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|List of Maps|
|1||We Should Assume the Aggressive||1|
|2||High Command in Turmoil||18|
|3||The Risk of Action||43|
|4||Armies on the March||59|
|5||Into the Enemy's Country||90|
|6||High Stakes in Pennsylvania||125|
|7||A Meeting Engagement||154|
|8||The God of Battles Smiles South||183|
|9||We Way As Well Fight It Out Here||226|
|10||A Simile of Hell Broke Loose||264|
|11||Determined to Do or Die||325|
|12||A Magnificent Display of Guns||372|
|13||The Grand Charge||409|
|14||A Long Road Back||459|
|Epilogue: Great God! What Does It Mean?||493|
|The Armies at Gettysburg||516|
John Beauchamp Jones, the observant, gossipy clerk in the War Department in Richmond, took note in his diary under date of May 15, 1863, that General Lee had come down from his headquarters on the Rappahannock and was conferring at the Department. 'Lee looked thinner, and a little pale,' Jones wrote. 'Subsequently he and the Secretary of War were long closeted with the President.' (That same day another Richmond insider, President Davis's aide William Preston Johnston, was writing more optimistically, 'Genl Lee is here and looking splendidly & hopeful.')
However he may have looked to these observers, it was certainly a time of strain for Robert E. Lee. For some weeks during the spring he had been troubled by ill health (the first signs of angina, as it proved), and hardly a week had passed since he directed the brutal slugging match with the Yankees around Chancellorsville. Although in the end the enemy had retreated back across the Rappahannock, it had to be accounted the costliest of victories. Lee first estimated his casualties at 10,000, but in fact the final toll would come to nearly 13,500, with the count of Confederate killed actually exceeding that of the enemy. This was the next thing to a Pyrrhic victory. Chancellorsville's costliest single casualty, of course, was Stonewall Jackson. 'It is a terrible loss,' Lee confessed to his son Custis. 'I do not know how to replace him.' On May 12 Richmond had paid its last respects to 'this great and good soldier,' and this very day Stonewall was being laid to rest in Lexington. Yet the tides of war do not wait, and General Lee had come to the capital to try and shape their future course.
For the Southern Confederacy these were days of rapidly accelerating crisis, and seen in retrospect this Richmond strategy conference of May 15, 1863, easily qualifies as a pivotal moment in Confederate history. Yet the record of what was discussed and decided that day by General Lee, President Davis, and Secretary of War James A.
Seddon is entirely blank. No minutes or notes have survived. Only in clerk Jones's brief diary entry 1 are the participants even identified. Nevertheless, from recollections and from correspondence of the three men before and after the conference, it is possible to infer their probable agenda and to piece together what must have been the gist of their arguments and their agreements — and their decisions. Their decisions were major ones.
It was the Vicksburg conundrum that triggered this May 15 conference. The Federals had been nibbling away at the Mississippi citadel since winter, and by mid-April Mississippi's governor, John J. Pettus, was telling Richmond, 'the crisis in our affairs in my opinion is now upon us.' As April turned to May, dispatches from the Confederate generals in the West became ever more ominous in tone. In a sudden and startling move, the Yankee general there, U. S. Grant, had landed his army on the east bank of the Mississippi below Vicksburg and was reported marching inland, straight toward the state capital of Jackson. On May 12 John C. Pemberton, commanding the Vicksburg garrison, telegraphed President Davis, 'with my limited force I will do all I can to meet him. . . . The enemy largely outnumbers me. . . .' Pemberton offered little comfort the next day: 'My forces are very inadequate. . . . Enemy continues to re-enforce heavily.'
Grant's march toward Jackson threatened to drive a wedge between Pemberton in Vicksburg and the force that Joseph E. Johnston was cobbling together to go to Pemberton's support. On May 9 Johnston had been put in overall charge of operations against the Federal invaders of Mississippi, and by the 13th Johnston had grim news to report. He had hurried ahead to Jackson, he said, but the enemy moved too fast and had already cut off his communication with Vicksburg. 'I am too late' was his terse verdict.
Thus the highly unsettling state of the war in Mississippi as it was known to President Davis and Secretary Seddon as they prepared to sit down with General Lee to try and find some resolution to the crisis. To be sure, the Vicksburg question had been agitating Confederate war councils since December, when the Yankees opened their campaign there to clear the Mississippi and cut off the westernmost states of the Confederacy. At the same time, a second Federal army, under William Rosecrans, threatened Chattanooga and central Tennessee. For the moment, Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee had achieved a standoff with Rosecrans. Bragg, however, could scarcely afford to send much help to threatened Vicksburg. The defenders of the western Confederacy were stretched very close to the breaking point.
Early in 1863, a 'western concentration bloc' within the high councils of command had posed the argument for restoring the military balance in the West by dispatching reinforcements from the East. Most influential in this bloc were Secretary of War Seddon, Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, and Generals Joe Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, and one of Lee's own lieutenants, James Longstreet. It was Longstreet, in fact, who had been the first to offer a specific plan to rejuvenate affairs in the West.
In February, responding to a Federal threat, Lee had detached Longstreet from the Army of Northern Virginia and sent him with two of his four First Corps divisions to operate in southeastern Virginia. Taking fresh perspective from his new assignment, casting his eye across the strategic landscape, Longstreet proposed that the First Corps, or at the very least those two divisions he had with him, be sent west. It was his thought to combine these troops, plus others from Joe Johnston's western command, with Bragg's army in central Tennessee for an offensive against Rosecrans.
