Barely three days before the clash at Gettysburg, Gen Meade had been handed command of the Union Army of the Potomac; apparently after LTG Reynolds had refused Lincoln’s offer . Meade knew Lee had crossed into Pennsylvania but still wasn’t sure exactly where he was. His advance cavalry scouts had yet to pin-point that Lee had just moved east from behind the Blue Ridge mountain range. He did seem to be aware that the Rebel advance elements were as far north as Carlisle and were threatening both York and Harrisburg farther to the east.
Meade had staked out ground about 15 miles south of Gettysburg that to his eye was a “proper place” for the epic clash that both generals knew was in the offing. [see Section 27]
Meade had ordered Reynolds’ First Corps to move to support Buford’s effort but was still not willing to fully commit his army. Reports from Gettysburg of Ewell’s imminent arrival forced the engage of a second corps (the Eleventh Corps). It seemingly wasn’t until LTG Hancock sent his reports that Meade agreed that the clash was to be at Gettysburg.
Fifteen miles was usually a two-day march at the lumbering pace an army of 90,000 moved. But under duress, it could be covered in a day! So late on the afternoon of July 1, Meade made the decision to commit his entire army at Gettysburg. Seemingly, the reports by LTG Hancock that his men could establish firm control of the high ground were enough to convince him to move quickly north. He, himself, did not arrive on scene until the early hours of 2 July. His various Corps commanders had successfully extended the Union lines along the rolling hills south of the city. His inverted-J-shaped defensive line was very compact covering barely 3 miles tip-to-tip, but had yet to reach its full length: Big and Little Round Top hills were, as, yet unoccupied.
Over the next 3 days, Meade had few major decisions to make. His defensive strategy had been set by Buford and secured by Lee. His sole role was to react and that was ably accomplished by his Corps commanders. Just about every senior commander in both armies was a graduate (or a drop-out) of West Point! They had all studied the same texts and battle history. These men — now on opposing sides — had served together as cadets or as junior officers in earlier decades.
 Lee had been appointed as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862.
There was nothing surprising about Lee’s flanking attacks on Day 2 nor his ‘frontal assault’ (Pickett’s Charge) on Day 3. The only question was the will and quality of his subordinates and their men: Could they “hold the line” under repeated Confederate assaults?
Reportedly, Meade placed withdrawal on the table after the close victory on Day 2 but to a man his Corps CDRs voted to stay and defend. Another option that they all rejected was to go on the attack. “Hold the line” was the order of the day for Day 3.
There is no indication that Meade was overly concerned about having his supply trains interfered with or interrupted by a flanking movement by Lee. Meade could not have known that this was exactly the strategy that Longstreet had been counselling to Lee since Day 1. Normally this would have been the purview of Stuart’s cavalry but most of them were to the north and east and largely out of position to attack except as a diversion.
After the stinging defeats of the second and third days of the battle, Lee held his infantry in place through day 4 as he ordered the withdrawal of his wounded. He fully expected Meade to turn from defense and to attack him. But whatever the temptation to do so, Meade resisted a repeat of Pickett’s losses in the opposite direction. After a day’s rest, Lee began the long march back to Virginia with only Union cavalry sent to harass him.
Rather than attack Lee’s withdrawal in force, he simply withdrew back done the Pike.
Part 2 Meade’s Midnight Tour
[In another series of late night musings, I try to place myself in the body and mind of these men. What were they seeing, thinking, feeling? How were they reacting to the situation? When writing for profit, I’d like to think that actual authors first prepare an outline of their novel in much the same way; then flush it out with quoted conversations among the participants. Lacking that talent (patience?) I will restrict my musing to a simple narrative.]
It was shortly after midnight that GEN Meade arrived at Gettysburg. A member of LTG Hancock’s staff had met his small command party about a half-hour south and led them to a small farmhouse that Hancock had selected as a HQ. It was on the inner slope below the cemetery and therefore quite protected but more importantly it was centrally located for command and control purposes. Rather than enter and perhaps get bogged down in a series of briefings by commanders who would try to impress him with their actions and plans, Meade suggested that Hancock accompany him on an inspection of the line.
After all, Meade had only been in command for a matter of days and had been completely absent from the first day’s battle. He wanted his men to know that he was present and taking charge. He needed to be seen. He also had only the most superficial knowledge of the actual terrain that both BG Buford and LTG Hancock were so impressed by.
Hancock led him east and up and around the southern edge of Culp’s Hill. They soon found Twelfth Corps Commander LTG Slocum and BG Greene. Green was the eldest general officer in the Union Army and despite his somewhat lowly position as a Brigade Command in MG Geary’s Second Division his renowned reputation as a civil engineer afforded him a level of respect. He explained how he’d have the men work through the night felling trees and piling rocks to build a breastworks across Culp’s Hill. It was obvious to all who had viewed the terrain in the daylight that it was the highest of the contiguous hills and, therefore, afforded a commanding position. It was likely to be a much sought after position in the coming days. Meade had nothing to add, so he and Hancock proceeded over the crest and down in the direction of the cemetery. The low point between these two hills was also a point of concern. Not only did it afford a possible lane of attack into the Union rear, but it was also a seam where First and Eleventh Corps met. If the Rebels figured this out it was likely to be a heavily contested area. Hancock reassured Meade that the artillery in and around the cemetery had this area well defended.
As they entered the cemetery itself, Meade’s deeply held religious sensitivities were a bit offended at the amount of activity among the graves. First and Eleventh Corps artillerymen were constructing embankments to protect their guns. Meade made a mental note to apologize to the Mayor and the people of Gettysburg for this necessary intrusion. He would have loved a cup of coffee but they rode on past the HQ farmhouse and turned south towards Hancock’s Second Corps area. His men and many of the First Corps infantry were huddled under blankets fighting off the light rain and seeking sleep behind a ready-made defensive line consisting of a low stone wall erected as a boundary marker. They paused for a moment near the copse of trees that Hancock’s staff were huddled under and Hancock pointed out how that wall took a slight jog to the west (aka The Angle) before running south along the entire length of the hill that took its name from the cemetery. Here, too, was a point of both vulnerability and strength since the angle allowed for crossfire to protect it. Little did they know that in a mere 36 hours, this would be one of the bloodiest points of battle in the entire war. Off in the distance, Meade could make out a few dozen of what had to be hundreds of camp fires of the Rebel troops in among the trees on the long but high ridge that faced them about a mile away. Through his field glasses, Meade could see many more Rebel fires off to the north where the day’s battle had been fought.
For the last part of the midnight tour, they were joined by MG Sickles. He had ridden ahead of his Third Corps and had been present since late afternoon. The small group stopped at the end of the Second Corps line and peered off into the darkness. Hancock noted that from there rose another hill that the locals called Round Top, actually Little Round Top. Meade turned to Sickles and told him to occupy that hill when his Corps arrived. Sickles pointed to the only campfire breaking the darkness ahead and said that he has assumed as much and had established his HQ in the saddle between the two hills in anticipation of the arrival of his troops.
Sickles rode slowly off and was soon enveloped in the darkness and misty rain. When he arrived at the campfire area, he told his staff to wake him when the troops were settled. He wanted them to be placed on the inner slope of the hill but they were eat and rest and not begin to fortify that position. Having come up the Emmittsburg Road earlier in the day, he was concerned about a different hill off to his front.
When Meade arrived at the HQ, he dismissed his staff and all the hangers-on who sought his attention except for two. BG Hunt, his artillery chief, spoke first and assured him the cemetery provided a solid position and by morning reserve artillery would be in place to further strengthen that position. Satisfied that the terrain held much advantage, Meade’s last order was for BG Warren, his engineering chief, to conduct a thorough inspection of the line in the morning and implement any improvements he saw fit. With that, Meade fell wearily into a waiting chair and nodded off.
Part 3 Lee’s planning meeting
As Meade was drifting into a much needed sleep, Robert E. Lee was a few hours from enjoying that luxury. He was on the far eastern side of the city conferring with LTG Ewell and his two division commanders: MGs Rodes and Early. Early was in the midst of explaining why he had failed to move on Culp’s Hill. Reluctantly, Lee had to agree with what had transpired. By the time Early had received Lee’s order to move south to the hill “if practicable”, he had already established a bivouac site. It was much too late in the day to begin an offensive operation. His men had had a long day’s march followed by a brief, but intense and decisive battle with the Union right flank. His last order from Lee had been to avoid a major confrontation with the Union forces until the Army of Northern Virginia was consolidated at Gettysburg. Early had moved east of town and after routing some Eleventh Corps troops, he had ordered his men to rest and eat. He had sent scouts onto the hill to his south and they reported that it was unoccupied. Lee knew that such a situation would not last until morning as undoubtedly it would be occupied by late arriving Union troops.
Lee was already formulating his next day’s plan. MG Ewell added that MG Johnson’s division had had to backtrack on its movement to Cashtown and was now moving overland. It would pass to the north of the city and was expected in about 2-3 hours. He was going to have them push on past Early’s division to the south and align facing Culp’s Hill from the east. Lee’s orders for the morning were for Ewell to await the sounds of his primary attack from the south then to launch an attack on the strategic hill.
With that, Lee let Traveler carry him slowly through the city. Along the way, Lee rehashed his command philosophy of only issuing orders to his three Corps commanders. He could have sent an order directly to MG Early rather than route it through Ewell. The dispatch rider had had trouble locating Ewell who was still en route trailing Rodes’ division. He was immediately re-directed to find MG Early, but neither he nor Ewell had any idea where Early was. Hours passed before they met.
No sooner than he arrived city at his farmhouse HQ just below the Seminary, than, as he was accustomed of doing, he dropped into the waiting rocking chair and feel deeply asleep.
Part 4: Lee as a commander
US military historian LTC J B Mitchell describes Robert E Lee as a man of “infinite tact and patience” known also for his “calmness and serenity” who inspired trust and devotion among his troops. He had the ability to bring out the best in people and to induce them to accomplish more than they thought possible. As a commander, he could be “daring in the extreme”. He began his period of command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1982 cautiously scoping out his opponents and ensuring that his men were properly trained before moving to engage. But when he did he often moved with ‘shock and awe’. He had learned his lessons in tactical maneuvering at West Point well, but moved beyond those devising strategies that confounded his opponents. While he was training up his main force, he had Union GENs Halleck, McClellan and Pope chasing Stonewall Jackson’s army across western Virginia in what has been termed Jackson’s Valley Campaign. This kept the pressure off him near Richmond until he was ready to engage. By September 1862, he was ready to take the war on to Northern territory. Time and time again, he made bold moves that confounded his opponents and took him to victory.
So why then as Gettysburg did he seem to regress to more tried and true tactics rather than boldly engage Meade? Many historians speculate that he was not quite himself during this campaign and that the onset of angina was sapping his strength and perhaps clouding his mental acuity. June – July 1863 was far from a memorable time for him.