Prelude to Gettysburg: A Spirit of Unbelief

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Lieutenant General A.P. Hill

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World 

Here is a revised chapter from my Gettysburg text. I will be taking another group of my students up in two weeks.

Have a great weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

When Robert E. Lee learned of the Army of the Potomac’s presence north of the Potomac River he ordered his widely dispersed army concentrate near Cashtown and Gettysburg. It was a complicated movement that involved at least five major operations: the shift of the bulk of Ewell’s Second Corps from its planned attack on Harrisburg, the redirection of Early’s division east from its position on the Susquehanna to the west, the movement of Hill’s Third Corps from the area around Cashtown to a position east of Gettysburg, Longstreet’s First Corps north to Chambersburg and Cashtown and the cavalry brigades of Beverly Robertson, Grumble Jones and John Imboden which were to join the army in Pennsylvania. The movement “would take at least two days – the 29th and the 30th of June – and perhaps more…the complete its concentration, especially since the rains had “made the roads very muddy,” forcing “the infantry” to march off the roads….” [1]

Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps that was nearest of Lee’s major units to Cashtown and Gettysburg. Major General Harry Heth’s division led the corps and arrived at Cashtown on June 29th. His division was followed by that of Major General Dorsey Pender which arrived on the 30th. Hill ordered his last division under the command of Major General Richard Anderson to remain behind at “Fayetteville until July 1, when he would join the rest at Cashtown.” [2]

Cashtown was important as a road junction and because it “was situated at one of the few gaps in the Pennsylvania Mountains” and because one of the roads emanating from it “snaked eight miles to another community called Gettysburg.” [3] However the order to concentrate the army at Cashtown presented its own problems. First was the matter of forage. There was not enough room for all the units ordered to Cashtown to have adequate areas to forage, as:

“each division would (by the standard required of nineteenth-century armies) require a circle twelve and a half miles around its encampments to forage (for water, firewood, and feed for men and horses); one single regiment could denuded an acre of woodland just for firewood every three days.” [4]

Likewise, because of the limited road network, Cashtown was becoming a choke point which as his units closed in slowed their movement and created massive traffic problems and confusion. Hill ordered Heth’s division to take the lead and advance to Cashtown on the 29th. The units of Hill’s corps had to endure heavy rains on the 29th which slowed their march and Heth halted at Cashtown knowing that the army would concentrate there while Pender’s division moved into the area his division had vacated.

Early in the morning of June 30th Harry Heth decided to undertake a foraging expedition to Gettysburg.to “search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and to return the same day.” [5] It was the first in a series of miscalculations that brought Lee’s army into a general engagement that Lee wished to avoid and it is hard to comprehend in light of Lee’s orders not to precipitate a fight.

However, the expedition had taken a toll on the soldiers, especially in terms of shoes, clothes and equipment. The “long march over the hard macadam roads of the North had played havoc with the scraggly foot coverings of Lee’s men.” [6] After muster on the morning of June 30th Heth ordered Johnston Pettigrew’s “brigade to Gettysburg in search of supplies, especially badly needed shoes, which were badly needed by his the men of his division.” Heth, for a reason he never elaborated on decided that there must be shoes in Gettysburg. Perhaps he did not know that the town had been picked clean by John Gordon’s brigade of Jubal Early’s division just a few days before, but for whatever reason he believed this to be the case.

Hill’s Third Corps had been formed as part of the reorganization of the army following Stonewall Jackson’s death after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Hill had a stellar reputation as a division commander; his “Light Division” had distinguished itself on numerous occasions, especially at Antietam where its timely arrival after a hard forced march from Harper’s Ferry helped save Lee’s army late in the battle. At Chancellorsville Hill briefly succeeded Jackson until he too was wounded.

