Operational Art and the
Arthur V. Grant
It was nearly unanimous: The Army of Northern Virginia would take the war to the enemy. With the exception of the Postmaster General, the Confederate cabinet voted and approved Robert E. Lee’s proposal in May 1863 to invade Pennsylvania. Confident of success, the government placed its hopes in the South’s most successful commander. He would redeem the Confederacy’s declining fortunes and preserve the new nation’s future. The hope for a successful military strategy was now in the hands of the operational commander.1
As a concept, the operational level of war did not exist during the American Civil War. Strategy and tactics were frequently used terms, but even they lacked the precise meanings we assign to them today. Having rushed into a war for which neither side was prepared, both Northern and Southern leaders were more interested in finding out what worked than in academic discussions about levels of war. Nevertheless, by May 1863 both sides were aware of the intimate relationship between politics and war at the theater level. They understood that operational successes and failures determined their nation’s political future.
In the previous September, the commander of the North’s principal eastern army, the Army of the Potomac, was relieved from command partly for misunderstanding that relationship. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had been involved in political arguments with the President of the United States, but he had been unable to deliver the military victories that might have made his political opinions more important. Similarly, early the next spring, a different commander of the Army of the Potomac had also made strong political statements mentioning that the nation needed a good dictatorship to pursue its goals successfully. Abraham Lincoln told that general that if he could deliver military victories, the president was prepared to worry about the threat of dictatorship. Politics and war were on everybody’s mind.2
Only in the western theater was the North collecting military victories that might provide political hope for the future of the United States. Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant started a virtually uninterrupted series of victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, and by May
1863 his army stood at the gates of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Everyone understood the political importance of Vicksburg. To the United States, Vicksburg represented the only remaining impediment to reopening the river-borne trade from the northwest. Its seizure would open the Mississippi River, cut the Confederacy in two, and provide important political capital for continuing the war. To the Confederate states, Vicksburg was a link to the west and the scene of four previous Northern failures. As Grant’s ring of troops tightened their hold around it, Southern leaders argued over its importance and Confederate strategy. Many of the strategic discussions hinged on the issue of the political outcome that could be expected. Politics and war were closely intertwined.
The Confederacy was in a difficult strategic position. The South’s resources were strained severely by the three major fronts along which the Northern armies operated. Grant was hammering at Vicksburg. In central Tennessee, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans aimed the Army of the Cumberland at the heart of the Deep South. Only in northern Virginia was there hope. Robert E. Lee had checked, had outmaneuvered, and finally had driven a much larger Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River near Chancellorsville in early May 1863. Lee’s brilliant victory seemed to offer opportunities. But the strategic meaning of those opportunities was not clear.
In mid-May Lee discussed alternatives with President Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War James Seddon, and other members of the Confederate cabinet. As in many important strategic discussions, much of the talk focused on priorities.3
There was a strong move afoot to shift some troops from Lee’s army to the Confederate forces in front of Vicksburg. Lee’s resounding victory at Chancellorsville bolstered this argument because most of the corps under James Longstreet had been on operations in southeastern Virginia during the battle. Even without this sizable force, Lee had been able to humiliate his Federal opponent, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. It appeared, therefore, that Lee could adequately defend northern Virginia without a portion of Longstreet’s corps, which then could be sent to the west to help the situation there.4
Lee would not hear of it. To him, the choice was clear. Northern Virginia was the most important theater of operations. A Federal army that outnumbered his by three to one stood ready to seize the Confederate capital at Richmond if the situation presented itself. While Chancellorsville had been a great victory, it had not been an easy one. On several occasions an opponent more aggressive than Joe Hooker might have defeated his army in detail. Not only should he not send forces from
his army to help the west, Lee argued that forces from other areas of the Confederacy should be sent to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia. Resurrecting a concept discussed on several previous occasions and tried once before, Lee urged an invasion of the North.5
An operational commander must be concerned with the political objectives of his campaign. Lee’s participation in the government-level discussions of his proposal should have provided him with a unique opportunity to understand the goals that his political masters wished to achieve. During the lengthy discussions, he had the chance to detect all of the nuances about the military conduct of the war that were troubling the South’s leading politicians. Moreover, he was in a position to gain great insights into the thinking of his commander in chief, President Jefferson Davis, while Davis was articulating his positions on issues to both Lee and the Confederate cabinet. Later, several of the participants either wrote about or discussed the results of the meetings as they concerned Lee’s campaign objectives. When analyzed carefully, it is clear that there is disagreement among their views of Lee’s objectives. There are some objectives that are troubling because they display a lack of clear thinking. This tells much about why the battle of Gettysburg occurred as it did. The lengthy discussions may have contributed to the uncertainty concerning exactly what Lee was supposed to accomplish and how he was going to do it.
Lee was explicit about his desire to invade in order to draw the enemy away from its excellent defensive positions behind the Rappahannock River in northern Virginia. In its present location along the river, the Army of the Potomac was not vulnerable to a frontal assault. Additionally, an invasion around a flank would force a response from Federal forces threatening other areas of the South. Lee reasoned that reinforcements would have to be shifted north from Federal operations along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to resist his invasion. Thus, an invasion would relieve Union pressure against other fronts, retain the initiative in northern Virginia, and draw Lee’s enemy away from natural defensive barriers.6
Lee was greatly concerned about feeding his army. Northern Virginia farms had been supporting the war effort almost from the first days of combat. An invasion would allow Northern farmers to share the burden of supplying two opposing armies as they marched through the countryside. In addition, Lee would be able to gather sufficient supplies not only to subsist, but also to stockpile for future operations. It was an attractive objective for a commander constantly concerned about where sufficient supplies could be gathered.7
A peace movement had been gaining momentum in the North. Lee hoped that an invasion might divide the United States even further than the secession crisis of 1861. Northern farmers, seeing their crops being traded for worthless Confederate money, might demand an end to the
war to eliminate the deprivations they were suffering. Northern peace parties might also be persuaded that ultimately the South only wished to be left alone in peace. A politically divided and weakened enemy was a worthy objective.8
Less clear was the issue of when and where to fight the Army of the Potomac. Lee had no intention of fighting it along the Rappahannock River. It was also clear to him that the Federals would pursue him if he successfully crossed the Potomac River and marched north into Pennsylvania. A battle would be virtually inevitable. But one witness to the cabinet discussions wrote that Lee’s mission was to “threaten” Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Lee said after the campaign that he had hoped to occupy Philadelphia. A senior member of his staff later said that Philadelphia was not a campaign objective. Instead, he said, Lee intended to fight a major battle west of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. A victory there would give him virtual control of Maryland, western Pennsylvania, and western Virginia.
Even a cursory examination shows that these objectives create decidedly different military missions. Threatening, occupying, or bringing the enemy to battle in a specified region are not objectives that necessarily support one another. Each mission could create very different requirements for the disposition of the Army of Northern Virginia. Perhaps Lee’s confidence in the abilities of his army overshadowed his considerations about the precise circumstances under which he would accept battle.9
Lee was certain of his army’s great abilities. In its two most recent major battles - Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in May 1863 - the Army of Northern Virginia had performed exceptionally well. Stating that “There never were such men in an army before,” Lee knew they were invincible if they were properly led and organized. Believing this, then, Lee might not be too concerned about the enemy’s army. Whenever and wherever the Army of the Potomac chose to fight, the men of the Army of Northern Virginia would be ready to beat them once again.10
Proper organization of his army had been an issue bothering Lee for some time. Each of the two Confederate corps comprising the Army of Northern Virginia had grown too large for a single commander to lead effectively. Always sensitive to his subordinate’s sense of honor and dignity, Lee had been reluctant to appear dissatisfied with their performances by dividing their two corps into three. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, however, one of his corps commanders, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, was killed. A shocking loss on the one hand, it also gave Lee the opportunity to reorganize his major units on the other.11
Lee’s reorganization did not affect only the command of his corps. As officers were moved upward into their new positions as corps com-
manders, they left vacancies at the division level. When officers from lower echelons filled these new vacancies, additional commanders had to be found to replace them. The net rippling effect of the reorganization was that approximately two-thirds of the major units of the Army of Northern Virginia were under new leaders when it embarked on its invasion of the North.12
For the Army of the Potomac in positions along the Rappahannock River, the problems were equally difficult. General Hooker’s excellent plan for the spring campaign had ended in disaster at Chancellorsville. Most historians view the army’s failure during the battle as having resulted principally from Hooker’s lack of self-confidence. Lee had achieved a moral ascendancy over him. The Federal forces could not compensate for the vacuum in top-level leadership through any amount of hard fighting at the tactical level. Nevertheless, President Lincoln retained Hooker in command after the battle, and the army’s leadership crisis at the top would create some difficult days ahead.13
The commander in chief, Lincoln, and his general in chief, Henry W. Halleck, visited Hooker’s headquarters soon after the battle at Chancellorsville. Lincoln asked Hooker what he intended to do, mentioning that an early move against Lee could restore some of the army’s morale that might have been adversely affected by the recent battle. Hooker’s reply was defensive, stating that the performance of one of his corps in the battle might cause that corps to be discouraged or depressed, but that the rest of the army was ready to fight. He further indicated that he would continue to operate along the same line toward Richmond that he had chosen before the battle.14
Hooker then developed plans to move south of the Rappahannock River once again. On 13 May he notified Lincoln that he was going to move on the following day. Alarmed that the move might be premature, Lincoln called Hooker to Washington. Upon Hooker’s arrival on the following day, the president handed him a letter giving him his objectives: “I therefore shall not complain if you do no more for a time than to keep the enemy at bay and out of other mischief by menaces and occasional cavalry raids, if practicable, and to put your own army in good condition again.”15
Thus by the end of May, Lee was preparing the Army of Northern Virginia for an invasion of the North, while Hooker maintained the Army of the Potomac in its positions along the Rappahannock. Lee intended to gather supplies, threaten some major northern cities, promote the northern peace movement, draw the Army of the Potomac away from the Rappahannock River, and fight a battle somewhere at sometime. Hooker had his orders to keep Lee out of mischief and to rebuild his army.
Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederate corps left its positions near Fredericksburg on 3 June. Two days later, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps also marched west for the Shenandoah Valley. Lee kept Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s corps deployed near Fredericksburg. Keeping Hill in position as a rear guard, Lee also hoped that Hill’s presence would deceive Hooker into believing that the Army of Northern Virginia’s dispositions were unchanged.
Hill’s position helped Lee address a bothersome course of action open to Hooker. One of Lee’s intentions was to draw the Army of the Potomac northward. Hooker, however, could choose to advance south and attempt to seize Richmond. If that threat developed in his rear, Lee could not afford politically to continue an advance into Pennsylvania and leave the Confederate capital open to capture. He would have to follow Hooker south, and Hooker would then have seized the initiative. Hill’s presence at Fredericksburg helped to prevent Hooker from choosing that alternative.16
Lee’s concern for Richmond extended beyond Hooker’s potential moves at Fredericksburg. Southeast of Richmond, more than two Federal corps were operating in the vicinity of the York and James Rivers. Probably too small to capture the capital, the Union force nevertheless represented a potential threat that could also upset Lee’s plans. It could become a covering force for a major enemy operation along the James River. While Lee’s army was in the Shenandoah Valley moving north, Hooker might shift his army rapidly by water to the James and fall in behind the two corps. McClellan had made a similar move in 1862 during the Peninsula campaign. Fortunately for Lee, this threat never materialized. The Federal troops under Maj. Gen. John A. Dix never became a more serious threat than a force to be watched carefully.17
Lee’s moves puzzled Hooker. By 5 June Hooker had decided that the Army of Northern Virginia was up to something. Some of the Confederate camps had been abandoned, and Hooker surmised that Lee might be embarking on another invasion of the North. In order to test the strength of Lee’s remaining force, he ordered the VI Corps commander to conduct a reconnaissance in force in front of some pontoon bridges south of Fredericksburg.
Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, the VI Corps commander, already knew the answer. He quickly responded to Hooker’s order and reported that the Confederates had strengthened their picket line and moved some additional artillery into forward positions. If the Federals attempted to advance more than two hundred yards, they would be decisively engaged. Apparently, Lee’s directive to A. P. Hill was being carried out effectively; to the VI Corps commander, the Army of Northern Virginia’s positions looked as strong as ever.18
Hooker was not convinced. He believed that if only a rear guard existed at Fredericksburg, he had an excellent opportunity to destroy this smaller force. Asking Lincoln’s permission to cross the Rappahannock, Hooker added that there were some distinct disadvantages to his proposal. His advance might make the supply lines along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad vulnerable near Warrenton. Furthermore, Lee’s army could end up between his army and a Union force at Harpers Ferry. Exposed, the force at Harpers Ferry might be defeated in detail while Hooker was south of the Rappahannock.19
Lincoln quickly rejected Hooker’s idea. He told Hooker that by advancing south toward Richmond, the Army of the Potomac would be fighting an entrenched force - a very difficult task. While the Federal army fought the smaller force at Fredericksburg, the remainder of Lee’s army would have freedom of action elsewhere. In a separate note, Halleck supported Lincoln’s views and told Hooker that the enemy’s march column was his proper objective. He added to Hooker’s doubts about the Confederates’ dispositions by suggesting that perhaps the enemy force at Fredericksburg was Lee’s main army and a smaller, but still-strong force had departed for a raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Hooker responded appropriately by sending his main reconnaissance force, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps, on a raid against the Confederates.20
Complying with Hooker’s directive, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton led his cavalry across the upper Rappahannock River on 9 June. He intended to advance on Culpeper Court House and destroy any Confederate supplies that he might find there. He never reached Culpeper; instead he struck a large force of Confederate cavalry under the famous Jeb Stuart at Brandy Station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. A seesaw mounted clash occurred with the Confederates eventually getting the upper hand. But the Battle of Brandy Station had many consequences for the campaign, some of which were not immediately obvious.
First, Pleasonton returned with some of the information that Hooker thought he needed. Pleasonton reported that he had caught Stuart’s cavalry prepared to mount a raid. This seemed to support Halleck’s suggestion to Hooker and confirm Sedgwick’s report on 6 June: Lee’s army was still at Fredericksburg, and only a raiding force was being assembled to threaten Maryland and Pennsylvania. Second, the Federal cavalrymen completely surprised Stuart’s force and, although finally driven back across the river, gave an excellent account of themselves. To them, the famed Confederate cavalrymen were no longer invincible. Third, having his cavalry surprised by the Federal attack embarrassed Stuart. This would later be important when Stuart sought a means to redeem his reputation.21
After examining Pleasonton’s report of the battle at Brandy Station, Hooker resurrected his previous plan to march south and seize the Confederate capital. Wiring Lincoln on 10 June, Hooker again asked permis-
sion to seize Richmond if it was determined that a sizable infantry force was accompanying Stuart on his raid. Lincoln’s response was immediate and direct: “I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your sure objective point. If he comes toward the Upper Potomac, follow on his flank and on his inside track, shortening your lines of communications while he lengthens his. Fight him, too, when opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him and fret him.”22
While Hooker fretted over his next move, Lee’s campaign continued to unfold smoothly. Ewell’s corps captured almost half of the sizable Federal force located and isolated at Winchester on 14 June. Over 4,400 officers and men; 200,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition; and 23 artillery pieces fell into Confederate hands. Hooker was unaware of the magnitude of the disaster until Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy and 1,200 of the remainder of his force straggled into Harpers Ferry on the fifteenth and reported the extent of the debacle. To further confuse Hooker, Lee ordered Longstreet’s corps to move north and remain east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This might give the impression to the Federal commander that Lee was threatening the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in an attempt to turn Hooker out of his positions along the Rappahannock River. Three cavalry brigades covered Longstreet’s front and flank. Lee attempted to deepen the deception by having Ewell advance his corps toward the Potomac. This could cause Hooker to vacate his positions along the Rappahannock to contest Ewell’s crossing of the Potomac. If Hooker took the bait, A. P. Hill’s corps would then be able to leave its positions at Fredericksburg unopposed and rejoin the main Confederate Army. Stuart assigned one brigade of cavalry to cover Ewell, and two brigades formed a link between Hill’s corps and the main army.23
After arranging his corps dispositions to confuse Hooker as to his true intent, Lee then developed a plan to place his opponent on the horns of a dilemma. The Confederate commander asked President Davis on 23 June for assistance in executing the plan. Lee proposed that Davis assemble units from the Confederate forces in North and South Carolina and Georgia and reinforce General P. G. T. Beauregard’s command at Richmond. Beauregard should then take this new army and march to Culpeper Court House. From that location, Beauregard’s force would be in a position to threaten Washington. Davis denied Lee’s request, because there was not enough time to organize the force. Moreover, Beauregard’s own units could not afford to leave the vicinity of Richmond because of Dix’s Federal forces’ operating between the York and James Rivers near Yorktown.24
If implemented, Lee’s proposed moves would have made a tremendous psychological impact on Hooker. Eventually, Hooker would have sifted through all of the conflicting evidence and determined the true nature of Lee’s invasion. By that time, however, Beauregard would have been
in Culpeper. For Hooker, it would have been a profound dilemma. Should he go after Lee’s army in Pennsylvania, attack Beauregard’s smaller force at Culpeper, or remain in a defensive posture to try to protect Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia from both Lee and Beauregard? If he kept his army massed and attacked one of his two opponents, a clear possibility would have been that the ensuing battle would have been indecisive. The unengaged Confederate force would then have a free hand to accomplish much operationally. If he piecemealed his army to try to engage both his opponents, he would have stood a strong possibility that another Chancellorsville would occur; personal ruin and disaster for the Union cause would have been very reasonable outcomes. By this stage in the campaign, the true genius of Robert E. Lee was quite clear. Hooker was clearly coming out second best in a race of two people.
