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“A Day of Jubilee, A Day of Rejoicing for the Faithful” July 4th 1863

gburg retreat

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I will continue on with a section of my Gettysburg text that coincides with Independence Day. The victory at Gettysburg combined with the capture of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg the same day was a decisive defeat for the Rebels. Grants capture of the Vicksburg Garrison on Meade’s defeat of Lee at Gettysburg took nearly 60,000 Confederate troops out of the war. While Lee’s Army fought on, Grant’s victory cut the Confederacy in two and opened the door to the campaign of Sherman in Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas the following year. It became known as “The Most Glorious Fourth.” From that time on the Confederacy was doomed. 

It is a day still fully worth celebrating, unless you are an unreconstructed Secessionist, Confederate Nationalist, or White Supremacist. In which case you don’t have my sympathy. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

A Union soldier, Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery) wrote of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg:

“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty of them in all shapes on the field – Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up I could show more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Life…” 

Long after the Battle Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine in its defense of Little Round Top said:

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” [2]

The ground may have been consecrated by the blood of the men who fell there, and like Chamberlain whenever I visit the hallowed ground of Gettysburg I have a sense that the spirits of those men still linger.

“The day after the battle began muggy and cloudy, and there was a tremendous rainstorm” [3] as the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac licked their wounds on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield on July 4th 1863. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting and around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreet’s’ Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was now broken by heavy rain and wind. The commanders of both armies, General Robert E Lee and Major General George Mead attempted to discern the others intent while making their own plans.

Early in the morning, or rather very late the night of July 3rd, General Robert E. Lee called Brigadier General John Imboden, to his headquarters to discuss the withdraw of the Army of Northern Virginia from the place of its defeat. Lee had spent the evening of July 3rd with Longstreet they “rode together along the lines on Seminary Ridge and conferred with other generals.” [4]

When Lee arrived to meet Imboden the brigadier felt the need to say something and said to Lee: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” [5] Lee waited some time before replying mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day for us” [6]and then praised the conduct of Pickett’s men saying “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy.” He continued and lamented what he believed to be the lack of support from the rest of the army, then paused and “exclaimed in a voice that echoed loudly and grimly through the night, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!” [7] It was a strange thing to say, and showed his inability to comprehend the strength and tenacity of his opponent on that final day of battle, and just how his own decisions, including the fact that “he had denied Hill’s permission to throw his whole corps into the assault,” [8] contributed to his defeat.

Lee realized, that unless “he could somehow entice Meade into counterattacking along his Seminary Ridge line, he must get the army back to Virginia with all speed. There was only enough ammunition for one battle, if that…and lee had to consider that Meade might aggressively seek to cut the routes south to the Potomac.” [9] Thus he wasted little time in preparing the army for its return. Lee “chose his routes, decided on the order of march, and then, despite the lateness of the hour and his bone-deep weariness after three days of failure and frustration, went in person to make certain that his plans were understood by the responsible commanders.” [10] He felt, if not in his words, but in his actions, that he had been failed by his subordinates. He was now aware that the method of command he had employed so successfully with Stonewall Jackson had failed, and in “the task of saving his army, he trusted no one with any discretion at all.” [11] Unlike “the vague and discretionary orders he had issued throughout the week leading up to battle and even during the past three days of fighting…his instructions were now written and precise….” [12] Meade explained “that he had not wanted to follow “the bad example [Lee] had set me, in ruining himself attacking a strong position.” [13] In not attacking Meade was probably correct, despite the criticism he received from contemporaries and later commentators. Lee’s army, though defeated was not broken and held good ground on July 4th, likewise the lack of supplies, exhaustion of his troops and foul weather would likely have doomed any attack. Instead he told a cavalry officer “We have done well enough…” [14]

About 1:00 P.M. on the 4th Imboden’s troopers escorting the ambulance trains carrying the wounded began to withdraw. As they did “a steady, pounding rain increased Imboden’s problems manifold, yet by 4 o’clock that afternoon he had the journey under way. He estimated this “vast procession of misery” stretched for seventeen miles. It bore between 8,000 and 8,500 wounded men, many in constant, almost unendurable agony as they jolted over the rough and rutted roads.” [15] Although beaten, the Lee’s army “retained confidence in itself and its commander” [16] and they retreated in good order.

