“Mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders. Successful mission command demands that subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative, acting aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission. Essential to mission command is the thorough knowledge and understanding of the commander’s intent at every level of command.” From the Mission Command White Paper and JP 3-31
As on the first day of battle and throughout the Gettysburg campaign issues of command and control would be of paramount importance. On the second day the glaring deficiencies of Robert E Lee and his corps commanders command and control at Gettysburg would again be brought to the fore while the exemplary command of the Army of the Potomac by George Meade, Winfield Scott Hancock, staff artillery officer Henry Hunt and staff engineer Gouverneur Warren exemplified the best aspects of what we now define as Mission Command.
On the morning of July 2nd the Army of the Potomac was mostly assembled on the high ground from Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Hill and along Cemetery Ridge. In the north XII Corps under the command of Major General Henry Slocum held Culp’s Hill. The battered remnants of I and XI Corps under the command of Oliver Howard and Abner Doubleday held Cemetery Hill while Winfield Scott Hancock’s crack II Corps extended the line down Cemetery Ridge. To II Corps right was Dan Sickles’ III Corps with George Sykes V Corps in Reserve. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps was still enroute, marching up the Baltimore Pike.
It was a solid and well laid out position which commanded the battlefield. Major General Gouverneur Warren the Army’s Staff Engineer Officer who had been sent by Meade to assist Hancock the night of the first wrote his wife that morning: “we are now all in line of battle before the enemy in a position where we cannot be beaten but fear being turned.” (1)
There was one notable problem, Dan Sickles did not like the position assigned to his corps. His corps which joined the left flank of II Corps was to extend down Cemetery Ridge to Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. All morning he had been lobbying Meade, through Meade son and Aide-de-Camp Captain George Meade, the Artillery Reserve Commander Henry Hunt, Warren and even Meade himself to no avail. Sickles was disturbed because John Buford’s Cavalry division which has been deployed on the Federal left had been moved to the rear by Pleasanton the Cavalry Corps commander and not replaced.
Hunt who had accompanied Sickles back to his corps pointed out that the position was too exposed and too expansive for the number of troops Sickles had in his corps. He advised Sickles not to advance and assured Sickles that he would discuss Sickles’ concerns with Meade. (2)
To remedy the situation he sent out four companies of Sharpshooters supported by the 3rd Maine Infantry to make a reconnaissance. Those troops ran into a large force of advancing Confederate Infantry near Seminary Ridge and withdrew, Colonel Brenden of the Sharpshooters informing Sickles of the Confederate advance.
Sickles now felt that the Union line was about to be turned as it had been at Chancellorsville and without consulting Meade or Hancock took it upon himself to save the situation. It was an act of brazen insubordination, but typical of the mercurial, vain and scandal plagued man who “wore notoriety like a cloak” and “whether he was drinking, fighting, wenching or plotting, he was always operating with the throttle wide open.” (3)
About mid-afternoon Sickles advanced III Corps forward in a “mile long line of battle with waving flags and rumbling batteries rolling west into the afternoon sunlight.” (4) The sight confused other commanders such as John Gibbon commanding a division in II Corps who watched in amazement from his vantage point on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles advanced nearly a mile in front of his previous position opening a gap between III Corps and II Corps. He attempted to hold a new line that was longer and more exposed than the number of troops that he had available. He placed Humphrey’s division along the Emmitsburg Road and extended Birney’s division through the Peach Orchard, a wheat field down to Devil’s Den where he ran out of troops.
Sickles had formed an exposed and vulnerable salient which was too thinly manned for its length. It was open to attack on three sides, had little depth, no reserves and no place to fall back to as an alternate position. (5) It was also about to be hit by the full fury and power of Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions of Longstreet’s First Corps supported by 46 well placed artillery pieces (6) all about to open fire on Sickles badly deployed corps.
