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Sunday, June 30, 2013

A different look at the Battle of Gettysburg

Well, this week begins the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Sadly, it's too darn hot to take the family up there and probably too crazy with hundreds of thousands of people there.

150th anniversary of Battle of Gettysburg provides a bigger story

 Although I did have to say I loved CNN's quote...who knew?

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863."
So starts a powerful passage by William Faulkner in "Intruder in the Dust." The Mississippi novelist and poet poignantly painted the scene of dry-mouthed young men anticipating battle.
True enough...so your Grouchy Historian will, like many pundits and historians everywhere...off my take on the battle.

I am somewhat gratified to see so much interest in Civil War history this year...but as I always say, a little bit of history can be a dangerous thing...as I plan on relating in a post later this week.

Nonetheless, unlike the no doubt endless revisionist and progressive analysis of Gettysburg in terms of race, gender, and class struggle that I will have to endure this week, I plan on looking at the Battle primarily in terms of Campaign and Battle Analysis.


The Battle of Gettysburg

I.               HISTORICAL SETTING
A.    Timeframe 
·      Summer 1863; after Union defeat at Battle of Chancellorsville; Confederate forces under siege in Vicksburg
B.    Location
·      Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
C.   Adversaries
·      Union Army of the Potomac
  77,000 infantry, 13,000 cavalry, 360 guns
·      Confederate Army of Northern Virginia
  54,000 infantry, 9,500 cavalry, 262 guns     

II.     STRATEGIC SETTING
A.    National war aims and national purpose
·      Third year of war for both sides.  Confederacy attempting to maintain momentum from recent Chancellorsville campaign and relieve pressure on Vicksburg.  Confederacy also seeking decisive battle
·      Union also seeking decisive battle, but on strategic defensive in east following Chancellorsville and command change in Army of the Potomac
B.    National experience
·      Confederacy at height of military prowess in Eastern Theater
·      Union at low point in Eastern Theater
C.   Military goals
·      Confederate aim to feed and provision army from Pennsylvania countryside to give Virginia spell from heavy campaigning; carry war into Union territory and seek a decisive battle with the Army of the Potomac;  take pressure off Confederate forces under siege in Vicksburg
·      Union aim to protect Washington DC and bring Army of Northern Virginia to battle if opportunity arose
D.   Organization of each Army
·      Army of the Potomac
  Infantry organized into 7 Corps (I, II, III, V, VI, XI, XIII)
·      Army of Northern Virginia
  Infantry organized into 3 Corps (I, II, III)
·      Command relationships
  Army of the Potomac
- Meade new to command.  Mixed relationships with corps commanders.  Corps commander quality mixed; Hancock very good; Howard questionable, Sickles problematic, etc.
  Army of Northern Virginia
-Lee very experienced; corps commanders mixed; loss of Jackson will be significant factor in battle; Ewell and Powell first major battle as corps commanders; Longstreet best corps commander but not enthusiastic about Lee's offensive strategy

III.   OPERATIONAL SETTING
A.    Principal events leading up to the campaign
·      Aftermath of Chancellorsville; Confederate options and courses of action; Lee’s plan for Pennsylvania invasion
·      Cavalry actions prior to campaign; Stuart’s plan for Cavalry ride around Union army again
·      Army of Northern Virginia moves prior to June 30 in Pennsylvania; Lee again splits his army in Pennsylvania in the face of superior forces.  Union forces follow in pursuit; Meade replaces Hooker
B.    Strategic objectives
·      Both armies seeking decisive battle
C.   Campaign plan-Neither side planned for engagement at Gettysburg
·      Like Antietam the previous year, Lee plans to concentrate prior to battle, however did not anticipate battle at Gettysburg
·      Meade attempting to locate Lee’s army for engagement, did not anticipate battle either, but chooses to fight.

IV.   ADDITIONAL KEY FACTORS
A.    Logistical considerations
·      Logistics will be key consideration for both armies as battle develops
·      Lee nearly ran out of artillery ammunition during Picket’s Charge
·      Both sides will experience logistical issues during the battle and afterwards
B.    Personalities/leadership
·      Leadership will be key to the battle
·      Confederacy-Ewell’s decision on 1st day not to assault Culp’s Hill; indecision of Longstreet and Ewell on 2nd day’s attacks; inability of Lee to coordinate attacks
·      Union-Sickles’s decision on 2nd day to create salient with his Corps that nearly unhinges the Union center; Meade reacts well to situation but not aggressive

V.    TACTICAL SETTING
A.    Terrain and weather
·      Terrain basic cause of battle; Gettysburg road junction as assembly point for Confederate army; also the key factor in battle; Union position on hills south of Gettysburg; Confederate attacking mostly uphill for duration of battle
B.    Additional tactical factors
·      Discussion on lack of reconnaissance from either army; battle caused by lack of knowledge by both sides of opponent’s whereabouts

VI.   TACTICAL PLAN
A.    Confederacy:  Lee attempts to maintain operational and tactical offensive posture throughout the battle; meeting engagement becomes general offensive effort across the three days of battle
B.    Union:  Almost totally defensive posture operationally and tactically throughout the battle.  Little inclination to assume offensive operations, other than local counterattacks and Sickles’s move on the 2nd day of battle

VII. TACTICAL EXECUTION
A.    Conduct of battle
·      Prelude/ Preliminary Maneuvers on 30 June
  Union Cavalry located west of town
  Confederate plan to move infantry into town in search of supplies; expect light to no resistance
·      1st Day-July 1, 1863
  Begins as meeting engagement between Union cavalry and Confederate infantry north and west of Gettysburg
  Both sides feed forces piecemeal into battle as they arrive; Confederates push Union forces through town and onto high ground south of town.  Union forces make final stand and Confederate vacillation on launching final attack of day leaves Union army in strong defensive position
·      2nd Day-July 2, 1863
  Lee plans next day offensive; no cavalry for reconnaissance
  Union maintains defensive posture; awaits developments
  Confederacy launches uncoordinated attacks on both Union flanks; Confederates not strong enough to overlap Union lines to enable flank attacks; allows Union to use “central position” and shorter battle lines to move reinforcements to maintain lines; day ends inconclusively
·      3rd Day-July 3, 1863
  Lee considers one final assault to break Union center; “Picket’s Charge”; failure of Confederate artillery preparatory barrage.  Union defense; lack of Union counterattack when Confederates vulnerable; end of combat due to mutual exhaustion of both sides
B.    Impact of 'frictions of war'
·      Lack of Stuart’s cavalry until close of 2nd Day causes infantry meeting engagement and hinders ability of Lee to find opponent’s flank

VIII.         TACTICAL SIGNIFICANCE 
·      Only clear Union victory in East to date; Union forces turn back Lee’s offensive; pursuit of Lee’s army slow and not coordinated; Confederacy now on strategic defensive for remainder of war; in Eastern Theater on operational and tactical defensive for remainder of war as well
·      Union forces not able to capitalize on victory with pursuit to destroy Lee's army due to logistical difficulties, high casualties, and supply shortage; potentially best opportunity to envelop Lee's army north of Potomac River
·      Tactical Lessons
  Confederacy lacked unity of command; Lee could not get his plans adequately carried out by corps commanders 1st or 2nd day of battle
  Union had better position tactically based on geography and ability to shift forces as needed; Meade missed chance to counterattack on 3rd day with uncommitted VI Corps
  Geography still decisive factor in warfare-capture and hold the high ground


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So, now that we have a framework for the next three days, let's wonder off topic and discuss a really grognard topic--the tactical influence and thought process for the generals at Gettysburg.

I recently wrote a review of a really fabulous book on Civil War strategy and tactics and how the influence of doctrine and drill manuals influenced the fighting. 
Here's a little more on that topic.

The Battle of Gettysburg: A Jominian View

The influence of the writings of Baron Jomini and the Napoleonic style warfare in can clearly, if indirectly, be seen in Civil War combat, in particular the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863.