Across the carnage strewn battlefield on Cemetery Ridge George Meade took inventory and “unsure about the nature and extent of Lee’s movements from information he had already received, he realized he had a busy day ahead.” [17] The army, tired from three weeks of hard marching and three days of brutal combat was exhausted; Meade’s was down to about “51,000 men armed and equipped for duty.” About 15,000 were loose from the ranks, and though they would return “for the moment they were lost.” [18] The at times torrential rain “was a damper on enthusiasms,” and the Federal burial parties, exhausted from the battle and engaged in somber work, “dug long trenches and, after separating Rebel from Yankee, without ceremony piled the bodies several layers deep and threw dirt over them.” [19]

Meade ordered his trains to bring the supplies from Westminster Maryland on the morning of the 4th as Federal patrols pushed into the town to see what Lee’s army was doing, but apart from isolated skirmishing and sniper actions the day was quiet. During the afternoon, “David Birney summoned the band of the 114th Pennsylvania “to play in honor of the National Anniversary” and up on the “line of battle.” They played the usual “national airs, finishing with the Star Spangled Banner.” [20] As they did a Confederate artillery shell passed over them, and with that last shot the battle of Gettysburg was over. Meade, signaling the beginning of an overly cautious pursuit, wired Halleck: “I shall require some time to get up supplies, ammunition, etc. [and to] rest the army, worn out by hard marches and three days hard fighting.” [21]

Surgeons and their assistants manned open air hospitals while parties of stretcher bearers evacuated wounded men for treatment and other soldiers began to identify and bury the dead.  A Confederate soldier described the scene west of the town on July 4th:

“The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.” [22]

00844v-lc_confederate-graves-on-rose-farm_detail

Confederate Dead 

Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ulysses S Grant which cut the Confederacy in half. It was a fitting day of remembrance as it was the 87th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the significance was not lost on any of the commanders. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg had eliminated a Confederate army of over 43,000 troops, and William Tecumseh Sherman wired his friend a most appropriate message: “This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing for the faithful.”[23]

Lieutenant Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island wrote:

“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before. This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken artillery lay on every side.” [24]

As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost his chance of trapping the Confederate Army before it could escape across the rain swollen Potomac River.  Lee completed his withdraw under pressure on the 14th and his rear-guard under the command of Major General Harry Heth fought an action against Union forces at the in which the accomplished academic and author Brigadier General James Pettigrew was mortally wounded.

Meade’s lackluster pursuit was criticized by many including President Lincoln who believed that had Meade been more aggressive that the war could have ended there. Had Lee’s army been destroyed in little over a week after the surrender of Vicksburg it could have well brought about the downfall of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863.  Even so the skill of Meade in defeating Lee at Gettysburg was one of the greatest achievements by a Union commander during the war in the East.  In earlier times Lee had held sway over his Federal opponents. McClellan, Porter, Pope, Burnside and Hooker had all failed against Lee and his army.

Many of the dead at Gettysburg were the flower of the nation. Intelligent, thoughtful and passionate they were cut down in their prime. The human cost some of over 50,000 men killed or wounded is astonishing. In those three days more Americans were killed or wounded than in the entire Iraq campaign.

The war would go on for almost two more years adding many thousands more dead and wounded. However the Union victory at Gettysburg was decisive. Never again did Lee go on the offensive and when Grant came east at the end of 1863 to command Union armies in the East against Lee the Federal armies fought with renewed ferocity and once engaged Grant never let Lee’s forces out of their grip.

Notes

[1] Corbin, Elbert. Union soldier in Pettit’s Battery account of caring for wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-03685.pdf 18 July 2014

[2] Primono, John W. The Appomattox Generals: The Parallel Lives of Joshua L Chamberlain, USA, and John B. Gordon, CSA, Commanders at the Surrender Ceremony of April 12th 1865 McFarland and Company Publishers, Jefferson NC 2013 p.187

[3] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.322

[4] Wert, Jeffry DGeneral James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.293

[5] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.530

[6] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.341

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.341

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p. 581

[9] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.470

[10] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.579-580

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

[12] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.580

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.663

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.663

[15] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg pp.471-472

[16] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.536

[17] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign p.535

[18] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.323

[19] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg p.474

[20] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 pp.433-434

[21] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 pp.355-356

[22] _________ What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead? The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, retrieved from http://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/what-happened-to-gettysburgs-confederate-dead/ 18 July 2014

