A Great Battlefield
Gettysburg: an epic tale of not quite enough and just in time
Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Lee therefore took steps to unite his scattered forces with the intention of striking the enemy before it could do the same. He also wondered, aloud, why he had heard nothing from his cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, who should have been screening his army’s movements instead of riding for glory and headlines, as he was off doing. Among the many passionate disputes over credit and blame that followed the Civil War, the part Stuart played—or did not play—in Lee’s defeat remains one of the most enduring. Certainly it won’t be settled here. Still, it does seem indisputable that Stuart should have stayed closer to the army. Also, Lee should have been more specific when he issued orders to his impetuous cavalryman. It is arguable that Stuart’s absence did not result in a catastrophic failure of intelligence, since Harrison provided Lee with the information he needed. But it does appear that the consequences of Stuart’s absence were most felt by Lee in the very early stages of the battle, when he lacked cavalry to screen the infantry’s advance into Gettysburg.
Finally, the matter of Stuart and his absence was just one example among several of Lee being unable, or unwilling, to make his subordinates understand his plans and carry out his designs.
Where Lee depended on agents and other improvised, ad hoc arrangements for intelligence, Meade could rely on the professional services of a unit that was Joseph Hooker’s enduring contribution to the Army of the Potomac. The unit was called the Bureau of Military Information. It was led by a New York lawyer and combat veteran, George Sharpe, who made it a modern intelligence service, using information collected from spies, enemy newspapers, captured soldiers, friendly civilians, and other sources. The information was brought together and analyzed to produce an estimate of the enemy’s organization, location, and intentions.
Meade might have been taking command in haste and under heavy pressure, but he had good intelligence, which he used to come up with his own plan. This was, broadly, to put his army where it could resist a move by Lee on either Washington or Baltimore and do so on ground that would give Meade the advantage. He thought an area around Pipe Creek, southeast of Gettysburg by 17 miles, would be ideal, and he put his engineers to work studying the ground and making preparations. Meanwhile, he got the dispersed elements of his army on the move.
One of Meade’s generals, and rivals, believed that the Pipe Creek strategy was flawed and that the place to make a fight was Gettysburg. General John Reynolds knew the territory—he was from Pennsylvania, born 50 miles from Gettysburg—and he found the latitude to act on his own discretion in the ambiguous nature of Meade’s orders, though one set did instruct Reynolds to retreat “without further orders” if he ran into the Confederate Army. Those instructions were delivered midday on June 30.
Still, Reynolds pushed on toward Gettysburg. In this battle, neither commanding general had complete control of his subordinates.
If Meade did not like the place, Lee was not happy about the timing. On July 1, the scattered elements of his army were moving rapidly toward a junction and Lee did not want a fight before that was accomplished. The lead division of one Confederate corps was moving east on the road into Gettysburg with no sure sense of what might lie ahead in the way of enemy units. There was no cavalry screen—Stuart was still off in parts unknown—so the infantry had to do the job of probing and testing the ground for the presence of Union troops.
The commander of that infantry had orders from Lee to “ascertain what force was at Gettysburg. If he found infantry opposed to him, he was to report the fact immediately, without forcing an engagement.”
The probing skirmishers from Henry Heth’s division encountered resistance as they came up the Cashtown Road. The Union soldiers they ran into were not, however, infantry. They were Union cavalry, under the command of a tough old veteran of the Indian wars, named John Buford. There were 1,600 of them, and they were armed with repeating rifles, so they had some advantage in firepower. Not enough, however, to stand up to infantry in a sustained action, as both Buford and Heth knew well.
Buford’s orders were to buy time—something several other Union commanders would be ordered to do over the next three days. Hold them, Reynolds said, essentially, until I can get my own infantry up.
If Buford held, then Reynolds could bring up both his own 1st Corps and Oliver Howard’s 11th, which was marching with him and under his overall command. Then, the battle would be fought here. At Gettysburg.
Henry Heth was inclined, also, to make a fight of it, since he believed he was up against cavalry and could, once he had deployed his men, break them and move on into Gettysburg.
It was close. Buford’s men were giving ground, with their general watching from the vantage of a cupola at a Lutheran Seminary to the rear, when Reynolds appeared and asked, desperately, if the cavalry could give him one more hour.
Buford agreed to try. Reynolds rode back to find troops from his own corps, who were on the road to Gettysburg, and led them at a trot for more than a mile cross-country to the McPherson Ridge, where the fight was at a crisis.
“Forward, forward, men,” he shouted from horseback as he deployed the troops on a line to resist Heth’s assault. “Forward! For God’s sake, forward.”
And then he fell from the saddle with a bullet in his head.
