In Section 1a, I recounted what seemed to be Lee’s overarching plan for the invasion of the north: 1) he hoped to win a decisive victory over the Army of the Potomac; 2) he hoped that that would bring Lincoln to the negotiating table to end the war. In another series of late-nite musings, I began to ponder under just what circumstances Lincoln might have been brought to the table. How decisive a defeat would the Army of the Potomac have had to suffer to cause him to call for a cease-fire and the end of hostilities – losing the Union in the process? In short, was it humanly possible for Lee to have achieved either of his goals?
Perhaps the loss of the city of Philadelphia, the former capitol of the nation, would have attained such a result. Political pressure may have caused Lincoln’s administration to falter. But the startling information provided by the spy James Harrison all but ended that venture. By 30 June 1863, Lee had to search of a Plan B. Since no plan actually existed, the best he could do was to reconsolidate his scattered forces near Gettysburg. We all know that BG Buford’s rather foolhardy ambush disrupted that movement as well. Perhaps the best plan was suggested by LTG Longstreet, but Lee rejected a move south towards Westminster in favor of continuing the campaign at Gettysburg.
What would a military defeat have looked like to Lincoln? Could it be counted off in the number of casualties inflicted? Seemingly not. Indeed, this was the first time that two armies of 100,000 men faced off against one another, but in prior clashes (Antietam, for example) casualty figures did not seem to be a deterrent from the opposing forces to continue the battle. It took no military genius to recognize that Lee’s army was a small island of the Confederacy isolated deep in the north. How long could he persist living off the land? Could he have undertaken any sort of prolonged siege?
Any of these possible battle positions could have deteriorated into a stand-off not unlike the Monitor and the Merrimack (aka the CSS Virginia). Both armies could have leveled punches at one another until one ran out of punches (supplies and ammunition). Lee would have been likely to fail first.
Just about all the senior officers on both sides were graduates of West Point. They had all studied the successes and failures of Napoleon. One of his favorite tactics was to isolate a portion of his enemy’s forces and annihilate them, thereby reducing the overall strength of his enemy. Unbeknownst to Lee, he might have had such an opportunity with the two Union Corps separated from the main force at Emmittsburg. But without any assistance from Stuart’s Cavalry, Lee had no way of knowing of their vulnerability.
Fortunately for Lee, Meade had no understanding of the disposition of troops of the Army of Northern Virginia either. Essentially, these two forces would blunder into each other near Gettysburg. As it played out over those three terrible days of battle, the terrain and tactics fell greatly in Meade’s favor. The compact line of contiguous hills that Meade occupied was much better suited to the defense than the original line he had chosen at Pipe’s Creek.
What exactly then would a victory for Lee have looked like? Would it not have taken some miraculous collapse of the Union forces to cause Lincoln to give up his goal of saving the Union? Harkening back to Lee’s original proposal and his two-fold goal, what would President Davis had thought would have been sufficient cause to have his forces prevail over Lincoln’s? Hence, why did Davis approve Lee’s plan? Was the threat of starvation of his army in western Virginia so real as to make the move north an absolute necessity?
We must remember that Lee had brought his entire army north. Meade, on the other hand, had his equal number of troops encompassed in 7 Corps. But the entire Army of the Potomac was comprised of 15 Corps. The other 8 were tasked with protecting WASHDC and Baltimore. But with Lee’s army not present as a threat from the south, some of those Corps could have been shifted rather quickly by rail to support Meade. Lee had no such options.
It did indeed seem that however and wherever the possible clashes between these two might forces would take place, Lee was doomed to defeat.
As I understand it, through the early months of 1863, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was being pushed westward. It was a see-saw campaign with both Union and Rebel armies exchanging defeats and victories. Lee proposed to President Davis that he thought that he could bring an end to the war through negotiations, if not an outright military victory, if he could defeat the Army of the Potomac deep inside their own territory.
Is it possible that Lee could have managed a military victory against the Union forces on their own ground? Over the past year or so, I have proposed a number of Alternative History scenarios that begin on 30 June 1863. The majority of those scenarios end in a Rebel defeat.
Lee seemed to have supreme confidence in the ability of his army to defeat the Union forces. But was his effort doomed to defeat from its inception? Did he initiate a chess match that he could never win? I return to my analysis that the Battle of Gettysburg was decided based on 4Ts: Tactics, Terrain, Technology and Timing.
To me, the single most important factor in determining the outcome of that battle was the terrain. The Union’s compact defensive line spanning a series of contiguous hills was not unlike a castle. I can envision Lee looking out from the cupola of the Seminary late on 1 July seeing the Union soldiers digging in at the cemetery and adjacent hills and thinking that he was like thousands of military commanders before him watching the enemy forces manning the castle walls. The concentration of cannons and shoulder-to-shoulder infantry spread over a mere 3 miles was seemingly impregnable.
Time and time again (pun intended), purely serendipitous timing changed the course of that three-day clash. Had Early’s division not arrived just as the last units of the Eleventh Union Corps were moving into place on the Union right flank, the Union line might have held on Day 1. The unzipping of the line was the result of Early attacking a flank that was not yet set in place and therefore was easier to break. This is not withstanding the simple fact that the Eleventh Union Corps had had a questionable history of breaking under pressure. On Day 2, the timing of the 20th Maine’s arrival on the far left flank saved the Union line from being rolled up by Hood’s attack.
Technology came into play twice to the detriment of a Confederate victory. Early on Day 1, the breech-loading rifles that Buford’s cavalrymen carried had convinced Heth, Hill and then Lee that they were facing a much larger force than the 3300 men Buford commanded. Lee’s direct observation of the battlefield mid-morning of 1 July convinced him that Heth had the battle well in hand and that adding Pender’s division would sway the battle his way. Had he fully understood how few men were facing him at that moment, he may have thrown Hill’s entire corps into the fray and won the day prior to the arrival of the Union First Corps. But the volume of fire from those breech-loaders fooled all of them.
