First of all, we have to remember that this was attempt #2 of invading the North. His first crossing into Maryland in 1862, has been stopped dead at Antietam and the bloodiest day in American history. What follows is what I refer to as a CASCADE of BLUNDERS.
So we start the clock again in about May 1863. The armies of Hooker and Lee are at something of a stalemate in western Virginia. Two large battles had recently occurred at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and both were licking their wounds. Lee was literally looking for a way to shake things up and possibly even end the war. So he proposed another invasion of the North. This time he would focus on an attack at PHILA PA! If only in hindsight, we certainly need to label this ambitious plan as BLUNDER #1 in the cascade of blunders that would soon follow.
It was some two weeks into the invasion that he committed BLUNDER #2. The vanguard of his army had just reached Cashtown (less than a day’s march west of Gettysburg). On 26 June, he changed the course of the advance (BLUNDER #2a) and split his army (BLUNDER #2b). He now had the beginnings of a two-pronged attack focusing on PHILA. But BLUNDER #2c was his most serious one: he failed to secure the cross-roads town of Gettysburg! Surely he could have accomplished this with barely one brigade of troops. He had nine full brigades under Ewell’s command; one of which could have been detailed to set a screen south of Gettysburg for any Union movement in his direction. That brigade would not have been at an great risk since Hill’s Corps would be arriving in the area in a day or two and there were no Union troops known to be in the area. BLUNDER #2c was probably the most serious since it opened the door for BG Buford to spring his ambush. All of that could have been avoided at the expense of only a few thousand men or so.
BLUNDER #3 occurred in the morning of 1 July. Upon arriving at the ambush site, Lee sees the Union cavalry (he was the only one who seemed to recognize them as such and not a stronger force of infantry) in retreat. This was a planned move by Buford to consolidate his forces. But Lee interpreted it as a rout. He promptly left the area after giving LTG Hill permission to commit MG Pender’s division to assist Heth in “mopping up”. This, of course, lead to BLUNDER #3b which was more of a blunder of omission. Lee returned to the battlefront late in the afternoon. This is when he got his first look at the series of hills emanating from the town cemetery and he (and he alone) immediately recognized the strategic importance of Culp’s Hill. But it was too late to influence the battle and change the course of history. When he departed the battlefield earlier in the day, he did so with the full confidence that his generals had things well in hand. He was very wrong. They did manage to eke out a victory but it was mainly due to the serendipitous arrival (Timing) of Early’s division to attack the right flank of the Union Eleventh Corps before they had had sufficient time to establish themselves. In short, Lee did nothing what so ever to direct or influence the first day’s battle.
BLUNDER #4 occurred almost simultaneous with #3. As Lee got his first look at the developing Union defensive line, he decided to stand and fight on that ground even though every lesson he learned and taught at West Point argued against it. I like to describe his position as he stood in the cupola of the Seminary as that of countless military commanders who preceded him in history looking at the formidable defenses of a castle wall and deciding “I’ve got this!” Throughout a series of ALT Hx essays above I have examined every possible variation I can think of to see if Lee had the slightest chance of attaining anything close to a victory in the north. The only variation that plays out in his favor is if he had abandoned Gettysburg and shifted his focus on Westminster to the south.
BLUNDER #5 developed over time beginning on the night of 1 July and extending well onto July Second. Lee’s order of the day was to execute one of his favorite maneuvers: the flank attack. This task was handed to LTG Longstreet. Again, in hindsight, we can see that this was a hasty and ill-conceived order that had had little preparation and worse execution. BLUNDER #5a was that Lee seemingly had a picture in his mind as to what the Union defensive positions looked like, but he did almost nothing to scout and verify that imaginary line of troops. Early in the morning of 2 July, he sent his chief engineer to scout to the south. One can argue whether or not he performed his task adequately on not. None the less, the report that he presented to Lee did nothing to change Lee’s mental picture of the Union line. Not only was that picture incorrect almost in its entirety but by the time Longstreet got around to executing the order, the entire battle site was altered as Sickles’ Corps had occupied the land where Longstreet intended to be. So BLUNDER #5b was not keeping an eye on developments over the course of the eight hours between the order and its execution. There may very well be a credible explanation for the underlying issue on that day. It is thought that throughout this week, Lee was suffering from an angina attack which was sapping his strength and concentration. It is thought that he had retired to his HQ in the morning of 2 July to rest and sleep. He seeming played no role in any tactical decisions for the rest of the day. We can easily speculate that BLUNDER #5c was the failure to recognize the long delay in Longstreet’s attack in the south and perhaps to have ordered Ewell to commence his attack in the north much earlier. As it was, Early’s portion of that attack on Culp’s Hill was seriously disrupted by the impending darkness and the loss of command and control that resulted. That early evening attack quickly deteriorated into chaos that likely would have been avoided in an afternoon engagement. Truthfully, it is not likely that even a successful attack by Ewell on the Union right flank would have changed the ignominious defeat that Longstreet suffered on the left, but it could have softened the blow.