Once Rosecrans was disposed of, the victorious Army of Tennessee would march west and erase Grant's threat to Vicksburg. All the while, explained Longstreet rather airily, Lee would assume a defensive posture and hold the Rappahannock line with just Jackson's Second Corps.
General Lee was unimpressed by this reasoning. He thought it likely that come spring the Federal Army of the Potomac would open an offensive on the Rappahannock, and he had no illusions about trying to hold that front with only half his army. Should the enemy not move against him, he said, he intended to seize the initiative himself and maneuver to the north — in which event he would of course need all his troops. In any case, Lee believed that shifting troops all across the Confederacy would achieve nothing but a logistical nightmare. As he expressed it to Secretary Seddon, 'it is not so easy for us to change troops from one department to another as it is for the enemy, and if we rely upon that method we may always be too late.'
Longstreet was not discouraged by rejection. After Chancellorsville — from which battle he was absent, there having not been time enough to bring up his two divisions to join Lee in repelling the Federals — he stopped off in Richmond on his way back to the army to talk strategy with Secretary Seddon. In view of the abruptly worsening prospects at Vicksburg, Longstreet modified his earlier western proposal somewhat. As before, the best course would be to send one or both of the divisions with him — commanded by George Pickett and John Bell Hood — to trigger an offensive against Rosecrans in Tennessee. But after victory there, he said, a march northward through Kentucky to threaten the Northern heartland would be the quickest way to pull Grant away from Vicksburg.
More or less the same plan was already familiar to Seddon as the work of General Beauregard, who from his post defending Charleston enjoyed exercising his fondness for Napoleonic grand designs. Emboldened by these two prominent supporters of a western strategy, and anxious to do something — anything — about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Mississippi, Secretary Seddon telegraphed Lee on May 9 with a specific proposal of his own. Pickett's First Corps division was just then in the vicinity of Richmond; would General Lee approve of its being sent with all speed to join Pemberton in the defense of Vicksburg?
Lee's response was prompt, sharply to the point, and (for him) even blunt. He telegraphed Seddon that the proposition 'is hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.' He added, revealing a certain mistrust of Pemberton's abilities, 'The distance and the uncertainty of the employment of the troops are unfavorable.' Lee followed his telegram with a letter elaborating his arguments. He pointed out that it would be several weeks before Pickett's division could even reach Vicksburg, by which time either the contest there would already be settled or 'the climate in June will force the enemy to retire.' (This belief — misguided, as it turned out — that Grant's Yankees could not tolerate the lower Mississippi Valley in summer was widespread in the South.) Lee then repeated his tactful but pointed prediction that Pickett's division, if it ever did get there, would be misused by General Pemberton: 'The uncertainty of its arrival and the uncertainty of its application cause me to doubt the policy of sending it.'
But Lee's most telling argument was framed as a virtual ultimatum. Should any troops be detached from his army — indeed, if he did not actually receive reinforcements — 'we may be obliged to withdraw into the defenses around Richmond.' He pointed to an intelligence nugget he had mined from a careless Washington newspaper correspondent to the effect that the Army of the Potomac, on the eve of Chancellorsville, had counted an 'aggregate force' of more than 159,000 men. 'You can, therefore, see the odds against us and decide whether the line of Virginia is more in danger than the line of the Mississippi.' When Mr. Davis was shown Lee's response, he endorsed it, 'The answer of Gen. Lee was such as I should have anticipated, and in which I concur.' Pickett's division was not going to Vicksburg.
Yet that hardly marked the end of the debate. On the contrary, Secretary Seddon's proposition for Pickett initiated a week-long series of strategy discussions climaxed by Lee's summons to the high-level conference in Richmond on May 15. To prepare for the Richmond conference, Lee called Longstreet to the army's Rappahannock headquarters at Fredericksburg, and over three days (May 11–13) the two of them intensely examined grand strategy and the future course of the Army of Northern Virginia.
With the death of Stonewall Jackson, Lieutenant General James Longstreet was not only Lee's senior lieutenant but by default his senior adviser. The nature of their relationship in this period would be much obscured and badly distorted by Longstreet's self-serving postwar recollections. The truth of the matter, once those writings by 'Old Pete' are taken with the proper discount — and once the fulminations of Longstreet's enemies who inspired those writings are discounted as well — is that on these May days the two generals reached full and cordial agreement about what the Army of Northern Virginia should do next. The evidence of their agreement comes from Old Pete himself.
On May 13, at the conclusion of these discussions, Longstreet wrote his ally Senator Wigfall to explain the strategic questions of the moment and what he and Lee had agreed upon in the way of answers. A second Longstreet letter, written in 1873 to General Lafayette McLaws, covers the same ground with a candor and a scrupulousness too often absent in the recollections dating from Longstreet's later years.
In their discussions the two generals pondered the army's past record and future prospects. In nearly a full year commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had fought five major battles or campaigns. By any measure, his record was dazzling. Still, in the context of the Confederacy's eventual survival, it was a record (as Longstreet phrased it) of 'fruitless victories; . . . even victories such as these were consuming us, and would eventually destroy us. . . .'
