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The Bloodiest Day In American History: The Battle Of Antietam, September 17th 1862

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have visited the battlefield of Antietam, at Sharpsburg, Maryland numerous times going back to the 1990s. Apart from Gettysburg, I have been to it more than any other battlefield in North America. It it a haunting place, not nearly as commercialized as the outskirts of Gettysburg have become. Yet on it, more Americans were killed or wounded on any single day in American history, and it was Americans killing other Americans. Though the battle itself was a draw in terms of tactical terms, it turned out to be one that helped decide the course of history. Historian Stephen W. Sears wrote:

“Of all the days on all the fields where American soldiers have fought, the most terrible by almost any measure was September 17, 1862. The battle waged on that date, close by Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in western Maryland, took a human toll never exceeded on any other single day in the nation’s history. So intense and sustained was the violence, a man recalled, that for a moment in his mind’s eye the very landscape around him turned red.” 

Captain Emory Upton, of the 2nd U.S. Artillery, and later one of the men who helped modernize the tactics of of the Army in the 1880s wrote:

“I have heard of ‘the dead lying in heaps’, but never saw it till this battle. Whole ranks fell together.”

Another officer, Lieutenant Frederick L. Hitchcock Of the 132nd Pennsylvania at the Bloody Lane:

“We were in the very maelstrom of the battle. Men were falling every moment. The horrible noise was incessant and almost deafening. Except that my mind was absorbed in my duties, I do not know how I could have endured the strain.” 

To the west of Frederick Maryland a small town named Sharpsburg sits on the west side of a creek. Named Antietam the creek’s headwaters are in Franklin County Pennsylvania and it meanders south where just to the south of Sharpsburg it empties into the Potomac River.

It is a peaceful place, rolling hills and agricultural country with some well preserved stone arch bridges, including one just outside of Sharpsburg. It is hard to believe that 150 years ago the town and the creek were the scene of the bloodiest single day of battle in American history.

On that indian summer day of 1862 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, commanding made a stand against the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding.

Lee had invaded Maryland following a string of successes in Northern Virginia during that summer of 1862, defeating McClellan outside of Richmond in the Seven Days, and in a campaign of maneuver bested a newly formed Army, the Union Army of Virginia commanded by Major General John Pope defeating it at the Second Battle of Bull Run between 28-30 August 1862. With Northern Virginia’s crops and livestock depleted and his opponents in crisis Lee moved his army north into Maryland. The decision was driven partly by the need to provision his army, but also had the hope of drawing Maryland away from the Union mistakenly believing that public sentiment in that state was pro-Confederate. If the people of Maryland rose up to support Lee it would be disastrous to the Union and endanger the capital itself. A final consideration was the hope that a Confederate victory on Northern soil would bring about the foreign recognition and possibly the intervention of Great Britain on the side of the Confederacy.

                                                   The Lost Order

Lee crossed the Potomac on September 3rd and sent his Second Corps west with some elements seizing the Union armory in Harper’s Ferry, others to secure the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Martinsburg the rest of the Army was in the area of Frederick. He was pursued by the very cautious McClellan at the head of the Army of the Potomac.

On September 9th Lee issued General Order 191, the infamous “lost order” which a copy of which was found by Union soldiers wrapped around three cigars at a campground recently occupied by Lee’s rear guard element, the division of D.H. Hill on September 13th. The order detailed the disposition of Lee’s army and McClellan seized the opportunity. On the 14th the Army of the Potomac attacked part of Lee’s army at the Battle of South Mountain. The Union won that battle forcing the outnumbered Confederate forces to withdraw, though the delay allowed Lee to concentrate more of his army at Sharpsburg on the 15th.

Although he outnumbered Lee McClellan believed the reports of the Pinkerton Detective Agency which provided intelligence to the army. Those estimates which credited Lee with more than 100,000 troops. He delayed his attack until he had drawn up his full army on the on the 17th.

                            The Dead Near the Dunker Church

When he did attack on the 17th his attacks were uncoordinated and though he came close to decisive breakthrough Lee’s army desperately clung to its positions. The action began to the north of the town in the morning and both sides showed incredible ferocity at the Cornfield, where in the space of about three hours nearly 8000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The fighting shifted to the center of the line opposite the town by mid-day. Amid the destructive storm of artillery the armies fought around the Dunker Church and a sunken lane now known as “Bloody Lane.” In the confines of that 800 yard stretch of road over 5000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the course of about four hours. The Union forces broke the Confederate line but reinforcements were not sent and when the the division commander, Major General Israel Richardson was mortally wounded the attack lost its verve and the Confederates under Lieutenant General James Longstreet were able to restore the line.

The south remained quiet as McClellan ordered Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps to hold off on attacking. Burnside did not receive his orders to attack until 1000. He finally attacked across the south bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge in the afternoon. It was another tough fight and Burnside, after several attempts move to the south to flank Confederate forces in the late afternoon with the intention of cutting Lee from off his only escape route.  The Confederates were in a desperate condition. It was at this point, about 3 PM when the division of Major General A.P. Hill arrived and immediately counterattacked breaking up Burnside’s attack. Burnside requested reinforcements from McClellan who refused saying that he had none available. This was not the case, McClellan had two full corps of infantry uncommitted to the battle but still believing that he was outnumbered and that Lee was attempting to trap him.

The actioned ended by 530 PM with both sides rested and reorganized for action the next day. Lee prepared to defend but no Union attack was offered on the 18th. An informal truce was observed to allow the evacuation of the wounded and Lee began his withdraw across the Potomac into Virginia that night. Despite being goaded by Lincoln to pursue McClellan did not and the Union lost the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army n Union territory.

Casualty estimates vary but according to Stephen W Sears in his book Landscape Turned Red that the Army of the Potomac lost 2108 dead, 9540 wounded and 753 missing. He states the best estimate of Confederate casualties are 1546 dead, 7752 wounded and 1018 missing. Most of the missing were likely killed and buried in mass graves or discovered and buried by civilians after the battle. In the space of 12 hours 22719 Americans were killed or wounded. It was the bloodiest single day in American military history.

Though the battle was inconclusive in that Lee’s army survived but had to break off its offensive it had more influence than expected. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd and though it did not take effect until January 1st 1863 it marked a turning point in the war.

McClellan failed to take up the offensive in the next tow months and Lincoln relieved him of command giving the Army of the Potomac to Burnside who goaded by Lincoln took the army into battle at Fredericksburg where it met with defeat.

I have been to the battlefield a number of times, on my own in 1997, once as part of a “staff ride” with the Marine battalion that I was assigned in May of 2000, and a couple of other times on my own. The last time I was there in 2017, I walked over 17 miles on the battlefield.

Each time I go I take the time to ponder the great losses endured by both armies and the individual courage of the soldiers involved. Some of the units that I served with in the Army National Guard in Texas and Virginia trace their lineage and honors to regiments that fought at Antietam and I have felt a connection to the battle because of that. It is hard to imagine the amount of death and carnage taking place in such a placid location in such a short amount of time.

