During the first week of July 1863, General Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia – the most successful army of the Confederate States of America – collided with the Federal Army of the Potomac under the command of Union Major General George Meade. In common military parlance, this might be referred to as a ‘meeting engagement’ – as in: one that had not been anticipated or planned for. This, however, is not entirely accurate. Lee’s movement to the north was quite well-known by the Federal forces under Meade’s recent predecessor, Major General Joseph Hooker, who had endeavoured to keep the Army of the Potomac between Lee’s forces and the eastern cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. Two years into the American Civil War, what Lee most likely had in mind was to expand the theatre of conflict from the American South, which had borne the brunt of the fighting so far, against the population centres of the Northern states – and thereby, he hoped, to pressure President Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress into suing for peace.
Up to this point, Lee’s forces had experienced great success against Federal forces in the field – but at great cost to the Southern states in terms of manpower and economics. A negotiated end to the war was, in Lee’s estimation, much to be desired. General Hooker, however, saw Lee’s movements rather as an invitation to strike at the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and so intimated. President Lincoln was not enamoured of Hooker’s ideas, nor of his overall performance as commander of the Army of the Potomac. At the end of June 1863, Hooker insisted on taking over control of the Federal garrison at Harper’s Ferry – the strategic point in West Virginia at which the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet – threatening to resign if this was denied. Much to Hooker’s surprise, Henry Halleck, the General in Chief of the Armies of the United States, accepted his resignation, and replaced him with Meade.
Despite Hooker’s nickname of ‘Fighting Joe’, his stunning defeat at the hands of a much smaller force commanded by Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville (30 April-6 May 1863) had shaken Lincoln’s confidence in his abilities. With the Army of Northern Virginia now headed north into Pennsylvania, Meade had been in command for a mere three days before the opposing forces clashed on the outskirts of the town of Gettysburg. Over the next three days (1-3 July 1863), Gettysburg would see some of the fiercest fighting of the American Civil War, as an estimated 71,000 Confederate troops were pitched against a Union force of around 94,000. It would serve as the high-water mark for the Confederacy, and prove to be the turning point in the war.
As we approach its 160th anniversary, the battle continues to provoke controversy as to what transpired, and why – with even some distinguished historians, authors, and other aficionados of the Civil War unfortunately succumbing to spurious and even easily disproved theories about what really happened. Here, we will address just a few of the myths and legends surrounding this transitional battle.
1. Lee’s army was looking for shoes
Frequently cited as a reason for Lee’s advance on Gettysburg is the idea that the underlying purpose was to seize a quantity of shoes and boots for the ragged Army of Northern Virginia. In his marvellous 1990 documentary series and accompanying book The Civil War, even the noted US film-maker Ken Burns accepts this phoney legend, saying: ‘The greatest battle ever fought on the North American continent began as a clash over shoes.’ As noted previously, however, it is much more likely that Lee’s real purpose was to put pressure on Washington, DC, by moving the theatre of war into the north and against major population centres in the hope of convincing the Federal government to sue for peace.
Gettysburg is the hub of a network of ten roads, and thus provided Lee with several options for continuing his push into the heart of the Union. The theory that the battle was the result of a search for shoes is thus little more than a myth – though it is not to be denied that the Confederate forces were also in need of footwear. When the Confederate General Jubal Early, who was en route to nearby York and Hanover Junction, first entered the town of Gettysburg on 25 June 1863, he certainly hoped to resupply his troops with items which included shoes. There was, however, neither a shoe factory nor even a shipment of shoes available for them. Demanding that the town hand over 1,000 pairs of shoes and 500 hats, he was disappointed to find that no such stocks existed. Unable to comply, officials instead opened all the town’s shops to Early’s troops – but to little advantage to the army. All the Confederate forces were able to obtain was a substantial supply of horseshoes and nails.
The myth that the Army of Northern Virginia was seeking shoes more likely dates to 1877 – more than a decade after the war was over – when former Confederate General Henry Heth made specious statements to that effect in a newspaper article, in which he recalled: ‘Hearing that a supply of shoes was to be obtained in Gettysburg, eight miles distant from Cashtown, and greatly needing shoes for my men, I directed General Pettigrew to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.’
In light of this, it is interesting to note that Heth also denied having encountered the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps under Union Brigadier General John Buford – whose famous delaying action (see below) on the first day of the battle blunted his initial assault on Gettysburg. Buford expertly positioned his division to hold back the numerically superior Confederate forces advancing on the town until Union infantry could reach the field, thereby allowing the Army of the Potomac to control the vital high ground south and east of Gettysburg throughout the battle.