On the Virginia Peninsula, in the summer of 1862, Lee had driven George McClellan away from the gates of Richmond, only to see the Federals reach a safe haven at Harrison's Landing on the James. At Second Manassas in August John Pope became Lee's victim, but Pope's beaten army managed to escape without further damage into the defenses of Washington. Sharpsburg, on September 17, could perhaps be claimed by Lee as a narrow tactical victory, but his army was too weakened, and McClellan's Federals too numerous, to continue the fighting to a showdown.
Against Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg in December, and then against Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville in May, Lee won signal victories. But both times a larger victory eluded him when the enemy escaped back across the Rappahannock. Lee was heard to say that Chancellorsville depressed him even more than Fredericksburg had: 'Our loss was severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.' What he wanted in future was battle on his terms, on ground of his choosing, with no barriers to a final outcome. For that he had formed a plan.
Longstreet brought up the matter of Vicksburg and the dispatching of reinforcements to the western theater. Lee reiterated his objection to putting any of his men directly into Vicksburg under Pemberton's command.
In writing of this to Senator Wigfall, Longstreet was surely reflecting Lee's blunt opinion when he remarked, 'Grant seems to be a fighting man and seems to be determined to fight. Pemberton seems not to be a fighting man.'
Should Pemberton fail to take the battle to Grant but instead allow himself and his garrison to be penned up in Vicksburg, Longstreet went on, 'the fewer the troops he has the better.' Should Richmond decide to order Lee to send troops from Virginia, however, the proper course would be to give them to Bragg or Joe Johnston for an invasion of Kentucky. Only in that event was Grant likely to be drawn away from Vicksburg.
This latter western strategy was of course what Longstreet had recently been advocating with such fervor, but now Old Pete underwent an abrupt change of heart. This seems to have been entirely by Lee's persuasion. 'When I agreed with the Secy & yourself about sending troops west,' Longstreet confessed to Wigfall, 'I was under the impression that we would be obliged to remain on the defensive here.' Now, he continued, there 'is a fair prospect of forward movement. That being the case we can spare nothing from this army to re-enforce in the West.' Indeed, he called on Wigfall to support the sending of any available reinforcements directly to General Lee.
James Longstreet, in short, was made a convert to a new faith.
What Lee confided to him was a plan to march north through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, and Old Pete declared himself enthusiastically in favor of the idea. 'If we could cross the Potomac with one hundred & fifty thousand men,' he speculated to Senator Wigfall, it should at least bring Lincoln to the bargaining table; 'either destroy the Yankees or bring them to terms.' He closed his letter with the observation that in a day or two Lee would be in Richmond 'to settle matters. . . . I shall ask him to take a memorandum of all points and settle upon something at once.'
'We should assume the aggressive,' Lee had written Mr. Davis just a month earlier. He meant by that, in modern military terminology, seizing the strategic initiative. This idea was at the very core of Robert E.
Lee's generalship. It became his watchword the moment he first took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, back in June 1862. He recognized then — and it was even more obvious now, a year later — the stark reality that in the ever more straitened Confederacy his army would never achieve parity with the enemy's army. On campaign he would always be the underdog. Therefore he must assume the strategic aggressive whenever he could, and by marching and maneuver disrupt the enemy's plans, keep him off balance, offset his numbers by dominating the choice of battlefield. It must be Lee's drum the enemy marched to.
Taking the strategic aggressive on campaign did not necessarily imply an equal tactical aggressive when the chosen battlefield was reached.
Indeed, in the best execution of the idea, it would mean just the opposite — marching and maneuvering so aggressively on campaign that Lee might accept battle or not, as he chose, with his opponent forced to give battle — to attack — at a time and in a place of Lee's choosing. According to Longstreet, this was precisely his and Lee's 'train of thought and mutual understanding' for the proposed Pennsylvania campaign. 'The ruling ideas of the campaign may be briefly stated thus,' Longstreet summed up. 'Under no circumstances were we to give battle, but exhaust our skill in trying to force the enemy to do so in a position of our own choosing.'
There was of course nothing unique or even novel about the 'ruling ideas' of this strategic and tactical plan. It was exactly what any field general always hoped and dreamed of achieving — to maneuver the enemy into attacking him in circumstances and on defensive ground of his own selection.
Already twice in this war Lee (with Longstreet's crucial participation) had come close to achieving the ideal. Second Manassas was fought defensively on ground chosen by the Confederates, and won by a breakthrough counterattack against the enemy's flank. It was marred only by the Federals' escape into the nearby Washington fortifications. At Fredericksburg, allowed by the bumbling Ambrose Burnside to defend a virtually impregnable position,
Lee's army inflicted almost three times the casualties it suffered. Yet the defeated Burnside was able to retreat back across the Rappahannock without further harm. Next time, on the Federals' home ground in Pennsylvania, there should be opportunity for maneuver and for a greater and perhaps decisive victory.
In his later writings, flailing against the snares of those who would label him scapegoat for the campaign, Longstreet implied that Lee promised him he would fight tactically only a defensive battle in Pennsylvania. 'Upon this understanding my assent was given . . . ,' said Old Pete loftily. That of course was nonsense. No commanding general is obliged to promise a subordinate any future action, particularly anything like this that would tie his hands. Lee said as much when asked about it after the war. He 'had never made any such promise, and had never thought of doing any such thing,' was his reply, and he termed the idea 'absurd.' So it was. A younger and more rational Longstreet, in May 1863, was confident that General Lee had heard him out and that they were in full agreement on the right and proper course — to (ideally) maneuver the Yankees into committing another Fredericksburg on any disputed ground in Pennsylvania. Longstreet even volunteered his First Corps to handle the defense of that ground (as he had at Fredericksburg), leaving Lee and the rest of the army free to fall upon the Army of the Potomac and destroy it.
