By 4 July 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia was skulking back to Virginia having failed to achieve any of its major military or political goals for the invasion of the north. The one glimmer of hope was that they now had a large cache of military supplies, food and fodder that would sustain them in the coming months. Perhaps the greatest blow was in the form of lost manpower. Common foot soldiers would be hard enough to replace but Lee had lost a huge number of his senior, most experienced leaders. Division Commanders Heth, Pender and Hood were WIA. But worse even were the losses among officers of the rank of Colonel and above. Hundreds of years of military experience were gone. These would be almost impossible to replace. From now on, the senior leaders were going to have to manage and control the battles much more closely.
On the opposite side, the AoP had lost three Corps Commanders (Reynolds — KIA and Sickles and Hancock – WIA). But the next men in line were much better prepared for their promotions. The AoP was wounded but the ANV was on life support; not exactly mortally wounded but close.
Much of this death and destruction was totally unnecessary, however. I hereby posit that there were three major failures on the part of the ANV that ensured its defeat. All but one was avoidable. In another essay, I suggested that there were a large number of ‘blunders’ committed by both sides but I’d also suggest that a major ‘failure’ occurred on each day of this battle that ensured a Rebel defeat.
The first of these has been debated by mainstream historians for the past 160 years. But I’d posit that this was the least of the three and the easiest to explain away. It all comes down to the matter of timing! When precisely did MG Early receive the famous “if practicable” order? When did the first Union troops arrive on Culp’s Hill? When did Early’s scouts arrive there? Was it even possible for him to have planned and executed an attack so late in the day? Given that we do not have precise data as to any of this timing, I have no doubts that Early made exactly the correct decision = to do nothing and formulate a better plan for the following day. So while the entire battle could have hinged on the occupation of that hill, it is easily explained and understood why it did not occur. The simple fact that it remains a point of academic debate is somewhat baffling.
I’d suggest that the most formidable failure occurred on Day 2. This was the failure to observe and report MG Sickles’ shift forward. Once this occurred, Lee’s ill-conceived flank attack plan was doomed. Longstreet’s advance should have been halted and a war council convened to concoct a plan B. The entire Day 2 debacle should simply never have happened.
Early on in these essays I characterized Lee’s frontal attack plan for Day 3 as arising out of frustration over the results of the actual Day 2 clash. I’d add to this a layer of arrogance and over-confidence on Lee’s part. I’d suggest that he was projecting his beliefs onto Meade. He assumed that Meade would act exactly the same as he would have had the roles been reversed. He was massively wrong! Of course, he had no way of knowing that Meade’s tactical position and depth of reserves was much better than anyone could have believed. Lee also did not appreciate the rather precarious supply situation that Meade was facing. A siege was much more likely to be a successful strategy than any offensive action.
If Day 2 have not played out as the thwarted flank attack, perhaps the frontal assault on Day 3 would never have been considered. As noted above in Section 40, I find it nearly impossible to predict what the outcome of the Day 2 afternoon war council would have been. But on the morning of Day 3, Lee should have had the equivalent of 4 unbloodied divisions = Longstreet’s 3 plus MG Stuart’s cavalry. How they would come to be deployed would undoubtedly determine the outcome. It would just have taken longer to reach a climax.
As it was, Gettysburg was the first time any Union Commander had decisively outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed LTG Lee. This battle did not overtly decide the war but it did seemingly ensure the survival of the Union.
Part 2: the Union side
The only true allegation of failure that was leveled against the Union Forces was that they did not annihilate the ANV during its retreat. For the most part this was unfair and leveled by people who were not present on the battlefront. While it is true, there were valid reasons why it did not occur. Meade would spend years defending his actions in those days following the clash at Gettysburg. Arm-chair generals (like myself) can seemingly move chess pieces around without regard for the human factors involved. Meade did not obliterate the ANV but he preserved the AoP.
GEN Lee had acted quickly. Realizing that he had nothing left to throw at Meade, he directed BG Imboden’s cavalry to escort hundreds of wagons carrying the wounded and the spoils of the campaign back to Virginia. They would follow the same route that the ANV had taken to get to Gettysburg. They were on the move just hours after Pickett’s defeat. An observer noted that it took 56 hours for that wagon train to pass a given point! This did not include the infantry portion of the ANV.
During the night of 3-4 July, Lee has Ewell’s Corps reposition itself west and in line with the other two corps. On the morning of 4 July, they started marching towards Fairfield on a course parallel to Imboden.
All of this was shrouded by but also inhibited by horrendous storms that drenched the area over 36 hrs. But the Union force was being rained upon as well. For his part, Meade had to contend with the deteriorating state of his army. Once the decision to concentrate at Gettysburg was made, he had directed that they divest themselves of their supply trains to move as quickly as possible. Most of the wagons were at Westminster with some at Emmittsburg. They had brought only ammunition and medical units. Food, tentage and all other ‘comfort items’ were left behind. By the end of 3 July, the situation as to food, fodder and sanitation was dire. Then came the rain. By the dawn of 5 July when the clouds finally dispersed, the morale and physical state of the AoP was at its lowest. Tired, hungry and wet men do not fight well. Meade’s first priority was to feed his men and horses.
Under cover of the storms, the ANV had indeed slipped away unnoticed. Only at dawn on the 5th was their absence noticed. Meade ordered LTG Sedgewick of the Sixth Corps to scout the former Rebel lines. All they found were wounded in need of care. Later that day after a war council, he dispatched his three divisions of cavalry with orders to harass the Rebels wherever they could be found. Over the course of the next few days there were numerous clashes with the ANV’s rear guard. Many wagons were recaptured and prisoners taken. But these had little overall effect on the movement south. Finally he ordered Sedgewick to march as rapidly as possible down the eastern side of South Mountain in an effort to head off the retreat. Remember, Sixth Corps had been the last to arrive and had been held in reserve.
As to the remainder of the AoP, he decided that he needed to keep them between Lee and WASHDC in the unlikely event that Lee would turn eastward. He directed that food and ammunition be sent by train to Hagerstown and to give his troops an incentive to march south.
Upon reaching the Potomac, Imboden found it swollen by the rain so that none of the fords could be used. One of the pontoon bridges had also been swept away. A new one would have to be built by troops on the Virginia side. He directed the few able-bodied men that he had at his disposal to begin to build an east-facing defensive position anticipating that the AoP would not be far behind. The one thing he did have was an abundance of artillery. Slowly, over the ensuring days, the wounded and the huge amount of supplies were ferried across the river. By the time the vanguard of the infantry arrived, the trenches and breastworks were nearly complete for them to man. When Sixth Corps arrived it was faced with a reasonably formidable defensive position. Rather than risk a Pickett-like massacre, Sedgewick received permission to await reinforcements. Meanwhile the ANV was crossing the river.
Suffice it to say that Lincoln and those in WASHDC were not happy with that outcome. A Broad of Inquiry was convened to second guess Meade’s actions. In the end, he was vindicated if not absolved of all blame.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about this entire campaign was that by the end of July 1863 the two armies were facing off on the opposite sides of the Rappahannock River; exactly where they had been when the invasion started!
Part 3: interdiction ?
One aspect of this encounter was that the brigade of troops under MG French at Harper’s Ferry was not employed to attempt to interdict Lee’s withdrawal. Perhaps it was judged that he had too small a force to risk. As Meade returned to Virginia that brigade was blended into the AoP as replacement troops.