In his 1880’s magazine article, BG Henry Hunt offered an alternative scenario for Day 2 that I had not thought of before. He suggests that Anderson’s Division should have led the attack instead of Longstreet’s Corps (minus Pickett). At first glance this seems quite feasible with all that we know about the timing of events on that day. With no pre-conceived notions, I will now explore how such an attack might have evolved.
First, there is the relative timing on both sides to be considered. Various factors delayed Longstreet’s attack until about 4PM. We know from the reports of Sickles’ scouts that Anderson had men on Seminary Ridge at about noon. Precisely when they arrived and whether the entire division was in place is unknown. But we can assume that, if so ordered by Lee, the division would have rapidly moved into position. Remember that this division had been held in reserve and had not participated in the Day 1 engagements. [My entire ‘Lee wins’ scenario in Section 28 is based on Anderson’s early deployment on Day 1.]
On the Union side, Hancock was in place along the lower (southern) 2/3 of Cemetery Ridge and Sickles’ Corps was just awakening on the reverse slope of Little Round Top (LRT), but had yet to occupy it as a fighting position. Sickles was already fretting over his assigned terrain.
So on the morning of Day 2, Anderson would have been more or less in an unsupported position on the right flank of the Rebel Army. Pender’s Division (now under Pettigrew) would have been just to his north encamped on the Day 1 battlefield with Heth’s (now ineffective) Division to his left. Neither would have been in a good position to support Anderson. This leads to the first WHATIF. Would Lee have even considered sending a single division (albeit one of his largest) into battle? Rodes was in a better position to offer support than was Pettigrew. And Longstreet was still too far in the rear to be of any aid that morning.
A Day 2 morning attack by Anderson would in all actuality have looked very much like Pickett’s Day 3 actual attack. He would have had to cross the same ground as Pickett did. But his opposition would have been somewhat less. Seemingly the aiming point of such an attack would have been the saddle between Cemetery Ridge and LRT; precisely where Sickles stood lamenting his fate.
So for the sake of playing out the scenario, let’s assume that Lee orders Anderson to roll up the Union left flank as he had hoped Longstreet would do in the actual battle. Whenever I play through these ALT Hx scenarios in my mind, I try to place myself in the position of the decision maker and react to what he seemingly would have known as opposed to what actually was as we look back on history. We know that Lee was acting on false assumptions that he did not attempt to verify. He apparently assumed that the Union line would have been aligned along the northern portion of the Emmittsburg Road rather than on the ridge to the east. He also had been told by his engineer/ scout that LRT was as yet unoccupied.
One must assume that prior to ordering any attack, MG Anderson would have done a personal recon of the area. He would clearly have seen Hancock’s Corps on the ridge with only skirmishers near the road. It is doubtful that he would have detected Sickles’ 3rd Corps to Hancock’s left flank. It would have appeared to him that the true left flank of the Union line ended at the southern tip of Cemetery Ridge at that saddle. To Hancock’s north the cemetery itself was already a formidable salient well-fortified with cannons. Anderson would likely have staggered his 5 brigades in echelon against Hancock’s line with the first two abreast aimed at that saddle; two more to their left and the last hitting the ridge nearer the fabled copse of trees.
Ideally, the Union line would begin to flex – to ‘refuse the line’ as it was called – as his troops hit their far left flank. This would cause some intermingling of units and a bit of confusion for the units to the north. They, in turn, would be hit by the second echelon. Were any available to him, perhaps, the initial plunge could have been made by swift moving cavalry as a ‘shock and awe’ attack to unsettle the Union flank. They could have likely been massed behind the knoll topped by the peach orchard and quickly covered the ½ mile to the saddle in but minutes. As a reprise of the actual battle, artillery in that orchard as well as atop the Seminary Ridge would have supported this attack.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it would take Anderson until about noon to position that artillery and cavalry and to provide his subordinate commanders with their various assignments. Not with standing that such a repositioning of Rebel forces would have been encountered by Sickles scouts as he probed for better terrain, let’s assume that Anderson kicked off his attack just as the first elements of Sickles’ Corps began their move west.
Again, let us posit a trio of Lee, Hill and Anderson positioned high on Seminary Ridge viewing the attack. Perhaps, even LTG Longstreet might have been present. As the cannons boomed and the cavalry advanced, Sickles’ first infantry units march through the saddle, exactly in the path of the cavalry; not an ideal match. But surely not what Humphrey’s advance units were expecting either! There would have been scant moments for the Union men to try to re-align to a fighting stance. The Rebel artillery would have been of little assistance as the cavalry smashed into the marching infantry. That artillery would have concentrated their fire on the lower tip of ridge aiming to suppress fire from Hancock’s troops.
