had ended up with a fight he had not planned for and, while his army had done well, he still did not have his entire force on the field nor a clear picture of the position and strength of the Army of the Potomac. Therefore, he chose to fall back on one of his preferred methods of command, suggesting to Ewell that he could attack the Federal positions, if practicable, and, again, advising him to avoid a general engagement.

Ewell responded that he would attempt an attack but needed additional support, especially on his right. Unfortunately, no such support was available. Therefore, Ewell deferred from making a vigorous assault and decided to send one division to seize Culp’s Hill, which they believed to be unoccupied. Ewell hoped a successful attack there would force the Federals to abandon Cemetery Hill. However, when his men began to move on Culp’s Hill, they found it already occupied and defended by the Army of the Potomac. While Ewell was strongly criticized on some fronts for not attacking Cemetery Hill, it is unlikely such an assault would have been successful. By the time Ewell had coordinated with Lee and his subordinate commanders, the Federal position on the hill was becoming stronger by the minute. According to Edwin Coddington’s study, Federal forces on Cemetery Hill numbered more than 20,000 by 6:00 p.m., and more of the army was arriving and being quickly positioned to oppose such an attack.

Hancock on Cemetery HillIn addition, the Federal position had also been strengthened by the presence of General Winfield Scott Hancock. Although junior to Howard, Hancock had been dispatched to Gettysburg by Meade shortly after the latter learned of Reynold’s death and ordered to take command. Meade wanted someone he could trust and rely on in command, and Hancock was an ideal choice. Not only was Hancock a superb battlefield tactician, he also possessed an inspiring physical presence on the field, something that would be badly needed that afternoon on Cemetery Hill. Hancock arrived shortly after the Federal retreat began and assumed command from Howard. While Hancock’s appointment was a source of apparent consternation to Howard, the two men worked together to quickly turn Cemetery Hill into what Hancock referred to as a position that “cannot well be taken.” As a result, had Ewell elected to attack, he would have assaulted a strong position commanded by one of the Union’s ablest battlefield commanders.

Throughout the night of July 1 and into the morning of July 2, more men from both armies continued moving towards Gettysburg. Much of the second day would see the two armies positioning their forces and, in fact, the vicious fighting that marked July 2 would not occur until the final three hours before sunset. While Lee had already arrived on the scene, Meade would not appear until early on the morning of July 2. Once assured by his generals that this was, indeed, a good place to fight, Meade set about learning the ground and positioning his army. Meade elected to leave XI Corps in position on Cemetery Hill with XII Corps on their right, holding Culp’s Hill. II Corps, meanwhile, would move into the left of XI Corps and extend the Union line to the south along Cemetery Ridge, with Sickles’ III Corps continuing that line all the way to the vicinity of Big Round Top. The battered remnants of I Corps, along with the rapidly approaching V and VI Corps would be held in reserve.

Sickles position on the Emmitsburg RoadUnfortunately, not all went as planned. III Corps was placed along the Emmitsburg Road by Sickles, far in advance of the line Meade desired and deployed in such a manner that both its flanks were exposed. The right of Sickles line was nearly a half a mile in front of II Corps and its left curved to the southeast away from the road but far from the anchor Meade had desired at the base of Big Round Top. To be certain, the position had certain advantages in that the ground along the road was slightly higher than the position Sickles would have occupied, but other areas, such as the low ground along Plum Run, were very vulnerable. Worst of all, the line was exceedingly thin, which, once the fighting began, forced Meade to commit men from his reserves than would have otherwise not been required. In fact, Sickles’ force of less than 10,000 men was stretched nearly a mile and a half, almost twice the length it would have occupied if it had been placed as Meade desired.

