Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXVIII: July 2, 1863


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

"On difficult ground, press on; on hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge; on death ground, fight." -- Sun Tzu

All through the night, Union reinforcements arrived at Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. By morning, six of the seven Corps that made up the Army of the Potomac had arrived at the scene. John Sedgwick's V Corps was still enroute, about thirty miles away and closing. With the bulk of the Army of the Potomac came its new commander, General Meade. His was a difficult position: with only days to study the predicament, he had to join his new command while the battle was already in progress. Fortunately for him, the day's actions didn't commence straight away, and he had a bit of time to take stock of the situation. Holding such a strong defensive position, it seemed to Meade that the best course of action by far would be to sit tight, and let Lee come to him. He saw the same thing that Hancock had seen the day before, all the advantages lay with the Union -- high ground, interior lines of communication, more men and guns at his disposal. There was no need for him to come down off the ridge to engage the enemy. The enemy would have to come and fight, or go home. And Meade was fairly sure Lee wasn't going to go home, not just yet.

But a few peculiar things happened before the battle was joined in earnest. The first had to do with the peculiarities of the landscape, the second had to do with the peculiarities of a certain Union officer.

Lines of sight can be tricky things. I know of a place in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, a certain small gorge that is utterly invisible from the road. You can drive by every day for years and never notice it's there, but if you know just the right place to park, and walk just ten yards off the road, there it is. To an eye unfamiliar with the terrain, the hills south of Gettysburg can play tricks on you.

The main point being ... from his headquarters on Seminary Ridge, Lee could not see the Union deployments to the south or east of Cemetery Ridge. His plan of attack, meant to turn the Union left flank, was as follows: Ewell would mount a diversionary attack on Culp's Hill. If the diversion looked like it was actually going to go anywhere, Lee reserved the option to commit more forces there. But the main attack would be on the left, with Longstreet's divisions attacking through the Peach Orchard and the Devil's Den. After this attack was underway, A.P. Hill would attack Cemetery Ridge directly, to prevent Meade from reinforcing his flank. Lee was utterly unaware that Union troops were already deployed farther south than he expected.

The thing is ... Union forces were also deployed farther west than Meade expected, as well. Which brings us to the aforementioned peculiarities of a Union officer, the first man ever to use an insanity defense successfully in American legal history, General Daniel Sickles. Sickles didn't like his assigned place on the line. He thought another ridge slightly to the west offered higher ground, and a better vantage for his guns. So, without asking Meade's permission, or for that matter even telling him where he was going, Sickles redeployed his Corps.

When Longstreet's attack ran into Union forces pretty much where every officer who wasn't Dan Sickles expected empty ground, Lee's carefully-engineered plan started to go cubist. Not that Meade was any better off, since Sickles' extemporaneous reorganization left a few honking great gaps in his lines. Meade had two huge strokes of luck: first, Lee couldn't see those holes, the terrain being what it was; and second, he had enough reserves to plug the holes ... provided that Sickles and his men could blunt the charge long enough.

They were certainly going to try. It's not like they had much choice. Because of his forward stance, the Confederates could flank Sickles on both sides, and did so. But they could no longer pursue their original plan. Those of Longstreet's men who weren't already engaged had to march farther south and east than they'd originally intended, and by the time they got there, Meade had forces there waiting for them.

What was happening in the Peach Orchard and Devil's Den was exactly no one's idea of a fun time, with the possible exception of General Sickles, but we've already established that Dan-O was nuttier than a short ton of Almond Joy. We'll never know what the rest of Sickles' plan was, since a Confederate cannon ball caught him in the leg and took it off, taking Sickles out of the fight. One of his subordinates remarked, uncharitably, "Bad news for Sickles, good news for the Army." But even though it cost dearly in casualties, it's possible that his crazy stunt kept Lee's attack from coming off as he'd originally planned.

Even so, it was a near-run thing. Even so, Hood nearly turned the Union flank. The very end of the line was held by the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment. They endured ninety minutes of fearful, intense, non-stop combat. They'd beaten off two charges by Hood's men, but had suffered nearly fifty percent casualties, and were just about out of ammunition. Before they could get additional men or supplies, the Confederates came for one last try. The commander of the 20th Maine, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, made a decision that would later cement his place in American history.

The bayonet charge broke the last attack, and there were no more attempts on the left flank that day. There would be sporadic fighting on the right until nightfall, but as promising as Ewell's attacks were in the beginning, they were never able to gain enough of a foothold to matter. In time, they, too, had to withdraw.

Later that night, Meade called a council of war. He explained the situation as he saw it, and asked his senior commanders one question: go, or no go? Do we fight it out here, or do we withdraw?

On the one hand, every one of these men had memories of being badly mishandled by Lee. They had a healthy respect for his ability to seemingly pull miracles out of nowhere, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat more than once. But on the other ... they held their ground today. They felt good about their positions, had great confidence in the bravery and competence of their men. Gone were the green-horns that bolted in fear from Bull Run. The ones that were left after the brutal winnowing of two years of war were hardened, skilled veterans. The vote was: we stay. We fight.

Meade was relieved. He didn't think his men would vote to withdraw, but he was gratified that their confidence matched his own. He expected that Lee would try the center tomorrow, having tried to turn both flanks.

But come what may, the Army of the Potomac was going to stand its ground and fight.

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