September 20, 1863

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Sep 202013

Braxton Bragg spent the evening of the 19th being as useless as possible. Despite the confusion reigning in the woods that day, his men had done fairly well and pushed the Yankees back past the Lafayette Road. They hadn’t gotten north of the Union troops, but they were in a good position to attack and much of the remainder of Longstreet’s force had arrived during the night. So, Bragg reorganized his army’s command structure, and without consulting many of his senior generals, ordered an attack for daybreak.

Bragg’s plan for the 20th, displaying the full breadth of his tactical skill, called for an attack on the right, commanded by Leonidas Polk, followed by an attack on the left, commanded by Longstreet. Although many people have the impression that in the Civil War the North had the resources and the South had the generals, this impression largely comes from Virginia-dominated histories. Outside of that state, Southern commanders were often every bit as unimpressive as a Burnside or Howard.

At any rate, the dawn attack did not happen. The lines on the right were too confused, and it took several hours to rearrange them, time the Yankees used to entrench. Under the command of George Thomas, several brigades had formed a bulged salient around the field of the Kelly farm. South of them, somewhat behind the Lafayette Road, the rest of the army was also digging in.

When Polk’s wing finally did manage to attack, it was something of a mess. Attacks were disorganized, and lines got snarled in the rough terrain and vegetation. Nonetheless, the salient was hard-pressed for a while, and Thomas sent for reinforcements. At one point he asked for Brannan’s division, which was in the line to the south. Brannan desired to go, but realized that pulling out would open a gap. He sent word of his intention to answer the call to Rosecrans, but did not pull out immediately.

Rosecrans then ordered the division of Thomas Wood, next to Brannan in line, to cover the opening. Rosecrans’ primary assistant, James Garfield (later to become President) was busy, so another aide wrote the order, which ended up being confusing, especially since Brannan had not yet moved. Wood chose to interpret the order as indicating he should move his division out of line and form it behind another division to the north. Given the circumstances this was an unreasonable reading, and obviously the move would open up a huge hole in the formation. Wood chose not to seek any clarification of the order.


Longstreet’s attack may well have succeeded without Wood’s help, but not so totally.

Wood, who had been dressed down by Rosecrans earlier for failing to promptly obey orders, clearly knew that his course of action endangered the whole army. “Gentlemen,” he announced as he pocketed the note, “I hold the fatal order of the day in my hand and would not part with it for five thousand dollars.” For spite, Wood pulled his men out of line and doomed the army, and for that he ought to have been hanged, but that order he valued so highly protected him. Although it was obviously foolish to obey it, the existence of the order could not be denied, so his choice was technically correct, which is the best kind of correct on funny TV shows but not when it leads to thousands of deaths.

Which Wood’s decision did. As it happened, Longstreet was not far away. Having only found his troops that morning, he had taken some time to arrange them how he wanted. Hidden by the woods, they were arranged in a deep column with a narrow front. With no time to flank or even inspect the ground, Longstreet had to perform a frontal assault against a fortified enemy, the same attack that had caused such grief at Gettysburg. However, this time he had much less ground to cover, and the defensive position was not as dominant. The formation he had adopted was also perfect for a hard blast against a single point (military historian Harold C. Knudsen compares it to the Schwerpunkt tactics of the Nazi blitzkrieg). And coincidentally, he had aimed his attack right at the part of the line Wood was now abandoning.

It was precisely the right attack, landing at precisely the right place at precisely the right time, and its effect was devastating. Rebels were behind the lines almost before the Yankees knew what was happening. As some of Longstreet’s troops turned north and south to engage the Union line on newly-exposed flanks, the rest raced towards the Union rear. Although Wood turned to try and stop the assult his counterattack failed. The southern end of Rosecrans’ army disintegrated. Rosecrans himself fled the field with his staff.

The battle could very easily have been a Cannae for the Army of the Cumberland – with the south end of the line gone and many troops and trains fleeing in disarray, Longstreet might have turned north and rolled up the whole Union line. But Longstreet adopted a rather hands-off approach at an inopportune time. His best subordinate – John Bell Hood, who had just recovered from having his arm crippled at Gettysburg – had been shot in the leg (he would lose it) and carried from the field. The rest of his commanders were competent enough, but lacked a good organizer.

George Thomas,  who became known as "the Rock of Chickamauga".

George Thomas, who became known as “the Rock of Chickamauga”.