How the situation occurred was the result of an all too human process. Sickles essentially thought the position he picked was the better one. While Meade had been clear in what he desired for the deployment of III Corps, Sickles sought and received permission to place his corps as he deemed “most suitable.” However, he ignored or chose to liberally interpret Meade’s provision that the placement be “within the limits of the general instructions” Meade had previously issued. Then, due to poor staff work and flawed communications, it would be late afternoon before Meade discovered the error and the impending assault of Longstreet’s corps made it impossible to correct Sickles’ alignment.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the field, the planning and execution process had problems perhaps even greater than those experienced by Meade and his army. The process between Lee and his generals, even in historical hindsight, is still somewhat confusing. What is clear is that, despite the fact Lee did not know the precise strength of the force he now opposed at Gettysburg, he was determined to fight that force and defeat it there. In addition, in discussing plans and options with his commanders, it seems he found them to be either lacking in enthusiasm, extremely hesitant, or, in the case of Longstreet, in complete opposition. As for the latter, Longstreet proposed not to attack at all, but, rather, to make a strategic turning maneuver to the right and fight a defensive battle on ground suitable to the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee apparently rejected this idea, which may have upset Longstreet to such an extent that it affected his behavior and performance during the remainder of the battle.

The plan Lee developed called for Ewell to make demonstrations on the left, which would be turned into a full offensive action if circumstances warranted, while the main attack occurred on the right. The basis for Lee’s decision to focus his attack on the Union left were the result of three different reconnaissance efforts, conducted on the morning of July 2. These reconnaissance efforts led Lee to incorrectly believe that the Union left only extended a short distance down the ridge from Cemetery Hill and that no substantial Union forces occupied either the high ground along Emmitsburg Road or the two Round Tops.

Gettysburg-July-2_thumb3 Therefore, Lee’s initial plan called for a seizure of the Peach Orchard area followed by an oblique attack designed to smash and roll up the Union left flank. In this assault plan, Longstreet’s corps was to attack the far left of the Union line, while Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps supported on Longstreet’s left. Unfortunately, through a series of marching errors and delays, Longstreet’s men were not in place until late in the afternoon, giving Union forces more time to assemble. While there seemingly was little discussion of tactics, the original concept was for McLaws to initially seize the Peach Orchard, which would provide an excellent position for artillery support of the full assault coming from both McLaws and Hood against a Union left thought to be somewhere to the rear and left of the Peach Orchard.

However, at some point, this plan changed. Longstreet’s recollection of events indicates the plan of attack was changed by Lee himself, once it was discovered the Peach Orchard was occupied by a sizable force of Union troops. As a result, the final attack plan would call for a progressive, en echelon attack beginning with Hood’s division, followed by McLaws’, and then an attack by Anderson as Longstreet’s men reached his front. Had the Union left been as weak as Lee had been led to believe and positioned where he thought it was, the plan would have been a reasonable one, as it would have subjected the Union left flank to intense pressure and an eventual pincer-like envelopment. As it was, the attack would encounter far more resistance from a determined foe who was not deployed where he was thought to be.

Even after this change was made, however, the Confederate attack plan still encountered unexpected problems when Hood found the area in front of his line was also occupied by Union infantry and artillery. Hood then learned that the area to his right, in the vicinity of the Round Tops, was completely open. He pleaded with Longstreet, both through couriers and in person, to change the plan of attack and allow him to move over and around the hills to endanger the Federal rear. However, at this point, Longstreet adamantly denied the requests, seemingly determined to carry out Lee’s attack plan, which he had originally opposed. Whether Longstreet had run out of patience, or simply decided to carry out Lee’s orders without regard to the enemy’s actual deployment, is hard to determine. Whatever his thinking or emotional state, he ordered his men to go forward with the attack as planned despite the fact that the tactical situation had clearly changed.

Hood’s attack on the Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, and the opposing Union defense of those positions, quickly became what could be characterized as a “soldier’s fight,” one in which the actions of individual units, their commanders, and the average soldier become more important than the original plan. In some places, especially in Devil’s Den, the fighting took on the characteristics of a nasty brawl. Units had to quickly alter their fronts in defense based on a rapidly changing situation and difficult terrain. For their part, the Union forces in the Devil’s Den area were, indeed, thin and Hood’s men overlapped their left flank. The weight of Hood’s assaulting force was overwhelming in comparison and the attack quickly split into two sections, with one going after the Union forces in Rose’s Wood and Devil’s Den, while the other swept around them to the right towards the Round Tops and an exposed Union left flank.

