Gettysburg is by far the most famous battle of the American Civil War. If I had to guess, I'd say that nearly as many books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written about Gettysburg as the rest of the war put together. In three days of terrible fighting on the hills and fields of southern Pennsylvania, more than 50,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. Ask the reasonably educated American to name a single battle of the war and they will almost certainly answer, "Gettysburg."
A certain mystique has grown up around Gettysburg since the end of the war. It is often referred to as the turning point of the war, with Pickett's Charge itself sometimes called "the High Watermark of the Confederacy". The Lost Cause school of Southern history, which was started by Jubal Early and others in the years immediately after the war, firmly maintained that the South never had a chance to win the war, but there was something of an asterisk mark next to Gettysburg. There has always existed in the popular conception of the war the an idea that, if only Robert E. Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederacy would have won the Civil War.
I want to explore this question. Today's post will ask and answer the simple question: could the South have won the Battle of Gettysburg? Next week's post will ask the obvious follow-up question: if the South had won the Battle of Gettysburg, would it have won the war?
First, a quick recap of the events of the battle is in order. Following his brilliant victory at Chancellorsville, Lee marched the Army of Northern Virginia north to begin his second invasion of Union territory. This time, his columns struck deep into Pennsylvania, foraging liberally among the rich farms they found and replenishing their exhausted supplies of food and fodder. His general plan seems to have been to subsist his army on enemy resources and seek an opportunity to win a decisive victory on Northern soil. The Army of the Potomac, not entirely sure as to Lee's intentions, followed very cautiously. Lee was unable to obtain definitive information about the whereabouts of the Union army, as his cavalry chief Jeb Stuart had exceeded his orders to screen the army from the Federal cavalry and was attempting to repeat his previous feat of riding all the way around the enemy army. Consequently, he was out of communication. Historians have argued about whether Stuart openly violated his orders in doing this, but there is little doubt that Lee was deeply upset about it.
Eventually, Lee learned from a spy employed by James Longstreet, the senior and most trusted of his three corps commanders, that the Army of the Potomac was moving into Pennsylvania. Though taken by surprise, Lee reacted quickly and ordered his spread out army to concentrate in and around the town of Cashtown, less than ten miles west of Gettysburg.
On July 1, Confederate troops under division command Henry Heth marched towards Gettysburg as a reconnaissance-in-force to ascertain if any Union troops were there (the oft-repeated legend that they were looking for shoes is highly debatable). There they encountered the dismounted Union cavalry of General John Buford, a tough and fearless old soldier. He had seen the value of the high ground around Gettysburg and determined to try to hold it long enough for reinforcements to arrive, Thus began the epic Battle of Gettysburg. Buford did manage to hold on for a few hours, to the annoyance of the Confederates. Annoyance turned to dismay, however, when the lead elements of the I Corps, followed by the XI Corps, arrived and took position on the ridges west of town.
Having begun by accident, the battle now could not stop. The rest of July 1 was a brutal slugging match, some of the most intense infantry combat of the American Civil War. But Confederate reinforcements arrived more quickly than those of their enemies. Heth's division was soon reinforced by the rest of A.P. Hill's Third Corps, while Richard Ewell's Second Corps arrived north of the town and assailed the Yankee right flank. Despite fighting bravely, the outnumbered and outgunned Yankees broke and fled, dashing through Gettysburg in an attempt to escape. The defeated Union troops regrouped on the heights south of town, Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. Lee, now arrived on the field, gave ambiguous orders, suggesting that Ewell continue the attack and seize the heights, but the corps commander decided that caution was called for and held back.
The next day, the bulk of both armies had drawn themselves up around Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac holding a fishhook-shaped line on the heights south of the town and the Army of Northern Virginia roughly paralleling it. The Confederate took their time getting organized, while General Dan Sickles, commander of the Union III Corps, made the inexplicable and disastrous decision to advance his troops forward into an indefensible position. The Confederate attack was late, but was devastating when delivered. Longstreet's First Corps shattered the opposing Union line and came close to capturing the crucial position of Little Round Top; only the last minute arrival of Yankee reinforcements saved the day. Elements of McLaws's division temporarily broke through the Union line on the southern part of Cemetery Ridge, but could not hold the ground without support. Attacks by Anderson's division of Hill's corps were uncoordinated and achieved little but addition casualties. In the evening, Ewell's troops launched assaults on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, many of whose defenders had been sent to bolster the Union left flank. Despite initial successes, however, the attacks eventually failed in the gathering darkness.
