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Robert E. Lee and George Meade, a study in Command and Leadership on July 2nd 1863 at Gettysburg


Robert E. Lee 1863

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I decided to take this weekend to take some parts of my Gettysburg Staff Ride text to debunk the mythology of the Lost cause that presented Robert E. Lee as one of the greatest, if not the greatest General in American history. I am not the first or the last to do this. Like many people of my generation, almost everything I read about Lee was what a great General and American he was. There was little mention of his active support of slavery, or his sedition and treason against the United States. But that is another story. Tonight we deal with Lee’s incompetence at the tactical and operational levels of war at Gettysburg, his willful ignorance of his own position and what was facing him a little over a mile way.

At the same time it juxtaposes Lee’s hubris with the often underrated and dismissed opposing commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George Meade. Lee’s actions are described in the first section, while Meade’s which in an edited form are a vignette in Army Doctrine Publication 5-0, The Operations Process. Unlike Lee, Meade listened to his staff and sought the counsel of his subordinate commanders. Likewise, where Lee never left his headquarters on Seminary Ridge, observing the battle from a distance on 2 July, Meade was in the thick of the action at numerous threatened throughout the battle. Thus, unlike Lee who knew nothing of the real situation on the battlefield and the condition of his Army, and did not want to know it, Meade knew the situation and then that night sought the counsel of his Corps Commanders and Staff.

This is an important point to note when evaluating the Generalship of Robert E. Lee. In every battle except Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor where he was on the defensive and his army well dug in, he always lost a higher percentage of his troops engaged than his Union counterparts, even when he won. If an Army commander knows that he cannot match the overwhelming numerical and firepower advantage of his opponent he has to do everything that he can to husband his soldiers and not to waste their lives in battles that even if won, would not materially alter the course of the war is either incompetent, negligent, or so arrogant in regards to their abilities, that they cannot be regarded as great commanders. To do so is to propagate a murderous myth.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Part One: Lee


As night fell on July 2nd 1863 General Robert E Lee had already made his decision. Despite the setbacks of the day he was determined to strike the Army of the Potomac yet again. He did not view the events as setback, and though he lacked clarity of how badly many of his units were mauled Lee took no external counsel, to make his decision, his mind was made up and he neither wanted advice or counsel. By now his subordinate commander’s opinions were irrelevant, and to that end on every day of the Battle of Gettysburg he refused any counsel that did not agree with his vision, which had become myopic and disconnected from the reality faced by his rebellious nation and the Army that he led. After two full days of combat in which his forces failed to break the Union defenses, in which The Army of the Potomac’s commanders out-generaled Lee’s commanders time and time again, and every division he threw at the Union defenses suffered 40% casualties on the first two days, including one division commander mortally wounded and three others wounded. Likewise, numerous brigade and regimental commanders had been killed or wounded.

With the exception of A.P. Hill who came and submitted a report to him at dusk on July 2nd, Lee neither required his other two corps commanders, James Longstreet or Richard Ewell to consult with him, nor took any action to visit them. Lee now lived in a bubble, and his very small staff were nothing more than cyphers, there to transmit orders, not to assist in the planning or coordination of his operations.

Despite the massive casualties and being repulsed all along the line, Lee did “not feel that his troops had been defeated” and he felt that “the failure on the second day had been due to a lack of coordination.”1

In his official report of the battle he wrote:

“The result of this day’s operations induced the belief that, with proper concert of action, and with the increased support that the positions gained on the right would enable the artillery to render to the assaulting columns, that we should succeed, and it was ultimately determined to continue the attack…” 2

While Lee’s charge of a “lack of coordination” of the attacks can certainly be substantiated, the fact of the matter was that if there was anyone to blame for his lack of coordination it was him, and  even Lee’s most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2d “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” 3 Likewise, Lee’s decision to attack on July 3rd, having not taken counsel of his commanders or assessed the battle-worthiness of the units that he was planning to use his final assault on the Union center was “utterly divorced from reality.” 4 His plan was essentially unchanged from the previous day. Longstreet’s now battered divisions were to renew their assault on the Federal left in coordination with Pickett and two of Hill’s divisions.

In light of Lee’s belief that “a lack of coordination” was responsible for the failures of July 2nd it would have been prudent for him to ensure such coordination happened on the night of July 2nd. “Lee would have done well to have called out his three lieutenants to confer with them and spell out exactly what he wanted. That was not the way he did things however…” 5

Lee knew about the heavy losses among his key leaders but “evidently very little was conveyed to him regarding the condition of the units engaged this day.” 6 This certainly had to be because during the day his only view of the battlefield was from Seminary Ridge through binoculars and because he did not get first hand reports from the commanders involved. Lee was undeterred and according to some who saw Lee that night he seemed confident noting that when Hill reported he shook his and said “It is well, General,…Everything is well.” 7

