The Road to Gettysburg: An Army Confident But Blind

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Lee Confers with his Commanders en-route to Gettysburg 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For those that have followed my writing for some time you know that I teach military history and ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College. One of the great joys that I have is leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which is an optional event for students that want to participate. When I took the position here I took some of my older writings on Gettysburg and put them into a student study guide and text. That was two years ago. Then the text was about 70 pages long. It is now about 870 pages long and eventually I hope to get it published. When and if that happens I expect it to become two, and possibly three books.

Over the next few days I will be posting potions of a chapter that I have rewritten about the surprises that various commanders experienced on June 28th 1863. The lessons for today are that war, any war, is the realm of chance, as such, surprises always happen. It is said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, but some plans don’t survive that long. As you read this don’t just look at the events, but look at the people, and their reaction to the surprises that they encountered, for that is where we come to understand history.

So even if you are not a Civil War buff, or even a history buff, take the time to look at the people, their actions, and the things that made them who they were, and influenced what they did. History is about people.

So please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

If you were an ordinary soldier in either the Army of the Potomac or Army of Northern Virginia June 28th 1863 would not have been much different than any of the previous days. In fact the day was relatively “uneventful for men in the ranks.” [1] By now, both armies had been on the march for over three weeks, the soldiers enduring blazing summer heat, as well as torrential rains as the moved north. While there had been cavalry clashes at Brandy Station and along the Blue Ridge, and Ewell had successfully overrun and Milroy’s command at Winchester, the vast bulk of the men in either army had yet to engage in combat.

By the evening of June 27th both the Confederate and Union armies were across the Potomac. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was now mostly in Pennsylvania. Dick Ewell’s Second Corps was preparing to attack Harrisburg, A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was near Cashtown and James Longstreet’s First Corps was gathering in the vicinity of Chambersburg.

As the Confederate troops advanced into Pennsylvania morale was high, one soldier wrote “Never did soldiers appear more buoyant and cheerful than Lee’s army.” [2] Dorsey Pender commanding a division in Hill’s Third Corps wrote his wife “I never saw troops march as ours do; they will go 15 or 20 miles a day without leaving a straggler and hoop and yell on occasions.” [3]

Unit Quartermasters, acting under Lee’s orders to forage “scoured the countryside in search of foodstuffs, livestock and anything usable.” [4] That bounty was considerable, and “included twenty-six thousand cattle and twenty-thousand sheep” [5] which were promptly driven back to Virginia. In addition to “officially” sanctioned foraging soldiers and officers did some of their own. Some of Dick Ewell’s staff took the opportunity to purchase items hard to come by in the South for their families, one bought “china buttons, calico dress patterns, soaps, and spices for his mother and sister.” [6] In spite of Lee’s prohibition of looting many soldiers took the opportunity to plunder, one soldier wrote “We press every thing that we think that will be beneficial to our cause and cuntry.” [7]

With Lee in Pennsylvania the bulk of the Army of the Potomac, still under the command of Joe Hooker was concentrated in the vicinity of Frederick, Maryland. Despite a slow start and his disagreement with Lincoln and Halleck regarding an attack across the Rappahannock into Lee’s rear, Hooker had handled the army skillfully in its pursuit of Lee. One decision that he made early, based on the recommendation of Major General Henry Slocum, commander of XII Corps, was to pre-stage pontoon bridges near the Potomac in case he had to cross that river. So swift was his movement and he had “completed its crossing only twenty-four hours after the last of Lee’s infantry had crossed, and the whole of it was in Maryland before either Stuart or Lee knew that the crossing had even begun.” [8]

The morale of the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia was high, and reflected Lee’s own attitude toward the campaign. One officer recalled that “Lee’s army was never in better spirits than in the days leading up to Gettysburg.” [9] Colonel Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia recalled that Lee told him that “the invasion of Pennsylvania would be a great success, and if so, it would end the war, or we would have rest for some time to come.” Hunton added, “General Lee was so enthusiastic about the movement that I threw away my doubts and became as enthusiastic as he was.” [10]

Like its commander the Army of Northern Virginia was superbly confident as it marched north. A Virginian observing the army as it marched through Maryland recalled: “The health of the troops was never better and above all the morale of the army was never more favorable for offensive or defensive operations….Victory will inevitably attend our arms in any collision with the enemy.” [11] Another soldier later recalled “no one ever admitted the possibility of defeat across the Potomac.” [12]

Lee was uneasy regarding his lack of knowledge of the location of the Army of the Potomac or Hooker’s intentions, but he was not overly concerned. Though he had not heard anything from J.E.B. Stuart since June 23rd, when Stuart had begun his ride, Lee was still confident in the success of his operation and the prospects of battle. John Bell Hood, Lee’s companion from his days in Texas visited Lee at Chambersburg and “found the commanding general in “buoyant spirits.” Lee told his former Lieutenant “Ah! General, the enemy is a long time in finding us; if he does not succeed soon, we must go in search of him.” [13] On the night of June 27th Lee “still assumed that the mounted forces were doing their full duty and that all was well; but there was uneasiness, almost exasperation, over the failure of the cavalry to send in any information of the enemy’s movements.” [14]

Not knowing the location of the Federal army Lee met with Major General Isaac Trimble on the evening of June 27th at his headquarters near Chambersburg. Though Trimble had been slated to command to division now commanded by Allegheny Johnson, he had been slow to recover from a leg wound incurred in 1862 and could not take command. A supernumerary Major General without a command, Trimble had caught up with the army as it moved north into Maryland. Trimble told Lee that he “could recruit a division of troops from the ranks of his native Marylanders.” [15] as Lee did not want to lose “the services of so hard a fighter as this veteran of all the Second Corps victories from First through Second Manassas.” [16] That being said Trimble soon became a nuisance to Lee and “after just two days Lee sent him on to Ewell.” [17]

However, Trimble recorded the atmosphere in Lee’s headquarters and just how confident Lee appeared in spite of not knowing the location or the intent of the Army of the Potomac:

“Our army is in good spirits, not overly fatigued, and can be concentrated on any point in twenty-four hours or less. I have not yet heard that the enemy have crossed the Potomac, and I am waiting to hear from General Stuart….They will come up, probably through Frederick, broken down with hunger and hard marching….I shall throw up an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, [and] drive one corps back on another…create a panic and virtually destroy the enemy.” [18]

Trimble noted that he was “stirred” by Lee’s words and that told Lee that he did “not doubt of the outcome of such a confrontation, especially because the moral of the Army of Northern Virginia had never been higher than it was now.” [19] Lee agreed and “as Trimble rose to go, Lee laid his hand on the map and pointed to a little town east of the mountains, Gettysburg by name, from which roads radiated like so many spikes. “Hereabout,” he said, “we shall probably meet the army and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.” [20]

Notes

[1] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Shuster New York 1968 p. 180

[2] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.229

[3] Robertson, James I. Jr. General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior Random House, New York 1987 p.204

[4] Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army from Victory to Collapse The Free Press, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2008 p.271

[5] Goldfield, David. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York 2011 p.284

[6] Pfanz, Donald. Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1998 p.298

[7] Ibid. Glatthaar General Lee’s Army from Victory to Collapse p.272

[8] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.255

[9] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.139

[10] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.226

[11] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.67

[12] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.455

[13] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.230

[14] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.551

[15] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.300

[16] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.445

[17] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell pp.300-301

[18] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.140

[19] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.446

[20] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.320

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