Reynolds was the first of nine generals to be mortally wounded in the battle and a serious loss for the Army of the Potomac, which some thought should have been his to command, after Hooker’s dismissal.
But Reynolds had, before he died, brought up enough infantry to halt the Confederate assault. The new arrivals included the Iron Brigade, among the most distinguished, and distinguishable, of all the Union outfits. They were Westerners—Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin men—who served in the East, and they were recognizable by their headgear. “It ain’t infantry at all,” some of the attacking Confederates said when they saw who they were up against. “There’s them black hat fellers from the Army of the Potomac.”
The Confederates’ assault was turned back, and one of their generals was taken prisoner. Union forces arriving on the field extended and thickened the line along McPherson Ridge. Confederate troops on the north side of the Cashtown Road, which had been their line of advance, tried to push up a cut in the earth where an unfinished railroad line paralleled the road. They quickly found they were in a trap, with Union soldiers on the banks of the deep cut firing down into them, and those who were not killed, surrendered.
What was intended to be a minor action aimed at scattering a few Union cavalrymen in the way of the Confederates’ advance had turned into something else. Not merely the engagement that Lee wanted to avoid until all his troops were present for action, but a repulse. A defeat, and one that left the enemy holding favorable ground and reinforcing.
But while this fight was underway, some of the formations for which Lee had been waiting began to arrive on the field. They belonged to General Richard Ewell’s 2nd Corps, and they had been marching back down from Carlisle after having advanced as far as the Susquehanna River and Harrisburg. Now, one division was on the field, and its commander believed he saw a chance to rescue things for the Confederates.
The Union flank was open to attack, he believed. But as one of his brigades moved across a field to engage the troops to its front, Union soldiers who had taken concealment behind a stone wall on their flank rose and fired into them. More than half of the Confederates were hit. One man later told his brother of being “sprayed by the brains of the first rank.”
Another Confederate attack broken.
It was now mid-afternoon, and the general engagement that Lee had wanted to avoid this day was undeniable fact. Two of his three corps commanders had launched attacks that failed, and now he was, it seemed, committed, whether he liked it or wanted it or not.
When he arrived at the scene of what appeared, increasingly, to be a debacle, Lee talked about the possibility of withdrawing. “If we do not gain a victory, those defiles and gorges which we passed this morning will shelter us from disaster.”
When he surveyed the battlefield, he saw a Union line bent around the town of Gettysburg, with more troops arriving to extend and thicken it. And, no doubt, he saw evidence of the defeat his own troops had suffered. The dead, dying, and demoralized men. But he also saw opportunity.
The brigades from General Robert Rodes’s division of Ewell’s corps that had not been shot up at the stone wall were clearing the field and chasing the enemy, and beyond them on the extreme right of the Union line, Jubal Early’s division was arriving after marching down from York, and the timing, though sheer accident, was as though Lee had ordained it.
Lee ordered A. P. Hill, commander of 3rd Corps, to attack with Heth’s division and William Dorsey Pender’s on the Union right and clear McPherson Ridge where the battle had begun that morning.
The fighting was desperate and bloody in a way that was typical of that war and hard, still, to imagine both for its carnage and also for its romantic spirit which seems, from this vantage, utterly quaint.
The 26th North Carolina attacked the 24th Michigan of the Iron Brigade and in the fight, 14 different men were shot down carrying the unit’s colors. The last, Lt. Colonel J. R. Lane, had assumed command after the unit’s commander was shot down, also while carrying the flag. Lane had defiantly picked up the flag after another man shouted, “No man can carry those colors and live.”
When the 24th Michigan’s color bearer was hit, Colonel Henry A. Morrow, the unit’s commander, took the flag and shortly after that, went down with a head wound. The fight was believed to be the bloodiest regimental engagement in the battle of Gettysburg. Some 687 men of the 843 who entered the fight with the 26th North Carolina went down. The 24th Michigan lost 363 of its 496 men. Despite the slaughter, neither unit lost its colors.
On another part of the field, the colonel of a Union regiment was ordered by his general to hold some ground in order to cover a retreat that, if it were not orderly, might turn into a general rout. Colonel Charles Tilden protested that this would mean the loss of the entire 16th Maine.
To which the general said, “Colonel Tilden, take that position and hold it as long as there is a single man left.”
The soldiers of the 16th Maine knew what this order meant, and while they might be willing to die obeying it, they were not willing to surrender their colors. So they tore the regimental flag into strips and distributed them among the men so that as long as any survived, the colors would not be taken.
Of some 300 men from the 16th Maine who went into the fight, many with pieces of the flag in their pockets, only 84 were not killed, wounded, or captured by a North Carolina regiment that was disappointed to have taken no colors. Only a “very fine flag staff and tassels.”
