This WHATIF postulates what Day 2 of the engagement may have looked like if LTG Sickles had simply remained where he was supposed to be.
In Section 6c, I attempted to lay out the series of decisions that led MG Dan Sickles to shift his Union Third Corps forward to occupy the promontory known as the Peach Orchard. GEN Meade’s vision, if not clear orders to Sickles, was for him to occupy Little Round Top and thereby to extend the Union line all the way to Big Round Top. Since the Third Corps consisted of only two divisions, initially it might have been spread rather thinly over a distance of a mile or more from the south end of Cemetery Ridge to Big Round Top.
We know for sure that the last major Union unit to arrive on the battlefield was the Sixth Corps. At that point, they became Meade’s reserve corps and released Fifth Corps to move to the battle front. As they moved to occupy the southern end of Little Round Top, Third Corps could have contracted their lines northward. Eventually, by early afternoon of 2 July, there would have been a solid line of west-facing rifles from the Cemetery gate to Big Round Top – a course of about two miles.
Lee’s plan for Day 2 was to have McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions make a U-turn at the southern end of Seminary Ridge and move north along the Emmittsburg Road in a movement to contact until they located the Union left flank which Lee was convinced was along the roadway. When they emerged from behind Seminary Ridge, they would have been in clear sight of the Union line but out of effective rifle range. It had been noted that Little Round Top provided a terrible perch for artillery. Just getting cannons up the rocky inner slope would have been a chore much less finding a flat area to place and operate the guns. The nearest artillery would have been at the north end of that ridge. In point of fact, the area where Little Round Top meets Cemetery Ridge was broken by a saddle, a low spot which would have been recognized as a vulnerable gateway and Sickles would have undoubtedly massed his artillery to cover and plug that potential gap.
McLaws would have been staring up a narrow valley between the steep slope of Seminary Ridge and the Peach Orchard. Likely he would have remained more or less in a marching formation rather than a broad attack formation. Beyond the orchard promontory, the landscape flattened and opened up into a mile-wide valley. [In reality, this would be the site of Pickett’s Charge on Day 3.]
Emerging from the protection of the Orchard hill, he would most likely have redeployed into a broad attack formation anticipating contact with the left flank of the Union line overlooking the north end of the Emmittsburg Road. Of course, there was no such line on that road. Every Union rifle and cannon was to his right! Just as occurred in the real battle of Day 3, McLaws’ would have come under immediate artillery fire as soon as he emerged from behind the orchard. His right flank would also have been within rifle range (barely) as they extended to the east of the roadway.
McLaws seemingly would have been reduced to three choices of action – four if we include simply staying the course and marching forward which as Pickett experienced was virtual suicide. He could have tried to wheel his entire formation around and drop them into the protection afforded by the sunken roadway. This action, however, would not have lessened the devastating effect of the massed artillery fire raining in on them. Alternately, he could simply retreat back to the protection of the orchard hill but Hood’s division was likely already there and his men would have had little space to occupy. His most likely course of action would be to fall back onto the lower slopes of Seminary Ridge thereby moving out of effective range of the Union artillery.
We know that at least one brigade of Anderson’s division was operating in that area, but the remainder were farther north in the protective cover of the woods. They would not have been a position to be of much support to McLaws. We’d assume that Hood would have been watching with dismay as McLaws was routed without even firing an effective shot.
Hood’s best likely alternative was to do exactly what LTG Sickles had feared and move up to occupy the Peach Orchard and position both his and McLaws’s artillery there. At this point, the battle would have been reduced to an artillery duel as the orchard would have been out of effective range for the muskets of either side.
All of this would likely have occurred within a half-hour or so of McLaws emerging from behind Seminary Ridge. Rather than the protracted 4-5 hour battle that actually occurred on Day 2, this alternative Day 2 would have more or less paralleled Pickett’s half-hour long disastrous attack on the real Day 3.
For his part, Meade was in a fully defensive mode although they were a few of his commanders who were urging him to take the offensive against Lee’s rather scattered army. The second part of this WHATIF goes like this:
WHATIF Meade committed his reserve corps to the fight at this point? Sixth Corps was massed in the rear area near the Baltimore Pike. Conceivably, it wouldn’t have taken them too long to swing around to the south of Big Round Top and slam the door on Hood from escaping south. In other words, Meade could have turned Lee’s flank attack into one of his own! Hood would have been trapped on an island in the orchard with his only route of escape westward to join McLaws in the protective cover of the woods. With Sixth Corps sweeping through the wheat field and up the Emmittsburg Road, dragging his artillery across the sunken road and up the slope of the ridge while under fire would have been an almost impossible task. Likely, he would have lost most of two divisions worth of artillery in his effort to escape annihilation! Those who reached the safety of the woods would most likely have been able to follow the trails and roads over the ridge to ultimate safety.
If they were bold enough, while Sixth Corps was executing an end-around, elements of the Fifth Corps could have slipped down the southern slope of LRT and followed the stream and ravine that have actually led the Rebels to their encounter with the 20th Maine on the real Day 2. This would have quickly brought them to within rifle range were they could have harassed any attempt by Hood to escape southward. Although some infantry might have been able to run the gauntlet and escape, they would mostly likely have been able to bottle-up the artillery. Once Sixth Corps was in a blocking position, all hope of extracting the artillery would have been abandoned. Fortunately for Longstreet and Lee, that would have been the worst of their losses. For such an anticipated lightning strike on the Union flank, no wagons other than artillery and ammunition would have been brought along.
Ironically, with this scenario, Day 2 would have ended for the Rebels much the way Day 1 had ended for the Union: the majority of the force in a disorganized retreat with many weapons abandoned on the battle field. The up-side of this alternative history is that overall casualties on both sides would have been much lighter than the reality of Day 2.