It is something to ponder when some Americans openly suggest another civil war if their party does not win the next Presidential election.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Spirit of Unbelief: Confederates Before Gettysburg

Lieutenant General A. P. Hill

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m hoping to take a few days off from writing about current events and spend a few days reposting some of my writings about the Battle of Gettysburg.

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 Third 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]

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]

Heth’s  third brigade came from Mississippi and North Carolina and was commanded by the “stuffy and ambitious” [27] Brigadier General Joe Davis.  Davis’s uncle was President Jefferson Davis. Davis served on his uncle’s staff for months during the early part of the war but had no combat experience, never leading as much as a company. [28] One author noted that Davis’s promotion to Brigadier General was  “as unadulterated an instance of nepotism as the record of the Confederacy offers.” [29] Davis’s subordinate commanders were no better; one of them, William Magruder was so incompetent that J.E.B. Stuart suggested that “he have his commission revoked.” In Magruder’s outfit only one of the nine field grade officers in his brigade had military training, and that was because he was a graduate of the Naval Academy, hardly fitting for service in the infantry. [30] This 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]

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 anyone with the slightest experience in handling troops 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. One 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 both Hill and Pender. Young reported that the “troops that he saw were veterans rather than Home Guards.” [46] Hill reiterated to both 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] while 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 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.

Lee’s biographer and apologist 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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Strategy and Policy: Lee’s Offensive Gettysburg Campaign -The Worst of Both Worlds

A cohesive national strategy involves true debate and consideration of all available courses of action. It must look at the ends, ways and means of achieving national strategic objectives as well as the risk entailed in each course of action. It has to involve both the political leadership and military commanders. Clausewitz said: “the supreme, most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” [1]

“Wars are not free flowing events, sufficient unto themselves as objects for study and understanding. Instead they are entirely the product of their contexts.” [2] Thus it is imperative that both political and military leaders understand for what purpose they embark on a war or begin a campaign. Even in the recent American experience we can recount time after time where American political leaders of both the Republican and Democrat parties, as well as military leaders and planners have failed to grasp the central truth of was Clausewitz wrote about the nature of war.

davis and cabinet

British political and military theorist Colin S. Gray writes: “Choice of strategy can determine whether or not policy goals will be attainable. And that choice must provide the most vital contexts for tactical behavior. Once policy objectives have been chosen, strategy is the function that delivers victory.” [3] In our recent wars and in the American Civil War this maxim has been born out time and time again.

Thus, the Gettysburg campaign has to be looked at in the context of Grand Strategy and what was necessary for both sides to achieve their goals. For the Confederacy this was independence and in the context of the Gettysburg campaign the key question is whether it should have been made at all. While Lee is regarded as a masterful commander by many, the myth created by the Lost Cause school of history, in which the failure of Confederate war aims cannot be ascribed to Lee, keeps many people from asking the hard questions of strategy, and how Lee as commander failed to understand what was best for his country.

The key consideration, as Alan T. Nolan observes “must be whether a general’s actions helped or hurt the cause of his government in view of that government’s grand strategy. In short, the appropriate inquiry is to ask whether a general’s actions related positively or negatively to the war objectives and national policy of his government.” [4] The question was one of following a strategy of the defensive as Washington had done in the Revolutionary War, or a strategy of the offense culminating in a climactic battle that would decide the outcome of the war.

A defensive strategy was seen by British observers early in the war as the most feasibly for achieving Southern military and political goals in relationship to attaining independence. In the Revolution, Washington remained on the “grand strategic defensive” and “lost many battles and retreated many times, but they kept their forces in the field to avoid being ultimately defeated, and they won because the British decided that the struggle was either too hopeless or too burdensome to pursue.” [5] They had no doubt that this was the best policy for the Confederate government and military to achieve their strategic end.

The terrain of Virginia, particularly the number of east-west running rivers, the swamps that lay to the east of Richmond and the nearly impassible Wilderness to its north made any Union offensive a costly proposition. Clausewitz noted that terrain has “a decisive influence on the engagement, both as to its course and to its planning and exploitation….Their principle effect lies in the realm of tactics, but the outcome is a matter of strategy” [6]

This naturally advantageous terrain gave the advantage to Lee on the defense, but Lee seemed to never fully appreciate the strategic strength that the nature of the terrain, especially that of the Wilderness offered him. J.F.C. Fuller noted that “the Wilderness had been his staunchest ally. It was not only a natural fortress protecting Richmond, but a spider’s web to any army advancing from the north. Lee never fully realized this, for if he had done so his strategy would have been based upon maneuvering his enemy again and again into this entanglement and defeating him.” [7]

However, the strategic defensive was not that of Robert E. Lee. Lee’s view throughout the war, even as late as the siege of Petersburg was that of the offensive and climactic battle: “If we can defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field, we shall have peace. Our efforts and energies should be devoted to that object.” [8]

In 1863 the Confederacy was confronted with the choice of how it would deal with the multiple threats to it posed by Union forces in both the West at Vicksburg, as well as in Tennessee as well as the East, where the Army of the Potomac was in striking distance of Richmond. The strategic situation was bad but few Confederate politicians realized just how bad things were, or cared in the post Chancellorsville euphoria.

In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut and Admiral David Dixon Porter. If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas; while in Tennessee a Union Army under Rosecrans, was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy continually reinforced since its establishment in 1861, had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy. The once mocked “anaconda strategy” devised by General Winfield Scott was beginning to pay dividends. [9] Of the nine major Confederate ports linked by rail to the inland cities the Union, all except three; Mobile, Wilmington and Charleston were in Union hands by April 1862. [10]

However, the Confederate response to the danger was “divided councils and paralysis” [11] in their upper leadership, between those like Lee who advocated for the offensive and those like Davis who advocated a defensive strategy. The military relationship between Lee and Davis “represented a continuous compromise between the president’s undeclared policy of outlasting the enemy and the general’s purpose of winning by breaking the enemy’s will to continue their effort at subjugation.” [12]

Davis, though he was Commander-in-Chief wavered between the two strategic ideas throughout the first years of the war, something that was worse than coming to no decision at all. Lee’s latest biographer Michael Korda makes the point that: “The danger that the Confederacy might unravel from west to east, whatever happened between the Rappahannock and the Potomac, was Grant’s central strategic idea, and should have been the overriding concern of the Confederate government; but Lee’s position as the South’s most respected and admired military figure, the high drama of his rapid marches and his victories against much larger armies had a profound effect on southern military strategy.” [13] Instead it was not, and a fog of confused policies confounded Confederate war efforts.

Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and President Jefferson Davis recognized the danger in the winter of 1862-1863. During the winter Davis and Seddon suggested to Lee that he detach significant units, including Pickett’s division to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it; he argued that the war would be won in the East. He told Seddon that “The adoption of your proposition is hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.” [14] From a strategic point of view it is hard to believe that Lee could not see this, “but in the post-Chancellorsville aura of invincibility, anything seemed possible.” [15]

However, much of Lee’s reasoning can be explained by what he saw as his first duty, the defense of Virginia. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda points out that Lee’s strategic argument was very much influenced by his love of Virginia, which remained his first love, despite his deep commitment to the Confederacy. Korda noted that Lee: “could never overcome a certain myopia about his native state. He remained a Virginian first and foremost…..” [16] Fuller wrote that Lee “was so obsessed by the idea of threatening Washington in order to relieve Northern Virginia, that throughout his generalship he never saw the war as a whole.” [17] It was Lee’s view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

Likewise, despite the success of his defensive battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee was not encouraged. Those victories had elated the Confederacy and caused great concern in the North. But Lee was depressed after each. Lee told Harry Heth after Chancellorsville: “Our people were wild with delight- I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had not gained an inch of ground, and the enemy could not be pursued…” [18]

Some Confederate leaders realized the mortal danger presented by Grant in the West including officials in the War Department, one of whom wrote “The crisis there is of the greatest moment. The loss of Vicksburg and the Mississippi river…would wound us very deeply in a political as well as a military point of view.” [19]

Despite this Seddon did remain in favor of shifting troops west and relieving Vicksburg. He was backed in this by Joseph Johnston, Braxton Bragg, P.T.G. Beauregard and James Longstreet. In Mid-May of 1863 Beauregard proposed a strategy to concentrate all available forces in in Tennessee and going to the strategic defensive on all other fronts. Beauregard, probably the best Southern strategist “saw clearly that the decisive point lay in the West and not the East.” [20] Beauregard’s plan was to mass Confederate forces was crush Rosecrans, relieve Vicksburg and then move east to assist Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac in his words to complete “the terrible lesson the enemy has just had at Chancellorsville.” [21] His plan was never acknowledged and in a letter to Johnston, where he re-sent the plan he noted “I hope everything will turn out well, although I do not exactly see how.” [22]

James Longstreet had proposed a similar measure to Seddon in February 1863 and then again on May 6th in Richmond. Longstreet believed that “the Confederacy’s greatest opportunity lay “in the skillful use of our interior lines.” [23] He suggested to Seddon that two of his divisions link up with Johnston and Bragg and defeat Rosecrans and upon doing that move toward Cincinnati. Longstreet argued that since Grant would have the only Union troops that could stop such a threat that it would relieve “Pemberton at Vicksburg.” [24] Seddon favored Longstreet’s proposal but Jefferson Davis having sought Lee’s counsel rejected the plan, Longstreet in a comment critical of Davis’s rejection of the proposal wrote: “But foreign intervention was the ruling idea with the President, and he preferred that as the easiest solution of all problems.” [25] Following that meeting Longstreet pitched the idea to Lee who according to Longstreet “recognized the suggestion as of good combination, and giving strong assurance of success, but he was averse to having a part of his army so far beyond his reach.” [26]

In early May 1863 Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and Hooker’s Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond. He had rejected the western option presented by Seddon, Beauregard and Longstreet. Lee questioned “whether additional troops there would redress the balance in favor of the Confederacy, and he wondered how he would be able to cope with the powerful Army of the Potomac.” [27]

In Lee’s defense neither of these suggestions was unsound, but his alternative, an offensive into Pennsylvania just as unsound and undertaken for “confused” reasons. Confederate leaders realized that “something had to be done to save Vicksburg; something had to be done to prevent Hooker from recrossing the Rappahannock; something had to be done to win European recognition, or compel the North to consider terms of peace…[28] However added to these reasons, and perhaps the most overarching for Lee was “to free the State of Virginia, for a time at least, from the presence of the enemy” and “to transfer the theater of war to Northern soil….” [29]

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had three major goals for the offensive, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. As already noted, Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief for Vicksburg. Lee believed, quite falsely, that the harsh climate alone would force Grant to break off his siege of Vicksburg. [30] Russell Weigley wrote that “In truth, Lee seems to have been less than fully responsive to the problems of the West, partly out of Virginia parochialism- he always regarded his sword as serving his first state of Virginia-and partly in adherence to his military philosophy,” [31] that of the offensive. Lee was not willing to sacrifice Virginia for the west, and “tenaciously fought every suggestion that the Army of Northern Virginia be denuded to reinforce the west, and his influence over Davis guaranteed, at least until the fall of 1863, that the defense of Virginia would always be able to outweigh the demands for help from the Confederate forces in the West.” [32]

Instead of sending troops west, Lee believed that his army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. Lee proposed withdrawing Beauregard’s 16,000 soldiers from the Carolinas to the north in order “increase the known anxiety of Washington authorities” [33] and he sought the return of four veteran brigades which had been loaned to D.H. Hill in North Carolina. In this he was unsuccessful. He received two relatively untested brigades from Hill; those of Johnston Pettigrew and Joseph Davis instead two of Pickett’s veteran brigades. The issue of the lack of reinforcements was a “commentary on the severe manpower strains rending the Confederacy…and Davis wrote Lee on May 31st, “and sorely regret that I cannot give you the means which would make it quite safe to attempt all that we desire.” [34]

Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action for Lee designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative for the Confederacy. Lee’s presentation was an “either or” proposal. He gave short shrift to any possibility of reinforcing Vicksburg and explained “to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately end in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.” [35] As any military planner knows the presentation of courses of action designed to lead listeners to the course of action that a commander prefers by ignoring the risks of such action, downplaying other courses of action is disingenuous. In effect Lee was asking Davis and his cabinet to “choose between certain defeat and possibly victory” [36] while blatantly ignoring other courses of action or playing down other very real threats in the West.

