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3b. Command Philosophy

Upon being named commander of the Army, Meade surrendered command of the Fifth Corps to MG Skyes and moved to Hooker’s old HQ near Taneytown. One of his first actions was to reduce his chain of command by placing LTG Reynolds (his former commander) in command of the left flank consisting of his own First Corps plus the Eleventh and Third Corps. This gave Reynolds the autonomy to act as he saw fit in the region of Emmittsburg where these three were positioned. At the same time, Meade ordered Reynolds to do everything he could to locate Lee’s main force.

Robert E. Lee had a completely different command philosophy than any Union commander. Having re-organized into three immense corps, Lee only ever met with and gave orders to his three corps commanders. He told them what to do, but never how to do it. He dealt with the ‘big picture’; the overall situation on the battlefield. He looked at winning the battle. He decided on the tactic to be employed. He rarely concerned himself with the details and the logistics of actually fighting the battle.

As we will see, this philosophy of only interacting with his three senior commanders would cause issues again and again at Gettysburg. In addition, it seemed to inject some reluctance on their part to act without first seeking approval / orders directly from Lee.

In his book, The Gettysburg Campaign; A Study in Command, historian Edwin Coddington examines the actions and decisions of Lee and Meade before, during and after this epic clash of titans. He takes nearly 900 pages to do so. I can sum it up in one sentence: Lee was aloof; Meade more hands-on.

Lee’s command philosophy was always big picture. He would assess the terrain and military forces at hand and convey his commander’s intent to the Corps Commanders. They were then expected to work out the details of how to execute Lee’s orders. He rarely interacted with and almost never gave orders to any subordinate commander. At Gettysburg, in particular, this would contribute to the Confederate’s defeat.

Meade, on the other hand, was a more hands-on general. He got deeper into the details especially with regard to troop movements. Now it must be noted that Meade was handed command of the Army of the Potomac literally just hours before the clash began. With one notable exception, he was commanding an army that was arrayed by GEN Hooker. Hooker had been relieved – he had simultaneously resigned his position – by GEN Halleck the overall Commander of the Union Armies and President Lincoln when they got into a dispute over the distribution of Hooker’s forces.

The assigned task of the Army of the Potomac was to safeguard WASHDC and BALTO. WASH was vulnerable to attack from Virginia and BALTO was its vital supply link from its port and rail facilities. Without BALTO, WASHDC would literally starve. When Hooker learned that Lee had crossed the Potomac and was headed into Pennsylvania, he was at first reluctant to move troops to oppose him. He was afraid that it was a feint pending a direct attack on WASH. As reports came in, however, it was soon clear that Lee had his entire Army of Northern Virginia moving north so WASH was not likely the target.

Under Hooker, the Army of the Potomac was organized with 15 Corps – since his total troop strength was at about 150,000 each of those Corps was considerably smaller than Lee’s Corps. Hooker began to shift Corps north into Western Maryland, but he left 8 behind to guard WASH & BALTO. Three corps were in the vicinity of Emmitsburg MD. One was much farther east placed in a position to march on York. Two were in a blocking position at a place called Pipe’s Creek astride the Baltimore Pike. This was the widest and most modern roadway and would be the obvious route of march from central Pennsylvania into Maryland and towards BALTO or WASH. Lastly, Hancock’s Second Corps was still en route.

Hooker had selected Pipe Creek as “A good place to fight a battle.” It was, in fact, a version of the terrain that the two armies had fought over at Fredericksburg VA just a few weeks before; except this time the Union forces would be defending on the high ground.

Meade had little choice but to accept the hand he was dealt and to establish his command post at Pipe’s Creek which was at the center of the Union position. In order to simplify his command, his first act was to appoint LTG Reynolds as commander of the 3 corps in the West. Meade’s instructions to him were to pin-point the position of Lee’s forces and to protect Emmitsburg and the western approaches to Central Maryland. He had had little time in command to do much more.

Of note here is that MG J.E.B. Stuart – Lee’s primary cavalry commander and chief scout – was off on his own campaign not far from Early’s division. Much to Lee’s dismay, he had heard nothing from Stuart who was supposed to be keeping him informed of Union troop movements. Their last contact had been more than a week earlier. Lee’s army was marching blind.

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