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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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Hell at the Peach Orchard

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today is another visitation of the Battle of Gettysburg. This too is part of my Gettysburg text, and in the next couple of months I plan on revising, editing and adding to this section. However, since I have recently posted the more recent revisions to parts of that text I have I have tried to avoid repeating those and instead posting this. The Battle of the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den and the Wheat Field were some of the bloodiest and most confusing battles not only of July 2nd at Gettysburg, but of any during the Civil War. 

Though this is pretty much an unedited version of past work that I will be updating I do hope that you will find it interesting as well as informative.

Peace

Padre Steve+

12 pound napoleon

On July 2nd 1863 as on the first day of battle and throughout the Gettysburg campaign issues of command and control would be of paramount importance to both armies. On the second day the glaring deficiencies of Robert E Lee and his corps commanders command and control at Gettysburg would again be brought to the fore. Likewise the exemplary command of the Army of the Potomac by George Meade, Winfield Scott Hancock, staff artillery officer Henry Hunt and staff engineer Gouverneur Warren exemplified the best aspects of what we now define as Mission Command.

On the morning of July 2nd the Army of the Potomac was mostly assembled on the high ground from Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Hill and along Cemetery Ridge. In the north XII Corps under the command of Major General Henry Slocum held Culp’s Hill. The battered remnants of I and XI Corps under the command of Oliver Howard and Abner Doubleday held Cemetery Hill while Winfield Scott Hancock’s crack II Corps extended the line down Cemetery Ridge. To II Corps right was Dan Sickles’ III Corps with George Sykes V Corps in Reserve. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps was still enroute, marching up the Baltimore Pike.

corby

Father Corby gives General Absolution to the Irish Brigade on July 2nd 

It was a solid and well laid out position which commanded the battlefield. Major General Gouverneur Warren the Army’s Staff Engineer Officer who had been sent by Meade to assist Hancock the night of the first wrote his wife that morning: “we are now all in line of battle before the enemy in a position where we cannot be beaten but fear being turned.”[1]

There was one notable problem, Dan Sickles did not like the position assigned to his corps. His corps which joined the left flank of II Corps was to extend down Cemetery Ridge to Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. All morning he had been lobbying Meade, through Meade son and Aide-de-Camp Captain George Meade, the Artillery Reserve Commander Henry Hunt, Warren and even Meade himself to no avail. Sickles was disturbed because John Buford’s Cavalry division which has been deployed on the Federal left had been moved to the rear by Pleasanton the Cavalry Corps commander and not replaced.

GeneralBarksdale_zps3678f799

Hunt who had accompanied Sickles back to his corps pointed out that the position was too exposed and too expansive for the number of troops Sickles had in his corps. He advised Sickles not to advance and assured Sickles that he would discuss Sickles’ concerns with Meade. [2]

To remedy the situation he sent out four companies of Sharpshooters supported by the 3rd Maine Infantry to make a reconnaissance. Those troops ran into a large force of advancing Confederate Infantry near Seminary Ridge and withdrew, Colonel Brenden of the Sharpshooters informing Sickles of the Confederate advance.

sickles

Major General Dan Sickles 

Sickles now felt that the Union line was about to be turned as it had been at Chancellorsville and without consulting Meade or Hancock took it upon himself to save the situation. It was an act of brazen insubordination, but typical of the mercurial, vain and scandal plagued man who “wore notoriety like a cloak” and “whether he was drinking, fighting, wenching or plotting, he was always operating with the throttle wide open.”[3]

About mid-afternoon Sickles advanced III Corps forward in a “mile long line of battle with waving flags and rumbling batteries rolling west into the afternoon sunlight.” [4] The sight confused other commanders such as John Gibbon commanding a division in II Corps who watched in amazement from his vantage point on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles advanced nearly a mile in front of his previous position opening a gap between III Corps and II Corps. He attempted to hold a new line that was longer and more exposed than the number of troops that he had available. He placed Humphrey’s division along the Emmitsburg Road and extended Birney’s division through the Peach Orchard, a wheat field down to Devil’s Den where he ran out of troops.

Sickles had formed an exposed and vulnerable salient which was too thinly manned for its length. It was open to attack on three sides, had little depth, no reserves and no place to fall back to as an alternate position.[5] It was also about to be hit by the full fury and power of Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions of Longstreet’s First Corps supported by Alexander’s 46 well placed artillery pieces [6] all about to open fire on Sickles badly deployed corps.

About 3 PM Meade broke from a planned commander’s conference to investigate what had happened to Sickles and III Corps, accompanying Meade was Warren. Warren who was most familiar with that part of the battlefield noted that III Corps was “very badly disposed on that part of the field.” [7]

Confronting Sickles in the Peach Orchard Meade was visibly perturbed. Meade informed Sickles that “General I am afraid that you are too far out” [8] attempting to control his temper. Sickles disagreed and said with support he could hold the position because it was higher ground than what he had previously occupied. Meade then pointed out the obvious stating “General Sickles this is in some respects higher ground than that to the rear, but there is still higher in front of you…” [9] As the conversation progressed Meade told Sickles that “this is neutral ground, our guns command it as well as the enemy’s. The reason you cannot hold it applies to them.” [10]

Sickles offered to withdraw but as he did so the Confederate cannonade began signaling the beginning of Longstreet’s attack. Meade told Sickles “I wish to God you could [withdraw]…but those people will not permit it.”[11]Another account states that Meade told Sickles “You cannot hold this position but the enemy will not let you get away without a fight.” [12]

Since Sedgwick’s powerful VI Corps had just arrived Meade ordered it into reserve. He then ordered Sykes V Corps from its reserve position and one division of II Corps to support the dangerously exposed III Corps around the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field. He then told Sickles “if you need more artillery call on the reserve!” [13] It was an action that very likely saved the day, another example of Meade taking control of a bad situation preventing it from becoming even worse.