[23] Ibid. Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth p.364

[24] Rhodes, Robert Hunt ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Vintage Civil War Library, Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1985 p.109

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“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday Celebrated in Such a Way Before?” July 4th 1863 at Gettysburg

gburg retreat

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A Union soldier, Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery) wrote of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg:

“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty of them in all shapes on the field – Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up I could show more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Life…” 

Long after the Battle Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine in its defense of Little Round Top said:

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” [2]

The ground may have been consecrated by the blood of the men who fell there, and like Chamberlain whenever I visit the hallowed ground of Gettysburg I have a sense that the spirits of those men still linger.

“The day after the battle began muggy and cloudy, and there was a tremendous rainstorm” [3] as the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac licked their wounds on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield on July 4th 1863. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting and around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreet’s’ Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was now broken by heavy rain and wind. The commanders of both armies, General Robert E Lee and Major General George Mead attempted to discern the others intent while making their own plans.

Early in the morning, or rather very late the night of July 3rd, General Robert E. Lee called Brigadier General John Imboden, to his headquarters to discuss the withdraw of the Army of Northern Virginia from the place of its defeat. Lee had spent the evening of July 3rd with Longstreet they “rode together along the lines on Seminary Ridge and conferred with other generals.” [4]

When Lee arrived to meet Imboden the brigadier felt the need to say something and said to Lee: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” [5] Lee waited some time before replying mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day for us” [6]and then praised the conduct of Pickett’s men saying “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy.” He continued and lamented what he believed to be the lack of support from the rest of the army, then paused and “exclaimed in a voice that echoed loudly and grimly through the night, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!” [7] It was a strange thing to say, and showed his inability to comprehend the strength and tenacity of his opponent on that final day of battle, and just how his own decisions, including the fact that “he had denied Hill’s permission to throw his whole corps into the assault,” [8] contributed to his defeat.

Lee realized, that unless “he could somehow entice Meade into counterattacking along his Seminary Ridge line, he must get the army back to Virginia with all speed. There was only enough ammunition for one battle, if that…and lee had to consider that Meade might aggressively seek to cut the routes south to the Potomac.” [9] Thus he wasted little time in preparing the army for its return. Lee “chose his routes, decided on the order of march, and then, despite the lateness of the hour and his bone-deep weariness after three days of failure and frustration, went in person to make certain that his plans were understood by the responsible commanders.” [10] He felt, if not in his words, but in his actions, that he had been failed by his subordinates. He was now aware that the method of command he had employed so successfully with Stonewall Jackson had failed, and in “the task of saving his army, he trusted no one with any discretion at all.” [11] Unlike “the vague and discretionary orders he had issued throughout the week leading up to battle and even during the past three days of fighting…his instructions were now written and precise….” [12] Meade explained “that he had not wanted to follow “the bad example [Lee] had set me, in ruining himself attacking a strong position.” [13] In not attacking Meade was probably correct, despite the criticism he received from contemporaries and later commentators. Lee’s army, though defeated was not broken and held good ground on July 4th, likewise the lack of supplies, exhaustion of his troops and foul weather would likely have doomed any attack. Instead he told a cavalry officer “We have done well enough…” [14]

About 1:00 P.M. on the 4th Imboden’s troopers escorting the ambulance trains carrying the wounded began to withdraw. As they did “a steady, pounding rain increased Imboden’s problems manifold, yet by 4 o’clock that afternoon he had the journey under way. He estimated this “vast procession of misery” stretched for seventeen miles. It bore between 8,000 and 8,500 wounded men, many in constant, almost unendurable agony as they jolted over the rough and rutted roads.” [15] Although beaten, the Lee’s army “retained confidence in itself and its commander” [16] and they retreated in good order.

