Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gettysburg — Day Three

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
—Proverbs 16:18

The sun rose on 3 July 1863 to show the Army of the Potomac still occupying the high ground southeast of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Gettysburg, 3 July 1863
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
To many in the Army of Northern Virginia, this likely came as a surprise. CS General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates had been dominating the bluecoats since the afternoon of the first day, when they pushed the Federals south through the town. And the day before, they had definitely given the Yankees a bloody nose when they’d pushed it too far away from the high ground. By now, the previous commander, Joseph Hooker, would have retreated. So would have Irvin McDowell, or Ambrose Burnside. Heck, George B. McClellan would have boasted of the success of his brilliant retrograde movement in the face of “overwhelming force”!

But those men wouldn’t have been in the upper ranks. Leaders like Lee and his “old warhorse”, Lt. Gen. James “Pete” Longstreet, knew that they’d accomplished little besides shoving a salient in the Union left back to where they would be strongest, the tactical crest of Cemetery Hill. The bloody nose had hurt the Confederates as much, if not more, given their numerical inferiority. The Union commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, didn’t have to leave his position: as long as his lines of communication were secure and his men held the most advantageous position, they could wait the rebels out.

Now would have been a good time to disengage, swing around to the south, cut the Union supply line and force Meade to give chase again. But for some reason — to the end of his life, he never explained why — Lee simply could not let go of the battle. Perhaps, as novelist Michael Shaara said in his novel The Killer Angels, he thought his men would never understand why they turned their backs and left an undefeated enemy in possession of the ground; however, they had done so once before, at Antietam a year before. I think it’s more likely that Lee, a Virginia aristocrat who was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and related to George Washington by marriage, was impatient for the battle and the war to end, and rationalized that a thumping defeat of the Army of the Potomac so far into the North would precipitate that end.

The Union center had shown some give the previous evening. Some of Longstreet’s soldiers had actually made it to the crest of Cemetery Ridge, only to be pushed back. One sharp blow, Lee thought, would suffice to punch through the lines and divide the Union front. A pont au feu — straight up the middle, with an artillery barrage on either side to reduce and hold potential reinforcements; another attack on the Union right to freeze reinforcements from that direction, and a cavalry attack to cut off their retreat.

But who to carry out the main assault? Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps had not taken many losses in the last two days. However, Ewell’s corps was on the other side, and movement would be time-consuming. Besides, Ewell himself had been uncharacteristically hesitant, even timid, in his actions the last two days; others thought he depended too much on Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, who was a good albeit not remarkable commander and an inveterate schemer. Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill’s Third Corps was closer to the Union center. However, the Third Corps had taken more losses on the first day, and Hill, a somewhat erratic leader at his best, was suffering one of his frequent illnesses. That left Longstreet’s First Corps, reinforced the night before with the arrival on the field of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division.

Just as he’d disagreed the day before, Longstreet disagreed now. He continued to push for the swing to the south, arguing (so he later claimed), “General, I have been a soldier all my life … 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.” But Lee would not budge; and Longstreet, the lifelong soldier, reluctantly obeyed.

At about 2 p.m., Longstreet’s divisions stepped off, the center of their attack a copse of trees near the center
Pickett's Charge
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
of the line. (The attack was late because Lee and Longstreet neglected to tell Pickett what time to prepare for.) The distance was just shy of a mile and split by fences, which the Confederates crossed in route step even as Union artillery fired canister rounds — essentially giant shotgun shells — that tore gaping holes in the ranks. When they had come within five hundred yards of the Federals’ breastworks, the leading brigade commanders gave the order to charge.

Much has been made of “Pickett’s Charge” (more properly, Longstreet’s Advance); it has been called “the high-water mark of the Confederacy”, and many Southron romantic fantasies have been built on the “what-ifs” surrounding the advance. But like the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, the order was a blunder.

Without taking anything away from Lee’s tactical ingenuity and audacity, his greatest strength up until that morning had been the incompetence of the Federal commanders he faced. Absent this advantage, “Pickett’s Charge” was an under-strength corps running uphill through a murderous barrage to assault vastly superior numbers in a strong position, with no reserves to commit and exploit any breakthrough they might achieve. It was a bad idea that had little chance of succeeding even had it been executed perfectly, with Stonewall Jackson himself leading the charge.

Two holes did open up. The 59th New York inexplicably bolted for the rear, exposing the 1st New York Independent Artillery Battery; however, the battery of five guns fired one round of canister each simultaneously, destroying the Confederate line in front of them. The commander of the 71st Pennsylvania, near the copse of trees, ordered retreat, leaving a handful of men from the 71st, the 69th New York and two guns. The action became hand-to-hand; rebels seized the guns, but had no ammunition to fire. Reinforcements poured in, and the breach was sealed.

Decimated, Longstreet’s men retreated — no order was given or needed. The supporting attacks had failed as well: Ewell’s men were pushed from Culp’s Hill; the division Hill sent in support on Longstreet’s left were quickly brushed off; Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart, leading his cavalry to the Baltimore Pike, suddenly encountered and was stopped by US Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg’s troopers in a field about three miles east of town.

In less than an hour, the First Corps had suffered 6,555 casualties out of the approximately 12,500 men that had participated, with 1,123 killed and most of the 3,750 captives wounded. In Pickett’s division alone, twenty-six of forty field-grade officers were casualties, as were all of his brigade commanders. Pickett himself was untouched but distraught at the destruction of his men; when Lee asked him to rally his division to fend off a possible counterattack, Pickett replied bitterly, “General Lee, I have no division.”

The battle was over. The next day — Independence Day, a fact that must have taunted the rebels — the two sides collected their dead and wounded in the rain, while Lee laid plans for retreat. That night, the Army of Northern Virginia began the long march home.