Hill was recommended for promotion to Lieutenant General and command of the new Third Corps by Lee on May 24th 1863. He was promoted over the heads of both Harvey Hill and Lafayette McLaws. The move displeased Longstreet who considered Lafayette McLaws “better qualified for the job.” Likewise there were others who felt that the command should have gone to Harvey Hill, now commanding the Department of North Carolina who’s “record was as good as that of Stonewall Jackson…but, not being a Virginian, he was not so well advertised.” [7]

Ambrose Powell Hill was slightly built and high strung. “Intense about everything” Hill was “one of the army’s intense disbelievers in slavery.” [8] Hill was an 1847 graduate of West Point and briefly served in Mexico but saw no combat. He spent some time in the Seminole wars but due to frequent bouts of ill-health he spent much of his career in garrison duty along the East Coast. Since he was prone to sickness he was assigned to the office of Coastal Survey, a Navy command from 1855 through 1861. Despite pleas from his superiors and his own opposition to secession and slavery, Hill resigned his commission just before Virginia’s secession.

At the outbreak of the war he “received his commission as colonel, and soon trained one of Johnston’s best regiments in the Valley.” [9] He commanded a brigade under Longstreet on the Peninsula and was promoted to Major General and command of the Light Division in May 1862, leading it with distinction, especially at Antietam where his march from Harper’s Ferry and timely arrival on the afternoon of September 17th saved the army of Northern Virginia from utter and complete destruction. He was plagued by health problems which had even delayed his graduation from West Point, health issues that would arise on the first day at Gettysburg.

Hill’s Third Corps was emblematic of the “makeshift nature of the reorganization of the whole army.” [10] It was composed of three divisions. His best and most experienced division was that of the recently promoted and hard fighting Major General Dorsey Pender. Pender’s division was built around four excellent brigades from Hill’s old “Light Division” one of which Pender had commanded before his promotion. Hill had strongly recommended Pender’s promotion during the reorganization, a proposal which was accepted by Lee. Pender, though a fierce fighter and excellent leader, found command of a division to be a heavy burden. He was “an intelligent, reflective man, deeply religious and guided by a strong sense of duty….” [11]

Hill’s second experienced division was that of Major General Richard Anderson. This division had been transferred from Longstreet’s First Corps during the reorganization. Longstreet resented losing the division to Hill, with who he had previously run afoul and this was yet another issue which failed to endear Hill to Longstreet. [12]

The unassuming Anderson had distinguished himself as a brigade and division commander in Longstreet’s corps, but in “an army of prima donnas, he was a self-effacing man, neither seeking praise for himself nor winning support by bestowing it on others.” [13] At Chancellorsville Anderson fought admirably and Lee wrote that Anderson was “distinguished for the promptness, courage and skill with which he and his division executed every order.” [14] With four seasoned brigades under excellent commanders it was a good addition to the corps, although the transition from Longstreet’s stolid and cautious style of command to Hill’s impetuous style introduced “another incalculable of the reshuffled army.” [15]

Major General Harry Heth’s division was the final infantry division assigned to the corps. The division was new and had was cobbled together from two brigades of Hill’s old Light Division and “the two new brigades that Jefferson Davis had forced on an already disrupted army organization.” [16] The organization of this division as well as its leadership would be problematic in the days to come, especially on June 30th and July 1st 1863. The hasty and makeshift organization under leaders who had not served together, many of who were new to command, as well as units which had not fought together spelled trouble.

Harry Heth, like Dorsey Pender was also newly promoted to his grade and the action at Gettysburg would be his first test in division command. Heth was a native Virginian. He came from a family that well connected both socially and politically. He had a social charm had “many friends and bound new acquaintances to him” readily. [17] Heth was a cousin of George Pickett. He was a West Point graduate and classmate of Hill. At West Point Heth had an undistinguished academic career and graduated last in the class of 1847. His career in the ante-bellum army was typical of many officers, he served “credibly in an 1855 fight with Sioux Indians” but his real claim to fame was in authoring the army’s marksmanship manual which was published in 1858. [18]

heth

Major General Harry Heth

Heth’s career with the Confederate army serving in western Virginia was undistinguished but he was a protégé of Robert E. Lee who recommended him as a brigade commander to Jackson before Chancellorsville. Tradition states that of all his generals that Heth was the only one “whom Lee called by his first name.” [19] A.P. Hill when writing Lee about the choice of a successor for the Light Division noted that Heth was “a most excellent officer and gallant soldier” but in the coming campaign “my division under him, will not be half as effective as under Pender.” [20] Douglas Southall Freeman noted that Heth was “doomed to be one of those good soldiers…who consistently have bad luck.” [21]

Heth’s division was composed of two depleted brigades from the Light Division which had taken heavy casualties at Chancellorsville. One brigade, commanded by the hard fighting former regular army officer Brigadier General James Archer. Archer was from Maryland and a graduate of Princeton University who had given up a law practice to join the army. Described as a “little gamecock” who “had no sense of fear” [22] Archer had saved the Confederate line at Fredericksburg leading a desperate counterattack at Prospect Hill. The brigade was composed of four veteran regiments, but was now down to barely 1200 soldiers in the ranks by the time it arrived at Cashtown. However, the brigade which was recruited from Alabama and Tennessee was “well led and had a fine combat reputation.”

