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22a. Lee’s Objectives

In a series of late night musings, I keep returning to the question of Lee’s objective for his invasion plan.

Strategically, it seems that he hoped he could bring Lincoln to the negotiating table and thereby gain recognition of the CSA perhaps even ending the war if only via a cease fire while negotiations took place. Ultimately, it also seems as if he hoped to do this by bringing military pressure to bear on Baltimore and since WASH DC was so dependent of supplies via Baltimore, that pressure would fall directly on Lincoln. To me, his plan to pressure Harrisburg and then Philadelphia[1] was rather ill-conceived tactically. He could have ended up as an island extremely deep in Union territory.

Certainly the political climate of the day with the Peace Democrats pressuring Lincoln to find a way to end the killing – and the heavy taxes that were paying for the war — played into Lee’s thinking, you could almost think of the 1860s DEMs as his allies.

But a military commander cannot operate on strategic goals alone. He needs a tactical plan to achieve those goals. I don’t see a clear tactical plan for Lee’s approach through Pennsylvania. We know for a fact that when he learned of Hooker’s movements, he had decided to consolidate his army at Gettysburg. He had already sent orders to LTG Ewell to meet him there, before BG Buford even concocted the notion of an ambush.

Assuming Buford was turned away on 30 June, what was Lee’s next move? He truly did not expect to encounter any Union troops near Gettysburg. None had been reported by MG Early as he passed through the city. So we have clear evidence that Lee had no grand designs on Hanover or York. Would he then indeed had to more south on 1 or 2 July? By the end of the day on 1 July, he would have had 6 full divisions (Hill’s and Ewell’s Corps) at Gettysburg, with Hood approaching. By noon on 2 July, McLaws would have joined Hood somewhere between Gettysburg and Cashtown. MG Pickett was expected to arrive later that afternoon.

Assuming Lee had full control of Gettysburg, we need to look at Lee’s tactical objective for 2 July. He could send Hill and Ewell south and even add Hood’s division. It would have been a stretch to keep McLaws marching without a rest stop and Pickett could have followed soon thereafter. The largest city in the vicinity was Emmittsburg, so it would be a logical place to find the northernmost Union force. My look at a map, says that Lee would send 5 divisions towards Emmittsburg and 3 aimed at Taneytown. It might have been tempting to utilize the BALTO PIKE but geographically it swings a bit too far east thru Littlestown before turning south.

Both tactically and strategically, it would seem that Westminster would be his interim objective. It was, after all, the largest city in that region and like Gettysburg was a road hub as well as the terminus of the rail line from Baltimore. But this was also true for the Army of the Potomac as well. Surely they were moving north to counter his move and would have to defend Westminster. The Union generals simply couldn’t let him get there unopposed! It was only little more than a day’s march north of Baltimore.

So Lee had to have known that Hooker was shifting his army to counter the invasion. Albeit it got a late start, it could quickly reach Westminster. It had to be lingering somewhere north of there. Emmittsburg was the next largest city, but it was far enough to the north and west that it offered no real value for a move on Baltimore. Taneytown was in a direct line of march from Gettysburg to Westminster, so that too was a likely spot to defend. Hence, Lee would have sent Hill’s Corps in that direction.

From the Union point of view, we know that Meade was concerned that his forces were also dispersed too widely. Hooker had sent two Corps (1 & 11) to Emmittsburg with Sickles’ Third Corps en route. He had 2 corps (5 and 12) with him at Union Mills on the Pipe Creek salient. The Sixth Union Corps was the farthest away shadowing Early’s move towards York. Lastly, Hancock’s Second Corps was moving up from the south and was expected to pass Westminster on the morning of 1 July. Meade toyed with the idea of implementing Hooker’s Pipe Creek defensive plan but had not yet sent the orders to his generals.

Of course, history teaches us that BG Buford sent any plans either army had into complete chaos when he went well beyond is mandated mission and concocted his ambush. I used to think that perhaps he deserved more recognition for his effort, but he seemingly endangered his entire command by going far beyond his mandate to find the vanguard of the Army of Northern Virginia. Perhaps, [see Section 30f Heroes and Goats], if MG Reynolds had not come to his ‘rescue’, he’d have been captured (or killed) or maybe court marshalled. Seemingly, Buford had no “plan B”. All he could do was stay and fight.

But this scenario depends on removing Buford’s ambush from the equation. I have explored how this may have come to pass in other Sections. Lee was obviously re-consolidating his army at Gettysburg in consideration for a move south. Meade was undecided as to how to proceed. He needed to know where Lee’s Army was before he made a major move to counter him.

But the question of each Commanding General’s short term objectives still remains. Lee’s route to Baltimore most certain was through Westminster. Meade had to see this as the most likely avenue of approach as well – the Pipe Creek line was set to block the BALTO PIKE. Plus, Halleck had already started to use Westminster as a supply base utilizing the rail line to push supplies forward.