For Lee and Longstreet the morning had been spent disagreeing on a plan to crush Meade. Though his army was operating on exterior lines with his corps having no way to effectively coordinate their actions and still lacking Stuart’s Cavalry, Pickett’s Infantry division and Law’s brigade of Hood’s division Lee insisted that Longstreet and First Corps make a frontal attack on the Union left. Longstreet demurred and tried to convince Lee of turning the Union flank to the south of the Round Tops. Longstreet told Hood “The General is a little nervous this morning; he wishes me to attack; I do not wish to do so without Pickett. I never like to go into battle with one boot off.” [14]

Lee did not believe that such a move could succeed without the assistance of Stuart’s cavalry and Longstreet did not believe that with Pickett’s division that his corps had the combat power to successfully complete the mission. Hood objected to the attack pleading with Longstreet that it was “unwise to attack up the Emmitsburg Road, as ordered” and requested that he be allowed to “turn Round Top and attack the enemy flank and rear.” [15]

The debate between Longstreet and Hood continued as Hood objected and Longstreet reiterated Lee’s insistence on the planned attack. Hood pleaded for freedom of maneuver believing that an attack up the rocky hills was doomed and later noted “it seemed to me that the enemy occupied a position so strong- I may say impregnable – that independently of their flank fire, they could easily repulse our attack by merely throwing or rolling stones down the mountainside as we approached.” [16] Despite his objections to the plan Longstreet ordered Hood to attack as Lee planned and after a fourth attempt by Hood to persuade Longstreet to change the plan Longstreet told his subordinate “We must obey the orders of General Lee.” [17]

However in addition to his contention with Lee and Hood Longstreet had to deal with Lee jumping the chain of command. With Longstreet in earshot order McLaws to make an attack on the Peach Orchard and ignored McLaws repeated requests to make a further reconnaissance before launching the attack. By the time Hood and McLaws divisions were in place along with Anderson’s division from Hill’s Third Corps it was nearly four o’clock. The senior commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia had functioned poorly throughout the day but when the attack began it was like a violent storm as Confederate troops fell upon the exposed Federal III Corps.

When the attack was launched McLaws division and the left wing of Hood’s division struck the exposed positions of III Corps. Sickles was severely wounded by a bouncing cannon ball which shattered a leg and knocked him out of the fight. Hood too was badly wounded early in the action leaving command of his division to Brigadier General Evander Law. Law whose brigade had just arrived on the battlefield after a long march from New Guilford in the Cumberland Valley continued to command his own brigade in the assault leaving the rest of the division to fend for themselves and Robertson took the initiative to bring up the rest of the division. [18]

McLaws’ and Hood’s soldiers hit Sickles Corps hard shattering it. Despite fierce resistance from the Federal forces Sickles’ corps was forced to retreat. The reinforcements ordered to the sector from V Corps, II Corps and the artillery reserve arrived piecemeal and also sustained heavy casualties but eventually helped to stem the Confederate tide. III Corps was wrecked and effectively out of the battle but the actions of Meade, Hancock, Warren, Gibbon, Sykes and Hunt to respond to Sickles folly kept the Confederates from sweeping the field.

Law, Robertson’s and Benning’s brigades opened Hood’s attack toward Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Fierce fighting ensued at Devil’s Den where the Federal line, occupied by Colonel A. Van Horn Ellis’ 124th New York and 4 guns of Smith’s artillery battery put up a stiff resistance. Ellis’s small regiment numbered but 18 officers and 220 men when it entered the fight but it held off several charges of the Texans and even conducted a counter-attack before being overwhelmed by fresh troops from Benning’s brigade.

During the fight Ellis mounted his horse noting that “The men must see us today.” [19] Ellis died in the action as did many of his brave soldiers. In the valley between Devil’s Den and the Round Tops the 4th Maine and Smith’s 2 remaining guns fought large numbers of Hood’s troops and as the outnumbered Federals fell back the Texan’s of Robertson’s brigade and Law’s Alabamians surged toward the rocky hill.

Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade had distinguished itself at Fredericksburg now stormed the Federal positions. The Mississippians broke through the salient and drove forward driving broken Federal regiments and batteries before them. Barksdale continued to lead his brigade forward though it had suffered significant casualties and was losing cohesion. Barksdale insisted on continuing to advance and would not stop to take time to reform his lines shouting at one of his regimental commanders “No! Crowd them- we have them on the run. Move your regiments.” [20]

willard

George Willard 

As the brigade reached the lower portion of Cemetery Ridge a fresh Federal brigade commanded by Colonel George Willard struck the Mississippians. Willard’s brigade was seeking redemption having been one of the units forced to surrender at Harpers Ferry the previous September. His troops fresh and full of fight fell upon the Mississippians who were spent and disorganized having reached their culminating point. Barksdale continued to urge on his men but was mortally wounded and his troops driven back by the New Yorkers. Willard did not live long to savor the redemption as he was hit by a cannon ball and killed instantly.

To the north of the salient Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps attacked toward Cemetery Ridge meeting heavy resistance. Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade advanced unsupported up to Cemetery Ridge which due to the dispatch of troops to the Peach Orchard was only lightly defended. When Hancock saw the threat he ordered the 1st Minnesota commanded by Colonel William Covill, all of 262 men to charge the advancing Confederates telling Covill: “Colonel, do you see those colors?…Then take them.” [21] Between 170-178 of the Minnesotans fell in the counter-attack but they succeeded in blunting Wilcox’s attack and Wilcox seeing no help or support withdrew from Cemetery Ridge.

The First Minnesota

The Charge of Willard’s Brigade 

By the evening fresh Federal troops directed by Meade, Hancock and Hunt poured into the sector. By the end of the day despite sustaining massive casualties the Federal Army held its ground in large part thanks to the active role played by Meade, Hancock, Warren and Hunt in anticipating danger and bringing the appropriate forces to bear.

The fighting around the Peach Orchard, the Wheat field and Devil’s Den was confusing as units of both sides became mixed up and cohesion was lost. Both sides sustained heavy casualties but Lee’s Army could ill afford to sustain such heavy losses. By the end of the evening both McLaws and Hood’s divisions were spent having lost almost half of their troops as casualties. Hood was severely wounded early in the fight, and many other Confederate commanders were killed or mortally wounded including the irrepressible Barksdale. Combined with the repulse at Little Round Top the Confederate troops consolidated their positions.