As blunders are ranked, Lee’s BLUNDER #6 was perhaps the most inexcusable of all. It seems that it was almost out of frustration and desperation that he ordered Pickett to attack the center of the Union line on 3 July. At this point, his army was in complete disarray. Longstreet’s and Hill’s Corps were badly mauled. Ewell’s had fought to a stand-off. All Lee had left was Pickett’s unbloodied division. As I have described in other ALT Hx essays above, I cannot begin to imagine what Lee could have described as a ‘win’ for Pickett. What precisely could any such attack have truly accomplished? Yet, Lee ordered thousands of his men to their deaths simply because he wanted to teach Meade a lesson!
In short, these six major and minor BLUNDERS teach us that the battle at Gettysburg was a something of a fluke that should never have been fought when and where it was and that even the best of military commanders — and Lee is certainly counted among them – can deteriorate into a series of fatal missteps.
The War Between the States had been in full conflagration for more than two years. After early successes and a series of Union Commanding Generals, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attempted an incursion into the north in September 1862 but was repulsed at Antietam. While battles raged along the Mississippi, Lee was still convinced that that the key to a Confederate victory was an attack on Washington DC. But he knew that this could not be accomplished with a head-on attack out of Virginia. Instead he decided to attack from the north and west. In June 1863, he once again crossed the thin neck of Maryland and marched boldly into southern Pennsylvania. At the very least he hoped to impress upon the Union leaders that pursuing the war was fruitless and to induce them to settle the war with a partition of the country into North and South. What was planned to be his greatest success turned into Lee’s worst defeat. At Gettysburg, Lee committed some of the biggest blunders that any commander could commit.
First, Gettysburg was not where Lee (or Meade for that matter) had intended to engage the enemy. An advanced element of Lee’s forces literally blundered into a Union cavalry unit just west of the city. While fighting a delaying action, Union BG Buford withdrew his unit into the hills south of the city. This proved to be the master stroke and the key to winning the battle. It took the rest of the day and night for Lee and Meade to move their troops into position.
By the time Lee himself arrived on the scene in the early evening of Day 1, the Union troops had clearly established themselves in a series of hills in a hook or J-shape with the base just south of the town. From end to end Meade’s perimeter was less than three miles long and with a more or less clear line of sight from top to bottom. Lee’s line was over twice as long and occupied by about the same number of troops. Lee had 70,000; Meade perhaps 80,000 under arms.
At this point, Lee still had time to withdraw, since Meade’s forces had not yet consolidated their positions and most were still marching up from the south. But Lee was looking for that one decisive victory to end the war. He allowed his desire to over-rule his West Point training which had included Sun Tzu’s treatise on The Art of War. All throughout that first night, troops on both sides arrived and took up positions. The Union forces reinforced their defensive positions along the ridges.
One of the primary directives established by Sun Tzu was never to attack uphill into an entrenched enemy. Throughout the three days of the Gettysburg campaign, Lee ordered his forces to do just that, culminating in Pickett’s charge on the third day. As a matter of fact, Lee violated about as many of Sun Tzu’s “rules of war” as any commander could possibly do in three days! Among these were engaging an enemy who held the dominate terrain with a force unequal to the task; waging a campaign on unfamiliar, unscouted terrain; rushing headlong into an unplanned battle. Just about every aspect of Lee’s attack was in violation of Sun Tzu’s warnings about how and when to engage one’s enemy: not only was timing and terrain against Lee even the July weather had a debilitating effect on much of his force that had to be force-marched into position once the battle field took shape.
Even when he abided by a Sun Tzu dictum to overwhelm the enemy with fire power, the technology of the day failed him. The artillery fuses his cannoneers were using were faulty. Lee had ordered one of the most massive artillery barrages of the war as a preparation for Pickett’s attack. No one on the Confederate side knew that the fuses burned too slowly with the result that the shells sailed harmlessly over the Union lines and into the interior of the ‘J’ inflicting minimal damage or casualties. Picket’s men were doomed from the start of their advance.
What might have been: Once Buford’s cavalry blundered into Heth’s infantry, Lee still had time to assess the situation, remember Sun Tzu and order Heth to withdraw. He might have had to fight a delaying action but he would have been drawing the Union forces in the direction of Lee’s main force. Instead, Lee had to hurriedly advance his forces to the point that the Union had chosen for the battle. Gettysburg was far from the end of the war; it persisted for nearly two more years, but it was surely a turning point. Many more battles were to be fought, thousands more would die, but the failure of Lee’s second northern incursion was a mortal wound to the Army of Northern Virginia.