But the second brigade was more problematic. This was the Virginia brigade under the command of “the plodding, uninspiring Colonel John Brockenbrough.” [23] Brockenbrough was an “1850 of the Virginia Military Institute and a farmer,” who had “entered the Confederate service as Colonel of the 40th (Virginia) in May 1861.” [24] The brigade had once been considered one of the best in the army had deteriorated in quality following the wounding of its first commander Brigadier General Charles Field. Heth took command of it at Chancellorsville where both he and the brigade performed well. The brigade had taken very heavy casualties and now was reduced to under 1000 effectives. When Heth was promoted the lack of qualified officers left it under the command of its senior colonel, John Brockenbrough.[25] Lee did not consider Brockenbrough “suited for promotion” but “could be counted on to keep together a command sadly reduced in numbers.” [26]

His third brigade came from Mississippi and North Carolina and was commanded by the “stuffy and ambitious” [27] Brigadier General Joe Davis whose uncle was President Jefferson Davis. Davis had served on his uncle’s staff for months and had no combat experience. [28] One author noted that Davis’s promotion to Brigadier General “as unadulterated an instance of nepotism as the record of the Confederacy offers.” [29] His subordinate commanders were no better, one William Magruder was so bad that J.E.B. Stuart suggested that “he have his commission revoked” and only one of the nine field grade officers in his brigade had military training, and that from the Naval Academy. [30] The brigade was also a makeshift operation with two veteran regiments including the 11th Mississippi which had “gone through blood and fire together on the Peninsula through Antietam.” [31] After Antietam, these units were then paired with two new regiments and a new politically connected commander and sent to the backwater of North Carolina where they saw no action. The veteran regiments “mistrusted not only their commander, but the reliability of its yet untested units.” [32]

pettigrew

Brigadier General Johnston Pettigrew

Heth’s largest brigade was new to the army. Commanded by the North Carolina academic Brigadier General Johnston Pettigrew it had no combat experience. Pettigrew himself was considered a strong leader. He had been badly wounded at Seven Pines and thinking his wound mortal “he refused to permit his men to leave the ranks to carry him to the rear.” [33] He was captured but later paroled and returned to the army to command a brigade later in the year.

Hill was under the impression that Meade’s army was still miles away, having just come from meeting Lee who assured him that “the enemy are still at Middleburg,” (Maryland) “and have not yet struck their tents.” [34] With that assurance Heth decided to use June 30th to send Pettigrew’s brigade on the foraging expedition to Gettysburg. An officer present noted that Heth instructed Pettigrew “to go to Gettysburg with three of his regiments present…and a number of wagons for the purpose of collecting commissary and quartermaster stores for the use of the army.” [35]

However Heth did instruct Pettigrew in no uncertain terms not to “precipitate a fight” should he encounter “organized troops” of the Army of the Potomac. [36] Heth was specific in his report that “It was told to Pettigrew that he might find in the town in possession of a home guard,…but if, contrary to expectations, he should find any organized troops capable of making resistance., or any part of the Army of the Potomac, he should not attack it.” [37]

That in mind one has to ask the question as to why Heth would employ “so many men on a long, tiring march, especially as without a cavalry escort he took the risk of sending them into a trap” when his “objects hardly justified” using such a large force. [38] Edwin Coddington is particularly critical of Heth in this regard.

Likewise it has to be asked why the next day in light of Lee’s standing orders not to provoke an engagement that Hill would send two divisions, two thirds of his corps on what was supposedly reconnaissance mission. Some have said that Hill would have had to move to Gettysburg on July 1st anyway due to forage needs of the army, [39] but this is not indicated in any of Hill or Heth’s reports.