Technology also worked against Lee on Day 3 as his faulty artillery fuses decreased the effectiveness of the massive artillery bombardment that should have softened the lines for Pickett to attack.
Lastly, the tactics employed worked against Lee throughout the battle. The major success was Early’s flank attack on Day 1 that broke the Union line. Once Meade was settled behind his ‘castle walls’, he was content to let Lee dictate the course of events. He’d just sit and wait for Lee to act. Lee’s choice of a flank attack by Longstreet on Day 2 was, in reality, the perfect choice. Lee had every reason to believe that the Union left flank was unsettled. It just happened that because of the completely unpredictable action by Sickles that that flank wasn’t where he thought it would be. The ultimate defeat on that day was less Lee’s fault than a victory for Meade in being able to rapidly move troops within his compact perimeter to stave off Longstreet’s attack.
Lee’s decision to try a more frontal attack into the heart of the Union line on Day 3 is much more questionable. Given the fact that a single brigade had reached if not penetrated the Union line on Cemetery Ridge on Day 2, he had reason to believe that a multi-division attack could succeed. My major concern about that tactic was that Lee had not provided any forces to exploit any breach that Pickett might have made.
In short, the odds were stacked against Lee at every turn. I have explored a number of alternative battle scenarios that may have developed in July 1863. The only one that leads to a Rebel victory was for Lee to abandon Gettysburg following the Day 1 battle. This had to occur so that Meade had all of his troops at or moving to Gettysburg on 1-2 July. I have played out multiple alternative battle scenarios (see Section 27) . I have moved the chess pieces around the board in various ways. Most of the time Lee losses!
As postulated in the Alt Hx book by Newt Gingrich and his co-authors, the only route to victory was for Lee to move rapidly south to capture the Union supply depot at Westminster. Every scenario where Meade is directly defending Westminster leads to a Rebel defeat. Despite the fact that Lee had a vast logistical wagon train, he was in fact an island of the Confederacy deep in Union territory. Without the cache of supplies at Westminster, he could not sustain a prolonged battle or siege versus Meade at any geographical position in MD or PA.
There are very few alternative battle scenarios that result in a Rebel win. Lee was possibly correct in determining that a Rebel victory deep in Union territory could have brought Lincoln to the negotiating table and ultimately resulting in the recognition of the CSA by the USA and therefore an overall victory for the South. However, the ultimate chess game that Lee was playing against Meade had all the pieces in Meade’s favor. Whether it was the defense on the hills at Gettysburg or at Pipe Creek, Meade held the advantage in their chess match. Despite Lee’s confidence in his men and his plan to defeat the Army of the Potomac on their own territory, his bold move to invade the north seems to have been doomed to defeat.
OK, I’ll beat this drum one more time [in these uncertain political times, one darn’t beat a horse!]. After hours of ponderings and deliberations over how Robert E. Lee could have snatched victory from the mouth of defeat, I have settled on the one possible road to that victory.
It was the route chosen by Newt Gingrich and his co-author in their ALT Hx book simply entitled GETTYSBURG. They propose that after a long day of fighting even bloodier that the real DAY 1, Lee sees the futility of attacking the castle walls that the Union was fortifying at Gettysburg. He decided to deliberately, but stealthfully, abandon the battlefield and strike out for Westminster.
As always he hands the lead to Longstreet and has him use the Fairfield Rd connection through Emmittsburg then Taneytown and on to Westminster. The rest of the Army of Northern Virginia would follow in trail. I won’t re-tell Gingrich’s tale. Suffice it to say Lee captures Westminster and its huge cache of military supplies. This enables him to then re-position his army to Pipe Creek and re-fight the Battle of Fredericksburg; this time to a decisive victory.
In some of my late night musings, I have explored a variety of alternative attack plans; all leading to a Rebel defeat. Only if he is shored up with Union supplies and occupying the next best defensive line (Pipe Creek) south of Gettysburg, can Lee find victory!
Having laid out this route to a possible Confederate win, we are forced to ask if it is plausible. Getting Longstreet to Westminster required two long days of marching. But that was the easy part, could Lee have held Meade’s attention at Gettysburg and slipped his army (less a few thousand men) away unnoticed? Newt seems to think so, to the point where he used that victory as the basis of a trilogy of books.
Part of the plan, of the ploy, was to capitalize of Meade’s well-known cautiousness. Straightaway down the Gettysburg to Westminster road through Taneytown was a long, but manageable, single day’s march for infantry. Lee’s main challenge was to hold Meade’s attention while his army slipped away. Gingrich postulates that Stuart’s Cavalry would play a vital role – I agree. Thousands of cavalrymen demonstrating on the NE near Culp’s Hill would certainly grab one’s attention.
Meade would have had to be particularly comfortable in his defensive perimeter to allow Lee the time to slip behind Seminary Ridge and push his army south. Throughout the actual battle, Meade did seem quite content to await Lee’s next moves. Waiting throughout 2 and even into 3 July for Lee to mount a major infantry attack would not be out of the question for Meade.
Suffice it to say that by the time Meade reacts and redirects his army south, Lee is waiting at Pipe Creek; his men have full bellies and are weighted down with Union ammunition. In Newt’s version not only does Meade lose, but dies in the process!
I have always thought that the crossroads battle at Gettysburg could be compared to that for Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in WW2. Patton pulled off an almost impossible military maneuver in rotating his Third Army 90 degrees to relieve Bastogne’s beleaguered garrison. In much the same way, Lee would have had to shift his army away from Gettysburg and slide it south without alerting Meade to what was going on.