2. Buford’s success was due to the Spencer repeating carbine
Often namechecked as a reason for the success of Buford’s delaying action, the Spencer carbine was indeed a fearsome weapon in the hands of the cavalry. It was referred to by Confederates as the ‘Sunday gun’, as its cylindrical magazine of seven brass-jacketed bullets loaded through the butt of the weapon meant that the user could ‘load it on Sunday and fire all week’.
The only problem with this theory is that, according to US Army Ordnance reports, Buford’s unit was in fact armed with a variety of breech-loading, single-shot weapons from manufacturers including Merrill, Sharps, Smith, Burnside, and Gallagher. It was not until 18 August 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, that the inventor Christopher Spencer was able to gain an audience with President Lincoln, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of his repeating weapon in the grounds of the White House.
Lincoln was so impressed that he ordered General James Wolfe Ripley, Chief of Ordnance for the Union Army, to adopt it for production. Ripley disobeyed the order, and was soon relieved of his duties – meaning that actual production of the weapon began later that year. Thus Buford’s success in the delaying action was not a triumph of technological innovation – but rather the result of old-fashioned qualities of superb leadership and tactical proficiency.
3. Meade was simply lucky
Again, this is often said – but not true. Luck had little to do with the performance of the Army of the Potomac. In truth, Major General George Meade was a particularly good choice to lead the Federal forces. Taking command less than three days before the battle, he wasted no time in preparing for a fight with the Army of Northern Virginia. Lacking decent local maps, he quickly dispatched trusted aides and cavalry to survey the area, and to provide real-time information on the terrain and the movement of Lee’s forces in the vicinity. Quiet and unassuming, Meade put his staff to work, and looked for the best place to intercept Lee and exploit any advantages against Confederate forces. As he studied the terrain, Meade also sent Buford’s cavalry division out to the high ground west of Gettysburg to screen his forces, while at the same time dispatching General John Reynolds’ I Corps to occupy the town and provide a backstop for the cavalry.
By contrast, Lee was almost entirely ignorant of the location and disposition of Federal forces. Dependent on J E B Stuart’s cavalry for intelligence, Lee was sorely disappointed as the presence of Federal troops astride Stuart’s projected route forced his cavalry to swing further to the east and out of easy communication with headquarters. Thus Lee was left in sore need of timely intelligence. Writing to General Richard Heron Anderson, he bemoaned the lack of information from Stuart: ‘I am in ignorance of what we have in front of us here,’ he explained. ‘It may be the whole Federal Army or it may be only a detachment. If it is the whole Federal force, we must fight a battle here.’
Hoping to consolidate his divergent wings, Lee moved A P Hill’s corps in from the west, with Henry Heth’s division in the lead. Just to the west of Gettysburg, Heth ran into Buford’s cavalry, which opened the fight on 1 July. As Heth deployed his forces into line and attacked, Buford’s dismounted cavalry, despite being greatly outnumbered, fought back fiercely and held on to the high ground until Reynolds’ corps arrived in time to halt the initial Confederate advance. It was to prove a significant achievement – though Reynolds’ own death, from a rifle shot to the neck, made him the highest ranking soldier killed at Gettysburg on either side.
4. Longstreet’s lack of audacity lost the battle
Lieutenant General James Longstreet was probably the most successful of the Confederacy’s Civil War generals. His spectacular contributions at the first and second Battles of Bull Run, the Seven Days Battles, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, and Antietam saw him promoted to Lieutenant General, and Lee referred to his most trusted and valuable commander as ‘my old War Horse’. The canard that his lack of audacity lost the battle at Gettysburg is entirely without merit. It is certainly true that Longstreet had argued heavily against Lee’s decision to move the Army of Northern Virginia through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, believing that the South’s resources would be better employed in the war’s Western Theater (east of the Mississippi and west of the Appalachian Mountains). Finally convinced that Lee intended to engage Federal forces only from defensive positions, he acquiesced to the plan but counselled caution and deliberation.
In fact, what has been ascribed to Longstreet as dilatory performance can better and more accurately be attributed to his deliberation. He was known for his dedication to the preparation and coordination of his forces as he moved them into a fight. The accusation that his delay in attacking on Gettysburg’s second day caused the battle to be lost does not hold water – for, on the second day, Longstreet had used two of his three available divisions to cripple Federal forces at the positions known as the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and the Wheatfield.
Indeed, the view that Longstreet had malingered at Gettysburg was not expressed until 1872, by former Confederate General Jubal Early, and a year later by General William Pendleton. Both claimed that Lee had ordered Longstreet to make a dawn assault on the Federal positions on the second day – but that the attack had been delayed until 4pm.
