Lee at Gettysburg

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Karl Heidenreich
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Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Tue Jan 12, 2010 4:16 pm

One of my favorite subjects has always been the American Civil War and, specially, the Gettysburg Campaign. It is also quite troublesome to access because of the strange things that happened there.

For starters we can say that the Confederate CO was, widely, much, much better than the Union CO: Lee was more flexible, cunning and agressive commander that Meade could ever be and Meade admit it. Also the Confederate Staff was, generally, a little bit better than that of the Union, with some exceptions such as Jubal Early or Ewell. But the South had people of the caliber of Longstreet that cannot be matched easily.

Now. We have that Confederate command, particularly Lee, presented serious issues during all the span of the combat. During the first day of combat his instructions to Ewell and Early were not underlined enough about taking the hills north of Gettysburg when the union soldiers were almost in a rout. That night the non taking of this hills was brought to him by General Trimble and Lee decided not to take any measure against Ewell.

But more important, from the first day two things were decisive: Stuart dissapeared in a "cavalry joy ride" and left Lee without appropiate inteligence, which makes more weird Lee´s decision to engage the Union there. The other aspect was that Lee´s second in command and more proficient general, Longstreet, advised since that first moment in the need to disengage and go forward southeast in order to position the army between Meade and Washington in land of their choosing. However Lee disregarded the wise (at hindsight?) advise and continued his dispositions for an anhilation battle there.

After second day´s failure (and the famous resistance and bayonet charge from Chamberlain´s XXth Maine at Little Round Top) the Confederate Army was in not so good shape, still without proper inteligence due to Stuart´s absence and some extraordinary officers as John Bell Hood out of combat. Lee then failed again to remove Ewell and Early after their failure to produce on time the diversionary attack on the northern flank to help Longstreet´s forces at the South. After the action Longstreet´s pleas to disengage and do an strategicall cunning move were not answered. That night, after Lee finnally recevied Stuart and slap him in the hand instead of removing and court martial him for his disastrous performance, he decided the ill fated attack on the center, the so called Pickett Charge.

Even after the artillery commander´s assesment that they do not have enough ammunition to produce a proper covering fire to their advancing forces and Longstreet´s outspoken opposition to sacrifice their men in a two mile walk over open field of 15,000 strong against, no other than the best Union commander Winfield Scott Hancock, Lee held, stubbornly his decision and make the attack failed. He lost the charge, the battle and eventually the war in the afternoon of July 3, 1863.

But if we see Lee at the Penninsula, or at Friedricksburg or Chancellorville, we see someone entirely different from the man at Gettysburg. Even at Antietam the previous year he acted very different, even against Mcllelan which was a much better Union commander than Meade. How can we reconciliate the man from Chancerllorville with the man at Gettysburg?

Was it the lack of having "Stonewall" Jackson with him? But he has Longstreet that, not as agressive or passionate as Jackson was, probably, a more intelectual and foresighted person. Could Jackson, being there, changed things on first or second day? Or was just Stuart´s lack of performance that doomed the Confederacy?

Many traditional guys place the blame on Longstreet for the second day lack of coordination, but it is clear it was Early´s fault (so, then, it was Ewell that let Early´s doing here). What really happened there?

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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Kyler » Tue Jan 12, 2010 4:54 pm

Karl,

You are asking about one of the greatest military questions in history. I really don't believe there is one solid answer to the whole question. So much went wrong for the CSA at Gettysburg. It was a domino effect, one bad decision or event led to the other and so on & so on. It is clear the Lee takes most of the blame for the CSA's loss. His decisions during the course of the battle are baffling to me and many historians. Stuart should have been shot in my opinion for his actions during the course of the battle. Like you said, in hindsight Longstreet was correct, though his opinions made common sense at the time as well. I don't know if the stress of the war had finally gotten to Lee or maybe Lee became hubris after winning so many battles and sought to try to make a killing blow to the Union Army at all costs.

In hindsight I think the events of Gettysburg obviously helped the war end sooner. If Lee had won the battle, the war would have continued. The Union overall forces and resources were so much greater than the CSA that a new army would have been formed and the war would have gone on even longer.
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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Tue Jan 12, 2010 6:26 pm

Kyler,

I tend to agree with you in regards this is one of the greatest questions in military history and, also, with your options as Lee´s ideas and feelings at Gettysburg. Neverthless there had to be "reasons" for him to measure his options. And these "reasons" are what interest me more. Lee never wrote his memories and, so forth, many things are now matter to "wild guess".