It was not an opinion that Lee’s subordinates shared. Ewell and his subordinates were told to renew their attack on Cemetery and Culp’s Hill on the night of July 2nd, but “he and his generals believed more than ever that a daylight assault against the ranked guns on Cemetery Hill would be suicidal-Harry Hays said that such an attack would invite “nothing more than slaughter…” 8

LongstreetJ_main
James Longstreet

James Longstreet was now more settled in his opposition to another such frontal attack and shortly after dawn when Lee visited him to deliver the order to attack again argued for a flanking movement around the Federal left. Lee’s order was for Longstreet to “attack again the next morning” according to the “general plan of July 2nd.” 9 Longstreet had not wanted to attack the previous day and when Lee came to him Longstreet again attempted to persuade Lee of his desire to turn the Federal flank. “General, I have had my scouts out all night, and I find that you still have an excellent opportunity to move around to the right of Meade’s army and maneuver him into attacking us.” 10

Lee would have nothing of it. He looked at his “Old Warhorse” and as he had done the previous day insisted: “The enemy is there,” he said, pointing northeast as he spoke, “and I am going to strike him.” 11 Longstreet’s gloom deepened and he wrote that he felt “it was my duty to express my convictions.” He bluntly told Lee:

“General, I have been a soldier all of my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” 12

But Lee was determined to force his will on both his subordinates and the battle. Lee was convinced that the plan could succeed while Longstreet “was certain” that the plan “was misguided and doomed to fail.” 13 Longstreet, now realized that further arguments were in vain recalled that Lee “was impatient of listening, and tired of talking, and nothing was left but to proceed.” 14

Even a consultation with Brigadier General William Wofford whose brigade had help crush Sickle’s III Corps at the Peach Orchard and had nearly gotten to the crest of Cemetery Ridge could not alter Lee’s plan. Wofford had to break off his attack on July 2nd when he realized that there were no units to support him. Lee asked if Wofford could “go there again” to which Wofford replied “No, General I think not.” Lee asked “why not” and Wofford explained: “General, the enemy have had all night to intrench and reinforce. I had been pursuing a broken enemy, and now the situation is very different.” 15

The attack would go forward despite Longstreet’s objections and the often unspoken concerns of others who had the ear of Lee, or who would carry out the attack. Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff wrote to his sister a few days after the attack the “position was impregnable to any such force as ours” while Pickett’s brigadier Richard Garnett remarked “this is a desperate thing to attempt” and Lewis Armistead said “the slaughter will be terrible.” 16

Pickett’s fresh division would lead the attack supported by Johnston Pettigrew commanding the wounded Harry Heth’s division of Hill’s Third Corps and Isaac Trimble commanding two brigades of Pender’s division, Trimble having been given command just minutes prior to the artillery bombardment. 17 On the command side few of the commanders had commanded alongside each other before July 3rd. Trimble had just recovered from wounds had never been with his men. Pettigrew had been given command when Pender was wounded was still new and relatively untested, and Pickett’s three brigadiers and their brigades had never fought together. Two of the divisions had never served under Longstreet. From a command perspective where relationships and trust count as much as strength and numbers the situation was nearly as bad is it could be. Although the Confederates massed close to 170 cannon on Seminary Ridge to support the attack ammunition was in short supply and the Lieutenant Colonel Porter Alexander who had been tasked with coordinating fires only controlled the guns of First Corps.

The assaulting troops would attack with their right flank exposed to deadly enfilade fire from Federal artillery and with the left flank unsupported and exposed to such fires from Union artillery on Cemetery Hill. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Longstreet noted “Never was I so depressed as on that day…” 18

Part Two: Meade

general-george-meade
George Gordon Meade

While Lee took no counsel and determined to attack on the night of July 2nd little more than two miles away Major General George Meade took no chances. After sending a message to Henry Halleck at 8 PM Meade called his generals together. Unlike Lee who had observed the battle from a distance Meade had been everywhere on the battlefield during the day and had a good idea what his army had suffered and the damage that he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Likewise during the day he had been with the majority of his commanders as opposed to Lee who after issuing orders that morning had remained unengaged, as was noted by the British observer Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fremantle who wrote that during the “whole time the firing continued, he sent only one message, and only received one report.” 19

Meade wired Halleck that evening: “The enemy attacked me about 4 P.M. this day…and after one of the severest contests of the war was repulsed at all points.” 20 However Meade, realizing that caution was not a vice still needed to better assess the condition of his army, hear his commanders and hear from his intelligence service, ended his message: “I shall remain in my present position to-morrow, but am not prepared to say until better advised of the condition of the army, whether operations will be of an offensive or a defensive character.” 21