Whether or not General Lee took 'a memorandum of all points' with him to Richmond, as Longstreet suggested, he surely went well prepared to argue his case. On May 14 he boarded the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac's afternoon train to the capital, and on Friday the 15th presented himself at the War Department in the old Virginia Mechanics Institute building on Franklin Street to confer on future strategy with President Davis and Secretary of War Seddon.
Like General Lee, the president was suffering poor health that spring, and for much of the past week he had been too ill to leave the Confederate White House. It was a measure of the importance of the meeting that he willed himself to attend at all. Davis looked pale and drawn, and in the days following he would have to return to his sickbed. The strain of the crisis marked Seddon as well. A few days earlier, clerk Jones had described the war secretary as 'gaunt and emaciated. . . . He looks like a dead man galvanized into muscular animation.'
Secretary Seddon, however, was both determined and dedicated, and it may be assumed he came to this conference with Vicksburg still very much on his mind. Even though the decision had already been made not to add Pickett's division directly to Vicksburg's defenders, the situation in Mississippi remained the Confederacy's overriding crisis of the moment.
James Seddon had not given up the thought of assistance of some sort to try and save Vicksburg from the Yankees. Jefferson Davis would have been at the least a sympathetic listener; Mississippi was his native state.
'Hour of trial is upon us' was the latest stark message from Mississippi's Governor Pettus. 'We look to you for assistance. Let it be speedy.' At the same time, the editors of the Jackson Mississippian petitioned Richmond with the claim that 'three-fourths in the army and out' were doubtful of General Pemberton's abilities and even of his loyalty. (It was widely noticed that Pemberton had been born and raised in Pennsylvania.)
However unjust it might seem, they said, they wanted the general immediately replaced. 'Send us a man we all can trust,' pleaded the editors, and they nominated either General Beauregard or General Longstreet for the post. Mr. Davis had replied, 'Your dispatch is the more painful because there is no remedy. Time does not permit the changes you propose if there was no other reason. . . .'
As for the immediate military situation in the West, no news had reached Richmond more recent than Pemberton's complaints about being outnumbered and Joe Johnston's admission that the enemy had cut off his effort to reach Vicksburg with a relief column. The only reinforcements then on their way from the East were three brigades — some 7,700 men — that Secretary Seddon had wrangled out of General Beauregard in Charleston.
Seddon, then, would probably have focused any such discussion at this War Department conference on the earlier plan to reinforce Bragg's Army of Tennessee with troops from Lee's army so as to take the offensive in central Tennessee, and from there to strike through Kentucky. The hope thereby was to force Grant to turn to meet this threat to the Northern heartland.
A month earlier, General Lee had addressed just this proposal from the western concentration bloc, stating the basic difficulty with any such reinforcement scheme. 'I believe the enemy in every department outnumbers us,' he had written, 'and it is difficult to say from which troops can with safety be spared.' He certainly did not see how the Army of Northern Virginia could safely spare any troops. As he had been reporting almost daily to Richmond ever since Chancellorsville, all his intelligence evidence suggested that the Army of the Potomac was being reinforced. As recently as May 11, Lee's count of these reinforcements had reached 48,000. This promised to make good the Federals' Chancellorsville losses and then some. 'It would seem, therefore,' Lee had explained to Davis, 'that Virginia is to be the theater of action, and this army, if possible, ought to be strengthened.'
Thus the simple, convincing argument, presumably laid out in his typically quiet, authoritative way by the Confederacy's most successful general: Any attempt to turn back the tide at Vicksburg as Seddon was proposing was bound to put Lee's army in Virginia at unacceptable risk.
Possibly Lee clinched his argument with some variation on what he had said to Seddon back on May 10: 'You can, therefore, see the odds against us and decide whether the line of Virginia is more in danger than the line of the Mississippi.'
Robert E. Lee was not by nature a pessimist, however, and he must surely have offered Davis and Seddon some words of counsel on the Vicksburg dilemma. He had done so before. General Johnston, he had said in April, should 'concentrate the troops in his own department' and then promptly 'take the aggressive.' As Lee saw it, it was essential in Mississippi
(just as it was in Virginia) to seize the strategic initiative and thereby baffle the designs of the enemy. Act first, before the enemy could act.
Unfortunately, it appeared that Joe Johnston had not taken this advice (or could not). Now it looked as if he and Pemberton, separately, would have to play out their dangerous game with the cards each had been dealt.
Armchair critics would come to call Lee's position on Vicksburg parochial. His strategic focus, it was said, bore solely on the Virginia theater, at the expense of the failing Confederate war in the West. Yet at this strategy conference in mid-May of 1863 Lee could scarcely have taken any other stance. His intelligence sources told of his opponent, Joe Hooker, being heavily reinforced. If that pointed to a renewed Federal campaign, as seemed likely, it could be met with no better odds than before, which had been bad enough. The return of Longstreet's two divisions to the Rappahannock front did little more than make up the army's Chancellorsville losses. Robert E.