During the three day battle at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, there were another series of skirmishes that rarely get mentioned.
As he moved up across Maryland, Lee sent his Cavalry to scout and harass the Union Army as it moved to counter Lee’s movement. JEB Stuart commanded perhaps 6-7000 cavalrymen. He actually may have done his job too well. At one point, he captured over 100 wagonloads of supplies that Lee’s Army badly needed. But this, plus 400 Union prisoners, slowed Stuart’s movements. He was still trying to move stealthily and hide from the main Union body.
Lee and Stuart were out of communication for the first two days of the main Gettysburg battle. This partially explains why the two forces blundered into one another at Gettysburg in the first place; neither had any idea where the other was. When Stuart finally arrived at Lee’s HQ on the night of day 2, his force was exhausted from a week of constant action.
A little known piece of history is the role another famous Cavalryman played at Gettysburg. As part of the master plan for Pickett’s Charge, Stuart was dispatched to the east side (behind the lines) of Meade’s force to attack from the opposite direction as Pickett was attacking in a frontal assault. He ran into a section of Union Cavalry led by Brevet BG George Armstrong Custer. Despite being greatly outnumbered, Custer’s cavalry held up Stuart’s until other Union reinforcements arrived. Stuart never played a significant role at Gettysburg. Perhaps it was a memory of those days of glory against a much larger force that contributed to Custer’s bravado at the Little Big Horn.
[See Section 23b and 30k concerning how Lee may have better utilized Stuart’s Cavalry]
Small Unit Tactics and Blunder
It is easy to conceive of the clash of two 100,000 man armies as a clash of titans; perhaps as two Medieval knights fighting with broadswords or even more analogous as two Roman gladiators fighting for their personal survival. It is also possible, however, to focus a microscope on that clash and to see how a series of small units had major impacts over the course of those three fateful days.
One of the smallest units in the Union army – a 3-gun sector of artillery led by a LT – initiated BG Buford’s ambush of Lee’s army on the morning of Day 1. Later that morning a single regiment of the Iron Brigade (the 6th Wisconsin) made a counterattack against Heth’s division which saved the Union position at the railroad cut. If not for that action the Union may have lost the battle before it had hardly begun. As fighting was dying down as night fell, a handful of sharpshooters (snipers) who had been deployed at various vantage points across Gettysburg, disrupted the Rebel pursuit of the Union soldiers who had been routed from their positions to the north of the city.
Artillerymen also played a large role in staving off Longstreet’s flank attack as they were placed between MG Sickles’ infantry between the Peach Orchard and the wheat field where most of the Day 2 fighting took place. Late in the afternoon of Day 2, a bayonet charge by the 100 survivors of the 20th Maine Regiment broke the back of the Rebel effort to “turn the flank” of the Union position. With that charge the entire Rebel attack disintegrated.
It wasn’t until Day 3, however, that the largest number of small Union units played a major role in ending the battle. As the 3 divisions that comprised Pickett’s Charge emerged from the tree line of Seminary Ridge, the northernmost brigade of MG Pettigrew’s division under BG Davis found its route to the Union line on Cemetery Ridge blocked by a farm house and barn. Earlier that morning a group of skirmishers from the 8th Ohio and sharpshooters had moved down the slope and taken up positions around that farmstead. Their sparse but accurate fire slowed the advance of Pettigrew’s left flank. Many of those men dropped into the bank of the Emmitsburg Road to seek protection. The follow-on units bunched up behind them. They all then came under intense artillery fire from the cemetery. Davis’ Brigade was therefore effectively removed from the attack formation. This made the brigade led by Brockenbrough, who had stepped off later than Davis’ the new left flank of the attack. As they crossed the road and began their ascent of the slope towards the Union line, the 8th Ohio Regiment found themselves in a unique position. Their commanding officer, LTC Sawyer deployed them down the slope just off of the Rebel’s new left flank. From this position they were firing enfilade into the Rebel formation. They were judged to have had a major Impact on the number of Confederates who reached the Union line at the top of the ridge.
A similar but somewhat less effective maneuver was taking place about a mile to the south. Unlike the 8th Ohio’s advantageous position, two regiments from Vermont found themselves in exactly the same spot that MG Sickles had so disliked on Day 2 that he had moved his entire Corps forward. They were in the low saddle where Cemetery Ridge tailed off before Little Round Top began to rise up to their south. When they saw Pickett’s division emerge from the woods a mile across the valley, it looked as if they were directly in his path. LTC Stannard quickly moved those two regiments out onto some low hills in front of the main Union line. They, too, were aligned to fire enfilade into BG Kemper’s brigade on Pickett’s southern (right) flank. But by the time they were prepared to engage, Kemper’s men were nearly out of range. They had been marching north at an angle away from the Vermonters. Even with a larger force they had slightly less of an overall effect on battle than the Ohioans.