Lee embraced the offensive as his grand strategy and rejected the defensive in his presentation to the Confederate cabinet, and they were “awed” by Lee’s strategic vision. Swept up in Lee’s presentation the cabinet approved the invasion despite the fact that “most of the arguments he made to win its approval were more opportunistic than real.” [37] However, Postmaster General John Reagan objected and stated his dissent arguing that Vicksburg had to be the top priority. But Lee was persuasive telling the cabinet “There were never such men in any army before….They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led….” So great was the prestige of Lee, “whose fame…now filled the world,” that he carried the day.” [38]

Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it. Unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign including how extensive the invasion would be, how many troops would he need and where he would get them. [39] The confusion about these issues was fully demonstrated by Davis in his letter of May 31st where he “had never fairly comprehended” Lee’s “views and purposes” until he received a letter and dispatch from the general that day.” [40] That lack of understanding is surprising since Lee had made several personal visits to Davis and the cabinet during May and demonstrates again the severe lack of understanding of the strategic problems by Confederate leaders.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. How it would do so is not clear since the Union had other armies and troops throughout the east to parry any thrust made had the Army of the Potomac endured a decisive defeat that not only drove it from the battlefield but destroyed it as a fighting force. Postmaster General Reagan believed that the only way to stop Grant was “destroy him” and “move against him with all possible reinforcements.” [41]

Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war. This too was a misguided belief and Lee would come to understand that as his forces entered Maryland and Pennsylvania where there was no popular support for his invading army. The fact was that those that “though there was a strong peace party in the North, they did not realize that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had settled once and for all the question of foreign intervention, and second that to invade the North would consolidate the Federals instead of dividing them.” [42]

In the meeting with the cabinet, Postmaster-General Reagan, agreed with General Beauregard and warned that “the probability that the threatened danger to Washington would arouse again the whole of the Yankee nation to renewed efforts for the protection of their capital.” [43] Reagan was decidedly against Lee’s offensive. He “saw everything wrong with Lee’s plan and everything right with the plan it had superseded. Grant was the main threat to the survival of the Confederacy, and it was Grant at whom the main blow must be aimed and struck.” [44] But “Lee’s opinion carried so much weight that Davis felt compelled to concur” [45] with Lee and voted with the remaining cabinet members to allow the offensive.

Stephens the fire breathing Vice President “wanted to negotiate for peace, and he foresaw rightly that Lee’s offensive would strengthen and not weaken the war party in the North….Stephens was strongly of the opinion that Lee should have remained on the defensive and detached a strong force to assist Johnston against Grant at Vicksburg.” [46] However, he was kept in the dark as to Lee’s plans until after Lee had crossed the Potomac.

Likewise, Lee, the consummate defender of Virginia was determined to at least for a season remove the war from his beloved state. He believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations.

While the offensive did give a few months relief to these farmers it did not deliver them. Likewise Lee’s argument that he could not feed his army flies in the face of later actions where for the next two years the Army of Northern Virginia continued to subsist. Alan Nolan noted that if a raid for forage was a goal of the operation then “a raid by small, mobile forces rather than the entire army would have had considerably more promise and less risk.” [47] D. H. Hill in North Carolina wrote his wife: “Genl. Lee is venturing upon a very hazardous movement…and one that must be fruitless, if not disastrous.” [48]

Though Lee won permission to invade Pennsylvania, he did not get all that he desired. Lee wanted, and believed that he would have his entire army to conduct his offensive. However, Davis did not understand or conceive that Lee’s offensive scheme was a “change in the existing policy, a shift from the defense to the offense. To Davis, Lee’s invasion was merely a necessary expedient in the policy of static, scattered defensiveness.” [49]

Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and “had not the slightest intention of reducing a single garrison to support Lee’s offensive.” [50] Davis insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus of General D. H. Hill who commanded Confederate forces in the Carolinas towards Lee. The units included two of Pickett’s brigades which would be sorely missed on July third in the doomed effort to break the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. As a result Lee was without a significant portion of his army when he moved north. Lee did not learn “until he had crossed the Potomac that four of his best brigades, the equivalent of a division, were to be uselessly employed away from the army.” [51]

Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy, the conflict between the strategy of the offensive and that of the defensive. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

The conflict between those who believed in the offensive like Lee, and those that advocated a strategic defensive strategy resulted in indecision, which resulted in a policy that brought about “the worst of both worlds.” [52] The fact that Lee got permission to invade but was denied significant numbers of experienced troops as well as support from other departments meant that “what Lee designed as a total stroke from a concentration of its armed strength, was reduced to a desperate, unsupported gamble of one man with one army-and not all of that.” [53] Knowing this, Lee still chose to continue his offensive, something that along with his “own awareness of factors that argued against it.” [54]

Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might in the East. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however in the long term, the strategy of the offensive was unfeasible and “counterproductive in terms of the Confederacy’s “objects of war.” [55]

Lee’s offensive operations always cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men. His realism about that subject was shown after he began his offensive when he wrote Davis about how time was not on the side of the Confederacy. He wrote: “We should not therefore conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect…is steadily augmenting.” [56] Despite this, as well as knowing that in every offensive engagement, even in victory he was losing more men percentage wise than his opponent Lee persisted in the belief of the offensive.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like at Fredericksburg, he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, a far higher percentage in every case than his Union opponents. In these battles the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Those victories may have won Lee “a towering reputation” but these victories “proved fleeting when measured against their dangerous diminution of southern white manpower.” [57] Lee recognized this in his correspondence but he did not alter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.” [58]

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. As Russell Weigley noted “for a belligerent with the limited manpower resources of the Confederacy, General Lee’s dedication to an offensive strategy was at best questionable.” [59] The offensive was a long shot for victory at best, and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go north exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered. Lee had to know from experience that even in victory “the Gettysburg campaign was bound to result in heavy Confederate casualties…limit his army’s capacity to maneuver…and to increase the risk of his being driven into a siege in the Richmond defenses.” [60] The fact that the campaign did exactly that demonstrates both the unsoundness of the campaign and is ironic, for Lee had repeatedly said in the lead up to the offensive in his meetings with Davis, Seddon and the cabinet that “a siege would be fatal to his army” [61] and “which must ultimately end in surrender.” [62]

Grand-strategy and national policy objectives must be the ultimate guide for operational decisions. “The art of employing military forces is obtaining the objects of war, to support the national policy of the government that raises the military forces.” [63] Using such criteria, despite his many victories Lee has to be judged as a failure as a military commander.

Lee knew from his previous experience that his army would suffer heavy casualties. Lee also understood that a victory over the Army of the Potomac deep in Northern territory could cost him dearly. He knew the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That decision was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.

In light of all of these factors one has to ask a question that is applicable as much today as it was to Lee. Since the object of a campaign is to be able to connect national strategy to the operational and tactical objectives of any campaign, in other words the connection of the campaign to grand-strategy objectives of a nation. In the case of the Confederacy it was to achieve independence, and as Clausewitz so keenly noted that “the political object, which was the original motive, must become an essential factor in the equation.” [64] The Gettysburg campaign, “Lee’s most audacious act, is the apogee of his grand strategy of the offensive.” But the question that has to be asked is “whether Lee should have been there at all.” [65] The same question should be asked by any political or military leader before embarking on a war or campaign within the war.

Notes

[1] Clausewitz, Carl von. On WarIndexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.88

 

[2] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.3

[3] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.54

[4] Nolan, Alan T. Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General in Major Problems in American Military History: Documents and Essays Edited by Chambers, John Whiteclay II and Piehler, G. Kurt Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1999 p.175

[5] Nolan, Alan T. R. 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.9

[6] Clausewitz, Carl von. On WarIndexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.348

[7] Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana, 1957 p.192

[8] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.5

[9] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.101 Fuller has a good discussion of the Anaconda strategy which I discussed in the chapter: Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the Campaign of 1863: The Relationship between Strategy, Operational Art and the DIME

[10] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.101

[11] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.629

[12] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee 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 pp.20-21

[13] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 pp.524-525

[14] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.34

[15] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[16] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.525

[17] Ibid. Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.193

[18] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.339

[19] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.5

[20] Ibid. Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.193

[21] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.429

[22] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.429

[23] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.525

[24] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.241

[25] Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America originally published 1896, Amazon Kindle Edition location 4656

[26] Ibid. Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America location 4705

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

[28] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[29] 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.180.

