Daily Archives: March 2, 2014

Experience versus Inexperience, Accident and Intent: Harry Heth and John Buford on July 1st at Gettysburg


On June 30th 1863 Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was still spread out over wide parts of south central Pennsylvania and Maryland. He had issued orders to concentrate his forces near Cashtown but his orders to his subordinate commanders still lacked clarity. As such his corps commanders still acted in a nearly independent manner.

Lee was operating blind. Due to his own operational decisions he was without any significant cavalry forces to screen his army and conduct reconnaissance as it operated deep in enemy territory. He had only found out about the location and proximity to his forces of the Army of the Potomac from the report of Longstreet’s spy Harrison.

On June 30th Major General Harry Heth sent a brigade of his division to conduct a reconnaissance in the direction of Gettysburg. The brigade commander Brigadier General Johnston Pettigrew was instructed to avoid being drawn into battle. Pettigrew observed Federal cavalry of John Buford taking up positions west of the town and chose not to engage. He retired from the field and reported the presence of well drilled Federal cavalry to General Heth. As he was doing so A.P. Hill arrived and rejected Pettigrew’s report insisting that the Army of the Potomac was still over 20 miles away in Maryland. Neither Hill or Heth trusted Pettigrew’s report as Pettigrew’s was not a professional soldier.

The following morning Heth with Hill’s permission decided to send a force to Gettysburg to see what was there and to obtain a large number of shoes that he heard were in the town.

henryhethMajor General Henry (Harry) Heth

Heth was an 1847 graduate of West Point. He graduated at the bottom of his class. Heth was commissioned as an Infantry Officer in the United States Army. Heth did not serve in Mexico but on the frontier. He had commanded a company in battle against the Lakota Sioux in 1855 and wrote the first marksmanship manual for use in the U.S. Army.

Heth was a Virginian and a close friend of A.P. Hill. He spent the early part of the war as Lee’s Quartermaster where he became one of Lee’s favorite officers. This was the beginning of a close relationship where Lee looked after Heth’s career. Heth served as regimental commander in the actions in the Kanawha Valley of Western Virginia being assigned to Kirby Smith’s Department of Tennessee. There he commanded a division but took part no any major actions.

Lee brought him back to the Army of Northern Virginia in 1863 to command a brigade in Hill’s Division. He took commanded that brigade at Chancellorsville in which he made an ill advised unsupported attack against Union forces in which his brigade sustained heavy casualties. Despite this, during the reorganization of the army Heth was promoted to command of the Division when Hill assumed command of Third Corps when it was created following the death of Stonewall Jackson.

Lee had given his commanders orders not to provoke a major engagement until the Army was fully concentrated. However neither Heth nor Hill believed that the troops that Pettigrew observed were a threat, believing them to be nothing more than local militia.

Hill was sick and decided to conduct a reconnaissance despite his lack of cavalry. Hill decided to conduct an infantry reconnaissance, However instead of sending a small force he dispatched two of his divisions, those of Heth and Dorsey Pender and remained in his quarters. Heth, the most inexperienced division commander took the lead and advanced his division in a column not deployed for battle or reconnaissance.

Lee’s intent seemed to be clear at this point clear. He desired to have a tired and weary Union force under a new commander under political pressure attack him on ground of his choosing. He hoped to defeat the Union forces piecemeal as they came into the battle. By initiating the action Hill and Heth set in motion events that would lead to the climactic battle of the Civil War. Hill’s decision to use such a large force and Heth’s inexperience in leading such a mission put Lee in a position where he began to make more mistakes.

The Federal Cavalry that Heth’s troops encountered was the First Cavalry Division under the Command of Brigadier General John Buford. Buford’s division arrived in Gettysburg ahead of the Army of the Potomac on the 30th. Buford and his brigade commanders immediately recognized the importance of the ground when they saw Pettigrew’s troops. Buford order his troops to deploy on the ridges west of Gettysburg, Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge. It was the perfect place for a delaying action against superior forces.

john_bufordBrigadier General John Buford

Buford was also a graduate of West Point and served as a Cavalry officer in the Army before the war. He was from Kentucky and his father was a Democrat who had opposed Abraham Lincoln. Much of his family chose to fight for the Confederacy but Buford remained loyal to his oath and remained in the Army.