Lee was right. The choice for President Davis was Virginia or Mississippi, and just then there were simply no troops to spare in Virginia. It was in truth a Hobson's choice.
Turn to the Virginia front, however, and Lee believed there was a meaningful choice to be made. In effect, he offered an antidote to the sickly prognosis for the West. In laying out for Davis and Seddon his plan to march north, Lee would not have been unveiling something new and unexpected.
Back in April, before Hooker launched his Chancellorsville offensive, Lee had announced a May 1 deadline for an offensive of his own — into Union territory. 'The readiest method of relieving pressure upon Gen. Johnston,' he had pointed out to Seddon in a reference to the western theater, '. . . would be for this army to cross into Maryland.' As a preliminary, he had ordered strong raiding parties into the Shenandoah Valley to disrupt Federal communications and to stockpile supplies for the army's planned advance.
At the same time, substantial supplies to support the movement were being gathered by Longstreet in southeastern Virginia. The operation there took on the markings of a giant victualing expedition, and collected enough bacon and corn to feed the army for two months. As it happened, Hooker's attack had forestalled these preparations, but a foundation was laid. Now Lee proposed to build on it.
If it is not possible to list the precise arguments Lee may have used that day to gain approval for his Pennsylvania campaign, it is possible, through his dispatches and recollections, to record his thinking on the subject.
It had become General Lee's basic premise that his army should not — indeed could not — remain much longer on the Rappahannock. In the first place, it was not a good setting for yet another battle. At Chancellorsville, even in losing, Hooker had certainly improved on Burnside's effort of the previous December, and Lee had to wonder if he could fight off a third attempt. 'To have lain at Fredericksburg,' he would later say, 'would have allowed them time to collect force and initiate a new campaign on the old plan.' Even if he managed to repel a new effort, there was no promise of a decisive outcome. The Yankees would simply pull back across the river again and be out of reach.
In the second place, his men in their Rappahannock camps were hungry. They had been hungry there since the first of the year, and it appeared they were going to be hungry for some time to come if they remained there. In the Army of Northern Virginia the only occasion for full stomachs thus far in 1863 had been immediately after Chancellorsville, when they feasted on the contents of thousands of captured or abandoned Yankee knapsacks. Even now Lucius Northrop, the Confederacy's peevish commissary-general of subsistence, was drafting yet another rationing edict — a quarter of a pound of bacon daily for garrison troops, a third of a pound for those in camp in the field, raised to half a pound only when on active campaign. This was to be in force, Northrop said, 'until the new bacon comes in' in the fall.
For the Army of Northern Virginia, the paltry rationing imposed by Richmond was made all the worse by a tenuous supply line. The decrepit Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac was not up to the task of supplying an army on the Rappahannock. This had nearly left Lee in dire straits at Chancellorsville. He was forced to accept battle there short 20,000 men, including Longstreet's two divisions absent on their victualing duty in southeastern Virginia. It was not an experience he intended to repeat. The most expedient way to solve this particular problem, he decided, was to live off the enemy's country. Lee was going to requisition the burdened barns and smokehouses of Pennsylvania to feed his army.
There were two additional, probable factors behind Lee's determination to march north that he would not have mentioned to Davis and Seddon that day. They were private thoughts pertaining to his own soldierly judgments, thoughts he did not directly articulate but which surely colored his thinking. One had to do with Lee's previous invasion of enemy country, in September 1862. He had intended then, as he intended now, to seek a favorable battleground in Pennsylvania. But McClellan had trumped him, forcing a battle at Sharpsburg in Maryland before Lee was ready for it. Lee had liked to think he understood his timid opponent, and this abrupt resolution of McClellan's seemed totally out of character. Over the winter, said his aide Charles Marshall, 'Gen. Lee frequently expressed his inability to understand the sudden change in McClellan's tactics.'
Then, just this spring, Lee had finally learned the truth of the matter. He read in Northern newspapers of McClellan testifying to a congressional committee that 'we found the original order issued to General D. H. Hill by direction of General Lee, which gave the orders of march for their whole army, and developed their intentions.' To Lee's mind that must have explained a great deal. He had not been wrong in his calculations for that campaign after all. It was Fate or simply sheer misfortune, in the form of the infamous Lost Order, that had checked his plans at Sharpsburg. He might now march forth across the Potomac with renewed confidence in his military judgment. That was essential. There was sure to be great risk in thus marching into enemy country, and the general commanding would require a full measure of self-confidence to carry it off.
The second factor was connected to the first. General Lee always formed his designs with the opposing general very much in mind. In September 1862 he had led his invading army into Maryland with the failings of George McClellan in his thoughts. At Chancellorsville he had beaten 'Fighting Joe' Hooker, whom he privately referred to contemptuously as 'Mr. F. J. Hooker,' and now was looking forward to beating him again. Lee believed there was every chance that Hooker was demoralized by his recent defeat and would not be at his best in a second meeting. Hooker's army, too, would likely be suffering from demoralization. Nearly 6,000 Yankee soldiers had surrendered at Chancellorsville, hardly a sign of high morale.
Lee's insight into the Army of the Potomac was sharpened by his reading in the Northern papers of numerous regiments of two-year men and thousands of nine-month short-termers being mustered out that spring. It was said these losses would be made good by the newly instituted conscription in the North. However that might be, Lee expected all this to produce a good deal of confusion in the Federal ranks in the coming weeks, and he wanted to take advantage of it. In short, the Army of the Potomac, and its commander, looked just then to be fair game, another good reason for assuming the aggressive.