In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” [22] To make matters worse Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2d “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” [23]

mcgilvery

Freeman McGilvery

This Fiery Line” Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvery and the Artillery at the Trostle Farm and Plum Run

The disaster that engulfed Sickles’ III Corps now threatened the Federal center. Meade and Hancock rushed reinforcements in the form of V Corps and much of II Corps. The tip of the Sickle’s salient at Sherfy’s Peach Orchard manned by Graham’s brigade of David Birney’s division was overwhelmed and retreated in disorder. Once “the angle had been breached, the lines connecting to it on the east and north were doomed.” [24] This exposed the left of Humphrey’s division and it too was forced to retreat under heavy pressure sustaining heavy casualties. The final collapse of Humphrey’s division a large gap opened in the Federal lines between the elements of V Corps fighting along Devil’s Den and Little Round Top and II Corps along the central portion of Cemetery Ridge.

When Meade realized the seriousness of the situation he gave Sickles’ free reign to call for reinforcements from Harry Hunt’s Artillery Reserve as III Corps had only batteries organic to it. Those five batteries were in the thick of the fighting providing invaluable support to Sickles’ hard pressed and outnumbered corps. Firing canister and grapeshot they cut swaths of death and destruction through the massed ranks of wildly cheering Confederates of Kershaw and Semmes and Barksdale’s brigades of McLaws’ division. Kershaw recalled:

“The Federals…opened on these doomed regiments a raking fire of grape and canister, at short distance, which proved most disastrous, and for a time destroyed their usefulness. Hundreds of the bravest and best men of Carolina fell….” [25]

The Confederates believed that they had cut the Union line in half and advanced through the Peach Orchard and across the Wheat Field toward Cemetery Ridge. But they were to befall another furiously conducted defense, this by artillery hastily collected along what is known as the Plum Run Line.

fig23

Among the artillery called into action was the First Volunteer Brigade under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Freeman McGilvery. McGilvery, a Maine native was a former sea captain who had organized and commanded the 6th Maine Battery at the beginning of the war. He commanded it with distinction in a number of engagements. Promoted to Major in early 1863 he assumed command of the Brigade and fought at Chancellorsville and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in June as the Army of the Potomac pursued Lee’s Army.

McGilvery rode into the maelstrom of the retreating III Corps soldiers and broken guns. His horse was hit four times but he remained unwounded despite “exposing himself to enemy missiles on all parts of the field from Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard.” [26] He noted that there was no infantry anywhere that could plug the gap and acted instantly on his own authority to make a decision that likely saved the Union line.

fig20

Bigelow’s Artillery

In the confusion of III Corps disintegration three of his batteries had withdrawn leaving Captain John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts battery alone at the Trostle farm telling them they must “hold at all hazards.” [27] Bigelow later explained that McGilvery said that “for 4 or 500 yards in my rear there were no Union troops.” He was then instructed by McGilvery “For heavens [sic] sake hold that line…until he could get some other batteries in position…” [28] In another account Bigelow recorded “Captain Bigelow…there is not an infantryman back of you along the whole line which Sickles moved out; you must remain where you are and hold your position at all hazards, and sacrifice your battery if need be, until at least I can find some batteries to put in position and cover you.” [29]

The order could have been considered suicidal; the 21st Mississippi was nearly upon them and they were but one battery and barely one hundred troops. Bigelow did not hesitate to obey; he brought his guns into line at the Trostle house “facing one section slightly to the southwest and the other two sections directly into the path of the oncoming Confederates.” [30]

barksdales_charge_lg

Barksdale’s Charge

Bigelow’s artillerymen fought like demons he described the effect of his fire on Kershaw’s South Carolinians “the Battery immediately enfiladed them with a rapid fire of canister, which tore through their ranks and sprinkled the field with their dead and wound, until they disappeared in the woods on our left, apparently a mob.” [31] They poured a merciless stream of fire into the advancing Confederates until “they had exhausted their supply of canister and the enemy began to close in on his flanks.” [32] A German born gunner noted “we mowed them down like grass, but they were thick and rushed up.” [33] A hand to hand fight ensued among the guns but the Massachusetts men escaped losing 28 of its 104 men engaged,[34] the brave commander Bigelow was wounded and nearly captured but one of his men helped him to the rear.

Their sacrifice was not in vain. They bought McGilvery an additional 30 minutes to set up a line of guns along Plum Run. Hunt praised the battery “As the battery had sacrificed itself for the safety of the line, its work is specially noticed as typical of the service that artillery is not infrequently called to render, and did render in other instances at Gettysburg besides this one.”[35]

Barksdale’s brigade did not pause and continued in their relentless advance towards Cemetery Ridge, sweeping Union stragglers up as they moved forward led by their irrepressible Colonel. Before them was McGilvery’s new line, hastily cobbled together from any batteries and guns that he could find. Initially composed of 13-15 guns of four different batteries he was joined by two more batteries giving him about 25 guns in all. Subjected to intense Confederate artillery fire and infantry attacks his guns held on even as their numbers were reduced until only six guns remained operational. “Expertly directed by McGilvery a few stouthearted artillerymen continued to blaze away and keep the low bushes in front of them clear of lurking sharpshooters. Although they had no infantry supports, they somehow managed to create the illusion that the woods to their rear were filled with them, and they closed the breach until the Union high command could bring up reinforcements.” [36]

The reinforcements came in the form of Colonel George Willard’s “Harper’s Ferry” Brigade which was looking for revenge and redemption. This unit hit Barksdale’s now disorganized force which had reached its cumulating point hard. Willard was killed and Barksdale mortally wounded and captured in the violent clash which spelled the end of one of the greatest threats to the Union line of the entire battle. Philip Tucker in his book Barksdale’s Charge: The True High Tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 refers to Barksdale’s charge as the real “high water mark of the Confederacy.”

However it was McGilvery who recognized the emergency confronting the line and on his own took responsibility to rectify the situation. He courageously risked “his career in assuming authority beyond his rank” [37] and without his quick action, courage under fire and expert direction of his guns Barksdale’s men might have completed the breakthrough that could have won the battle for General Lee despite all of the mistakes committed by his senior leaders that day.

It was another example of an officer who had the trust of his superiors who did the right thing at the right time. It is an example of an officer used the principles of what we today call Mission Command to decisively impact a battle. McGilvery rose higher in the Federal service and was promoted to Colonel and command of the artillery of X Corps. He was slightly wounded in a finger at the battle of Deep Bottom in August 1864. The wound did not heal properly so surgeon’s decided to amputate the finger. However they administered a lethal dose of chloroform anesthesia and he died on September 9th, the Union losing one its finest artillerymen. He was buried in his native Maine and the State legislature designated the first Saturday in September as Colonel Freeman McGilvery Day in 2001.