As his troops neared Gettysburg Pettigrew observed the Federal cavalry of Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division as they neared the town. He received another report “indicating that drumming could be heard in the distance – which might mean infantry nearby, since generally cavalry generally used only bugles.” [40] He then prudently and in accordance with his orders not to precipitate a fight “elected to withdraw rather than risk battle with a foe of unknown size and composition.” [41] His troops began their retrograde at 11 a.m. leaving Buford’s cavalry to occupy the town at ridges. On Confederate wrote “in coming in contact with the enemy, had quite a little brush, but being under orders not to bring a general engagement fell back, followed by the enemy.” [42]

Upon returning Pettigrew told Hill and Heth that “he was sure that the force occupying Gettysburg was a part of the Army of the Potomac” but Hill and Heth discounted Pettigrew’s report. [43] “Heth did not think highly of such wariness” and “Hill agreed with Heth” [44] Hill believed that nothing was in Gettysburg “except possibly a cavalry vedette.” [45] Hill was not persuaded by Pettigrew or Pettigrew’s aide Lieutenant Louis Young who had previously served under Hill and Pender who reported that the “troops that he saw were veterans rather than Home Guards.” [46] Hill reiterated that he did not believe “that any portion of the Army of the Potomac was up” but then according to Young Hill “expressed the hope that it was, as this was the place he wanted it to be.[47]

Part of the issue was related to the fact that Pettigrew, though highly intelligent, and who had been an observer of wars in Europe was not a professional soldier. Likewise, since had was new to the Army of the Northern Virginia he was an unknown to both Hill and Heth. As such they dismissed his report. In their casual dismissal of Pettigrew’s report, the West Point Graduates Hill and Heth may have manifested an often typical “distain for citizen soldiers…a professional questioning a talented amateur’s observations” [48]

Pettigrew was “aghast at Hill’s nonchalant attitude” [49] and Young was dismayed and later recalled that “a spirit of unbelief” seemed to cloud the thinking of Hill and Heth. [50] In later years Young wrote that the “blindness in part seems to have come over our commanders, who slow to believe in the presence of an organized army of the enemy, thought that there must be a mistake in the report taken back by General Pettigrew.” [51]

Since neither man believed Pettigrew’s report, Heth then asked Hill “whether Hill would have any objection to taking his division to Gettysburg again to get those shoes.” Hill replied “none in the world.” [52] It was to be a fateful decision, a decision that brought about a series of events which in turn led to the greatest battle even fought on the American continent.

Douglas Southall Freeman wrote “On those four words fate hung” [53] and in “that incautious spirit, Hill launched Harry Heth’s division down the Chambersburg Pike and into battle at Gettysburg.” [54]

 Notes

[1] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.128

[2] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Shuster New York 1968 p.194

[3] Robertson, James I. Jr. General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior Random House, New York 1987

[4] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.128

[5] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 263

[6] Ibid. Robertson A.P. Hill p.205

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.453

[8] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.79

[9] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.109

[10] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.88

[11] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.85

[12] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.86

[13] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.86

[14] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.512

[15] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.86

[16] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.87

[17] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.527

[18] Krick, Robert K. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge: Failures of Brigade Leadership on the First Day of Gettysburg in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.96

[19] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.96

[20] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.527

[21] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.46

[22] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.134

[23] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.55

[24] Pfanz Harry W. Gettysburg: The First Day University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.118

[25] Ibid. Dowdy, Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.87

[26] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.529

[27] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.133

[28] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.533

[29] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.99

[30] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.101

[31] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.134

[32] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.134

[33] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.136

[34] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.131

[35] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.128

[36] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.136

[37] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.129

[38] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 263

[39] Ibid. Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.131 This argument does have merit based on the considerations Guelzo lists but neither Hill, Heth or Lee make any mention of that need in their post battle reports.

[40] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.130

[41] Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg: A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell in a Difficult Debut in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.42

[42] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.135

[43] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command pp. 263-264

[44] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.465

[45] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.27

[46] Ibid. Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.42

[47] Ibid. Pfanz. Gettysburg: The First Day p.27

[48] Ibid. Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.42

[49] Ibid. Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.131

[50] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 264

[51] Ibid Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.27

[52] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 264

[53] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p. 563

[54] Ibid. Krick. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge p.94

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