As Meade waited for his commanders his caution was apparent. Before the attack on Sickles’ III Corps at the Peach Orchard Meade had asked his Chief of Staff Brigadier General Dan Butterfield to “draw up a contingency plan for withdraw to Pipe Creek.” After the attack on Sickles Alfred Pleasanton said that Meade ordered him to “gather what cavalry I could, and prepare for the retreat of the army.” 22 Some of his commanders who heard of the contingency plan including John Gibbon and John Sedgwick believed that Meade was “thinking of a retreat.” 23. Despite Meade’s  flat assurances to Halleck  his army’s position had been threatened on both flanks, though both were now solidly held, but some of his subordinates believed, maybe through the transference of their own doubts, that Meade “foresaw disaster, and not without cause.” 24

In assessing Meade’s conduct it has to be concluded that while he had determined to remain, that he was smart enough to plan of the worst and to consult his commanders and staff in making his decision. Meade wrote to his wife that evening “for at one time things looked a little blue,…but I managed to get up reinforcements in time to save the day….The most difficult part of my work is acting without correct information on which to predicate action.” 25

Gettysburg_Council_of_War
Meade’s Counsel of War

Meade called Colonel George Sharpe from the Bureau of Military Information to meet with him, Hancock and Slocum at the cottage on the Taneytown Road where he made his headquarters. Sharpe and his aide explained the enemy situation. Sharpe noted “nearly 100 Confederate regiments in action Wednesday and Thursday” and that “not one of those regiments belonged to Pickett.” He then reported with confidence that indicated that “Pickett’s division has just come up and is bivouac.” 26

It was the assurance that Meade needed as his commanders came together. When Sharpe concluded his report Hancock exclaimed “General, we have got them nicked.” 27

About 9 P.M. the generals gathered. Present were Meade, and two of his major staff officers Warren just back from Little Round Top, wounded and tired, and Butterfield his Chief of Staff. Hancock action as a Wing Commander was there with Gibbon now commanding II Corps, Slocum of XII Corps with Williams. John Newton a division commander from VI Corps who had just arrived on the battlefield now commanding I Corps was present along with Oliver Howard of XI Corps, John Sedgwick of VI Corps, George Sykes of V Corps and David Birney, now commanding what was left of the wounded Dan Sickles’ III Corps. Pleasanton was off with the cavalry and Hunt attending to the artillery.

The meeting began and John Gibbon noted that it “was at first very informal and in the shape of a conversation….” 28 The condition of the army was discussed and it was believed that now only about 58,000 troops were available to fight. Birney honestly described the condition of III Corps noting that “his corps was badly chewed up, and that he doubted that it was fit for much more.” 29 Newton who had just arrived was quoted by Gibbon as saying that Gettysburg was “a bad position” and that “Cemetery Hill was no place to fight a battle in.” 20 The remarks sparked a serious discussion with Meade asking the assembled generals “whether our army should remain on that field and continue the battle, or whether we should change to some other position.” 31

The reactions to the question showed that the army commanders still had plenty of fight in the. Meade listened as his generals discussed the matter. Hancock said he was “puzzled about the practicability of retiring.” 32 Newton later noted that he made his observations about the battlefield based on his belief that that Lee might turn the Federal left and impose his army between it and its supplies, as Longstreet However Newton and the other commanders agreed that pulling back “would be a highly dangerous maneuver to attempt in the immediate presence of the enemy.” 33

Finally Butterfield, no friend of Meade and one of the McClellan and Hooker political cabal who Meade had retained when he took command posed three questions to the assembled generals:

“Under existing circumstances, is it advisable for this army to remain in its present position, or retire to another nearer its base of supplies?

It being determined to remain in present position, shall the army attack or wait the attack of the enemy? 

If we wait attack, how long?” 34

Gibbon as the junior officer present said “Correct the position of the army…but do not retreat.” Williams counseled “stay,” as did Birney and Sykes, and Newton, who after briefly arguing the dangers finally agreed. Oliver Howard not only recommended remaining but “even urged an attack if the Confederates stayed their hand.” Hancock who earlier voiced his opinion to Meade that “we have them nicked” added “with a touch of anger, “Let us have no more retreats. The Army of the Potomac has had too many retreats….Let this be our last retreat.” Sedgwick of VI Corps voted “remain” and finally Slocum uttered just three words “stay and fight.” 35

None of Meade’s assembled commanders counseled an immediate attack; all recommended remaining at least another day. When the discussion concluded Meade told his generals “Well gentlemen…the question is settled. We remain here.”36

Some present believed that Meade was looking for a way to retreat to a stronger position, that he had been rattled by the events of the day. Slocum believed that “but for the decision of his corps commanders” that Meade and the Army of the Potomac “would have been in full retreat…on the third of July.” 37 Meade would deny such accusations before Congressional committees the following year as Radical Republicans in Congress sought to have him relieved for political reasons.

