Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXIX: July 3, 1863


July 1  --  July 2  --  July 3  --  July 4  --  July 5

"And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered..." -- King Henry V

George Meade was not a man given to dramatic, flowery speeches. It would never have occurred to him to bust out in the kind of glorious oratory that Shakespeare attributes to old Harry in the famous play. But even if he were, Meade might not have thought it absolutely necessary. Yes, he expected Lee to try to run it up the middle, having already tried both of his flanks. But he liked his position, and he liked the mettle of his men. If that battle were his lot today, he'd take it.

Robert E. Lee wasn't famous for his stirring speeches, either. He was a quiet, private man by nature. He knew the dire straits his army was in, though, and if he had it in him to pull a St. Crispin's Day speech out of his hat, he'd have certainly given it a shot. But he had something almost as good: late yesterday afternoon, his "prodigal son" Jeb Stuart finally showed up. He wasn't exactly ... happy ... with his cavalry chief, but knew what he was capable of when his head was screwed on straight. And he needed Stuart's wizardry in the saddle if he was going to pull a victory out of this mess.

Meade was right: Lee was going to try to run it up the middle today. Now, if that was all he was going to try then there's no way the plan could possibly end but disaster. Marching men uphill against protected infantry plus artillery was a recipe for an enormous casualty list, to no gain worth mentioning. No, the plan had to have more. Now that Stuart was there with his cavalry corps, Lee felt he had all the pieces he needed.

The plan had three elements. First, his artillery commander E. Porter Alexander would lay on a barrage that would suppress the Union artillery on Cemetery Ridge. Second, Stuart would lead his cavalry around the right flank of the Federal line, to strike at their rear. Third, there would be a simultaneous assault by Longstreet's infantry on the front, concentrated such that the Confederates would be able to overwhelm the Union troops and break their line. By hitting them in two places at once, it was hoped Meade would be unable to shift reserves fast enough to seal the breach.

Unfortunately for Lee, the Plan Fairy wasn't his friend today, because things began to unravel almost immediately. The problems began with the artillery bombardment. Alexander faced two significant challenges. First, he was firing uphill, and the Union gunners were firing downhill. That automatically gave the Union gunners a significant range advantage. Alexander had to put his ammunition storage well back from the front, otherwise the Union artillery would blast them to scrap in fairly short order. This hindered Alexander's rate of fire. The other problem was one that Alexander had no way of knowing about. Most of Alexander's shells weren't hitting Union positions. They were sailing overhead, smashing into unoccupied areas in the Federal rear.

An idea began to dawn upon the Federal artillery commander, Brigadier General Henry Hunt. He wanted to save ammunition for the assault that was sure to come. But, he didn't want to cut fire all at once, since that would tip his hand. Instead, he had his batteries quit firing one at a time, in semi-random order. One here, another there, a third down the line... He wanted to give the impression that the Confederates were taking out his guns.

No one's sure if Lee or Alexander bought the ruse. It wouldn't have mattered. The orders went out for Stuart and Longstreet go prepare their attacks.

Stuart's ride started out well enough. He made it all the way around, east of the Federal positions. Unfortunately, when he began to turn to head towards the Federal rear, he found that the Federal cavalry was there waiting for him. By Civil War standards the casualties were almost negligible. But the damage to Lee's plan was incalculable.

The orders had already been given. No one knew, no one could know, that no attack from the rear was coming. Longstreet, who had deep misgivings about the plan from the start, could hardly bear to give the final orders to advance. Some say that a subordinate had to give them. But, given they were.

The Confederate bombardment had not silenced the Union guns. The Confederate cavalry had not pierced the Union rear. Fifteen thousand men marched into a Hell of fire and lead, about half made it back to the Confederate lines when it was over. Miraculously, they made it to the wall, General Pickett's men, from General Armistead's brigade, had actually broken through. But that wasn't enough. General Hancock was able to put enough men into the breach to seal it up.

This was an especially poignant moment. Armistead and Hancock had been the best and closest of friends before the war. Both men were wounded in the attack. Armistead's prayer was answered, after a fashion; Hancock recovered from his wounds, but Armistead did not. (Richard Jordan's work here is doubly poignant, since it was his last role before he died of brain cancer.)

Lee was appalled at the casualties, and would regret ordering this charge for the rest of his life. He had the survivors form up to receive a possible Union counter-attack, but none was coming. Meade had his hands full reorganizing his men, having pulled so many from other units to plug holes here and there. Besides, he saw how that whole marching-across-a-field-under-fire thing worked out, and wanted no part of it.

There would be no significant actions the next day. Under an unofficial truce, they collected their wounded and their dead. Later on that same day, Lee withdrew and began his retreat towards Virginia. While he regretted that charge on the third day, he nevertheless saw the campaign as an overall success. He'd achieved clear successes on two of his goals, gathering supplies and keeping the Union busy somewhere other than Virginia. As for the third goal, well, public opinion in the Union might turn against the war eventually. That was always a long-term project. He had a year and change, until November 1864, to make that happen.

He might have been less optimistic, had he known what was happening out West. As bad as Gettysburg's third day had been, worse news was yet to come.

No comments: