This WHATIF postulates what the Day 2 of the engagement may have looked like if MG Sickles had shifted his Third Corps forward in concert with LTG Sykes. As discussed in Section 2 above, Timing was in important factor throughout this clash. WHATIF Fifth Corps had arrived just a few hours earlier than it did?
History records MG Dan Sickles as the ‘goat of Gettysburg’, but that might not have been so if the time frame of the day had shifted just slightly. In this WHATIF, I explore how the new Union line he tried to create could have been even stronger than the actual one.
One of the aspects of that epic clash was the timely arrival of military units at exactly the right place at the right time. First was the late morning arrival of Reynold’s First Union Corp to relieve Buford’s cavalry just as they were exhausting themselves and their ammunition. A few hours later, Early’s division arrived on the scene just as the Eleventh Union Corps was establishing its right flank. That attack caused the entire Union line to unzip. And most famously of all, there was arrival of the 20th Maine Regiment as the extreme left flank of the Union line just in time to thwart the Rebel’s advance up the slope of Little Round Top.
The 20th Maine was part of COL Strong Vincent’s Brigade in LTG Sykes’ Fifth Union Corps. They were arriving on the scene at about 4PM on Day 2 just as LTG Hood’s rebels were launching themselves at LTR. But WHATIF we shift the timeframe just slightly?
It seems that sometime around noon, MG Sickles decided to focus his full attention on the knoll that held the Peach Orchard about ¾ of a mile in front of LTR where he was assigned to position his troops. Let’s postulate that before Sickles actually shifted his two divisions forward, Sykes appears in the scene, moving up the Baltimore Pike just to the rear of Sickles’ Corps.
A quick consultation between Meade, Sickles and Sykes may have been all it would have taken to gain permission to occupy the Peach Orchard as a third anchor point of the Union line, but using both Corps. Since Sickles’ Corps was the only one in the Army of the Potomac with just 2 divisions, he would have deployed from the orchard eastward to the south end of Cemetery Ridge, facing north. To complement that move, Sykes’ three divisions would have moved into the orchard facing west then south from the orchard through the Wheat Field and bending around Devils Den to the western base of Big Round Top (protecting Sickles’ rear).
Such a deployment would have created what I describe as the Lazy-Z Union line. It would begin at Culp’s Hill, swing around to the second anchor point (the strongest) at the Cemetery then turn due south. At the south tip of Cemetery Ridge, it would extend west to the orchard and then back east in a V-configuration to Big Round Top. Seemingly, this formation would have been much stronger than the actual inverted-J Union line.
All of this would have taken place in the early afternoon during which time LTG Longstreet was en route to the launch the flanking attack ordered by Lee. It is highly unlikely that either of them would have been aware of this shift by the Union troops. Although it is possible that with a bit more coordination and interaction among the Confederate commanders, MG Anderson’s division which was operating on the east facing slope of Seminary Ridge would have noted the Union activity and notified Lee.
Whether or not Longstreet was able to abort his attack or if MG McLaw’s division swung around the southern end of the ridge directly into the massed Union guns in the orchard, the result would likely have been the same. Hood’s division would have been halted in place and McLaw would have had to withdraw under heavy fire back around Seminary Ridge for protection. Day 2 would have ended without a major battle and Longstreet awaiting new orders from Lee.
In the meantime, LTG Slocum’s Sixth Union Corps would have arrived and most likely would have moved onto the reverse slope of LTR. Since LTR was now well within the Union perimeter, there would have been no need occupy the crest with infantry or artillery. Sixth Corps would have been the Union reserve force waiting to plug any weak spots or back up any units under attack. With proper planning, the saddle between Cemetery Ridge and LRT would have provided an easy access point for artillery limbers and logistical wagons to move into the V-formation to support Sickles and Sykes.
The commander’s war conference at Lee’s HQ in the evening of Day 2 would have been a somber affair. His initial intention to concentrate his army at Gettysburg would only have been partially achieved. Johnson’s and Early’s divisions of Ewell’s Corps were on the east side of the city with Ewell’s third division under Rodes on the southwest corner of the city staring into the Cemetery strong-point.
As for Hill’s Corps, Anderson’s – as yet unbloodied – division was perhaps in the best tactical position at the northern end of Seminary Ridge with Pettigrew (replacing the wounded Pender) and Heth to the north but not in a position to support any attack. With Pickett just now arriving, Longstreet’s Corps would be complete but essentially bottled up behind Seminary Ridge.
Seemingly Lee would have had few options. Ewell and his subordinates were arguing against a direct assault from the north against the strong Union positions in the cemetery and on Culp’s Hill. An attack on the cemetery that Lee actually chose for Pickett of Day 3 would have been met with direct fire from essentially three sides. The Peach Orchard was now heavily fortified with as much artillery as would fit just as Sickles had envisioned, but it remained a militarily weak point in that it was the junction of two different corps.
My best guess is that this would have been the focus of Lee’s attention on Day 3. Instead of the artillery barrage aiming at Hancock’s HQ on Cemetery Ridge, it would have focused on the Peach Orchard which was much closer to the ridge line where the cannons were positioned. Would this difference in time and distance have at least partially offset the fuse problems that his shells had? Once again, Longstreet would have commanded the Day 3 attack, but it would have been carried out by his three relatively fresh divisions. Their main focus would have been the tip of the V at the orchard but with simultaneous attacks on Sykes’ forces in the area of the wheat field. Anderson could have supported Longstreet with at least a demonstration attack on the orchard from the north to hold Sickles’ troops in place. Such an attack would have been out of range of all but the longest range artillery to the east.
Having committed 4 divisions to an attack on the orchard, what would have been considered as a successful outcome? If the orchard had been successfully captured, how could Lee have exploited it? Could it have withstood a counter-attack by Sixth Corps? At the very best, Lee might have ended Day 3 with a Union configuration of forces in the exact inverted-J of the real battle; with Longstreet’s forces in and around the orchard. But what then? Once again, an exploration of ALTERNATIVE HISTORY leads to an over-all Union victory in that the Confederates had no way to exploit their successes.