Much of the criticism of his command decisions during the battle were made by political partisans associated with the military cabal of Hooker, Butterfield and Sickles as well as Radical Republicans who believed that Meade was a Copperhead. Both Butterfield and Birney accused Meade before the committee of wanting to retreat and “put the worst possible interpretation on Meade’s assumed lack of self-confidence without offering any real evidence to substantiate it.”Edwin Coddington notes “that Meade, other than contemplating a slight withdraw to straighten his lines, wanted no retreat from Gettysburg.” 38

Alpheus Williams of XII Corps, wrote to his daughters on July 6th regarding his beliefs about Meade on the night of July 2nd. “I heard no expression from him which led me to think that he was in favor of withdrawing the army from before Gettysburg.” 39 Likewise the message sent by Meade to Halleck indicates Meade’s own confidence in the upcoming battle of July 3rd. If Meade had some reservations during the day, as he mentioned in the letter to his wife they certainly were gone by the time he received the intelligence report from Sharpe and heard Hancock’s bold assertion that the enemy was “nicked.” 

As the meeting broke up after shortly after midnight and the generals returned to their commands Meade pulled Gibbon aside. Gibbon with II Corps had the Federal center on Cemetery Ridge. Meade told him “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.” Gibbon queried as to why Meade thought this and Meade continued “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed,…and if he concludes to try it again it will be on our center.” Gibbon wrote years later “I expressed the hope that he would, and told General Meade with confidence, that if he did we would defeat him.” 40

If some of his generals and political opponents believed Meade to be a defeatist,  that defeatism was not present in his private correspondence. He wrote to his wife early in the morning of July 3rd displaying a private confidence that speaks volumes: “Dearest love, All well and going on well in the Army. We had a great fight yesterday, the enemy attacking & we completely repulsing them- both armies shattered….Army in fine spirits & every one determined to do or die.” 41

The contrast between Lee’s and Meade’s decision making process is Meade did what Lee should have done, he had been active on the battlefield, he consulted his intelligence service and he consulted his commanders on the options available to him. Lee remained away from the action on July 2nd he failed to consult his commanders. He failed to gain accurate intelligence on the Federal forces facing him and he failed to fully take into account his losses. Meade better demonstrated the principles of what we now call “mission command.” 

Notes

1 Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.558

2 Lee, Robert E, Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864. Amazon Kindle Edition location 594 of 743 

3 Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee volume 3 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1935 p.150

4 Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 p.349

5 Coddinton, Edwin Gettysburg, A Study in Command Simon and Schuster New York 1968 p.455

6 Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.4117 Ibid p.412

8 Ibid. p.347

9 Ibid. p.430

10 Wert, Jeffry General James Longstreet, the Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier A Tuchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1993 p.283

11 Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.529 12 Ibid. Wert p.283

13 Ibid. Sears p.349

14 Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.377

15 Ibid. Foote p.531

16 Ibid. Wert p.287

17 Ibid. Freeman p.589 

18 Ibid. Wert p.290

19 Fremantle, Arthur Three Months in the Southern States, April- June 1863 William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London 1863 Amazon Kindle edition p.266

20 Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 pp.341-342 

21 Ibid. p.342

22 Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.355

23 Ibid. 

24 Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.524

25 Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.413

26 Ibid. Sears p.342

27 Ibid. Trudeau p.413

28 Ibid. Sears p.342

29 Ibid. Trudeau p.415 

30 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

31 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

32 Ibid. Sears p.343

33 Ibid. Sears p.343

34 Ibid. Trudeau p.415

35 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

36 Ibid. Foote p.525

37 Ibid. Guelzo

38 Coddinton, Edwin Gettysburg, A Study in Command Simon and Schuster New York 1968 pp.451-452

39 Ibid. p.452

40 Ibid. Foote p.525 

41 Ibid. Trudeau p.345

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From Strategic Incompetence to Negligence in Conducting a do or Die Offensive: Robert E. Lee’s Lazy and Disastrous Discretionary Orders at Gettysburg, 1 July 1863

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I posted an article about Robert E. Lee’s inability to understand the connection between national strategy and operational level command in regard to engaging in offensive operations that did nothing to help his rebellion. In fact his opposition to sending large forces to defeat Grant and relieve Vicksburg, combined with the incompetence he displayed during the Gettysburg Campaign ensured the defeat of the Confederacy, for which I am grateful, despite my ancestors fighting for the Confederacy and against the Union for their land and human property.

This article, like last night’s article demonstrates Lee’s unfitness as a senior commander, who despite serving as the Commandant of West Point and student of Henri Jomini’s understanding of Napoleon, whose two major offensive operations into Union territory ended in failure and the irreplaceable loss of soldiers in 1862 at Antietam and 1863 at Gettysburg. Lee’s strategic incompetence allowed the Confederacy to be cut in half, lose control of the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, and the conquest of most of Tennessee, putting Union Armies under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman on the frontier of Georgia with Atlanta dangling as a prize.