The third day of the battle was perhaps the most dramatic of the American Civil War. A flurry of renewed fighting on Culp's Hill sputtered out and cavalry attacks in the Union rear led by the now arrived Stuart came to nothing. Lee, running out of options, gambled on a mass frontal assault on the Union center. The Southerners tried to prepare the way with the greatest artillery bombardment of the entire war, then sent forward roughly 13,000 troops from three different divisions in what became known as Pickett's Charge. They came on grandly and gallantly, displaying courage rarely equaled on any battlefield in history. But it quickly turned into senseless slaughter. The massed firepower of Union artillery and infantry blew the attacking lines to pieces. Half of them were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, while the Yankees suffered light losses by comparison. A momentary breakthrough near the famous "Angle" marked the highest point of the charge, but it was rapidly sealed off and the men who made it either captured or killed. The bravest infantry assault of the war had also the most futile; the Southerners had never had a chance. As the gunfire faded, the battle came to an end.
Lee remained in position the following day, July 4, hoping that Meade would attack. When he didn't, Lee began a retreat back to Virginia. Meade pursued but without much enthusiasm. By mid-July, the Army of Northern Virginia was back in its namesake state, wounded but far from dead. The Army of the Potomac, though also grievously hurt, had gained its first unquestioned victory over its adversary and decisively thwarted Lee's grandiose invasion plans.
(Anyone wishing to acquire a deeper knowledge of the Gettysburg Campaign should read Stephen Sears's Gettysburg or Allen Guelzo's Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, both of which are superb single-volume studies. Entire libraries could be filled with the totality of decent books about the campaign and battle.)
Could it have gone differently? Of course it could have. Nothing in history is preordained. Let us now set out a few scenarios that could have given the Confederacy victory in the famous battle.
What If Stuart Had Not Conducted His Ride Around the Federal Army?
This has been the source of controversy since the battle itself. Lee's orders to Stuart, given on June 22, were to screen the army from the enemy cavalry and protect the right flank of Ewell's Second Corps (on the army's right) after the Potomac was crossed. Instead, Stuart took three of his five brigades on the now infamous ride around the enemy army. Worse yet, the two brigades he left behind were considered the least dependable and experienced of the army.
The cavalry was to the Civil War what aerial and satellite reconnaissance are today. They are the eyes and ears of the army. By taking away the best three-fifths of the cavalry, Stuart effectively deprived Lee of the means of knowing the location and movements of his enemy. In fact, until Longstreet's spy made his report on June 29, just two days before the battle, Lee had no idea that the Union army had even crossed to the north side of the Potomac River.
Whether Stuart technically violated the letter of his orders is a matter for debate, but there is no doubt that Lee was extremely upset by his cavalry commander's absence. However, it may well be that what happened was not really Stuart's fault. There is evidence to suggest that Stuart informed Longstreet of his plans to ride around the enemy army and that Longstreet told Lee. Neither Longstreet nor Lee seem to have objected. Perhaps Lee was upset at himself for letting Stuart go more than he was at Stuart for going. But this is all speculation. (Readers interested in learning more about this question should read Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, by Eric J. Wittenberg.)
Needless to say, had Stuart remained closer to Lee, the Confederates almost certainly would have had accurate intelligence about the position of the Army of the Potomac. Lee's plan seems to have been to detect the approach of the enemy and concentrate his forces in such a way as to attack and defeat the lead elements before the more distant enemy corps could intervene. This almost happened by accident on the first day, when the Union I Corps and XI Corps were smashed, but the victory was incomplete because not all of the Army of Northern Virginia was on the field. Had Longstreet been present with his corps, it is certain that the victory would have been truly decisive, with the Confederates ending the first day in full possession of the heights south of Gettysburg.