Hood's attack on Devil's DenBut, despite the Union disadvantages, any idea that the Confederate assault simply rolled over the Union defenders at Devil’s Den is clearly incorrect. Here, as with the rest of the defense of Sickles’ salient position, the Union defense was a determined one. Unlike at Chancellorsville, there was no general rout of those defending the Union flank. Ground was given grudgingly and those Confederate units who took the ground did not do so cheaply. However, the ground was taken and the Union forces in that sector were forced to withdraw towards the Wheatfield Road.

As far as the attack by Hood against Little Round Top, the situation was entirely different as Meade’s reserves made themselves a deciding factor. As the left of Hood’s division battled at Devil’s Den, the right wing moved through the rocky valley below Little Round Top, with some of them actually scaling the sides of Big Round Top before sliding down into the valley between the two hills. When Hood’s attack began, there were no Union troops on Little Round Top except for a small signal station. That situation, however, quickly changed. Luckily for the Union forces, Meade had dispatched General Warren to assess the situation on the far left flank. Climbing to the top of Little Round Top, Warren could see that Hood’s attack was about to envelop the left of Sickle’s line and that the hill he was standing on was the key to holding the flank. He sought assistance from General Sykes, whose V Corps was moving up to support Sickles. Sykes sent a rider to find General Barnes and tell him to quickly move a brigade to Little Round Top.

View from Little Round Top towards Devil's DenWhile the rider never found Barnes, he did encounter one of his brigades led by Colonel Strong Vincent. Vincent, in a move that exemplifies great initiative and leadership, made the decision to move his brigade to Little Round Top on his own authority. In addition, once his brigade arrived on the hill, Vincent ably deployed them in an excellent defensive position on a shelf about two-thirds up the hillside. Here, small unit tactics would truly prove the critical factor. Vincent’s men would hold off repeated attacks by regiments from Robertson and Law’s brigades of Hood’s division. On the far left, the last Union regiment in line, the 20th Maine, would make a defense that was to become legendary. In fact, more than a 120 years later, the U.S. Army Leadership Manual, FM22-100, would devote its first twelve pages to the defense of the Union left at Little Round Top as a case study in leadership and unit cohesion under fire.

The 20th Maine, led by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, who had only held his position a few weeks, would stop repeated attacks by the 47th and 15th Alabama. Chamberlain would ably maneuver his regiment, refusing his line to counter attempts to turn his flank. Finally, when his men were virtually out of ammunition and he anticipated another assault, Chamberlain ordered a counterattack with fixed bayonets. Ironically, at that same moment, the 15th Alabama was about to retreat. The retreat quickly became an unorganized rout as Chamberlain’s men swept down the hillside on the surprised Alabamans.

Assault on Little Round TopChamberlain’s counterattack, combined with stiff resistance and additional support to the remainder of the Union line on Little Round Top stopped and then turned back Hood’s assault on the far left. While there were still to be anxious moments and terrible fighting in the Union’s defense of other sectors of the line, the Union’s strong reserves and their ability to put up a determined fight had begun to turn back Lee’s attack.

The Final Climax

As the evening of July 2, 1863 approached, the massive Confederate assault on the Union left had begun to wane. Despite initial successes, Longstreet’s attack came to a halt as his units lost momentum due to their own losses and the impact of resistance from Federal reserves. Longstreet’s attack was to have been coordinated with an assault by Ewell’s corps on the Federal right. Ewell’s attack was to have functioned as a demonstration or diversion, which would become a major attack if the opportunity presented itself. Ewell planned his attack to move from left to right, with Johnson’s division moving up the steep, rocky slopes of Culp’s Hill, followed quickly by Early’s division assaulting the northeastern side of Cemetery Hill.