Once again, we must re-iterate that there was nothing of strategic or tactical importance at Gettysburg. The only thing there was the series of contiguous hills that I have likened to castle walls from which the Union could defend. But prior to Buford’s arrival, no other Union officer seemed to see the value of that site. The Chief Engineer and Artillery Chief of the Army of the Potomac has chosen the bluffs above Pipe Creek as the best defensive position. The only reason we are discussing a battle at Gettysburg is because of Buford’s impertinence!

Returning to Lee’s interim objective, he had to know that the Union army could not allow him unimpeded access to Westminster. That was the most strategic and tactical city in the region. They had no choice but to defend it. Lee’s only tactical plan was a movement to contact in the direction of Westminster. The two armies would clash somewhere north of that city.

Having established that as fact, it seems quite unlikely that Lee could have had a successful outcome to his invasion plan. Every scenario that I have explored involving Lee attacking the Union Army north of Westminster ends in a rebel defeat.

In modern day warfare planning, commanders would set up a sand table depiction of the terrain involved in any attack plan. They would then work through various scenarios that would likely develop. If I do this and my opponent does that, what do I do next? My best guess is that such a concept did not exist in 1863. Neither Commanding General would have had a precise lay-out of the terrain. They would be lucky to have reasonably good maps of the areas in question.

My ultimate conclusion is that Lee had a grandiose (strategic) plan to invade the north but had no clear series of (tactical) objectives that would accomplish that goal.

Was he really doomed from the start?

[1] Author/Historian Scott Mingus Sr. has written extensively on the days leading up to the 1 JULY clash and does not believe that Lee has any designs on PHILA.

Part 2: The DILLSBURG Line

Esteemed author and historian Scott Mingus Sr. has spent much of his career studying the story of Pennsylvania’s response to the Rebel incursion. While Hooker’s Army of the Potomac was stumbling its way north, multiple local militia units were formed to resist Lee’s movements. As they rounded the north tip of South Mountain and turned east, Pennsylvania-based militia scouts were tracking their every move. Unfortunately, little of this information reached Hooker.

Farther east, along the Susquehanna River, preparations were being made to protect the two main population centers: Harrisburg (the State Capitol) and York, a city of over 8000 that was also a rail junction. On the 28th of June, MG Early’s Division had passed through Gettysburg but continued east along the York Road. Meanwhile, Ewell’s other two divisions were en route to Carlisle.

There are scattered reports in Civil War literature that Lee’s ultimate goal was Philadelphia. But Mingus claims that he can find no documentation of such a plan[1]. Instead he offers an alternative plan that is even more obscure than the Union Pipe Creek plan.

Lee had given orders to Ewell to seize supplies at the logistics base at Carlisle and to reconnoiter Harrisburg. He was to move on Harrisburg if the opportunity presented itself. Early had been dispatched on his solitary mission to interdict any Union attempt to reinforce Harrisburg by disrupting the rail lines in the York area. Part of the Philadelphia ‘myth’ comes from statements made by his soldiers as they moved across southern Pennsylvania. There is also a controversy as to what Early’s orders were with regard to the bridges over the Susquehanna in that area. Was he to destroy them or seize them as a path to Philadelphia?

Mingus has a different theory. He points to a small town in central Pennsylvania named Dillsburg. It is more or less central among Carlisle, Harrisburg and Gettysburg. He believes that Lee had selected this area to mount a defense against the Army of the Potomac. There are a number of known facts that support this concept. Destroying the Susquehanna bridges would have cut of Union supplies from the south and east. Early seemingly had orders to move north along the west bank of the river rather than return to Gettysburg. Stuart made his long eastern swing passing through York and continuing up to the Dillsburg-Carlisle area looking to link up with Early or Ewell who he obviously expected to be there.

Mingus further claims that the terrain near Dillsburg was not dissimilar to that at Pipe Creek, so it offered defensive capabilities.  

Is it possible that the mention of Philadelphia was a sophisticated and planned diversion? Could Lee have wanted to trick the Union War Dept. into shifting forces there rather than west of the Susquehanna? All the while was he planning to draw the Army of the Potomac deeper into Pennsylvania, farther from any logistics hub and to isolate them there?

One of the attractive features of Pipe Creek was its proximity to the railhead at Westminster. In so many of my ALT Hx essays I have concentrated on the seizure of those supplies as a possible prime objective for Lee. But seemingly (if Mingus is correct), he had just the opposite in mind. By sending Ewell to Carlisle he perhaps had three objectives in mind. First was the seizure of what supplies those warehouses had to offer. Second, to attack or cut off Harrisburg. Third to position Ewell to quickly shift him to Dillsburg.

Could Lee have planned to establish ‘an island of the Confederacy’ in central Pennsylvania? What might have been the pros and cons? Surly he wanted to make life hard for the Army of the Potomac (AoP). PRO: By severing rail connections he’d force them to live off the land as both armies had been doing in Northern Virginia for the past two years. CON: He, too, might have been forced into such a circumstance. His supply line through the Cumberland Valley would have been vulnerable to attack from a Union force so deep in the Pennsylvania countryside [2].