Some men of the 16th Maine who survived the battle and the war passed the scraps of the regimental colors along to their descendants. But not many did survive. When the battle of Gettysburg was over, the 16th Maine consisted of two officers and 15 men fit for duty.
The desperate fight on July 1 did not turn on the capture of any unit’s colors. It was settled by the Confederates’ superiority of numbers and their fortunate coordination of forces, which was handled by Lee with his usual skill. Jubal Early’s men turned the Union’s right flank and A.P. Hill’s, the left. The Union line, running in an arc from west to north around the town of Gettysburg, gave way and broke. Soldiers streamed back into town, some finding temporary refuge in civilian homes. One Union general hid in a pigsty and remained there throughout the battle, with the woman who owned the property secretly bringing him food and water.
Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had rescued the day and won, it appeared, another victory. But the enemy had not fled the field. The survivors of two broken Union corps had taken defensive position on a piece of high ground called Cemetery Hill, where they had placed artillery and were now furiously digging in.
Still . . . if that position could be forced, then Lee would control all the high ground and be in a position to deal with the remaining Federal units piecemeal, as he had envisioned.
But the Confederates did not take Cemetery Hill. Not that evening, when they were victorious and held the initiative, and not for the rest of the battle. And that failure was, in the minds of many, fatal to Lee and the Confederates.
Lee wanted it taken and suggested as much to his subordinates. His instructions to General Ewell, who’d been a division commander under Stonewall Jackson, were to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.”
That word “practicable” has been parsed to exhaustion ever since. Whatever its meaning or Lee’s intent, Ewell understood it to give him discretion, and he chose not to attack. Which, Ewell’s many detractors claim, Stonewall Jackson would have done even without orders.
In later years, when the question “Why did the South lose at Gettysburg?” was so often, and so warmly, discussed, Ewell said, “A great many mistakes were made at Gettysburg, and I committed a good many of them.”
The first day was done. Fifty thousand men had been engaged. Casualties on both sides added up to more than 15,500 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. A bloody day, even by the standards of that war, but there was worse to come.
The moon was full that night, and it lit the way for General Meade as he rode the 17 miles from Taneytown, Md., to the battlefield, arriving after midnight without ceremony and already deeply fatigued.
Meade talked with his generals on the scene, who assured him that they were on good, defensible ground. “I’m glad to hear you say so, gentlemen,” Meade said, “for it is too late to change.”
He then rode off in the gloomy yellow light to inspect the lines and make his dispositions, which became the famous “fishhook,” with the bend around the town of Gettysburg and including Cemetery Hill and the adjacent Culp’s Hill, the shank extending south along Cemetery Ridge and the eye consisting of two round hills, one wooded and the other not.
At one point in his ride, a few soldiers began cheering the general. But, as it turned out, they thought he was McClellan come to resume command. Meade’s ride and his nocturnal work occupied him until dawn.
Lee, meanwhile, had been making his own plans and discussing them with his subordinates, one of whom did not approve.
Lee had more confidence in James Longstreet than in any of his other generals, especially now that Jackson was gone. He called the bluff, burly Longstreet, affectionately, “My old warhorse.” But unlike Jackson, who looked, always, for a way to attack the enemy, to engage him, at his disadvantage, in a battle of annihilation, James Longstreet was a believer, especially after Fredericksburg, in the supremacy of the defense. Modern war, with the rifled musket, entrenchments, and artillery, he was convinced, had made the old ways a recipe for pointless carnage.
Longstreet believed that Lee shared his insight and that the two of them had agreed that when the time came, during this invasion of the North, the Army of Northern Virginia would find good ground and fight its battle on the tactical defense.
Longstreet pointed out to Lee, at the end of the first day, that it was now possible to move the army around the Union left, take a position between Gettysburg and Washington, and force Meade into an attack that would break on the Confederates’ artillery and prepared positions.
But Lee was not persuaded. “No,” he said, pointing to Cemetery Hill, “the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.”
He did attack, the next day, with Longstreet’s corps as his instrument. But the main effort was not on Cemetery Hill, where Ewell made a desultory effort, but on the Confederate right, down near the two round hills that made the eye of the fishhook.
Longstreet continued to argue his point, and when he finally conceded, he did so stubbornly. Lee’s plan became Longstreet’s plan, and Longstreet seemed determined, almost spitefully, to follow it to the letter, though his own division commanders insisted it was suicidal and needed to be changed so that it would take the enemy more by flank than front. With near-biblical foreboding, General John Bell Hood protested three times. The order, he was told, stands.
He obeyed, but his brigadiers did not, modifying Lee’s plan in ways that were prudent and almost successful.