Ten days after the Army of Northern Virginia had left its positions along the Rappahannock River, Hooker responded with an order to the Army of the Potomac. He shifted his line of communications to the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and directed his corps to positions making Centreville the center of mass. A relatively cautious move, it nevertheless was long overdue. Even some of Hooker’s corps commanders already had surmised that Lee was off on a major invasion of the North.25
Hooker’s frame of mind is discernible from some of his correspondence. On the day after he ordered his army to shift to Centreville, he sent a letter to Lincoln indicating the focus of his attention. Hooker asked the president if he knew whether the Confederates had seized Winchester. Obviously, this was an important question because it was at this time that Milroy’s command was passing into ignominy. Hooker concluded his message with a comment that makes it clear that he was less concerned for Milroy’s men than he was for himself: “I do not feel like making a move for an enemy until I am satisfied as to his whereabouts. To proceed to Winchester and have him make his appearance elsewhere, would subject me to ridicule.” Clearly, Hooker was not focusing on acting aggressively or decisively. He was focused on his own appearance.26
From 17–24 June Hooker continued to feel his way forward in the direction of Lee’s line of communications. He consolidated his army’s positions east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and ordered Pleasonton’s cavalry division to learn more about the Confederates. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry, however, had erected an effective screen, and several large clashes occurred as Pleasonton aggressively tested the Confederate cavalry’s strength.27
Intelligence information other than that being provided by Pleasonton reached Hooker from several sources. Probably the best information came from Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch. Couch had been a corps commander under Hooker during the Chancellorsville campaign. Following that battle, he had left the Army of the Potomac in disgust and was ap-
pointed the head of the newly created Department of the Susquehanna. Headquartered in Harrisburg, he controlled only militia forces. Nevertheless, he became the focal point for much of the information that was being collected by agencies outside of the Army of the Potomac as Lee advanced through Maryland into Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Central Railroad played an important part in this network. Probably acting as much out of self-interest as out of a sense of patriotism, the railroad organized scouting parties that worked initially out of Williamsport, Maryland, and conducted activities from Chambersburg and from the region west of the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania. Couch assembled information from sources such as these and forwarded them to Hooker and to the War Department.28
Hooker was not inspiring confidence. Beginning to shift his forces in the direction of Lee’s apparent line of communications, he reported his moves to Washington on 24 June and added, “I don’t know whether I am standing on my head or feet.” He seemed unaware that his own fortunes were declining, because he then became involved in fatal arguments with Lincoln and Halleck.29
Harpers Ferry was the issue. Almost since the beginning of Lee’s campaign, Hooker had been concerned over the fate of that important location. Not only was it located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, astride the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the town lay directly along the invasion route of any Confederate force marching down the Shenandoah Valley toward Maryland. Early in the campaign Hooker wanted to be in charge of the garrison there so he could withdraw the forces to his own army at the opportune time. Lincoln and Halleck retained control of the garrison and told Hooker that Harpers Ferry must be held. In a personal meeting in Washington on 23 June, Lincoln and Halleck again told the general to hold the town. Upon his return to the army, Hooker sent a corps in the direction of Harpers Ferry, but it was not the end of the issue.30
Hooker was also having a feud with Halleck over reinforcements. Convinced that Lee’s army outnumbered his, he peppered the War Department with requests for additional troops. After his meeting with the president on the twenty-third, he sent his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, to Washington to seek additional reinforcements from the troops manning the capital’s defenses. Over 25,000 soldiers already had been sent either to Hooker or to Dix’s forces near Yorktown, so Halleck told Butterfield that no more troops were available. But Hooker still saw Harpers Ferry’s 10,000 men as a ready source.31
Hooker did not abandon the Harpers Ferry issue. On 26 June he wired Halleck: “Is there any reason why Maryland Heights at Harpers Ferry should not be abandoned after the public stores and property are removed?… It must be borne in mind that I am here with a force inferior
in numbers to that of the enemy, and must have every available man to use on the field.”32 After again being told to hold Harpers Ferry, Hooker wired Halleck on the twenty-seventh: “I have received your telegram in regard to Harper’s Ferry.… [Those troops] are of no earthly account.… Now they are but bait for the rebels.”33
Later that same day, Hooker, looking for more troops - and perhaps in his continuing mental struggle over what to do, looking for reassurances from the capital - brought matters to a head:
Halleck quickly replied: “Your application to be relieved from your present command is received. As you were appointed to this command by the President, I have no power to relieve you. Your dispatch has been duly referred for Executive action.”35 Action was forthcoming.
Very early on the morning of 28 June the V Corps commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, was awakened by an officer from Halleck’s staff. Col. James A. Hardie told Meade that he brought trouble. Quickly, the V Corps commander searched his memory for any misdeed that might warrant his relief from command or his arrest. Finding none, he told Hardie that his conscience was clear. Hardie handed Meade a message. Indeed there was trouble in store for Meade; Hooker was relieved from command of the Army of the Potomac, and Meade was to replace him.36
Hooker’s performance had been truly lackluster. When compared to Lee, he clearly was second best. By this stage of the campaign, Hooker had shown himself unable to master his own fears, to create any uncertainties in his opponent, or to cement strong ties with his own political leaders.
At first, Lincoln did not blame the defeat at Chancellorsville on Hooker. But during May he received letters and visits from generals who convinced the president that Hooker owned much of the blame for the defeat. This assessment was reinforced by Hooker’s cautious response to Lee’s movements in June. There is no record to show that Hooker ever had a clear campaign objective in mind for his army. Certainly he had never outlined one to his seniors or to his subordinates. He positioned his forces as though prepared to react but not to seize the initiative. His statements, which indicated that Lee possessed the psychological advantage, added to a picture of a general bewildered by his opponent and afraid to fail. The final argument over the fate of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry was anticlimactic. Lee had seized operational control of the theater, and Lincoln had to do something.37
On the other hand, Lee showed that he had mastered his opponent. Skillfully positioning his corps to provide maximum security for his army while it moved north, he continued to try to deceive Hooker. Some of his efforts were so complex that it is doubtful if Hooker ever understood the false picture, let alone the true one. Regardless of their effect, Lee used Stuart’s cavalry so well that even if the Federals could see through the deceptions, they still would not know exactly what was happening. All of this occurred behind terrain that Lee used effectively to his own advantage. The comparison of the two generals is remarkable in the starkness of the contrast.
Colonel Hardie remained with the Army of the Potomac for several hours to determine the effect of the change in command. He reported that a sense of satisfaction ran through the army. The situation appeared to be under control. Halleck’s orders handed to Meade by Hardie helped to achieve that control:
Meade moved quickly to reassure the War Department that he had a firm grasp on the situation. Four hours after being notified that he was in command, he wired Halleck:
To Lincoln and Halleck the contrast of this message to Hooker’s previous indecision must have been remarkable. Here was a general who was talking about fighting Lee after being in command for only four hours! Indeed, Meade had formulated an operational plan that would accomplish the mission accepted as stated above.
Meade was an excellent choice to command the Army of the Potomac. A Regular Army officer, he had been a commander at every level from brigade through corps. He had led the V Corps at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and at the latter battle, had urged Hooker to remain south of the Rappahannock River and continue the fight. Quick to criticize himself if he made mistakes, he was equally hard on those who fell short of his high standards. Swiftly, this experienced combat
commander set about organizing his army to find and fight the Army of Northern Virginia.40
He asked several officers to be his chief of staff. It was customary for a commander to appoint his own chief of staff, and Daniel Butterfield was Hooker’s man. Twice turned down, Meade accepted the advice of his second choice, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, who said it was a bad idea to change chiefs of staff in mid-campaign. Butterfield stayed on as chief - a decision that Meade would later regret.41
Many historians have examined Lee’s reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia and concluded that it had an adverse effect on Confederate performance during the Gettysburg campaign. Meade, however, faced circumstances at least equally difficult. He assumed command of an army in mid-campaign, not knowing the dispositions of the enemy and unaware of his predecessor’s intentions and corps-level dispositions. The II Corps received a new commander on 22 May. His own corps, the V, received a new commander when Meade assumed command of the army. The Cavalry Corps came under the direction of Alfred Pleasanton on 22 May, and the XI Corps received a new commander in April. Finally, the artillery also recently had been reorganized significantly. Each of these factors created some organizational turmoil for the new commander, but Meade proceeded with confidence.42
Meade attached the 1st Cavalry Division under Brig. Gen. John Buford to the trusted I Corps commander, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds. Meade told Reynolds to advance northward into Pennsylvania and seek out the enemy. If Reynolds could find suitable terrain, he was to fight Lee; Meade would reinforce Reynolds’ effort with the remainder of the army. If a good battle position could not be found, Reynolds was to withdraw toward the Army of the Potomac as it was advancing northward on a wide front in the direction of York, Pennsylvania. According to this alternative plan, Meade would bring the Army of the Potomac together along Pipe Creek in Maryland. It is clear from Meade’s orders that he deployed his forces for an offensive operation that embodied the important elements of what today would be called a movement to contact.43 (See Map 10.)