But I think you are mistaken in one thing. If, by any alternative universe is allowed here, Lee go and hear Longstreet´s advise then there is a chance, one of those historic oportunities, in which he could position himself in a winning location against a deseperate Union commander that will be bombarded with messages and orders from Washington urging him to attack. Meade could have been destroyed if he had charged against the Confederates if they have dug in against a stonewall at high ground.

After that things are not that difficult to guess. Lee would have Washington at his mercy. No army would be in his way: Lincoln would have to accept the conditions in Jefferson Davis´letter in Lee´s posesion. Which brings more things to this: being this a crucibile maybe Lee would have defered more to reason and less to... whatever...

Very odd, indeed....
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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Bgile » Tue Jan 12, 2010 6:40 pm

Karl,

Have you looked at the defenses of Washington? Lee wouldn't be just riding in. They were heavier than Lee's at Richmond/Petersburg, with much heavier artillery batteries, and the Federals generally had better artillery than the Confederates. Sure, if he had destroyed the Union army, but what are the odds of that? If Lee had tried to maneuver around the Federal right, Meade would have responded in kind. I don't deny that might have been a better move, but I think the road network favored a Federal move back to Washington more than a Confederate move to the same place.

Byron Angel

Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Byron Angel » Tue Jan 12, 2010 6:52 pm

Another period of particular interest to me - the American Civil War.

Before making my Gettysburg coments, allow me to recommend that you visit books.google.com, which has a stupendous amount of ACW-related books free for D/L, including many, many regimental and unit histories. Believe me, you'll be D/Ling for weeks. Another excellent site, BTW, is "Antietam on the Web", which most importantly provides the topographical detail essential to a proper understanding of the battle.

I don't believe that Lee intentionally selected Gettysburg as a field of battle. The original reason for marching there was its purported stocks of urgently needed footwear and other desirable military supplies. the meeting of the armies there was more a matter of tactical circumstance than premeditation. Kudos must be awarded to Buford's cavalry command whose strong resistance against the Confederate advance guard made it possible for Meade to occupy the strong line of tactical features which ultimately gave victory to the Union army. Interestingly enough, Buford's fight was the first occasion in which large numbers of Union cavalrymen armed with the new Spencer repeating carbines were engaged in battle with the Confederates; the Spencer carbine was IMO instrumental in Buford's success.

I think that Lee most definitely felt Jackson's loss. Lee had always relied greatly upon Jackson. In the Second Manassas campaign, it was Jackson who was given the independent command to advance up into Virginia ahead of the main army. At Antietam, Lee not only selected Jackson for the independent mission to seize Harpers Ferry but, upon Jackson re-joining the main army at Sharpsburg, then placed him on the essentially important left flank, At Chancellorsville, it was Jackson who was selected by Lee to deliver the crucial flank attack. Gettyburg was the first major battle in which Lee did not have Jackson at his side.


Byron
Last edited by Byron Angel on Tue Jan 12, 2010 7:50 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby tommy303 » Tue Jan 12, 2010 7:44 pm

But if we see Lee at the Penninsula, or at Friedricksburg or Chancellorville, we see someone entirely different from the man at Gettysburg. Even at Antietam the previous year he acted very different, even against Mcllelan which was a much better Union commander than Meade. How can we reconciliate the man from Chancerllorville with the man at Gettysburg?


That is actually quite astute. Lee certainly appears to have been a changed man, and quite possibly for good reason. In the Spring of 1863 Lee began to develop cardiac problems that would eventually kill him, and his personal doctor recorded that during the march into Pennsylvania, Lee suffered a minor heart attack and fell from his horse bruising his hands and knees.

In August of 1863 Lee wrote Davis suggesting that he should perhaps be relieved by a younger commander:

I have not yet recovered from the attack I experienced this spring. I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion, and thus am prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the personal supervision to the operations in the field which I feel to be necessary. I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled. Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander.

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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Tue Jan 12, 2010 7:58 pm

Byron Angel:

I don't believe that Lee intentionally selected Gettysburg as a field of battle.


As far as I know it was John Buford who choose the site. In the morning of July his dismounted cavalry defended the road past Lutheran Seminary, at the North West of Gettysburg from the Confederates that were gathering there. Lee´s idea was to converge there over the information that Meade was closer than he thought he will be. But he had no intentions to fight there, just to rendevouz his units and start the march to Washington, I presume.


I think that Lee most definitely felt Jackson's loss. Lee had always relied greatly upon Jackson. In the Second Manassas campaign, it was Jackson who was given the independent command to advance up into Virginia ahead of the main army. At Antietam, Lee not only selected Jackson for the independent mission to seize Harpers Ferry but, upon Jackson re-joining the main army at Sharpsburg, then placed him on the essentially important left flank, At Chancellorsville, it was Jackson who was selected by Lee to deliver the crucial flank attack. Gettyburg was the first major battle in which Lee did not have Jackson at his side.