Ewell's attack on Culp's HillUnfortunately for Lee and his army, Ewell did not attack when Longstreet did and, in fact, his attack did not start until Longstreet’s offensive was over and darkness was quickly overtaking the battlefield. Johnson’s men made their attack on Culp’s Hill and became engaged in a protracted, vicious fight in the darkness that saw them make gains on the lower portion of Culp’s Hill, but nowhere else. The Federal forces on the hill, meanwhile, had been weakened by withdrawal of units needed to shore up the Federal left and center. However, the remaining Federals under the command of Brigadier General George Greene put up tremendous resistance and, eventually, the XII Corps units that had been pulled away returned to help stall the Confederate attack. Had Johnson attacked at the correct time, those units might have been unable to return in time to help Greene fight off the attack. Once again, as would happen throughout the battle, Confederate efforts had been blunted because their inability to coordinate attacks allowed Meade’s army to shift forces when needed.

When Johnson’s men were engaged on Culp’s Hill, Early began to move the brigades of Hays and Hoke against Cemetery Hill. While the Union defensive position there might have appeared formidable, they were not so strong as one might expect. First, the XI Corps units manning the defenses on the hill had been badly mauled by Ewell’s men on July 1 and, now, they had to ensure they defended both sides of the hill from attack. Next, the position was essentially a salient that pointed north towards Gettysburg. As such, it was vulnerable to simultaneous attacks from the west and east sides and, as noted by Confederate General Porter Alexander, it was especially susceptible to enfilading artillery fire. In fact, Alexander considered the position both vulnerable enough and strategic enough to have warranted the focus of Lee’s attack on July 3 instead of Cemetery Ridge.

Early attacks Cemetery HillIt must also be noted that Cemetery Hill was, indeed, of great strategic importance to the Army of the Potomac. It was the anchor point for the north end of the Union line and its loss could have led to the collapse of the entire right flank of the army. In addition, Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill both were vital to control of the Baltimore Pike and, thus, Meade’s lines of communication and a potential avenue of retreat.

Given the hill’s salient nature, a simultaneous attack against the northeastern and western face of the Union defenses would have seemed the best chance for success. Apparently, there was some thinking in this direction as Ewell had intended for Rodes’ division to attack the opposite side of the hill. Once again, however, a Confederate unit was not in position when it should have been and, in this instance, did not even seem to attempt an attack. In fact, Rodes’ maneuvers could hardly even be referred to as a feint. However, Rodes was not entirely to blame. He was expecting Pender’s division from Hill’s corps to support his right, but Pender’s men never materialized despite pleas from Ewell. This sort of lack of cooperation was not unique within the Army of Northern Virginia, and, at Gettysburg, it was not only a typical problem, it was also a fatal flaw.

XI Corps holds Cemetery HillAs a result, Early’s men attacked Cemetery Hill without support on their right, confining the attack to the northeastern side of the hill. The opposing XI Corps’ infantry were made more vulnerable when their division commander, Adelbert Ames, elected to shift the 17th Connecticut to the right, creating a gap in the line near its northern end. Early’s men took advantage of the gap and drove through it and up the hill towards the Federal artillery. Several of Ames’ regiments fell back and reformed to defend the guns, while other stoutly maintained their positions at the base of the hill. As the fighting ensued in darkness, XI Corps units from west of the pike along with Carroll’s brigade from II Corps were able to bolster the Union defenders and counterattack to drive Early’s men off the hill. Here once more, the lack of coordinated Confederate pressure allowed Union forces to shift manpower when they needed it most. That ability, combined with hard fighting by the defending XI Corps infantry and artillery, was enough to turn Early back and end the threat to Cemetery Hill.

The next morning, Lee ordered a second attack on Culp’s Hill. In all likelihood, Lee intended that this attack would take place at the same time as an assault by Longstreet on the right flank. But, once again, poor coordination and the inept Confederate command system resulted in problems for the Army of Northern Virginia. Pickett’s division, which was supposed to move up and be ready to attack at dawn, was not in place, and Ewell’s men were left to attack on their own.