For both Robert E. Lee and George G. Meade, 28 June was a momentous day. On that day, Lee was surprised to learn that the main Federal army was north of the Potomac River, and its exact dispositions were unknown. The source of Lee’s information was a man named James Harrison, whom Longstreet had hired to spy on the Union Army. It may seem strange that Lee received his best information about the enemy from a privately hired spy instead of from his cavalry, but an unusual turn of events had occurred that had put Lee in the dark.44
A week previous to Harrison’s report, Jeb Stuart proposed to Lee a daring plan. Hooker’s forces were stationary, and Pleasanton’s cavalry had been unable to penetrate the Confederate cavalry screen. The lull operational art and the gettysburg campaign
in action at the operational level gave Stuart the opportunity to try to convince his commander that a large Confederate cavalry force under his supervision could ride east around the Army of the Potomac and then head north, joining the remainder of the Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania. It would duplicate a much-heralded feat that Stuart had performed similarly against McClellan’s army a year ago during the Peninsula campaign. Not only would this dashing ride regain some of the prestige lost by his cavalry surprised at Brandy Station, it would allow Stuart’s men to gather supplies separate from the main army. Lee gave his conditional consent.45
Lee indicated that he preferred that Stuart bring his cavalry across the Potomac River at Shepherdstown, west of Harpers Ferry. But if Stuart felt that he could pass around the Federal army “without hindrance,” he could do so while “doing [the Federals] all the damage you can.” After crossing the river, Stuart was to proceed north and “feel the right of Ewell’s troops,” which would put him in proper position to screen the most vulnerable flank of Lee’s northernmost force. Stuart was authorized to take with him three of the five available cavalry brigades. The remaining two brigades were to guard the passes leading into the Shenandoah Valley. As the main army moved north, these remaining brigades were to leave pickets to guard the passes and then close up on the rear of the army as it proceeded.46
Stuart determined that he could pass around the Army of the Potomac “without hindrance.” This decision effectively removed him from the mainstream of the campaign until 2 July. He skirmished with some Federal troops, created some consternation within the Federal ranks, and captured some supplies. But his real value to the Army of Northern Virginia was not in any of these things. Over the past year, during which he and Lee had worked together, Stuart had built up rapport and understanding that had worked extremely well. Stuart could anticipate his commander’s intent. He had the capability to analyze the intelligence information his cavalrymen collected and to provide Lee with an accurate appraisal of the enemy. These characteristics were missing when the army commander needed them most. When the Federal army finally got moving and crossed the Potomac, Stuart was not around to detect the importance of the movements. Lee’s surprise on 28 June was real and important.47
Lee apparently anticipated that he would learn of a Federal pursuit when the Union forces started to cross the Potomac River, the major obstacle between his army and the Army of the Potomac. It seems that he assumed that while the enemy’s troops, artillery, and long supply trains crossed the river on pontoon bridges or at fords, he would have ample time to reassemble his army spread out over the Pennsylvania countryside. Harrison’s report therefore caused consternation over the effectiveness of his cavalry reconnaissance. It also required that Lee respond quickly to avoid having his forces defeated in detail.48
Ewell’s corps was spread between Carlisle and York, with some of his forces probing Harrisburg’s defenses along the west bank of the Susquehanna. At first, Lee directed Ewell to assemble his corps and rejoin the main army at Chambersburg, but upon realizing that the congestion at Chambersburg might be overwhelming, he changed Ewell’s orders and told him to march to Heidlersburg. From there, Ewell could advance on either Gettysburg or Cashtown, depending on circumstances. Lee had decided that since the Federals were approaching from the direction of Frederick, Maryland, their route of march would force them through Gettysburg or Cashtown on 30 June or 1 July. With Ewell at Heidlersburg, he would be in a position to respond accordingly. Ewell was disappointed at not being allowed to continue with his efforts to seize the capital of the North’s second most politically powerful state, but he moved rapidly to comply with Lee’s orders.49
Most of Lee’s two remaining corps spent two days resting in camps along the turnpike between Chambersburg and Gettysburg. On 29 June Lee ordered Hill’s corps to advance to Cashtown, and Longstreet was to follow close behind on the thirtieth. Although surprised by the Federals’ appearance north of the Potomac River, Lee responded quickly. His corps were mutually supporting by the evening of 30 June. The Army of the Potomac would not find his army vulnerable to defeat in detail.50
Meade’s actions were equally decisive. Halleck initially tended to confuse the situation by providing Meade with inaccurate and conflicting information. Early in the afternoon on which Meade assumed command, Halleck informed the new commander that the Confederates probably would mass their forces east of the Susquehanna River. Later that same afternoon Halleck added to the confusion by informing Meade that a large force of Confederates was still south of the Potomac River. Fortunately for Meade, neither of Halleck’s reports proved correct. He moved his corps northward through Maryland into Pennsylvania, keeping Halleck informed of his movements.51
Meade’s messages must have convinced Halleck of the soundness of Lincoln’s decision to appoint Meade. Responding to Halleck’s analysis of Confederate dispositions and intentions on 28 June, Meade told the general in chief that if Lee was en route to Baltimore, he would get his army between Lee’s and the city in time to cover it. If Lee tried to cross the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, Meade told Halleck that he was relying on Couch’s forces to delay the Army of Northern Virginia until he could catch it and defeat it in detail. For the time being he was prepared to ignore Stuart’s irritating but strategically and operationally harmless Confederate cavalry raid. He reassured Halleck that he would keep his corps mutually supporting and be prepared for any eventuality. It was clear that Halleck was dealing with a competent, confident commander. Meade reminded his Washington superior of his “main point being to
find and fight the enemy.”52 Although to us today this may seem like a very obvious statement, it is well to remember that every commander of the Army of the Potomac who had found and fought Lee in a major battle in the past had lost.
By the evening of 30 June Meade was responding to a reasonably accurate picture of the locations of Lee’s corps. Reports indicated that Ewell was in the vicinity of York and Harrisburg, Longstreet was at Chambersburg, and A. P. Hill was somewhere between Chambersburg and York. Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, now commanding a “wing” of three corps, was pushing north, toward the crossroads town of Gettysburg. His attached cavalry commander, John Buford, was already in the town. At 1030 Meade gave Reynolds a detailed account of the movements of Lee’s corps and told Reynolds that Lee’s army probably would assemble at Gettysburg sometime during 1 July. Reynolds informed Meade of the unfolding events and continued to push his troops hard. Although his army’s grueling pace concerned Meade, he continued the effort in the hopes of catching Lee.53
On 30 June Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew took his Confederate brigade to Gettysburg to get some shoes. Part of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of A. P. Hill’s corps, Pettigrew was continuing his mission of gathering supplies. On a ridge west of Gettysburg, however, he ran into some dismounted enemy cavalry. Unsure of whether this was only another brush with militia or if it was a more organized resistance by veteran soldiers, Pettigrew withdrew. He certainly had no orders to bring on a decisive engagement with the Army of the Potomac. He returned to camp at Cashtown without the shoes.
Pettigrew briefed Heth concerning his encounter at Gettysburg. During the session, the corps commander rode up and Pettigrew briefed him on the situation. Hill replied that he felt that there were no large enemy forces in the vicinity of the town and that Pettigrew probably had just run into a cavalry vedette. Heth recommended that he take his entire division to Gettysburg and get the shoes. Hill told him to go ahead.54
Lee was unaware that contact with major Federal forces was imminent. Stuart’s absence from the main army on 30 June and 1 July was extremely important. Although Lee was in the process of gathering his corps so that they were within supporting distance of each other, he had not positioned them for an engagement. Stuart’s presence and aggressive cavalry work by his troopers probably would have revealed that a major battle was in the offing. This would have caused Lee to position his corps in a manner different than they were on the morning of 1 July: Longstreet’s corps in camps near Chambersburg, one of Hill’s divisions
out looking for shoes, and Ewell’s corps approaching from Heidlersburg. Five of Lee’s nine divisions were west of South Mountain and only one road through the pass at Cashtown could support a movement to Gettysburg. Although as confident as ever, Lee was poorly positioned to meet an opponent conducting a movement to contact and looking for a fight.55
Hill’s decision to send an entire division to Gettysburg for shoes and to bag a few Federal prisoners perhaps left exposed by a careless commander was a fateful one. It essentially left Lee out of the picture at a time when his presence would have been important; Lee would arrive on the battlefield long after his corps commanders had seized what appeared to them to be an excellent opportunity and had committed his army to a major engagement. The opening phase of the battle is an example of how an operational commander can rapidly lose control of a campaign when tactical circumstances overtake his plans.
When Heth tried to force his division through the Federal cavalry screen under Buford west of Gettysburg on the morning of 1 July, he ran into a formidable opponent. Buford skillfully deployed his badly outnumbered cavalrymen and turned to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds for help. Quickly, Reynolds brought the I and XI Corps forward; in the process of leading them into battle, he was shot and killed. Federal command passed to the next senior corps commander on the battlefield, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. Repeating Reynolds’ earlier call for assistance, Howard sent messages both to his nearby corps commanders and to Meade at Taneytown. Heth, his Confederates now fighting infantry as well as cavalry, deployed both to the right and to the left to try to find a weak flank in the Union positions.
Ewell’s Confederate corps had left Heidlersburg en route to Cashtown when Ewell received a message from A. P. Hill indicating he was advancing to Gettysburg. Ewell redirected his corps to that same location. About four miles from the town, his men heard the sound of battle. Ewell responded swiftly and typically by marching to the sound of the guns. It was this very strength upon which the reputation of the Army of Northern Virginia was built. Commanders were expected to assist one another and to seize the initiative whenever the opportunity presented itself. Ewell’s corps thus appeared north of Gettysburg and moved into battle positions opposite both the Federals deployed west of the town and those now beginning to arrive on the low ground on its northern edge. Ewell’s initiative further committed Lee to battle.