Lee’s hubris in the Gettysburg Campaign showed the limitations of a man who despite every opportunity never grasped the consequences of treason and sedition. Nor a man who,fully appreciated, until it was too late the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic aspects of modern war. Lee was still fighting Napoleonic warfare, without the benefit of Clausewitz and the Enlightenment. Likewise, he made decisions about who would command his Corps, and Divisions based on expediency and a preference for Virginians, regardless of better choices. That is where our story begins.

Lee1

Discretionary orders are important to the success of commanders who desire that their subordinates have the necessary freedom to exploit opportunities within the broader operational context. They are a key element of what we now define as Mission Command and thus expressed clearly in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Desired Leader Attributes the ability to operate on intent through trust, empowerment and understanding. In this chapter we will look at how Lee conducted war and how his decision process and communications, particularly the use of discretionary orders influenced the outcome of the battle and how important the issuance of clear orders is to a successful campaign.

To be effective such orders need to be clear and concise and they must be employed in a manner that are within the capabilities of one’s subordinate commanders to both understand them and carry them out. Thus a commander must always be ready to adjust his method when his command goes through a major turnover of personnel. After the loss of Thomas ”Stonewall”Jackson at Chancellorsville and the subsequent reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee continued to operate as if nothing had changed, despite his own recognition that the army suffered from a want of qualified senior officers.

Robert E. Lee habitually issued discretionary orders with varying degrees of effectiveness. With Jackson, a man of ruthless battlefield instincts, Lee was able to do this, even when Lee’s intent was less than clear and even with Jackson such orders occasionally went awry as was the case during the Seven Days. Lee’s aide Walter Taylor noted that Jackson “took the suggestion of General Lee into immediate consideration, and proceeded to carry it into effect.” [1] This was not to be the case with those that followed Jackson, something that Lee failed to adjust to that would doom his army at Gettysburg.

Part of this is attributable to Lee’s distaste for administrative routine. Taylor noted how Lee’s “correspondence…was constantly a source of worry to him. He did not enjoy writing; indeed he wrote with labor, and nothing seemed to tax his amiability as the necessity for writing a lengthy official communication.” [2] But more importantly in the matter of communicating orders and following up, much of the issue came down to Lee’s near fatalistic understanding of faith and life in regard to the providence of God. For Lee victory and defeat came down to God’s will, as he wrote his wife after his ill-fated 1861 campaign in western Virginia “But the Ruler of the Universe willed otherwise and sent a storm to discontent a well laid plan and to destroy my hopes.” [3] But for Lee, the concept of “duty” became a secular manifestation of his religion.” [4]

J. F. C. Fuller attributes much of the manner in how Lee conducted battle to this sense of duty as well as belief in providence. Fuller notes that it “controlled the whole of his generalship.” [5] Lee explained his concept of command to the Prussian observer, Captain Justus Scheibert:

“You must know our circumstances, and see in battle that my leading would do more harm than good. It would be a bad thing if I could not then rely on my brigade and divisional commanders. I plan and work with all my might to bring my troops to the right place at the right time; with that I have done my duty. As soon as I order the troops forward into battle, I lay the fate of my army in the hands of God.” [6]

That firm belief in providence and the hand of God was evident in Lee’s comments to Major General Isaac Trimble as the army advanced into Pennsylvania. “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.” [7] Lee’s belief in Divine providence was little different than every religious fundamentalist who believed that faith would result in victory without reason.

Fuller is one of the harshest critics of Lee bluntly notes that “this lack of appreciation that administration is the foundation for strategy; this lack of interest in routine, and his abhorrence to exert his authority…” [8] were key factors in many of his army’s problems, from command and control, discipline and the material and logistics aspects of war. Likewise his absolute reliance on his subordinates to carry out his orders, and unwillingness to interfere once the battle was joined was a major factor in his failure at Gettysburg, where Russell Weigley noted in a rather kind and subdued way that “Lee…was sometimes served less than well by his corps, division and brigade commanders.” [9]

Throughout the Gettysburg campaign Lee issued vague orders that his subordinates either failed to understand or willingly interpret in a manner that Lee did not intend. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda notes that “the phrase if practicable…led to many unfortunate consequences, since it provided subordinate commanders a kind of escape clause, allowing them to argue after the event that what they had been order to do was not, in their view “practicable.” [10]

From the time that Robert E Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac into Maryland on June 28th, he attempted to adjust his campaign plan and concentrate his army in preparation for battle. At that point his army was scattered and he did not want to provoke an engagement until he could concentrate his forces. Stuart’s cavalry, the absence of which was a matter of great consternation to Lee was chief among his concerns. Lee had hoped that Hooker would pursue him north, but finding the information out from Longsteet’s spy Harrison disturbed Lee greatly. [11]