Yes, I agree with that. Jackson was really missed by Lee and so he conducted himself with a lot of caution during his "invasion". Nevertheless it is more intriguing how he decided, in such circumstances and without proper inteligence, to conduct a battle there.

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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Tue Jan 12, 2010 8:11 pm

Bgile:


Have you looked at the defenses of Washington? Lee wouldn't be just riding in. They were heavier than Lee's at Richmond/Petersburg, with much heavier artillery batteries, and the Federals generally had better artillery than the Confederates. Sure, if he had destroyed the Union army, but what are the odds of that? If Lee had tried to maneuver around the Federal right, Meade would have responded in kind. I don't deny that might have been a better move, but I think the road network favored a Federal move back to Washington more than a Confederate move to the same place.


Two interesting points here from Steve.

First: Given the circumstances could Lee hace destroyed the Union Army sometime in the first half of July 1863?

Second: Could Lee, after destroying the Union Army have marched all the way to Washington?

To the first I think it was quite possible. As a matter of fact Lee was closer of destroying the Union Army at Gettysburg than what Meade himself knew then. If, by any chance, the resistance on the afternoon of July 2nd, 1863 at Devil´s Den and Little Round Top would have collapsed (and it was close to collapse just before Chamberlain´s charge) and Chamberlain would have chosen to resist as he was, without ammunition, instead of charging it was very likely that the boys in gray will have broken his line (even refused line) and would have carved the Union´s left. By the night Hood´s division would have been dominating those highs overseeing all the Union line and in good shape to cut down all internal comunications.

So, for this I think that if in Gettysburg he was close, and by attacking uphill, then he could have certainly have won a battle in which he is entrenched and the enemy is charging against him. That would have made Longstreet very happy.

To the second I recon that it´s more easily said than done but here there is more involved than just military measures. There are also political cost measures and issues as a Congress, as a capital under siege, and many other considerations. It could have even produced international recognition to the Confederacy which had, as a matter of fact, military observers from Prussia, Austria and England amongst their lines. I think that once Lee surrounded and cut off the capital Lincoln would have been forced to negotiate with Jefferson Davis. Let´s remember that the Confederate aim was not "conquering" the North but just making them leave the South alone.

My two cents.
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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Byron Angel » Tue Jan 12, 2010 9:21 pm

As regards generals, I'll make two comments:

1. Longstreet was an excellent field commander, savvy and tactically intelligent. He was masterful at Second Manassas in absolutely crushing Pope's left flank and at Gettyburg in recognizing the rash advance of the Union left flank and driving it back. Had he been able to capture the Round Tops, the Union position would have been completely compromised and he essentially might have tactically won the Battle of Gettyburg single-handedly.

2. McClellan was an excellent organizer, discipliner, and trainer of armies, but a poor battlefield commander. His early peninsula campaign was an embarrassment, and the only reason why Lee and the ANV survived Antietam was because of McClellan's abysmal tactical handling of the battle; any modestly competent Union general would have ended the war in 1862. Had McClellan been made responsible exclusively for training and supplying the armies behind the front, he would IMO have been much better regarded by history.


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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Tue Jan 12, 2010 10:08 pm

Byron Angel:

1. Longstreet was an excellent field commander, savvy and tactically intelligent. He was masterful at Second Manassas in absolutely crushing Pope's left flank and at Gettyburg in recognizing the rash advance of the Union left flank and driving it back. Had he been able to capture the Round Tops, the Union position would have been completely compromised and he essentially might have tactically won the Battle of Gettyburg single-handedly.


I do agree with this. The implications of the XX Maine defense of Little Round Top cannot be disregarded as "just" an heroic episode. The stubborness and stenght that Joshua Chamberlain showed there were deeper than just the act, but affected the survival of the Union army and cause. It is not surprise that he got the Medal of Honor for his day there and got promoted as high to be General being an scholar and not a military man.


2. McClellan was an excellent organizer, discipliner, and trainer of armies, but a poor battlefield commander. His early peninsula campaign was an embarrassment, and the only reason why Lee and the ANV survived Antietam was because of McClellan's abysmal tactical handling of the battle; any modestly competent Union general would have ended the war in 1862. Had McClellan been made responsible exclusively for training and supplying the armies behind the front, he would IMO have been much better regarded by history.


That´s interesting and is coherent with the good feelings the ranks had for him. Never before I read a summary on McClellan as enlightining as this one and really appreciatted. I never fully understood how on Earth he was removed and a guy like Burnside or later Hooker can get his job. Now it´s clear why. Thanks to Byron.