Notes

[1] Jordan, David M. Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana 2001 p.89

[2] Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 1963 p.495

[3] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 pp.150-151

[4] Ibid p.288

[5] Ibid. Foote p.496

[6] Ibid. p.289

[7] Ibid. Jordan p.90

[8] Ibid. Foote p.496

[9] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 p.251

[10] Sears, Stephen Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company Boston and New York 2004 p.263

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. Sears p.263

[13] Ibid. Foote p.497

[14] Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg the Second Day University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London, 1987 p.112

[15] Ibid. Foote p.499

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1968 pp.402-403

[19] Ibid. Pfanz p.293

[20] Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg a Testing of Courage Perennial Books, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.368

[21] Ibid. p.393

[22] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149

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

[24] Trudeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage Harper Collins, New York 2002 p.368

[25] Kershaw, J.B. Kershaw’s Brigade at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.335

[26] Coco, Gregory A A Concise Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg Colecraft Industries, Orrtanna PA 1998 p.31

[27] Hunt, Harry I Proceeded to Cemetery Hill in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Bradford, Ned editor, Meridian Books, New York 1956 p.378

[28] Guelzo, Allen C Gettysburg, The Last Invasion Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.314

[29] Ibid. Trudeau p.385

[30] Ibid.

[31] Bigelow, The Peach Orchard, 54; History of the Fifth, 638 retrieved from WE SAVED THE LINE FROM BEING BROKEN: Freeman McGilvery, John Bigelow, Charles Reed and the Battle of Gettysburg by Eric Campbell http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/gett/gettysburg_seminars/5/essay4.htm#52

[32] Coddington, Edwin. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command Touchstone Books, New York 1960 p.416

[33] Ibid. Guelzo pp.314-315

[34] Ibid Hunt p.379

[35] Ibid. Hunt. P.379

[36] Ibid. Coddington p.417.

[37] Ibid. Coddington.

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Councils of War at Gettysburg: Lee & Meade July 2nd 1863

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As I noted yesterday I returned from Gettysburg and another Staff Ride, and one of the questions that came up during some of our table talk, as well as on the battlefield was about the command decision process by which Robert E. Lee and George Gordon Meade and their subordinates planned, prepared and debated what to do on the night of July 2nd 1863, following the bloody, but unsuccessful attacks by Hood’s and McLaw’s Divisions at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field, Peach Orchard and Plum Run.

To provide that overview in one article I have encapsulated a number of chapters from my Gettysburg text into one article. The contrast between Lee’s decision to attack, his refusal to take counsel of dissenting voices and views of his subordinates stand in stark contrast to those of his opponent, George Gordon Meade, his subordinate commanders and staff. Their decisions shaped the outcome of the battle of Gettysburg, and were decisive in Lee’s defeat, and instrumental in the eventual defeat of the Confederacy, just under 21 months later.

I hope you enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Lee1

As night fell on July 2nd 1863 General Robert E Lee had already made his decision. Despite the setbacks of the day he was determined to strike the Army of the Potomac yet again. He did not view the events as setback, and though he lacked clarity of how badly many of his units were mauled Lee took no external council to make his decision. With the exception of A.P. Hill who came and submitted a report to him Lee neither required his other two corps commanders, James Longstreet or Richard Ewell to consult with him, nor took any action to visit them.

Lee did “not feel that his troops had been defeated” and he felt that “the failure on the second day had been due to a lack of coordination.”1

In his official report of the battle he wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

LongstreetJ_main

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

general-george-meade

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

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

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

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

Gettysburg_Council_of_War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we wait attack, how long?” 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Ibid. p.347

9 Ibid. p.430

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

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

13 Ibid. Sears p.349

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

15 Ibid. Foote p.531

16 Ibid. Wert p.287

17 Ibid. Freeman p.589

18 Ibid. Wert p.290

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

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

21 Ibid. p.342

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

23 Ibid.

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

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

26 Ibid. Sears p.342

27 Ibid. Trudeau p.413

28 Ibid. Sears p.342

29 Ibid. Trudeau p.415

30 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

31 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

32 Ibid. Sears p.343

33 Ibid. Sears p.343

34 Ibid. Trudeau p.415

35 Ibid. Guelzo p.556

36 Ibid. Foote p.525

37 Ibid. Guelzo

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

39 Ibid. p.452

40 Ibid. Foote p.525

41 Ibid. Trudeau p.345

 

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“If the Enemy is There Tomorrow, We Must Attack Him” Lee’s Decision to Continue his Attack and Failure to Appreciate Changing Technology

 

lee-and-longstreet-10709161246_9f5baf6452_o

One of the key issues that military leaders must face is how new and changing technology changes the shape of the battlefield and impacts operations at the tactical as well as the operational level. While some technological advances merely adjust how military organizations fight, others force military organizations to completely change the way they conduct war. Examples are found throughout history, but truly became more far reaching during the Civil War with their echoes redounding to the present day.

Those changes can include firepower, protection, mobility, communication and even the frontiers of war to what goes on underwater, in the air, in space and cyber-space. None of these advances are necessarily limited to how military professionals conduct war at any given time. In fact technological changes are often unwelcome by military professionals who have invested their professional lives and careers defending doctrinal traditions. Likewise those victimized by opponents who use new technology to their advantage sometimes accuse their opponents as being unfair, as if fairness counts in war.

The development of the rifled musket just prior to the Civil War and its widespread usage on the battlefield brought about change that most leaders were slow to appreciate, including Robert E. Lee. The fact was that the rifled musket changed war even when military tactics were still rooted in Napoleonic tactics, which were built around the weaponry commonly employed in 1800, the smoothbore flintlock musket, with an effect range of barely 100 yards and smoothbore artillery. The artillery, even when firing grapeshot and canister was superior in range, lethality and as a result dominated the offense. [1] Thus Napoleonic tactics emphasized the artillery as an assault weapon, placed in advance of the infantry, breaking up enemy formations and allowing the infantry to close with the enemy and finish him with the bayonet charge.

The advent of the rifled musket, use of percussion caps and the Minie’ ball bullet by necessity changed how war had to be fought. Rifles firing the Minie’ ball “had an effective range of at least 500 yards” [2] and the new weapons outranged both grapeshot and canister, putting artillerymen exposed to the long range rifle fire in more danger on the battlefield. Not only did they do this but they allowed the infantryman to increase his rate of fire.