There is also the possible threat from the north. Union troops might eventually have been able to cross from New York to reinforce The AoP in Pennsylvania. The main threat would be from the AoP from the south but perhaps Lee could have used Stuart’s cavalry to screen to the north.

Other than the fact that most of the ANV was near Gettysburg on 30 JUN 1863, why did Lee decide to concentrate his forces there? It would have been only a half-day’s march to Dillsburg, IF that had been his choice of battle sites. In his excellent tome, GETTYSBURG Stephen Sears offers considerable detail of Ewell’s, Early’s and Stuart’s meanderings in the latter days of June, Yet, he hints at no point other than Gettysburg as a likely site for the the two armies to clash. IOW, he never mentions Dillsburg except to include it on a map on pg 135.

SEARS further relates that in the first few days (hours really) of his new command Meade was most concerned with the disposition and alignment of his troops and the lack of knowledge of the bulk of Lee’s army. He is said to have discussed with Halleck that the only direct threat that he saw was to Harrisburg, but it was too far north for him to intervene directly. Indeed, it would have been a 2-day hard march just to get near there much less to prepare to battle Ewell. We could speculate that Lee might have occupied Dillsburg with a blocking force. Or perhaps that would have become Lee’s stronghold if Mingus is correct about its defensive prospects.

SEARS also conveys that Lee had originally alerted AP Hill that he was to follow Early’s path and then be prepared to support Ewell in attacking Harrisburg. Would Dillsburg have played a role in those movements? Its central position, as seen in the above map, would certainly suggest so.

Examining the above map more closely, might not Lee have benefitted from establishing a major supply base at Carlisle utilizing the items captured there and directing his own logistics trains to continue north in the shadow of South Mtn rather than turning east through Cashtown? Had Hill’s Corps followed Early, they would have provided a screening force to counter any Union approach from the south. Longstreet could have moved directly to Dillsburg and married up with Ewell there, as Lee’s primary defensive line. Had Hill been on the move on 30 June, even if Buford had appeared as he did at Gettysburg on that afternoon, Hill should have been able to repulse his approach. The only reason Buford’s much smaller force was able stall Heth on 1 July was that Buford had had time to study the terrain and lay a well-planned ambush. Had he run into Hill while both were in movement formations, it is doubtful that he could have done little more than ‘bounce off’ Hill’s flank.

In The Gettysburg Campaign Edwin Coddington places the entire recall from Harrisburg in a somewhat different light. He does claim that Lee’s overall intent was to continue to push his army north. Hill would follow Early and Longstreet would proceed to Carlisle as Ewell moved on Harrisburg. He further states that Early had orders to rejoin Ewell marching via Dillsburg. Interestingly, the map that he provides shows that Early did not take the most direct route from York to Gettysburg, but rather diverted slightly north and passed through Heidlersburg where he might have intersected some of Ewell’s troops as they moved south. This is the same route shown on the SEARS map above.

As to the recall, Coddington claims that it was prompted by spy James Harrison’s reports of Hooker’s rapid movement across the Potomac. Coddington also provides a map which shows an element (likely cavalry) of Ewell’s force passed through Dillsburg on its way south to Gettysburg. All in all, Dillsburg did seem to be a recognized entity on Lee’s radar. We know from multiple accounts that the bridge across the Susquehanna at Wrightsville was burned by the militia. Was that task to be repeated at Harrisburg? Was Ewell about to be cut off from attacking the capitol or was he simply recalled before he could do so?

It took considerable searching to answer the above question definitively. It is now quite obvious that I had been mistaken about the circumstances of Ewell’s withdrawal from the Carlisle-Harrisburg area. It took Cooper Wingert’s book HARRISBURG and the CIVIL WAR to finally clarify and correct my mis-conception. He states quite clearly and authoritatively that indeed Ewell was recalled by Lee — likely due to James Harrison’s revelations — and that Ewell’s advance infantry force had gotten no closer than three miles from the crossing to Harrisburg. There had been a rather minor skirmish between them and some pickets guarding the roadway — known locally as the Battle of Sporting Hill — on June 30th. But as that engagement was taking place Ewell was already aligning his troops for the march to Gettysburg. Lee had called off any attack on Harrisburg. The militia defender under the overall command of MG Couch had indeed begun to saw through some of the supporting timbers of the main railway bridge over the Susquehanna, but further action had not been required.

[This is a developing theory that will need more effort to complete]


[1] Private correspondence with Mr. Mingus.

[2] Stephen SEARS mentions this as a proposal Hooker made to Halleck as he was accused of moving too slowly in response to Lee’s crossing into MD. Hooker and Halleck clashed over the proposal to use the garrison at Harper’s Ferry in a pincher move from the west to accomplish this. This clash greatly contributed to Hooker’s relief from command of the AoP.

[3] Coddington notes that Early (like Stuart) had ideas of ‘expanding’ his orders and to cross to the east bank of the Susquehanna and march on Harrisburg from the SE. Isolating himself on the ‘wrong’ side of the river would likely not has sat well with Lee.

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