This gave Thomas an opportunity to save the day. Those units that had not broken completely were scraped together and posted in a defensible spot called Horseshoe Ridge. He summoned the reserve troops of Gordon Granger and added them to the force there, while continuing to hold out in the Kelly Field salient. The race was on between the ammunition supplies (many trains had fled or been captured) and the sun, which the sun just barely won. Night fell just as the Union troops reached their limit, and Thomas was able to withdraw in good order towards Chattanooga, to which Rosecrans had already fled.

Chickamauga was a major disaster for the Union forces in Tennessee, but it was not as bad as it could have been. Bragg failed to pursue his defeated enemy, which allowed Rosecrans time to organize a defense of Chattanooga. Bragg then settled in for a siege, much to the dismay of Longstreet and his other subordinates, who argued for various offensives to displace or destroy Rosecrans. Infighting among the generals doomed the army to inaction, and Chickamauga became a fallow victory for the Confederacy.

If Bragg did not destroy the Army of the Cumberland, he at least destroyed the career of its commander. To fail so spectacularly in front of the War Department’s spy doomed Rosecrans, even though that failure was in large part due to the unreasonable demands of the War Department itself. When Ulysses S. Grant was given command of almost every troop in the theater, he chose to promote Thomas rather than keep Rosecrans, who never commanded a major force again.

As for the battle itself, it’s barely remembered. Though a victory for the South, Chickamauga had no strategic result – the Union Army retreated no further north than Chattanooga, and was not pushed out of Tennessee. The generals who could take credit for the victory – Bragg and Longstreet – were unpopular after the war, and many others present had bitter feelings towards the engagement because it led nowhere despite its massive cost. Union casualties were about 16,000 and Confederate 18,000, for net casualties second only to Gettysburg, though 40,000 more troops were engaged in Pennsylvania. As for the Yankees, they were eager to forget the embarrassment. Chickamauga was a battle that, at great and terrible cost, achieved almost nothing, and is barely remembered.

September 19, 1863

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Sep 192013

Although it was one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Civil War, and despite being a rare Southern victory in the western theater, the Battle of Chickamauga is mostly forgotten. The battle took place south of Chattanooga, close to the borders of Alabama and Georgia, but even in those states the Eastern battles are better remembered. That’s a shame, because Chickamauga is a particularly interesting fight.

William Rosecrans was not a professional soldier but had performed admirably in sweeping Bragg out of Tennessee.

William Rosecrans was not a professional soldier but had performed admirably in sweeping Bragg out of Tennessee.

Part of Chickamauga’s problem is that it doesn’t feature well-remembered generals. The Union forces were commanded by William Rosecrans, who had been strikingly successful thus far. He had pushed the Rebel army out of Tennessee, but much of this success came without bloodshed. Since the Army of Northern Virginia had “gotten away” after Gettysburg, Rosecrans’ bloodless victories were not what political purposes in Washington demanded. Rosecrans was therefore ordered to pursue and destroy the Rebel forces in his department. In a move that fooled nobody, the supposedly neutral observer Charles Dana was sent by the War Department to spy on Rosecrans and prod him forward.

Those Confederates were the Army of Tennessee, commanded by the miserable Braxton Bragg. Prone to illness and depression, Bragg was quietly (and in some cases openly) at war with several of his senior subordinates, a situation not helped by the almost headlong flight out of Tennessee over the preceding weeks. Rosecrans had outmaneuvered Bragg constantly, and his subordinates had repeatedly written directly to Jefferson Davis to request his replacement. Bragg, however, was a friend of Davis, and so despite his deficiencies as a general and as a leader he held on to his position for the time being.

The problem was that in its eagerness to destroy the Army of Tennessee, Washington had pushed Rosecrans into a dangerous position. The Tennessee is a powerful river, and crossing it had forced Rosecrans to spread his men out. Worse, the mountainous terrain south of the river made it difficult to concentrate his forces again. The Confederates eventually recognized that Rosecrans’ forces were split up and might be destroyed in detail. So, they regrouped and turned to attack. At this juncture, the only thing that saved one of Rosecrans’ corps was that Bragg’s poor leadership (and equally poor subordinates) prevented the Rebel army from striking as quickly as it could have.

