The Map Isn’t the Terrain, but if You Can’t Look at the Terrain, Better Look at a Damn Map
Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee. The first day's fighting was so encouraging, and on the second day's fighting he came within an inch of doing it. And by that time Longstreet said Lee's blood was up, and Longstreet said when Lee's blood was up there was no stopping him... And that was that mistake he made, the mistake of all mistakes. Pickett's charge was an incredible mistake, and there was scarcely a trained soldier who didn't know it was a mistake at the time, except possibly Pickett himself, who was very happy he had a chance for glory. ...William Faulkner, in "Intruder in the Dust", said that for every southern boy, it's always within his reach to imagine it being one o'clock on an early July day in 1863, the guns are laid, the troops are lined up, the flags are out of their cases and ready to be unfurled, but it hasn't happened yet. And he can go back in his mind to the time before the war was going to be lost and he can always have that moment for himself…Shelby Foote
I just finished Allen C. Guelzo’s highly regarded book on Gettysburg, Gettysburg –The Last Invasion and from it relearned some lessons that are worth considering today. I’ve been quiet on a number of issues because frankly, I’m not a journalist but a critic and a commentator, and it’s embarrassing to be constantly overtaken by events. Best to shut about things like the emerging Defense Structure or the Ukraine until you have something to say.
But Guelzo’s book, which is somewhat revisionist and with which I don’t agree in part, makes some really cogent points worth considering as we try to understand what’s going on and as we consider what might happen next. Gettysburg is not something you can see in isolation as a battle, or as a phenomenon or as an event. It’s part of the general unfolding of the United States. There’s a great piece of dialogue cited in the book where a British Liaison officer comes on Longstreet after Pickett’s Charge and says something to the effect of what a great day, what a great event, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and Old Pete who was sitting on the top of a fence, watching the debacle he had foreseen said, “The Devil You Wouldn’t! I would have liked to miss it very much; we have attacked and been repulsed. Look there!” The British officer observes the field in the now fading smoke, sees the men limping and straggling back; the wounded horses seeking their now dead riders; the litter bearers carrying away those lucky enough to be found and evacuated; the psychologically overwhelmed and broken men who had gone forward expecting victory and found this; the leaders, like Pickett staggering around, lost and heartbroken, and realized that it hadn’t actually been so great a thing after all.
Guelzo spends a great deal of the text describing the search for a villain – who screwed up? Frankly, this was not a terribly new exercise; the North was actually fairly used to this drill, largely because the commanders of the Army of the Potomac had generally been so useless. Meade was only just appointed to command, and wasn’t all that interested in fighting at Gettysburg. Lee didn’t really want to fight at Gettysburg. It just kind of happened, and unfolded from there. Gettysburg needs to be understood not as planned campaign, since Lee’s campaign was intended to force the North to decide to sue for peace. His strategic goal was to bring the Army of the Potomac to battle on terrain favorable to him, with his Army intact and with the commanding terrain.
We forget that Lee was first and foremost an Army Engineer. He understood things like observation, fields of fire, cover and concealment better than most of his opponents and all of his own generals. If his forces had taken Culp’s Hill initially and then the ridges and Little Round Top and Big Round Top, things would have been different; quite possibly they wouldn’t have ended up fighting a battle there. However, Meade was also an engineer as was Hancock and most of the other Corps Commanders who had any business leading troops in battle. They saw the ground, the enemy and realized that if they could close and hold Culp’s, Seminary and Cemetery Ridge and as the battle unfolded, Little and Big Round Top, they’d beat Lee or force him to abandon the field of battle. Remember, Lee had to destroy the Army of the Potomac to accomplish his strategic aim; all Meade and the Army of the Potomac had to do to win was not lose. Normally, that is not the situation for the stronger force and certainly was not the way Lincoln saw it or the generals commanding until Meade. And, for political reasons, the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia was critical to the war effort, just not important.
Lee realized this, and tried to remain focused on it. Unfortunately, after Stonewall Jackson was fatally wounded at Chancellorsville, the other Generals in Lee’s Army either did not understand that or did not accept it. Longstreet seemed to have a feeling that the Army needed to survive, but could not see the overall big picture as well as Lee, and that was his tragedy. It made no difference as to what Longstreet did; he was powerless. Escape and get back to Virginia, and the war would drag on until the Confederacy was exhausted, worn down sooner or later. Longstreet had a marvelous gasp of the tactical situation, and a great understanding of the operational realities. However, using the Calculus of Battle, the failures of Day 2 following the misfortunes of Day 1, made him unable to see any solution.