[30] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.430

[31] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 pp.114-115

[32] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction p.340

[33] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.528

[34] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.51

[35] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[36] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[37] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.6

[38] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[39] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[40] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[41] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[42] Fuller, J.F.C. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007 copyright 1942 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals p.222

[43] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[44] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[45] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[46] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[47] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburgin the First Day at Gettysburg p.2

[48] Ibid. Sears. Gettysburg p.51

[49] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.27

[50] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.27

[51] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.36

[52] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.118

[53] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.28

[54] Ibid. Nolan Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General p.176

[55] Ibid. Nolan Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General in Major Problems p.176

[56] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.134

[57] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.120

[58] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415

[59] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.118

[60] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[61] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[62] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[63] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.4

[64] Ibid. Clausewitz On War pp.80-81

[65] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.10

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The Failure to Link Grand-Strategy and Operational Objectives: Robert E. Lee and the Decision to Invade Pennsylvania 1863

jefferson_davis_and_his_cabinet

A cohesive national strategy involves true debate and consideration of all available courses of action. In 1863 the Confederacy was confronted with the choice of how it would deal with the multiple threats to it posed by Union forces in both the West at Vicksburg, as well as in Tennessee as well as the East, where the Army of the Potomac was in striking distance of Richmond. However in May of 1863 the leaders of the Confederacy allowed themselves to choose the worst possible course of action for their circumstances simply because it was proposed by Robert E. Lee.

The strategic situation was bad but few Confederate politicians realized just how bad things were, or cared in the euphoria after the Lee and Jackson’s victory at Chancellorsville. In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut and Admiral David Dixon Porter.

If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas; while in Tennessee a Union Army under Rosecrans, was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy continually reinforced since its establishment in 1861, had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy. The once mocked “anaconda strategy” devised by General Winfield Scott was beginning to pay dividends. [1] Of the nine major Confederate ports linked by rail to the inland cities the Union, all except three; Mobile, Wilmington and Charleston were in Union hands by April 1862. [2]

However, the Confederate response to the danger was “divided councils and paralysis” [3] in their upper leadership. Some Confederate leaders realized the mortal danger presented by Grant in the West including officials in the War Department, one of whom wrote “The crisis there is of the greatest moment. The loss of Vicksburg and the Mississippi river…would wound us very deeply in a political as well as a military point of view.” [4]

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Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and President Jefferson Davis recognized the danger in the winter of 1862-1863. During the winter Davis and Seddon suggested to Lee that he detach significant units, including Pickett’s division to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it; he argued that the war would be won in the East. He told Seddon that “The adoption of your proposition is hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.” [5] From a strategic point of view it is hard to believe that Lee could not see this, however, much of Lee’s reasoning can be explained by what he saw as his first duty, the defense of Virginia. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda points out that Lee’s strategic argument was very much influenced by his love of Virginia, which remained his first love, despite his deep commitment to the Confederacy. Korda noted that Lee: “could never overcome a certain myopia about his native state. He remained a Virginian first and foremost…..” [6] It was Lee’s view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

Despite this Seddon did remain in favor of shifting troops west and relieving Vicksburg. He was backed in this by Joseph Johnston, Braxton Bragg, P.T.G. Beauregard and James Longstreet. In Mid-May of 1863 Beauregard proposed a strategy to concentrate all available forces in in Tennessee and going to the strategic defensive on all other fronts. Beauregard, probably the best Southern strategist “saw clearly that the decisive point lay in the West and not the East.” [7] Beauregard’s plan was to mass Confederate forces was crush Rosecrans, relieve Vicksburg and then move east to assist Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac in his words to complete “the terrible lesson the enemy has just had at Chancellorsville.” [8] His plan was never acknowledged and in a letter to Johnston, where he re-sent the plan he noted “I hope everything will turn out well, although I do not exactly see how.” [9]

James Longstreet had proposed a similar measure to Seddon in February 1863 and then again on May 6th in Richmond. Longstreet believed that “the Confederacy’s greatest opportunity lay “in the skillful use of our interior lines.” [10] He suggested to Seddon that two of his divisions link up with Johnston and Bragg and defeat Rosecrans and upon doing that move toward Cincinnati. Longstreet argued that since Grant would have the only Union troops that could stop such a threat that it would relieve “Pemberton at Vicksburg.” [11] Seddon favored Longstreet’s proposal but Jefferson Davis having sought Lee’s counsel rejected the plan, Longstreet in a comment critical of Davis’s rejection of the proposal wrote: “But foreign intervention was the ruling idea with the President, and he preferred that as the easiest solution of all problems.” [12] Following that meeting Longstreet pitched the idea to Lee who according to Longstreet “recognized the suggestion as of good combination, and giving strong assurance of success, but he was averse to having a part of his army so far beyond his reach.” [13]

In early May 1863 Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and Hooker’s Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond. He had rejected the western option presented by Seddon, Beauregard and Longstreet. Lee questioned “whether additional troops there would redress the balance in favor of the Confederacy, and he wondered how he would be able to cope with the powerful Army of the Potomac.” [14] In Lee’s defense neither of these suggestions was unsound, but his alternative, an offensive into Pennsylvania just as unsound and undertaken for “confused” reasons. Confederate leaders realized that “something had to be done to save Vicksburg; something had to be done to prevent Hooker from recrossing the Rappahannock; something had to be done to win European recognition, or compel the North to consider terms of peace…[15] However added to these reasons, and perhaps the most overarching for Lee was “to free the State of Virginia, for a time at least, from the presence of the enemy” and “to transfer the theater of war to Northern soil….” [16]

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had three major goals for the offensive, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. As I have already noted, Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief for Vicksburg. He believed, quite falsely, that the harsh climate alone would force Grant to break off his siege of Vicksburg. [17] Instead, Lee believed that his army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. He proposed withdrawing Beauregard’s 16,000 soldiers from the Carolinas to the north in order “increase the known anxiety of Washington authorities” [18] and sought the return of four veteran brigades which had been loaned to D.H. Hill in North Carolina. In this he was unsuccessful receiving two relatively untested brigades from Hill, those of Johnston Pettigrew and Joseph Davis. The issue of the lack of reinforcements was a “commentary on the severe manpower strains rending the Confederacy…and Davis wrote Lee on May 31st, “and sorely regret that I cannot give you the means which would make it quite safe to attempt all that we desire.” [19]

Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action for Lee designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative for the Confederacy. Lee’s presentation was an “either or” proposal. He gave short shrift to any possibility of reinforcing Vicksburg and explained “to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately end in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.” [20] As any military planner knows the presentation of courses of action designed to lead listeners to the course of action that a commander prefers by ignoring the risks of such action, downplaying other courses of action is disingenuous. In effect Lee was asking Davis and his cabinet to “choose between certain defeat and possibly victory” [21] while blatantly ignoring other courses of action or playing down very real threats.