Even with this surprise appearance of Union infantry, it would have been too late to stop the first echelon of Anderson’s infantry from stepping out of the woods and beginning their advance. The utter confusion caused by the infantry-cavalry clash would have worked to their favor. Perhaps their field commanders would have shifted them a bit to the left to avoid melding into that melee.
BG Hunt and LTG Hancock had placed some artillery batteries at intervals along Cemetery Ridge, but there would not have been enough cannons at that point in the day to seriously threaten the Rebel infantry as it advanced. The first, then the second, wave of Confederate troops would have crashed into Hancock’s men with an undiminished force and a spine-chilling rebel yell.
While this was occurring, there likely would have been time to re-direct the fifth brigade to swing to their right and move to support the now faltering cavalry attack. Contrary to Hollywood movie lure, it would have been very rare for a cavalry unit to charge head-long into an infantry formation – even one in marching formation. Such a strike would not have been expected to develop into a prolonged encounter. The cavalry would not have lingered long to absorb the rain of lead that infantry could quickly bring to bear. They would have needed their own infantry to move to their support. Fortunately, for the Rebels, Humphrey would have had all of his artillery limbered up for the move and LRT did not provide Sickles with a suitable platform to deploy any cannons in response. All Sickles could do was appeal to Hancock for whatever support he could offer. But the appearance of thousands of Anderson’s infantry from the opposing woods would have likely precluded Hancock from shifting any support to his flank. Sickles was on his own! Birney’s Division was also in the midst of forming up to move west and tucked in behind LRT could also offer little to Humphrey.
I do not believe that it is possible to predict the true outcome of this proposed scenario. Could Anderson’s single division of some 7000 have been successful in routing Hancock’s 3000-man Corps? As we often have during these speculations, we reach a point of ‘what next’. Had there been a successful breach, what could Lee do to exploit it? Ewell’s Corps could possibly have taken advantage of the chaos at the southern end of the Union line to launch their own attacks, but these would have been adjunct not directly supportive of Anderson.
Perhaps the ‘wild card’ in this scenario could have been Longstreet. Might he have been able to more swiftly deliver at least Hood’s Division to support Anderson? Remember that Hood was ready to move early on the morning of Day 2 but Longstreet waited for McLaws’ final brigade to arrive at about noon before even beginning his march south. Then, to avoid losing the element of surprise, he marched them in a rather circuitous route delaying his actual attack until 4PM. Likely, Hood could have been on the scene much earlier.
I’ll close with this one observation that perhaps obviates all of this discussion of such an attack: what Lee would have ended up with was one division from each of his three corps engaged with the enemy. This alone would have run against the grain of his command philosophy. Plus the fact that there would have been no unit designated as a reserve, would have likely spoken against him making the decision to execute such an attack.
So, while BG Hunt’s proposal seemed to have merit in its timing of a Day 2 attack, it would seemingly never have even been entertained by Lee.
It is reasonably well documented that GEN Lee was not present on the battlefield during the major action of the 2nd of July. In accordance with his overall command philosophy (see Section 3b), he had provided LTGs Ewell and Longstreet with their assignments and he was confident that they would carry out those orders. In short, he was likely completely unaware of the delays and situational changes that affected and disrupted his plan.
It is highly likely that Lee had retired to his HQ and rested or slept most of that day. He had had a very long day (nearly 18 hours) on the 1st of July and combining that with his angina, he was in no shape to intervene against any of these things that impeded his plan.
In this ALT Hx essay I postulate how he might have altered his plan and changed the course of the battle had he been present. Section 6 details the actual battle as it evolved versus what Lee had planned. No one on the field that day would have ever considered changing the plan without Lee’s approval.
In another series of late night musings, I postulate that Lee could have altered his plan and enhanced the likelihood of success on that day. As Longstreet that making his way slowly to the point of departure after waiting all morning for McLaws’ last brigade to arrive, Lee could have launched an attack earlier as he has envisioned by employing Anderson’s Division.
(Section 28 detail how employing Anderson on Day 1 may have won the battle on that day.)
Anderson was moving his division onto Seminary Ridge when his advance units were encountered by Sickles’ scouts late that morning. Exactly when the entire division was in place is not well documented although they did attack in force later in the afternoon. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that they were in place by 2 PM. Longstreet was still en route with nearly two hours more before he would attack. WHAT IF Lee had launched Anderson at or about 2 PM?
His orders would have been to attack into the gap that was created in the Union line by Sickles’ bold move. Anderson’s division consisted of 5 brigades. This would have given him great flexibility to plan his attack. (For simplicity I will refer to those brigades as 1 through 5.)
Brigade #1 would have moved off the slope of Seminary Ridge and immediately engaged Humphrey’s right flank near the Peach Orchard. Their initial goal would not have been to dislodge the Union force but to engage and pin them in place. Brigades #2 and 3 would have stepped off the ridge and marched in echelon towards Cemetery Hill. Brigade #2 on the left would have similarly engaged and occupied the attention of Hancock’s left flank at the bottom of that line; near the Saddle. (Section 30c describes that terrain feature and the role it played in this battle.)
Brigade #3 would have wheeled to the south and marched into the gap in the Union line with the objective of engaging Birney’s Division from the rear. Hence the need to try to hold Humphrey and Hancock from coming to his aid.
Brigade #4 would have followed #3 but turned left and marched into the Saddle with Brigade #2 protecting them from attack by Hancock. The smallest Brigade #5 would move onto the sunken Emmittsburg Road as a reserve force.
At or about 2PM there were no Union forces on Little Round Top and no reinforcements approaching to aid Sickles’ Corps. In fact, his lines would not have been fully established. Brigade #3’s attack into his rear would have come as a complete surprise since Birney was concentra-ting on defending from an attack from the south.
Likewise Brigade #4 would be initially unopposed in the area of the Saddle. Their main purpose was to prevent any Union troops from assisting Sickles. Given that Brigades #1 and 2 were tasking with occupying the attention of the Union troops, only #3 would have been fully engaged in an attack. Their volleys of musket fire into the command element on the north edge of the wheat field would have been devastating to the command and control of those troops deployed into the field. They would need to reorient themselves by 180 degrees to meet the threat.
The rest of Birney’s division deployed between the Wheat Field and Devil’s Den would have fared somewhat better but would have had to defend to their rear as well. So far Lee’s revised plan would have been proceeding well. Artillery would then have been brought forward to assist Brigades #3 and 4.
In the actual battle on Day 2, Meade was able to act swiftly to shift regiments to assist Sickles. These would have approached the battlefield via the Saddle. But now that route was blocked. Those units in marching formation would have suffered heavily from the volleys of musket and cannon fire from the blocking force. It would have taken some time for Meade at react.
We know that Vincent’s Brigade did not arrive on Little Round Top (LRT) until about 4 PM and then only with the prompting of BG Warren. By that time McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had rounded the lower end of Seminary Ridge and were deploying to attack. But in this scenario, the Union units that they were attacking were already engaged for the better part of two hours. The arrival of these new divisions would have placed the Union force between two converging Rebel lines. Occupied to their rear, those Union forces would have been much easier prey for these fresh troop.
So between 4 and 5 PM, Longstreet’s forces would have assumed primary control of the battle. Anderson’s men could begin their withdrawal. The deepest and most active Brigade #3 would have disengaged first and withdrawn between the supporting Brigades on its flanks.
Humphrey’s position was the most vulnerable. They would have been driven into an ever-contracting mass by attacks from west and north. Perhaps the reserve Brigade #5 would have been thrown into action to try to destroy that division entirely.
Brigade #4’s position was the most vulnerable of the Rebel line. They would have had to withdraw under the protection of Brigade #2. These two would then leapfrog one another for mutual protection as they disengaged from Hancock’s line. Brigades #1 and 5 would have had the shortest distance to slip back into the protection of the tree line on Seminary Ridge.
With Hood and McLaws concentrating their attacks solely on Sickles’ Corps and not up onto LRT, they should have had little difficulty in all but annihilating that crippled Corps. Even if a few Union reinforcements made it passed the Saddle to join in, it is unlikely that their late arrival could have done more than place them into the line of fire. Rescue was hopeless by 5 PM. Even the (timely?) arrival of Vincent’s Brigade would likely not have turned the tide of the battle.
In the unlikely event that Meade would have ordered a counter-attack on Anderson’s withdrawing force, Lee could have used the afternoon hours to place as much artillery as he could muster along Seminary Ridge as a deterrent. He would simply have been prepositioning them for the planned barrage on Day 3.
In this scenario, whatever LTG Ewell was able to muster as his part of the grand plan for Day 2 would have been a side-show with little overall effect. Without the thinning of the Union lines that occurred on Day 2, Ewell’s chances of success were diminished significantly.
In summary then, once again by the employment of Anderson’s Division, Lee may have significantly altered the course of the battle. Longstreet’s primary objection to deploying Hood (replaced by Law) and McLaws on Day 3 was the severe losses that they had both suffered on the actual Day 2. In this scenario, their losses should have been greatly reduced and perhaps have resulted in their addition to the massive force that is termed Pickett’s Charge.