Across the carnage strewn battlefield on Cemetery Ridge George Meade took inventory and “unsure about the nature and extent of Lee’s movements from information he had already received, he realized he had a busy day ahead.” [17] The army, tired from three weeks of hard marching and three days of brutal combat was exhausted; Meade’s was down to about “51,000 men armed and equipped for duty.” About 15,000 were loose from the ranks, and though they would return “for the moment they were lost.” [18] The at times torrential rain “was a damper on enthusiasms,” and the Federal burial parties, exhausted from the battle and engaged in somber work, “dug long trenches and, after separating Rebel from Yankee, without ceremony piled the bodies several layers deep and threw dirt over them.” [19]

Meade ordered his trains to bring the supplies from Westminster Maryland on the morning of the 4th as Federal patrols pushed into the town to see what Lee’s army was doing, but apart from isolated skirmishing and sniper actions the day was quiet. During the afternoon, “David Birney summoned the band of the 114th Pennsylvania “to play in honor of the National Anniversary” and up on the “line of battle.” They played the usual “national airs, finishing with the Star Spangled Banner.” [20] As they did a Confederate artillery shell passed over them, and with that last shot the battle of Gettysburg was over. Meade, signaling the beginning of an overly cautious pursuit, wired Halleck: “I shall require some time to get up supplies, ammunition, etc. [and to] rest the army, worn out by hard marches and three days hard fighting.” [21]

Surgeons and their assistants manned open air hospitals while parties of stretcher bearers evacuated wounded men for treatment and other soldiers began to identify and bury the dead.  A Confederate soldier described the scene west of the town on July 4th:

“The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.” [22]

00844v-lc_confederate-graves-on-rose-farm_detail

Confederate Dead 

Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ulysses S Grant which cut the Confederacy in half. It was a fitting day of remembrance as it was the 87th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the significance was not lost on any of the commanders. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg had eliminated a Confederate army of over 43,000 troops, and William Tecumseh Sherman wired his friend a most appropriate message: “This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing for the faithful.”[23]

Lieutenant Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island wrote:

“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before. This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken artillery lay on every side.” [24]

As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost his chance of trapping the Confederate Army before it could escape across the rain swollen Potomac River.  Lee completed his withdraw under pressure on the 14th and his rear-guard under the command of Major General Harry Heth fought an action against Union forces at the in which the accomplished academic and author Brigadier General James Pettigrew was mortally wounded.

Meade’s lackluster pursuit was criticized by many including President Lincoln who believed that had Meade been more aggressive that the war could have ended there. Had Lee’s army been destroyed in little over a week after the surrender of Vicksburg it could have well brought about the downfall of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863.  Even so the skill of Meade in defeating Lee at Gettysburg was one of the greatest achievements by a Union commander during the war in the East.  In earlier times Lee had held sway over his Federal opponents. McClellan, Porter, Pope, Burnside and Hooker had all failed against Lee and his army.

Many of the dead at Gettysburg were the flower of the nation. Intelligent, thoughtful and passionate they were cut down in their prime. The human cost some of over 50,000 men killed or wounded is astonishing. In those three days more Americans were killed or wounded than in the entire Iraq campaign.

The war would go on for almost two more years adding many thousands more dead and wounded. However the Union victory at Gettysburg was decisive. Never again did Lee go on the offensive and when Grant came east at the end of 1863 to command Union armies in the East against Lee the Federal armies fought with renewed ferocity and once engaged Grant never let Lee’s forces out of their grip.

Notes

[1] Corbin, Elbert. Union soldier in Pettit’s Battery account of caring for wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-03685.pdf 18 July 2014

[2] Primono, John W. The Appomattox Generals: The Parallel Lives of Joshua L Chamberlain, USA, and John B. Gordon, CSA, Commanders at the Surrender Ceremony of April 12th 1865 McFarland and Company Publishers, Jefferson NC 2013 p.187

[3] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.322

 

[4] Wert, Jeffry DGeneral James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.293

[5] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.530

[6] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.341

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.341

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p. 581

[9] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.470

[10] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.579-580

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

[12] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.580

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.663

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.663

[15] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg pp.471-472

[16] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.536

[17] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign p.535

[18] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.323

[19] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg p.474

[20] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 pp.433-434

[21] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 pp.355-356

[22] _________ What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead? The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, retrieved from http://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/what-happened-to-gettysburgs-confederate-dead/ 18 July 2014

[23] Ibid. Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth p.364

[24] Rhodes, Robert Hunt ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Vintage Civil War Library, Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1985 p.109

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Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

We Have Done Well Enough: July 4th at Gettysburg

gburg retreat

“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty of them in all shapes on the field – Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up I could show more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Life…” Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery) [1]

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” [2]

“The day after the battle began muggy and cloudy, and there was a tremendous rainstorm” [3] as the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac licked their wounds on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield on July 4th 1863. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting and around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreet’s’ Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was now broken by heavy rain and wind. The commanders of both armies, General Robert E Lee and Major General George Mead attempted to discern the others intent while making their own plans.