Lee expected to know about Hooker’s movements from Stuart. However, Stuart was nowhere to be found; operating nearly fifty miles away separated from Lee’s main body much of the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s aide Walter Taylor wrote: “No tidings had been received from or of our cavalry under General Stuart since crossing the river; and General Lee was consequently without accurate of the movements or position of the main Federal Army.” [12] However, while Stuart certainly can be blamed for taking his best cavalry off on a ride around the Federal army, he acted in accordance with how he interpreted Lee’s orders, as Douglas Southall Freeman wrote: “What was possible was permissible. That, as Stuart saw it, was the substance of his orders.” [13]

This was especially true after Stuart had been surprised at Brandy Station by the Federal cavalry and pilloried in the Confederate press, the Richmond Sentinel saying Stuart had been “outgeneraled” and the Richmond Whig predicting that “We shall not be surprised if the gallant Stuart does not, before many days, make the enemy repent sorely the temerity that led them to undertake this bold and insulting feat….” [14] Lee’s orders provided just enough ambiguity and wiggle room for the wounded Stuart to do precisely what he did.

Lee’s orders gave Stuart the options of moving back to screen the army or passing around the Federal army, leaving the decision to Stuart’s discretion. “You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can…” [15] Major Henry McClellan, Stuart’s aide recorded that he also received a “lengthy communication from General Lee…” which “discussed at considerable length the plan of passing around the enemy’s rear….” [16] Stuart in his official report wrote: “The commanding General wrote me, authorizing this move if I deemed it practical.” [17]

That being said Lee was clear enough that he expected Stuart to “lose no time in placing his command on the right of our column as soon as he should perceive the enemy moving northward.” [18] Though Stuart had detected Hancock’s II Corps moving north near Manassas he elected to make his movement around the Federal Army. Stuart’s biographer Burke Davis noted that Stuart “sought no advice on the all-important detour of June twenty-sixth, which changed his direct. He did not so much consult his brigadiers as he swung his column southward to pass around the enemy.” [19] Though Lee at a number of points during lead up to Gettysburg signaled his frustration with Stuart’s absence and its effect on his abilities, he failed to draw the appropriate conclusions that a prudent commander, operating deep in enemy territory would assume from the lack of contact. Lee should have assumed that Stuart was because of his move “become temporarily incommunicado” but instead, “inferred from Stuart’s silence that Hooker had not crossed the Potomac.” [20]

Lee’s vague order was the first in a series of command and control issues that plagued him during the campaign and combined with Stuart’s vanity and need to redeem his reputation, Lee’s ill use of the cavalry he did have under his control were all contributing factors leading to the disastrous encounter at Gettysburg, but there was more to come.

Now that Lee knew that the Army of the Potomac had crossed into Maryland and was now under the command of George Meade he began to take action to reassemble his widely scattered army in the vicinity of Chambersburg and Cashtown. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was already near Cashtown, and Longstreet’s First Corps was on its way up. The most important issue Lee had was to get Ewell’s Second Corps, then near Carlisle preparing to attack Harrisburg, back in contact with the rest of the Army.

Lee sent two sets of orders to Ewell on the night of the 28th, after getting Harrison’s intelligence, but they did not reach Ewell until the morning of the 29th. The first orders were for Ewell to move to Chambersburg, and the second, to concentrate at Heidlersburg where he could either continue to Cashtown or turn south to Gettysburg. [21] The intent was good, Lee appears to have desired to minimize congestion on the turnpike in order to more rapidly assemble his army, however the orders caused much discontent at the Second Corps headquarters and “made Old Bald Head most unhappy.” [22] Many of his soldiers with Harrisburg in plain sight were likewise upset the “disappointment and chagrin were extreme” [23] while a soldier in “Maryland Steuart’s brigade recalled the “ill-concealed dissatisfaction” of the men, who “found the movement to be as they supposed “one of retreat.” [24] A staff officer noted that Ewell was “quite testy and hard to please” at the news and “became disappointed, and had everyone flying around.” [25]

Despite his displeasure Ewell did move promptly to comply with Lee’s orders “Lee had not communicated any particular sense of crisis to the case, and the Second Corps’ march proceeded at the usual pace.” [26] Likewise the fact that there were two orders caused several problems that would manifest themselves on July 1st all of which would affect the outcome of the battle.

The first regarded the movement of Second Corps. On receipt of the first order to proceed to Chambersburg Ewell promptly started Allegany Johnson’s division as well as the Second Corps Wagon Train and two battalions of its Corps Artillery Reserve down the turnpike. [27] When they arrived near Cashtown on the first they would become entangled with Anderson’s division of Hill’s Third Corps, slowing that unit’s attempt to move to battle. This massive traffic jam also delayed two of Longstreet’s divisions which were moving to link up with Hill’s Corps. [28]