About 3 PM Meade broke from a planned commander’s conference to investigate what had happened to Sickles and III Corps, accompanying Meade was Warren. Warren who was most familiar with that part of the battlefield noted that III Corps was “very badly disposed on that part of the field.”7
Confronting Sickles in the Peach Orchard Meade was visibly perturbed. Meade informed Sickles that “General I am afraid that you are too far out” (8) attempting to control his temper. Sickles disagreed and said with support he could hold the position because it was higher ground than what he had previously occupied. Meade then pointed out the obvious stating “General Sickles this is in some respects higher ground than that to the rear, but there is still higher in front of you…” (9) As the conversation progressed Meade told Sickles that “this is neutral ground, our guns command it as well as the enemy’s. The reason you cannot hold it applies to them.”(10)
Sickles offered to withdraw but as he did so the Confederate cannonade began signaling the beginning of Longstreet’s attack. Meade told Sickles “I wish to God you could [withdraw]…but those people will not permit it.” (11) Another account states that Meade told Sickles “You cannot hold this position but the enemy will not let you get away without a fight.”(12)
Since Sedgwick’s powerful VI Corps had just arrived Meade ordered it into reserve. He then ordered Sykes V Corps from its reserve position and one division of II Corps to support the dangerously exposed III Corps around the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field. He then told Sickles “if you need more artillery call on the reserve!” (13) It was an action that very likely saved the day, another example of Meade taking control of a bad situation preventing it from becoming even worse.
For Lee and Longstreet the morning had been spent disagreeing on a plan to crush Meade. Though his army was operating on exterior lines with his corps having no way to effectively coordinate their actions and still lacking Stuart’s Cavalry, Pickett’s Infantry division and Law’s brigade of Hood’s division Lee insisted that Longstreet and First Corps make a frontal attack on the Union left. Longstreet demurred and tried to convince Lee of turning the Union flank to the south of the Round Tops. Longstreet told Hood “The General is a little nervous this morning; he wishes me to attack; I do not wish to do so without Pickett. I never like to go into battle with one boot off.” (14)
Lee did not believe that such a move could succeed without the assistance of Stuart’s cavalry and Longstreet did not believe that with Pickett’s division that his corps had the combat power to successfully complete the mission. Hood objected to the attack pleading with Longstreet that it was “unwise to attack up the Emmitsburg Road, as ordered” and requested that he be allowed to “turn Round Top and attack the enemy flank and rear.”(15)
The debate between Longstreet and Hood continued as Hood objected and Longstreet reiterated Lee’s insistence on the planned attack. Hood pleaded for freedom of maneuver believing that an attack up the rocky hills was doomed and later noted “it seemed to me that the enemy occupied a position so strong- I may say impregnable – that independently of their flank fire, they could easily repulse our attack by merely throwing or rolling stones down the mountainside as we approached.”(16) Despite his objections to the plan Longstreet ordered Hood to attack as Lee planned and after a fourth attempt by Hood to persuade Longstreet to change the plan Longstreet told his subordinate “We must obey the orders of General Lee.” (17)
However in addition to his contention with Lee and Hood Longstreet had to deal with Lee jumping the chain of command. With Longstreet in earshot order McLaws to make an attack on the Peach Orchard and ignored McLaws repeated requests to make a further reconnaissance before launching the attack. By the time Hood and McLaws divisions were in place along with Anderson’s division from Hill’s Third Corps it was nearly four o’clock. The senior commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia had functioned poorly throughout the day but when the attack began it was like a violent storm as Confederate troops fell upon the exposed Federal III Corps.
When the attack was launched McLaws division and the left wing of Hood’s division struck the exposed positions of III Corps. Sickles was severely wounded by a bouncing cannon ball which shattered a leg knocking him out of the fight, Hood too was badly wounded early in the action leaving command of his division to Brigadier General Evander Law, whose brigade had just arrived on the battlefield after a long march from New Guilford in the Cumberland Valley. Though now in command Law continued to command his own brigade in the assault and Robertson took the initiative to bring up the rest of the division. (18)
McLaws and Hood’s soldiers hit Sickles Corps hard shattering it. Despite fierce resistance from the Federal forces Sickles’ corps was forced to retreat. The reinforcements ordered to the sector from V Corps, II Corps and the artillery reserve arrived piecemeal and also sustained heavy casualties but eventually helped to stem the Confederate tide. III Corps was wrecked and effectively out of the battle but the actions of Meade, Hancock, Warren, Gibbon, Sykes and Hunt to respond to Sickles folly kept the Confederates from sweeping the field.