On the other side of the line, General Dan Sickles, the personification of the political general with his Tammany pedigree, had taken it upon himself to alter Meade’s alignment along Cemetery Ridge and move his corps out to ground of slightly higher elevation, so once again, a subordinate had frustrated his commander’s intentions.
Sickles’s redeployment thinned his line dangerously, exposed it to flank attack, and left a potentially fatal gap near the center of the Union line. For this unilateral decision, Sickles and his men paid in blood and nearly lost the battle for Meade and the Union.
But first, there was the struggle for the Round Tops, as the two hills came to be called. Troops from Alabama took the taller and uncleared hill at the extreme end of the fishhook and might have held it but were ordered down and then up again, to take Little Round Top, which was cleared and would have made for a dominating artillery position, threatening the entire Union line. It was virtually unoccupied when the Alabamians received the order. If they had taken it, that might have sealed the outcome of the battle.
But one Union staff officer, Gouverneur Warren, had seen that the position was nakedly vulnerable and absolutely critical and, on his own initiative, alerted Meade and then went looking for troops to defend Little Round Top. Meade sent troops, and Warren found some and persuaded their commander to let him deploy them. They arrived in time and at the moment of maximum danger, the 20th Maine under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain launched a bayonet charge that turned back the Alabamians and saved the day.
It was a near thing, and there was more to come. Each new Confederate attack seemed on the verge of unhinging the Union line. The troops that Sickles had deployed in a peach orchard took hideous casualties. His corps lost 4,000 men in about 3 hours of battle, and one of the casualties was Sickles himself, with a wound to the leg that required amputation. While being carried by stretcher from the field, he puffed conspicuously on a cigar because he wanted his men to see he had not been killed.
The potential for debacle, Sickles left to others, including General Winfield Hancock, who, late in the day, once again held off calamity when he directed a small regiment to a point in the Union line where Confederate troops were on the verge of making a breakthrough. Hancock realized, he later wrote, that he needed five minutes.
“What regiment is that?” he asked the officer in command.
“First Minnesota,” was the reply.
“Colonel,” Hancock said, pointing to a Confederate regimental flag, “do you see those colors?”
He saw them, the colonel said.
“Then take them.”
The Minnesotans did not, in fact, take the colors. But they did stop the attack. Of the 262 men who fixed bayonets and charged downhill into the Confederates, 47 returned.
They had given Hancock the five minutes he needed and a few more for a cushion.
Just in time.
Then, closer to the center of the line, another Confederate assault did make a breakthrough, and the rebel soldiers found themselves looking on the Union rear, to include General Meade’s headquarters and the roads running back east that were filling up with Union soldiers in retreat. But there was no support for the breakthrough. And the Confederate troops that had made it were obliged to fight their way back to their own lines.
For Hancock, it had been just in time. For Colonel Ambrose Wright, his Georgia Brigade, and the Confederacy, it had been not quite enough.
Longstreet had done his worst, but the Union line held. His detractors, for decades after the war, held Longstreet responsible for the defeat at Gettysburg. If he had faithfully carried out Lee’s wishes . . . if he had not been so slow, waiting until four in the afternoon to attack . . . if, if, if.
Longstreet and his soldiers had, though, inflicted more casualties than they had taken. And they had nearly accomplished what Lee had asked of them. They had come so close.
Close enough that Lee believed one more hard blow would break the Union line. Having struck the Union right and then the left, on the third day, he would attack its center in a frontal assault across three-quarters of a mile of open ground.
Longstreet, again, protested.
“General,” he said, “I have been a soldier all my life. Have been engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, . . . it is my opinion that no 15,000 men arrayed for battle can take that position.”
Lee prevailed; Longstreet did his duty—with devotion, by all accounts. As did the men of George Pickett’s division and other Confederate units who marched uphill, across open ground, and were ripped apart by musket fire and canister from artillery but still reached the Union line where they held on for a few minutes, then fell back. The 5,000 who still could.
“This is all my fault,” Lee said to the survivors when he rode out to meet them.
His will had, at last, been done.
The battle was over. The war, of course, was not. But Vicksburg fell on July 4, the day after Pickett’s men charged Cemetery Ridge, and that was, as those who had been skeptical of Lee’s plan of invasion predicted, a loss which the Confederacy could not survive.
Meade did not pursue Lee, to Lincoln’s immense frustration, but he would remain in command of the Army of the Potomac, even as U.S. Grant was at his side, in overall command, during the long, bloody campaign that would end at Appomattox.
There were fierce battles with terrible casualties to come—the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg. But after Gettysburg, the final outcome was always . . . inevitable.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.
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