Prior to the war Buford had served against the Sioux and on peacekeeping duty in the bitterly divided State if Kansas. Later he served in the Utah War in 1858. He was a modern soldier who recognized that the tactics of the Army had to change due to improvements in weapons and technology.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1862 and served in numerous engagements as a Cavalry Brigade commander before being given command of the 1st Cavalry Division after Chancellorsville.


The Delaying Action, July 1st 1863 Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CW

Buford was a keen student of war and a commander who was able to control his forces. When Heth’s division attacked he fought a masterful action. This allowed the Infantry Corps of the Army of the Potomac to arrive on the field of battle. Buford’s action to select the ground upon which the battle was fought was instrumental to the Union victory at Gettysburg. Even though Federal forces were pushed back on the first day they were able to maintain control of the high ground east of the city with interior lines of communication which they fortified.

After Heth engaged the Federal army Lee decided that he had to force the battle and continue the attack. Lee brushed aside the objections of General Longstreet and ignored the fact that he did not fully know the numbers and disposition of the troops arrayed against him.

Lee’s decision to engage the enemy was disastrous. Lee decided to attack after the ill conceived decision of Hill and Heth to get involved in a big fight and the correspondingly excellent command decisions of Buford to choose good ground and then to fight a skilled engagement.

While Lee and Hill’s decisions shaped the battle the tactical decisions of Heth and Buford in their conduct of the battle and their advice to their superiors had a dramatic effect on how the Battle of Gettysburg unfolded. Heth’s lack of experience in the east against the Army of the Potomac and limited battle experience as a senior commander certainly was a factor. Likewise, Buford’s experience played a major role. Buford had spent the war in action against Lee’s Army. He knew the capabilities of his enemies and knew what had to be done to give his side a chance to win.


Like many battles success is often due to such factors. Had Heth been more experienced and been more prudent in conducting his mission Lee might not have made his fateful decision to commit his army at a Gettysburg. Had Buford not seen the importance of the ground that he selected and deployed himself accordingly the rest of the Army may not have gotten to Gettysburg before Lee had gained the critical ground east and south of the town.

On such decisions battles are decided and wars won. Heth was a good soldier, but his relative inexperience and inability to control his command was a decisive factor in the battle. On the other hand Buford’s experience and poise under pressure enabled the rest of the army to come up on that first day of battle. Had he not done so it is possible that despite the bad decisions made by Lee, Hill and Heth that the Army of northern Virginia might have seized the critical ground east of Gettysburg before the bulk of the Federal Army arrived.

Had that happened it would have been interesting to see how the rest of the campaign unfolded. But such is speculation and that is a subject for novelists, writers of historical fiction or alternate history. Instead we are left with the real decisions of people that to this day influence us. Experience versus inexperience, accident versus design and the decisions of men long dead are things that we must ponder as we look at this battle and seek to learn lessons that will benefit us today.


Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military

Putin’s Mistake: Creating an Afghanistan in the Ukraine


It appears that  it is 1980 all over again. From  all accounts Vladimir Putin will succeed in chopping off the heavily Russian region of Crimea from the Ukraine. His troops accomplished the task in short order. The weak and isolated Ukrainian border guard and military units stood no chance against an invasion which had obviously been planned for month. This was not a knee-jerk response by Putin. Though events moved rapidly,  the alacrity with which the Russian troops moved in, aided by ethnic Russians, and the rubber stamp action of the upper house of the Russian legislature to approve it demonstrates that it was not simply a move to “protect Russian citizens.”

The response of the new provisional government in Ukraine is that the invasion, and it is an invasion no-matter what Putin and his allies claim, is an act of war. The Ukrainian President has mobilized all reserves, however conventional Ukrainian military force is insignificant compared to what Russia can deploy against it. That being said if Putin elects to continue his aggressive and short sighted overreach by moving troops into other parts of the Ukraine it will trigger a massive insurgency against his forces and it may cause other now independent regions of the old Soviet empire to offer support to Ukraine. The President of Chechnya has already made the offer and its hardy and brutal soldiers are quite good at conducting insurgency and terrorist campaigns.


