Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Gettysburg Continued

Today, I'm going to write a bit more about the military aspects of Gettysburg, the battle itself, the campaign, the strategy, and about the generals. About Lee, I suppose, in particular.

Gettysburg was one of Lee's worst battles. He was beaten - but more than that, the battle was fought in disjointed and unimaginative way, his generals failed him, or maybe his command structure failed him, and by the third day he'd run out of ideas and fallen back on the old stand by, the frontal assault, which went the way most frontal assaults went in the Civil War. But along with the Southern failures, one of the most important things at Gettysburg was that the Army of the Potomac finally had a general in charge who wasn't a fool, didn't panic, and could count. I've written before about Lee's luck in his opponents - McClellan couldn't count and saw disaster behind every bush; Pope and Burnside were plain incompetents; Hooker froze up when the shooting started. But Meade was different - not brilliant or particularly inspiring, but he read the situation, never panicked, didn't lose, and more importantly, didn't decide he'd lost before the fighting as finished. Put in all his men, that sort of thing.

The battle itself could have gone either way. It's true that neither side was looking for a fight at Gettysburg, but events fell to have the armies fight there, and both sides grasped what they found. Lee's army had the early luck on the battlefield - the positions of the troops before the battle favored them, and they got 2/3 of their army onto the field on the first day, 2 armt corps, Hill's and Ewell's, while the Union had somewhat less than a third of their army, 2 corps (though smaller corps than the Confederates), the I and XI. Hill's men came first, ran into the I corps, and got shot up pretty bad - but Ewell arrived, and the rest of Hill's men, and Ewell's men, in particular, got around the flanks of the XI corps, and caved them in. So all of Hill's men took on the I corps and drove them back with very big losses. (Somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of the I corps lost the first day.) Meanwhile, the rest of the Union army came up, but not very fast - some of them, Henry Slocum's XII corps particularly, took their time about it. (That was another war-long trait of the Army of the Potomac - they did not always act with grew urgency; they seem to have picked up McClellan's tendencies, probably because he trained the whole army and almost all of its high officers, and show very little of the ability to move troops that Grant and Sherman had, or Lee and Jackson and Hill, on the other side.) But Slocum's performance the first day was actually rather anomalous at Gettysburg; Union officers showed great initiative throughout the battle. It started with John Buford, whose cavalry made a stand in the morning of the first day, and John Reynolds, who committed to the battle, and continued with Winfield Scott Hancock, who Meade sent to assess the situation, and who decided to make the stand here. (Hancock would end up being the central figure of the battle, in a lot of ways; his II corps held the center of the Union line, and Meade gave him a lot of the direct control of the battle lines, as the battle went on.) When Hancock arrived the first day, the army was in trouble - the I and XI were the only troops on the field, they had both been wrecked, the rebels were there in numbers - but the Union had strong positions south of town, it was getting dark, and the rebels were disorganized from the fighting, so things petered out. And everyone waited for the next day.

By July 2, most of both armies were on the field; the Union held a line of hills southeast of Gettysburg, the Confederates held a line of hills northwest of the town. The north, though, had the option of waiting - Lee, on hostile territory, would have to either take the fight to the Union or try to go somewhere else. Longstreet wanted to do the latter - march around the Army of the Potomac, try to lure them into a position where they would have to attack. But Lee decided to fight. And here - you wonder how much his previous good luck hurt him. Compare this battle to Chancellorsville - there, the battle took a major turn on May 2, when Jackson caved in the Union right flank, a complete success that ran out of time in the woods. The next day the rebels took up the attack again and drove back the Union, but only after a day of full on fighting (the second bloodiest day of the war). And by the end, the Union was established in strong defensive positions, with half the army uninvolved so far - but Joe Hooker was beaten. At Gettysburg, the same thing would happen - part of the Union arm driven in the first day, then a bloody toe to toe fight on the second day, that left the Army of the Potomac in a strong defensive position - but Meade was not beaten. He still held the high ground - he kept fighting. But on both the second and third days, Lee mounted major attacks against strong defensive positions, as if he took it for granted the Army of the Potomac would either lose the battle, or march away. And it didn't happen.