Prior to this the limitations of the smoothbore flintlock musket necessitated that the infantry form in dense formations where their firepower could be concentrated. Dennis Hart Mahan was one of the first to recognize how this would change warfare and in 1847 advocated that close line and columns be “replaced by the regular infantry advancing in the loose order of skirmishers” and “take advantage of available cover and close by rushing within about 200 yards.” [3] Even so both armies, as well as their European counterparts were restrained by their continued adherence to “a body of tactical doctrine with long roots back to the 1790s,” the debate between the virtues of line and column formations. [4] The effectiveness of the new weapons was seen by American observers to the Crimean War and despite this both the Union and Confederate armies insisted on employing the old tactics in massed infantry attacks.

This was in part because many of the senior leaders had last experienced combat in the Mexican War, where both sides still used smoothbore muskets and in which frontal attacks and bayonet charges were used effectively. However, as Bruce Catton so well noted:

“the generals had been brought up wrong. The tradition they had learned was that of close order fighting in the open country, where men with bayonets bravely charged a line of men firing smoothbore muskets. That used to work well enough, because the range at which defenders could kill their assailants was very short….But the rifle came in and changed all of that. The range which charging men began to be killed was at least five times as great as it used to be, which meant about five times as many of the assailants were likely to be hit…A few men, like young Colonel Upton, sensed that new tactics were called for, but most could not quite get the idea.” [5]

Lee was one of them.

This new technology changed the battlefield, although many leaders were slow to appreciate who. “The artillery now had to fall back behind the infantry and became a support instead of an assault weapon.” [6] The new firepower available to the infantry “reduced artillery to the defense and forced cavalry to fight dismounted beside the infantry,” [7] something that had been show in its best form in John Buford’s defense of McPherson Ridge on the morning of July first. “The devastating increase in firepower doomed the open frontal assault and ushered in the entrenched battlefield.” [8]

Despite the plentiful evidence which showed that the defense now had the advantage, including his own experience at Malvern Hill and at Fredericksburg, Lee as well as his “right arm” Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were firm believers in the offense. In their vision of battle, the the close assault of infantry and the bayonet retained its Napoleonic prominence, in 1861 Jackson enunciated his tactical philosophy: “my opinion is that there should not be much firing at all. My idea is that the best mode of fighting is to reserve your fire until the enemy get- or until you get them- to close quarters. The deliver one deadly, deliberate fire- and charge [with the bayonet].” [9] In fact the more time that Lee worked with Jackson the more he became an adherent of the offense, requiring “large scale battles and large casualties” [10] in order to bring about a climactic victory that would secure Southern independence.

At Gettysburg, Lee was “counting on the fighting spirit- the élan, as it is called in the French army- of his officers and men to win the day.” [11] The war in Mexico had not prepared Lee for the advent of the rifle and its effect on the battlefield and despite the tactical preference for the bayonet, the use of that weapon proved rare in combat. Heroes Von Borcke, a Prussian who served under the command of Stuart wrote the “accounts of bayonet fights are current after every general engagement, and are frequently embodied in subsequent ‘histories,’ so called; but as my experience goes, bayonet-fights rarely occur, and exist only in the imagination.” [12] Russell Weigley noted that “bayonet and saber wounds combined accounted for only 922 of some 250,000 wounded treated in Union hospitals during the war.” [13] But as late as 1862 Jackson just before Second Manassas “urged the Light Division under attack to hold their fire and use their bayonets” while “Lee’s penchant for frontal attacks when flanking and enveloping maneuvers failed to secure the results he hoped for…suggests slowness on the part of this otherwise astute and even brilliant commander to appreciate the power of the new weaponry.” [14] However, that being said, in defense of Lee, Jackson and so many commanders of the Civil War, despite the predictions of Mahan 15 years prior, “had no precedent to guide them, for all intents and purposes this was a new weapon.” [15] However, that was before the war began and bitter experience and massive casualties had demonstrated the power of the new weapons, especially when used by troops in strong defensive positions.

At about 5 p.m. on July 1st Lieutenant General James Longstreet reached the battlefield ahead of his corps, the closest division being still six miles away from the battle. He joined Lee on Seminary Ridge and commenced to survey the battlefield for a period of about ten minutes. While the scene before him gave the appearance of Confederate victory, Longstreet thought otherwise and believed that the Federal troop’s position on Cemetery Hill and Ridge “was a strong one.” [16] However, Lee despite his initial hesitancy to engage the Federal army was now certain that he could follow up the success of the day, and if the Union forces which he had driven back to the hill were still there the next morning “he had plenty of fresh troops to move in behind them and finish them off.” [17] Lee believed, even without any true idea of where the rest of the Federal Army was that he would be able to defeat it in detail as each Union corps arrived on the field. But Lee had misjudged Meade’s response and the movement of the Army of the Potomac to Gettysburg, and instead of a part of that army, almost all of it would be in place on ground of Meade and his commanders choosing.

The actions of Lee and his “Old Warhorse” on Seminary Ridge are part of much of the myth of Gettysburg, and the cause of endless debate between Lee’s supporters and Longstreet’s detractors. After Longstreet surveyed the ground he was pleased. The battlefield appeared to be set up for what he believed was a repetition of the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, as he was under the assumption that Lee had promised to fight a defensive battle when contact was made. [18]

However, Longstreet was not aware of Lee’s though process on the march up. Lee had discussed the matter with Isaac Trimble on June 27th, before he discovered that Hooker had been relieved and was across the Potomac. Trimble recalled Lee’s words:

“Our army is in good spirits, not overly fatigued, and can be concentrated on any point in twenty-four hours or less….They will come up, probably through Frederick; broken down with hunger and hard marching, strung out on a long line and march demoralized, when they come into Pennsylvania. I shall throw an overwhelming force on their advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive on corps back and another, and by successive repulses and surprises before they can concentrate; create a panic and virtually destroy the army.” [19]

Trimble’s account of Lee’s state of mind is consistent with how Lee had conducted his operations over the previous year, Lee’s watchword in nearly every encounter with Union forces was “we must destroy this army” and the “aim of his maneuvers was always the battle of annihilation.” [20]