Jeb Stuart gets a lot of blame for not being there to provide Lee with a better screen and better intelligence. That would have helped, but at some point Lee’s intent was to bring the Army of the Potomac to battle, and destroy it. Despite the general uselessness of the Generals Lincoln had appointed to that point, Gettysburg presented the best opportunity. If Meade consolidated his command and had more than a week to be in charge, the odds are the Union Army would have been operating on a firmer operational basis. At Gettysburg, they had the objective of fighting a defensive battle and holding the commanding and ominous terrain. With the entire Army united in command and control and without idiots like General Dan Sickles commanding III Corps, it’s very possible that Lee might have faced a tougher opponent.
Stuart should not get off too easy. He was a hero to the south as a bold Cavalier, a noble knight; in modern war since the time of the Cavaliers, however, they generally loose. The Confederates had light cavalry, which is best for screening, scouting and harassing the enemy. Day 1 might have been a different battle if Stuart had been there, simply because cavalry would have met cavalry. However, the Union cavalry was better armed and commanded by a grittier and more down to earth General in John Buford who had fought Indians using similar tactics to those he used in the meeting engagement.
Day 1 deserves a better and more thorough examination. In the film Gettysburg, there is a lot of confidence and congratulations among the Union leadership because the quality of the “ground.” Gettysburg had good terrain if you had the right pieces of it; the union did. If they were unable to hold it, they had a planned battleground and realizing Lee’s objective was neither wagons or horses or shoes for his men but the destruction of the Army of the Potomac, Meade and staff already had a trap set down the Emmitsburg Road East South East at Pipe’s Creek. Fate and the commander of I Corps, General John Reynolds, had different ideas. Meade found himself in a Battle he intended in a place he didn’t want that did in fact give him most of what he wanted; Lee found himself in a battle he intended in a place he didn’t want but would make do with.
Lee’s time in Mexico and as a Cavalry Officer had been not periods of engineering but of reconnaissance, pursuit and aggression. He was probably most the aggressive General in his Army, with the exception of Stonewall Jackson. If I were to name the reason for the immensity of the defeat at Gettysburg, or select a villain, I would select the Confederate pickets who mistook Jackson and his aides for Northern Cavalry and fired on them without identifying them.
Several relevant learnings for our time are apparent here. First, the idea of the “ground.” Lee did not know what he was getting into in Pennsylvania. He hadn’t served there, didn’t know the ground and neither did most of his generals, although at least a couple had served at Carlyle Barracks, home today of Dickinson College and the Army War College. However, information didn’t flow well in the Army of Northern Virginia. There were a shortage of dependable maps for both sides, but the Army of the Potomac had a lot of Pennsylvania soldiers and had a better understanding of the terrain, the roads, the environment. Stuart would have done his chief a lot of good by dragging along some engineers to at least provide sketch maps had he been content to do what a Cavalry division should do in unknown territory – find and fix the enemy and report.
There has been a great deal of discussion in other books and articles as to the reason for Lee’s indecision and failure to process information. He was a brilliant soldier with a lightning fast mind, but this battle was something else. There have been suggestions that he had a mild heart attack or a slight stroke sometime between day 1 and day 3. Various memoirists discuss his problems with diarrhea and headaches, and in the winter of 1862-63 after Fredericksburg he had suffered a mild heart attack. I suspect that he may have had a health incident; his health by this time was ruined and he piled work and stress on himself without mercy. However, he also saw what he needed to have happen possibly in front of him, and his soldiers hadn’t failed him before; how could they do so now. He saw what he wanted to see, there for the grasp. What could go wrong?
Well, the answer was the field between the woods and cemetery ridge. The difference was that neither McClellan nor Hooker nor Burnside was in command. George Meade may not be one of the great Captains of the Union Army – that probably would be the triumvirate of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan – but he was a competent general who had avoided getting in the way. So he did not panic.
It is my belief that Arnold’s Dover Beach captures the battle well despite being a predominantly daytime battle fought in the Pennsylvania summer – 'And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night... '