Lee embraced the offensive as his grand strategy and rejected the defensive in his presentation to the Confederate cabinet, and they were “awed” by Lee’s strategic vision. Swept up in Lee’s presentation the cabinet approved the invasion despite the fact that “most of the arguments he made to win its approval were more opportunistic than real.” [22] However, Postmaster General John Reagan objected and stated his dissent arguing that Vicksburg had to be the top priority. But Lee was persuasive telling the cabinet “There were never such men in any army before….They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led….” So great was the prestige of Lee, “whose fame…now filled the world,” that he carried the day.” [23]Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it, unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign including how extensive the invasion would be, how many troops would he need and where he would get them. [24] The confusion about these issues was fully demonstrated by Davis in his letter of May 31st where he “had never fairly comprehended” Lee’s “views and purposes” until he received a letter and dispatch from the general that day.” [25] That lack of understanding is surprising since Lee had made several personal visits to Davis and the cabinet during May and demonstrates again the severe lack of understanding of the strategic problems by Confederate leaders.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. How it would do so is not clear since the Union had other armies and troops throughout the east to parry any thrust made had the Army of the Potomac endured a decisive defeat that not only drove it from the battlefield but destroyed it as a fighting force. Postmaster General Reagan believed that the only way to stop Grant was “destroy him” and “move against him with all possible reinforcements.” [26]

Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war. This too was a misguided belief and Lee would come to understand that as his forces entered Maryland and Pennsylvania where there was no popular support for his invading army. In the meeting with the cabinet Postmaster-General Reagan, agreeing with General Beauregard warned that “the probability that the threatened danger to Washington would arouse again the whole of the Yankee nation to renewed efforts for the protection of their capital.” [27] Likewise, Stephens the fire breathing Vice President “wanted to negotiate for peace, and he foresaw rightly that Lee’s offensive would strengthen and not weaken the war party in the North….Stephens was strongly of the opinion that Lee should have remained on the defensive and detached a strong force to assist Johnston against Grant at Vicksburg.” [28]

Lee believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations. While the offensive did give a few months relief to these farmers it did not deliver them. Likewise Lee’s argument that he could not feed his army flies in the face of later actions where for the next two years the Army of Northern Virginia continued to subsist. Alan Nolan notes that if a raid for forage was a goal of the operation then “a raid by small, mobile forces rather than the entire army would have had considerably more promise and less risk.” [29] D. H. Hill in North Carolina wrote his wife: “Genl. Lee is venturing upon a very hazardous movement…and one that must be fruitless, if not disastrous.” [30]

Though Lee won permission to invade Pennsylvania, he did not get all that he desired. Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus of General D. H. Hill who commanded Confederate forces in the Carolinas towards Lee. The units included two of Pickett’s brigades which would be sorely missed on July third.

Likewise Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy, the conflict between the strategy of the offensive and that of the defensive. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might in the East. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however in the long term, the strategy of the offensive was unfeasible and counterproductive to Southern strategy. Lee’s offensive operations always cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men. His realism about that subject was shown after he began his offensive when he wrote Davis about how time was not on the side of the Confederacy. He wrote: “We should not therefore conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect…is steadily augmenting.” [31] Despite this, as well as knowing that in every offensive engagement, even in victory he was losing more men percentage wise than his opponent Lee persisted in the belief of the offensive.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like a Fredericksburg he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, a far higher percentage in every case than his Union opponents. In these battles the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Those victories may have won Lee “a towering reputation” but these victories “proved fleeting when measured against their dangerous diminution of southern white manpower.” [32] Lee recognized this in his correspondence but he did not alter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic point level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.” [33]

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. It was a long shot and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go north also exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered. Lee had to know from experience that even in victory “the Gettysburg campaign was bound to result in heavy Confederate casualties…limit his army’s capacity to maneuver…and to increase the risk of his being driven into a siege in the Richmond defenses.” [34] The fact that the campaign did exactly that demonstrates both the unsoundness of the campaign and is ironic, for Lee had repeatedly said in the lead up to the offensive in his meetings with Davis, Seddon and the cabinet that “a siege would be fatal to his army” [35] and “which must ultimately end in surrender.” [36]

Grand-strategy and national policy objectives must be the ultimate guide for operational decisions. “The art of employing military forces is obtaining the objects of war, to support the national policy of the government that raises the military forces.” [37] Using such criteria, despite his many victories Lee has to be judged as a failure as a military commander. Lee knew from his previous experience that his army would suffer heavy casualties. He understood that a victory over the Army of the Potomac deep in Northern territory could cost him dearly. He knew the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That decision was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.

 

[1] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.101 Fuller has a good discussion of the Anaconda strategy which I discussed in the chapter: Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the Campaign of 1863: The Relationship between Strategy, Operational Art and the DIME

[2] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.101

[3] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.629

[4] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.5

[5] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.34

[6] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.525

[7] Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana, 1957 p.193

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.429

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.429

[10] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.525

[11] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.241

[12] Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America originally published 1896, Amazon Kindle Edition location 4656

[13] Ibid. Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America location 4705

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

[15] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[16] 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.180.

[17] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.430

[18] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.528

[19] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.51

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[21] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[22] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.6

[23] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[24] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[25] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[26] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[27] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[28] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[29] Nolan, Alan T. R. 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.2

[30] Ibid. Sears. Gettysburg p.51

[31] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.134

[32] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.120

[33] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415

[34] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[35] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[36] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[37] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.4

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“A Spirit of Unbelief”: A.P. Hill, Harry Heth and the Prelude to the Battle of Gettysburg

Hill.28135413_stdLieutenant General A.P. Hill

Note: One of the most important things to understand about the Battle of Gettysburg or for that matter any battle or campaign is leadership as well as organizational structure and climate of command. The study of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps is important to understanding how the battle unfolds and what happens at Gettysburg particularly on July 1st. In our understanding “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.”

While the leaders at Gettysburg on both sides would be unaware of our present definition they certainly would have been acquainted with the maxims of Napoleon, who many studied under Dennis Hart Mahan at the West Point. Napoleon noted: “What are the conditions that make for the superiority of an army? Its internal organization, military habits in officers and men, the confidence of each in themselves; that is to say, bravery, patience, and all that is contained in the idea of moral means.”