Things might have settled into a stalemate. Rosecrans had time to draw his forces together, but his supply situation was too poor to advance, and Bragg lacked the men to displace him. But this was one of the rare instances where the South was able to use its shorter internal lines of communication to its advantage. After much pleading, Longstreet had convinced Lee to detach the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia from that bogged-down theater and send it west to try its luck there. Bragg had Longstreet coming to his aid with two divisions. This gave him a chance to strike back against Rosecrans and possibly even destroy him. He determined to attack.

Braxton Bragg, for whom Fort Bragg in North Carolina is named.

Braxton Bragg, for whom Fort Bragg in North Carolina is named.

As was typical, nothing went according to Bragg’s plan. Longstreet’s men did not arrive as quickly as expected, and dribbled slowly into the theater on overtaxed railways. On September 18th, when the Confederates should have been advancing to cut off the Union troops from Chattanooga, they were stymied at the crossings of Chickamauga Creek by small detachments of cavalry and mounted infantry. So it was not until the morning of the 19th that the armies truly clashed in the woods west of the creek.

The action of September 19th is almost impossible to accurately describe. The battlefield was unusually chaotic and encounters took place in piecemeal fashion. The area was heavily wooded and plagued with dense underbrush, and most maneuvers took place on the level of regiments and brigades rather than divisions or corps. The day was calm, so the smoke from the gunpowder lingered in the air, further obscuring vision. Units would advance and find suddenly find themselves all alone, or suddenly discover allies (or enemies) on their flank. Divisions from various corps got jumbled together, then broken up as their brigades were sent in different directions to patch different holes, real or perceived, in a line nobody could actually see. The jumbled line of battle and the impossibility of understanding the larger picture from the ground resulted in a serious breakdown of the chain of command.

This had happened to the Union forces at Gettysburg, too, but on a field with a well-defined defensive position and clear lines of sight. There, the battle was largely able to fight itself, and artillery could compensate for imperfect tactics. Here in the smoky woods that simply wasn’t possible. Artillery was much less useful, and nobody knew where to go or what to do. Units charged, routed the enemy, then got counterattacked and routed themselves. Sometimes they reformed and charged again; mostly they didn’t. The fields of the few farms present in the area were soon covered with dead and wounded men.

Rosecrans had as his main goal the protection of the Lafayette Road, which ran north to south and led to Chattanooga. If the road were lost, his only real line of retreat would be cut off.  His success was mixed. On the north end of his line, a salient organized by George Thomas (commander of the XX Corps) bulged out from the road and kept it clear. On the southern end of the line, closer to Rosecrans headquarters, the Union troops had been chased across the road and up a hill. Fortunately, this position looked east towards the Rebels across the field of the Brotherton farm, making further attacks too difficult, at least for the evening.

As if the situation weren’t confused enough, attacks continued after dark, mostly coming to grief. As the Yankees began to entrench, Bragg plotted a dawn attack, and Longstreet arrived. As the night deepened, the soldiers slept fitfully, unaware that the chaos of the 19th would soon be superseded.

The Man Who Lost Gettysburg

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Jul 042013

Gettysburg plays a central role in the mythology of the Lost Cause. Two Confederate generals present on the battlefield, Isaac Trimble and Jubal Early, were among the myth’s first proponents, and adherents believe that if Lee had won there, the war might have gone differently. The Army of the Potomac might have been destroyed; European allies might have interceded on the South’s behalf; Lincoln might have gone to the bargaining table.  As such, it became very important to identify whose fault it was that the Army of Northern Virginia had been defeated. However, the blame could not land on the Saints of the Lost Cause – Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville made him immune, but Lee had been in overall command. Thus the Lost Causers hunted for fault among his subordinates.

Harry Heth and A.P. Hill could be blamed. Heth, with Hill’s approval, had made an intemperate foray towards Gettysburg on the 1st, bringing on a battle that Lee did not yet want to fight. However, the first day went well for the Confederacy, arguably better than it would have if Richard Ewell had taken the Second Corps to Cashtown that day and they had advanced in force along the Cashtown Pike on the 2nd. Hill comes in for further criticism since he made no real contribution to the battle on the following days. Although divisions from his Corps were engaged on the 2nd and 3rd, he personally contributed almost no leadership, not even to correct obviously faulty alignments on both days.