Eventually, Pickett’s division all but merged with Pettigrew’s to its north as they reached the point known as “the Angle” where the stone wall took a sharp jog to the east before turning back north towards the cemetery. Rebels soldiers began to surge over the wall. Union soldiers broke and ran under the pressure. Just behind the wall was a 5-gun artillery section led by Lieutenant Cushing. They fired grapeshot (aka canister shot – essentially large shotgun shell-like rounds) into the melee even though there were still some Union soldiers there. When the smoke cleared, there remained nothing but a bloody heap of heads, limps and torsos. But they had little time to revel in their glory. The LT was shot in the face as he ordered his men to reload. Just to their left, closer to the cluster of trees, the remnants of BG Armistead’s Brigade was coming over the wall. All of the artillerymen fell in a hail of bullets. Inexplicably, and seemingly without orders, a group of the Rebels began to try to rotate the cannons to where they could fire into the Union reserves and wagons down the slope. They never got to find out how they would have fared as artillerymen. A single volley of fire from the 42nd New York Rgt tore through them. The remainder of those who had breached the wall were soon captured, many of them wounded. BG Armistead was struck almost simultaneously by three bullets in the chest, side and arm. He died two days later in a Union field hospital.
The Rebel attack as over. It seems only fitting that an artillery section had started the battle and a similar one played a large role at its end.
You will have noticed that all of the ‘small units’ I have described belonged to Meade’s army. Perhaps it is because the victors write the history, but few Rebel units were singled out for recognition of their efforts.
For over 150 years, historians have debated the various failures on the part of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in their massive loss at Gettysburg. Foremost among these is lack of action on the part of MG Early and his Corps Commander, LTG Ewell, in not seizing Culp’s Hill on the evening of 1 July. GEN Robert E. Lee was satisfied, if not exactly happy, with their explanation of events and failure to act.
Lee had hoped that Ewell could occupy Culp’s Hill and disrupt the Union attempt to establish a contiguous defensive line anchored on the right on Culp’s Hill. But neither Early nor Johnson took action to prevent this on 1 July.
WHATIF 5a at Gettysburg: There was perhaps another lack of action which, if taken, could have changed to outcome of the battle at the end of Day 1.
BG Heth’s Division had borne the brunt of the fighting throughout Day 1. Late in the afternoon, just as BG Early’s division was attacking to the north of the city, A brigade of MG Pender’s division of A.P. Hill’s Corps assembled into battle formation on the site of the original ambush. Pender marched his men south and east around Pettigrew’s Brigade of Heth’s division. Almost simultaneous with Early’s attack, under attack by Pender’s fresh troops, the Union troops on the left (southern) flank of the line began to fall back from McPherson’s Ridge to Seminary Ridge. Unlike the rout in the north, this was an organized fighting retreat lead by the Iron Brigade.
The Iron Brigade held the right flank as other 1st Corps units withdrew towards Cemetery Ridge. But finally, under relentless pressure from Pender’s division, they too fell back in an orderly march to the rear. Having no orders to pursue, Pender held his troops on the western slope of Seminary Ridge. That CSA brigade never actually attacked the Union left flank.
The second most debated WHATIF of Gettysburg Day 1 (5b) is Pender’s decision NOT to pursue the First Corps units as they withdrew.
There are a number of possible outcomes of such a pursuit. Pender might have been able to kill or capture many of the First Corps forces that would eventually form the core of the defense of Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. Elements of Hancock’s Second Union Corps were just beginning to arrive in the late afternoon and had not yet established a firm foothold in the cemetery.
Scenario 5b has Pender by-passing the withdrawing First Corps units and establishing a blocking formation at the foot of the Cemetery Hill at the southern end of the city. This would have blocked the retreat of the Eleventh Corps units from the north as they tried to make their way to the cemetery. He could have killed or captured many of these disorganized troops many of whom had no weapons. Again, this would have depleted the Union forces that formed the early defense of the Cemetery and Culp’s Hill.
When first Early then Johnson reconnoitered Culp’s Hill they encountered many of these men that Pender could have interdicted. Perhaps one of those Rebel divisions could have occupied those positions and thwarted Buford’s (and Meade’s) plan to defend the high grounds south of the city.
Instead, newly arriving Union troops would have come under fire from Confederate formations facing south from the cemetery and Culp’s Hill and quite likely would have had to make a hasty retreat to Meade’s original point of defense at Pipe’s Creek just south of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.
It could have been a truly epic race between Union and Rebel troops to occupy these two northernmost hills to establish territorial supremacy. But because both Early and Pender failed to exploit the Rebel military victories of the day, they paved the way for the overall Union victory in the days to come.