Likewise in a maxim that has direct application to the Confederate campaign in Pennsylvania Napoleon noted “To operate upon lines remote from each other and without communications between them, is a fault which ordinarily occasions a second. The detached column has orders only for the first day. Its operations for the second day depend on what has happened to the main body. Thus according to circumstances, the column wastes its time in waiting for orders or it acts at random….” [1]

I have spent more time in this chapter developing the issues of organization, leadership, climate of command and relationships between leaders because of their importance to the campaign. From these students should be able to draw lessons that would be applicable to leadership, organization and campaigning at the operational level of war.

As the Army of Northern Virginia began to concentrate near Cashtown after the reports that the Army of the Potomac was in Maryland it was Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps that was nearest to Gettysburg. Major General Harry Heth’s division led the corps and arrived on June 29th followed by Major General Dorsey Pender’s division on the 30th. Hill ordered his last division under the command of Major General Richard Anderson to remain behind and join the corps on July 1st. [2]

On the 30th Harry Heth sent Johnston Pettigrew’s Brigade to Gettysburg to “search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and to return the same day.” [3] It was the first in a series of miscalculations that brought Lee’s army into a general engagement that he wished to avoid.

The Confederate Third Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill 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.

But that being said Hill was no stranger to controversy, beginning with a clash with James Longstreet during the Seven Days battles in which time Longstreet placed Hill under arrest and Hill challenged Longstreet to a duel. Lee quickly reassigned Hill to Jackson’s command as Jackson was operating in a semi-independent assignment. [4] Hill was in an intractable controversy with Stonewall Jackson for nearly a year until Jackson succumbed to his wounds. Jackson at one point during the invasion of Maryland prior to Antietam had Hill placed under arrest for the number of stragglers that he observed in Hill’s hard marching division as well as other errors that Jackson believed Hill had made. The dispute continued and the animosity deepened between the two men and in January 1863 Hill asked Lee for a trial by courts-martial on charges preferred against him by Jackson. Lee refused this and wrote to Hill: “Upon examining the charges in question, I am of the opinion that the interests of the service do not require that they be tried, and therefore, returned them to General Jackson with an indorsement to that effect….” [5] Just before Chancellorsville Jackson wrote to Lee “I respectfully request that Genl. Hill be relieved of duty in my Corps.” This time Lee simply ignored the request and though the two generals remained at loggerheads they also remained at their commands at Chancellorsville. [6]

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

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 and in garrison duty along the East Coast, spending 1855-1860 in the Coastal Survey and resigned his commission 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 a division in May 1862. 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; the most experienced being 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 strongly recommended Pender’s promotion which was accepted by Lee. Pender found the command 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, transferred from Longstreet’s First Corps, something else 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 he 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]

heth

Major General Harry Heth

Major General Harry Heth’s division was the final infantry division assigned to the corps. This division was recently formed 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.

Heth like 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, well connected politically who through his social charm had “many friends and bound new acquaintances to him” readily. [17] Heth was a West Point graduate who had an undistinguished academic career graduating 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’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. The brigade commanded by James Archer from Alabama and Mississippi was “well led and had a fine combat reputation.” But the second brigade was more problematic. A Virginia brigade it 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 and both he and the brigade performed well, but when Heth was promoted the lack of qualified officers left it under the command of its senior colonel, John Brockenbrough. [22] His third brigade came from Mississippi and North Carolina and was commanded by 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. [23] One author noted that Davis’s promotion to Brigadier General “as unadulterated an instance of nepotism as the record of the Confederacy offers.” [24] 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. [25]

pettigrew

Brigadier General Johnston Pettigrew

Heth’s largest brigade was new to the army. Commanded by the North Carolina academic Johnston Pettigrew it had no combat experience though Pettigrew was considered a strong leader, 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” [26] and was captured but later paroled and returned to the army 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.” [27] 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.” [28]

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. [29] 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.” [30]

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. [31] 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 a 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, [32] 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.” [33] 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.” [34] 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.” [35]

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. [36] “Heth did not think highly of such wariness” and “Hill agreed with Heth” [37] Hill believed that nothing was in Gettysburg “except possibly a cavalry vidette.” [38] 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.” [39] 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.” [40] 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” [41] If so it was a distain that would cost the Confederacy dearly in the days to come.

Pettigrew was “aghast at Hill’s nonchalant attitude” [42] and Young was dismayed and later recalled that “a spirit of unbelief” seemed to cloud their thinking. [43] In later years he wrote “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.” [44]

Heth then asked Hill since neither believed Pettigrew’s report “whether Hill would have any objection to taking his division to Gettysburg again to get those shoes. Hill replied “none in the world.” [45] Douglas Southall Freeman wrote “On those four words fate hung” [46] and then, in “that incautious spirit, Hill launched Harry Heth’s division down the Chambersburg Pike and into battle at Gettysburg.” [47]

Notes

[1] Napoleon Bonaparte, Military Maxims of Napoleon in Roots of Strategy: The Five Greatest Military Classics of All Time edited by Phillips, Thomas R Stackpole Books Mechanicsburg PA 1985 p.410

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

[3] Ibid. Coddinton, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 263

[4] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a NationKnopf, New York 1958 p.81

[5] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.460

[6] Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville A Mariner Book, Houghton and Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1996 p.51

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

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

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

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

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

[27] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.131

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

[29] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.136

[30] Ibid. Tredeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.129

[31] Ibid. Coddinton,. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 263

[32] 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.

[33] Ibid. Tredeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.130

[34] 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

[35] Ibid. Tredeau Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, p.135

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

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

[38] Pfanz Harry W. Gettysburg: The First Day University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.27

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

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

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

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

[43] Ibid. Coddinton, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 264

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

[45] Ibid. Coddinton, The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command p. 264

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

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

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The Gettysburg Campaign: Lee Decides to Go on the Offensive

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I am preparing to lead a Staff Ride of our students to Gettysburg in early March. As part of my preparation I am doing a lot of study to refresh myself on both the campaign and the battle, not only as an operational study, but at the strategic level. This short essay deals with Lee’s decision to invade the North following his victory at Chancellorsville. I will follow it up with other articles the next talking about the Northern strategy at both the strategic and operational levels.

In early May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and that Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond.

The strategic situation was bad, even if many Confederate politicians realized it or cared in the post Chancellorsville euphoria. In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut. If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas, while in Tennessee a Union Army was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy.

Some Confederate leaders realized the danger presented by Grant in the West. Secretary of War James Seddon recognized the danger in the Winter of 1862-1863 both suggested to Lee that he detach significant units to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it, he argued that the war would be won in the East. It was his view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had two goals three major goals, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation. Unfortunately no notes from that conference are known to survive.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief, instead he believed that his Army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative. Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it, unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war.  He also believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations.

However, the meeting evidently did not have all the results that Lee desired. Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus that existed between General D. H. Hill in the Carolinas towards Lee.