The West’s response is limited by geography. Any U.N. response against it will be vetoed in the Security Council by Russia. The United States, the European Union and NATO will protest. They will probably enact sanctions on Russia’s financial oligarchs on which Putin’s power rests and will possibly move troops to the western areas of the Ukraine and maybe limited naval forces into the Black Sea.

For those like Representative Mike Rogers of the House Intelligence Committee and others who said the Obama “missed the opportunity to deploy military forces to Ukraine,” I have to ask what forces and for what purpose?  U.S. military options are quite limited after 13 years of fighting costly wars, including the preemptive invasion of Iraq. Those wars, fought on borrowed money because the Bush administration refused to raise any taxes of any kind to support them harmed the country. Our forces, both the troops and equipment are worn out by war. The ability of the nation to rebuild and sustain them has been compromised by the economic costs of the 2008 banking and real estate crisis.  Likewise the Republican actions to force sequestration and other cuts on the military in order to get President Obama to cave to their domestic agenda has been detrimental to our overall national security.

russia-ukraine-protestPolice in Moscow arrest anti-Invasion Protesters

Those efforts themselves will not immediately accomplish much. However, when combined with an insurgency that has the ability to strike Moscow and St. Petersburg, the costs of maintain an occupying army in hostile territory are factored in they become more important. Likewise the ambivalence of the Russian people, who despite the imperialistic Russian media blitz has not risen to support war will eventually bring Putin problems at home.

The invasion of Crimea is not good for anyone. Ukraine needs time to sort out what it will become and a war is not in the interests of anyone.

The situation is intense and fraught with danger. Passions in many parts of the Ukraine are riding high and Putin’s move is more risky than he may realize. This is not the Republic of Georgia which Putin successfully invaded in 2008, abetted by the incompetence of that country’s leaders. If Putin continues down this course he will open the door to a real life Pandora’s Box, one that may take him and his government down just as Afghanistan helped end the Soviet empire.

Of course it is too early to say what will happen. The geopolitics, and economic realities, the internal politics of Russia, the Ukraine and the West will all influence what happens. In the past Putin has conducted a skillful game of realpolitik, however this time he may have overplayed what was a strong diplomatic, economic and political hand by launching this invasion. Those that think that simply because the EU depends on Russia for much of its natural gas and oil forget that Russia cannot cut off the supply without financial repercussions that directly affect Putin’s allies in the Russian financial oligarchy.

So now we watch as all the actors make their moves. It is a dangerous game that Putin has embarked upon.

We can only pray that it does not turn into disaster for all concerned.


Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under Foreign Policy, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

Lee Blunders into Battle: Day One at Gettysburg

Railroad_CutBetween Heth’s Divsion and I Corps at the Railroad Cut-Dale Gallon

The Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E Lee was now deep in Union territory and nearly blind to the location of the Federal Army of the Potomac. On the 30th advanced units of Dick Ewell’s Second Corps had gone nearly as far as Harrisburg while most of the Army was on the road around Chambersburg. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry was far away encumbered by a large captured Federal wagon train around Hanover and not in position to report on Union troop movements.

As reports from the spy Harrison came to Longstreet he reported them to Lee. Lee was surprised but quickly began to concentrate the Army around Cashtown. As the rest of the army gathered General A.P. Hill sent Johnston Pettigrew’s Brigade of Harry Heth’s Division to Gettysburg on the 30th. Pettigrew observed the Federal cavalry of Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division as they took up positions on Seminary Ridge. Since it was late he declined to engage and reported the Federal concentration to Hill, believing it to be nothing more than militia and cavalry.

427_2Buford Defending McPherson’s Ridge Mort Kunstler

On the morning of July 1st Hill ordered Harry Heth’s to advance his division to Gettysburg without the benefit of cavalry support or reconnaissance. Hill believed that the troops reported by Pettigrew could be nothing more than local militia. As they advanced the leading brigades under Brigadier General James Archer and Joseph Davis met Federal forces. Heth first became embroiled in a fight with Buford’s cavalry, which forced him to deploy and held up his advance along McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge. Lee’s “laxness with respect to reconnaissance and his lack of control of Hill’s movements caused him to stumble into battle.” For the master of so many battlefields it was an inauspicious beginning.