Early in the morning, or rather very late the night of July 3rd, General Robert E. Lee called Brigadier General John Imboden, to his headquarters to discuss the withdraw of the Army of Northern Virginia from the place of its defeat. Lee had spent the evening of July 3rd with Longstreet they “rode together along the lines on Seminary Ridge and conferred with other generals.” [4]

When Lee arrived to meet Imboden the brigadier felt the need to say something and said to Lee: “General, this has been a hard day on you.” [5] Lee waited some time before replying mournfully, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day for us” [6]and then praised the conduct of Pickett’s men saying “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today in that grand charge upon the enemy.” He continued and lamented what he believed to be the lack of support from the rest of the army, then paused and “exclaimed in a voice that echoed loudly and grimly through the night, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!” [7] It was a strange thing to say, and showed his inability to comprehend the strength and tenacity of his opponent on that final day of battle, and just how his own decisions, including the fact that “he had denied Hill’s permission to throw his whole corps into the assault,” [8] contributed to his defeat.

Lee realized, that unless “he could somehow entice Meade into counterattacking along his Seminary Ridge line, he must get the army back to Virginia with all speed. There was only enough ammunition for one battle, if that…and lee had to consider that Meade might aggressively seek to cut the routes south to the Potomac.” [9] Thus he wasted little time in preparing the army for its return. Lee “chose his routes, decided on the order of march, and then, despite the lateness of the hour and his bone-deep weariness after three days of failure and frustration, went in person to make certain that his plans were understood by the responsible commanders.” [10] He felt, if not in his words, but in his actions, that he had been failed by his subordinates. He was now aware that the method of command he had employed so successfully with Stonewall Jackson had failed, and in “the task of saving his army, he trusted no one with any discretion at all.” [11] Unlike “the vague and discretionary orders he had issued throughout the week leading up to battle and even during the past three days of fighting…his instructions were now written and precise….” [12] Meade explained “that he had not wanted to follow “the bad example [Lee] had set me, in ruining himself attacking a strong position.” [13] In not attacking Meade was probably correct, despite the criticism he received from contemporaries and later commentators. Lee’s army, though defeated was not broken and held good ground on July 4th, likewise the lack of supplies, exhaustion of his troops and foul weather would likely have doomed any attack. Instead he told a cavalry officer “We have done well enough…” [14]

About 1:00 P.M. on the 4th Imboden’s troopers escorting the ambulance trains carrying the wounded began to withdraw. As they did “a steady, pounding rain increased Imboden’s problems manifold, yet by 4 o’clock that afternoon he had the journey under way. He estimated this “vast procession of misery” stretched for seventeen miles. It bore between 8,000 and 8,500 wounded men, many in constant, almost unendurable agony as they jolted over the rough and rutted roads.” [15] Although beaten, the Lee’s army “retained confidence in itself and its commander” [16] and they retreated in good order.

Across the carnage strewn battlefield on Cemetery Ridge George Meade took inventory and “unsure about the nature and extent of Lee’s movements from information he had already received, he realized he had a busy day ahead.” [17] The army, tired from three weeks of hard marching and three days of brutal combat was exhausted; Meade’s was down to about “51,000 men armed and equipped for duty.” About 15,000 were loose from the ranks, and though they would return “for the moment they were lost.” [18] The at times torrential rain “was a damper on enthusiasms,” and the Federal burial parties, exhausted from the battle and engaged in somber work, “dug long trenches and, after separating Rebel from Yankee, without ceremony piled the bodies several layers deep and threw dirt over them.” [19]

Meade ordered his trains to bring the supplies from Westminster Maryland on the morning of the 4th as Federal patrols pushed into the town to see what Lee’s army was doing, but apart from isolated skirmishing and sniper actions the day was quite. During the afternoon, “David Birney summoned the band of the 114th Pennsylvania “to play in honor of the National Anniversary” and up on the “line of battle.” They played the usual “national airs, finishing with the Star Spangled Banner.” [20] As they did a Confederate artillery shell passed over them, and with that last shot the battle of Gettysburg was over. Meade, signaling the beginning of an overly cautious pursuit, wired Halleck: “I shall require some time to get up supplies, ammunition, etc. [and to] rest the army, worn out by hard marches and three days hard fighting.” [21]