When Lee heard the sounds of sustained combat coming from the direction of Gettysburg, he rode to A. P. Hill’s headquarters on the Chambersburg Pike, east of South Mountain. Hill described Heth’s advance on Gettysburg and explained also that he had sent Pender’s division in support. Lee rode down the Pike behind Hill’s two divisions. Upon his arrival on the battlefield at about 1430, he initially tried to slow down the development of the battle. Unsure of the size of the force his army was
facing, he did not want to bring on a general engagement until all of his combat power was available. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Hill’s third division and Longstreet’s entire corps were being delayed on the solitary road that was available to support the movement of both corps. It would take a long time for all of his army to arrive at the scene of battle. In the meantime, after hearing several strong proposals from his corps commanders, Lee approved their requests to drive the Federals off the field north and west of Gettysburg. (See Map 11.) With the primitive communications available, it was normally wise to trust the judgments of valued subordinates and seize opportunities where they appeared.56
Meade, still located at Taneytown, sent two of his most able subordinates to assess the situation reported by Reynolds from Gettysburg earlier in the day. Reynolds had indicated that he might be driven from his initial positions north and west of the town, but he added that he was prepared to barricade the streets in order to hold off the inevitable Confederate onslaught. Meade sent his chief engineer, Warren, to assess the terrain and, following Reynolds’ death, sent Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, the II Corps commander, to take charge of the battlefield. Upon later hearing that the Union dispositions near Gettysburg appeared favorable, Meade directed all of his corps to assemble there. His earlier assessment of the operational circumstances and the deployments he made to meet them were being vindicated. In today’s terms, he quickly shifted his operations from a movement to contact to a meeting engagement. Operationally, he had disposed all his corps so they were mutually supporting each other within a hard day’s march. Under these circumstances Meade would be able to rapidly concentrate his force. Although tactical circumstances were about to overwhelm the Federals at Gettysburg, Meade had the operational situation firmly in hand.57
The collapse of the Federal lines at Gettysburg started on the right. The battle, which had begun on the west side of the town, had been building northward and then eastward throughout the day. The Confederates, searching for an exposed flank, found the Federal left too difficult to turn. For each success in that direction, they were countered by an effective Union move as the Federal troops arrived on the battlefield from the south. Ewell’s appearance north of the town near Oak Hill also tended to shift Confederate hopes for success in that direction. For the Federals, then, it became a race to extend their lines north and east as additional enemy units arrived to threaten their right. The Federals ran out of troops before the Confederates did. Outflanked, outgunned, and outnumbered by about 28,000 to 18,000 on the entire field, the Union right unraveled and fell back toward new positions already being prepared by a division of the XI Corps, south of Gettysburg on Cemetery Hill. There, Hancock carefully aligned the retreating troops from the XI and I Corps that had been ordered to withdraw following the collapse on the right.58
From his vantage point on Seminary Ridge, Lee watched the disorganized Yankees fleeing up and over Cemetery Hill at about 1630. It appeared the time was right for another blow. Lee told Ewell “to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army.” Five of Lee’s nine divisions were still not on the field. Piecemeal attacks carried the high risk of sustaining large casualties without achieving anything substantial because insufficient combat power was available. Pursuit of a beaten foe might have been admirable, but Federal troops on Cemetery Hill were quickly occupying and preparing new positions to meet anything that Ewell might throw against them.59
While Lee waited for Ewell to attack (if practicable), Longstreet rode up and joined him on Seminary Ridge. His corps had been delayed by the passage of Hill’s corps at Cashtown, and elements of Ewell’s corps, specifically Johnson’s division, blocked the road, so Longstreet had ridden ahead to find out the situation facing the Confederates at Gettysburg. On Seminary Ridge, he learned that Lee was planning to attack the enemy. Longstreet argued against the plan. Before the start of the campaign, he had proposed that when the Confederates had brought their invasion to the point where the Yankees confronted them, the Southerners should adopt the defensive. Remembering the resounding defensive success achieved at Fredericksburg in the previous December, Longstreet believed that the tactical defensive offered the best hope for success. Lee, of course, had just completed his most brilliant tactical and operational victory at Chancellorsville in May while on the tactical offensive. The previous discussion had ended unresolved; now, on Seminary Ridge, Longstreet reopened the debate. Lee, however, was adamant. He was going to attack the enemy. Longstreet rode off to rejoin his corps as it approached Gettysburg.60
In one of the more important controversies surrounding the battle, Ewell decided not to attack. It took a long time for Johnson’s division to get into position to launch an assault, and suitable artillery positions were difficult to find. Moreover, the Confederates captured a message indicating that the Federal V Corps was approaching Gettysburg from the direction of Ewell’s left rear. If his corps was locked in a struggle on the summit of Cemetery Hill when this Federal corps appeared in their rear, disaster was sure to follow. In Ewell’s view, a successful assault that avoided a general engagement was just not “practicable.”61
Lee, however, still held the initiative. So far, the battle had been a resounding success. The Yankees had been driven from every position that they had occupied. The Army of Northern Virginia may have been caught unprepared for a battle with the entire Army of the Potomac, but in its finest tradition it had responded vigorously and effectively. After dark Lee rode to Ewell’s headquarters and explained his concept of operations for the next day. Ewell’s corps was to exploit their
success of the first day and attack early the next morning to drive the Federals off Cemetery Hill. One of Ewell’s division commanders, Jubal Early, argued against the idea because the Yankees were continuing to improve their defensive positions. By morning they would be well prepared to receive an attack. Early added that in his view the keys to the entire battlefield were the Round Tops located to the south. From these hilltops, artillery could dominate much of the terrain to the north, to include the rear of Cemetery Hill. Based on the arguments presented by the commanders who had seen the ground, Lee changed his mind and directed Ewell to shift his corps around, toward the Confederate right. Lee was concerned over the length of his lines, and this movement would permit him to mass forces at the critical point much more quickly and shift the focus of the battle southward.
Ewell again remained silent as Early disagreed once more. If the corps shifted south, Early was concerned that morale would suffer because the severely wounded who were quartered in the town and the hotly contested ground of the fighting on 1 July would be given to the Yankees without a fight. Lee reversed himself once again. He told Ewell and his division commanders that Longstreet’s corps would make the main attack against the Federal left. Ewell was to remain in position and then make a demonstration to support Longstreet. Hearing no argument against this plan, Lee rode back to his headquarters located northwest of the town along the Chambersburg Pike.62
When Lee reached his headquarters, he changed his mind once again. He sent a courier to Ewell ordering him to move his corps around toward the Confederate right. Longstreet’s corps still was not on the field, and tightening up the lines of Hill’s and Ewell’s corps on the west side of town would form a solid base from which to launch an attack. Ewell responded to Lee’s instructions by riding to his commander’s headquarters and personally arguing in favor of his corps’ making a demonstration from its present location to support Longstreet. It appeared that Culp’s Hill to the east of Cemetery Hill might be vulnerable; if the Confederates captured it, they would dominate the Union positions on the lower hill to its west. Lee approved Ewell’s proposal, ordering him to make a demonstration against the Federal right; the demonstration was to be turned into a full assault if an opportunity looked promising. Ewell was to open his part of the battle when he heard the sounds of Longstreet’s guns commencing the attack against the other flank.63
Ewell’s and Early’s concerns about the strength of the Union positions on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills were well founded. Casualties had been relatively high for both sides. The Confederates had lost about 8,000 and the Yankees about 9,000, including 4,500 captured during the hasty retreat to Cemetery Hill. But more Union troops were arriving every minute. About 1700 there were 12,000 Yankees on Cemetery Hill. An hour
later, the number had grown to 20,000. By about 2100 there were 27,000 Federals in positions along Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. Union strength continued to build throughout the night, and at 0300 the next day Meade arrived on the battlefield.64
In the early morning darkness, he met Maj. Gens. Henry W. Slocum, Daniel E. Sickles, and Oliver O. Howard at the cemetery gates on Cemetery Hill. Only Sedgwick’s VI Corps was still not present, but Meade, before leaving Taneytown earlier in the evening, had ordered Sedgwick to march the thirty miles to Gettysburg as quickly as possible. The generals now facing Meade assured him their positions were strong. He informed the assembled officers that once Sedgwick’s corps arrived, he intended to attack on the right. In the meantime, each corps was to continue to prepare its positions and rearrange its lines so that unit integrity, thoroughly mixed up during the momentous events of the previous afternoon and evening, would be restored.
Geary’s division of the XII Corps was to move from the vicinity of Little Round Top and rejoin its parent unit now positioned on the Federal right at Culp’s Hill. Sickles’ III Corps was directed to extend the Federal line southward from the left flank of the II Corps and anchor its left flank on Little Round Top. Meade rode to a small house in the immediate rear of the center of his lines and set up headquarters. It was now a matter of waiting until all of his army was assembled.
As the morning of 2 July wore on and there were no discernible movements from the Confederate lines, Meade grew concerned that Lee was up to something. After Lee’s resounding success on 1 July, it would be unlike him to lie dormant and only stare through the early morning hours at his Yankee foe. About 0930 Meade asked Slocum if the XII Corps could launch an attack on the right. Undoubtedly this would cause a response from Lee, and it might upset any plans that Lee had set in motion. Slocum replied that while the terrain in his corps area favored the defense, it was unsuitable for an attack. Meade abandoned the notion and soon after wired Halleck in Washington that the Army of the Potomac was in good defensive positions and if driven from them would fall back to its supply base at Westminster, Maryland.65
Indeed, Lee was up to something. He did not complete his final plans for the attack on 2 July until that morning. All through the previous night, Longstreet’s corps had been hurrying toward Gettysburg. Since the I Corps was to make the main attack, an early morning assault was out of the question. Nonetheless, Lee continued with his plan, and in a conference that morning on Seminary Ridge he explained his concept to Longstreet and two of his division commanders, Maj. Gen. John B. Hood and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws. The third division commander, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, and his division were still at Chambersburg.
Lee indicated that I Corps was to advance up the Emmitsburg Road and strike the Federal left flank south of Cemetery Hill. Because of the difficulty of controlling a corps-size maneuver, the road offered an excellent terrain feature along which to guide an attack. Longstreet again opened his old argument that the Confederates should be adopting a tactical defensive. Instead of attacking the Federal left directly, he argued that the Army of Northern Virginia should slip around the enemy’s left and position itself so the Yankees would have to attack to dislodge them. Lee reiterated that the army would attack at Gettysburg. He turned to McLaws and showed him precisely how to position his line of battle perpendicular to the Emmitsburg Road with a direction of attack northeastward up the road. Lee added that he wanted McLaws to move by a concealed route, so the enemy would learn of the impending attack too late to respond effectively.
McLaws asked permission to conduct a personal reconnaissance. Lee mentioned that staff officers were already doing so. Longstreet interceded and denied McLaws permission, telling him to remain with his division. He then pointed to the map and indicated the position for McLaws’ division to occupy. This was different from Lee’s earlier location; he indicated a line parallel to the Emmitsburg Road and facing eastward in the direction that Longstreet felt the attack should proceed to bring it around the enemy’s left. Lee immediately retorted, “No, General, I wish it placed just the opposite.” Longstreet stood off to one side as Lee continued to explain how the attack was to unfold.66
During the discussion, Lee asked Captain Johnston of his staff to brief the group on the results of his reconnaissance around the Federal left. Johnston explained that he personally had climbed to the crest of Little Round Top and found the southern end of Cemetery Ridge unoccupied by the enemy. Satisfied that an attack up the Emmitsburg Road would bring the I Corps against the Yankee left flank, Lee concluded the meeting, emphasizing that the attack must start as soon as possible. Longstreet and his commanders returned to their staffs to get their units started.67
Johnston’s report is puzzling. As soon as Meade had a clear understanding of the terrain, the Federal commander had directed units to occupy all of Cemetery Ridge, to include anchoring the left flank on the Round Tops. From a vantage point on Little Round Top, Johnston had viewed the portion of the line assigned to the Union III Corps. Since Johnston saw a vacant area, he must have made his hasty reconnaissance during the time when Geary’s division of the Federal XII Corps had left its positions on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge. It had been ordered to return to its parent unit on Culp’s Hill. For a brief period the area was unoccupied, because the III Corps had not moved from its bivouac in the rear to its assigned front on Cemetery Ridge. Johnston’s report is significant because it reinforced Lee’s completely inaccurate knowledge of Meade’s intended dispositions.