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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby RF » Wed Jan 13, 2010 9:37 am

Karl Heidenreich wrote:
Two interesting points here from Steve.

First: Given the circumstances could Lee hace destroyed the Union Army sometime in the first half of July 1863?

Second: Could Lee, after destroying the Union Army have marched all the way to Washington?

My two cents.


I am inclined to agree with Karl on the first point; what I would question is not so much whether Washington DC could have been captured and held in the face of new Federal armies and the better artillery (which I think is doubtful) but whether there was any chance of such a capture forcing thr North to capitulate or come to terms with the CSA in which secession is agreed on the basis that the rest of the Union is retained intact. I don't think there was. The British I believe captured Washington in the war of 1812, it didn't cause Madison to surrender.
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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Byron Angel » Wed Jan 13, 2010 1:40 pm

RF wrote: I am inclined to agree with Karl on the first point; what I would question is not so much whether Washington DC could have been captured and held in the face of new Federal armies and the better artillery (which I think is doubtful) but whether there was any chance of such a capture forcing the North to capitulate or come to terms with the CSA in which secession is agreed on the basis that the rest of the Union is retained intact. I don't think there was. The British I believe captured Washington in the war of 1812, it didn't cause Madison to surrender.



..... I agree with this assessment. I do not believe that either Davis or Lee held out any expectation that the North could be militarily defeated. The 1863 incursion of the ANV into Pennsylvania was IMO an effort to politically de-stabilize the North (apart from also being a major foraging expedition). The Confederacy's two best hopes for survival were (a) to destroy the North's political will to prosecute the war and/or (b) to inspire the intervention of a major outside power such as Great Britain in order to cow the North into accepting the secession ofthe Southern states. Had Great Britain chosen to challenge the Union naval blockade of the South, the economic and strategic calculus of the war would have taken a dramatical tilt.

As far as physically capturing Washington DC goes, I do not believe that it was remotely within the capabilities of the ANV to do so. By 1863, Washington had been developed into a massive well-manned fortress zone that would have awed Vauban himself. Lee lacked the men to encircle and isolate it and the necessary siege artillery and logistical staying power to capture it.


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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby RF » Wed Jan 13, 2010 1:50 pm

Their best chance of capture I think was at the very start of the war - the opportunity was missed.
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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Fri Jan 15, 2010 12:45 am

RF:

Their best chance of capture I think was at the very start of the war - the opportunity was missed.


I tend to agree. I also think that was due, maybe, to the fact that NO ONE on Earth believed that the US Army was, then, so terribly incompetent.

On the other hand, returning to the Lee, Gettysburg, Longstreet, Washington DC issue at hand I think the following for your consideration, which is very valuable to me:

I do not think that Lee needed, in reality, to occupy Washington DC in order to have Lincoln surrendering to the CSA (or negotiating a peace treaty). As I have said he needed to repell and destroy Meade. I think this destruction is pretty feasible if Lee would have decided for a tactical defense in ground of his choosing. Meade would have attacked and butchered as Burnside and Hooker were. Precisely that thought was the one that Buford had and made him stubborn enough not to step back until Reynolds arrived to the battlefield in the first day.
Now. Lee is victorious. The Union might not know, very well Lee´s desperate logistic status but will now that: they were defeated and there is no Army of the Potomac between Lee and Washington. Lincoln had, already, a considerable group of hot heads at the senate, asking for finishing the war. People around Pennsilvannia, Maryland and in Washington DC. will be in panic, civilians trying to get out of Washington before it is burn down to ashes. It is 1863, no 1812: Lincoln cannot escape with the goverment from Washington that easily. If he do then he might be as well dead politically.
Good defenses? Maybe. Good enough? Don´t think so. The only thing Lincoln needed to surrender were a couple of defeatest editorials in several newspapers and a good group of abolicionist senators abandoning Washington with the anti war ones.

I think that was very plausible.
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Re: Lee at Gettysburg

Postby Bgile » Fri Jan 15, 2010 2:12 am

I don't think the sort of decisive victory required to "destroy" the union army was possible. A decisive victory with 30% losses for the Federals might be possible, but there would likely have been a force the size of Lee's original army retreating into Washington. Several Corps weren't even on the field until late on day two, and Lee's army was similarly strung out. Lee could have prevented the sort of victory Meade achieved, but destroy the Union army ... I don't think so. For one thing, Meade wasn't terribly aggressive. Lee wasn't able to destroy the Federal Army when he held defensive positions in front of Petersburg and he probably couldn't do so in Maryland either. Remember, Meade was in command of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war; Grant just gave him strategic direction as CINC.


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