There is another point to make. Even with Stuart's absence, Lee had two brigades of cavalry available. For whatever reason (and perhaps because he had become so dependent on Stuart for intelligence-gathering over the past year), Lee made very poor use of these troopers in terms of reconnaissance. It's doubtful that these two brigades could have done as good a job as Stuart would have done, but Lee seems not to have even made the effort, which is frankly mystifying. Perhaps the fault lies not with Stuart for being gone, but with Lee for not using the cavalry he had left.
Whatever the case, had Lee had accurate intelligence on Meade's movements, we can assume that the battle would have begun with a united Army of Northern Virginia on ground of its own choosing, rather than divided and forced to engage on unfamiliar terrain. Considering how close the Southerners came to victory in the actual Battle of Gettysburg, it's more than possible that such a scenario would have seen a smashing Confederate victory.
What If Ewell Had Taken Cemetery Hill or Culp's Hill on the Evening of the First Day?
Like Stuart's ride, this incident has been among the most controversial of the Gettysburg Campaign. As night was falling on the first day of the battle, the victorious Confederates had seized all the ridge lines west of Gettysburg, as well as the town itself. They had inflicted a severe defeat on their Yankee enemies and captured hundreds of them. Flush with victory, might they have pushed on in the gathering twilight to knock the Union troops off of Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, the two heights commanding the northern portion of the Union position?
Lee seems to have thought it was at least a possibility. He famously gave orders to Ewell to push on and take Cemetery Hill "if practicable". Ewell decided that it wasn't practicable; his men had been fighting all afternoon, had suffered significant casualties, and were disorganized. He later said that he would have attacked had he received support from Hill's corps on his right, but no such support materialized. Some present, among them brigade commander John B. Gordon, believed that this was a mistake and that Ewell should have pressed on with the attack. Ewell has since been the subject of unflattering comparisons with the great Stonewall Jackson on account of his caution.
It may be, however, that the caution had been warranted. Had Ewell launched an evening assault on Cemetery Ridge, it is likely the Confederates would have been repulsed. A fresh Union infantry brigade had been left on the position as a reserve, as well as a powerful collection of artillery, and large numbers of Union troops were reorganizing on and around the hill. This would likely have been a match for any force Ewell could mustered for an assault. Perhaps the critics were right in saying that Jackson would have attacked where Ewell did not, but even the great Stonewall probably would have been denied a victory.
There was another option, however. Just to the southeast of Cemetery Hill was another elevation, Culp's Hill. If the Southerners held Culp's Hill, the Union position on Cemetery Hill would be rendered untenable. Early Confederate probes towards the elevation found no Union troops on the hill at all. General Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's division of Ewell's corps, which had not seen combat during the first day, was ordered forward to take the height if they found it still undefended. Johnston, however, dragged his feet in moving his men forward. Ewell seems to have forgotten about the whole thing and took his time checking on whether the hill had been occupied. By the time Johnson finally got his men going, the Yankees had realized the importance of Culp's Hill and moved reinforcements to the threatened position. The possibility of a Confederate attack faded in the darkness.
The oft-repeated suggestion that Ewell should have continued the attack and seized Cemetery Hill is not a realistic scenario for a Confederate victory. Any attack force that might have been put together would not have been sufficient to drive off the Union forces known to be in position on the height. Culp's Hill, however, might have fallen to the Army of Northern Virginia had Ewell and Johnson acted more forcefully. Its possession would have certainly forced the Army of the Potomac to retreat during the night, leaving Lee in possession of the battlefield. Gettysburg would thus have gone down in history as a one-day battle and a Confederate victory.
What if Lee had taken Longstreet's advice and flanked the Army of the Potomac to the south?
This is another oft-repeated scenario that had become part of the Gettysburg legend. After the war, Longstreet suggested that he had agreed to support Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania because Lee promised him that any battle against the Army of the Potomac would be one in which the Army of Northern Virginia would fight on the tactical defensive. Longstreet, so it is thought, wanted the coming battle to be a repeat of Fredericksburg, where repeated Union attacks against strong Confederate positions had mowed Northern soldiers down in heaps.