Historian Jeffrey Wert states his opinion that Lee had no knowledge of the “tactical situation on Ewell’s front” when he issued the order. But, Ewell overrode the objections of his own commanders and supported Lee’s orders. Ewell should have known better but Ewell had never personally examined the terrain and Union defenses on Culp’s Hill. This lack of tactical awareness seems to have plagued the Confederate command structure at Gettysburg. At critical moments, there seems to have been a distinct lack of awareness by key commanders, including Lee himself, of terrain, of defenses, and of the overall tactical situation. This kind of awareness is what any modern soldier would term as the all-important “preparation of the battlefield.” Why it was in such short supply in the Army of Northern Virginia is a compelling question.

Union forces defend Culp's Hill-July 3

The XII Corps defenders were planning a counterattack to regain the lower portion of the hill when Ewells men struck. Despite the fact Ewell had doubled the number of attackers, the assault would fail. The Union field fortifications, the terrain, and the actions of the Federal defenders were simply too much for Ewell’s men to overcome. Despite three separate assaults by Johnson’s men, they would never really come close to breaking the Union line atop the upper hill and they were badly mauled by the intense rifle fire of the XII Corps. While the victory at Culp’s Hill was crucial for the Union’s position, the Confederate attack was probably a misguided and ill-fated effort. Even if it had been coordinated with an attack by Longstreet, it probably would have failed. The Union defenses were simply too strong and the forces on-hand were more than sufficient to turn Ewell’s men back. In the end, it was an unnecessary and useless waste of good men.

With Pickett’s men absent, Lee now considered his alternatives. He was determined to attack again and, again, he summarily dismissed Longstreet’s idea of a move around the Federal right. At first, he wanted Longstreet to attack the Union left as planned with McLaws, Hood, and Pickett, once the latter arrived. When Longstreet was able to talk his commander out of this idea, Lee began to focus on the Federal center, on the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge that would soon become so much a part of the collective American memory.

When stripped down to its basic elements, Lee’s plan for what became popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge” was very basic. His concept called a large-scale infantry assault against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, which was to be preceded by a massive artillery barrage. Once the leading infantry units broke through the Federal line, they would be quickly followed by supporting troops who would then exploit the breakthrough and turn down the Federal line, rolling up the defending Union infantry in the process. It was shock assault tactics at its most basic, relying on firepower and focused use of mass.

However, despite the fact that the plan was developed by a man regarded by many then and now as a tactical genius, it was badly flawed. The plan for the attack relied heavily on the ability of Confederate artillery to either seriously damage Federal batteries or force them to pull their guns back. This was a critical ingredient in the plan because Lee’s infantry would be forced to cross nearly a mile of open terrain where they would be within range of Federal guns almost from the moment they stepped off. Therefore, for the infantry, it was matter of exposure both in the sense of the terrain as well as in time and distance. Unfortunately, the Southern artillery was not up to the task. Its long-range ammunition was in short supply and much of it was of poor quality.

Pickett's Charge MapIn addition, preparation of the battlefield was again lacking. Not only would the open, slightly undulating terrain expose the Southern infantry to Federal artillery fire, the point chosen for the attack could not have been worse in that it allowed virtually every battery the Army of the Potomac to be used to counter the attack. Not only would batteries on Cemetery Ridge come into play, but Federal guns on Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top would be able to reach out and hit the attacking infantry. In fact, over 120 guns would eventually be deployed against the Confederate assault. Further, there were the fences along Emmitsburg Road. These would slow the infantry down and break up their formations just as they came within effective rifle and canister range of the Union positions. These factors should have been obvious to an experienced military engineer like Lee, but they were apparently either overlooked or dismissed. As Porter Alexander would later observe, “The point selected and the method of attack would certainly have been chosen for us by the enemy had they had the choice.”

When the attack began, Confederate artillery did unleash a seemingly impressive barrage. However, while noisy and spectacular, it did not achieve the desired results. Federal artillery was not silenced. In fact, it soon began to respond and gave back more than it received. Lee’s guns received effective counter-battery fire, which further limited their effectiveness. In fact, Porter Alexander, whose job it was to advise Longstreet and Pickett when the latter should move his infantry forward, was finally moved to do so primarily because he was running out of both ammunition and guns.