Law, Robertson’s and Benning’s brigades opened Hood’s attack toward Devil’s Den and Little Round Top.
Fierce fighting ensued at Devil’s Den where the Federal line, occupied by Colonel A. Van Horn Ellis’ 124th New York and 4 guns of Smith’s artillery battery put up a stiff resistance. Ellis’s small regiment numbered but 18 officers and 220 men when it entered the fight but it held off several charges of the Texans and even conducted a counter-attack before being overwhelmed by fresh troop’s from Benning’s brigade. During the fight Ellis mounted his horse noting that “The men must see us today.”(19) Ellis died in the action as did many of his brave soldiers. In the valley between Devil’s Den and the Round Tops the 4th Maine and Smith’s 2 remaining guns fought large numbers of Hood’s troops and as the outnumbered Federals fell back the Texan’s of Robertson’s brigade and Law’s Alabamians surged toward the rocky hill.
Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade which had distinguished itself at Fredericksburg stormed the Federal positions breaking through the salient and driving forward. He led his brigade forward though it had suffered significant casualties and was losing cohesion. Barksdale insisted on continuing to the advance and not taking time to reform his lines shouting at one of his regimental commanders “No! Crowd them- we have them on the run. Move your regiments.” (20 )
As the brigade reached the lower portion of Cemetery Ridge a fresh Federal brigade commanded by Colonel George Willard struck the Mississippians. Willard’s brigade was seeking redemption having been one of the units forced to surrender at Harpers Ferry the previous September. His troops fresh and full of fight fell upon the Mississippians who were spent and disorganized having reached their culminating point. Barksdale continued to urge on his men but was mortally wounded and his troops driven back by the New Yorkers. Willard did not live long to savor the redemption as he was hit by a cannon ball and killed instantly.
To the north of the salient Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps attacked toward Cemetery Ridge meeting heavy resistance. Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade advanced unsupported up to Cemetery Ridge which due to the dispatch of troops to the Peach Orchard was only lightly defended. When Hancock saw the threat he ordered the 1st Minnesota commanded by Colonel William Covill, all of 262 men to charge the advancing Confederates telling Covill: “Colonel, do you see those colors?…Then take them.” 21 Between 170-178 of the Minnesotans fell in the counter-attack but they succeeded in blunting Wilcox’s attack and Wilcox seeing no help or support withdrew from Cemetery Ridge.
By the evening fresh Federal troops directed by Meade, Hancock and Hunt poured into the sector. By the end of the day despite sustaining massive casualties the Federal Army held its ground in large part thanks to the active role played by Meade, Hancock, Warren and Hunt in anticipating danger and bringing the appropriate forces to bear.
The fighting around the Peach Orchard, the Wheat field and Devil’s Den was confusing as units of both sides became mixed up and cohesion was lost. Both sides sustained heavy casualties but Lee’s Army could ill afford to sustain such heavy losses. By the end of the evening both McLaws and Hood’s divisions were spent having lost almost half of their troops as casualties. Hood was severely wounded early in the fight, and many other Confederate commanders were killed or mortally wounded including the irrepressible Barksdale. Combined with the repulse at Little Round Top the Confederate troops consolidated their positions.
In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” (22) To make matters worse Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2d “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” (23)
Until the next installment,
1 Jordan, David M. Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana 2001 p.89
2 Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 1963 p.495
3 Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 pp.150-151
4 Ibid p.288
5 Ibid. Foote p.496
6 Ibid. p.289
7 Ibid. Jordan p.90
8 Ibid. Foote p.496
9 Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 p.251
10 Sears, Stephen Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company Boston and New York 2004 p.263
12 Ibid. Sears p.263
13 Ibid. Foote p.497
14 Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg the Second Day University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London, 1987 p.112
15 Ibid. Foote p.499
18 Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1968 pp.402-403
19 Ibid. Pfanz p.293
20 Truedeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg a Testing of Courage Perennial Books, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.368
21 Ibid. p.393
22 Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149
23 Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee volume 3 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1935 p.150