Reading about the Battle of Gettysburg, the third day is generally given less print than the first two. It was true of The Killer Angels and The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command is true to the same form. The explanation is that what happened on July 3rd was fairly straightforward. Picket charged. He lost. Right?
Of course, it is a little more complicated than all that.
On the morning of July 3rd, 1964, Robert E. Lee likely desired to renew his attack, halted by nightfall on the 2nd, so as to capitalize on his “gains” of the day before. Indeed, on his left, Ewell’s assault on Culp’s Hill had captured enemy positions and on his right Longstreet had seized the high ground of the Peach Orchard. Neither, in hindsight, seem decisive objectives, but Lee hoped that the addition of fresh divisions and an early morning attack would push a weakened enemy over the edge.
At 4:30 AM, Ewell’s left wing resumed the attack. Successfully pushing forward would either seize the high ground on the Union’s far right or, failing that, pull reinforcements from positions that would otherwise oppose Longstreet’s attack on the left. Unfortunately, the Union high command also took a special interest in the South’s gains from the previous night, and had planned their own assault in the same place and time. Doubly unfortunately, Longstreet’s dawn attack on the right was not taking place. The result was that the fighting on Culp’s Hill, while vigorous, produced no significant results.
When Lee visited Longstreet to find out why he had not initiated his own attack, he found that Longstreet was maneuvering to conduct the right-flanking maneuver for which he had been advocating the previous day. Overnight, Longstreet had reconnoitered the Union position around Big Round Top and found it to be open and vulnerable. Incorrectly, it should be added. In truth, his opposition was also very concerned about the possibility of a pre-dawn flanking maneuver, and had worked through the night to defend against it. Given the spectacular failure of Picket’s Charge, one is tempted to blame Lee for disrupting Longstreet’s planned attack, but it is by no means certain it would have fared any better.
Lee’s plan hinged on the simultaneous assault on both flanks of the Union line. Longstreet earns further criticism for not being prepared at first light, when better management of his (and particularly Pickett’s) Division could have has his Corps in place for a dawn assault. However, Coddington also wonders why Lee didn’t make his orders more clear, particularly given the miscommunications of the previous day. A departure from Lee’s usual management practice; he and Longstreet failed to meet between late morning on the 2nd and morning on the 3rd (when the attack from the right failed to materialize). Longstreet, after the fighting on the 2nd, did not feel up to a riding to a meeting with Lee. It is not clear if the written orders conveyed Lee’s desire for an attack at first light for the purpose of coordinating with the left.
It is only when Lee realizes that Longstreet will not come close to attacking simultaneously with Ewell and, further, that his plan will likely (again) take the better part of the morning to move into position that he re-evaluates the best use for Longstreet’s forces. Given the situation, he decides that an attack upon the center, the historical Pickett’s Charge, will be the best use of Longstreet’s Corps. It is pointed out that the union perception was that Ewell was conducting a demonstration to distract from the main attack from Longstreet. However, as much as it may have seemed that way at the time, this was not Lee’s, or Ewell’s, intention.
The remainder of the book’s coverage of Pickett’s charge tends to emphasize points that I knew less about. I knew little about the Union’s deployment to defend Cemetery Ridge and, in particular, about the several units that conducted flank attacks as the Southern forces neared the Union lines. We are used to thinking of Pickett’s charge as an absolute disaster from start to finish, a disaster that should have been obvious at the get-go. Much of Coddington’s description is from Lee’s standpoint, and explaining why this rationally appeared to be a good, and maybe even the best, move. He does admit that for the attack to succeed, dozens of things all had to go just right – a practical impossibility, but theoretically conceivable. He does not have much to say, although he does mention it, about what I have read before as the ultimate criticism of Pickett’s Charge. What if it had been successful, and the Confederates had their now battered brigades standing atop Cemetery ridge? Meade was holding much of the 6th Corps in reserve. So even if they won “The Charge,” is there any possibility for the South to turn that into victory by winning the next battle; withstanding the counterattack?
As always, such speculation can only go so far. Coddington seems more concerned with addressing specific criticisms where the available records contradict the accusations. Pickett’s Charge does provide plenty of opportunity for that.
The final chapter of the book is about the Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg back into Virginia. While the historical details are presented, much of the focus is on the criticism, then and now, that Meade has received for his lack of aggressiveness. The argument is that, with Lee having crippled his army with the Pickett’s Charge assault, Meade could have ended the war by seizing the initiative, trapping the Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania, and destroying it.
Coddington largely defends Meade. He cites Meade’s own correspondence as evidence that he genuinely sought a decisive battle with Lee; that he did not prefer to let him escape as many accused. Further, he suggests that most of Meade’s decisions and commands were reasonable, given the state of his own army. While everyone recognizes the depleted condition of Lee’s armies, we must also remember that the Army of the Potomac had also been severely bloodied. Confederate casualties are less well documented that union losses at the battle. And while, as a proportion of the total force, the Confederate numbers were higher, the absolute losses were close to equally divided between the two sides. In addition, with Reynolds killed and Hancock injured, Meade had lost his best commanders.
The one decision that Coddington does hold against Meade was the final act of the campaign. Lee had retreated to the Potomac, but was unable to cross because of flood waters and because Union cavalry raids had destroyed the pontoon bridge Lee had used coming north. Meade moved his army South and was preparing to attack a corned Lee. On July 13th, although uncertain about Lee’s disposition, Meade was prepared to launch a “reconnaissance in force” which could be turned into a full-scale assault if he found weakness in Lee’s positions. The night before he held a “war council” where his subordinates largely advised against such an attack. Taking their council, he delayed. When he executed essentially the same maneuver of July 14th, he found that Lee had withdrawn his forces and was escaping across the Potomac.
Meade was roundly criticized, and somewhat unfairly, for relying on these meetings with his Corps commanders before making decisions. In this case, Coddington concedes the point. Clearly Meade should have relied on his own instincts rather than allow himself to be dissuaded, given that he made essentially the same maneuver one day later. He also speculates as to the outcome of the battle, had it taken place on the 13th. Those who advised against such an attack believed that Lee had created an strong defensive position, and that an attack against him would have failed. Inspections of the South’s entrenchments after their evacuation suggest that may be right. However, Coddington believes Meade’s plan, which would begin with a probing of Lee’s defensive, could have prevented a serious reversal. There are also plenty today who believe that Meade would have crushed Lee and, with no avenue of escape, forced him to surrender. Lee himself wrote that he was disappointed that Meade did not attack him – clearly he thought he would have won a defensive battle.
Given the wide variety of opinions, this would seem a beautiful situation for a speculative scenario. Coddington estimates that the Union mustered around 80,000 men and officers to about 50,000 under Lee. The ground that would have been fought on is well established – because there was no more room to maneuver at that point. And yet, I am unable to find any example of a user-made scenario for any of the games I have. The one treatment I located as part of the John Tiller/HPS Campaign Gettysburg. Several variations on the hypothetical fight are among its 314 scenarios. It is really difficult to justify dropping $40 on a 13-year-old revamp of a 22-year-old game.