The best way to bring about such a situation would have been to maneuver the Army of Northern Virginia into a position between the Army of the Potomac and Washington City. Ensuring the defense of the capital was absolutely paramount in the minds of President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton, a fact which was well known to General Lee and of which he made repeated use. During the Gettysburg Campaign, it is doubtful that Lee's army ever could have posed a serious threat to Washington, the most heavily fortified city on the planet, yet the fact remains that Lincoln and Stanton greatly feared a direct attack. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck worried that Lee would undertake exactly such a flanking movement to the south.
At the end of the first day's fighting, with the beaten Union troops having retreated to Cemetery Hill and the victorious Confederates occupying Gettysburg, Longstreet apparently suggested to Lee that they conduct a night march to the south, moving past the Army of the Potomac, and then sliding east to interpose themselves between the enemy army and the enemy capital. If they could find a solid defensive position, they might then invite an attack and inflict the same kind of shattering defeat on the Yankees as they had done at Fredericksburg.
One possible location would have been along Pipe Creek in Maryland, where there was excellent terrain and where the creek could have served as a natural defensive barrier, and which have placed Lee squarely across the lines of communication between Meade and Washington. It would have been the height of irony for the Army of Northern Virginia to have taken up a position along Pipe Creek, for it had been chosen by Meade as his preferred position to protect Baltimore and Washington and as the fallback position for the Army of the Potomac in case it should suffer defeat at Gettysburg.
The reason this course of action was not adopted is traditionally attributed to Lee's aggressive instincts. Having smashed up the Union army on the first day of the battle, Lee was in no mood to break off the action and revert to a campaign of maneuver and defensive tactics. It is also possible that Lee feared, in Stuart's absence, that his cavalry would not be up to the task of screening the movement from the enemy.
If Lee had taken Longstreet's advice and the Army of Northern Virginia had managed to pull off such a flank march, then win a defensive battle against the Army of the Potomac, the results would have been enormous. Not only would Lee have won his sought-after victory on Northern soil, but his victorious army would have lain squarely between the defeated Army of the Potomac and the capital city it was tasked to defend.
What if Longstreet's assault had smashed the Union left flank on the afternoon of July 2?
As mentioned above, Longstreet's attack on the afternoon of the second day was very late in getting started. In the years after the war, Longstreet would be viciously attacked by the early Lose Cause writers (Jubal Early chief among them), who maintained that the delay in launching the assault caused the Confederates to lose the battle and therefore lose the war. This is hogwash. In fact, the lateness of the attack was to the South's advantage, for it meant that the assault struck the Union III Corps after it had commenced its foolish movement forward into an unaligned and poor defensive position.
Longstreet's assault, using the divisions of John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws, shattered the Union line, seizing the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field after bitter fighting and heavy casualties (the fact that the names of these mundane bits of land are now written with capital letters is a testament to the bloodshed that took place upon them). They took the rocky ground bearing the sinister name of Devil's Den and then attempted to take the critical position at Little Round Top.
The story of the defense of Little Round Top has entered the realm of myth. The rocky hill commanded the entire Union line; were Lee's men to seize it, the Army of the Potomac would be forced to retreat. Even as Texas and Alabama troops, among the finest infantry in the world, moved towards the height, it had been left undefended by the foolishness of Dan Sickles, commander of III Corps. General Gouverneur Warren, Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, realized the importance of the position and took it upon himself to call for reinforcements. The brigade of Colonel Strong Vincent (can a better name be imagined?) rushed to Little Round Top just in time to meet the attack, a decision that was to cost the gallant colonel his life. In epic fighting, most famously by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment, the Confederates were beaten back. But, to borrow a phrase from the Duke of Wellington, it was the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.
Had Little Round Top been taken, so the thinking goes, the entire Union position would have been compromised. Perhaps, but perhaps not. It would have been very difficult for the Confederates to deploy artillery on the wooded height and heavy Union reinforcements were on hand which Meade could have used in an attempt to retake it. It's impossible to say.