Lee completed the issuing of his orders by riding to Ewell’s headquarters to personally explain his final plan. Ewell was on a reconnaissance of his corps positions when Lee arrived. Lee, however, waited to make sure that there was not going to be any misunderstanding about the day’s activities. Upon Ewell’s return, Lee explained again that Ewell’s corps was to conduct a demonstration in support of Longstreet’s attack. If the demonstration indicated that an assault would succeed, Ewell was to proceed with a full-scale attack. Again hearing no arguments against the plan, Lee rode to a position on Seminary Ridge, where he could see most of the enemy’s apparent positions.68
Lee was disappointed to find on his arrival that Longstreet’s corps still was not in position to attack. The I Corps commander wanted to have Pickett’s division available during the attack, but that was impossible because Pickett still had considerable marching to do before his troops would reach Gettysburg. Brig. Gen. Evander Law’s brigade of Hood’s division also had not arrived, and Longstreet asked to delay the move to his attack positions until Law arrived. Granted permission, he did not begin the approach march until a little after noon. Time was growing short.69
Time was playing against Meade for different reasons. About midmorning General Sickles, the III Corps commander, arrived at Meade’s headquarters to request permission to move his corps to a new position. Assigned the role of tying the left flank of the II Corps to Little Round Top, Sickles believed that the area along Cemetery Ridge was “unfit for infantry, impracticable for artillery.” Large boulders and trees covered the ground to the west of his area of responsibility, which sloped gradually up, toward the Confederate lines. Sickles proposed that he move his corps to the higher ground in the west at a place where a peach orchard bordered on the Emmitsburg Road. Meade explained the army’s dispositions, hoping to convince Sickles of the soundness of his assigned position. Sickles left Meade’s headquarters with the army’s chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt. The next time Meade talked with Sickles, the III Corps commander had gained sufficient time to move his corps into new positions, well in advance of his assigned area and uncoordinated with the rest of Meade’s plans.70
Lee’s attack did not start until about 1600. Longstreet’s approach march was bedeviled by bad luck and poor reconnaissance. By the time he had moved by a concealed route and was ready to attack, the Federals were deployed very differently than they were at the time Lee developed his plan. As a consequence, I Corps did not strike the Federal left flank near Cemetery Hill. Instead, Longstreet’s men swung around the enemy’s flank that stretched northwestward on a line from near the foot of Little Round Top to the peach orchard near the Emmitsburg Road. On the opposite flank, Ewell started his demonstration with a bombardment conducted by artillery located on Benner Hill. In his typical style, Lee had
decentralized the execution and remained mostly an observer throughout the remainder of the day.
Meade, on the other hand, was extremely busy. He had called a council of war for about the time that Longstreet’s artillery opened up in support of the I Corps assault. He grabbed his chief engineer, Gouverneur Kemble Warren, and rode to the Union left to find out the reason for the heavy firing. He reached Sickles’ assigned position and discovered that the III Corps was well out of line and had advanced into a poorly defended salient at the peach orchard. Warren rode off to find reinforcements for the defense of Little Round Top, and Meade rode forward to find Sickles.
By the time he reached Sickles’ headquarters, Meade had decided that it was too late to withdraw the III Corps. If they withdrew under pressure, the entire Federal left might collapse. Meade told Sickles that he would send help from the artillery reserve and the II and V Corps; he rode back to Cemetery Ridge to coordinate this effort.71
Fortunately for Meade, Longstreet’s and Ewell’s attacks were uncoordinated. Although Ewell’s artillery started firing at the right time, his infantry did not attack until almost three hours after Longstreet’s infantry. But even with the poor coordination, Longstreet’s infantry assaults drove the Federals back and pierced their lines in several places. Reinforced by units from the Federal II and V Corps, the III Corps fought desperately but finally retreated to Cemetery Ridge. Two Confederate brigades from Hill’s corps gained a foothold in the II Corps line near a “clump of trees” in the center of Cemetery Ridge. Meade started funneling troops from the XII Corps on the right to reinforce the deteriorating situation on the left. The timely arrival of Sedgwick’s VI Corps on the left also prevented a collapse. On the opposite flank, Ewell’s infantry eventually attacked. They seized the trenches just vacated by the XII Corps on Culp’s Hill and briefly penetrated the XI Corps front on the northeast slope of Cemetery Hill. The fighting continued until well after dark.
That evening Lee was convinced that success still could be achieved if his army’s efforts were coordinated better. From his perspective, on the enemy’s left the Yankees had been driven back a considerable distance from their positions in the orchard to their final lines on Cemetery Ridge. The penetration of the enemy’s center near the clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge also looked promising. These results, combined with Ewell’s penetration on Cemetery Hill and seizure of portions of Culp’s Hill, indicated the continued dominance of the Army of Northern Virginia. (Map 12) Moreover, Stuart and the Confederate cavalry finally had arrived on the battlefield during the day. Although unhappy that his army had not achieved more, Lee believed that a more concerted effort on 3 July offered excellent opportunities for ultimate success.72
Lee did not meet simultaneously with all of his corps commanders. Instead, he dealt with them individually. He directed Ewell to continue the
attack against the Yankee right on Culp’s Hill. He ordered Longstreet to continue the attack started on 2 July. He assigned Hill a supporting role.
On the morning of 3 July Lee rode to Longstreet’s headquarters to determine how his attack was going to be made. Almost before Lee was able to begin the conversation, Longstreet told the commanding general that I Corps scouts had conducted a reconnaissance around the Union left flank. It was still possible to slip around the enemy and position the army so the Federals would have to attack the Confederates. He was organizing his units to begin the move to the right. Amazed that Longstreet had interpreted his orders to mean that he could make a flanking march before conducting his attack, Lee rejected the idea and told Longstreet that the plan was to have the I Corps attack the enemy’s center on Cemetery Ridge.
Longstreet argued that while Pickett’s division was fresh, Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions were not. Moreover, if Hood and McLaws attacked the center, the Confederate right flank would be exposed to a counterattack. This could endanger the entire Southern position. Lee agreed with Longstreet’s analysis and said that Heth’s division and half of Pender’s division - both from A. P. Hill’s corps - would support an attack by Pickett. Hood and McLaws could remain in position to protect the right. The generals then rode to a position where they could see the enemy’s center. The discussion became heated as Longstreet argued that a frontal attack could not succeed. When asked how many soldiers he intended to commit to the attack, Lee replied 15,000. Longstreet answered that there were not 15,000 men alive who could successfully attack across the open field that had been selected as the avenue of approach. Furthermore, Yankee artillery now positioned on Little Round Top could sweep the entire line of attack as it advanced across the open field. One of Lee’s staff officers replied that these Federal guns could be silenced. Lee was adamant, and Longstreet acquiesced. The commanding general added that Stuart’s cavalry would make a supporting attack by riding around the Federal defenses and attacking the center of the rear of the enemy’s line. (Map 13) The instructions for “Pickett’s Charge” were complete.73
In the meantime, Johnson’s division of Ewell’s corps had followed Lee’s earlier instructions and at first light had opened the attack up the slopes of Culp’s Hill. Instead of finding vacated trenches as they had on the previous afternoon, they now discovered that the XII Corps had returned in strength. Moreover, the Federal commanders were anxious to regain the positions that had been lost so easily the day before. Federal artillery, unanswered by Confederate guns, supported furious counterattacks. Not only did Johnson’s attack falter, his soldiers were driven from the ground that they had held at first light. It was an inauspicious start for Lee’s plan.74
Meade’s commanders were confident that their positions were strong. During the previous evening, Meade had called a meeting of his principal
commanders. He gave each of them an opportunity to express his opinion on the next course of action. Only John Newton, the acting I Corps commander, indicated that the current positions were poor. The rest seemed determined to stay and fight. The three-hour meeting tended to ramble; finally, Meade’s chief of staff, Butterfield, posed three alternatives to the group and asked the commanders to vote on each one. Essentially, the alternatives were to attack, defend, or withdraw. Meade was surprised by his chief ’s interjection but allowed the vote to proceed. The result was overwhelmingly in favor of defending the current positions and waiting for at least a day to see what Lee would do. Meade closed the meeting by commenting, “Such, then, is the decision.” As the commanders filed out of his headquarters, Meade stopped the acting II Corps commander, Maj. Gen. John Gibbon. He told Gibbon that since Lee had attacked both the right and left flanks, his next move probably would be against the center, the location of Gibbon’s corps. Everyone returned to their headquarters to await the next day’s events.75
Lee rode with Longstreet along his attack positions twice during the morning of 3 July. He wanted to make sure that the artillery and infantry were properly positioned and ready for the decisive blow. Approximately 172 Confederate guns were on line to deliver a massive cannonade. After the guns had demoralized the Federal infantry and suppressed the enemy’s artillery, the 13,500 soldiers from Longstreet’s and Hill’s corps who finally had been massed for the attack would charge across a mile-wide open field. A little after 1300 the Confederate artillery opened fire.76
Pickett’s Charge is probably the most famous attack of the entire war. Its fame was achieved by the heroism displayed by the Confederates, who had to withstand the furious Federal artillery and musket fire, and by the belief that the few men who finally stumbled over the stone wall along the Union front line had reached the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. While all of this is true, it is equally important to remember that Meade’s defense, both tactically and operationally, was extremely effective because of strong Union leadership, creative command and control, and the fighting spirit of the soldiers. The Army of Northern Virginia did everything that Robert E. Lee asked of it. The Army of the Potomac was its equal, and the Battle of Gettysburg finally demonstrated this beyond a reasonable doubt. While very famous, Pickett’s Charge was futile.