To General Lee, then, the choice on this 15th of May was plain and the case unequivocal. He could not properly subsist his army on the Rappahannock line, and he had no wish to fight another battle there. The army needed to move. He had already made it plain to Secretary Seddon, in opposing sending Pickett to Vicksburg, that if his army was weakened — indeed, if it was not strengthened — he would probably have to fall back into the Richmond defenses. To do so (as he no doubt now pointed out) would be to surrender the strategic initiative and submit to slow death by siege. The options were clear, Lee would say: to 'stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.' To go on the aggressive, to cross the Potomac and march on Pennsylvania, opened up all manner of possibilities.
First of all, it would pull the Army of the Potomac out of its fortified lines and disarrange all its plans for a summer offensive in Virginia. That alone would justify a march north. At the same time, it would free Lee of the defensive strictures of the Rappahannock line and allow him to maneuver at will. Once across the Potomac hungry Rebels could feast in a land of plenty, and the ravaged fields and farms of Virginia would have an opportunity for renewal.
In the larger scheme of things, Northern morale and will were sure to be shaken by the prospect of a Confederate army — a winning Confederate army — marching into its heartland. 'If successful this year,'
Lee had predicted to his wife on April 19, 'next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next administration will go in on that basis.' A successful campaign in Pennsylvania — even the army's simply remaining there for some length of time — ought to give voice to the Northern peace movement. And a success there might even impress the European powers sufficiently to push them toward intervention or at least mediation.
However he made the case, nothing in Lee's correspondence or recollections suggests that he raised any hopes among his listeners that by marching into Pennsylvania he would pry Grant loose from Vicksburg. The argument that time and distance precluded the Confederates from sending reinforcements to Vicksburg that spring surely applied in the reverse direction to the Federals. In any case, it was too much to expect that the threat of a Confederate invasion of the North would paralyze Yankee efforts on every other war front. It was possible that an invasion would prevent the Yankees sending (as Lee put it) 'troops designed to operate against other parts of the country,' but that was the most that could be hoped for.
On the other hand, the implications of a Confederate victory in Pennsylvania were well worth contemplating. Grant's taking of Vicksburg would be offset, indeed would pale by comparison. On the Southern home front a Lee victory, said an observer, would be 'a slogan to arouse the impatient populace to new endeavors. . . .' To Richmond it was beginning to seem that the war might be lost in a year in the West, yet perhaps it could still be won in a day in the East. Should Lee gain another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville on some battleground in Pennsylvania, especially if it was the more decisive battle he had long been seeking, the war would take on a whole new balance.
It cannot be imagined, during this War Department conference, that President Davis, Secretary Seddon, and General Lee had the slightest doubt that sending the army north across the Potomac would result in anything less than a major battle. Despite the talk of hungry troops, this was never designed as merely a massive victualing expedition. Nor was there any thought of an invasion to conquer and occupy territory north of the Mason-
Dixon Line — to append Pennsylvania to the Confederacy. The conferees had to be aware that just as surely as a Southern army would rise to the defense of Virginia, a Northern army would fight an invasion of Pennsylvania. If the Army of Northern Virginia made a campaign in the North, there could be no avoiding a battle there.
To be sure, in the hindsight atmosphere of his reports and his postwar comments, General Lee was circumspect on this point. Still, it is unmistakable that from the first he intended the operation to end in a battle.
In his reports he spoke of a march north offering 'a fair opportunity to strike a blow' at the opposing army; and, again, he mentioned the 'valuable results' that would follow 'a decided advantage gained over the enemy in Maryland or Pennsylvania. . . .'
In a conversation in 1868 Lee was quoted as saying that 'he did not intend to give general battle in Pennsylvania if he could avoid it.' This was a matter of evasive semantics. In Lee's lexicon, to give battle was to seek it out deliberately and to attack. To accept battle (to accept 'a fair opportunity'), however — which significantly Lee did not exclude in describing his plan — was electing to fight if conditions were favorable, or if by maneuver could be made favorable. This was precisely 'the ruling ideas of the campaign' that he and Longstreet had discussed at length and agreed upon just before the Richmond conference. At the time of the decision-making Lee stated his objective with perfect clarity. On May 25, calling upon D. H. Hill for reinforcements, Lee wrote, 'They are very essential to aid in the effort to turn back the tide of war that is now pressing South.' Only battle could satisfy an objective so grand.
In writing to his wife on April 19 about prospects for the coming campaigning season, Lee displayed a long view of affairs, looking toward breaking down the Republican administration in Washington. He did not suggest achieving this by one great war-ending battle of annihilation, a modern-day Cannae. His army was, after all, ever fated to be the smaller of the two armies. More realistically, Lee seems to have projected repeated morale-shattering victories that would eventually sap Northerners' support for the war. Gaining a third successive victory, of whatever dimension, over the Army of the Potomac, this time on Northern soil, should go a long way toward that goal. That was clearly a risk worth taking. As Lee himself argued, according to the record of a postwar conversation, 'He knew oftentimes that he was playing a very bold game, but it was the only possible one.'