Surgeons and their assistants manned open air hospitals while parties of stretcher bearers evacuated wounded men for treatment and other soldiers began to identify and bury the dead.  A Confederate soldier described the scene west of the town on July 4th:

“The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.” [22]

Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ulysses S Grant which cut the Confederacy in half. It was a fitting day of remembrance as it was the 87th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the significance was not lost on any of the commanders. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg had eliminated a Confederate army of over 43,000 troops, and William Tecumseh Sherman wired his friend a most appropriate message: “This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing for the faithful.” [23]

Lieutenant Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island wrote:

“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before. This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken artillery lay on every side.” [24]

As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost his chance of trapping the Confederate Army before it could escape across the rain swollen Potomac River.  Lee completed his withdraw under pressure on the 14th and his rear-guard under the command of Major General Harry Heth fought an action against Union forces at the in which the accomplished academic and author Brigadier General James Pettigrew was mortally wounded.

Meade’s lackluster pursuit was criticized by many including President Lincoln who believed that had Meade been more aggressive that the war could have ended there. Had Lee’s army been destroyed in little over a week after the surrender of Vicksburg it could have well brought about the downfall of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863.  Even so the skill of Meade in defeating Lee at Gettysburg was one of the greatest achievements by a Union commander during the war in the East.  In earlier times Lee had held sway over his Federal opponents. McClellan, Porter, Pope, Burnside and Hooker had all failed against Lee and his army.

Many of the dead at Gettysburg were the flower of the nation. Intelligent, thoughtful and passionate they were cut down in their prime. The human cost some of over 50,000 men killed or wounded is astonishing. In those three days more Americans were killed or wounded than in the entire Iraq campaign.

The war would go on for almost two more years adding many thousands more dead and wounded. However the Union victory at Gettysburg was decisive. Never again did Lee go on the offensive and when Grant came east at the end of 1863 to command Union armies in the East against Lee the Federal armies fought with renewed ferocity and once engaged Grant never let Lee’s forces out of their grip.

[1] Corbin, Elbert. Union soldier in Pettit’s Battery account of caring for wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-03685.pdf 18 July 2014

[2] Primono, John W. The Appomattox Generals: The Parallel Lives of Joshua L Chamberlain, USA, and John B. Gordon, CSA, Commanders at the Surrender Ceremony of April 12th 1865 McFarland and Company Publishers, Jefferson NC 2013 p.187

[3] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.322

 

[4] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.293

[5] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.530

[6] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.341

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.341

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p. 581

[9] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.470

[10] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two pp.579-580

[11] 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

[12] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.580

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.663

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.663

[15] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg pp.471-472

[16] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.536

[17] Ibid. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign p.535

[18] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.323

[19] Ibid, Sears Gettysburg p.474

[20] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 pp.433-434

[21] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 pp.355-356

[22] _________ What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead? The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, retrieved from http://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/what-happened-to-gettysburgs-confederate-dead/ 18 July 2014

[23] Ibid. Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth p.364

[24] Rhodes, Robert Hunt ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Vintage Civil War Library, Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1985 p.109

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

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

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

davis and cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

[3] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.54

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

[5] Nolan, Alan T. R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.9

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 pp.20-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[29] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.180.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[48] Ibid. Sears. Gettysburg p.51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jefferson_davis_and_his_cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.180.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[29] Nolan, Alan T. R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.2

[30] Ibid. Sears. Gettysburg p.51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gettysburg Campaign: Lee Moves North, the Battle of Brandy Station, Stuart’s Ride and the Relief of Fighting Joe Hooker

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Lee with his Commanders at Williamsport 

Note: This is another of my preparations for for the Gettysburg Staff Ride that I will be conducting with students from the Staff College that I teach. 

On June 3rd 1863 Robert E Lee began to move his units west, away from Fredericksburg to begin his campaign to take the war to the North. He began his exfiltration moving Second Corps under Richard Ewell and First Corps under James Longstreet west. Initially he left A.P. Hill’s Third Corps at Fredericksburg to guard against any sudden advance by Hooker’s Army of the Potomac toward Richmond.

