Saturday, April 18, 2015


The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the most important, most misunderstood events in American history.  People always talk about the brilliance of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but in the same breath, you always hear Gettysburg as the one time that he really screwed up, that maybe if things had gone differently on that third day, the whole course of the war might have changed.

Perhaps in the short term, but I doubt anything changes overall.

From the Confederate standpoint, the problem with Gettysburg is the same problem that the Confederacy encountered at Antietam, which is that the Confederate Army was not well suited to invasion.  Soldiers from the South fought well in defense of what they perceived to be their homelands--i.e. their individual states and the South in general--but there was much less enthusiasm for invasion.  Moreover, many of the South's dramatic victories came when the Army of Northern Virginia was itself on the defensive, and while we can acknowledge that and give Lee and others credit for finding ways to turn situations to their advantage tactically, this was at best a stopgap measure considering the Confederacy's strategic problems.  Given the North's overwhelming advantages in men and material, invasion was perhaps the best of a bunch of bad options.  Lee wanted to force the issue and then sue for peace.  However, saying that invasion was the "least worst" option is hardly a ringing endorsement of strategy.  After all, there is little evidence to suggest that invading the North had any long term hope of success.  Even if the South had triumphed at Gettysburg and then burned Washington, DC, to the ground, there were still the teeming masses of New York to contend with, and new arrivals were coming daily.

The Forlorn Hope truly was forlorn.  At best, the Confederacy could hope to bleed the United States Army to the point where Northerners were no longer willing to fight, but this was a vane hope given the U.S. Army's success on every front besides Virginia.   While Lee was gallivanting in Virginia, Grant and Sherman were inexorably carving the Confederacy apart, and the U.S. Navy was starving the rest of the South into submission.  In the end, these things were decisive.

Much has been made of the fact that  Longstreet wanted to split the Army of Northern Virginia, sending his corps west to help against Grant.  I have seen recently where folks criticise Lee for his opposition to this plan, but his opposition was well-placed in my opinion. The South's railroad infrastructure could not support Longstreet's proposed movement, and in any event, it would have endangered the South's only advantage, Lee's singular dominance in the east.  Look at it this way: I find it highly desirable to begin commuting to work via teleportation network.  However, since no teleportation network exists, I have to make other plans.  This is simple reality.  The same argument can be made of the South in 1863.  It was desirable to reinforce the west, but there weren't enough troops, and the distances were too far, and the rail network too unstable to make movement along interior lines as feasible as it was desireable.  It was a nice thought, but it was not going to resolve the larger strategic issues, and if the North somehow caught Longstreet's corps in the open during movement, the Confederacy would have died then and there.

Trying to steal a march
So Lee pushes his point and is allowed to invade.  He wants to win a decisive victory, bring the British in on the side of the Confederacy, and sue for peace.  He may well have known how long his odds were, but it was still his best chance at victory.

In talking about this with my buddy, I've learned that this concept of "least worst option" has gotten a Hell of a lot of traction in the U.S. Army of today.  At this point, let's pause and reflect on how the "least worst options" can lead to disaster.

Tactical solutions very rarely compensate up for strategic problems.

At the time that Lee began his movement north, General Hooker was in command of the Army of the Potomac, keeping it mosty encamped around Washington, DC.  He had a huge force of men, and history would show that he was good at moving his army operationally, but he had a tendency to take counsel of his fears.  He was not so good at seeing the reality of his situation or at recognizing his strategic strengths.  So Lee begins moving north on the far side of the Shenendoah River, thinking that if he threatens the north, Hooker will be forced to leave his entrenched defensive positions and pursue, at which point Lee can eventually take his own defensive position and force Hooker to attack.  But Lee isn't able to steal a march quite as effectively as he might have hoped, the Army of the Potomac becomes aware of his movements and pursues before he has a chance to get very far, and his cavalry--which ought to be both watching the Army of the Potomac and preventing the same from watching Army of Northern Virginia--is way out of position.  Jeb Stuart leaves men guarding the passes to protect Lee's rear and then goes on a deep cavalry raid.  The good news is that he steals 125 supply wagons, but the bad news is that Lee's army is now moving blind through enemy territory.  And they don't know it; it's not like Lee can call Stuart up on the radio and chew his ass for getting out of position.

Confederacy shown in red.  Union shown in blue.  Note Stuart's line of march.
The Union pursues Lee closely, and Lee has no idea until his personal spy shows up and gives him a broad hint, and even that information is out of date.  The Union Army is closer than anyone realizes.  By July 1st, both armies have concentrated.  Men from Heth's division under Ewell (formerly Jackson's Corps) get a report that there are shoes at Gettysburg and get permission to go and seize them.  But a Union cavalry brigade under John Buford are there and ready for them.  Buford has a mere 2500 men against an entire Confederate division, but his men have repeating rifles, and his has good ground on top of McPherson's Ridge.  Heth's men sort of blunder into him and begin trying to flank him to the left (north), but Buford also has troops there, and more Union soldiers are arriving all the time.

July 1st, 1000 to 1400 hours.
The Confederates eventually push the Union Army off of the heights north of Gettysburg, but the engagement is indecisive, and in any event, the cavalry has done its job.  Buford has developed the situation successfully, forced the Confederates to fully deploy, and bought time for the rest of the Union Army to move into position.  That army, now under General George Meade, makes good use of that time.

July 1st, 1900 hours and July 2nd, 1530.
This is where the death of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson is important.  Had Jackson been in command of his former wing of the Army of Northern Virginia on this first day, he would almost certainly have pushed the issue on the north side of Gettysburg with more vigor.  In fact, Lee gives vague orders to the effect that, "if practicable" Ewell should turn the Union left flank.  To Jackson, this would have meant, "Turn the left flank unless three-quarters of the Yankee Army is in your way, and even then, give it a damn good try."  Ewell does not read the situation that way, though, and he doesn't pursue the issue conclusively or vigorously on during July 2nd.  Lee must assume that the Union is up in force in the north, then, because he sends Longstreet with the other wing of the army to turn the Union's southern flank.  Longstreet succeeds in pushing the Union left (south wing) back to Cemetery Ridge, but he cannot break through at Little Round Top, preventing him from a successful envelopment from the south.

Evening of July 2nd.
So.  Having attempted to the turn both flanks, Lee assumes that the Union center must be weak.  This is a bad assumption, and his attempted penetration in the center with Pickett's Division is supported by way too little artillery.  The result is disaster.

July 3rd and Pickett's Charge.
The Confederate Army limps back home and spends the rest of the war on the defensive.  Grant eventually comes east, takes overall command of the war effort, and puts his headquarters with Meade, from which position he can push Meade relentlessly in pursuit of Lee's Army.  This is a dramatic change in strategy, and it ultimately proves decisive.

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