151 years ago today, the three day epic known as the Battle of Gettysburg began near a quiet little Pennsylvania town that happened to be a major road hub. The basic story of the battle is well documented [and increasingly so. Gettysburg is the most written about battle ever fought in North America]. Before the battle, Ewell's Second Corps passes through the village heading northeast. Day One: A meeting engagement west of town leads to a general attack by units of A.P. Hill's Third Corps against units of the Army of the Potomac, led by Buford's cavalry, and then infantry; then attacks from the northeast by Ewell, the Union troops [increasing in number] falling back through the town to Culp's Hill. The rest of Day 1 was spent with the Southern troops solidifying their positions around the town, and moving west, and south to take position to the west of town on Seminary Ridge. Day Two saw most of the action on the southern end of the battlefield, where troops of the First Corps [Longstreet], still coming up the valley from Maryland, led attacks on the Roundtops, the Devil's Den, etc. They were repulsed, and increasing numbers of Army of the Potomac units now filled a five mile line from Culp's Hill to the Round Tops along Cemetery Ridge increasing numbers. By the end of the day, the Army of the Potomac was on the field in its entirety [except for the cavalry]. During the evening, Longstreet's last unit, Pickett's division arrived, as did J.E.B Stuart and the Cavalry Corps. Day Three saw two actions that completed the battle and sealed the Army of Northern Virginia's defeat. The first was, of course, Pickett's charge. The second was Stuart's repulse by Union cavalry [principally George Armstrong Custer], to the east of the battlefield at Runnel's Farm.
That's a fairly accurate, if shortened summary of the battle. But a lot of questions remain unanswered, about the campaign, the battle, and above all, about Robert E. Lee's generalship.
First off, what was the Army of Northern Virginia doing in Pennsylvania? Most histories describe the Gettysburg campaign as an "invasion". I disagree. If it was an invasion, what was the objective? A railroad bridge? Harrisburg? Bringing the Union Army to battle? If the latter, why did Lee have his army spread over two states in an arc from Carlisle, Pa. back to the southern end of Maryland. And why would his instructions to his cavalry be to screen his march route north instead of searching out the enemy as far south as possible? I submit the operation was a raid, designed to give the Army of Northern Virginia's breadbasket, the Shenandoah Valley a chance to "breathe", while liberally foraging off the farming areas of Pennsylvania.
Secondly, why then? Robert E. Lee was, first and foremost, a Virginian. In early 1863 plans were being discussed in Richmond to send Lee, and two-thirds of his Army to the West to help against Grant. [eventually, after Gettysburg, Longstreet's Corps would go]. Lee did not want to do that. So he proposed, instead the Pennsylvania operation. And while it would shield his beloved Virginia, and allow him to avoid going west, it did show a lack of strategic vision, and a disinclination to put the interests of his country over his state. Additionally, Lee had just, after the death of Stonewall Jackson, re-organized his army. Disinclined to choose Ewell over Hill, or vice versa, for the command of Second Corps, Lee cut the baby in half, forming a Third Corps from units from First and Second Corps. He gave Second Corps to Ewell and Third Corps to Hill. So Lee went into Pennsylvania with two-thirds of his infantry commanded by generals who had never commanded Corps sized units. And neither was used to Lee's "suggestion style" method of command. Nowhere was this clearer than one Day One, when Lee told Ewell to take Culp's Hill, "if practicable". Ewell decided it wasn't and didn't. But the problem remained.
The conduct of the campaign:
Much has been written about the conduct of various of Lee's subordinates in the Gettysburg campaign, particularly J.E.B Stuart. Some have gone so far as to claim Stuart was responsible for the loss, losing contact with Lee in an effort to ride around the Union Army for the third time in the war. A lot of the criticism of Stuart is justified. A lot of it isn't. Blaming him for the loss certainly isn't. First, Stuart left Lee with over two brigades of cavalry, under two very competent officers to screen Lee's right. Since Lee was primarily concerned with screening enemy cavalry from observing his movements, they were more than adequate. Second, Lee's orders left Stuart too much leeway. For a cavalry officer smarting from bad press over Brandy Station, it was a recipe for potential disaster.
In a like vein, George Pickett has been accused of all sorts of perfidy, but the fact remains that he commanded the charge for two reasons. His division, being last to arrive on the field [evening, Da Two] was the only of Lee's units to have suffered no casualties up to that point. Second, no one else wanted the job [most of the troops in Pickett's attack came from hill's Corps]. Pickett did the best he could. He stayed near the front, maneuvering his units as best he could. He just faced an impossible situation.
James Longstreet came in for a great deal of criticism in the post -war era from the 'Lost Cause' crowd, particularly Jubal Early, because he had [strongly] argued against eh whole battle, [more strongly] against Pickett's charge, and because he laid the blame for the defeat at the feet of Robert E. Lee. He's the only major Confederate general without a statue in the South [he now has one, ironically, at Gettysburg].
So who's at fault? The answer is simple. Robert E. Lee is. He planned, and conducted an operation whose objective seemed to have been primarily to avoid transfer to the west. He undertook his raid/ invasion with a re-organized Army, and no clear operational objectives than to strip the land. He misused the cavalry he had, and made little or no effort to find the Army of the Potomac, or ascertain what it was up to. He allowed a subordinate officer of a 'green' Corps commander [ Hill was ill] to commence a series of skirmishes/ meeting engagements/battles, while his Corps were not in supporting distance of each other, against an unknown enemy. When that enemy was discovered, Lee chose to attack, despite the fact he was outnumbered by about 25%, and held a nine mile exterior line, to the enemy's five mile interior line, and despite the fact the Union Army was in an excellent defensive position. Unable to easily, and quickly move troops along his line, and unable to coordinate attacks at different points of that line, Lee engaged in piecemeal attacks on all three days [the only constant being Culp's Hill]. They all failed. So why did Lee do what he did? Hubris. Lee thought he, and his men could beat anybody, anyplace, any time. The record seems to bear him out, but on closer scrutiny, not so much. Lee's greatest successes were defensive. Second Manassas [ IMO, his finest operation] combined tactical defense [Jackson] with strategic offense [Longstreet]. Fredericksburg could have been won by anybody, so long as Burnside commanded the Union. Chancellorsville was the classic lemon/ lemonade battle. What has been lost in the telling is that Joe Hooker had outmaneuvered Bobby Lee, and if he'd kept pushing, might have won on the open fields. The Peninsula campaign should have shown Lee what the Union troops could do with a good defensive position [see Malverne Hill]. While Lee's penchant for the offense often resulted in higher casualties for the Union, in every battle, except Fredericksburg, and perhaps Second Manassas, Lee lost a higher proportion of his Army than the North.
But by Gettysburg, Lee believed the superhuman efforts of his troops, combined with his will, could overcome anything. He was wrong. And the Confederacy began its march into the twilight of defeat.