Heth had been surprised and then suffered heavy casualties when lead elements of the Federal 1st Corps under the command of Major General John Reynolds arrived. In the ensuing fight both Archer’s and Davis’ brigades were mauled with Archer being captured and Davis wounded. As the fight continued the Federal XI Corps under Oliver Howard arrived, extended the Right of the Federal line and emplaced troops on the hills to the east of the town. Unfortunately Howard’s dispositions were faulty and the choice of his First Division commander Barlow to advance to an exposed area of high ground proved to be nearly disastrous to the Federal position.

gettysburg_battle_map_of day1Gettysburg Day One (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/Com)

Lee was surprised by the engagement and though he chastised Heth for getting involved but committed his army to the attack the Federals. Reynolds was killed early in the engagement but the fight was bitter, the Iron Brigade exacted a fearful toll on Archer and Davis’s brigades.

The attack by Heth was helped immensely when the lead elements of Ewell’s 2nd Corps in the form of Robert Rodes’ division arrived. Rodes’ division hit the right flank of the I Corps where it joined XI Corps and was joined by part of Jubal Early’s Division to his right. They overwhelmed the division of Francis Barlow who was wounded and captured, as well as other elements of XI Corps which was deployed on bad ground for defense.

The attack was well conceived but poorly executed, in part due to the failures of some of the subordinate brigade commanders. However, the attack threw the Federal line into confusion and the Federals shifted to meet the attack. Heth sought and got permission from Lee to renew his attack and the combination forced the Federal troops to withdraw through Gettysburg and up to Cemetery Ridge, where two brigade’s of Steinwehr’s division and the tough survivors of the Iron Brigade were already in place.

800px-First_day_at_gettysburgPender’s Division Goes into Action

In making the attack Lee acted against his own directions to his commanders. Though he only had a fraction of his army on the field and was unaware of the strength and location of the bulk of the Federal Army, Lee committed himself to a general engagement. In the process he placed his army at a disadvantage. Unless he could break the Federal line and take Cemetery Hill he would leave the Army of the Potomac with the high ground and with the ability to fight on interior lines, while his forces would be spread out over a long arcing line.

leeindexLee with A.P. Hill and Heth Bradley Schmehl

Ewell’s arrival was fortuitous because it temporarily tilted the balance to Lee, but the advantage was short lived, once again due to a vague order from Lee. This time it was an order to Ewell and like many things about Lee’s conduct of the battle this too is shrouded in controversy.

Lee’s report describes the order:

“General Ewell was, therefore, instructed 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…”

But Lee had already committed himself to a general engagement in pursuing the attack during the afternoon. Although it appeared that Federal forces in turmoil as Reynold’s was dead and elements of XI Corps in retreat the situation was serious but the Confederates were not in a perfect or even completely advantageous position. Howard was able to rally his troops on Cemetery Hill taking advantage of his earlier deployment of Steinwehr’s division. Abner Doubleday who had succeeded Reynold’s brought his tropes back to reinforce the line as well as occupy Culp’s Hill to the right.

bogbayardwilkesonwebAbner Doubleday directs his troops on Day One

When Meade learned of Reynold’s death he dispatched Winfield Scott Hancock of II Corps to take command of all Federal Forces. Though he was junior to Howard, Hancock was able to work out a command arrangement with Howard and take command. Howard had to his credit Federal command position was strengthened.

Hancock doncemeteryhilljuly1_zps512a40faHancock Arrives on the Battlefield

Hancock was authorized by Meade to select where the Army would make its stand. Hancock told Howard “But I think this is the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I have ever saw…and if it meets your approbation I will select this as the battlefield.” Howard agreed and both men set off to rectify their lines.

Despite their success Ewell and his Corps were disorganized and not in a good position to take advantage of their earlier success. Likewise he was limited in the forces that he had available to continue the attack. Both his and A.P. Hill’s Corps only had two of their divisions in the field. Hill reported that his divisions “were exhausted by some six hours of hard fighting (and that) prudence led me to be content with what had been gained, and not push forward troops exhausted and necessarily disordered, probably to encounter fresh troops of the enemy.” Ewell reported that “all the troops with me were jaded by twelve hours’ marching and fighting.” Lee’s report of the battle indicated that the four divisions involved were “already weakened and exhausted by a long and bloody struggle.”

As such a night assault would have been exceptionally risky. Ewell would have only had the tired and disorganized survivors of four brigades at his disposal with no support from A.P. Hill on his right.


Ewell has often been criticized by the defenders of Lee and the legend of the Lost Cause for his failure to press the attack on Cemetery Ridge or Culp’s Hill. Critics cite that Federal forces were still disorganized and he could have easily attacked and driven the Federal Forces form the hills. Much is made of the protests of Major General Isaac Trimble as well as General John Gordon who were with Ewell. However as Edwin Coddington noted that these men concentrated their efforts on Ewell’s action to determine what went wrong at Gettysburg. In large part this was due to their inability to criticize Lee. Trimble’s account made its way into Michael Shaara’s classic novel of Gettysburg, the Killer Angels and were acted with conviction by Morgan Shepperd in the film adaptation of the book Gettysburg. Coddington correctly observed that “they forgot, however, the exact circumstances that kept the move from being “practicable” at the time.”

Rodes after battle report supported Ewell’s decision. He wrote before “the completion of his defeat before the town the enemy had begun to establish a line of battle on the heights back of the town, and by the time my line was in condition to renew the attack, he displayed quite a formidable line of infantry and artillery immediately in my front, extending smartly to my right, and as far as I could see to my left in front of Early.” Unfortunately for historians Rodes was killed in action at the Third Battle of Winchester in September 1864.

The Army of Northern Virginia came very close to sweeping Federal forces from the field on July 1st in spite of Lee’s lack of planning and clear commanders intent. But close was not enough. His forces which were committed in a piecemeal manner were unable to follow up their initial success. His orders to Ewell, to take the high ground “if practicable” were correctly interpreted by Ewell. Thus Federal corps under the command of Howard and Hancock were able to regroup, dig in and be reinforced by the rest of the Army on good ground of their choosing with interior lines.

Whether Lee intended to engage the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg so early in the campaign is debated. His multiple and contradictory strategic aims left his commanders acting much on their own. His lack of clear commander’s intent to his subordinate commanders created confusion on the battlefield and paved the way to many controversies in the years following the war as Southerners sought to explain the failure of the Lost Cause, for which Lee could not be blamed.

Much of the controversy comes from Lee’s own correspondence which indicates that he might have not fully understood his own intentions. Some correspondence indicates that Lee desired to avoid a general engagement as long as possible while other accounts indicate that he wanted an early and decisive engagement. The controversy was stoked after the war by Lee’s supporters, particular his aides Taylor and Marshal and generals Gordon and Trimble, men like Longstreet and were castigated by Lee’s defenders for suggesting that Lee made mistakes on the battlefield.

Lee’s actual misunderstanding of his situation can be seen in the account of Isaac Trimble, traveling with Lee at the beginning of the invasion of Pennsylvania. He wrote:

“We have again outmaneuvered the enemy, who even now does not know where we are or what our designs are. Our whole army will be in Pennsylvania day after tomorrow, leaving the enemy far behind and obliged to follow by forced marches. I hope with these advantages to accomplish some single result and to end the war, if Providence favors us.”

The vagueness of Lee’s instructions to his commanders led to many mistakes and much confusion during the battle. Many of these men were occupying command positions under him for the first time and were unfamiliar with his command style. Where Stonewall Jackson might have understood Lee’s intent, even where Lee issued vague or contradictory orders, many others including Hill and Ewell did not. Lee did not change his command style to accommodate his new commanders.

That lack of flexibility and inability to clearly communicate Lee’s intent to his commanders and failure to exercise control over them proved fatal to his aims in the campaign. Stephen Sears scathing analysis of Lee’s command at Gettysburg perhaps says it the best. “In the final analysis, it was Robert E. Lee’s inability to manage his generals that went to the heart of the failed campaign.”

The vagueness of Lee’s intent was demonstrated throughout the campaign and was made worse by the fog of war. Day one ended with a significant tactical victory for Lee’s army but without a decisive result which would be compounded into a strategic defeat by Lee’s subsequent decisions on the 2nd and 3rd of July.


Padre Steve+


Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military