Many critics blamed J.E.B. Stuart. He had taken the best brigades of Confederate cavalry on a useless raid around the Army of the Potomac that netted some irrelevant plunder and barely affected Yankee communications. In the process, the story goes, he rendered the Army of Northern Virginia blind, forcing it to battle on ground it did not know against an army it had not scouted. Worse, the need to use infantry to cover the cavalry’s traditional tasks meant that Pickett and Law were delayed reaching the battlefield. However, Stuart didn’t take all of the cavalry with him. Lee had two brigades of cavalry (Jones and Robertson) and one of irregulars (Imboden) that he could have used to scout and serve as rearguard. He mishandled these troops, however, leaving Jones and Robertson to guard passes that needed no guarding, and giving Imboden too free a hand to do as he wished. Stuart allowed his wounded pride to tempt him into a mistake, but if the Army of Northern Virginia was blind, it was not entirely his fault.

Ewell, despite successfully pushing aside the XI Corps on the first day, also became a target. His decision not to attack Cemetery or Culp’s Hills on the first day has long been criticized for ceding the best ground available to the Union. His desire to keep his men positioned on the right, too far from the rest of the army for Lee to exert any real control, left the Confederates in an awkward tactical position and interfered with operations. His attacks on Culp’s Hill were mostly fruitless and never achieved their aim of drawing troops away from the rest of the field. Aside from his first day’s success, Ewell did little to help the Confederate cause. Yet, the failures were not his alone. Lee declined to offer any support for an attack on the hills on the first day, and he could have simply ordered Ewell to move over towards the main body of the army if he had wished to do so. Instead, Lee deferred to his subordinate’s wishes; if Ewell erred, it was because Lee let him.

Many Lost Causers focused on James Longstreet, not least because of his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant and his Republican politics. Longstreet also was not shy about sharing his opinion that Lee had made critical errors at times – a sin by Lost Cause standards. Longstreet had not wanted to invade Pennsylvania, had not wanted to fight at Gettysburg, and had not wanted to use the tactics that Lee ordered. He had been absent during the successes of the 1st, slow and inefficient on the 2nd, and reluctant on the 3rd. Yet, he had also been the only one of Lee’s Corps commanders to take an active hand in operations, and the slowness on the 2nd had not been entirely his fault. Longstreet performed poorly in many ways, but the blame could not all land on him.

He's just a guy, not some saintly, noble soul.

He’s just a guy, not some sainted noble figure.

The truth, unpleasant as Lost Causers might find it, is that Robert E. Lee is The Man Who Lost Gettysburg. He lost because he did not exert enough control over Hill and Stuart. He lost because he deferred excessively to Ewell, while disregarding Longstreet’s misgivings. He lost because he counted on an artillery barrage without making sure that Porter Alexander had the authority and ammunition to make it succeed. Mostly, though, he lost because of a sin as old as Aeschylus: hubris. Robert E. Lee had great pride in his army, and believed it invincible. He had contempt for Yankee fighting men, and even more for their leaders. He believed that he could not be defeated by “those people”, as he called them. And in the end, he believed that he was The Man Who Lost Gettysburg. “All this has been my fault,” Lee told Cadmus Wilcox, and he was right.

But asking who The Man Who Lost Gettysburg was already concedes the matter to the Lost Causers. The question itself reflects the belief that victory was something due the noble warriors of the South, only denied to them by the small-mindedness of corps commanders and the overwhelming power of Northern material wealth. The question assumes Lee’s contempt for the Yankee army was justified. But the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, with few exceptions, fought bravely and well, and they were led, for the most part, by generals who made the right decisions and saved the army in moments of crisis. John Buford’s excellent defense in depth, Abner Doubleday’s skillful management of the I Corps, Gouverneur K. Warren’s quick recognition and solution of the danger at Little Round Top, Winfield Hancock’s capable management of the defense on the second and third days of the battle, and Henry Hunt’s brutally effective artillery placements all could be viewed as critical to Union success on the field. So perhaps the question we should be asking is, who is The Man Who Won Gettysburg?

July 3, 1863

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Jul 032013

They named the charge after George Pickett, who commanded one of the three divisions involved.

George Meade met with his generals on the night of July 2 pleased with the day’s outcome. Although the loss had been terrible, the line had held, and he had a whole corps worth of fresh troops to use for tomorrow – the VI Corps, the largest in the army. Prisoners interrogated by the Bureau of Military Information revealed that during the course of the previous two days the Rebels had engaged every single division of every corps of their army, save only George Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps. Meade had more fresh troops and a better position, and was ready to stand on the defensive until an opportunity presented itself.