The only record of the conversation between the two men is that of Longstreet, written in his memoirs after years of being blamed by Lee’s supporters for the loss at Gettysburg. Without that knowledge and still under the impression, or “delusion” as Clifford Dowdey wrote, [21] that Lee had accepted his idea of fighting defensive battles in Pennsylvania. He “said that “he didn’t like the look of things, and he urged quite vehemently that the Confederates avoid any attack on the union position at Gettysburg.” [22] Longstreet commented: to Lee: “We could not call the enemy to position better suited to our plans. All we do is have do is to file around his left and secure good ground between him and his capital.” [23] Thus Longstreet was stunned by Lee’s impatience with the suggestion noting that Lee said “If he is there tomorrow I will attack him.” [24] Longstreet and Lee debated the matter for a while and Longstreet replied to Lee’s comment: “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we would attack him- a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.” [25]

That conversation has ignited a debate that continues today, but both Lee and Longstreet had sound arguments to support their positions, but both were hamstrung by the absolute lack of intelligence as to where the rest of the Federal army was and Meade’s intentions. Longstreet’s strategic and tactical concepts regarding employing the tactical defensive in the offense “grew out of an appreciation of the advantages Civil War military technology gave to the side having strong defensive positions.” [26] But the course of action that he suggested to Lee was vague and impractical, he did not specify at any time whether he meant a strategic sweeping move to the south or a shorter tactical move around the Round Tops, and “Lee rightly dismissed it at the time. Without Stuart’s cavalry he could not agree to a movement into the unknown.” [27]

Those that believe that if only Longstreet’s advice to move around the enemy was followed that the Confederates would have won a victory are mistaken. One of the key errors that many military history buffs make is that they assume that if one strategy failed and another had been suggested that the neglected course of action would have brought about victory. This is the case with those who assume that if only had lee followed Longstreet’s advice he would have won the battle. That neglects the understanding that the enemy too has a say in one’s plan. Several other factors have to be considered in this. First Meade had already prepared at strong position at Pipe Creek on the Maryland Pennsylvania border, this position was actually a stronger defensive position than Gettysburg. Likewise it neglects to account for the fact that any such maneuver would have exposed Lee’s army’s flank as it was strung out on the march in front of a now concentrated Federal army, and it ignores the logistics of the move deep in enemy territory without knowledge of the enemy’s positions. Additionally and possibly more important neither Lee nor Longstreet “had no idea where this “magic” good ground could be found, and no way to look for it until Stuart arrived with the cavalry.” [28]

But while rejecting Longstreet’s advice to move around the enemy what other choices did Robert E. Lee have on the evening of July 1st 1863? Lee obviously and with good reason rejected maneuver as a possibility, but there were other options, as Porter Alexander and others have noted. Freeman and others have discussed the concern that Lee had with forage, and his fear that if he remained in place that with supplies low that “the Federals could easily block the mountain passes and limit the area in which the Southern army could forage.” [29] But this need did “not require his renewal of the battle on July 1 any more than days following….” [30] Alexander noted that it was possible “for the Confederates to have abandoned Seminary Ridge on the night of July 1 or on July 2: “The onus of the attack was on Meade….we could have fallen back on Cashtown & held the mountain passes… & popular sentiment would have forced Meade to take the aggressive.” [31]

It seems that Lee’s decision to attack on July 2nd was mistaken, despite his appraisal that “A battle had, became in a measure unavoidable, and that the success already gained gave hope of a favorable issue.” [32] But Lee’s assertion is very much a matter of his framing life and actions in the context a nearly fatalistic understanding of Divine Providence and God’s will, it was not in accordance with the facts on the ground. Lee remarked “as soon as I order my army into battle, I leave my army in the hands of God…” [33] Porter Alexander later wrote “Not fully appreciating the strength of the enemy’s position, and mislead by the hope that a large fraction of the Federal Army was out of reach, Lee had determined to strike….” [34]

Lee elected to attack again, and even when he had the knowledge that most of the Federal army had come up he continued with his attack, committing his troops to fight an enemy who had strong defensive positions, high ground and interior lines from which they could shift troops and artillery to endangered sectors. Lee had taken heavy casualties on July 1st, three of the four divisions committed had been severely blooded and two division commanders wounded and he still did not have his entire army in position. As night settled on July 1st the only decision Lee had not made was where to make his attack.

Lee’s decision to attack, even when knowing the full Federal army was on the field was an exercise of both bad strategy, hubris and the refusal to acknowledge how the battlefield had changed with the advent of the rifled musket. It showed that even a great commander and a man associated with military genius was not infallible, despite the myth of the Lost Cause and its icon, General Robert E. Lee.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Notes

[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.104

[2] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.104

[3] Hagerman, Edward. The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare. Midland Book Editions, Indiana University Press. Bloomington IN. 1992 p.10

[4] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.38

[5] Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox Doubleday and Company Garden City, New York 1953 pp.154-155

[6] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.104

[7] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare. p.xii

[8] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare. p.xi

[9] Weigley, Russell F. American Strategy from its Beginnings to the First World War in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age edited by a Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey, 1986 p.428

[10] Weigley, Russell F. American Strategyp.426

[11] Korda, Michael Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Books, New York 2014 p.593

[12] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana 1957 p.48

[13] Ibid. Weigley American Strategy p.428

[14] Ibid. Weigley American Strategy p.428

[15] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee p.48

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.559

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.215

[18] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 pp.574-575

[19] Thomas, Emory Robert E. Lee W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1995 pp.293-294

[20] Ibid. Weigley American Strategy p.427

[21] 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 p.169

[22] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.360

[23] Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in Americaoriginally published 1896, Amazon Kindle Edition loc. 5059

[24] Ibid. Longstreet From Manassas to Appomattox loc. 5059

[25] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.234

[26] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.360

[27] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.258

 

[28] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.561

[29] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.575

[30] 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.24

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

[32] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.575

[33] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee p.112

[34] Alexander, Edward Porter Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative 1907 republished 2013 by Pickle Partners Publishing, Amazon Kindle Edition loc. 7517

 

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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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Gettysburg Day Two: The Peach Orchard, Wheat Field and Devil’s Den

barksdales_charge_lg

“Mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders. Successful mission command demands that subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative, acting aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission. Essential to mission command is the thorough knowledge and understanding of the commander’s intent at every level of command.” From the Mission Command White Paper and JP 3-31

As on the first day of battle and throughout the Gettysburg campaign issues of command and control would be of paramount importance. On the second day the glaring deficiencies of Robert E Lee and his corps commanders command and control at Gettysburg would again be brought to the fore while the exemplary command of the Army of the Potomac by George Meade, Winfield Scott Hancock, staff artillery officer Henry Hunt and staff engineer Gouverneur Warren exemplified the best aspects of what we now define as Mission Command.

On the morning of July 2nd the Army of the Potomac was mostly assembled on the high ground from Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Hill and along Cemetery Ridge. In the north XII Corps under the command of Major General Henry Slocum held Culp’s Hill. The battered remnants of I and XI Corps under the command of Oliver Howard and Abner Doubleday held Cemetery Hill while Winfield Scott Hancock’s crack II Corps extended the line down Cemetery Ridge. To II Corps right was Dan Sickles’ III Corps with George Sykes V Corps in Reserve. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps was still enroute, marching up the Baltimore Pike.

It was a solid and well laid out position which commanded the battlefield. Major General Gouverneur Warren the Army’s Staff Engineer Officer who had been sent by Meade to assist Hancock the night of the first wrote his wife that morning: “we are now all in line of battle before the enemy in a position where we cannot be beaten but fear being turned.” (1)

sicklesMajor General Dan Sickles

There was one notable problem, Dan Sickles did not like the position assigned to his corps. His corps which joined the left flank of II Corps was to extend down Cemetery Ridge to Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. All morning he had been lobbying Meade, through Meade son and Aide-de-Camp Captain George Meade, the Artillery Reserve Commander Henry Hunt, Warren and even Meade himself to no avail. Sickles was disturbed because John Buford’s Cavalry division which has been deployed on the Federal left had been moved to the rear by Pleasanton the Cavalry Corps commander and not replaced.

Hunt who had accompanied Sickles back to his corps pointed out that the position was too exposed and too expansive for the number of troops Sickles had in his corps. He advised Sickles not to advance and assured Sickles that he would discuss Sickles’ concerns with Meade. (2)

To remedy the situation he sent out four companies of Sharpshooters supported by the 3rd Maine Infantry to make a reconnaissance. Those troops ran into a large force of advancing Confederate Infantry near Seminary Ridge and withdrew, Colonel Brenden of the Sharpshooters informing Sickles of the Confederate advance.

Sickles now felt that the Union line was about to be turned as it had been at Chancellorsville and without consulting Meade or Hancock took it upon himself to save the situation. It was an act of brazen insubordination, but typical of the mercurial, vain and scandal plagued man who “wore notoriety like a cloak” and “whether he was drinking, fighting, wenching or plotting, he was always operating with the throttle wide open.” (3)

About mid-afternoon Sickles advanced III Corps forward in a “mile long line of battle with waving flags and rumbling batteries rolling west into the afternoon sunlight.” (4) The sight confused other commanders such as John Gibbon commanding a division in II Corps who watched in amazement from his vantage point on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles advanced nearly a mile in front of his previous position opening a gap between III Corps and II Corps. He attempted to hold a new line that was longer and more exposed than the number of troops that he had available. He placed Humphrey’s division along the Emmitsburg Road and extended Birney’s division through the Peach Orchard, a wheat field down to Devil’s Den where he ran out of troops.

gettysburg-peach-orchard

Sickles had formed an exposed and vulnerable salient which was too thinly manned for its length. It was open to attack on three sides, had little depth, no reserves and no place to fall back to as an alternate position. (5) It was also about to be hit by the full fury and power of Hood’s and McLaws’ divisions of Longstreet’s First Corps supported by 46 well placed artillery pieces (6) all about to open fire on Sickles badly deployed corps.

About 3 PM Meade broke from a planned commander’s conference to investigate what had happened to Sickles and III Corps, accompanying Meade was Warren. Warren who was most familiar with that part of the battlefield noted that III Corps was “very badly disposed on that part of the field.”7

Confronting Sickles in the Peach Orchard Meade was visibly perturbed. Meade informed Sickles that “General I am afraid that you are too far out” (8) attempting to control his temper. Sickles disagreed and said with support he could hold the position because it was higher ground than what he had previously occupied. Meade then pointed out the obvious stating “General Sickles this is in some respects higher ground than that to the rear, but there is still higher in front of you…” (9) As the conversation progressed Meade told Sickles that “this is neutral ground, our guns command it as well as the enemy’s. The reason you cannot hold it applies to them.”(10)

Sickles offered to withdraw but as he did so the Confederate cannonade began signaling the beginning of Longstreet’s attack. Meade told Sickles “I wish to God you could [withdraw]…but those people will not permit it.” (11) Another account states that Meade told Sickles “You cannot hold this position but the enemy will not let you get away without a fight.”(12)

Since Sedgwick’s powerful VI Corps had just arrived Meade ordered it into reserve. He then ordered Sykes V Corps from its reserve position and one division of II Corps to support the dangerously exposed III Corps around the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field. He then told Sickles “if you need more artillery call on the reserve!” (13) It was an action that very likely saved the day, another example of Meade taking control of a bad situation preventing it from becoming even worse.

For Lee and Longstreet the morning had been spent disagreeing on a plan to crush Meade. Though his army was operating on exterior lines with his corps having no way to effectively coordinate their actions and still lacking Stuart’s Cavalry, Pickett’s Infantry division and Law’s brigade of Hood’s division Lee insisted that Longstreet and First Corps make a frontal attack on the Union left. Longstreet demurred and tried to convince Lee of turning the Union flank to the south of the Round Tops. Longstreet told Hood “The General is a little nervous this morning; he wishes me to attack; I do not wish to do so without Pickett. I never like to go into battle with one boot off.” (14)

Lee did not believe that such a move could succeed without the assistance of Stuart’s cavalry and Longstreet did not believe that with Pickett’s division that his corps had the combat power to successfully complete the mission. Hood objected to the attack pleading with Longstreet that it was “unwise to attack up the Emmitsburg Road, as ordered” and requested that he be allowed to “turn Round Top and attack the enemy flank and rear.”(15)

