“General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I commit one he will make haste to take advantage of it.” Robert E Lee June 28th 1863
The choosing of the place to give battle, at any level of war, but particularly at the operational level is always of the utmost importance and has been so from time immemorial. Despite advances in technology terrain and weather are major factors that a commander or staff must consider in terms of their courses of action. Knowing the terrain features as well as the infrastructure such as road networks that they are operating on allows commanders to choose courses of action which accentuate their strengths and expose their opponent’s weaknesses. To understand this is a key part of Course of Action (COA) development, Operational Art and Operational Design as well as analyzing Centers of Gravity, especially in determining decisive points.
While the commanders at Gettysburg did not use such terminology, they did understand the effects of terrain and weather, friction and the importance of occupying “good ground.” Our understanding of these concepts can help us draw from the actions of the commanders at Gettysburg lessons that we can employ today, despite the vast changes in technology and expansion of the battlefield.
As he looked at the dispositions of the Confederate army on June 30th George Gordon Meade “felt he had move his forces in such a way as to challenge the enemy advance while at the same time protecting Washington and Baltimore.” 1 To do this he decided to concentrate the Army of the Potomac along what is known as the Pipe Creek line, a line along Parr’s Ridge just behind Pipe Creek to the south of Meade’s Taneytown headquarters. As an engineer Meade recognized the The decision was made because he realized that his advance had caused Lee’s army to abandon its threatening movement toward Harrisburg and the Susquehanna and was concentrating in the general area of Cashtown, South Mountain and possibly advancing toward Gettysburg.
The Pipe Creek line offered Meade a number of advantages; “it covered his own supply line and blocked the direct route to Baltimore.” 2 The positions of his intrenched army there would be “almost impossible to storm by frontal attack” 3 as well as allow his army to concentrate quickly. By placing himself in that position Meade believed that it would force Lee to attack him on good ground of his own choosing, offer him the chance to attack should Lee divide his forces, or by allowing Lee to exhaust his forage and supplies to withdraw from Pennsylvania without giving battle. Meade’s intention at Pipe Creek was to fight the “kind of battle he was to fight at Gettysburg.” 4
However Meade’s carefully laid plan became a victim of circumstances as events progressed during the evening of June 30th and morning of July 1st. When Reynolds was told by Buford that contact had been made and the Confederates were advancing on Gettysburg he brought I Corps and XI Corps up as quickly as he could and issued orders for III Corps under Sickles to join them at Gettysburg.
About 1130 a.m. Meade received word from John Reynolds’ aide Captain Stephen Weld that Reynolds had engaged the enemy at Gettysburg and had not received Meade’s Pipe Creek circular, which jeopardized his plan. Meade, having not known that Reynolds was not acting on his latest plan had assumed that Reynolds was conducting a temporary holding action at Gettysburg, but at 1 p.m. he was given the message that “Reynolds was dead or severely wounded and that Otis Howard was in command on the field.” 5 At this point Meade wasted no time and appointed Winfield Scott Hancock to go to Gettysburg and take charge of the situation, not trusting Howard’s abilities and instructed him “If you think the ground and position there are a better one to fight under existing circumstances, you will so advise the General, and he will order his troops up.” 6 He placed John Gibbon in command of II Corps and because he was concerned that Lee might cut off the embattled I Corps and XI Corps.
It was at this point that Meade decided to abandon his Pipe Creek plan and even before getting Hancock’s report, issued orders to his Corps commanders. At about 4:30 p.m. Meade ordered Sedgwick and his VI Corps up to Taneytown and put Slocum’s XII Corps and Sykes V Corps on the road to “move up to Gettysburg at once.” 7
Throughout the afternoon Meade kept his wits and “may have restrained a natural impulse to rush to the battleground and take over control of affairs himself.” 8 After the battle some criticized Meade for this, but it was from a perspective of command, and what we now call Mission Command did the right thing. He stayed at his headquarters to better control the movements and communicate with all his forces, which he could not have done had he rushed to the front, and instead “delegated authority to a highly competent subordinate, while he himself stayed close to the center of operations at army headquarters.” 9
Had Meade done what many commanders might have done in his position, and moved to the battle he might not have been able to do the more important job of ensuring the in a moment of crisis that his subordinate commanders received his orders and moved their units where they were needed. In fact any delay of getting the Union forces to Gettysburg could have been fatal to his army and allowed Lee to gain the advantage and possibly defeat his forces in detail. Likewise if Hancock arrived and found that the position could not be held, Meade would still be in position to ensure that the Pipe Creek position could be held.
The man he appointed in his stead, Hancock was someone that was not only capable but someone that “was a man who he knew and could trust,” 10 and who despite being junior to Howard, Slocum and Sickles was able to diplomatically handle the awkwardness of the situation. After Hancock arrived on the field he took in the tactical situation and judged it “the strongest position by nature on which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” 11
Howard objected to Hancock taking charge of the battlefield due to seniority, and although Howard had selected the position, demurred to Howard and said “and if it meets your approbation I will select this as the battlefield.” After Howard concurred Hancock announced “Very well, sir. I select this as the battlefield.” 12 While Howard could make the claim that he actually selected the ground of where to fight by emplacing Steinwehr’s division on the Hill as a reserve and withdrawing the battered remnants of I Corps and XI Corps to it during the afternoon, it was Hancock that “organized the all-round defense of the position.” 13 After consulting with Howard and directing Slocum’s XII Corps to occupy Culp’s Hill Hancock sent his aide Major William Mitchell to tell Meade that the position “could not well be taken.” 14 He had III Corps extend the line down Cemetery Ridge and directed his own II Corps to protect the flank in case Lee attempted to turn the Federal left. Upon Slocum’s arrival Hancock relinquished command and rode to Taneytown to personally brief Meade on the situation.
When Meade received word that from Hancock that he believed that “Gettysburg could maintain itself until dark” he dispatched a message to Hancock and Doubleday “It seems to me that we have so concentrated that a battle at Gettysburg is now forced upon us.” 15 Meade then sent a dispatch to Henry Halleck in Washington: “A.P. Hill and Ewell are certainly concentrating…Longstreet’s whereabouts I do not know. If he is not up tomorrow, I hope with the force I have concentrated to defeat Hill and Ewell; at any rate I see no other course that to hazard a general battle.” 16 He added “Circumstances during the night may alter this decision, of which I will try to advise you.” 17 Upon sending out his final orders directing all units to Gettysburg he had his headquarters strike its tents and equipment and begin to move to Gettysburg, being briefed by Hancock before he set off at 10 p.m.
Meade arrived on the field about midnight to the surreal scene of soldiers of the I Corps and XI Corps encamped on the grounds of the cemetery, many exhausted and asleep having thrown back the last Confederate attacks, and met Slocum, who had taken charge when Hancock went back to brief Meade, as well as Howard, his artillery chief Henry Hunt and chief engineer, Gouverneur Warren, Dan Sickles of III Corps his and by Hancock when that weary general arrived back from Taneytown.
Howard was anxious due to the disaster that had befallen his Corps, but Meade assured him that he was not assigning any blame. He then asked their opinions about the position. Howard declared “I am confident that we can hold this position.” He was joined by Slocum who noted “It is good for defense,” and Sickles added “It is a good place to fight from.”
Meade was satisfied with their conclusions and replied: “I am glad to hear you say so, gentlemen for it is too late to leave it.” 18
Meade then began a thorough inspection of his lines, the placement of his forces and disposition of his artillery, which he directed Hunt “to see that the artillery was properly posted.” 19 An engineer officer made a sketch of the position, and “Meade used to indicate where he wanted to post his troops” 20 and he had copies made and “sent to the corps commanders.” 21 After consulting with Slocum about the position on Culp’s Hill, and the “practicability of attacking the enemy in that quarter.” Slocum indicated that it was excellent for defense but “not favorable for attack,” 22 Warren added his “his doubts about attacking across ground that was sullied and uneven” 23 and Meade gave up the option of taking the offensive there, which he had considered to do when Sedgwick arrived with VI Corps later in the day. He and Warren also directed XII Corps to construct “breastworks and abatis” on the peaks of Culp’s Hill,” 24 a measure that would prove to be of decisive importance on the night of July 2nd and morning of July 3rd. He also moved V Corps into a reserve position behind Cemetery Hill on the Baltimore Pike, and used his command authority to replace Doubleday, who he did not feel able enough to command a Corps, who had been in acting command of I Corps since the death of Reynolds’ with Brigadier General John Newton who commanded a division in Sedgwick’s V Corps, earning himself Doubleday’s undying enmity.