Some two weeks after the Richmond conference, President Davis wrote a letter to Lee that has been interpreted by some to show the president less than wholehearted in his support, and indeed that he was not even aware of Lee's intentions for the campaign. 'I had never fairly comprehended your views and purposes . . . ,' Davis wrote, 'and now have to regret that I did not earlier know all that you had communicated to others.' In fact, as is readily apparent from the context of this remark, and from their other letters exchanged in this period, Davis was not speaking of the proposed Pennsylvania campaign at all, but rather of the ongoing difficulty Lee was having with D. H. Hill over the matter of reinforcements.
While no directive was issued by Davis or Seddon formally approving the Pennsylvania campaign as Lee had outlined it on May 15, there cannot be the slightest doubt of their approval. Both Davis and Seddon fully agreed with Lee on its necessity. In that same letter, for example, Davis pledged to relieve Lee of any concern for Richmond's safety 'while you are moving towards the north and west.' Secretary Seddon, the earlier advocate of a western strategy, assured the general, 'I concur entirely in your views of the importance of aggressive movements by your army. . . .' Lee could therefore return to his Rappahannock headquarters confident of Richmond's support. On Sunday, May 17, he set about the task of readying his army to march north.
What was debated and decided at the War Department that 15th of May held the promise of reshaping the very direction of the war. In one sense, the conference revealed how the crisis in Mississippi had passed well beyond Richmond's reach. The drama there seemed likely to play out without any further intervention from the Confederate capital. On the other hand,
General Lee was persuasive in his argument that in the Virginia theater the road to opportunity pointed north, and that the way was open. By recapturing the strategic initiative he had surrendered after Sharpsburg, he proposed to take the war right into the Yankee heartland. At the least, a success in Pennsylvania would offset any failure at Vicksburg. At the most, a great victory on enemy soil might put peace within Richmond's reach. James Seddon said it well: Such a movement by the Army of Northern Virginia 'is indispensable to our safety and independence.'
Copyright © 2003 by StephenW. Sears. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Posted September 3, 2008
Let me make this clear upfront: Sears wrote a good book about the battle of Gettysburg, it¿s just that Noah Trudeau¿s ¿Gettysburg, A Testing of Courage¿ is simply better. After reading Sears¿ version, you will come way with a full understanding of the campaign -- the reasons for invading the north, the characters involved, the tactics involved, the aftermath and a detailed order of battle. In Trudeau¿s version, you get all this and more. Both books are easy and captivating reads, but Trudeau¿s version has more detail. For example, in describing the first day of the battle (July 1), Sears provides four maps Trudeau provides thirteen! Other examples are Trudeau¿s description of Iverson¿s failure, the famous 20th Maine and the separation of its Co. B, Biglelow¿s artillery stand at the Trostle farm which are all superior to Sears¿ version. Really, the number of examples are too numerous to list. One area that Sears¿ version is better is the inclusion of more photographs. Finally, Trudeau¿s version provides a closing ¿whatever happened to¿ section. You won¿t go wrong with Sears¿ book, but you¿ll do better with Trudeau¿s.
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Posted February 8, 2005
Some people might read it and think it was a scholarly historical study. Oh My! A good historian points out where there is controversy and where he makes conjecture. Sears does neither. For example, his abysmal treatment of Howard and Sickles, considered to be the heroes who won the battle by Lincoln and contemporaries. Sure, Howard's Corps took it on the chin on the first day, but look what they were taking on. They retreated to Seminary Ridge and Howard got an effective communication (!!!) to Sickles for help. It is difficult to fault Sickles' decision to abandon his post and march to help Howard, but Sears seems to do so. Then, there was the peachtree orchard in front of Sickles' line on the second day. A study of Wellington's campaigns would suggest that Sickles' move forward to the orchard creating a bulge in the Union line was a Wellingtonesque motion.
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Posted August 6, 2004
Sears has written a balanced, single volume account of Gettysburg blending a dry narrative of the facts of the campaign with some thoughtful analysis. I enjoyed the book, but part of my enthusiasm was bolstered by a recent trip to Gettysburg where I viewed the battleground myself. Sears focuses on the high command of each of the opposing armies and the evolution of their decision making throughout the contest. His final analysis finds Robert E. Lee chiefly responsible for the South's failure to win the battle. Indeed, Sears is critical of Lee's decision to invade the North in the first place. As much as I am a Robert E. Lee fan, I have to admit that he did appear to suffer some unexplainable loss of good judgment at precisely the worse time. It was hard for me to stand on Seminary Ridge and stare across the .8 mile sloping battlefield that Lee ordered 13,000 soldiers to cross under enfilading enemy fire. Therefore, I agree with Sears that Lee made some bad decisions, but I do not believe he ordered a charge based on an ego battle with Longstreet. Lee ordered the charge because he thought it would be successful even against odds that his overconfidence allowed him to ignore. In the final analysis, I agree with Lee's decision to invade the North. Lee did not have the option of fighting a defensive war only, like George Washington did against the British. Lee's enemy was much stronger and growing ever stronger by the day. Also, Lee's enemy didn't have to cross an ocean to bring its industrial might to bear. So in the end, Lee had to do something audacious. Unfortunately for him Gettysburg just wasn't it!