Ewell was able to direct Rodes and Early’s divisions toward Heildlersburg, but the vagueness of Lee’s changing the objective of the march “to Cashtown or Gettysburg and leaving it up to the commander to choose between the two”[29]caused Ewell problems. Had Johnson’s division and the rest of the corps been available early on the afternoon of July 1st at Heildlersburg with Rodes and Early’s divisions it might have completely changed the outcome of the battle. Ewell had been very successful under Jackson, whose orders “were precise and positive” where Lee had not only revered the course of Ewell’s advance on Harrisburg back to Chambersburg, but then modified with the order to proceed to either Cashtown or Gettysburg. [30]

Lee’s order again contained a discretionary clause, to advance to Cashtown or Gettysburg “as circumstances dictate.” [31] Ewell was upset not knowing what “circumstances” Lee had in mind.” [32] On the night of the 30th he discussed the order with Rodes and Early as well as Major General Isaac Trimble, and complained of the order’s “indefinite phraseology” and made the comment “Why can’t a commanding General have someone on his staff who can write an intelligible order.” [33] Ewell’s acerbic comment could easily be applied to many of Lee’s orders issued during the next few days, but in spite of it Ewell did handle his “first discretionary order very well indeed” [34] as he issued his movement orders for July 1st in a manner that would allow his divisions to move on either location should the situation dictate.

As Ewell attempted to comply with Lee’s orders on the 29th and 30th to rejoin the army his other two corps were resting. Third Corps under A.P. Hill was at and around Cashtown west of Gettysburg. On the 30th Hill allowed Harry Heth to advance Johnston Pettigrew’s brigade to Gettysburg. When Pettigrew discovered Buford’s cavalry division there he withdrew and reported to incident to Hill and Heth who refused to believe it. Hill did pass on that news to Lee and alerted Lee that “that he intended to march there in the morning” but the “announcement seemed not to have disturbed the commanding general, since he expected to move his headquarters only as far as Cashtown the next day.” [35] This lack of reaction was to have enormous consequences for Lee.

On the morning of July 1st, Hill ordered Harry Heth to advance his division to Gettysburg without the benefit of cavalry support or reconnaissance and backing them up with Pender’s division. As they advanced the leading brigades under Brigadier General James Archer and Joseph Davis met Federal forces. Heth became embroiled in a fight with Buford’s cavalry, which developed into a fight with Reynolds’s I Corps, a fight that resulted in Heth’s division being mauled and helping to bring a general engagement. That engagement drew in Ewell’s corps as well before Lee knew what was happening.

Lee had a number of chances to prevent the meeting engagement that developed on July 1st 1863. Lee noted in his after action report that “It had not been intended to deliver a general battle so far from our base unless attacked…” [36] but there are no records of him giving such instructions prior to the battle. There are no reports indicating that he urged caution on his commanders not to bring on a general engagement before July 1st, when the battle was already underway, nor are there records of any warning orders to his corps commanders upon learning of the presence of the Federal army north of the Potomac.

In the end of the day it was Lee’s “laxness with respect to reconnaissance and his lack of control of Hill’s movements caused him to stumble into battle.” [37] The battle began without him knowing it; his subordinate commanders committed nearly half of his army into battle before he issued an order, Lee wrote “A battle had, therefore, become in a measure unavoidable….” [38] But such is not the case. Lee had the ability and command authority to break off the engagement before it took on a life of its own, but he did not do so.

(Gburg day one)

Lee arrived early enough in the battle to make his influence known. He was told of Ewell’s movements by Major G. Campbell Brown of Ewell’s staff and instructed Brown in very strong terms to tell Ewell “that a general engagement was to be avoided until the arrival of the rest of the army.” [39] Ewell, did not get that message until after his forces were heavily committed noting in his report “that By the time this message reached me….It was too late to avoid an engagement without abandoning the position already taken up.” [40]

Lee was not happy that battle had been joined by Heth and Taylor observed that “on arriving at the scene of the battle, General Lee ascertained that the enemy’s infantry and artillery were present in considerable force” [41] and when Lee arrived on Herr Ridge, Heth asked permission to renew his attack when Rodes entered the fight. Lee’s initial response was negative “No, I am not prepared to bring on a general engagement today. Longstreet is not up.” [42]

After observing the battle for a time it became evident that Ewell’s corps was also heavily engaged and Lee began to change his mind. Heth reported that the Federal troops in front of him were withdrawing and Lee sensed an opportunity to strike a blow that might bring the climactic victory that he sought. Lee analyzed the situation and with Heth back at his division Heth wrote that “very soon an aide came to me with the orders to attack.” [43]

The order was given in the heat of the moment, and Lee always aggressive responded, but it was a bad decision. “It committed him to a major confrontation on this ground…without sufficient troops on hand and without knowledge of the whereabouts of the rest of the Federal army,” [44] and Lee knew this. He told Anderson at Cashtown not long before- meeting Heth: “I am in ignorance of what we have in front of us here. It may be the whole Federal army, or it may be only a detachment. If it is the whole Federal force we must fight a battle here.” But he was worried, telling Anderson “If we do not gain a victory, those defiles and gorges which we passed through this morning will shelter us from disaster.” [45]

