The more I cogitate on alternative outcomes of the Battle of Gettysburg, the more I am convinced that the missing key to victory for Lee was the absence of JEB Stuart’s cavalry! Had Stuart simply done his job and stayed on Lee’s right flank, paralleling his movement north but on the east side of South Mountain, he would have (should have) been in place at Gettysburg on or before 26 JUN 1863 when Early’s division marched through the town en route to York, PA.
As such he would have still been there awaiting Lee’s main force on the morning of 30 JUN when BG Buford led his Union cavalry towards Gettysburg. Stuart would have undoubtedly have had his men in key observation points overlooking each of the major routes that entered Gettysburg from the south. Stuart would then have challenged Buford’s approach. Since Buford was on a recon mission, he would have had no reason to engage in a major cavalry battle with Stuart. He would have withdrawn and made his report to LTG Reynolds that he had located the vanguard of Lee’s Army.
Buford’s arrival near Gettysburg at mid-morning via the Emmittsburg Road would have tipped off Stuart that a portion of the Union Army was near that city. He would, in turn, have sent small scouting parties south to fix their position. Reynolds’ report to Meade that the Rebels were at Gettysburg would likely have solidified plans to make a defensive stand at Pipe’s Creek.
To protect the left flank, Reynolds would have deployed his two corps (First & Eleventh) in a blocking position astride the Emmittsburg Road likely just north of the town. Sickles’ two-division Third Corps would have moved into a reserve position just south of the city.
One of the biggest decisions that Lee would have had to make on the evening of 1 JUL was whether or not to wait for Longstreet’s entire corps to close on Gettysburg before he turned his army south. Lee now knew that Union troops occupied Emmittsburg and would have aimed Ewell’s Corps there. Since there were three main roads departing south from Gettysburg, I’m guessing that Lee indeed would have waited for Pickett (the rear guard division) to arrive. Then, on the morning of 3 JUL, Hill’s Corps would have proceeded down the route to Taneytown while Longstreet headed southeast on the Balto Pike.
Editor’s Note: the order of which Corps proceeded via which route is purely speculative and could have occurred in any number of ways.
Here a couple of options enter the WHATIF scenario. LTG Slocum’s Sixth Union Corps would have been moving in from the east where it had been guarding the Union right flank against any shift in Early’s movement towards York. We know that they arrived at the actual battle field in the late afternoon of 2 JUL. But that was because they had force marched there. Had their pace been more usual, they would still have been en route on July third. Their actual approach to Gettysburg would have taken them up the Balto Pike for the last few miles of the journey. In this scenario, they most likely would have spent the night of 2 July near Littlestown before moving south towards Pipe’s Creek. This could have put them on a collision course with Longstreet. But the likelihood is that these two trains would have crossed paths without meeting. Slocum would have departed Littlestown about the same time as Longstreet began his march south in that direction.
On the morning of 3 JUL 1863, Reynolds would be just to the north of Emmittsburg with 2 Union Corps and one in reserve. Meade would be at Pipe’s Creek near Taneytown with 2 Corps (Fifth & Twelfth) in defensive positions and Slocum imminently arriving from the north east with his Sixth Corps. Hancock’s Second Corps would be just north of Westminster in reserve.
As one looks at the map, the 4 towns of Gettysburg, Emmittsburg, Littlestown and Taneytown form an almost perfect diamond); each about equidistant from each other. Hill’s Corps would have had the longest distance to travel since he was “crossing the diamond” from top to bottom aimed at Taneytown. He also would have been proceeding cautiously since he still didn’t know exactly where he would encounter Union troops. Slocum’s path to Taneytown from Littlestown would not have crossed Hill’s route so Slocum would have likely arrived before Hill encountered the blocking position at Pipe’s Creek.
Undoubtedly, Ewell would have clashed with Reynolds first since they were the closest opponents. But since that was expected, it shouldn’t have had any great effect on Hill or Longstreet. In this scenario, Longstreet would have played a crucial role and had a major decision to make.
Assuming that Lee realized that Westminster was the most crucial city in the area and only a day’s march north of Baltimore, his main thrust should have been to converge his three-pronged attack there. What he had no way of knowing was that Longstreet’s route down the Balto Pike was unopposed! It was the longest route (swinging east before turning south) but there were no Union troops between Longstreet and Westminster!
Alternately, Longstreet would have learned that Slocum had crossed the Pike at Littlestown headed for Taneytown. The natural assumption would be that Meade was making a stand at Taneytown in Hill’s path. At Littlestown, Longstreet could have turned southwest and followed Slocum. One, he could hope to catch him on the march. Two, he could reinforce Hill wherever he encountered the Union blocking force. Remembering that all throughout the actual battle, Longstreet had counselled Lee to swing east and south to try to catch the Union Army on the march. Following Slocum would have been Longstreet’s chance to act on his instincts as a commander. Plus, if indeed Slocum was joining Meade’s main force, the presence of a second full Confederate Corps could tip the balance of any battle no matter how well prepared Meade was.
My last speculative contribution to this scenario is that Lee would have seen that Ewell’s Corps was going to be the most isolated and headed for the most certain battle at Emmittsburg. He would most likely have augmented Ewell with Stuart’s entire cavalry division. This powerful weapon could very well have turned the tide of the encounter at Emmittsburg. Ewell’s main mission would be to pin down the Union force at Emmittsburg. If, however, they should break or attempt to withdraw, he was to pursue and harass them. The fast moving and hard hitting cavalry would play a major role in either eventuality. Reynolds would have already been outnumbered even though he was fighting on the defense. A cavalry charge directly down the Emmittsburg Road into the point where the two Union Corps adjoined each other (always a weak spot) might have been enough to break Reynolds’ line and force him to retreat.
With both Hill and Longstreet converging on Pipe’s Creek, one has to wonder how long Meade could hold that position even with four Union Corps. If, indeed, Meade’s line was broken, his fall-back position would have to be Westminster. Once he abandoned Pipe’s Creek, Reynolds’ position at Emmittsburg would become untenable. He would almost assuredly have had to withdraw. But with Taneytown in enemy hands, he’d have to withdraw directly south before turning east to meet Meade at Westminster.
At this point, the possible course of the battle becomes too complex to debate with any certainty. Meade would be desperate to defend the vial railway and road link at Westminster that was barely a day’s march from Baltimore. But he would be doing so without much in the way of prior preparations (unlike Pipe’s Creek). He would need to hold out at least until Reynolds’ seven divisions could fall back to him. With seven full Union Corps and the possibility of bringing more by train from the WASH DC area, he might very well have been able to save the Union.
But here again, the scenario switches to a political rather than a military outcomes. Would Lincoln have been forced to the negotiating table?
In this scenario, I have aligned Lee’s three corps in one possible configuration. Others are possible and even more likely depending upon exactly when Lee moved south.