Stuart’s cavalry attack against the Union rear was equally futile. On a field about two miles east of Gettysburg, Federal cavalry easily turned back Stuart’s troopers in a mounted clash. The Confederate defeat on 3 July was of immense proportions.77
Back on Seminary Ridge, Generals Lee and Longstreet rallied the remnants of Pickett’s assault force as they streamed back across the field under artillery fire. Both officers exerted a calming influence on the men, and within an hour the Army of Northern Virginia had gotten itself back
together again. Longstreet tightened his lines, pulling McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions westward across the Emmitsburg Road to a shorter line. He also shifted the artillery so it was ready to receive any counterattacks that Meade might attempt. Throughout the remainder of that day and night and for most of 4 July, the Confederates awaited a Federal counterattack that never materialized.
Late in the afternoon of 3 July Meade had directed the V Corps commander to make a reconnaissance of the Confederate right. Sykes sent a reinforced brigade forward, but an enemy brigade posted in front of the Confederate line quickly stopped the Federals. Meade, still unsure of Lee’s next move but certain that a rebel retreat was imminent, ordered seven of his eight brigades of cavalry against the enemy’s rear and lines of communications on 4 July. In the meantime, he unscrambled the units that had been jumbled together during the rapid shifting of forces over the past three days. For him, 4 July was also a day of reorganization and of waiting to see what the enemy would do.78
Lee’s situation on 4 July was precarious. Although Lee was certain he could repulse any Federal attack, his lines of communications were vulnerable. If he remained in position too long, the larger Army of the Potomac might eventually work its way around one of his flanks and cut off his line of retreat. When it became clear that the Yankees were not going to attack, he ordered a retreat to the crossing sites over the Potomac at Williamsport. Ambulances carrying the wounded and wagons carrying the plunder from the Pennsylvania farmlands departed first. The seventeen- mile-long train moved out, and after dark on the fourth, Hill’s corps withdrew, followed soon after by Longstreet’s and Ewell’s corps.79
On that same evening Meade, wanting to gain the initiative, held a council of war. He proposed moving against the Confederates on the next day. All the corps commanders still advised against an attack if Lee continued to hold a position along Seminary Ridge. Nevertheless, Meade directed the VI Corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force on the morning of the fifth. When it moved forward at a little before noon, it did not run into any resistance until the corps reached Fairfield. Sedgwick reported to Meade that he suspected that the Confederates were going to wait for a Union attack there.80
This upset the plans Meade already had set in motion. In addition to sending his cavalry out to harass the enemy’s rear areas and directing the VI Corps to make its reconnaissance, he had directed a Federal force at Frederick, Maryland, to advance to the vicinity of Harpers Ferry. This could block Lee’s retreat. Deciding also that it would be too costly to try to force the passes into the Cumberland Valley and advance directly against Lee’s rear, Meade ordered his army to march southward on the east side of the mountains and assemble at Middletown. In anticipation of this move, he directed his supply base to be shifted from Westminster to
a railhead at Frederick. But Sedgwick’s report of the results of his reconnaissance as far as Fairfield seemed to indicate that Lee was still looking for a fight in Pennsylvania. Meade halted his army for a day and a half until he determined that the Army of Northern Virginia was in fact withdrawing. By the time his army was on the move again, the Confederates were safely approaching their crossing point at Williamsport.
Lee’s army had about half the distance that Meade’s had to travel to reach Williamsport. Unfortunately for the Confederates, when they reached there, they found that their pontoon bridge had been destroyed in a Federal raid and that recent heavy rains swelled the Potomac River. Lee ordered crossings to be prepared and his army to entrench. He was still hopeful that Meade would attack.81
Meade finally had his army assembled in front of the Confederate positions at Williamsport on 12 July. During the evening he met with his corps commanders and found them still reluctant to attack prepared enemy positions. Not having seen the ground over which an attack would have to be made, Meade withheld his decision to attack and on the next day conducted a personal reconnaissance with his chief of staff. Determining that an assault was feasible, he directed the army to attack on 14 July. By then, Lee was safely back on Virginia soil.
Lincoln and Stanton were furious. In Washington, it appeared that Meade had missed the opportunity for which everyone in the North had been waiting - the complete destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln was quoted as saying that Meade looked like an old lady trying to shoo her geese across a creek. The Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War later held hearings hostile to Meade, accusing him of cowardice. Meade was taken aback by this attitude in the capital. Instead of being a great hero, he was being characterized as just the opposite. The final proof of Meade’s excellent abilities, however, was the ultimate honor bestowed on him. The Northern leadership stopped looking for a new commander for the Army of the Potomac. When Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House almost two years later, Meade still commanded the army that ultimately trapped and defeated him. The Army of the Potomac was to be Meade’s for the duration of the war.82
Many commentators on the Gettysburg campaign have focused on the tactics of Meade and Lee. For these analysts, the campaign only provides the backdrop against which to view the events of 1–3 July. They have examined the commanders’ battlefield decisions often in excruciating detail to discover the reasons for the successes and failures of both sides. They have identified key tactical events and decisions
that shaped Lee’s ultimate failure and Meade’s success. Often in these analyses, Lee’s subordinates appear as important reasons for the Army of Northern Virginia’s defeat. Richard Ewell and James Longstreet most often appear on their list of villains. The commentators contend that Ewell was indecisive throughout much of the battle; his failure to follow up the initial success on 1 July made it very difficult for Lee to regain the upper hand that his army initially had gained at great cost. They have turned to Longstreet’s infatuation with his concept of an offensive- defensive and believe that this hampered the I Corps commander’s performance. Some have characterized his actions as bordering on outright insubordination. By focusing on the battle, however, they have misunderstood the importance of expert performance at the operational level. The conduct of the campaign provides more than a backdrop. It provides many of the reasons for the success of George G. Meade and the failure of Robert E. Lee.
At the center of the entire campaign lies the issue of objectives. Lee developed his objectives in consultation with the Confederate president and the cabinet. It was an excellent forum for mixing the military’s views (as expressed by Lee) and the political views (as expressed by the members of the cabinet and the president). There should not have been any question in Lee’s mind as to what he was trying to achieve during the invasion. Indeed, it appears that he was quite clear on those things that his army had to accomplish during the campaign. The objectives reflect an interesting mix of political and military goals. On the military side, his army was to gather supplies from Northern farmers, draw the Army of the Potomac away from defensive lines along Virginia’s river lines, and win an important battle on Northern soil.
This last military objective supported the political goals as well. A great victory in the North might still convince some European nations to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. If Lee effectively threatened Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, the potential for European recognition might be increased. Other political goals supported the concept of an invasion. The invasion could increase Northern war weariness and thus foster some initiatives from a peace movement. Additionally, either a successful battle or threats to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington might reinforce Northern feelings of war weariness. This blend of military and political objectives was a reasonable and feasible goal for the use of military power.
Meade’s objectives were much more narrowly focused. His objectives were given to him without his being consulted, but General Halleck’s participation in Washington insured that the military as well as the political view was well represented. Meade was told to operate against the invading force of rebels and to screen Baltimore and Washington. Although the accomplishment of each objective would have clear political results, both
objectives translated into precise military objectives. The results of the application of military power against them could be easily measured.
Applying these objectives to the theater setting provides an interesting contrast between Lee’s and Meade’s orientations. Lee’s objectives did not automatically focus either him or his army on the enemy. In fact, in order to gather supplies, the Army of Northern Virginia had to operate out of the range of the Army of the Potomac. Therefore, it was important not to operate in the enemy’s presence. Naturally, Lee knew that the Federals would pursue him once they had determined the extent of his operations. During the Maryland campaign in September 1862, even the overly cautious George B. McClellan finally pursued Lee’s invading army. Lee knew that once the Yankees had substantial combat power in Pennsylvania, widespread foraging was out of the question among the hostile population and in unfamiliar territory.
To accomplish both the objective of gathering supplies and the objective of fighting a battle, Lee needed at least to know the Yankees’ movements if not their intentions. Lee’s poor use of his cavalry during the latter half of June was devastating. His substandard use of his cavalry meant that he did not know the enemy’s dispositions and had no way of inferring their intentions. Even after Hill’s corps had engaged the vanguard of the Army of the Potomac on 1 July, Lee still did not know the extent of the damage that he could inflict or that could be inflicted upon him.
There is no evidence to suggest that Lee prioritized any of the conflicting objectives he was trying to accomplish during the campaign. There also is no evidence to suggest that either he or his staff analyzed the consistencies and inconsistencies between the objectives. Because of the complex relationships between his political and military objectives, an analysis to prioritize and to determine inconsistencies was absolutely essential. At the time, this probably was not seen as being particularly important because everyone believed that the Army of Northern Virginia could do virtually anything it wanted when confronted by the Army of the Potomac. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, past experiences were irrelevant. The Army of the Potomac had a new commander on 28 June.
Meade’s objectives focused him only on the enemy. Within the theater setting, the objective to cover Washington and Baltimore for political reasons still meant that he must remain oriented on the locations and movements of the Army of Northern Virginia. His aggressive intent, excellent combat command experience at all levels of command, and absolute attention on the enemy meant that the Army of the Potomac was not going to be distracted by anything like Stuart’s cavalry raid. In addition, Meade’s political guidance translated quite readily into military terms: find, fix, and fight Lee’s army.
Initially, Lee’s concept of operations masked the weaknesses in his plan. It was excellent up to the point where an aggressive opponent put
it to the test. He had integrated alacrity and deception; and as long as Joe Hooker was opposite him, his operational vision was as brilliant as ever. But this concept depended on poor performance and timidity by the enemy army’s leadership. When that leadership changed, the whole concept was faulty.
During the march north through Maryland into Pennsylvania, it appeared that Lee masterfully synchronized his forces. He outmaneuvered Joe Hooker and kept the enemy commander constantly in a state of uncertainty. The full meaning of Stuart’s absence just prior to the battle was not obvious at the time because some Confederate cavalry still screened the army’s movements and Hooker was in a quandary about what to do. But other trusted subordinates were not clear about Lee’s intent. With the general knowledge that a battle with the Yankees was inevitable, it is no wonder that first Heth, then Hill, and finally Ewell piled on the Federals when they saw an opportunity on 1 July. Integration of forces at all levels of command was not achieved. Moreover, operational intelligence did not play a role in Heth’s, Hill’s, or Ewell’s decisions. They were simply trying to achieve tactical success. When Lee finally arrived on the battlefield, he sensed the operational problem and tried to slow down the tactical development of the battle. By then it was too late. His subordinates already had committed him to battle, and they were urging further aggressiveness. The extent of the tactical commitment was too much to allow him to slow down the operational development of the campaign.
Meade’s concept of operations was borne out by events. But he had an easier task than Lee. By the time Meade assumed command, he knew what the enemy was doing. He did not know all of the important details, but he had the capability to find the answers he needed. His army was operating on friendly territory; intelligence collection was much easier than it had been in the past in Virginia. Meade, however, personally brought something to the campaign that had been lacking so far. He had an acute knowledge of the capabilities of the Army of the Potomac, which he learned during his earlier years in command at various levels. He knew it was a good army. Thus, the scanty intelligence did not hinder his aggressiveness. His conduct of the movement to contact was brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. After assuming command on 28 June, Meade quickly formulated a plan of campaign and focused on operational attainment of the objectives, using mutually supporting corps to offensively find and fight Lee. He brought forces to bear at critical times at the right place.
In the opening stages of the battle, operational maneuver played an interesting role. Lee was caught generally unaware of the enemy, and Meade was looking for a fight. But Lee had numerical superiority throughout 1 July. His army won the battle. Aggressive leadership by Hill and Ewell drove the Federals off the field. Even though unprepared, Lee
won because his forces were deployed for successful maneuver at the operational level. If Lee had decided to withdraw on 2 July instead of 4 July, we might be analyzing the Battle of Gettysburg as another Confederate victory. Lee would have outmaneuvered Meade, driven the Federals off the battlefield at Gettysburg, and then, having gathered substantial supplies and won a battle, could have withdrawn southward. The extent of the victory certainly would have been equal to the victory at Chancellorsville. But once Lee decided on the evening of 1 July that the tactical victory was not great enough, Meade outmaneuvered him operationally. Rapidly, Meade brought superior combat and logistical power to bear at the operationally decisive place and time.
Meade’s ability to generate operational reserves permitted him to achieve superiority at the critical points. During the movement toward Gettysburg from 28 June to 1 July, he deployed his corps on a wide front but kept them close enough together to avoid defeat in detail. Covering his supply base at Westminster, Maryland, Meade could respond in any direction and reasonably expect success. More important, his dispositions meant that even if he made unexpected contact with Lee’s army, the campaign would still unfold in accordance with his long-range operational vision. He effectively operated against the invading force of rebels. Furthermore, he also was in a position to shift eastward to cover Baltimore and Washington, his other primary objectives. The positioning of his corps in relation to each other and in support of his two objectives allowed Meade to use uncommitted forces to respond flexibly and creatively, regardless of the Confederate reaction to contact with the Army of the Potomac.
The Army of Northern Virginia’s immediate reaction to the unexpected contact with the Army of the Potomac on 1 July also demonstrated Lee’s understanding of the effective use of operational reserves. Even though he was only vaguely aware of the location of the enemy, Lee had sensibly deployed his army so combat power could be built up wherever it was needed when battle occurred. Perhaps an argument could be made that his forces were deployed too well: When battle was joined, it was too difficult for Lee to slow down its development. Aggressive subordinates made use of the operational reserves that Lee should have kept firmly under his control. Nevertheless, Lee’s understanding of the importance of operational reserves and their effective use was a hallmark of his repeated successes throughout the war. Gettysburg demonstrated once again his understanding of their importance.
Of particular interest is the comparison between the operational reserves available to Lee and Meade on the evening of 3 July. Lee had run out of them. Meade still had operational reserves available. Faced with this reality, Lee only had one alternative: Withdraw to Virginia. Meade, on the other hand, possessed numerous alternatives. He could attack Lee
directly. He could maneuver against Lee’s line of communications. He could remain on the defensive and cover Washington and Baltimore. As it turned out, Meade chose to remain on the defensive, undoubtedly influenced by the tactical realities of the Civil War. Having experienced combat command at all major levels, Meade knew that attacks against prepared positions were extremely costly. This attitude caused him problems with the leadership in Washington. They wanted Lee’s army destroyed in place. They believed that Meade had the forces available. While they were correct - Meade had the operational reserves - they did not understand the tactical realities that Meade knew so well.
The second day further illustrates the interplay between the use of operational reserves and tactical realities. Here Meade excelled. He brought forces from one flank to be plugged into another to stem Longstreet’s attack. He force-marched Sedgwick’s corps, covering a greater distance than Longstreet’s missing division (Pickett) to arrive in the nick of time on the battlefield. By contrast, Pickett remained at Chambersburg too long to be an effective operational reserve.
Tactical realities also demanded logistical feasibility. At the operational level, both Lee and Meade understood the profound influence of logistics. For this reason, in most histories of the campaign, one finds little comment on operational logistical constraints. Each commander’s long-range logistical vision permitted him to operate creatively. But it is operational logistics that lends an air of incredibility to Longstreet’s repeated proposal for an offensive defense. From a purely tactical standpoint, Longstreet’s concept made good sense. But it suffered from a blind spot on logistics. Operating on foreign soil, Lee could not afford to separate his army from its logistical tail for an extended period. If he did and Meade chose not to attack, Lee would be in an impossible operational situation. Longstreet’s arguments notwithstanding, there was no suitable location between the Army of the Potomac and Washington for Lee to position his Army. Longstreet’s vague references to such a location avoided the crucial questions. Which location would be so important that Meade would be forced to attack? What would Lee do logistically if Meade chose not to attack? Operating in hostile territory, Lee had to assess operational logistical considerations to which his subordinates were not accustomed.
Lee’s relationships to his subordinates during the battle trouble many people. It is in those relationships that many observers find the most fault. They argue that Lee should have been more decisive with Ewell and firmer with Longstreet. And Lee should not have reorganized his command structure just prior to a type of campaign with which no one had any previous successful experience. These arguments, however, concern Lee the tactician; off the field of battle, both the command structure and Lee’s relationships with his subordinates were highly effective. Obviously, the
campaign was lost at the tactical level. Lee felt that he could only accomplish his campaign objectives by winning a battle more spectacular than his defensive stroke at Chancellorsville. He believed that this required him to attack if he was going to win a more clear-cut victory. But it is by no means obvious that a firmer, more decisive Robert E. Lee would have made any tactical difference. The experience of the commanders in the Civil War repeatedly demonstrated that an attacker was at a severe disadvantage. Technology favored the defender. Furthermore, in the area where there can be a search for alternative outcomes, one can overlook the importance of the enemy in determining the original outcome. A competent commander led the Army of the Potomac; Lee was facing a fundamentally different situation than he had in previous confrontations with Union commanders.
George G. Meade’s relationships with his subordinates were highly effective. Throughout the campaign, he selected trusted subordinates to command several corps in order to reduce his span of control. Reynolds commanded a “wing” of the Army of the Potomac while it was moving in the direction of Gettysburg. After Reynolds was killed and Meade had received word that a battle was in progress at Gettysburg, he directed Hancock to ride to the scene and take charge, even though Hancock was junior to other corps commanders already on the field. He used councils of war to cement relationships. Rather than being signs of weakness and lack of command presence, they tended to ensure that his senior commanders understood that Meade knew and valued their views on key decisions. By contrast, Joe Hooker and other preceding commanders had kept their subordinates in the dark on their operational concept. Meade demonstrated effective operational command.
In the final analysis, making an overall comparison of the two opponents is very difficult. Each commander faced different problems, not the least of which is that they faced each other. Measuring performance against objectives, however, narrows the evaluation considerably. Meade accomplished the objectives given to him by his military commander, Henry W. Halleck. He operated effectively against the invading force of rebels and effectively covered Washington and Baltimore. But he did not achieve total success. He did not achieve the objective of his political leaders: the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia. It is possible to argue that this was an implied task subordinate to his specified task to operate against the invaders, and therefore he should have pursued this objective without specific instructions. It is interesting to note, however, that the experienced combat leaders, Halleck and Meade, did not identify this implied task. Perhaps their previous Civil War experiences taught them that a single crushing blow in a Napoleonic battle was an impossible task.
Even though he lost the battle and thus lost the campaign, Lee accomplished almost everything he intended. He had gathered supplies
from Northern farmers. He drew the Army of the Potomac away from the natural defensive barriers in northern Virginia. By the evening of 1 July, he had won a battle on Northern soil. At the cost of 8,000 casualties, his army had captured 4,500 Yankees, had killed or wounded another 4,500 enemy, and seized all the terrain that the enemy held at the outset of the battle. But Lee decided to continue the fight offensively. That decision changed the statistics significantly. Outnumbering the Federals on 1 July by 28,000 to 18,000, Confederate relative combat superiority was reversed by 3 July. By then, the Union had mustered 85,500 to the Confederate 75,000. Casualty figures were even more dramatic. Confederate losses were over 28,000, more than 37 percent of the forces engaged. Federal casualties were more than 23,000, or 26 percent of Meade’s force. Lee’s decision to pursue the implied task of destroying the Army of the Potomac cost him dearly, in terms of both casualties and the overall outcome of the campaign.83
Implied tasks for both commanders produced an interesting turn of events. Lee’s implied task hurt him militarily. Meade’s implied task hurt him politically. As is always the case, if a commander does not precisely know all of his objectives, any road will lead him to them, including the road to ruin. Clearly defined and attainable objectives are crucial for the operational commander.
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