Thursday, July 4, 2013

The aftermath of Gettysburg

Robert E. Lee
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Gettysburg campaign was the last significant invasion of the North. About a week after the battle ended, CS Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan led a cavalry raid into Indiana and Ohio to disrupt the flow of supplies to the Army of the Cumberland; beyond some bridge and railroad damage, and tying up some cavalry in chasing him, his most significant accomplishment was to get captured.

Surrender may be the logical end of defensive warfare, but it isn’t the inevitable or necessary end, as had been shown by the Romans in the Second Punic War, the Americans during the Revolution and the Communists in Vietnam. As long as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia stayed in Virginia, they had the blessing of interior lines and intimate knowledge of the terrain, as well as friendly hosts. From that perspective, the invasion of the North wasn’t really necessary.

As well, materiel had always been the Confederates’ biggest problem. Half the size of its foe, the Army of Northern Virginia still found it necessary to augment what weapons and ammunition Richmond could send them with whatever they could capture from the Yankees. While in Pennsylvania, the ANV could live off the land. But the orchards didn’t grow bullets, and the wheat fields provided no powder. The further Lee led his army into Pennsylvania, the further his supply line was stretched and the more vulnerable it became. Eighty-one years later, Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery would lead British and American forces on a similar push into Holland (Operation Market-Garden), which failed its objective with severe consequences for the Allied advance.


Richard S. Ewell
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In any event, it’s doubtful that anything shy of death, capture or loss of office could have swayed Abraham Lincoln’s iron determination to bring the Southern states back into the fold. The situation in the Civil War was not really analogous to the Second Punic War, the Revolution or the Vietnam intervention: North and South were cheek by jowl, and so did not incur the extra expenses or logistical limitations of mounting operations overseas. The Federal government was thus in a better position to support an army of over 300,000 than George III was to support 50,000. Second-guessing generals is the historian’s version of “Monday morning quarterbacking”; nevertheless, even from the perspective of that time Lee’s plan was a desperate and ill-advised gamble.

Richard Ewell, years later, remarked, “It took a great many mistakes to lose that battle. And I made most of them.” It’s perhaps the most damning thing one can say that Ewell didn’t contribute enough to the battle for his mistakes to count. Had Ewell shown the proper drive to take Culp's Hill the first evening, it's likely that Winfield S. Hancock, who had field command of the Federals that night, would have recognized the exposure of his rear to attack in the morning and either ordered or recommended withdrawal to a better position, and Gettysburg would have been just another skirmish on the way to the real confrontation. But whether that later confrontation would have led to another ANV victory is dubious at best.

J. E. B. "Jeb" Stuart
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The first mistake — besides deciding to go north in the first place — was Jeb Stuart’s decision to ride south around the Federal lines to cross the Potomac instead of north. Lee attempted to take some of the blame on himself for not writing clearer, more specific orders. However, Stuart was competent enough that he shouldn’t have required step-by-step instructions. And to put the onus on Ewell for not trying hard enough to link up with Stuart north of Gettysburg is to ignore the difference in mobility between infantry and cavalry — it’s simply ridiculous. At the top and bottom of it, Stuart knew his job was to screen the army while reporting on Union movements and dispositions; when he broke contact with Lee’s right and went on his joyride, he failed in his primary mission. Stuart knew it, too; until the day he fell at Yellow Tavern in 1864, he never again left Lee blind.

James Longstreet
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Many historians believe that James Longstreet’s dilatory performance on 2 July was motivated by his reluctance to carry out Lee’s order to attack the flank; however, the failure to properly scout the Union line was not directly his fault. The guide party that led him into position was supposed to have known the Federal positions, and commanders have to be able to trust their subordinates to know their jobs.

What is perhaps less excusable was Longstreet’s insistence on carrying out Lee’s attack order to the letter when he became aware of the III Corps’ salient. “Old Pete”, considered by many to have been the finest corps commander on either side, was perfectly capable of acting on his own initiative. As an example, the next morning he sent a reconnaissance in force to the Union rear without consulting Lee to see if it could be attacked and their supply lines disrupted; this movement threw Lee’s plans for the pont au feu into disarray. In light of this, his unwillingness to shift his line of attack to hit Sickles’ salient along the Peach Orchard-Devil’s Den front is difficult to defend with no more than the “good soldier obeying orders” explanation.

George G. Meade
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
For his part, George G. Meade would retain nominal command of the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war. However, his pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg was hesitant, marked by many councils of war, and too cautious by half; despite being briefly pinned against a rain-swollen Potomac, the Army of Northern Virginia was able to get away. Not until later in the year did Meade bestir himself to attempt to corner Lee in the inconclusive Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns. When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Union forces the next year, he killed Meade with kindness, soliciting his opinion and listening to his concerns; not until much later did Meade come to realize that he was a mere figurehead, and that Grant was the real field commander.

Ulysses S. Grant
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Grant was the commander Lincoln had been looking for. Where Grant “beat[] the world,” William T. Sherman once exclaimed, is that “He doesn’t give a damn what the enemy does behind his back, while it scares me like hell.” Though not the tactical genius Lee was, Grant had mastered the grim mathematics of attrition: he could absorb a 3:2 difference in casualty rates and still bring soldiers to the field when the South had been bled dry. His need for companionship and intimacy was almost completely fulfilled by his wife Julia and their children, who joined him in the field whenever time and ccircumstance allowed, so he never sought the affection of his men, nor allowed concern for them to dictate his tactics. He didn’t have to beat Lee so much as stay in contact with him and whittle him down. Grant brought to the Army of the Potomac a single-minded determination that lent an aura of inevitability to their operations, while the myth of Lee’s invincibility had been irreparably sshattered.

On 4 July 1863, as Lee’s men were retrieving their wounded and arranging burial parties, Grant received the surrender of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, the commander of the besieged Army of Vicksburg. The collapse of this major Mississippi River port sealed the fate of Port Hudson further to the south, also under siege, which surrendered five days later. With the entire length of the river under Union control, the Confederacy was split into halves, ensuring the success of the “anaconda strategy” laid out by Winfield Scott after First Manassas. The march that began at Gettysburg would eventually end almost two years later at Appomattox Court House.