While the fighting for Little Round Top was taking place, elements of McLaw's division, reinforced by some brigades of Anderson's division from Hill's corps, launched an assault on the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, which ran between Cemetery Hill to the north and Little Round Top to the south. They came within an inch of breaking through, only to be repulsed in bitter fighting. Had they succeeded, the rear areas of the Union army would have been exposed. Some historians believe that this was a greater opportunity for the Confederates than that which took place at Little Round Top.
Could the Confederate assault on the Union left have won them the battle? I think so. At times the outcome was balanced on a knife's edge. The Confederates fought like lions, but their Union counterparts were equally ferocious. With the notable exception of Sickles, the Union commanders performed magnificently, especially Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the II Corps. The Confederates had failed to coordinate their attacks properly. Had the Union leaders slipped up just a bit, or had the Southern commanders done a bit better, it's entirely possible that the Union position could have collapsed, leading to the frantic retreat that Lee so hoped for.
What if Ewell's assault had smashed the Union right flank on evening of July 2?
As Longstreet's attack on the Union left sputtered out, Ewell's attack on the Union right finally got going as the evening darkness began to fall over the battlefield. Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill were excellent positions for defense, but Meade had dispatched so many troops to reinforce his imperiled left flank that the number of defenders was now dangerously small. A forceful attack by Ewell's corps, perhaps reinforced by troops from Hill's corps, might have overwhelmed the few remaining Union troops and taken the hills.
Culp's Hill was now held only by the single brigade of General George Greene, one of the unsung heroes of American history. He was now assailed by three brigades of General Johnson's division, which together outnumbered Greene about four-to-one. But Greene was a thorough professional and a skilled engineer, who had already laid out an efficient set of field fortifications, including transverses to which his men could retreat if necessary. Johnson's men came on bravely and captured some sections of the trenches, but could not take the hill despite many hours of bitter fighting in the dark.
Jubal Early did rather better with his assault on the eastern rim of Cemetery Hill. The Union defenders here were the troops of XI Corps, notorious among their comrades for running away during combat. As Early's men came on in the darkness, the XI Corps men stayed true to form and abandoned their positions, allowing the Louisiana and North Carolina troops to get in among the guns. Early always maintained that had he been supported by the division of Robert Rodes, normally an outstanding commander but strangely inactive on this day, or the division of James Lane of Hill's corps, he could have held Cemetery Hill, which would have forced the Army of the Potomac to retreat. Farther down the line, the two divisions of Hill's corps which had not seen fighting earlier in the day remained completely inactive. By contrast, Union reinforcements arrived in the nick of time and forced Early's men to fall back.
Ewell's attack was poorly coordinated, yet it had briefly put the Union positions on both Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill in jeopardy. With so many Union brigades having been withdrawn and sent to the left to shore up that front, it is entirely possible that a better coordinated assault, properly supported by Rodes and Lane, or troops from Hill's corps, could have smashed the Union position. That, in turn, would surely have resulted in a Union retreat and a Confederate victory.
It was entirely possible for the Confederacy to have won the Battle of Gettysburg. Had Stuart been in a position to provide Lee with accurate intelligence, the Southerners could have concentrated their army in the right place and at the right time to meet the Union army on ground of their own choosing. Culp's Hill might have been taken on the evening of the first day of battle. Lee might have taken Longstreet's advice and flanked the enemy to the south. And the Confederate assaults on both the Union left and the Union right on the second day of battle might have successfully routed their opponents.
A word about Pickett's Charge. It could never have succeeded. Like most other people who have studied the battle, I have always been mystified as to exactly how Robert E. Lee, such a brilliant general, ever imagined that the massive infantry assault into the very teeth of the enemy artillery could possibly have worked. It is true that the preliminary artillery bombardment might have been far more effective, but even had it done so I cannot envision any scenario in which Pickett's Charge could have broken the Union line.
So the answer to the question we asked at the beginning is yes: the Confederates could have won the Battle of Gettysburg. Would this, in turn, have changed the outcome of the Civil War? If the South had won at Gettysburg, would they have won the war?
That's the question we'll explore next week.