Likewise Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

However, Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however it was unfeasible and counterproductive to Southern strategy. His offensive operations cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like a Fredericksburg he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, and the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Lee recognized this as was evident in his correspondence but it did not deter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic point level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.”  (Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415 

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. It was a long shot and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go North also exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered.  Likewise he took the offensive in spite of the fact that many of his commanders were untested at the levels of command that they exercised. He had lost his right arm, General Stonewall Jackson, who died following being wounded at Gettysburg.

He knew from his previous battles the heavy casualties that even a victory over the Army of the Potomac would entail deep in Northern territory and the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam 17 September 1863

“Of all the days on all the fields where American soldiers have fought, the most terrible by almost any measure was September 17, 1862. The battle waged on that date, close by Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in western Maryland, took a human toll never exceeded on any other single day in the nation’s history. So intense and sustained was the violence, a man recalled, that for a moment in his mind’s eye the very landscape around him turned red.” Stephen W Sears

“I have heard of ‘the dead lying in heaps’, but never saw it till this battle. Whole ranks fell together.” Captain Emory Upton, 2nd U.S. Artillery, at Antietam

“We were in the very maelstrom of the battle. Men were falling every moment. The horrible noise was incessant and almost deafening. Except that my mind was absorbed in my duties, I do not know how I could have endured the strain.” Lt. Frederick L. Hitchcock, 132nd Pennsylvania, at Bloody Lane, Sept. 17, 1862

To the west of Frederick Maryland a small town named Sharpsburg sits on the west side of a creek. Named Antietam the creek’s headwaters are in Franklin County Pennsylvania and it meanders south where just to the south of Sharpsburg it empties into the Potomac River.

It is a peaceful place, rolling hills and agricultural country with some well preserved stone arch bridges, including one just outside of Sharpsburg. It is hard to believe that 150 years ago the town and the creek were the scene of the bloodiest single day of battle in American history.

On that indian summer day of 1862 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E Lee, commanding made a stand against the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding.

Lee had invaded Maryland following a string of successes in Northern Virginia during that summer of 1862, defeating McClellan outside of Richmond in the Seven Days, and in a campaign of maneuver bested a newly formed Army, the Union Army of Virginia commanded by Major General John Pope defeating it at the Second Battle of Bull Run between 28-30 August 1862. With Northern Virginia’s crops and livestock depleted and his opponents in crisis Lee moved his army north into Maryland. The decision was driven partly by the need to provision his army, but also had the hope of drawing Maryland away from the Union mistakenly believing that public sentiment in that state was pro-Confederate. If the people of Maryland rose up to support Lee it would be disastrous to the Union and endanger the capital itself. A final consideration was the hope that a Confederate victory on Northern soil would bring about the foreign recognition and possibly the intervention of Great Britain on the side of the Confederacy.

The Lost Order

Lee crossed the Potomac on September 3rd and sent his Second Corps west with some elements seizing the Union armory in Harper’s Ferry, others to secure the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Martinsburg the rest of the Army was in the area of Frederick. He was pursued by the very cautious McClellan at the head of the Army of the Potomac.

On September 9th Lee issued General Order 191, the infamous “lost order” which a copy of which was found by Union soldiers wrapped around three cigars at a campground recently occupied by Lee’s rear guard element, the division of D.H. Hill on September 13th. The order detailed the disposition of Lee’s army and McClellan seized the opportunity. On the 14th the Army of the Potomac attacked part of Lee’s army at the Battle of South Mountain. The Union won that battle forcing the outnumbered Confederate forces to withdraw, though the delay allowed Lee to concentrate more of his army at Sharpsburg on the 15th.

Although he outnumbered Lee McClellan believed the reports of the Pinkerton Detective Agency which provided intelligence to the army. Those estimates which credited Lee with more than 100,000 troops. He delayed his attack until he had drawn up his full army on the on the 17th.

When he did attack on the 17th his attacks were uncoordinated and though he came close to decisive breakthrough Lee’s army desperately clung to its positions. The action began to the north of the town in the morning and both sides showed incredible ferocity at the Cornfield, where in the space of about three hours nearly 8000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The fighting shifted to the center of the line opposite the town by mid-day. Amid the destructive storm of artillery the armies fought around the Dunker Church and a sunken lane now known as “Bloody Lane.” In the confines of that 800 yard stretch of road over 5000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the course of about four hours. The Union forces broke the Confederate line but reinforcements were not sent and when the the division commander, Major General Israel Richardson was mortally wounded the attack lost its verve and the Confederates under Lieutenant General James Longstreet were able to restore the line.

The south remained quiet as McClellan ordered Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps to hold off on attacking. Burnside did not receive his orders to attack until 1000. He finally attacked across the south bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge in the afternoon. It was another tough fight and Burnside, after several attempts move to the south to flank Confederate forces in the late afternoon with the intention of cutting Lee from off his only escape route.  The Confederates were in a desperate condition. It was at this point, about 3 PM when the division of Major General A.P. Hill arrived and immediately counterattacked breaking up Burnside’s attack. Burnside requested reinforcements from McClellan who refused saying that he had none available. This was not the case, McClellan had two full corps of infantry uncommitted to the battle but still believing that he was outnumbered and that Lee was attempting to trap him.

The actioned ended by 530 PM with both sides rested and reorganized for action the next day. Lee prepared to defend but no Union attack was offered on the 18th. An informal truce was observed to allow the evacuation of the wounded and Lee began his withdraw across the Potomac into Virginia that night. Despite being goaded by Lincoln to pursue McClellan did not and the Union lost the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army n Union territory.

Casualty estimates vary but according to Stephen W Sears in his book Landscape Turned Red that the Army of the Potomac lost 2108 dead, 9540 wounded and 753 missing. He states the best estimate of Confederate casualties are 1546 dead, 7752 wounded and 1018 missing. Most of the missing were likely killed and buried in mass graves or discovered and buried by civilians after the battle. In the space of 12 hours 22719 Americans were killed or wounded. It was the bloodiest single day in American military history.

Though the battle was inconclusive in that Lee’s army survived but had to break off its offensive it had more influence than expected. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd and though it did not take effect until January 1st 1863 it marked a turning point in the war.

McClellan failed to take up the offensive in the next tow months and Lincoln relieved him of command giving the Army of the Potomac to Burnside who goaded by Lincoln took the army into battle at Fredericksburg where it met with defeat.

I have been to the battlefield a number of times, once as part of a “staff ride” with the Marine battalion that I was assigned in May of 2000. Each time I go I take the time to ponder the great losses endured by both armies and the individual courage of the soldiers involved. Some of the units that I served with in the Army National Guard in Texas and Virginia trace their lineage and honors to regiments that fought at Antietam and I have felt a connection to the battle because of that. It is hard to imagine the amount of death and carnage taking place in such a placid location in such a short amount of time.

It is something to ponder when some Americans openly suggest another civil war if their party does not win the election.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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