Once it was ascertained that Hooker was not making for Richmond, Hill’s Corps followed and on June 7th all three Corps were reunited at Culpepper. Lee’s movement did not go unnoticed, Hooker’s aerial observers detected the move, but Hooker after throwing pontoon bridges across the river and discovering that Hill’s troops were firmly entrenched made no move to pursue. He asked permission to advance on Richmond but was order not to cross the river, lest his army be exposed and destroyed by a thrust at its rear

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General J.E.B. Stuart 

Meanwhile, J.E.B. Stuart and his Cavalry Corps had been at Brandy Station near Culpepper for two weeks. On the 5th Stuart staged a grand review of five of his brigades which included a mock charge against the guns of his horse artillery. According to witnesses it was a spectacular event, so realist that during the final charge some women fainted.

As Lee made his move Hooker attempted to ascertain Lee’s intentions. With Lee moving west he asked Lincoln for permission to advance on Richmond, which was denied. Lincoln did not believe that Hooker could take Richmond and believed that if he did it would leave the logistics train of Army of the Potomac as well as Washington exposed to Lee.

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Major General Joseph Hooker 

Hooker believed that Stuart’s intent was to disrupt his logistics and communications. He ordered his Cavalry Corps Commander, Major General Alfred Pleasanton to attack Stuart.  On June 9th Pleasanton’s forces, now reorganized under three aggressive division commanders, John Buford, David Gregg and Judson Kilpatrick and reinforced by two brigades of infantry surprised Stuart at Brandy Station.

Cav Fight at Brandy Station

The resultant action was the largest cavalry engagement of the war. Over 20,000 troopers engaged in an inconclusive see-saw battle that lasted most of the day. Stuart claimed victory as he maintained control of the battlefield and inflicted more casualties than his forces incurred.  But the battle was more significant than the number of casualties inflicted or who controlled the battlefield at the end of the day. For the first time Stuart had been surprised by an aggressively led Union Cavalry force.  The Union troopers fought a stubborn and fierce battle and retired in good order. Stuart did not appreciate it but the battle was a watershed, it ended the previous dominance of the Confederate Cavalry arm. It was something that in less than a years’ time would cost him his life.

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The Battle of Brandy Station (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CW)

However, Stuart’s repulse of Pleasanton’s force did enable Lee’s Army to continue north undetected by Hooker. Ewell’s Corps entered the Shenandoah Valley and defeated a Union force at Winchester on June 14th.  Then with the rest of the Army following he moved to Williamsport Maryland where he called a halt to allow the rest of his corps and the army to come up.

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Major General Henry Halleck 

Hooker was slow to appreciate what Lee was doing. Prodded by Lincoln Hooker moved the Army of the Potomac to a position where it could defend Washington in case Lee was to make a thrust at the Federal capitol. In a series of fierce cavalry clashes west of Washington, Stuart successfully kept the Federal cavalry from discerning the movements of Lee’s Army.

Lee’s initial move to break contact with the Federal Army and keep his movements and intentions secret was an excellent example of deception. Stuart’s success at screening Lee’s movements contributed to Federal confusion. Lee’s deception was so successful that Pleasanton believed that Lee’s objective was Pittsburgh, far to the west. Even when Hooker determined that the bulk of Lee’s infantry was in the Shenandoah he was not certain if Lee would move east toward Baltimore and Washington west or would Lee continue up the valley into Pennsylvania.  

But at this point Lee then made the first of a number of mistakes that would characterize his campaign.  The most grievous of these in my view was his inability to get his commanders to understand his intent. The necessity of subordinate commanders understanding the intent of their superior is essential to the success of any military operation. Lee failed to do this a number of times.

After Stuart recovered from the surprise at Brandy Station Lee gave Stuart permission to move the bulk of his cavalry into the Federal rear.  Lee instructed Stuart that once he determined that Hooker was moving to pursue that Stuart must return to guard Ewell’s flank. However, Lee did not insist on this and left the decision in Stuart’s hands.  When Stuart discovered the Army of the Potomac stationary near Manassas he suggested to Lee that he lead his force around the Federal Army to deceive Hooker as to Lee’s intentions. Lee agreed but told Stuart to maintain close observance of the Federal Army.

Unfortunately his orders left Stuart much in the way of interpretation. He wrote:

You will, however be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing all the damage that you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops, collecting information, provisions etc.”  Lee added, “Be watchful and circumspect in all your movements.” 

