Monday, July 01, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXVII: July 1, 1863


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

"Where there is no vision, the people perish ..." -- Proverbs 29:18

Nowadays, we take the aerial, God's-eye view of the battlefield for granted. We forget that it's less than a hundred years old. Today's commander has a plethora of eyes to deploy: enormous downward-pointing telescopes in Earth orbit, telescopic sensors mounted on U-2 aircraft flying at 80,000 feet above the battlefield, any of several kinds of drones, or sensor pods slung underneath a low-flying helicopter or fighter jet. If an enemy is foolish enough to be out in the open, day or night, cloud or clear, rain or shine, it's Candid Camera time, followed shortly by an Explodium Candygram.

A century and a half ago, a commander's eyes were seldom any higher off the ground than horseback. A man on horseback made for a pretty good scout. Unfortunately for General Robert E. Lee, it had been about a week since he'd last seen his cavalry chief, General J.E.B. Stuart. And as a result, he only had the vaguest of ideas where the Union army was.

Partly, the Union army was busy changing commanders. Again. Hooker had gotten in a spat with someone at headquarters, and in the heat of argument offered his resignation to President Lincoln. Hooker hadn't expected Lincoln to accept. This, a moment when a rebel army was marching into your territory, seemed like a damned odd time to switch out the top officer of your largest field army. It was a puzzling decision ... except that Hooker had already lost Lincoln's confidence, and Lincoln was looking for an opportunity to replace him. In his stead, he sent General George Gordon Meade to take his place. In the meantime, the Union army would have to trundle along, trusting to the competence of its brigade and division commanders.

Fortunately, most of them knew their jobs pretty well. The Union army was shadowing Lee's northward progress, on the other side of the mountain ridge. Such was the paucity of information available to Lee that he didn't discover until June 29th that the Union army had crossed the Potomac river, several days after the event. The news was an unwelcome surprise, since Lee's army was strung out on an arc between Chambersville, Carlisle, and Wrightsville. He needed to concentrate his forces, quick, or be defeated in detail. He also needed to know where the Union army actually was, with equal urgency. He issued orders to assemble at Cashtown, which was in a reasonably defensible position.

The next day, General Pettigrew made what would become a momentous decision. He heard that a great store of supplies was available in a nearby town, called Gettysburg. He ventured a reconnaissance-in-force to see if these reports were accurate, because his troops were in pretty desperate need of shoes.

The good news is that they found shoes. The bad news is that they were attached to the feet of dismounted Union cavalry under Brigadier General John Buford. Both Union and Confederate commanders sent runners back to their respective armies that they had made contact with the enemy.

The Battle of Gettysburg had begun.

Buford knew that he wasn't going to hold his position with just one division of cavalry, so he laid out defenses on three ridges to the north and west of town, intending to fight a delaying action until the Army of the Potomac could occupy the far better defensive position south and east of the town. He was joined by two divisions of infantry, which gave him a little more staying power. With this many soldiers at his disposal, Buford and company could execute a fighting withdrawal through the city of Gettysburg itself, an operation that would chew up most of the day.

This, of course, is exactly what Buford had in mind. You see, people tend to see what they want to see. And, several times before, the Confederates had seen the Yankees flee before them in panicked rout. On this day, enchanted by the loot of Gettysburg itself, their eager eyes couldn't tell the difference between panicked rout and planned fighting withdrawal. Otherwise, someone might have said, "Hey, this is too easy. Are they playing us for suckers?"

Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac was beginning to arrive in force, and took up positions on Cemetery Hill, just to the southeast of town. Meade had sent General Winfield Scott Hancock on ahead to take stock of the situation, and when he got there, he liked what he saw. "I think this is the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw," he said. Now, this might have been smoke and mirrors to boost the morale of the men, but this was a pretty fearsome defensive position. The hills surrounding Cemetery Hill formed a fish-hook shape, which not only gave him the advantage of high ground, but the further advantage on interior lines of communication. He had it all: high ground, a convex front, and a numerical advantage. Hancock liked those odds.

Lee didn't. As night was falling, he knew he had to do something about that before the rest of Meade's men showed up. He dashed off an order to one of his Corps commanders, General Ewell, that the position on Culp's Hill must be taken ... "if practicable."

Once again, Lee was far too polite for his own good. Ewell's men had been marching and fighting all day. Night was falling, and in such a state Ewell wasn't sure of his ability to control and co-ordinate a night-time battle. He decided that such an assault wasn't practicable, and did not attack.

Thus passed Lee's best chance for a victory. Because while additional Union forces would trickle in all through the night, Lee had as many men as he was ever going to get, minus Stuart's cavalry, whenever he decided to show up. The math wasn't ever going to get any friendlier for Johnny Reb. But that didn't matter.

Lee and Meade were encamped across a field from one another. Come Hell or high water, Lee was going to try to turn Meade's flank in the morning.

But on the bright side, the Confederates had achieved one of the major goals of the campaign: there were plenty of shoes to be had in Gettysburg.

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