About 3 a.m. still unsure of Lee’s intent Meade wrote Halleck informing him that the army “was in a strong position for the defensive” and though hoped to attack had considered all possibilities, and attempted to prepare for anything, even Lee attempting to move around his flank to interpose himself between Meade and Washington, exactly as Longstreet had recommended to Lee. If that occurred he told Halleck that he would “fall back to my supplies at Westminster….” 25 (the Pipe Creek line).
Meade made his headquarters at the Liester House behind Cemetery Ridge where he continued planning. Meade’s headquarters offered him a central position from which he could easily reach any position on the battlefield and speed communications with his commanders. The position he had taken was strong, with his Corps all occupying good ground and positions being continuously improved and reinforced as more troops arrived. To the north XII Corps occupied a very strong position on Culp’s Hill while I Corps and XI Corps occupied Cemetery Hill. II Corps now occupied the central area of Cemetery Ridge with Sickles III Corps extend that line south toward the Round Tops. V Corps was in reserve and cavalry was posted to cover each flank. Sedgwick’s VI Corps was nearing Gettysburg and expect to arrive in the afternoon after completing a 36 mile forced march from Manchester Maryland. His army occupied interior lines allowing rapid reinforcements to any threatened area. It was as strong as a position as could be imagined.
After sunrise Meade met Carl Schurz, who had so ably helped maintain XI Corps on July 1st and whose troops occupied the northern face of Cemetery Hill. Schurz observed that though Meade “looked careworn and tired, as though he had not slept the night before-probably because he hadn’t” but that “his mind was evidently absorbed by a hard problem. But this simple, cold, serious soldier with his business-like air did inspire confidence….” 26
As Schurz watched Meade survey the Federal defenses he asked how many soldiers Meade expected to have on hand. Meade told him that he expected about 95,000. 27 Meade then told Schurz: “Well, we may fight it out here just as well as anywhere else” and then rode off. 28
During the night of July 1st Meade did what Lee failed to do. Lee failed to control his units or commanders, while Meade maintained control of his units, ensured that his commanders understood his intent and replaced ones that he felt unable to do what was needed. Lee conducted no reconnaissance of any importance, the only attempt sending his staff engineer to look around Little Round Top, a task that he failed in, while Meade and his subordinates made a thorough reconnaissance of their lines and fortified them. Lee, in an almost fatalistic manner did no real contingency planning, leaving things to the elan’ of his troops and the Providence of God, but Meade planned for contingencies that Lee might attempt, even the possibility that Lee might do what Longstreet so strongly advocated.
In the end Meade did almost everything that a commander could do to ensure that his army not only was in position to succeed in the tactical and operational levels, but also through his contact with his superiors linked his operations to larger strategic considerations.
1 Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.118
2 Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York p.150
3 Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York 1968 p.239
4 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.239
5 Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.188
6 Huntington, Tom Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2013 p.154
7 Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.159
8 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.323 9 Ibid Coddington. The Gettysburg Campaign p.323
10 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.158
11 Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life University of Indiana Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1988 p.84
12 Foote, Shelby The Civil War a Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.48313 Ibid. Foote The Civil War a Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.483
14 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.321
15 Ibid. Trudeau pp.264-265
16 Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.241
17 Ibid. Trudeau p.265
18 Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Meade p. 159
19 Hunt, Henry J. The Second Day 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 Books Secaucus New Jersey p.293
20 Ibid. Huntington. p.15921 Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.330
22 Ibid. Foote The Civil War a Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.494
23 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.228
24 Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.228
25 Ibid. Foote The Civil War a Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian p.464
26 Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Meade p.160
27 An overestimate based on unit reports, which included many troops not present for duty, or able to perform their duties. He actually had about 83,000-85,000 on the field during the battle.
28 Ibid. Huntington Searching for George Meade p.160