Picketts’ infantry assault is notable primarily for its bravery. The men went in as ordered and Federal long-range artillery began to take an immediate toll. By the time they reached the fences, their combat power was already beginning to wane. The effect of the fences was exactly as could have been predicted. Those who made it beyond the road were subjected to heavy rifle and canister fire as they moved up the gentle slope towards the stone walls on the ridge. They would actually pierce the Federal line at several points, but a staunch defense and localized counterattacks turned them back. It was all a matter of a poorly conceived and planned attack going against a determined, well-positioned defender. No amount of bravery would change the outcome.

Pickett's Charge-Rocco

While one might ask what would have happened if Pickett’s assault had succeeded, it is perhaps better to ask if it ever could have succeeded. First, it should be noted that exploring “what ifs” in past battles is a tricky and difficult task. Anyone who has ever conducted a postmortem examination of a military operation can tell you that it is a difficult thing to do, even if the battle was yesterday. The problem is that there are so many variables and so many nuances that could be influenced by a single change in events. This problem compounds itself as time passes, making “what if” analyses a practice that might be fun, but one that rarely produces much of historical value.

Still, when one examines Pickett’s attack, it must be said that, as planned, it had little chance and, as executed, it had even less. Confederate artillery was simply not up to the task it was given and, without it being effective, the attack had little chance. Further, there is also the question of the use of supporting troops to exploit the breakthroughs made by Pickett’s men. Indeed, there was such a role planned for Wilcox and Lang’s brigades, but Longstreet, who opposed the entire concept for the attack, never sent them forward. If he had, one might wonder if they would have made a difference.

However, the answer to that question is that they probably would not have made an effective difference. Had they followed close on the heels of Pickett and Pettigrew’s men, they would have been subjected to the same long-range artillery fire, especially from the batteries along the Union flanks, which ceased to fire at the leading assault elements once they closed on Cemetery Ridge. In addition, the use of supporting troops to exploit a breach in the enemy’s lines was a difficult thing to accomplish during the Civil War. Follow-on units had a tendency to become crowded in with those in front of them and had problems trying to maintain a cohesive formation as they approached the point of attack. In this case, one can well imagine Wilcox and Lang’s forces, having been weakened by artillery fire as they crossed the field to Emmitsburg Road, simply bogging down as they crowded in with the surviving elements of the lead assault, before they too were subjected to a galling close range fire, and melted away at the stone wall.

Meanwhile, as Union defenders turned Pickett back, there was also some significant action occurring along the flanks by Federal Cavalry. On the Union right, General David Gregg’s men outfought Stuart’s cavalry in a fight for control of roads critical to the Union position. Had Gregg failed, Stuart could have easily threatened the Union rear and altered the character of the battle. Perhaps more potentially important, however, was the fighting along the Union left. Here, Kilpatrick and Merritt conducted cavalry operations that, while costly and disjointed, offered an opportunity to counterattack Lee’s army in the aftermath of Pickett’s defeat. When reading the accounts of Farnsworth’s ill-fated attack, one cannot help but wonder what the Federal infantry on the Union left was doing during this time. Here was a golden opportunity to drive McLaws’ and Hood’s men from the field and roll up the Confederate right, if only someone had ordered it. It raises question as to how much Meade knew about these operations as they were occurring. It would appear that, while he would later report these actions, he either knew little of them as they happened or simply did not see the opportunity they presented.

As it happened, Meade did not order a counterattack of any kind, even though men like Hancock recommended it. Some historians believe that Meade’s decision to simply take what he had won was a wise one and the only realistic option. It may have been so, but only because Meade seems not to have prepared for such an eventuality. He had mentally accepted the defensive role and had no contingency plan for anything but staying where he was or retreating. Swiftly organizing an offensive counterattack by a force committed wholesale to the defensive would probably have seemed an impossible and irresponsible thing to do to George Meade. Certainly, Ulysses Grant might have done otherwise if placed in the same situation, but that is yet another tantalizing “what if.”

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Posted January 15, 2012 by bobtexstl in Uncategorized

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