Jomini was a contemporary of Clausewitz, and in many ways their experiences and thinking about warfare are very similar. Although Clausewitz believed that the defense was tactically stronger on the battlefield, both assumed that only be seizing and retaining the strategic initiative by via an offensive posture could win a war. Joimni took this line of thinking even further by advocating that a general’s primary duty was to seek out the enemy army for a decisive battle. Both men had experience in the Napoleonic Wars and each in his own way sought to understand how the nationalistic levee-en-mass warfare had replaced the very methodical dynastic warfare of pre-Napoleon Europe. The Napoleonic style of warfare, culminating in massive and decisive battles, was also the subject of both author’s analyses. Interestingly, one area not addressed by Jomini that was extensively discussed by Clausewitz was the relationship between politics and war and the need for military action to be tied to diplomacy and politics, both internal and external. This was a particular shortcoming in Jomini’s writing, which was concerned with transforming tactical ability into operational success, when then assumed a strategic victory.

Jomini did layout, for the first time, a more comprehensive view of warfare at what could be called the operational level, going beyond the staid understanding and writings on marching and drilling a regiment to examining how an army should fight. His analysis of Napoleon’s ability to maneuver vast armies of troops across dispersed geography to arrive at the place of battle show his appreciation for a general to understand not just how to march and drill, but fight with armies. [1]

Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg through a Jominian lens provides interesting observations. The Confederate strategic thinking was entirely offensive, seeking not only to achieve a decisive victory over the Army of the Potomac, but also take the war out of Virginia into northern territory to feed the Confederate army and spare the Virginia countryside another year of campaigning. Although from a narrow Eastern-centric view this may have been sound, the Army of Northern Virginia could not affect the on-going siege of Vicksburg, a more strategically important battle to the Union’s overall war plans.

However, tactically and operationally, the Army of Northern Virginia violated several of Jomini’s precepts during the early part of the battle that likely prevented a more decisive victory. The lack of proper cavalry screening and reconnaissance brought on a battle when Lee’s army was too dispersed with no plan to concentrate and bring on a battle with the Union forces when they were equally scattered, disorganized and arriving piecemeal on the battlefield.

Although the Army of the Potomac was tactically defeated and driven out of the town of Gettysburg, they had the advantage of fighting on the defensive and occupying the dominant terrain for the battle. Once both armies were fully engaged, the Union Army was able to exploit Jomini’s concept of interior lines on a tactical scale, moving troops to reinforce threatened parts of the line during the Confederate offenses against both flanks on the second day of battle.

The major tactical mistake made by the Union Army was not using available uncommitted troops to counterattack after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge. Lee fully expected a Union counter-stroke and would have been hard-pressed to fight off a major Union assault upon his center. [2]

The major lesson from Gettysburg, and the Civil War in general, was that most of the theories and maxims that Jomini espoused about offensive warfare were being rendered obsolescent by the advent of the rifled musket, percussion cap and improved field fortifications, not to mention early models of repeating rifles, which allowed Union cavalry to delay large numbers of Confederate infantry at the start of the battle. The basic Napoleonic tactics of using flank attacks to weaken your opponent’s center, followed with a mass assault by your reserves to achieve a breakthrough, and then sending in the cavalry for the pursuit were simply not applicable on the Civil War battlefield. As the Union stand against Pickett’s Charge showed, well dug-in infantry supported by plenty of artillery could withstand nearly any assault, even by spirited troops of the Army of Northern Virginia. The days of sweeping Napoleonic Warfare and the élan of the mass assault were already dying on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top and the development of magazine fed rifles, heavy breech loading artillery, and eventually the machine-gun would bring about a serious reevaluation of Jominian principles of the offense in the early 20th century. [3]


[1] John Shy, "Jomini," in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 143-185.

[2] Stephen Sears, Gettysburg (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 197-203, 312-318, 464-469.

[3] Herman Hattaway, "The Changing Face of Battle," North and South, Vol. 4, No. 6, 34-43.



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