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Posted August 6, 2003
An engaging book on the bloodiest battle of the bloodiest war in American history. Sears's quick-paced writing makes for good reading and you'll fly through chapter after chapter before you know it! Buy it know!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Posted May 14, 2012
I really did not think anything new could be written about the battle of Gettysburg. A few months ago I obtained a copy of Under a Northern Sky by Steven Woodworth and was surprised to find a fresh viewpoint in a compact form. A couple weeks ago I found a copy of Sears’ Gettysburg at a thrift shop. I am impressed by the account he has written. Gettysburg details the campaign from beginning to end. Sears explains both Lee’s decision to invade Pennsylvania and the Union command crisis and then follows the armies into the battle. He details both the horrors of the battle and the decisions of commanders from army to regiment level that contributed to victory and defeat. His chapters on Pickett’s charge are especially vivid, taking you inside the maelstrom. The definitive book on Gettysburg will never be written but both Sears and Woodworth have come close. Many years ago I read Sears’ book Landscape Turned Red about Antietam and thought it was a merely a rehash of Bruce Catton. Maybe I was wrong. I am thinking of revisiting it and reading some of his other Civil War books.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 8, 2012
Geettysburg was fought from S. He discuses why the Confederated leaders decided to invade the North the decision that affteected the outcome of the campaign and why they were made. Sears discusses every aspect of the battle in vivid prose . TYhe treasder is transported back in time to those eventual days and is left with a greater understanding of that era. I think this is an excellent introduction to those three days in 1863 that decided the fate of a nation.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 14, 2010
I Also Recommend:
Gettyssburg by Steven Sears, is a great book to read wether you are new to Gettysburg or a seasoned fan. The style of the book is easy to read and flows with the effect of a storyteller. It joins the line of those that have suggested that General Ewell lost the battle on the first day. Highlights are the dramatic second day that builds to a crecendo with Hill's attack breaking through temporaly in the evening as the days fighting comes to a dramatic end. It also works well as a guide if you go to the park in person. You can line up the places that go with the dramatic narrative. But one thing he does not seem to question or answer is the conduct of General Reynolds on the first day prior to his death and why he was killed. If you are into military and leadership qualities this is not the book for you. Overall, I recommed it for it's storytelling style.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 30, 2010
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Posted July 27, 2003
Written in the author's consistently clear and accessible style, and supported by years of research, Stephen W. Sears's Gettysburg is both an authoritative work of impressive scholarship that will appeal to academics and a dramatic story that will fascinate Civil War buffs. The author of six award-winning books on the Civil War--including George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon; Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam; To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign; and Chancellorsville, Stephen W. Sears is one of the best Civil War historian writing today. Fought in and around a sleepy Pennsylvania town, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) was the 'granddaddy' of Civil War battles--the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. On those three hellish days, two contending armies--the (Confederate) Army of Northern Virginia, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, and the (Union) Army of the Potomac, led by Gen. George Gordon Meade--suffered 45,438 casualties. During the six-week Pennsylvania campaign their joint losses came to more than 57,000, including some 9,600 dead. Prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, 'Johnny Reb' had twice defeated 'Billy Yank'--at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Nevertheless, the outlook for the Confederacy was grim. In a war of attrition, the advantage of the Union in superior manpower and materiel meant that the South would slowly be squeezed to death by superior forces. Sears points out that Lee faced a Hobson's choice (an apparently free choice when there is no real alternative). He could remain on the defensive and face slow strangulation or he could seize the initiative ('We should assume the aggressive,' Lee had written to Confederate President Jefferson Davis) and roll the die in a desperate gamble--the invasion of the North. The two armies blundered into each other at Gettysburg, a battlefield on which neither general had wanted to fight. The desperate charge made by Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble on Day Three of Gettysburg marked 'the high-water mark of the Confederacy.' 'In command and capability,' writes Sears, 'indeed in offensive power, the Army of Northern Virginia would never recover.' In this outstanding battle study, Sears chronicles, in minute details, the events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, an almost blow-by-blow description of battlefield maneuvers during the three days of action, and the aftermath of battle, as Lee's army took 'the long road back,' retreating into Virginia. It's all here: the battle for McPherson's Ridge, Seminary Ridge, and the clash in the streets of Gettysburg (Day One); the struggle for Culp's Hill (on the right flank of the Union Army) and the horrific encounters on the left flank of the Union Army, at the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, the Devil's Den, the Slaughter Pen, Rose Woods, the Valley of Death, Spangler's House, the Trostle House, and Little Round Top (Day Two); and the renewed attack on Culp's Hill and the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge, a massive assault on the center of the Union line (Day Three). 'Pickett's Charge,' as it is popularly known, was the greatest military blunder of Lee's otherwise brilliant career (except, perhaps, for his choosing to fight for the Confederacy after being offered command of the Union army). Lee's 'Old Warhorse,' Gen. James Longstreet, strongly disagreed with Lee and advocated instead an attempt to flank the Union's left flank. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we can see clearly that Longstreet was right and Lee was wrong. After his masterful documentation of this titanic struggle, Sears concludes, 'The fact of the matter is that George G. Meade, unexpectedly and against the odds, thoroughly outgeneraled Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.' Readers who approach the subject for the first time can, and perhaps should, resort to other more general accounts, but Civil War buffs looking for an authoritative, detailed aWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 30, 2003
As with everything else Stephen W. Sears has written, this book is excellent. It is the best one volume account of this battle I have read. I think his handlimg of the controversies around this battle are even-handed and his conclusions are well founded and well supported. The book is well written. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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