HD_hoodJB1Major General John Bell Hood

The debate between Longstreet and Hood continued as Hood objected and Longstreet reiterated Lee’s insistence on the planned attack. Hood pleaded for freedom of maneuver believing that an attack up the rocky hills was doomed and later noted “it seemed to me that the enemy occupied a position so strong- I may say impregnable – that independently of their flank fire, they could easily repulse our attack by merely throwing or rolling stones down the mountainside as we approached.”(16) Despite his objections to the plan Longstreet ordered Hood to attack as Lee planned and after a fourth attempt by Hood to persuade Longstreet to change the plan Longstreet told his subordinate “We must obey the orders of General Lee.” (17)

However in addition to his contention with Lee and Hood Longstreet had to deal with Lee jumping the chain of command. With Longstreet in earshot order McLaws to make an attack on the Peach Orchard and ignored McLaws repeated requests to make a further reconnaissance before launching the attack. By the time Hood and McLaws divisions were in place along with Anderson’s division from Hill’s Third Corps it was nearly four o’clock. The senior commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia had functioned poorly throughout the day but when the attack began it was like a violent storm as Confederate troops fell upon the exposed Federal III Corps.

mclawsMajor General Lafayette McLaws

When the attack was launched McLaws division and the left wing of Hood’s division struck the exposed positions of III Corps. Sickles was severely wounded by a bouncing cannon ball which shattered a leg knocking him out of the fight, Hood too was badly wounded early in the action leaving command of his division to Brigadier General Evander Law, whose brigade had just arrived on the battlefield after a long march from New Guilford in the Cumberland Valley. Though now in command Law continued to command his own brigade in the assault and Robertson took the initiative to bring up the rest of the division. (18)

McLaws and Hood’s soldiers hit Sickles Corps hard shattering it. Despite fierce resistance from the Federal forces Sickles’ corps was forced to retreat. The reinforcements ordered to the sector from V Corps, II Corps and the artillery reserve arrived piecemeal and also sustained heavy casualties but eventually helped to stem the Confederate tide. III Corps was wrecked and effectively out of the battle but the actions of Meade, Hancock, Warren, Gibbon, Sykes and Hunt to respond to Sickles folly kept the Confederates from sweeping the field.

fig33

Law, Robertson’s and Benning’s brigades opened Hood’s attack toward Devil’s Den and Little Round Top.
Fierce fighting ensued at Devil’s Den where the Federal line, occupied by Colonel A. Van Horn Ellis’ 124th New York and 4 guns of Smith’s artillery battery put up a stiff resistance. Ellis’s small regiment numbered but 18 officers and 220 men when it entered the fight but it held off several charges of the Texans and even conducted a counter-attack before being overwhelmed by fresh troop’s from Benning’s brigade. During the fight Ellis mounted his horse noting that “The men must see us today.”(19) Ellis died in the action as did many of his brave soldiers. In the valley between Devil’s Den and the Round Tops the 4th Maine and Smith’s 2 remaining guns fought large numbers of Hood’s troops and as the outnumbered Federals fell back the Texan’s of Robertson’s brigade and Law’s Alabamians surged toward the rocky hill.

Col. Van Horne Ellis, 124th N.Y. InfColonel Augustus Van Horn Ellis

Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade which had distinguished itself at Fredericksburg stormed the Federal positions breaking through the salient and driving forward. He led his brigade forward though it had suffered significant casualties and was losing cohesion. Barksdale insisted on continuing to the advance and not taking time to reform his lines shouting at one of his regimental commanders “No! Crowd them- we have them on the run. Move your regiments.” (20 )

GeneralBarksdale_zps3678f799willardBarksdale and Willard (below)

As the brigade reached the lower portion of Cemetery Ridge a fresh Federal brigade commanded by Colonel George Willard struck the Mississippians. Willard’s brigade was seeking redemption having been one of the units forced to surrender at Harpers Ferry the previous September. His troops fresh and full of fight fell upon the Mississippians who were spent and disorganized having reached their culminating point. Barksdale continued to urge on his men but was mortally wounded and his troops driven back by the New Yorkers. Willard did not live long to savor the redemption as he was hit by a cannon ball and killed instantly.

The First MinnesotaFirst Minnesota attacks Wilcox’s Brigade

To the north of the salient Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps attacked toward Cemetery Ridge meeting heavy resistance. Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade advanced unsupported up to Cemetery Ridge which due to the dispatch of troops to the Peach Orchard was only lightly defended. When Hancock saw the threat he ordered the 1st Minnesota commanded by Colonel William Covill, all of 262 men to charge the advancing Confederates telling Covill: “Colonel, do you see those colors?…Then take them.” 21 Between 170-178 of the Minnesotans fell in the counter-attack but they succeeded in blunting Wilcox’s attack and Wilcox seeing no help or support withdrew from Cemetery Ridge.

By the evening fresh Federal troops directed by Meade, Hancock and Hunt poured into the sector. By the end of the day despite sustaining massive casualties the Federal Army held its ground in large part thanks to the active role played by Meade, Hancock, Warren and Hunt in anticipating danger and bringing the appropriate forces to bear.

The fighting around the Peach Orchard, the Wheat field and Devil’s Den was confusing as units of both sides became mixed up and cohesion was lost. Both sides sustained heavy casualties but Lee’s Army could ill afford to sustain such heavy losses. By the end of the evening both McLaws and Hood’s divisions were spent having lost almost half of their troops as casualties. Hood was severely wounded early in the fight, and many other Confederate commanders were killed or mortally wounded including the irrepressible Barksdale. Combined with the repulse at Little Round Top the Confederate troops consolidated their positions.

In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” (22) To make matters worse Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2d “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” (23)

Until the next installment,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Jordan, David M. Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana 2001 p.89

2 Foote, Shelby The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York 1963 p.495 

3 Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 pp.150-151

4 Ibid p.288 

5 Ibid. Foote p.496

6 Ibid. p.289

7 Ibid. Jordan p.90 

8 Ibid. Foote p.496

9 Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 p.251

10 Sears, Stephen Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company Boston and New York 2004 p.263

11 Ibid. 

12 Ibid. Sears p.263

13 Ibid. Foote p.497

14 Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg the Second Day University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London, 1987 p.112 

15 Ibid. Foote p.499

16 Ibid. 

17 Ibid.

18 Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign a Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1968 pp.402-403

19 Ibid. Pfanz p.293

20 Truedeau, Noah Andre Gettysburg a Testing of Courage Perennial Books, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.368

21 Ibid. p.393

22 Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149

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

 

 

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