Lee, (accurately) convinced that his men had very nearly broken the Union line the previous day, expected that Meade would reinforce his flanks, drawing troops away from the center of his line. Thus, a massive assault at that point should be able to break through and send the Yankees flying. He would have his best general, Longstreet, attack with his whole corps, preceding the attack with massed artillery fire to further weaken the Yankees and protect the charge.

This plan would have to change. Pickett was fresh, but the divisions of Hood and McLaws had fought desperately the previous day, taking many casualties and losing many commanders. Hood himself had been badly wounded in the arm, and would lose the use of it. In addition, the Army of the Potomac had reinforced that end of the line, and if those two divisions were used for an assault, there would be no forces to prevent a flank attack by the Union. Lee decided to add parts of two divisions from A.P. Hill’s corps: Heth’s division, commanded by Johnston Pettigrew because a bullet had concussed Heth on the first day, and Pender’s division, commanded by Isaac Trimble since Pender had been mortally wounded.

Again, Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s tactics. He reported himself to have said:

General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as anyone, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.

Longstreet again agitated for a move to the right, but this was not a serious possibility. If nothing else, the awkward position of Ewell’s Corps, far out on the left and in plain view of the Yankee troops on the high hills, made it impossible to perform such a maneuver with the main body of the army. Lee would not be swayed. He determined to attack.

The charge was doomed from the beginning. Lee meant for demonstrations by Ewell and J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry out on the far right to draw the attention of the army, but the XII Corps under Slocum attacked Ewell early in the morning, and Stuart ran into Union cavalry almost as soon as he got into position. Bloody and desperate fighting took place in the entrenchments on Culp’s Hill, but it never drew any troops away from the Cemetery Ridge line.

The grand cannonade that Lee had planned similarly ran into difficulties. Some of these were beyond Lee’s control – Confederate ammunition, for instance, was notoriously unreliable and often exploded too early or too late. The smoke of the artillery duel between the armies rapidly made it difficult for the Rebels to check their aim. Some of the Union artillery and infantry positions had defilade and could not be seen by the Confederates. These were the practical problems.

There was a larger, organizational problem as well. Porter Alexander, who had worked the artillery so effectively at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, had been given command of the artillery barrage. However, he did not have the authority to command all the artillery. The artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia was nominally under the command of William Pendelton, but he was a staff officer who exerted no direct control. This meant that the artillery batteries were essentially commanded by generals leading infantry corps and divisions, with the result that Alexander was not able to compel the obedience of batteries outside of the First Corps. As a result, ammunition was squandered in fruitless duels, and guns he’d expected to use in supporting the assault disappeared. Worse, Pendleton had failed at one of his few real duties – the amount of ammunition available was not equal to the demands of the attack.

In contrast, the Union artillery was all under the direct command of the magnificently efficient Henry Hunt, who had been carefully seeing to the position, sighting, and supply of the Union guns since the first day of the battle. Hunt and Meade both suspected that Lee would attack the center of the line, and prepared their artillery to meet the threat. The whole of the Union artillery would be coordinated to deal with the crisis.

The cannonade began around 1 in the afternoon, all the Confederate fire converging on the center of the Union line. Hunt insisted that his artillery respond in a restrained manner, so as to preserve their ammunition for the charge they knew was coming. The seemingly lackadaisical response infuriated Hancock, but did not result in much retreating from the line. Due to the bad ammunition and difficulty aiming, the shells from the Rebel guns flew long and exploded late, doing their worst damage behind the Union line. Perversely, the artillery fire compelled the Yankee soldiers to remain in place.

Eventually Hunt and some of his subordinates came up with the idea that if they withdrew some of their cannon they might tempt the Rebels into attacking prematurely. The gambit worked, although it certainly didn’t hurt that Alexander had been running low on ammunition. Longstreet had shamefully tried to pin the decision for the charge on Alexander, who gave his best analysis without claiming authority. Some of the enemy guns had been withdrawn, and if Pickett didn’t start soon, the artillery wouldn’t be able to support the charge.

About 12,500 men made the charge.

About 12,500 men made the charge. Image from National Park Service.

At about 3 PM, the Confederate soldiers marched off towards the Union lines, with Pickett’s men on the right and the Pettigrew-Trimble group on the left. They were soon under artillery fire from all over the field. Guns as far away as Little Round Top enfiladed the brigades, sending shell and solid shot bouncing down the lines of men. Infantry and artillery flanked the assault and poured fire into the Rebels, routing some of Pettigrew’s brigades almost as soon as the charge began. The brigade holding Pickett’s right flank was cut down harshly.