Despite the success that his soldiers we now enjoying as they drove the I Corps and XI Corps back through the town Lee gave yet another vague order. This one to Ewell, who having already committed his corps to battle in the full knowledge that Lee did not desire a general engagement was confronted with another discretionary order, Lee said “General Ewell was…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.” [46]

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. The situation faced by Ewell in Gettysburg was chaotic; his units were badly disorganized, and burdened by thousands of prisoners on the confided streets of the town. Rodes’ division had sustained frightful losses and he had no assurance of support from Hill. [47]Rodes’ after battle report supported Ewell’s decision. He wrote that 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.”[48]

Lee’s orders to Ewell, to take the high ground “if practicable” were correctly interpreted by Ewell despite his critics; he nature of the terrain, the number and condition of the troops that he had available for an attack, and the nature of the orders given by Lee late in the day was strong factors for Ewell to not attack. [49]Coddington noted that these problems “upset Ewell, for he was faced with the prospect of organizing a new attack with tired men even while he felt constrained by Lee’s injunction not to open a full-fledged battle. No wonder he was uncertain!”[50]The fact that Lee was not far away and did not issue a “peremptory order to Ewell” to attack also has to be noted. [51] If Lee had sensed that Ewell was not going to attack and really wanted him to he could have issued a direct order which Ewell, would have surely obeyed. “Lee realized that Ewell was not Jackson…and should have modified his method of command accordingly.” [52]

That evening Lee rode to Ewell’s headquarters and met with Ewell, Early and Rodes. “No reference was made to the possibility of an attack that evening on Cemetery Hill.” The question was put to them about what to do the next day. Lee asked “Can’t you with your corps attack on this flank tomorrow?” Jubal Early answered for Ewell saying “flatly that he did not believe an attack should be made from Gettysburg against Cemetery Hill the next day.” [53] Early added, “even if such an action were to succeed… it would be at a very great cost.” [54] Lee suggested to Ewell and his commanders that Second Corps around to the right along Seminary Ridge “where it might be better put to use, and twice he gave in to Ewell’s pleadings to remain where he was.” [55] This was yet another mistake that would haunt Lee during the rest of the battle, but the “notion of imposing his will on a subordinate was simply too alien to Lee’s nature for him to even to admit as a possibility.” [56] Fuller wrote “it was Lee’s inexhaustible tact that ruined his army.” [57]

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. Lee’s lack of clear commander’s intent to his subordinate commanders created confusion on the battlefield. They also 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 Marshall and generals Early, Gordon and Trimble. Men like Longstreet and were castigated by Lee’s defenders for suggesting that Lee made mistakes on the battlefield.

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.” [58]

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.

Notes:

[1] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.45

[2] Ibid. Taylor General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences p.25

[3] Lee, Robert Edward. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E Lee A Public Domain book, Amazon Kindle edition location 548

[4] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.35

[5] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957 p.112

[6] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.348

[7]Tucker, Glenn. High Tide at Gettysburg, The Bobbs Merrill Co. Indianapolis Indiana 1958 p.24

[8] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.125

[9] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 p.116

[10] Ibid. Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.446

[11] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p. 139

[12] Taylor, Walter Four Years with General Lee Original published 1877. Heraklion Press Kindle Edition 2013 location 1199

[13] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 pp.554-555

[14] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, p.552

[15] Nolan, Alan TR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.16

[16] McClellan, Henry Brainerd The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia 1885. Digital edition copyright 2011 Strait Gate Publications, Charlotte NC location 6123 unfortunately this letter cannot be verified as no copy exists, McClellan presuming that it was destroyed sometime during the march.

[17] Dowdy, CliffordLee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.60

[18] Lee, Robert E. Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864. Amazon Kindle Edition location 503

[19] Davis, Burke JEB Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p. 325

[20] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.183

[21] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.189

[22] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 134

[23] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.124

[24] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 134

[25] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.124

[26] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 134

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command pp.189-190

[28] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.99

[29] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to MeridianRandom House, New York 1963 p. 464

[30] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.464

[31] Pfanz Harry W. Gettysburg: The First Day University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.148

[32] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.192

[33] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.149

[34] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 160

[35] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.264

[36] Ibid. Lee Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864 location 552

[37]Ibid. Nolan R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg p.24

[38] Ibid. Lee Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864 location 552

[39] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.150

[40] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg p.22

[41] Ibid. Taylor General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences p.188

[42] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.475

[43] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p. 203

[44] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg p.24

[45] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.474

[46] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.571

[47] 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 pp.54-55

[48] Ibid. Nolan p.26

[49] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.28

[50] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.319

[51] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.28

[52] Ibid Gallagher Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.56

[53] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command p.572

[54] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.261

[55] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York p.504

[56] Ibid. Tredeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.262

[57] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.119

[58]Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York p.504


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