Friday, June 21, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXVI: A Series Of Unfortunate Events


... 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 that the next administration will go in on that basis.

-- General Robert E. Lee, April 19th

Lee's victory at Chancellorsville, while great, changed nothing. The Confederacy's one and only hope at this point was that the public in the Union become so sick of war that they will accept a peace that divides what was once held to be indivisible. When you ask why Lee would dare to invade a country so much larger and more populous than his own, this is one of the reasons. It is the only way to victory. There are, of course, several others.

Lee's immediate goal, of course, is supply. The Confederacy has but little to offer, and the Army of Northern Virginia is not the only army slowly starving in the field. The farms of Maryland and Pennsylvania, on the other hand, brim over with all manner of good things that a soldier can eat. And use. While Napoleon did say an army marches on its stomach, it also marches on its feet, and too many of those Southern feet had no shoes.

Also, while Lee was making mischief in Maryland, Hooker wouldn't be making mischief in Virginia. If Lee went north, Hooker would be forced to follow. Not only because Lincoln had decided that the objective was the destruction of Lee's army, but because Hooker's army was obliged to defend Union territory when threatened. And by marching north, Lee could threaten not only Washington, but Baltimore and Philadelphia as well.

And too, there was the equally important objective of sickening Union public morale. As I've said before, the only way the Confederacy could win its independence is if the Union grew weary of the struggle. The spectacle of a Southern army strutting its funky stuff across Northern real estate, with the Union army sniffing impotently at its heels, would go a long way towards accomplishing that objective.

The germ of this idea had long been percolating in Lee's mind, and if you remember, he had tried it once before. Last year's invasion ended disastrously at Antietam, due to a lost set of orders. Presumably, this time, Lee had banned all cigar smoking for the duration of this campaign.

And so, on June 3rd, Lee's army began to slip away from its positions near Fredericksburg, and headed northwest. Thence, Lee intended to keep the mountains between him and the Federals until he wanted to engage them in battle. He tasked his cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart with screening the Union forces from discovering his whereabouts.

This is where things began to go sideways. In war, nothing ever stays the same.

It's a typical story in American military history. Our armies tend to begin wars terribly unprepared. They don't stay that way, though, they learn. I said early on that the Confederacy enjoyed an early advantage in officer and NCO quality, insofar as they could immediately put their best men in key positions. That advantage had finally eroded. While the Union had not yet found a great overall commanding general, their soldiers were now hardened, experienced veterans, and many of their officers at brigade and lower were very good at their jobs. It's not that the Confederates had gotten any worse, it's that the Union had stepped up its game.

For the most part, Stuart's cavalry was able to screen the Union forces. But the Union cavalry under Pleasonton had learned its trade well, and were often able to pierce the Confederate screen and discern what Lee was up to, while Stuart wasn't often able to return the favor. The end result was that Hooker had a far better picture of Lee's disposition of forces than Lee had of Hooker.

It was more or less at this point that Lee made the first of a series of grievous errors. These errors were born of the fact that Lee was far too well-bred a gentleman to explain in exhaustive detail exactly what he wanted his subordinates to do.

He ordered Stuart to stop his screening operation, and move to the head of the Confederate column of forces. Left unspoken was that he meant for Stuart to resume the screen there, and that he should go there directly. Stuart was left with considerable freedom to interpret his orders.

And Stuart was a man with a flair for the dramatic.

Stuart mounted a daring, audacious series of raids on the Union rear, riding a great circuit around the entire Army of the Potomac. It was dashing, it was glorious, and it would make great waves in the papers.

Unfortunately ... it also left Lee blind. He was marching more or less Northward with no idea -- not even the remotest clue -- where the Union army was, or what it was doing.

And so it was, in the last week of June 1963, the Army of Northern Virginia was stumbling blindly through the Pennsylvania countryside, short of food, and short of shoes. Soon enough they'd find plenty of both.

They'd also find plenty of trouble.

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