The Battle of Gettysburg, or how the American Civil War was lost in an hour
Pretty much all Americans have heard of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloody and decisive battle of the American Civil War and one of the most important battles in American history. How did the American Civil War come to be decided in a small town in rural Pennsylvania?
It was the spring of 1863. The Civil War had been raging for two years. In May, yet another Union invasion of the Confederacy was crushed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. And crushed is the word for it, General Lee’s brilliance and boldness, combined with General Hooker’s timidity, resulted in Lee soundly defeating an army almost twice his size. Victory in battle when outnumbered 2-1 by a foe of equal troop quality is almost unknown in history. Flushed with the victory at Chancellorsville, Lee marched into the North hoping capture an important city, maybe even Philadelphia, and hurt the North’s will to fight and maybe even force them to negotiate an end to the war.
The details of the Gettysburg campaign aren’t terribly important. In short Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia marched north from the Shenandoah Valley, across Maryland, and into central Pennsylvania. Lee ordered his troops to behave themselves, and for the most part they did. When they seized supplies from the locals, they were courteous and paid in full for what they took. In Confederate dollars. One can imagine Pennsylvanian farmers’ thrill at seeing their horses and food carted away and replaced with paper money that was the equivalent of Monopoly money.
Meanwhile, the Union Army, with General Meade replacing the timid and failed Hooker, tried to keep itself between Lee and Washington. After a certain amount of marching to and fro, the armies basically stumbled into each other at the little town of Gettysburg. Lee immediately took the offensive, if he could crush Meade’s army as it arrived, victory in both the battle and the war might be his. For two days the Confederates ferociously attacked the flanks (or wings) of the Union army, driving them back, but never breaking them.
On day three Lee decided to mix it up and launch a massive attack on the centre of the Union line, hoping to surprise them, split their army in half, and secure victory. It took all morning to organize his troops and set up his cannons facing the Union troops defending Cemetary Ridge in the centre of the Union army’s lines. This was the largest cannonade of the war, it must have been quite a sight. These guns were not only loud, they belched huge amounts of white smoke when fired, this was long before the invention of smokeless powder. And of course when the shells exploded, more white smoke. The Union guns on the ridge fell silent as they were enveloped in smoke and dust.
The smoke and the failure of the Union guns to continue firing convinced the Confederates that their moment had come, and thousands of the South’s finest soldiers began to cross nearly a mile of open ground to attack the Union lines. Well, their moment had come, but not they way they expected. It turns out that all the smoke and dust had obscured the fact that most of the Confederate cannon fire had passed harmlessly over the ridge. Worse, Meade has predicted Lee would attack his centre on day three, and was ready for him. At one in the afternoon, and it was a horribly hot humid afternoon, eleven thousand Confederate troops began to advance on the Union centre. Almost immediately the Union guns began a deadly barrage, both from the front and the flanks. The Confederates pushed forward gamely, suffering terrible losses. And when they got close to the Union lines, the Union cannon switched to grape and cannister shot … and lines of Union infantry, sometimes four deep, began a steady hail of rifle fire. In a few places Confederate troops broke the Union line, but they didn’t hold long. Within an hour it was over, and the remnants of the attacking force were fleeing toward Confederate lines. Pickett’s Charge was over, about half of the eleven thousand Confederate soldiers participating were dead, wounded, or captured.
The Confederate army slunk away and retreated back to Virginia, the Union army too tired and battered to pursue them. Lee took personal responsibility for the disaster, and a disaster it was. Lee’s reputation of invincibility was destroyed and the victory at Gettysburg was a powerful morale booster in the North. And the Confederate losses at Gettysburg could never be replaced, not just the thousands of soldiers, but dozens of irreplaceable Confederate officers fell on Pickett’s charge. It was a blow from which the South would never recover, Pickett’s charge has justifiably been called the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. How could Lee have made such a dreadful mistake? No one knows. Hardly anyone involved wanted to talk about it afterwards, Lee certainly never shed any light on the subject. Best guess is that Lee thought it was a great idea, and over-ruled any that disagreed. And some did disagree, General Longstreet, the actual commander of the charge, was adamantly opposed to it. Some have even suggested that Longstreet deliberately sabotaged preparations for the attack, but that doesn’t seem credible.
A more interesting question, and one which most commenters on the battle seem to overlook, is why in the name of God did Lee invade the north in the first place? There are a number of excellent reasons why invading the North was a terrible idea:
The first was the merely practical. The South had nothing liked the organized supply structure that kept the Union armies fed and suppled, even in the South the Confederates couldn’t keep their armies properly supplied. Lee’s army would pretty much have to live off the land and/or carry their supplies with them. This was no way to fight a war, even in ancient times, and certainly not in 1863.
Secondly, Lee had to have known that it’s far easier to inspire troops to defend their homes than to take someone else’s. The Confederate desertion rate spiked dramatically when he marched into Maryland. There isn’t any doubt that Lee was giving the Union troops a home field advantage by carrying the fight to the Union.
Thirdly, what did Lee hope to acheive? Even if he captured Harrisburg or Philadelphia, he wouldn’t have been able to hold them. And it’s unlikely that a Confederate army marching through a city or two would have significantly changed Northerner’s minds about the war. I mean, yes, if he Lee had captured Washington and Lincoln, and destroyed the Union Army in the process, that might have done the trick. The chances of that happening, were, effectively, zero.
Lastly, and most importantly, the risk Lee was taking was enormous. The invasion of the North was do or die. Anything other than a major victory would be a defeat for the South. And there was the very real risk that fighting far from home in unfamiliar territory would result in a major defeat. While Lee was one of the greatest generals ever, launching a military campaign that had little chance of victory and an excellent chance of catastrophic failure wasn’t one of his best moves. If Lee had just done what he did best , crushing Union armies that dared invade the South, the North would have given up the fight soon enough. Instead, after his great victory at Chancellorsville, Lee took a terrible risk and forgot the first rule of war, choose your battles. He let General Meade and fate choose the Gettysburg field of battle, and even Lee’s almost legendary military prowess couldn’t save the day.
God rest the souls of all who died those three hot days in rural Pennsylvania.
(The above is an image of General Pickett taken sometime after the war, click on it for the hi-def version. It’s public domain under US copyright law since everyone involved has been dead 100 years or more. Pickett was inconsolable after the battle and never forgave Lee for ordering the charge. He also never talked about it much either. He did submit a report on the battle, but it apparently was so scathing that Lee burned it, no copy has ever surfaced. Granted, reports of his hostility toward Lee are questioned by some historians. Pickett is on record as answering the question as to why the charge failed: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”)