Johnston Pettigrew would die in rearguard action several days later as the Rebels retreated across the Potomac.

Johnston Pettigrew would be mortally wounded in rearguard action several days later as the Rebels retreated across the Potomac.

Pettigrew and Trimble never made it to the Union line. Massed fire from the Yankees and a troublesome fence along the Emmitsburg pike kept them pinned down until they decided it was hopeless and withdrew. Lew Armistead’s brigade from Pickett’s division made it up to and over the low stone wall the Yankees had been using for cover, but the attacking force was barely a company at that point. They were repulsed in a counterattack, and Armistead fell mortally wounded among the Union cannon, at the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

The misadventure earned the name “Pickett’s Charge”, although Pickett commanded only a part of it and could not have done anything to save the day. He lost all of his brigade commanders and nearly all of his regimental officers. The attack had suffered 50% casualties, losing more than 6,000 men (Union casualties in the attack were about 1500).

The armies would sit staring at each other for another day before the Rebels retreated, but by sundown on July 3, the fighting was through. Casualties for the whole battle exceeded 46,000, with the Confederacy suffering slightly more than the Union. The battle was not a decisive defeat for the Confederacy – the Army of Northern Virginia had, overall, given as well as it got, and had succeeded in its strategic goal of obtaining provisions in Pennsylvania. The victory Lee needed eluded him, however, and as the armies waited on July 4, John Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi. The war had turned against the Confederacy, and it would never recover.

July 2, 1863

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Jul 022013

The absence of Stuart, and Lee’s mishandling of the cavalry brigades left to him, had caused the Army of Northern Virginia to blunder blindly into the Army of the Potomac on July 1, but the failure of the cavalry had its greatest effect on the second day of the battle. Lee still had little idea of the actual position of the Yankee Army. Before dawn, he had sent a small party to scout the right side of the Union position. Through bad luck or incompetence, this group reported that the flank of the Yankee army was in the air – according to them, no troops were posted at Little Round Top, the small hill that should have formed the anchor of the Union line. The hill held a Union signal tation, however, and troops had occupied the hill until around 5:30 in the morning, and reoccupied it soon after. The faulty report convinced Lee that a flank attack was not only practicable, but actually bound to succeed.

Worse, the absence of cavalry units to act as a rearguard compelled Lee to fill this function with infantry. Specifically, Evander Law’s brigade, and George Pickett’s whole division, both from James Longstreet’s First Corps, had been posted to the rear. Early in the morning on July 2 they received the order to move up, but Law would not reach the field until the afternoon and Pickett would not get on it at all. Longstreet, ordered to make a flanking attack on the Union position, expressed much displeasure at being forbidden to wait for Pickett, stating that he did not like to go into battle with one boot off. Perhaps he did not recall that he’d done precisely that at Sharpsburg.

Longstreet’s gripe about Pickett was one expression of a larger dissatisfaction with Lee’s plan. Longstreet did not want to assault the Union army where it stood, and preferred the idea of sidling around to the right, outflanking them on a strategic, rather than a tactical level. He felt the Yankee position was simply too strong to be successfully taken, which he expressed to Lee bluntly:

Lee: “If he is there tomorrow, we must attack him.”

Longstreet: “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him – a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”

Lee's attack plan called for Hood, McLaws, and Anderson to attack in sequence to weaken the line. Map by Hal Jespersen.

Lee’s attack plan called for Hood, McLaws, and Anderson to attack in sequence to weaken the line. Map by Hal Jespersen.

Lee must have been rather unhappy himself, as he was not getting the sort of help he was used to from his corps commanders. Ewell was even worse than Longstreet – not only did he not want to attack the men in front of him (although he did mount a modestly successful effective assault against unoccupied entrenchments late in the day), he was even reluctant to reposition his corps to a spot where it could attack fruitfully. As for Hill, his record in the battle is practically nonexistent. After allowing Heth to make his ill-considered push towards town on the first day he seems to have made no contribution at all. Stuart was still absent from the field.