As it happened, the rebels had their share of luck on the second day. Lee decided to have Longstreet attack the Union left - Longstreet wasn't enthusiastic about it, and took his time. (And none of them did a very good job of determining the ground ahead, the union positions, and so on.) Preparations dragged on - and then Lee got lucky again. Daniel Sickles, commanding the III corps on the left flank of the Union line, decided his ground wasn't strong enough - so he moved his men a mile or so forward to a new line, longer than his original line, separated from the II corps on his right, and without any natural end to his line on the left, and leaving the two bigs hills on his left empty. All this happened just about the time the rebels attacked - so on they came, and the Yankees had to try to save the day. The III corps was shot to hell (wrecked, as much as the I and XI were - all three disappeared as units by the end of the year). The V corps came to their rescue, and got hammered as well, as did units from the II corps. The rebels almost took Little Round Top, a hill on the very left end of the union line, that would have given them a devastating position against the union line - Governeur Warren and Joshua Chamberlain became famous saving the place, Strong Vincent and Patrick O'Rorke and Stephen Weed could have become famous, but they were all killed fighting there... The battle stretched on into the night, with the confederates putting in more troops, the latecomers tending to hit the places thinnned out to save the left, so the Union had to scramble to meet those threats. Hancock was in charge of most of this battle - he met the threat as well as you could. (The First Minnesota regiment saving the day, there at the end.) And when this was done, the rebels attacked on the far right, on Culp's hill, where the union lines had been thinned out to deal with the threat on their left... But these troops were dug in deep and held, and darkness came and the battle stopped for the night.

So we come to the third day: this is the famous one, Pickett's Charge - 15,000 men marching across a mile of farmland into their doom. Right. People like to romanticize it, but the union soldiers had no illusions - they knew this was Fredericksburg turned around. (The way Fredericksburg was Malvern Hill turned around. Next year, they would all be topped by Cold Harbor. Frontal assaults against strong defensive positions were pretty much murder in the Civil War, though generals didn't seem to notice...) It is hard to imagine this attack working under the best circumstances - but add to that the fact that it was launched with a lack of coordination and consideration worthy of a McClellan or Burnside. Pickett was the centerpiece of the attack - he was Longstreet's third division commander (the other two divisions had fought the day before.) Pickett was supported by two of A.P. Hill's divisions - the divisions that had been shot to hell on the first day of the battle. Both lost heavily; both were under new division commanders. Longstreet was in overall command of the attack, but he didn't do much to coordinate with Hill's men. Neither did Hill (since it was Longstreet's attack). Nor did Lee. Hill's men were just told to go in on Pickett's left. They did, but they started behind him, separated from him, at a different angle, without much connection. The results? After a huge artillery barrage, that used up all their long range ammunition (while the Yankee gunners mostly waited) the confederates went forward - and were murdered. There were masses of guns on their right, that blasted Pickett's division lengthwise. There were masses of guns on the left that blasted the hell out of Hill's men. Union soldiers got out on both flanks and cut them down from the side. Hill's two divisions got half way to the Union lines and that was about it - they were just blasted apart. Pickett's men did better - partly because the artillery in the II corps, in front of them, had kept up the fight with the rebel artillery earlier, and used up all their long range ammunition, partly because they had a slightly clearer path, and probably because they hadn't been shot up two days before. Some of Pickett's men reached the Union lines, got into hand to hand fighting there, chased off a couple regiments, but they got there alone, the union line didn't break, and they never had a chance. In after years, the romanticists would cal this the "high water mark" of the Confederacy, but mostly this was just a pointless hopeless attack that killed an appalling number of men, to no purpose. (If there was a high water mark of the Confederacy, it was the day before on Little Round Top.) And that, more or less, was the battle of Gettysburg.

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