Lee expected Stuart to do this, but his lack of clarity and vagueness allowed to Stuart interpret the order in a manner that benefited him, as he had been stung by criticism of his conduct of the Battle of Brandy Station in the Southern press. For Stuart this was a chance to regain the limelight and add to his luster. He decided to move independently and continue his ride around the Army of the Potomac. It was the last time that Lee had contact with Stuart until the end of the second day of the battle at Gettysburg. Stuart’s absence was critical for it left Lee blind as to the whereabouts of Hooker’s Army or any other threats.

Historians have long wondered why Lee allowed and why Stuart conducted an operation that left Lee blind and had no obvious advantages. Stephen W Sears notes in his book Gettysburg that: “The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level. As soldier-historian Porter Alexander judged the matter, “We took unnecessary risk, which was bad war, & the only bad war too, I think, in all our tactics.” (i)

Lee also took little notice of the events occurring to the west. The siege of Vicksburg was entering its final weeks and with it the hopes of the Confederacy, but Lee was convinced that the war had to be won in the east and quickly.

Lee had no idea that the man directing the campaign against that city, Ulysses S Grant would become his nemesis in less than a years’ time. While Lee had an understanding of all the men who had commanded the armies that he faced, Grant was a man that he never really understood.

As Vicksburg withered and Stuart dithered Lee continued to move north with his Army, crossing into Maryland. By June 24th Ewell’s lead division was near Chambersburg with orders to advance on the Susquehanna and Harrisburg

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The Gettysburg Campaign (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/cw)

As Lee moved north Hooker attempted to convince Lincoln to attack Richmond, but Lincoln did not believe that the Confederate capitol was the key to victory. Lincoln denied Hooker’s request giving the following instruction:

“I think Lee’s army, not Richmond is your true objective point. If he comes toward the Upper Potomac, follow on his flank and on his inside track, shortening your line whilst he lengthens his. Fight him too when the opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him, fret him and fret him.”

Hooker was upset by the constant directives from Lincoln and General Henry Halleck, the General in Chief of the Union Armies. Hooker complained to Lincoln in a letter which seemed to infer that he wanted Lincoln to remove Halleck from his position. On June 15th Lincoln responded:

“To remove all misunderstanding I now place you in the strict military relation to General Halleck of a commander of one of the armies to the general-in-chief of all of the armies. I have not intended differently, but as it seems to be differently understood I shall direct him to give you orders and for you to obey him.”

With that order Lincoln did something that he had not done in relation to the Army of the Potomac since the beginning of the war.  For the first time he enforced unity of command and stopped the commander of that army from directly appealing to him. Lee had tired of commanders such as McClellan and Hooker demanding absolute control of the Army and the war. This time it was Hooker that advocated having “one commander for all the troops whose operations which can have influence on General Lee’s operations.” Lincoln agreed and ensured that Hooker would not be that man.

Neither Lincoln nor Halleck agreed to give Hooker the authority that he demanded.  Lincoln insisted that Hooker obey the orders of Halleck, a man who Hooker despised. The final straw came on June 27th when Hooker demanded that the garrison of Harper’s Ferry be withdrawn and placed under his command. When this was refused he tendered his resignation as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Halleck forwarded that request to Lincoln and promptly sent an order via his Assistant Adjutant General, Colonel James Hardie relieving Hooker of command, simultaneously appointing Major General George Meade, commander of V Corps as the new commander of the army.

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By now the movements of Confederate forces deep into Maryland and Pennsylvania gave Lincoln and Halleck the information that they needed about Lee’s movements. Lee’s army was moving toward Harrisburg and the Susquehanna. On the day of Hooker’s relief Lee had no idea that the Union army had already crossed the Potomac, the absence of Stuart had left him blind.

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Major General George Meade 

To this point a number of issues important to those involved in planning campaigns became clear: Deception, commander’s intent and unity of command. Lee successfully used deception to prevent the Federals from discerning his purposes. That was balanced by his lack of clarity in communicating his intent to Stuart. Finally there was the principle of unity of command for the Union forces, something that had eluded Lincoln and his lieutenants throughout the first two years of the war.

All that said, I am going to leave you hanging for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+


i. Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003. P.106

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The Gettysburg Campaign: Lee Decides to Go on the Offensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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