History strongly suggests that Longstreet allowed his irritation with Lee to affect his battlefield performance, earning him his candidacy for The Man Who Lost Gettysburg. He insisted on waiting for Law to rejoin Hood’s division before he started moving the rest of his corps, which delayed the day’s planned attack. When he took his troops along the poorly-scouted route to the point of attack, he belatedly realized that part of the route was exposed to the signal station on Little Round Top and ended up taking a slow and inefficient countermarch to remain concealed.

Lee’s attack plan, predicated on his belief that the Army of the Potomac had entrenched along Cemetery Ridge without anchoring its line on Little Round Top, involved first taking the Peach Orchard in order to use it for the artillery, then rolling up the Union line with an advance parallel to the Emmitsburg road. When Longstreet finally reached his destination, however, the plan had to be changed, because the III Corps was suddenly positioned where nobody expected it to be.


Dan Sickles moved the III Corps into danger.

Dan Sickles was a prime example of that now-extinct species, the political general. A well-connected Congressman, he had once murdered a man who was romancing his wife and employed the first successful temporary insanity defense to avoid conviction. By this point in the war he had command of the III Corps of the Union army, and on this day he had been told in no uncertain terms that the was to deploy his troops along Cemetery Ridge and anchor his flank at Little Round Top.

Sickles, no doubt remembering how the Confederate seizure of Hazel Grove had proven decisive at Chancellorsville, felt very uncomfortable staring at the elevated ground of the Peach Orchard just to his front. He decided to advance his men to form a large salient, pushing out from Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard before angling back towards Little Round Top. This position had several problems. First, because of the way it protruded from the rest of the line, it was vulnerable to attack from two directions rather than one. Additionally, it pulled off the troops that had been guarding Little Round Top, leaving the hill undefended. Finally, Sickles had nowhere near enough men to actually hold the line he had occupied.

Sickles made his move around 4:00 PM. Meade recognized the danger as soon as he saw the troop positions, but by then it was too late. Longstreet was attacking.

Meade immediately sent Gouverneur K. Warren to see to the defense of Little Round Top, which Warren discovered to be unoccupied, with Rebels advancing on it. The V Corps was quickly ordered to defend the position, but the courier had trouble finding the intended divisional commander. Colonel Strong Vincent decided to occupy the hill on his own authority, and deployed his brigade just in time to meet the Alabamians of Law’s brigade. The fight was desperate, and the 20th Maine regiment, anchoring the defense, almost bent back on itself to avoid being outflanked by the assault. As their ammunition ran out, Joshua L. Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that finally swept away the attackers, preserving the far left of the Union line.

Gouverneur K. Warren would later be unjustly relieved from command by Phil Sheridan after Five Forks.

Gouverneur K. Warren would later be unjustly relieved from command by Phil Sheridan after Five Forks.

Meanwhile, Sickles’ division was being destroyed by the grinding attack of John Hood’s and Lafayette McLaws’ divisions. Rather than trying to belatedly organize a defense in depth with massed units, Sickles was committing his reserves and even units grabbed from other commands piecemeal, trying to plug the holes in the line one brigade or regiment at a time. Eventually a cannonball ruined his leg, requiring that it be amputated below the knee and removing him from command (a II Corps officer expressed the opinion that the general’s loss was thus the country’s gain). Meade deputized Hancock, once again, to take overall command of the Union line and began sending him every soldier that could be spared. Despite this reinforcement, the Union line was dangerously close to being penetrated.

They were saved by the poor alignment of Dick Anderson’s division of the Rebel Third Corps. In the absence of Pickett, Anderson’s men were expected to finish off the flanking attack. Unlike McLaws and Hood, who had concentrated their brigades, Anderson had strung his out, weakening the overall power of his assault and his ability to provide immediate support at breakthrough points. Worse, once his attack started, some of his brigades never actually attacked, or stopped before reaching the Yankee army. As a result, Hancock had enough time to save the Army of the Potomac. He accomplished this at great cost, at one point essentially sacrificing an entire regiment so he could cobble together a line, but the day ended without a Confederate breakthrough.

The second day of Gettysburg featured surprisingly poor showings from most of the Confederate high command, and a strong effort from many Union officers (Sickles excluded). Despite the inefficiency of their commanders, the Rebels had made some modest gains, but the actions of Warren and Hancock denied them the victory they might have had if proper cavalry dispositions had allowed Longstreet to go into battle with both boots on. By the end of July 2, Pickett’s division had arrived at last. Whatever attack took place the next day, his men – the only fresh ones the Confederates had – would almost certainly play the key role.