However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Lee gave such an order to Longstreet. The libel was more likely a result of the animosity felt by Pendleton and Early, along with many white Southerners, over Longstreet’s supposedly treacherous post-war activities – which included attending the Presidential inauguration of his old friend Ulysses S Grant, commander of the Union armies during the late years (1864-1865) of the Civil War, and his appointment by Grant to be the surveyor of customs at the port of New Orleans.
Perhaps more illustrative of Longstreet’s clear-eyed view of combat is a documented conversation he had with Lee on the third day at Gettysburg, when he argued against launching General George Pickett’s ill-fated assault against Federal positions. ‘General,’ he said, ‘I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arranged for battle can take that position.’ While Lee listened patiently to Longstreet’s argument, he nevertheless ordered the assault. Pickett’s famous infantry charge was a catastrophe, and left more than 1,100 men dead, 4,000 wounded, and 3,700 taken prisoner. As Pickett himself later complained about Lee, ‘That man murdered my division.’
It is much more likely that Lee’s disjointed approach to the fight – with poor reconnaissance and piecemeal commitment of available units – was simply no match for Meade’s concentration of troops and rapid shifting of forces to meet developing threats. Watching as the survivors of Pickett’s charge stumbled back from their failed assault, Lee himself rode among them and was heard to mutter: ‘All this has been my fault – it is I that have lost this fight.’
5. Meade’s refusal to pursue Lee lengthened the war
This is highly unlikely. In truth, Lee hoped that Meade would pursue the Army of Northern Virginia after Gettysburg, and give battle once again. This time it would be on ground of Lee’s choosing. Remember that Lee had commanded the Army of Northern Virginia for three years, while Meade had commanded the Army of the Potomac for less than a week. Having lost four generals (or five if you include Strong Vincent, who was promoted after being mortally wounded) and hundreds of lower ranking officers, Meade had also yet to determine on whom he could depend. Both sides had sustained horrendous casualties (between 46,000 and 51,000 in total, with 23,055 Union soldiers reported either killed, wounded, captured or missing, and estimates of as many as 28,000 casualties on the Confederate side) and had endured 96 hours of sustained fighting, leaving them exhausted and at the end of their physical resources.
Initially, Lee did not retreat from Gettysburg but, on 4 July, simply fell back to Seminary Ridge, west of the town, hoping that Meade would throw his forces against him there in prepared positions. Despite the gruelling fight the Confederates had been through over the previous three days, morale remained relatively high, as many were eager to pay back the Yankees for the serious drubbing that Pickett’s soldiers had taken the day before. (This was despite the fact that Lee knew they had but a single day’s ammunition left.) On the Union side, however, the Army of the Potomac’s morning reports indicated that only about 51,000 infantry were available for duty, and Meade had no intention of launching an attack with a mere 2:1 ratio against defenders in prepared positions.
As it was, Lee withdrew from Gettysburg, and hoped that Meade would follow and allow himself to be drawn into a fight after the Confederates had re-provisioned their own forces. Meade did indeed follow Lee’s army, and caught up with it at the Williamsport crossing of the Potomac River into Maryland – but here he observed that Lee, now fully re-armed and provisioned but with his withdrawal hampered by high water, had taken the opportunity to dig in, and was awaiting a Federal assault. Keep in mind that Lee had extensive experience in defensive warfare: sometimes referred to as the ‘King of Spades’, he had earlier supervised the construction of elaborate defensive positions around Richmond, and would do likewise the following year in a move at Cold Harbor, also in Virginia, which would result in catastrophic losses for Grant’s attacking forces.
As it was, by the time that Meade had increased his available forces to some 74,000 men, the Confederates had 52,000 men re-provisioned, re-armed and waiting for them in prepared positions. Meade allowed the Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw. But while many (including General-in-Chief Halleck, along with President Lincoln and Congress) were quick to criticise him for his failure to follow up on his victory at Gettysburg, it must also be kept in mind that, on receiving command of the Army of the Potomac, Meade had been given strict injunction to defend against any thrust towards Baltimore or Washington, DC – with Halleck stating: ‘Should General Lee move upon either of these places, it is expected that you will either anticipate him or arrive with him, so as to give him battle.’ Meade had done just that, without taking Lee’s bait and without being lured into a further, possibly disastrous fight.
Gettysburg would turn out to be the pivotal battle of the American Civil War, tipping the balance decisively in favour of the Union, and paving the way for slave emancipation and the reunification of the United States. Although the Confederate side would fight on for almost another two years, it would never recover from the events of 1-3 July 1865. •
Fred Chiaventone is a military historian, retired US cavalry officer, and Professor Emeritus for International Security Affairs at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College.
All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated